Some exciting news! The second series of my podcast will drop from Sunday 25th of July, which is also the tenth birthday of the blog; it seemed appropriate somehow. Craziness. It’s had a slight name change and it now has the less clumsy title of The British Food History Podcast. I would love it if you subscribed to it via your favourite provider. It’s taking a little time to appear on Apple and Google podcasts but is all ready to go on the others: Spotify, Amazon, Deezer etc.
If you look on the episode list you’ll see I have added the episodes of the Lent special I made last year with Sonder Radio. Sorry it’s taken so long to do a second series: in lockdown everyone else made a podcast, but I had such a bee in my bonnet about going on location for interviews etc., I thought I’d wait for enough normality to resume before I started again. Anyway, I got bored of waiting for that obviously. (That said, I did manage to do some real life interviews and jaunts.)
I’m going to produce the podcast in packets of six episodes – life often gets I the way and as much as I’d like to make an episode every single week, the day job rather gets in the way of that.
One final thing – and I flush red as I type – I love making content and hope to be able to spend more time making it so if you like my blog posts and podcast episodes, please consider a monthly subscription or buying me a virtual coffee or a pint?
You can pay a one off donation or start up a monthly £3 subscription. The great thing about being a subscriber is that you get some extra bonus Easter eggs (deleted podcast scenes, bonus episodes, cookery videos) as well as extra blog posts. As more subscribe, the more content I can add for everyone. To find out more visit the Support the Blog and Podcast tab on the blog. I thank you in advance xxx
On my Jane Grigson blog I recently completed a recipe, the 441st, Smoking Meat. It wasn’t so much a recipe, more a bit of advice, and the advice was: don’t bother. However, I wanted to have a go at curing and smoking my own bacon, so took this as an opportunity, and because there was no recipe in English Food, I could do my own thing with respect to the recipe (see The Premise). All of Jane’s cured meats contain a combination of salt and saltpetre – also known as potassium nitrate – which has a bad rep these days because it has been implicated as a causative agent in diseases associated with eating processed meat products (more on that later). So, with my bacon, I thought it a good opportunity to see if leaving out the saltpetre would have any observable detrimental effects. SPOILER ALERT! My bacon is still completely fine three months after making it, stored at room temperature – there isn’t the merest trace of mould – and it got me thinking about its use in meat curing and processing and whether it needs to be included.
Just what is the function of saltpetre? Everyone does agree that the pink colour saltpetre gives the meat is attractive. However, there is certainly disagreement out there as to its efficacy in preservation. According to Jane Grigson saltpetre ‘no preservative value’1 and Elizabeth David is of the belief that it is simply ‘the cosmetic of the preserved meat industry.’2
On the other side of the argument Larousse Gastronomique reckons it a ‘powerful bactericide [that] has been used since ancient times to preserve food.’3 Harold McGee concurs, adding that it is particularly effective against the bacteria that causes botulism.4
In conclusion: I don’t know what to think.
It seems that it hasn’t been used since ‘ancient times’ either; according to Peter Brears, ‘there appears to be no evidence for the use of saltpetre, sugar or smoking in medieval meat preparation, only salt.’5
Saltpetre can be found deposited naturally as veins in rocks – indeed, saltpetre literally means salt stone. Houses built on foundations dug into rocks containing the mineral sometimes find saltpetre can be found in crystalline forms in damp cellars. It is relatively rare, but it was in demand in the Middle Ages, not for its preserving powers but as an ingredient in gunpowder. In the sixteenth century a method of production was devised after an alchemist found that after boiling the water from urine the crystalline material left behind was highly flammable.6 With further refining of the process, urine was combined with faeces and lime on an industrial scale. It was said that the best urine for the job was ‘Bishops’ piss’; not because it was the urine of a holy man, but because of the large volume of wine that Bishops drank. The process even makes an appearance in the Canterbury Tales:
Chalk, quicklime, ashes and the white of eggs,
Various powders, clay, piss, dung and dregs,
Waxed bags, saltpetre, vitriol and a whole
Variety of fires of wood and coal.7
Everyone was well aware how saltpetre was made, and people – as you might expect – did not want to use a product derived from human waste in their food and continued to use saltpetre from natural sources at great expense. Today it is made from ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride.
