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.
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.
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:
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!
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.”
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).
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!
When we think of the meat that was eaten at mediaeval feasts, we conjure up images of huge pieces of roast ox, venison or wild boar’s head. There was, in fact, a wide variety of meats, especially wild birds. One of these was the grey heron and its meat was regarded very highly, only fit to serve at the top tables of a banquet; the only other waterfowl with a higher status was the regal swan. According to the late, great Clarissa Dickson-Wright, heron tastes like swan too: “it was very fishy”, she tells us, “rather stringy and reminiscent of moorhen…” It’s quite odd to think they were eaten at all; they’re such a lanky things – all neck, legs and wings. There can’t be that much meat on one.
So how does one prepare and cook a heron fit for a top table? If we look in Forme of Cury – the earliest cookbook in the English language, dating from around 1400 – and it tells us: “Cranes and herouns shul be armed with lardes of swyne, and eaten with ginger.” The “lardes of swyne” are strips of backfat or fatty bacon that are threaded through the meat so that as the lean meat cooks, the fat melts and bastes it. That’s all we get though.
We can glean more information from another book, The Boke of Keruynge or, The Book of Carving, which was written in 1513 by the splendidly named Wynkyn de Worde. He provides a long list of different animals, along with instructions on how to carve them for the table. Curiously, there are many words for carving – a specific word for each type of animal, so for a heron, you don’t just carve it, no, you “dysmembre” it:
“Dysmembre that heron.
Take an heron, and rayse his legges and his wynges as a crane, and sauce hym with vynegre, mustarde, poudre of ginger, and salte.”
(And to “Displaye” a crane, simply “unfolde his legges, and cut of his winges by the Joints.”)
So, we get am extra modicum of information: a piquant mustard sauce or glaze, but we still don’t know how it was cooked.
To get any detailed information, we need to go to 1660 and look at the classic tome The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, and he had obviously read Mr de Worde’s book, because he uses the same words for carving:
“Dismember that Hern.
Take off both the legs, and lace it down to the breast with your knife on both sides, raise up the flesh, and take it clean off with the pinion; then stick the head in the breast, set the pinion on the contrary side of the carcase, and the leg on the other side, so that the bones ends may meet cross over the carcase, and the other wings cross over upon the top of the carcase.”
He also tells us that herons are not simply hunted and brought to the dinner table, but stolen from nests before they have fledged and kept in special barns
“…where there is many high cross beams for them to pearch on; then to have on the flour divers square boards with rings in them, and between every board which should be two yards square, to place round shallow tubs full of water… and be sure to keep the house sweet, and shift the water often, only the house must be made so, that it may rain in now and then, in which the hern will take much delight.”
In these sheds, the herons were not fed fish, as one might expect, but “livers, and the entrails of beasts, and such like cut in great gobbits [bite-sized pieces].” They were not just kept for the table either, many were kept for “Noblemens sports”, specifically for training their hawks. When raised for sport, they were instead fed on “great gobbits of dogs flesh, cut from the bones”
Why dogs’ flesh? Well, this was a time when Bubonic Plague was common, and at the time it was thought that dogs carried the disease, and so any strays would be routinely caught and killed. But why catch and kill an animal that you thought had plague and then feed it your own hawks? I would have thought they’d be taken to the edge of town and burned them or something, but that’s seventeenth century logic for you. CDW makes a further point:
“It’s ironic when you consider that the dogs might very well have killed the rats whose fleas did carry the plague and therefore might have prevented it.”
May also provides us with some recipes. In general, they are boned and filled with a minced meat and suet stuffing, seasoned with spices and oysters, then poached. Sometimes they are baked in ovens.
Herons do seem to drop out of the cookbooks after that, but they were still being eaten. The most recent reference I could find is from the 1914 book Pot Luck; or The British home cookery book by May Byron and is for Heron Pudding. It uses chunks of meat taken off the bone, and the reason why is very interesting:
“Before cooking it must be ascertained that no bones of the heron are broken. These bones are filled with a fishy fluid, which, if allowed to come in contact with the flesh, make the whole bird taste of fish.”
