Category Archives: Britain

Medlar Tart

It’s medlar (aka openarse) season at the moment, and I thought I would try the recipe I mentioned in the medlar post from last year.

There’s quite little to go on with medlar preparation in books and the internet as people don’t really eat or cook with them these days, beyond medlar jelly, so every year, I learn a little more about eating and cooking them.

This year I have been more patient and waited for them to get fully-bletted. Medlars are a strange fruit in that they cannot be eaten until they have gone very dark, ripe and soft, a process called bletting. Any other fruit would be thrown away in this state, but medlars are unique because they go from sour and astringent to a tart, soft date-like fruit. They can be sliced in two and the soft flesh can be squeezed or spooned out. Within there are 5 large seeds, so you have watch out for them.

This medlar tart recipe comes from the 1597 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson. It is a very simple paste made from medlar pulp, cinnamon, ginger and sugar baked in a pastry case. Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book:

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling till it be somewhat thick. Then season them with sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Back in Tudor times (Elizabeth I was on the throne when the book was published), sugar was not always as refined as today, so to replicate this I used soft light brown sugar. I decided to use rough-puff pastry as my ‘paste’, as it was often used for the more delicate desserts and posh pies. I changed the method slightly and instead of thickening the medlar mixture in a pan, as you would for pouring custard, I put the uncooked mixture into the case and baked it in the oven.

I did have a look for other recipes and found that things like butter, nutmeg, candied fruit or citron, sweet cider and musk powder (that final one might be a little tricky to source) were all added merrily.

This tart is very good indeed, evocative of the American pumpkin pie. I would certainly give it a go should you happen upon a medlar tree.

For the tart:

Blind-baked shallow 8-inch pastry case

750 g well-bletted medlars

75 g caster or soft light brown sugar

3 egg yolks

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

 

Cut the medlars and twist in half widthways, as you might do with an avocado (except there are 5 pips rather than one large one). Scoop or squeeze the soft flesh into a bowl, removing pips as you go. I tried to pass the squeezed flesh through a sieve, which was a little tricky and boring but realised quite quickly that I wasn’t patient enough and decided instead that the flesh was smooth enough straight from the fruit.

Beat in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the pastry case and bake for 20 minutes at 175°C.

Eat warm with thick cream.

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The King Alfred’s Cakes Fungus

Hello there folks, just a quick post relating to my previous one about Alfred the Great burning the cakes. As I was researching it, I came across a fungus I had not heard of before called King Alfred’s cakes. Regular readers will know that I like to go on a good forage and that I like to post about the food I find out and about.

The King Alfred’s cakes fungus, although I had not heard of it, is very recognisable to me because it is very common across the United Kingdom any time of year.

The King Alfred’s cakes fungus (English Country Garden)

The black spherically-shaped fruiting bodies are not edible, but they do look a lot like burnt balls of dough, I’ve seen them all over the place, but never bothered looking them up in a fungi field guide because you can see that they are inedible.

However, it seems that there’s an epilogue to the fable: King Alfred, so mortified was he that he’d burnt the housewife’s bread cakes, he scattered the fungal cakes to hide his mistake and embarrassment.

The fungus sprouts almost exclusively from dead elm trees and fallen branches, so keep an eye out in woods, as the chance that this fungus is present is very high, looking remarkably like small round charcoal briquettes. It doesn’t rot away quickly like most other fungi, but it sits on the dead wood getting darker and more coal-like with age.

I’m not just posting about King Alfred’s cakes because of the link to the story, but also because they did (and do) have a use in the kitchen or fireside. The fungus’s fruiting bodies, when dry and brittle catch fire easily, but smoulder at a very slow rate, and as long as they are getting plenty of oxygen, one can use them to transplant fire from one location to another. Indeed, if enough are collected, they make excellent fuel in their own right. It is for this reason that the fungus is also called coal fungus.

A smouldering fruiting body (serious Outdoor Skills)

How ironic would it be if the herdsman’s wife had used the King Alfred cake fungus to light or fuel her fire that King Alfred went to burn the cakes on!?

King Alfred’s cakes also go by the name of cramp balls, due to an old odd belief that carrying the fruiting bodies in your pocket alleviates cramp.