When saltpetre comes into contact with meat, the nitrate part of the molecule reacts with haemoglobin (in the blood) and myoglobin (in the muscle) to form a nitrite, which reacts further to form nitric oxide. It is the nitrite and globin molecules reacting that form the pink colour. The products of reduction are stable away from oxygen in the air, however if one takes a slice from the meat to reveal the pink meat within, the nitrites oxidise back into nitrates and the meat loses its rosy tinge.
Some recipes ask for salt prunella, which is simply saltpetre that’s been formed into little balls and dissolve at a slower rate that regular saltpetre. It also contains a small proportion of potassium nitrite to help kick-start the chemical processes in the meat. Again sources disagree as to the truth of this.
Saltpetre is used in very small amounts – when I used it in the past, I used approximately a teaspoon or two to every 500 g salt. You can purchase it on the internet, but it is much better to buy salt mixes for curing that contain salt and nitrates already mixed and measured.
This brings us to health – this chemical which is added in small amounts is getting the blame for causing heart disease and bowel cancer in those who eat processed meat products. Well, there is certainly a correlation between consumption of processed meats and cancer. But let’s not jump on nitrates as the causative agent: correlation is not causation, after all. Remember when red wine was supposedly good for your heart? It wasn’t true – there was a correlation, sure, but only because folk who drink red wine tend to be middle class, and therefore tend to also exercise regularly and eat a heathier diet. Nothing to do with wine.* I suspect there is something similar going on with nitrates: they are used in processed meats, which are cheap and much more likely to be consumed by poorer families, who in turn, are less likely to eat fewer fresh fruit and vegetables, and less likely to own a gym membership. As it turns out, nitrates may actually be beneficial in that they help lower blood pressure.
The jury then is still out. And in the case of my own homemade, nitrate-free bacon, leaving out the nitrates hasn’t caused the meat to go bad, and it stayed relatively pink too. Removing it might not improve the nation’s health, but at least it removes a chemical that’s been produced from nasty chemicals which can only be good for the environment.
Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Let me know them in the comments.
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Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa partook, in their way, of my joy. It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake – the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1849
I do love a seed cake, once a key element of a British teatime table. Sadly, it’s largely either forgotten, or worse, ignored in our modern world of ‘instagrammable’ drizzle cakes, or multi-coloured creations slathered with luxurious buttercreams and frostings. With that sort of competition, the poor old seed cake doesn’t get a look in, bless it. As a result, the only way you are going to taste is to make one.
For those in the dark as to what I’m banging on about, a seed cake is a plain, rather dry cake flavoured subtly with caraway. It’s texture is similar to that of a madeira cake; dry enough so that it is perfect to have with a nice cup of tea for your elevenses. It has just the right amount of clack, as we northerners say; a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. Don’t let this put you off – it’s plainness is what makes it perfect. Super-sweet cakes covered with their myriad fillings are fine, but often a little too much to take.
Seed cakes appear in cookbooks from the seventeenth century, but only really became a cornerstone of the tea table in the eighteenth. They were a different beast then; sugary cakes also said something of both your status and sensibilities, so other things were added. Hannah Glasse added allspice, cinnamon and ambergris in one of her recipes.1 It was a time before chemical raising agents too, so cakes at this time were made light by the action of live yeast. Seed cake, therefore, was reserved for those who had a taste for the finer things in life, such as Parson Woodforde, diarist and great lover of cakes, puddings, pies and confectionary. He loved listing what he’d had for dinner. Take this entry from 17 August 1778:
7 p.m. Hot hash, or cold mutton pies. Saturday night an addition of good seed-cake of one pound, covered with sugar and a quart of good beer poured over it.2
Fast-forward a century and we see that the seed cake is pretty much what we would expect to see; the only difference being that a splash of brandy, rather than milk, is used to slacken the mixture.3
A seed cake cannot be made with any other seed than caraway. Sure, you could swap them for poppy seeds or some such, but you will have made a cake with seeds in it, not a seed cake! What’s so special about caraway then? Well, caraway was used to flavour all sorts of foods ever since ancient times, because unlike the other spices* it grew happily throughout Europe. It is an essential flavouring in German sauerkraut for example. In Britain, folk seemed to prefer to use in sweet foods, as Elizabeth David noted: “Apart from seed cake, (why were those cakes always so dry?) once the great English favourite, and caraway sweets and comfits, caraway appears little in English cooking.”4
Elizabeth’s quote eludes as to why this cake fell out of favour – it’s viewed as boring, dry, stale perhaps, but I disagree. It is light, and because it contains very little liquid compared to, say, a moist Victoria sponge, it is paramount that the butter and sugar are well creamed together, the flour is carefully folded in without over-mixing, and that it is not over-baked. This is where I fear folk may go wrong: baking an extra ten minutes, just to be on the safe side, will produce a dry, boring cake. Done well, however, a seed cake can be as superlative as any Proustian madeleine.
