Monthly Archives: October 2020

Cauldron Cooking

The Three Witches as depicted in a 19th Century woodcut

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ in the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!

William Shakespeare Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

As it’s Hallowe’en I thought that I’d write a little post all about cauldrons, because of course along with a broomstick, pointy hat, black cat and warts it is a must-have for any witch worth their salt at this time of year.

The Battersea Cauldron (pic: British Museum)

Let’s start off with what a cauldron is, just on case you are unfamiliar with them. They are large, rounded cooking pots that are suspended over a fire by a chain or on support legs in the centre of the fire, and they have been used all across Europe since the first millennium BCE. One of the oldest ever found was excavated in Battersea and is therefore known as the Battersea Cauldron. It made up of bronze sheets melded together and is huge. It has been described as “one of the largest and most sophisticated metal objects of the day” and is estimated to be 3000 years old, and it obviously got some use judging by the number of reparation patches it has covering its surface. Whatever size your cauldron was, it was an expensive bit of kit and built to last, so it is more unusual to find out without patches. Precious items such as this were passed down through the generations and the “man who owned an iron cauldron” says Dorothy Hartley, “had a definite standing above those who cooked only in small pots and pans.”

You may be thinking that a selection of pots and pans might be preferable to a massive cooking pot because they give you more options and you don’t have to make giant vats of food all the time, but a cauldron is surprisingly versatile and was rarely used for just cooking great big broths with bones bobbing about the surface. No, the cauldron was in fact the complete cooking and hot water system; take a look at this wonderful illustration from Ms Hartley’s excellent books Food in England:

The mediaeval cauldron, from Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

You can see here how the cauldron was actually compartmentalised and filled with a whole variety of foods. At the base is a large joint of meat that required long cooking, usually wrapped in a flour paste and the tied up with cloth, then sat on that were wooden slats upon which all sorts of things were sat. There would have been some suet puddings wrapped in cloth simmering away, as well as bag puddings made up of peas, beans or cereal grains such as the classic pease pudding. If you did want to make some hearty stew, you placed your ingredients in earthenware jars, filled them with stock or water, covered them tightly and poached it in the cauldron water. This gentle way of poaching meat produced deliciously juicy cuts of meat; in fact, one cauldron found in Warwick Castle bore the legend: “I give meat good savour.” Often the meat was jointed and sat in a large jug, to produce old British classics such as jugged hare (or rabbit, I’ve also seen recipes for jugged kippers and jugged peas). Dorothy illustrates some beef tea being made where the meat is sat in its jar on top of some birch twigs, preventing the meat from sticking to the bottom. I love little details like those. You had to be very careful cooking like this though because those sealed pots acted like pressure cookers and were prone to exploding!


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Aside from all of this, the cauldron also provided the washing water and bathwater. “I hope” says Hartley, “you now understand that because there was only one cauldron on the fire there was not one thing for dinner.”

Jugged hare

Cauldrons were such important and precious items that they were even found in burial sites such as the Baldock Burial, a Bronze Age burial site in Hertfordshire, where a whole plethora of things were found including  a cauldron complete with joints of meat, ready to sustain the dead as they journeyed to the Afterlife. Pagans revered them and they became symbolic of death and resurrection, often being buried in near or bogs and rivers, locations they considered to be domains of both the living and the dead.

Because they were imbibed with magic, they appear in several myths and legends; for example, the Irish god Dagda owned a cauldron that did not just magically produce food but also cured disease, healed wounds and brought the dead back to life. There was also a Cauldron of Knowledge that told you everything you wanted (and did not want) to know. There are plenty of Welsh and English stories that involve cauldrons too (though I haven’t come across any Scottish ones for some reason).

St John the Apostle boiled in oil from The Hours of Henry VIII, (C) The Morgan Library & Museum

Cauldrons of course sat upon flames and were extensively found in medieval and Tudor Christian art to depict what might happen to you if you went to Hell. One example depicts Dives – a rich man Jesus tells us of in the New Testament, who was very rich but would not share his food with a poor beggar. He is shown “tormented with thirst stewing forever in one of Hell’s capacious cauldrons.” Another manuscript knows as the Hours of Henry VIII clearly shows St. John the Evangelist sat in cauldron of boiling oil looking pretty chilled out and happily preaching whilst being tormentind by his captors. He would be later be miraculously preserved in the oil rather like, one supposes, like some nice comfit duck legs.

So there we go, I hope you have enjoyed my brief history of cauldrons and appreciate that they are not just for witches…or Hallowe’en!