This may explain CDW’s issue with roast waterfowl like swan and moorhen. I wonder if they boned before cooking and if that would make them taste better?
Byron goes on:
“This fluid however, should be always extracted from the bones, and kept in a medicine cupboard, for it is excellent applied to all sorts of cuts and cracks.”
You heard it here first folks.
Heron is no longer legal game and therefore no longer eaten – as far as I know. However, if you have any stories to prove me wrong, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.
The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May
The Boke of Keruynge (1513) by Wyknyn de Worde in Early English Meals and Manners (1868) edited by Frederick James Furnivall
Forme of Cury (c.1400) in Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (1985) edited by Constance B Hieatt and Sharon Butler
Such a mortality of men in England and Scotland through famine and pestilence as had not been heard of in our time.
The Chronicle of Lanercost1272-1346
In the autumn and winter of 1314, Britain experienced a period of extreme wet and “bizarre” weather; torrential rain flooded the fields, rotting crops and drowning livestock. The staple food of the time was of course bread, but the ‘daily’ bread was becoming more and more scarce as stored grains either went mouldy or were “innutritious”. In a good year, one might expect a good return on grain planted: for each grain sown, you could get up to seven grains back. In 1315 the return was devasting: now you reaped one grain for every two planted – had they known it, they would have been better off not sowing seeds in the spring, but of course they did not know that this spell of bad weather would devastate crops for almost two years.
What could be causing this? Naturally at this time, all eyes turned to God – it was obvious He was punishing the English, but what could they have done to deserve this? One answer could be found in the King’s Vita. Edward II was on the throne, and at this time all kings had a running commentary-cum-almanac written about them and their times called a Vita, and his Vita placed the finger of blame directly on the English people themselves. Apparently, the English “excel other nations in three qualities in pride, craft and in perjury. All of this comes from the wickedness of the inhabitants.”
In reality, it wasn’t just the English who were affected by the weather, it was widespread, hitting the whole of the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany and West Poland. At the time, each country seemed to think the ordeal was happening only to them, and all of them insularly blamed their own nations for their own personal famines.
During winter of 1314/5 people quickly realised that if they were to keep aside some of their grain to sow in the springtime there was very little spare to grind into flour for bread. This was not uncommon; England is, after all, wet and warm a lot of the time. Things usually picked up the next year and as long as there were some seed and livestock reserved for the new farming year all would be well. The problem was the weather did not change in the springtime and produced next to no crops. It was obvious a real famine was on its way.
In response to this, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, ordered Parish Churches throughout the realm to partake in some ‘solemn processions’ in an attempt to curry favour with God. King Edward and his Parliament tried something a little more practical and attempted to stave off, or at least put off, the famine by rationing and regulating food prices so that everyone could get at least something. Parliament fixed the price of wheat, sheep, cattle, chickens and eggs. It cost 12 shillings for ‘a live fat cow’ and a penny for two dozen hens’ eggs.
This was a great idea in theory, but in reality, it was a disaster; there was so little food that traders’ and farmers’ businesses were no longer viable. Things really were at a stretch, even the King, when he turned up with his household at St Albans for a visit, something that kings loved to do – they would turn up with their entourage and expect their hosts to house, feed and water them opulently. It was a great honour to have this thrust upon you, and dukes and earls of the land all dreaded finding out the King was coming to them. They knew the royal party would clean them out and have them haemorrhaging money for the entire period. Well not this time – August 1315 – for his host could barely find enough bread to feed them.
As the year progressed price fixing was ditched, and prices increased hugely. Now, a quarter barrel of wheat (a bit under 13 kg) rose in price from five shillings to forty shillings, and all you were getting for a penny now was “2 little onions”. By 1216 there had been two years without a harvest and the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to sell his holy relics to pay for food.