175 g salted butter, softened
175 g caster sugar
250 g self-raising flour
1 tbs ground almonds
1 tbs caraway seeds
Around 3 tbs milk (or brandy)
Preheat your oven to 180°C and line a 2 pound loaf tin (usually around 23 cm long) with greaseproof paper, keeping it in place with a smear of butter or cooking oil.
In a mixing bowl cream the softened butter until pale and fluffy. Add an egg and one tablespoon of the flour and beat in until smooth. Repeat with all of the eggs. Mix the remaining flour with the ground almonds and caraway seeds and tip into the mixture.
Fold in carefully and when combined, add the milk (or brandy) to loosen the batter slightly – unlike a regular sponge, you are not looking for a dropping consistency with seed cake, so don’t go overboard: start with two tablespoons and see how it looks.
Spoon into the tin and smooth the top – you don’t have to be fastidious here, as the batter cooks it levels out all on its own.
Bake for around an hour – this will depend on the dimensions of your tin, in my wide one, it took just 55 minutes. Test with a skewer if it is ready – I’ll say it again: it’s important not to overbake seeing as the batter is on the dry side.
Let it cool in its tin for 15 minutes before removing and cooling on a rack. These sorts of cakes are best eaten on the day, or the day after, they are baked.
*Mustard also grows in Europe, hence its heavy use in British recipes throughout history.
1. Glasse, H. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Prospect Books facsimile of the 1747 original).
2. Woodforde, J. The Diary of a Country Parson Volume 2. (Oxford University Press, 1924).
3. Beeton, I. The Book of Household Management. (Lightning Source, 1861).
4. David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).
Hello all – a very quick post to let you all know that this Saturday 10th April at noon (GMT) I’m taking part in a free event called ‘A Bite of History’. I’ll be in conversation with poet Dan Simpson and we’ll be discussing allsorts of things: food history and historical cooking, the evolution of our never-sated desire for sugar, the trials of running a restaurant and of course the blog. There’ll be a Q&A session too, so if you have any burning questions I shall do my best to answer them.
I’m also going to attempt a live cook spot – what could possibly go wrong!?
The breakfast was delicious, consisting of excellent tea, buttered toast and Glamorgan sausages, which I really think are not a whit inferior to those of Epping.
George Barrow, Wild Wales, 1862*
I don’t know about you, but I’m a beggar for freezing all sorts of bits and bobs left over from kitchen tasks or clearing out the fridge – carcasses, egg whites, vegetable trimmings – all in the name of frugality, and then promptly forgetting about them entirely. Because of this bad habit my freezer is full to bursting, and desperately needs emptying. The worst offender is fresh breadcrumbs: two bags full of them, in fact. As soon as I saw them, three foods flashed up in my mind: a nice stuffing for poultry, Queen of Puddings or the Welsh classic, Glamorgan sausages. Unsure which to make, I turned to Twitter, and Twitter resolutely told me it should be Glamorgan sausages. I was sure Queen of Puddings would win, but I’m always terrible at guessing the outcomes of these things.
A Glamorgan sausage is “a kind of savoury rissole made of cheese, leek or onion, eggs and breadcrumbs.”1 and they hail from the Vale of Glamorgan, south-east Wales. The Vale has been excellent spot for dairy farming for millennia, says Jane Grigson: “the Iron and Roman Age Welsh were largely a pastoral people moving about and dependent upon flocks and herds.”2 The work was – and is – hard, and communities were often cut off from other for whole seasons at a time; it seems that it was worth it though because the cows were very productive, and there was often a surplus of milk and cheese. This cheese was mixed with leftover bread and flavoured with leek, spring onions and parsley. This mixture was formed into sausage shapes and fried in lard or beef dripping.
There is a myth that the Glamorgan sausage is actually a twentieth century invention, created by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War to push meat-free cooking during rationing. As the quote at the top of this post tells us, they have been around a lot longer than the 1940s.
