Monthly Archives: April 2012

Possets

I expected this post to be a simple recipe with a short history of the creamy dessert. However, as is so often in writing posts for this blog, it ends up being rather more complicated.

When I think of a posset, I think of a simple affair of sweetened cream thickened with an acidic fruit. However, this is very much a modern posset (by modern I mean twentieth century).

King Charles I

Originally the posset was a dessert or drink made from curdled milk enriched with sugar, alcohol (the most popular being sack, a sweet ale similar to sherry). It was often used as a curative for colds or fevers; it is mentioned in the Journals of the House of Lords in the year 1620 that King Charles I was given a posset drink from his physician. These drinks were kept warm and made in a special cup rather like a teapot so that the liquid could be drunk from beneath the foam that develops on the surface. Shakespeare mentions possets several times in his writings, in Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5, he mentions the posset’s medicinal properties and that it is made from curds:

And with sudden vigour it doth posset,

And curd, like aigre [sour] droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood.

Possets were eaten for pleasure too though:

Yet be cheerful knight: thou shalt eat a posset to-night at my house;

Where I will desire thee to laugh at my wife.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5, Scene 5

William Shakespeare

Kings and lords had their cream and curd possets, whereas we normal folk had to use bread to thicken ours.By the time we reach the mid-18th century, possets have changed; they are made from milk, but now are thickened with biscuits, bread, egg yolks or almonds, or a combination. Sack seems to still be the most popular and lemon possets make an appearance. Sack possets were drunk at weddings when it came to toasting the bride and groom around this time, though I don’t know where this originated from.

Possets 1769

Grate two Naples biscuits into a pint of thin cream, put in a stick of cinnamon and set it over a slow fire. Boil it till it is of a proper thickness, then add half a pint of sack, a slice of the end of a lemon, with sugar to your taste. Stir it gently over the fire, but don’t let it boil lest it curdle. Serve it up with dry toast.

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper 1769

 Mrs Raffald also highlights the fact that you don’t want your posset to curdle: ‘always mix a little of the hot cream or milk with your wine, it will keep the wine from curdling the rest’. In the 19th century, Richard Cox in his Oxford Night Caps (1835) mentions those made from curds and those thickened with cream and egg yolks, so technically a custard, I suppose. Sometimes they were thick, and sometimes drinkable like egg nog. He mentions a black pepper flavoured posset that will ‘promote perspiration’ in order to sweat out a fever.

Here’s a strange thing though; if you rewind time back to Shakespearean days and look for a recipe for a trifle, what you seem to get is a recipe for a modern-day posset:

Take a pint of thick cream, and season it with sugar and ginger, and rose water. So stir it as you would then have it make it luke warm in a dish on a chafing dish and coals. And after put it into a silver piece or a bowl, and so serve it to the board.

Thomas Dawson, The Good Housewife’s Jewel 1596

You can see why a matter of no concern is called a mere trifle – they used to be so simple, but now they are complex and as the trifle changed over time so did the posset and it seems to have filled the niche left behind by the trifle. Possets, however, are no longer that popular. They are easy to make when cream is the sole thickener.

Orange Posset 2012

Here’s the recipe I devised for an orange posset, which I think works very well. You can make a lemon one from two lemons and perhaps an ounce or two more of sugar. I have kept to its historical roots with the addition of a little orange flower water. This makes six helpings.

Ingredients

1 pint (20 fl oz) of double (heavy) cream

4 oz caster sugar

the juice of two oranges and the zest of one

juice of half a lemon

1 to 2 teaspoons of orange flower water (optional)

Bring the cream and sugar slowly to a boil and let it simmer very gently for 5 minutes. Allow to cool before adding the juices and zest whisking well; the acid thickens the cream noticeably. Add the first teaspoon of orange flower and taste, adding more if you like. Pour into six serving dishes and chill for several hours, or overnight. Eat with a crunchy crumbly almond biscuit or some shortbread.

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Filed under food, history, Puddings, Recipes

The Gentleman’s Relish

The Victorians and Edwardians had a real thing for what they called savouries, which were small dishes served alongside or after the dessert course at dinner. We don’t do this any more, all that survives is the cheese option one sometimes finds on the pudding menu at restaurants. I expect the gout is to blame. Savouries need a whole post to themselves so I won’t go into them here…

For me, Gentleman’s Relish is the savoury that really conjures up romantic images of that era, I think just for the name alone. I can just imagine the bank manager or maybe a member of the British Raj eating a slice of toast, relish melting and seeping into it, as he reminisces of home.