Natural History

The scientific name for this type of fungus is Daldinia concentrica, so-called because of the dark and light concentric growth rings you can see if you crack one open. Fruiting bodies are usually between 1 and 5 cm in diameter but can sometimes grow much larger. Daldinia is found in deciduous woodland and is almost entirely present on the dead wood of ash trees, and since the ash is our third most common tree, the chances are you’ll have some of the fungus growing in woods near you. (Not sure what an ash tree looks like? No worries just click here for an excellent description). Old fruiting bodies are black, but when they first emerge, they are red-brown colour, only blackening when mature.

Concentric light-dark growth rings (Ian Hayhurst)

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King Alfred Burns the Cakes

It’s a story familiar to most of us:

King Alfred, exhausted and lost in the woods after beating the Danes in a vicious pitched battle, stumbles, bedraggled, upon a herdsman’s hut. The huntsman’s wife invites him in, and not recognising him, just assumes he is merely a soldier of Wessex, not the King! She kindly offers him rest and nourishment, as she has just put some cakes in the embers of her fire to bake.

Alfred burns the cakes

Alfred is chastised for burning the cakes

The housewife pops out to collect some more firewood, and instructs the soldier to keep an eye on the cakes whilst she is away lest they burn, but almost as soon as she is leaves, poor Alfred falls asleep. A few minutes later the housewife returns, greeted by the smell of burning cakes and a sleeping soldier:

“What sort of careless man are you, who neglects to attend to burning bread? Never have I seen so negligent a man – one who doesn’t even know how to turn ash-baked bread – and yet when it is put in front of you, you’ll no doubt rush to eat it!”

Well that’s him told!

It is assumed that this story is apocryphal, the earliest written example doesn’t appear until 300 years after the event, but I’m not so sure, it sounds like a story that would be passed down as gossip about the king. If it was made up years after the event, it would be a strange story to select; it’s not tale of derring-do, nor is it a tale of any religious significance. Is it supposed to tell us all how humble a man Alfred the Great was? What’s the moral – don’t bake cakes after pitched battle? It’s a lack of these elements, which usually appear in fantastical stories of early monarchs, that makes me think that it may be true.

Well whatever the source of the tale and the reasons for its retelling, it is a story that is almost taken for granted, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the food in this story – what were these cakes, and how were they made?

As with all food history, one needs to understand the broader historical context behind, serving as a backdrop to the food itself, setting the scene.

Alfred statue

The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)

King Alfred – who he?

King Alfred was a late 8th Century Anglo-Saxon king, he wasn’t king of England, because England was not yet joined into one united cohesive country, Alfred was king of Wessex. The other kingdoms in England – Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and all been occupied and taken by the Danes, or if you prefer, the Vikings!

The security of  theKingdom of Wessex and its King sat on a knife edge, and pressure from the Danes moving into the kingdom had forced Alfred and his household to hide in the marshes of the Somerset Downs. An alternative version of the story of the cakes, says that Alfred, who so lost in thought and worry about his kingdom that he wandered into woods, got rather lost and happened upon the herdsman’s hut.

Alfred plotted and planned and managed to communicate with his allies well enough to form an army. In the year 878 he fought the Danes at Edington, which he eventually won. It was in the aftermath of this battle that he discovered the herdsman’s hut. The Battle of Edington is one of the most important events in Anglo-Saxon history, because in the months afterwards, Alfred made a peace treaty with the Danes and forced them to convert to Christianity.

Alfred had reclaimed Wessex and the Danes began to settle and assimilate with the Anglo-Saxons, making England a more cohesive place, indeed Alfred’s nephew Athelstan was the first King of all the Kingdom within England, uniting the kingdoms until his death.

9th century britain

The British Isles in the late 9th Century (britroyals.com)

Ash-Baked Cakes – what they?

For folk in mediaeval times, a home-baked loaf of bread was usually out of reach, most homes lacked a suitable oven and so relied on the oven (and skills) of local bakers. For those that lived in the futher fringes of the towns – such as herdsmen – it simply wasn’t viable to make the long trek into town, it was much easier to bake cakes on their fire.

Cast iron equipment such as griddles or waffle irons, were expensive, so many had to bake little cakes of ground cereal grain (wheat, rye or oats) directly into the embers of their fires.