Traditionally Glamorgan sausages were made using Glamorgan cheese from the milk of the old Glamorgan and Gwent breeds3,4 which declined to almost extinction in the twentieth century, and so a replacement cheese is used today, the best known Welsh cheese, Caerphilly. It is described by the Welsh Cheese Company thus: “Caerphilly has a lactic, fresh lemony flavour and a slightly crumbly texture.”5 They also complain – as do I – of the wan, tasteless Caerphilly cheese we find in our supermarkets today.
If you cannot find a good Caerphilly from a good cheesemonger, I would advise going for a different cheese altogether, the best substitute being Lancashire. You can, of course, use Cheddar, indeed I have used it several times in past, so I will not judge.
If you’ve never made them before, have a go because they are easy to make and delicious, and, in my mind, a much superior vegetarian sausage to any masquerading as ‘meaty’ in supermarkets’ freezer cabinets. They can also be made and kept in the fridge for up to three days until you want to fry them. They also freeze well uncooked.
The great food historian Theodora Fitzgibbon suggests eating them “hot with fried puréed potatoes [or] for breakfast with bacon.”4 I heartily agree.
Makes 8 sausages
180-200 g Caerphilly cheese (or Lancashire or Cheddar)
120 g fresh breadcrumbs
3-4 cm section of leek, finely chopped
2 tbs chopped parsley
4 sage leaves, chopped
Leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme
2 tsp English mustard (or up to 3 if using a mature Cheddar)
Salt and pepper
2 tsp water
2 tbs seasoned flour
Extra breadcrumbs (fresh or dry) for coating
Sunflower oil, beef dripping or lard for frying
Grate the cheese and place in a food processor with the breadcrumbs, leek, herbs, mustard and one of the eggs and some salt and pepper. Pulse to a sticky rubble – the mixture should easy come together, if all seems a little dry, add the water and pulse again. This can all be done by hand, of course, if you prefer.
Bring the mixture together with your hands to form a nice yellow-green dough and divide into eight equal pieces. Wet your hands and roll the pieces into little sausages, around 1 ½ cm thick.
Now find three saucers, sprinkle the seasoned flour on one, beat the egg and pour that on another, then scatter your extra breadcrumbs on the third.
Now roll a sausage in the flour, tapping away excess, then the egg and then the breadcrumbs. Repeat for the remaining sausages.
Heat a deep frying pan over a medium-high heat with the oil or lard; you need enough for a half-centimetre depth. When hot fry the sausages for around 3 minutes, then turn them all a quarter turn – use two forks for this – cook another 3 minutes, etc until they are golden brown all over.
Remove and drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately.
*This quote is taken from, A Taste of Wales by Theordora FitzGibbon. The Epping sausages referred to in the quote are a skinless type made from pork and sometimes breadcrumbed or floured before frying, hence the comparison.
1. Mason, L. & Brown, C. The Taste of Britain. (Harper Press, 1999).
Last post I told you all about the origins of the pressure cooker, and how it was invented by Frenchman Denis Papin in the seventeenth century. One part of his story really struck a chord with me, and that was an almost throwaway comment made by diarist John Evelyn. He attended the ‘philosophical supper’ where Papin cooked for the members of the Royal Society, everything pressure-cooked in his “Digester”. Evelyn wrote about in his diary and described how deliciously tender everything was, but noted that the pigeons were particularly delicious:
We ate pike and other fish, bones and all, without impediment; but nothing exceeded the pigeons, which tasted just as if baked in a pie, all these being stewed in their own juice, without any addition of water save what swam about the digestor
As soon as read that, I knew I had to try it.
I don’t know what your mind conjures up when you imagine what a pigeon pie was like in days of yore, but I always think of Dorothy Hartley’s illustration and description in her wonderful book Food in England. Hers has a double crust and a layer of suet dumpling dough inside, but it was the interior of the pie that I was interested in here.
After a pie dish is lined with the pastry, a slice of braising steak is laid inside with the pigeons on top, then there is a sprinkling of bacon pieces and mushrooms. Stock or gravy is poured over them before the dumpling layer and second pastry layer are added on top. This recipe is for old pigeons that require long cooking, but if young pigeons (squabs) were used, the pies were cooked quickly and at a high temperature, the shortcrust pastry swapped for flaky or puff pastry and the stewing steak swapped for sirloin or veal. There is no definitive recipe, and there are recipes for pigeon pie from the seventeenth century that contain oysters, bone marrow, pistachio nuts and cockerels’ stones (testes). However they are cooked, pigeon pies were well regarded because of their tenderness.