If you didn’t fancy your chances stealing food, you could have a stab at some foraging. The trouble was much of the undeveloped lands were boggy and filled with rotting vegetation too. People tried digging up roots, eating grass and even the bark from trees.*
Sheep and cattle were killed from outbreaks of ‘murrain’ (a highly virulent disease, probably food-and-mouth); in Berwick, starving soldiers boiled and ate the carcasses of their diseased horses for sustenance. Animals all around the country died in their thousands, and the people literally could not eat them fast enough. In a normal year when animals were killed their meat was cured in salt to preserve it, but because of the extreme weather it was too wet to dry salt, causing a shortage making it extremely expensive so they rotted.
For England, it was worst in the north (it is ‘grim Up North’, after all). Northumbria had to deal with constant raids from starving Scots and were reduced to eating “dogs and horses and other unclean things”. There was even talk of cannibalism: “others stole new-born babies to devour.” Hopefully this story was apocryphal.
One in twenty died during the famine but for those who survived, insult was added to injury because a “great pestilence” came and devasted a population weak with malnutrition and dysentery. The next year would improve a little, and in 1318 there was bountiful harvest. However, it took years for the livestock population to recover from murrain. As for the people, they were affected by cold winters, poor harvests and disease much more than before the famine; the Great Famine had left Europe in a weakened state for several decades and “[t]here would be really no sustained growth for a hundred years.” Quite so, because little did they know that soon Europe would be hit by its first wave of the Black Death, which devasted those countries hit by the Famine even harder that the rest.
Today, we cannot imagine being at the mercy of the elements like this; with modern technology and farming methods, we reckon these events are things of the past – in the Western World at least. To some degree I am sure it is true, but today we have never been so UNaware of how our food is grown and processed. I wonder just how many narrow squeaks we have had. I expect they are not infrequent.
*this might seem a little far-fetched, but deer commonly strip and eat the bark and its inner green layer in times of hardship such as wintertime. I wonder if folk observed this behaviour and thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try too.
For centuries, the British were famous for their roast meat, attached to a spit before being hand-turned by some poor soul in front of a devilishly hot fire. We no longer do this, today we cook them in the oven, so technically they are baked meats not roasted ones. Searching for historical recipes for roast chicken is rather tricky: they were rarely roasted – they were a dependable source of eggs after all – so only chickens that stopped laying were eaten, those so-called ‘old boilers’. Instead, capons provided tender meat; these castrated cockerels were put to good, being otherwise surplus to requirement. Unfortunately, in today’s mass production of eggs, male chicks are killed as soon as they can be sexed.
When you do find a recipe, there is little focus on the roasting itself. Check out this recipe for ‘Chicken Endored’ from around 1450:
Take a chicken, draw it and roast it; let the feet be on and take away the head. Then make a batter of egg yolks and flour, and add to it ground ginger and pepper, saffron and salt, and spread it over until it is roasted enough.
By the eighteenth century, there is little more instruction, but we do at least get a cooking time:
To roast young chickens, pluck them very carefully, draw them, only cut off the claws, truss them, and put them down to a good fire. Singe, dust and baste them with butter, they will take a quarter of an hour roasting. Then…lay them on your dish.
We can only assume that the roasting part of the process was already in the readers’ skill set.
My recipe is below, but there are a few things I should mention first: First, never wash your chicken! It’s unhygienic and it will stop the skin crisping up. Second, do not overcook and don’t fear the salmonella; follow the times and temperatures precisely and you will be grand. Thirdly, use plenty of butter and bacon to season the bird and keep moist. I make a flavoured butter for the roasting, but using just butter will still produce great results.
1 free-range chicken
100 g butter, softened
Salt and pepper
Any flavourings you like: e.g. 1 to 4 finely chopped cloves of garlic, 1 tsp chopped thyme or lemon thyme, truffle trimmings, chopped rosemary, grated zest half a lemon, chopped olives, anchovies or capers, ½ tsp smoked paprika. The list really is endless.