References

‘Cauldrons and flesh-hooks: between the living and the dead in ancient Britain and Ireland’ by Jennifer Wexler & Neil Wilkin, The British Museum Blog https://blog.britishmuseum.org/cauldrons-and-flesh-hooks-between-the-living-and-the-dead-in-ancient-britain-and-ireland/

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

Hours of Henry VIII, MS H.8 fol.7 (c.1500) The Morgan Library & Museum http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/13/77089

The Medieval Cook (2009) by Bridget Henisch

‘Vessels of Death: Sacred Cauldrons in Archaeology and Myth’ (1998) by Miranda J Green, The Antiquaries Journal, vol 78, pp. 63-84

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Apple Hat

Well didn’t Autumn descend rather quickly this year? It was quite the shock to the system. Sat inside watching the persistent Manchester drizzle, my mind turned to steamed puddings, and the pud came to me was the classic suet pudding known as Apple Hat. For the uninitiated, it’s a pudding cooked in a basin lined with suet pastry and filled with apples, sugar and spices.

In the cold autumn and winter months, apples were one of the few fruits that could be stored fresh, therefore there are lots of recipes for apple-based puddings and desserts in British cookery; in fact, someone could probably write a blog on that subject alone! Apples were essentially the spuds of the fruit world: cheap, hearty, easy to grow and a big crowd-pleaser.

So why is it a hat? Well that’s because when the pudding is turned out onto a plate, it looks like a hat, the plate being the brim. Simple as that.*

The dessert doesn’t have to be made with apples of course – rhubarb, pears and gooseberries all work excellently. The tart fruit can be flavoured with any sugar you like, though some believe golden syrup should be used. If you’re being a real stickler for tradition, the apples would be flavoured with a few cloves, but they can be omitted or substituted with mixed spice, cinnamon or even a star anise. I like to substitute some of the apples with a few raisins or with some quinces, blackberries or blackcurrants. If you are feeling opulent, you could add a knob of butter or the grated zest of half a lemon or orange.

Apple Hat appears to be of a Victorian vintage – the earliest example I can find is in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 work Modern Cookery for Private Families, it’s simply called an ‘Apple Pudding’ but it is made up of apples encased in suet pastry and steamed, though in her book it is made in a pudding cloth rather than a basin and therefore boiled, as what typical of puddings at the time.

Steamed puddings were a cornerstone of British cooking, but they are a dying breed now. I don’t think it’s because they are hard to make, folk certainly still like them, and it can’t be that they are too expensive (they are quite the opposite). No, I think it’s because they take so long to cook – often several hours – which seems like a great waste of energy today. Long gone are the days that the family coal range would be on all day every day where it made perfect sense to utilise the energy given off. Nowadays it makes more sense to bake something instead. That said, you can successfully steam a pudding in a slow cooker, and many modern ovens have built in steamers that require much less energy, so there is hope of a comeback yet.

I use a regular steamer, but if you don’t have one you can easily make one by placing a folded tea towel on the bottom of a large saucepan with an upturned saucer on top of that. The pudding can sit on top of the saucer and filled halfway with boiling water. (The tea towel stops the saucer rattling).

Here’s my recipe for Apple Hat but remember you can use whatever spices and fruits you like. I fancied a few sultanas and I went for the knob of butter, natch.

You can make it vegan by making the pastry with your favourite plant milk or water.


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Serves 6 (or 4 if everyone has second helpings):

220 g self-raising flour

110 g fresh or shredded suet

Pinch salt

140 ml milk or water

Butter for greasing the basin

2 dsp Demerara or light brown sugar (optional)

450 g apples of any kind, but Bramley apples are best, peeled and cored weight

Spices (optional): e.g. 5 cloves or 1 star anise, or ½ tsp mixed spice, cinnamon, etc.

40 g caster sugar, light brown sugar or golden syrup

A knob of butter (about 15 g; optional)

Make the suet pastry either by hand or with a mixer – see this post for instructions.

Grease a 1-litre/2-pint pudding basin liberally with butter, then shake in the Demerara or brown sugar, if using, rotating the bowl to completely coat the butter.

Roll out three-quarters of the dough into a round large enough to line the basin, using the bowl to check it is large enough. Keeping everything well-floured, fold the dough into quarters and place inside the bowl so that the corner is in the very centre of the base and unfold it, pressing the pastry down well and popping any air bubbles.

Chop the apple into chunks between 1 ½ and 2 cm in size and put in the bowl, tucking in any whole spices, if using. If using ground spices, mix them with the sugar and shake over the apples, tapping the bowl a few times to disperse it evenly.

Now roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid, gluing it down with a little more milk or water. Press down the edges to seal and trim away excess. Make a steam hole and pop the lid on and cover with a lid, or tie on a pleated piece of greaseproof paper and foil.

Steam for two hours over a medium-high heat for the first 20 minutes, then turn down to a medium-low heat for the remaining time. Don’t forget to check the water level now and again.

When ready, remove the lid, loosen the edges with a small knife and turn out onto a serving plate. Serve with plenty of proper custard (obvs.).

*Before you write in, I do know that there is another dessert with the same name consisting of steamed sponge topped with a stewed fruit ‘hat’, but that sort of hat is a more recent invention and therefore loses out.

References:

English Cooking: Discover the true value of pie (2015) Sophie Waugh, The Spectator 28 November 2015

Good Old-Fashioned Puddings (1983) Sara Paston-Williams

Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) Eliza Acton

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