In my interpretation of pie-style pressure cooker pigeon, I stuck quite closely to Hartley’s description, though I added a few aromatic herbs and vegetables and good glug of red wine. I heartily recommend it, and the pigeons do come out exceedingly tender:
1 good knob of butter or bacon fat, around 30 g
4 cloves of garlic
1 leek, trimmed and sliced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
3 bay leaves
12 sprigs thyme
2 portobello mushrooms, sliced
Salt and pepper
2 tbs plain flour
6 rashers dry cured streaky bacon (smoked or unsmoked)
2 oven ready woodpigeons
400 g piece of braising steak (I used top rib)
125 ml red wine
250 ml beef stock
2 tbs chopped parsley
Melt the butter or fat over a medium high heat and add the garlic, leek and celery. Tie the bay leaves and thyme with some string and toss into the mixture. Season well with salt and pepper. Fry and brown the vegetables for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and fry for a further 5 minutes.
Meanwhile season the flour and scatter it over a plate. Give the steak a good coating of seasoned flour by pressing it down so that it gets a good covering of flour: make sure you do both sides.
Lay out 3 bacon rashers side by side on a board, sit a pigeon at one end and roll up, tucking the rashers underneath. Repeat with the other pigeon.
Take the pan off the heat, sit the beef on top of the vegetables, sprinkling in any flour that refused the stick to the beef. Sit the pigeons on top and pour over the wine and stock. The liquid should cover the beef, but only go up around a third of the pigeons. Add more stock – or plain water – if necessary. Add the parsley and then close the pressure cooker lid.
Bring up to full pressure and then turn down to a quiet hiss for 1 hour. Turn the heat off and allow to cool enough so that the lid can be removed safely.
To serve, remove the pigeons from the cooker, take off the bacon and return it to the vegetables, then remove the pigeon breasts – you should be able to do this with a spoon – and divide the beef into four pieces.
Mash the very soft bacon into the vegetables. Place a piece of beef in the centre of a plate or deep bowl, sit a pigeon breast on top and spoon over the vegetables and gravy.
Mine was low key. I drank cider and made this massiveSpotted Dick.
2020 is finally over, and 2021 is here. I hope the blog has been a bit of escapism from all turmoil the last 12 months have brought us; I’ve tried not to mention it too much.
But the best thing about 2020 is you, my lovely readers: thanks for following and reading, AND using the recipes. I’ve had a lot of new followers and great comments. Not only did I have my one-millionth view, but I also had the best year ever – and by quite a stretch. I wouldn’t have made those milestones if you all didn’t visit it and use it. The blog went very quiet in the years the restaurant was open, and I was worried the blog had died a bit of a death, but I couldn’t have been so wrong.
I have lots of plans for the year ahead: I hope to bring back the podcast, and season 2 will be coming later in the year (though I’ll be re-releasing season 1 in February). I’ll let you know all about season 2 when I know more. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any television though; since the Channel 5 show Amazing Cakes & Bakes*, the phone has never started ringing.
It is hard to think any way beyond my book, which is due at the end of this month so I feel the blog will be going a little quiet until I hand in the completed manuscript. Again, I shall keep you all abreast of developments with that too (and hopefully send out a few copies in competitions). It’s called A Dark History of Sugar, and it has taken over my life since March, and I shall be glad to let it go!
So, I thank you again: you might not be hearing from me much in January, but I’ll be posting again as soon as I can.
*and Christmas special. Link here in case you missed it
It’s getting close to Christmas and I am sure that many of you are starting to plan what food you will making for the big day. I try and give you a Christmas recipe every year and I narrowed things down to four, and then asked Twitter which I should post and Twitter answered: the traditional Christmas pottage, the forerunner to the more familiar Christmas pudding.
Then, in a strange coincidence, Channel 5 asked me to take part in their Christmas special for their Cakes & Bakes show, asking if I would do a bit on the history Christmas pottage/pudding/cake. It won’t be broadcast until Christmas 2021, but it can be viewed on their streaming service to watch right now, just follow this link. As usual it was great fun to film, though – as always – rather nerve-racking.
Pottages were thick soups – stews really – made from meat and vegetables, made thick with grains or breadcrumbs. The meat was omitted if it was a fast day of course. Everyone ate them; if you were poor it wasn’t much more than a thin gruel. If you were rich it was packed with meat, boose, dried fruits and spices, and at Christmas they really went overboard.