8 rashers of dry cured bacon, smoked or unsmoked
100 ml white wine
300 ml chicken stock
1 tbs cornflour
Remove the chicken from the fridge and hour before you want to roast it. Untruss it and preheat the oven to 190°C.
Mash the butter with the salt and pepper using a fork and stir in the flavouring ingredients, if using. Set aside.
Sit the chicken on a board, untruss it and turn it so that the cavity is facing you and carefully lift the skin away from the breasts. The technique is to insert the tips of your middle three fingers gingerly underneath the skin lifting it away from one breast, using your other hand to keep the skin taught, lest it tears. Repeat for the other breast
Next, place the flavoured butter under the skin, massaging it so to evenly distribute it over the breasts.
Make sure there is plenty under there, but reserve around a quarter of it to spread it over the legs. Next, lay the rashers of bacon over the bird so they overlap only slightly.
Weigh the chicken then pop it on a roasting tin. Don’t be tempted to truss it. Calculate the cooking time: 45 minutes per kilo plus 15 minutes and place in the oven.
Leave undisturbed for 30 minutes, and then baste with any butter that has melted and leaked from the bird. Tip to one side, so that buttery juices come out of the chicken. Baste with the juices every 20 minutes or so, and when the bacon is sufficiently crisp, remove it and let the bird roast without its porky jacket for the remaining time.
Remove and check its cooked all of the way through by easing the leg away from the body, it should be filled with delicious, clear juices. If unsure, use a sharp knife to test the juices are clear in thickest part of the leg. If they are tinged with pink, roast ten more minutes.
Remove the tender chicken – be careful it may start to collapse a bit, so be swift and use a fish slice and a pair of tongs to help you guide it to a board safely and all in one piece. Cover with foil to rest while you make the gravy.
Tip the juices into a jug and allow to settle for a few minutes. Place the roasting tin over a medium-high heat and brown any delicious detritus that remains in the roasting tin. Deglaze with the wine, scraping off any brown bits with a wooden spoon, then tip the whole lot into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile skim away most of the fat from the chicken juices and pour them into the pan along with the stock. Bring to a boil and let it bubble away for ten minutes so it reduces a little.
Now slake the cornflour with a few tablespoons of cold water and whisk it briskly into the gravy. Give it a couple of minutes to thicken, and if it seems on the thin side, slake a little more; it’s all down to preference, I prefer a thin gravy.
Check for seasoning and leave on a low heat whilst you get everything ready.
To carve the chicken I find it easiest to remove the legs first, cutting them at the knee to give two thighs and two drumsticks, and then cutting each breast away in one piece, cutting them into four or five thick pieces.
Arrange them on a warmed serving plate and don’t forget to serve the bacon.
The Culinary Recipes of Medieval England (2013) compiled and translated by Constance B Hieatt
The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) Elizabeth Raffald
It is as hard to achieve the right shape and texture, crust and crumb, of an authentic cottage loaf as it is to reproduce true French baguette bread.
Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977
The cottage loaf is a vintage classic, and as far as I can see, a bread unique to England. I would say that most people have heard of one but have never clapped eyes on one in real life. I don’t think I have, my only interaction being with the salt dough loaf one that was part of the play shop my infant school teacher Mrs Bareham put together in the early 1980s. If you are not familiar with one, a cottage loaf is made up of two cobs – i.e. ball-shaped loaves – stacked one on top of the other, the upper loaf around half the size of the bottom one. The shape is curious, making even slicing difficult, which I suppose wouldn’t matter if you are just tearing off rustic chunks to dunk in your stew.