Baking these cakes required both an eagle eye and excellent judgement – the outside needed to be just scorched, and the inside fluffy and warm. I must admit that I am not one for making fires or having barbeques, so I’ve not had the chance to have a go at making these devilishly difficult ember cakes. However, as soon as the opportunity arises I will, and I’ll report straight back to you guys!

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Favourite Cook Books no. 3: The Forme of Cury, part 2 – recipes

FC scroll The vellum scroll rolled up (British Museum)

As promised in my previous post, a few recipes from the Forme of Cury. I have translated them into modern English, so you can follow them a bit easier. For the hippocras drink, I have given you my interpretation of the recipe as there are some hard-to-find ingredients. All the recipes are easy to make and taste delicious.

Cabbage Soup

A very simple dish – not everything Richard II ate was ostentatious. This is a very simple recipe with ingredients we use today. The addition of the saffron give it an interesting earthy flavour. Powder douce was a mixture of sweet spices – the spices we would associate with desserts like apple pie – shop-bought mixed spice is good substitute. The base of the soup is broth or stock, use any you like, though I think chicken is the best for this soup.

Caboches in Potage. Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns yminced and the whyte of Lekes yslyt and ycorue smale. And do þerto safroun & salt, and force it with powdour douce.

Cabbage Soup. Take cabbages and quarter them and seethe (simmer) them in good broth with chopped onions and the white of leeks, slit and diced small. Add saffron and salt, and season it with powder douce.

forme of cury stitchesThe Forme of Cury with stitching where a new piece of parchment was added to the scroll (British museum)

Rabbit or Kid in a Sweet and Sour Sauce

Any kind of meat can be used here really, chicken legs or diced lamb are the best substitutes. Sweet and sour sauce was called egurdouce; -douce meaning sweet and egur- meaning sour, e.g. vin-egur was sour wine, in other words vinegar! The meat is browned in lard, removed, so the onions and dried fruit can be fried, the meat is replaced with the liquid ingredients and spices and simmered just like a modern casserole or stew.

Egurdouce. Take connynges or kydde, and smyte hem on pecys rawe, and fry hem in white grece. Take raysouns of coraunce and fry hem. Take oynouns, perboile hem and hewe them small and fry them. Take rede wyne and a lytel vynegur, sugur with powdour of pepr, of ginger, of canel, salt; and cast þerto, and lat it seeþ with a gode quantite of white grece, & serue it forth.

Take young rabbits or kid and cut them into pieces and fry them in lard. Take currants and fry them. Take onions, parboil them, and chop them small and fry them. Take red wine and red wine vinegar, sugar and powdered pepper, ginger, cinnamon, salt and add them, let it simmer gently in a good quantity of lard and serve it forth.

Hippocras

hippocras MS Straining hippograss through a bag

This is a really excellent recipe for spiced wine; mulled drinks were drunk throughout the year and could be served hot or cold. There are some tricky to get hold of spices, but I’ve added alternatives where appropriate. If you have to omit a spice or two, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.

Pur fait ypocras. Troys vnces de canell & iii vneces de gyngeuer; spykenard de Spayn, le pays dun denerer; garyngale, clowes gylofre, poeure long, noieȝ mugadeȝ, maȝioȝame, cardemonii, de chescun dm. vnce; de toutes soit fsait powdour &c.

To make hippocras. Three ounces of cinnamon and three ounces of ginger, spikenard of Spain, a pennysworth; galingale, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, of each a quarter of an ounce; grain of paradise, flour of cinnamon, of each half an ounce; of all, powder is to be made etc.

There are a couple of tricky spices in the list: long pepper and grains of paradise are available to buy online quite easily, but are very expensive, so you can get away with regular black pepper as a substitute. Galangal is easier to find fresh than dried these days, as it is used extensively in Thai cuisine as part of their delicious red and green curries, however, seek and ye shall find the dried variety.

Spikenard of Spain is the extract of the root of a valerian plant and was used in the church as an anointing oil, it also appears very commonly in recipes. I’ve never had the opportunity to taste it.

 

Here’s my version of the recipe:

1 bottle of red wine

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ground ginger

¼ tsp each ground galingale, ground black pepper, ground nutmeg, dried marjoram, ground cardamom

honey to taste

 

Pour the wine into a saucepan with all of the spices and bring slowly to a scalding temperature. Don’t let the wine boil as there’ll be no alcohol left in it! Let the spices steep in the hot wine for around 10 minutes.