As far as I know this pottage was made from at least the Late (or, if you prefer, ‘High’) Middle Ages and it was eaten either on Christmas Day, or even better on Christmas Eve: a big steaming bowlful of it would be the perfect way to mark the end the 24-day fast that was Advent and start of the 12-day piss-up that was Christmastide.
And as all the people in the neighbourhood dine with [my uncle] at Christmas, he takes care to place those who are married at the upper end of the table with himself, and to provide them each with a silver spoon to eat his plumb-porridge, which is generally very good, while the batchelors and maidens, at the lower end of the table, are furnished only with wooden spoons, and have their plumb-porridge serv’d up in a wooden bowl.
From ‘Excursion of an Oxonian into the Country’ in The Student, Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750)
Here’s the eighteenth century recipe I based mine on:
Plum-Pottage, or Christmas-Pottage. Take a Leg of Beef, and boil it till it is tender in a sufficient quantity of Water, add two Quarts of red Wine, and two Quarts of old strong Beer; put to these some Cloves, Mace, and Nutmegs, enough to season it, and boil some Apples, pared and freed from the Cores into it, and boil them tender, and break them; and to every Quart of Liquor, put half a Pound of Currans pick’d clean, and rubb’d with a coarse Cloth, without washing. Then add a Pound of Raisins of the Sun, to a Gallon of Liquor, and half a Pound of Prunes. Take out the Beef, and the Broth or Pottage will be fit for use.
Prof. R Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728)
It really was quite the dish.
Often pottages were cooked in a hot water pastry instead of expensive earthenware or iron pots; these were given the name ‘coffins’ and overtime pastry and baking became more refined and produced for us the mince pie. Sometimes the pottage (or porridge) was cooked in a bag and boiled (see Cauldron Cooking). It had to be less soupy and bound with eggs but cooking it this way provided us with the Dickensian cannonball-shaped Christmas pudding.
I took a look in the excellent University of Leeds Special Collections and found that they cite this fifteenth century recipe as the first example of the dish. It is more savoury, packed with onions and herbs and died red with saunders (a dye made from cedarwood).
My recipe will feed the whole family, including the “batchelors and maidens” that’s for sure. If you don’t want whole spices you can use ground ones and if you don’t want to use beef (or don’t have the time) just swap the water for beef stock:
500 g shin beef, sliced
1 litre cold water
1 tsp salt
400 ml red wine
400 ml stout
2 nutmegs, cracked, or 1 tsp ground nutmeg
6 blades of mace, or 1 tsp ground mace
1 heaped teaspoon whole cloves, or ½ tsp ground cloves
2 medium-sized Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced
200 g currants
100 g raisins
100 g prunes
2 or 3 handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs(optional, see recipe)
Place the beef shin in a large saucepan with the salt and pour in the water. Heat over a medium flame – take your time – until the wate begins to just simmer. Skim away and scum, cover and leave to simmer very gently 2 ½ to 3 hours or until tender.
Add the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs, bring back to a simmer and cook until the apples are tender, and the fruit has plumped up nicely, around 30 minutes.
Break up the beef (if it hasn’t already fallen apart on its own) with the back of your spoon and then add enough breadcrumbs to achieve the desired consistency: you can leave it soupy if you like and add none, though I think it was better thickened slightly. Start by adding 2 handfuls and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, and then add more if you think it needs it.
Taste, adding more salt if you think it needs it and serve.
The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728) by Prof. R Bradley
‘The Festival of Christmas’ by Joan P Alcock in Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, 1990: Feasting and Fasting: Proceedings (1991)
‘Stewet of Beef to Potage’ in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns. From King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary. Also receipts in ancient cookery (1790) by the Society of Antiquaries of London; University of Leeds Special Collections: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/view/811
Here we go…the third part in my trilogy of posts about muffins and crumpets.
Of the two, muffins do seem to be the most labile of the tea cakes: sometimes they are a crumpet in all but name, and other times they are somewhere in between, and because I am a total geek, I have decided to illustrate this observation in a table.