I’ve been meaning to have a go making one for years, but Elizabeth David writing in her classic tome English Bread and Yeast Cookery talked of how fiendishly difficult it is to make and impossible to reproduce at home. That is, unless you are Virginia Woolf, who made an excellent one. These days we have rather more time at home than usual, so I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a waste of time if it turned out to be a disaster. Then, I saw a tweet alluding to its trickiness from Foods of England, so I considered the gauntlet to have officially been thrown down.
I had a look into the history of it with a little trepidation, half expecting it to be a food with no vintage at all like the Ploughman’s Lunch. I needn’t have worried – it turns out to be an invention of the early nineteenth century at least, and a picture of one a little later in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). They were originally baked directly on the bottom of low, flat brick bread ovens like many cobs, muffins and breadcakes are still baked today. There were no shelves in these ovens, unlike modern combi-ovens, meaning one was rather restricted in the area one could bake crusty cobs. That’s where the upper loaf comes in for it made a larger loaf – two really – without taking up extra precious space on the oven bottom. It all makes perfect sense now.
The trick to making a cottage loaf is to keep that top piece from falling off during proving and baking, though it does need to lean slightly to one side, says Ms David, like a jaunty hat. But, you can’t just sit one on top of the other, you have to fix it in place by taking floured fingers and plunging them through the top and bottom cobs two or three times. That’s what Paul Hollywood says anyway, Elizabeth David does the same, but proves the two loaves separately then attaches them in a similar way but includes extra cuts, crosses and a lot of manhandling. No wonder she found it difficult. Seeing as her baking recipes are hit-and-miss at the best of times, went for the Hollywood method.
Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt and the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the warm water into the well along with the butter or oil.
Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook on a mixer to bring it together. Knead well until the dough becomes tight and springy, around 5 minutes in a mixer, or 10 or so minutes if kneading by hand. It will be sticky, but persevere; sprinkle a little flour or a smear a little olive oil on your work surface if you like. Bundle the dough into a tight ball and place in an oiled bowl and cover to allow it to double in volume in a warm place.
When ready, press out the air and cut away a third of the dough. On a lightly-floured work surface, make the cob shape by forming a ball with the dough by tucking your hands under it, tightening the dough. If you twist the ball of dough slightly as you do this, it will be extra tight. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
Dust a baking sheet with flour and set aside.
Sit the small loaf directly on top of the large one, flour the first three fingers of one hand and plunge them right down through the dough right to worktop surface. Repeat one more time and your two pieces should be well-fused together.
At this point you can make some cuts with a sharp serrated knife, but to do so you have to pick it up, so avoid this step if you think it might be too risky. Sit in on the floured baking tray and cover with a large bag and leave to prove again, until twice the size and springy to the touch.
To achieve a really good crust, set your oven to 220°C as you wait for the loaf to prove and sit a roasting tin on the bottom of the oven. When the loaf is ready to go in, boil the kettle and place the loaf on the middle shelf, pull out the roasting tin a little and pour in the water – careful of the steam! – and quickly shut the door.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.
As it turns out it’s not that tricky in the end, and it even leaned to one side without falling off just like Beeton’s!
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David
This week I made the great achievement of accruing one million views on British Food: a History, so this is just a very quick post to say thank you for subscribing to the blog, for reading and commenting on my posts and for cooking the recipes I put out there, even the weird ones!
A lot has happened in the last (almost) ten years since I started it – way back when I was living in St Louis as an evolutionary biologist – and there have been some major ups and downs between now and then. At low points I barely posted, but now I’m back in the swing and so chuffed about the lovely comments and discussions that get going on the blog.
All this writing has even landed me with a book commission which I am working on right now*, plus a smattering of recent television jobs. The podcast series which started earlier in the year (and will return once the book is written) was well received too it seems, so hopefully things are on the up, or will be once we have adjusted to our post-covid lives, whatever that will entail.
I know that none of this would be happening if you were not reading it, so thanks again! I’ll be toasting you all (or maybe wassailing you all?) this evening.
*obviously not right now, I’m writing this right now.