Gentleman’s Relish is essentially potted anchovies that are heavily spiced – it also goes by another name Patum Peperium which is Latin for ‘pepper paste’, and it should only be used “very sparingly”.

It was invented in 1828 by John Osborn an expatriate living in Paris which, when he unveiled it the Paris Food Show in 1849 and again in 1855, won a Citation Favorable. High praise indeed. It is still made now in Elsham, Hertfordshire, but what exactly goes in there is a closely-guarded secret.

FYI: the company have started making a salmon version called Poacher’s Relish. I’ve never tried it, but I am sure it is wonderful too.

Now, Patum Peperium is not to everyone’s taste – saying it is piquant would be doing it a gross injustice – it is very fishy, very salty and very spicy, so some may consider it totally foul. However, I love strongly tasting robust food like this. To show it off as its finest, it should be scraped thinly across hot toast. When you first try it, the first thing that hits you is the fishy odour, then you take a bite and find the fish taste is actually a perfect marriage between anchovy, salt and spice. You can’t have a marriage between three things can you? Make that a love triangle between anchovy, salt and spice. It is addictive stuff; if it is to your tasting, like Marmite, you either love it or hate it.

Gentleman’s Relish is a cooking ingredient in its own right: the fish, salt and spices all provide a great seasoning to stews, especially lamb, and is great stirred into scrambled eggs. It can be melted upon steaks, or used as a simple sauce with pasta. It is also used to make another amazing savoury called Scotch Woodcock.

After doing a bit of research I found that major players in the spice mix seemed to be nutmeg, mace, Cayenne pepper and black pepper – all classically Victorian, the amounts used vary from pinches to teaspoons, with the spices sometimes mixed equally, other times, one spice dominated.

Here is my recipe – the dominant spice here is Cayenne pepper, because it provides a good punch of chili heat and not that much other flavour, which the other – what are often called warmer – spices do magnificently. You can include less of the mix in the relish, or change the ratios or even the spices to suit your own taste.

Ingredients

For the spice mix:

1 tsp Cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground mace

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

For the relish:

2 oz (50g) can of anchovies, drained

4 oz softened butter

1 tsp spice mix

Start off by mixing together the spices. To get maximum flavour it is best to freshly grind your spices, but it is not essential. What is essential, however, is to cook your spices. Do do this, melt between 1/3  and 1/2 of the butter in a small saucepan. When hot and bubbling fry the spices for around 30 seconds; mind the butter doesn’t burn though. Now mix it with the anchovies and the remaining butter. The idea is to produce a paste – there are several ways to do this: blender, food processor, pestle & mortar or fork will do the job, it is a trade-off between how homogenous you like your relish and how much washing up you can be bothered doing. Spoon the mixture into a small pot, cover with a lid or some clingfilm, and allow to cool.

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‘British Food: A History’ gets a Liebster!

I’ve only gone and been given a Liebster Award!

Many, many thanks to Sharon and Vinny Grette  at Cook up a Story for giving me it. I am extremely flattered and pleased that someone out there not only reads my wafflings but also thinks them actually quite good.

If you are unaware of what the Liebster Award is (as I was until yesterday), it is simply a way for bloggers to show off the talent of other bloggers, especially those with new blogs. The idea is to nominate five blogs and pass it on to them so The origin is not known for sure, but it believed to come from Germany.

So thanks again to Sharon and Vinny Grette – they themselves hugely entertaining bloggers and food writers; they definitely deserved a Liebster and no mistake.

Now that I have been handed the baton, I need to list five blogs that I think worthy of the award in no particular order, I wouldn’t be so cheeky to nominate my other blog though:

First up is Eatvolution, a newly-hatched blog that manages to combine food with science. Being a scientist myself in my day job, I really appreciate that it isn’t just the obvious food science or molecular gastronomy stuff that is doled out though, oh no, all branches are covered here. Like any good scientist, they’ve even the references at the end of each post.

Come Step Back in Time is a history blog that is both well-written and detailed but without the waffle and boredom! Posts on here have given me inspiration for my own blog articles, which is just how the blogosphere should work I reckon.

I have been following the food blog Scallionrap for a while now and love the range of subjects and styles of writing in there; from the long and detailed posts to the whimsically brief. Whether displaying brevity or meticulousness, each post is well crafted and entertaining to read.

I originally came across Austinonly when Googling a blog entry a few months ago and I remember thinking that this one is far too specific. After a little reading I realised how wrong I was. Austinonly manages to show a rich and complex part of our not-too-distant history that is such a world away from modern life.