In the columns are six characteristics of muffins and crumpets and then compared old recipes and given them a score out of six for each match. Full marks means it is what we would call a classic muffin today, zero marks means it’s a crumpet and I have put these in the first two rows as controls. As you can see, muffins are all over the shop, achieving the full gamut of scores:
The oldest recipe I found appears to actually be a crumpet, but for the next one we seem to have a proper muffin – it doesn’t quite achieve full marks because plain flour is used, but 200 years ago strong flours were much less common than today, so I’m prepared to forgive that one. As we move up the table there’s a bit of a wobble, settling down again in the 1970s to become proper muffins once more.
One thing that has changed is the amount of liquid used for the dough, in the nineteenth century, it was so soft that it required a seasoned professional: “Practice and judgement are required to make one proficient in muffin-making” said Robert Wells in the Bread and Biscuits Assistant 1929.
The dough was almost batter, and it had to be deftly formed into blobs that were then set to prove inside dimples made in thickly spread flour. They were then gingerly lifted onto an iron griddle, bakestone or oven bottom.
In the Victorian era, the muffin was the essential teacake for teatime and they often bought from the muffin man who would ring his bell a little before tea, summoning the occupants of the houses who would rush out to purchase some of his muffins (or where they crumpets!?) “well swathed in flannel” to keep them warm. Then, in the 1840s a Parliamentary Act was passed prohibiting ‘costermongering’ by the beating of a drum or ringing of a bell. I’m pleased to say that no one took a blind bit of notice and a clandestine trade in warm muffins continued unabashed. By the 1910s the muffin was seen as old-fashioned by many:
“Muffins are essentially an old-fashioned fare…They are not now regarded as essentials on the tea tables of the present generation…The ordinary baker sells so few that it is not worth his while to keep a hot-plate for their manufacture”
John Kirkland, The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer, 1907
Doughs became easier to handle in the twentieth century, requiring less skill and labour, and in the days of mass-manufacture they became more bread-like.
To Toast a Muffin:
Of course you can eat your muffin as soon as it comes of the griddle, but should you wish to toast them later it is important you get it right: “I should like to draw attention to the old method of toasting the muffin in the North of England” says a Mr Dupois Brown in 1931, who suggests “slightly opening its joint all around before toasting it both front and back; then tearing open and buttering the inside halves liberally…but in all the teashops where I have ordered muffins it was toasted on the inside, thus causing it to be tough, leathery and indigestible.” You have been warned.
My recipe uses more liquid that other muffin recipes out there, but the dough can still be rolled and cut out with relative ease – you’ll need a mixer for kneading the dough though as it is very soft and sticky. One batch makes between 8 and 12 muffins depending upon the size of cutter you prefer. As Jane Grigson notes, it is very satisfying to watch them “rise and swell rather like a puffball fungus.”
500 g strong white flour
2 tsp instant yeast
1 ½ tsp salt
30 g softened butter
330 ml milk, warmed
A little sunflower oil
Semolina or polenta for dusting
Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl, make a well and add the butter, egg and milk. Then mix to combine. It is best to use a dough hook attachment on a food mixer for this; start on a slow speed, and then once fully incorporated, turn up the speed to knead until smooth and elastic, around 6 minutes.
Smear a little oil on the inside of a bowl then oil your hands and gather up the soft dough and pop it in. Cover with cling film or a damp tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place; because of the added butter and egg it will take a little longer than for a regular bread dough, about 90 minutes.
Lay out a piece of greaseproof paper or a tray and scatter with the semolina or polenta.
Knock back the dough and roll out on a floured surface to a centimetre’s thickness, then cut out. I wanted quite large ones, so I went with a 9 cm one, but feel free to use whatever size you like. Because the dough is soft, it’s a good idea to dip the cutter in flour between cuts to prevent sticking.
Lay the muffins on the polenta/semolina and turn them over so that both sides get a coating. Knead the trimmings together and cut out more muffins. Cover them and leave to prove for 30 minutes.
Heat your pan or griddle over a medium-low heat and cook the muffins in batches. Cook on one side for around 10 minutes until golden brown, and then turn over and cook for a further 6 to 8 minutes.
Eat straight away or cool on a rack and store in a tin or tub.
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David
English Food, Third Edition (1992) by Jane Grigson
How I wish I had a roaring fire; if I did it would be a great big one equipped with all of the paraphernalia; poker, skuttle and, of course, toasting fork. Pierced upon the fork would be the king of all the toasty-bready things, the crumpet. No, the muffin! It’s an almost impossible choice, and if you go back in time just a little, the decision is made even more difficult because there wasn’t a fixed idea of what either were, and they changed in name and form all across the country. Today, in a world of mass-production, standardisation and consistency I think we would all agree wherever we live in the country which is which. But just in case we’re not agreed on which is which I’ll describe the two:
Definitely fluffy and bread-like in the centre, their name originating from the Old French word moufflet, meaning soft.