Meanwhile spread a piece of muslin, or any other suitable cloth, over a sieve and pour the spiced wine through it into another pan or serving jug. Add honey to sweeten. Serve hot or cold.

 

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Favourite Cook Books no.3: The Forme of Cury, Part I

FC blanc mangeSome original text from the Form of Cury – a recipe for blank mang              (British Library)

The Forme of Cury (literally, A Method of Cookery) is Britain’s earliest known cook book, dating from around 1390. Regular readers will know, I am somewhat of a mediaevalist and so I have leafed through this ancient text many times, slowly soaking up the recipes just like a sop in potage.

The effort required to produce the food, prepare it an obtain the ingredients, the surroundings and equipment and the wonderment of a mediaeval feast are all there to see, but from one person’s perspective: the cook.

Angry cook Angry Cook and Waiters c. 1330

By cooking recipes from books like this, we get a glimpse of a bygone world, and with a bit of knowledge about the ingredients and methods used to prepare them, you get to experience history almost at first hand and really fires up the imagination. Anyone with as passing interest in history will love giving recipes like this as go, and I implore you to try, whether it be this book, or something more accessible like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Houshold Management, you won’t be disappointed.

Of course, for the Forme of Cury you have to brush up on your Middle English – this is the language of Chaucer – but with a good glossary and some persistence, you will tune in.

The Forme of Cury begins thus:

The Forme of Cury was compiled of the chef maister cooks of kyng Richard the Secunde king of Englond aftir the Conquest.

Richard II, the Dandy King, was flamboyant and ostentatious; he lived in grandeur and was considered to be a narcissistic, effeminate fop by many. Everything was done on a grand scale. His court and household were huge: 200 personal guards, 13 bishops, barons, knights, esquires plus many servants and other workers. In all, around 10 000 people worked under him.

Richard’s feasting and partying were also elaborate – one feast in 1383 cost 57 000 pounds plus an extra 10 000 pounds for napery and spices! If he were alive he’d be called a foodie for sure, his other gift to gastronomy aside from this book, being the napkin, prior to that the tablecloth doubled as one.

Richard was also obsessed with record-keeping, and because of this he commissioned this manuscript, and history is all the much richer for it.

richard II Richard II

Who wrote it?

The master cooks will not have written the recipes down themselves, it’s very likely that they were illerate, but they will have been dictated to by a scribe who sat behind the master cook taking notes. The cook himself sat in a raised chair in the centre of the huge kitchen, filled with industrious workers such as the bakers, the sauce cook, the spit-roaster, and the mincer; there was even a person in charge of salad! From his chair he was lord of all he surveyed, checking every dish before it was ‘served forth’.

The manuscripts

There are ten incomplete copies of the Forme of Cury in existence today, but the original 1390 document seems to be forever lost. The most complete copy is a six-metre long scroll of vellum parchment which is housed in the British Museum. No extant copy matches up exactly and all appear to contain errors or omissions (and in some cases additions). These differences are mainly due to human error by copying – some scribes were better than others it seems – but some are purposeful, new recipes unique to the commissioning household could be added, and some removed if disliked.

FC scrollThe Forme of Cury scroll (British Museum)

These manuscripts were transcribed and published as printed documents several centuries later many containing further errors, but they are invaluable because the text is easier to read, and many were written before some of the original copies degenerated, becoming unreadable. Some errors were mistranslations, for example ‘cast’ being swapped for ‘yeast’ (which was then spelt ȝast); other mistakes were made because non-cooks were doing the translating. In one case one transcriber recommends pouring boiling hot water over an intricately constructed pastry castle – not a good idea!

The recipes

Modern editions of the book start with a list of recipes, and such a breadth of dishes is represented. Some are homely, many are ostentatious, others mysterious. There are some familiar names and ingredients: blancmange, custard tart, soups and stews, gruel and frumenty and hippocras (spiced wine), all of which would go down well at a dinner party today. However, I’m not sure if porpoise in frumenty or piglets in sage sauce would be well-received.