Last up (but by no means least) is Granny Robertson’s Cookbook a food-history blog that essentially does the same job as my own. Happily we don’t seem to tread on one another’s toes, even when we write on the same subject matter. The reason for this I think is that we have very different styles, but aim to be both fun and accurate at the same time; a trick not so easy to pull off.

So they are the five I have chosen ad I hope you check them all out follow their writings…

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Salt

Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?

                                                               Job 6:6

Salt is such a necessary yet ubiquitous commodity that we take it for granted, but this wasn’t always the case; up until the 13th century it was considered a delicacy and after that period it was held in such regard – and such a luxury – that it was heavily taxed. Wars have been fought over its flavour-enhancing and preservative properties. Once you had salt, it was impossible to face a tomato or boiled egg without it, it seems.

Salt is available to us in two forms, rock salt and sea salt, and it has been harvested or mined in Britain and Ireland since the Iron Age.

Several salts are found in rocks or the sea, but in its purest form common salt is the compound sodium chloride. Purified it tastes rather harsh, good quality salt has a much more subtle flavour because the other salts – which makes up to around 30% – present give it an important complexity. I always use sea salt in cookery, and it is doubly important to use it when salt is playing a leading role, like in salt curing for example.

Deer at a salt lick

Ever since our evolutionary predecessors climbed out of the sea, we – as well as the other animals – have been dependent on salt in our diet. Of course, we eat far too much salt these days. The recommended intake is 6 grams and most of us go way over that amount. Perhaps surprisingly, people have been known to become salt deficient, especially those on a vegan diet. Meat contains all the salts you need but plants do not (though there are exceptions). Many animals, mainly cattle and deer, require salt supplements in their diet in the form of salt licks. In the past people have eaten even more salt that we do now; centurions in Roman Empire would get a daily ration of one handful of salt! It eventually became easier to simply give the soldiers the money to buy the salt themselves for their salary (sal being Latin for salt).

Salt, superstition and symbolism

Due to its life-giving properties as well as its ability to prevent food from spoiling, salt has always been highly-regarded, so there is no surprise to find that salt symbolises life and purity to many peoples past and present. We are so tightly-bound with salt, that spilling it is considered a breaking of that bond, and bad form too, seeing how expensive it once was. To undo the bad that has been done, the spiller must throw a pinch over their left shoulder with their right arm; it is over you left sinister side where the demons hang out. In the painting The Last Supper, Judas has knocked over a pillar of salt. Another place you will find demons is in your fire, so a handful of salt thrown in there will cast out any demons present. Salt was disliked by the Devil. Indeed, the devil may try and tempt you with a saltless meal, but don’t worry, if you put salt on the food it will cast it out, just like a crucifix.

Look carefully and you can see Judas (left) knocking over the salt with his right hand.

Salt was important in ritual. For the freemasons it symbolises the ‘life, the mother, the woman’ (as opposed to men which are symbolised by sulphur). Jesus called his apostles ‘the salt of the earth’ and Roman Catholics use it to ‘purify’ their holy water. It was traditional in Ancient Romans to give new-born babies a gift of salt. Sacrificial victims would also be purified with salt to make the poor victim more attractive to the deity in question.

It goes without saying, that all of this should be taken with a grain of salt…

Sea Salt

Sea salt has been extracted from brackish waters in Britain and Ireland by evaporation for many centuries. Water was simply heated in large shallow salt pans over wood fires. This simple method was used over most of Europe wherever there were salt marshes and estuaries. This was by far the main method of salt production until the Middle Ages where salt had to be imported from Europe to meet demands, it was one of the main contributors to deforestation in parts of Europe too, such was the demand ‘whole forests were burned to make this boiled salt’, says the historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat.

‘Drawing’ the salt in the Maldon saltworks

One area of the country that still produces it is of course Maldon, which as a long history of sea salt ‘cultivation’. According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 there were 45 salt pans in Maldon. Salt-making equipment has been excavated from there that date back to the Iron Age. There not quite so much going on these days, but the saltworks at Maldon do produce the best salt in the country.

Old recipes often ask for bay salt, which refers to sea salt i.e. ‘salt from the bay’.

Rock Salt

The boiled salt trade was hit hard in the 19th century when new and efficient ways of mining salt was discovered. The centre of salt mining in Britain is Cheshire, in particular the Winsford salt mine in Northwich which has been active since 1640. There are several towns in the area with the suffix –wich, this comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning ‘brine town’. The price of salt dropped and has ever since been pretty cheap, though these days the salt from British salt mines is intended for industry and the production of salt licks for cattle.