Cut out into circles or rolled into cakes
Slowly cooked on a bakestone
Dusted in semolina
There may be a few from the North-West of England saying, “Hang on, what about oven bottom muffins?” Don’t worry, I’ll get to those late. Aside from that, pretty straight-forward I hope.
Made from a pourable batter like a pancake. Indeed, the word (probably) comes from the Welsh word for pancake, crempog
Poured into rings
Slowly cooked on a bakestone
Slightly rubbery in texture, especially prior to toasting
Has characteristic bubble holes on one side
It’s very obvious by etymology and their look that the two things are very different to each other. Now I’m going to muddy the waters slightly with a variant upon the crumpet, the pikelet – it’s important for later. Pikelets are simply crumpets cooked without a ring, producing a large, flat holey pancake.
Are we all on board with this? It does seem pretty cut-and-dry to me. Trouble is we are very used to factory-made products and are perhaps unaware of what either was like. This is what Elizabeth David wrote of the two in the 1970s in her classic book English Bread and Yeast Cookery: “crumpets, or at least travesties of them, can still be bought in England” and, “Sainsbury’s sell packets of a thing they call a muffin.” It seems that we are not being fed delicious traditional bakes, but pale – possibly cynical – imitations of them. But then she poses the following questions:
What is the difference between them? Which have holes, which are baked in rings? Which are made from a pouring batter, which from a soft dough…? Is a pikelet the equivalent of a muffin or of a crumpet? Should muffins and/or crumpets made from identical ingredients? If so, what are they? Flour, yeast, water and salt? Or flour and yeast plus milk, fat and eggs? Or flour, fat and eggs with a chemical raising agent?
She then goes on to say “anyone who knows the answers to more than two or three of these queries is wiser than I.” Today the answers to her questions are fairly straight-forward, but then you look at the old recipes. Take this one from 1914 for both muffins and crumpets.
To make crumpets: “Heat a girdle, and grease it with butter; drop on to it of the above [pancake] mixture, and brown first on one side and then on the other.”
That, I’m sure you’ll agree, IS NOT A CRUMPET, IT IS A PIKELET!
To make muffins:
“Grease some rings, and place them on a hot greased girdle; half fill them [with the same pancake] mixture, cook and brown them on the other side.”
THAT IS A CRUMPET, NOT A FLIPPING MUFFIN!
Oh lordy, I’ve opened up a can of worms here. Going through my old books, as well as the one provided by Ms David, it seems that muffins do not match the modern form at all. Some of them are at least made from dough, but one so soft it is verging on batter producing dough balls so delicate they had to be proved on layer of flour. They are so fiendishly tricky to make that they could only be made by hand, and a well-trained one at that, but in an age of machine production they have gone by the wayside, their mixture thickened into a dough that can be rolled and stamped out on a production line. Here are some instructions from Law’s Grocer’s Manuel, 1895:
“get ready a tray, spread it with flour about 2 ½ [inches] in depth, make impressions in the flour with a small breakfast cup, take portions of the light dough out with a large spoon and put them into the flour impressions to rise; make the muffin stone hot, let them cook on it a few minutes, pass the palette knife under, turn them over…and bake likewise, keeping them of a light colour.”
They exist today in the form of ‘Oven-Bottom Muffins’ still popular in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, but these too are pale imitations, essentially regular bread cakes** baked very pale. So really a muffin was almost a crumpet but not quite a bread, a spoonable dough hovering between two states producing a muffin filled with a honeycomb of holes, invisible until cut into. I now see why Ms David was rather terse about the supermarket variety.
In my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course from 1982, published just five years after Elizabeth’s book, we have a recipe for a modern muffin. Does anyone know of an earlier one?
For the next post or two, I shall continue the theme with some recipes for muffins and crumpets plus a look at some of the bakes that simply don’t know which side their bread is buttered on, as it were.
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David
Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (1983) by Delia Smith
*These are known as English muffins in the United States. Annoyingly, we don’t call American muffins American muffins, just muffins. These are cakes, and not to be confused.
**aka bread rolls, bread buns, stotties or barmcakes, but let’s not get started on that one.