20180810_115613 Excerpt from a modern transcription of the Forme of Cury

On feast days there was a type of dish called a sotielty (subtlety) which was not eaten, just looked at. Examples include the aforementioned pastry castle; the cokagrys, a half-pig, half-cock creation, and animals on pilgrimage, dressed in clothes and holding lamprey staffs.

The food that was eaten, however, was similarly painstaking to produce. To show of Richard’s great wealth there would be liberal use of spices and sugar (which was then considered a spice) as well as dried fruits such as currants, which had to have their seeds individually removed before they could be used – there was no such thing as seedless grapes in the 14th Century!

There were more fast days then feast days however, so there are many vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as recipes using freshwater fish and almonds or almond milk.

Some recipes are familiar and are delicious (they made great custard tarts), there are early recipes for rice pudding, bread sauce and meatballs. They even made pasta, which was most often rolled out thinly, cut into diamonds and dried. The pasta would be layered up with cooked mincemeat and a cheese sauce: in other words, a mediaeval English lasagne!

Food from The Forme of Cury has appeared on the blog before (see the Tartlettes post) and I made eel pie and hippocras for Alice Roberts on Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns. I’ve waffled on a bit so I’ll post some original recipes as well as my interpretations of them in the next few days.

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Pease Pancakes

Hello there readers, sorry I’ve been a bit tardy with posts but I’ve gotten somewhat bogged with a post on the history of vegetarianism that currently looks to be about four posts long! I’m ignoring the writers’ block by writing this little easy post instead…

I was having a sort out of the kitchen cupboards and happened upon the bag of pea flour I had bought to write a post on peasebread a while ago. Researching for the post, I found that in the very north of Scotland, people ate a lot of peasemeal until recently, because very little in the way of cereals could be grown up there. These Scottish islanders would make pease pancakes amongst other things, so I thought I might have a go at them myself. Having no recipe, I just adapted my own recipe for American pancakes. They turned out pretty good – much better than the peasebread – and were delicious with some fried mushrooms and black pudding. They had a distinctive fresh pea and roast peanut flavour to them, and were slightly rubbery, but not in an unpleasant way.

Makes 10 to 12 pancakes:

½ cup pea flour

½ cup self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tbs sunflower oil or 25 g melted butter

1 beaten egg

¾ cup milk, or half-milk half-water

sunflower oil for frying

 

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the oil or butter, egg and around half of the milk. Beat in with a wire whisk until the thick batter is lump-free, then carefully mix in the rest of the liquid.

Put a griddlepan or non-stick pan on a medium heat and allow it to get hot. Add a little oil and spoon in small ladles into the pan. You should be able to fit 3 or 4 pancakes in each pan.

Allow to fry for a couple of minutes before checking that they are golden brown. Once they are, flip and fry the other side.

Pile up and keep warm in a very cool oven. Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and continue to fry in batches.

Serve with typical breakfast things: bacon, sausage, poached egg, mushrooms etc.

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Simnel Cake

 

A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake that contains plenty of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast, offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent; a special day when people visited their mother church or cathedral. Don’t confuse Mothering Sunday with Mothers’ Day; it is only in the last century that this day is associated with showing enforced appreciation to our mums (though I assume that you met up with your mother on return to your original diocese).

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course).

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This doesn’t sound that much like a special bread, you may think, but what made it special is that it made out of the highest quality flour possible; simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not dissimilar to spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.

Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Below is the recipe I use – I can’t claim it as my own, but I don’t know where I got it from, so if you recognise it let me know, you know I always like to credit my sources!

This is a very straight-forward cake mixture made using the all-in-one method; it is very important that you use very soft butter so that the cake batter creams quickly without developing the gluten too much. If you don’t want to make your own marzipan, you can buy some ready-made, but I do urge you to make your own, it really is worth the (really quite little) effort required. The marzipan recipe below is different to my previously published one and I think much better. I shall try to remember to update the other post.

 

For the cake:

225 g softened butter

225 g caster sugar

4 eggs

225 g plain flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

zest of 2 oranges

zest of 2 lemons

325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)

125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole

500 g orange marzipan (see below)

icing sugar for dusting

apricot jam

1 beaten egg

 

Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.

In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.

 

Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.

Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.

When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.

Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).

 

For the marzipan:

90 g caster sugar

140 g icing sugar

220 g ground almonds

grated zest of an orange

1 beaten egg

Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

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