Within the Cheshire salt mine

People argue as to which is best, but I think either is good as long as you are buying the unpurified kind.

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Hot Cross Buns

Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was, as I reckon the supermarkets and bakeries bring them out just after Christmas; and why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.

The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).

The Pagan goddess, Eostra

So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…

I have been on a bread-bake-a-thon recently, so I thought I’d make some and provide you with a recipe. Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’

The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper would be good, but I have never tried it.

This is based on Elizabeth David’s 1977 recipe, but all recipes seem essentially the same. There is no piped pastry cross on these buns as that would ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’. Quite so.

Ingredients

1 lb – 1 lb 2 oz strong bread flour, include a small proportion of wholemeal if you like

around 8 fluid ounces of warm milk

1 oz fresh yeast, or 1 tsp dried

1 tsp salt

2 ounces of sugar – any you like; white, light brown, dark brown or a blend

2 tsp  mixed spice

2 oz of softened butter

2 eggs

4 oz currants, or failing that, raisins

2 oz candied peel

For the glaze:

2 tbs sugar

2 tbs milk

Warm a pound of the flour in a cool oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile cream the yeast with a little of the milk, adding a pinch of sugar if you are using dried yeast. When the flour is warmed and the yeast is foaming, mix into the flour the salt and spices, then a make a well in the centre and add the yeast and the rest of the milk. Mix together with a spoon, then use the rest of the flour to dust your hands and the dough so you can work it together for a few minutes, otherwise you become a big sticky mess. You want a rather soft dough, but one not so soft that it would become shapeless as it rises. Incorporate the currants and peel, then cover and leave around 2 hours to double in size.

Knock back the dough and knead for a few minutes and form into 24 approximately even-sized buns, folding any creases underneath to make a nice, round shape. Place on non-stick pans, cover with plastic or a damp tea towel and leave to double in size again.

When ready to go in the oven, make cross cuts on their tops and bake at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes.

When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and milk to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.

Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C (300⁰F).

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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, Easter, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime

The Treacle Mines of England

Recently I wrote a post on the history and invention of golden syrup and black treacle in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to the mass production and refining of sugar cane in the West Indies, the only way to get hold of treacle was to mine ‘natural molasses’ in treacle mines. As far as I know treacle is the only mined foodstuff though I could be wrong there (I often am).

Natural treacle is very viscous

Treacle mines are rare and appear in just five regions of England: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Kent, the West Country, with the most significant mine being in Wymsey, Cumbria. Having a treacle mine in your town was a huge benefit to the inhabitants. The folk living in these areas were particularly healthy, especially the miners themselves. It was noted by William Cobbet in 1816 when visiting the Cumbrian village:

This place I found to be a fair and healthy place, the women and children well fed and happy. Most menfolk were at work upon the Land but that evening in the excellent Crown and Thorns Inn I was surpassingly surprised to see many men brown of hue. On enquiry I determined that these were miners of Treacle and what a jolly crew they turned out to be. That night I repaired to my bed thanking our maker that there was at least one happy parish in the land.

Black unrefined treacle forms from fossilised beds of sugar cane rather like oil or peat and has a tendancy to seep and rise to the surface of the ground. This run-off is useless, but what makes the regions mentioned above unique is that the treacle is surrounded by a layer of non-porous rock that keeps it contained.

Treacle mining goes back to pre-Roman times, in fact there was a healthy trade between England and Rome via Roman-occupied Gaul. In fact it was the main reason why the Romans wanted to conquer the unbearably cold and harsh British Isles. Why else would they want to take over an island that was inhabitable to them?  A floor mosaic from AD 77 was unearthed depicting treacle mining and refining.

Demand was so high, that any new sites had to be kept secret. The site of the mine in Pudsey (my home town, nestled between Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire) is so closely-guarded that only a very few individuals know the location and those that are told have to have been born and bred within the boundaries of Pudsey.  The site of the famous abbey at Kirkstall was chosen by the monks that built it because it was thought a tributary ran from the Pudsey mines through Kirkstall. Unfortunately it seems they were wrong – no treacle had ever been found there.

Pudsey Parish Church

There has been no significant treacle mining in Britain since the nineteenth century because industry had made sugar and its by-products cheap and accessible. However, it was on its last-legs already; most of the mines were completely dry and no new sites were found. The last working mine eventually closed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. There are no plans to excavate any of mines and it is a shame; it would be great if we could draw attention to this almost forgotten part of our food history.

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