Welcome to my first episode all about the history of Lent in Britain. There will be a new episode every Sunday throughout Lent, and over the weeks we will be looking at it from every direction possible.
I’m having great fun making it and it has been amazing to get help and support from Beena Khetani at the amazing Sonder Radio.
A huge thanks to David Walker, Bishop of Manchester for giving up his time to talk to me, and to my pals Kate and Pete for letting me take over their kitchen.
Most of all, thanks to you for listening – if you have anything to add about anything you hear, feel free to post a comment, tweet me (@neilbuttery) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scroll down for a more description of the episode as well as some useful links and photos.
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In episode one we start our historical journey through Lent, the Sunday before it begins by finding out what Lent (and indeed Easter) is with the help from the Very Reverend David Walker Bishop of Manchester, where we discuss what Lent and Easter means in the Christian Church, the benefits of fasting, how Lent has changed over the centuries, and how eating world’s largest rodent during Lent is absolutely fine (if you live in Venezuela).
Neil then tell us all about Shrovetide. Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, is the best-known day of Shrovetide of course, but what about its forgotten partner Shrove Monday, aka Collop Monday? You’ll have to listen to find out.
Neil then cooks two different pancakes: ‘Pancakes for the Rich’ and ‘Pancakes for the Poor’ for a couple of his friends Kate and Pete who are used to him shoving historical food under their noses all the time. They discuss the correct way to eat a pancake, what the best toppings and reminisce about that classic Jif Lemon advert from days long gone as well as Yvette Fielding’s massive pancake fail on Blue Peter.
Once well and truly shriven, we gather ourselves and head on to the first day of the 40-day fast Ash Wednesday.
Hello lovely readers. Just a little post to let you all know that British Food: A History will be releasing its first podcast!
Season 1 is called Lent and the first episode comes out the Sunday before Lent starts – the 23rd February 2020 with new episodes out during every Sunday throughout Lent.
Just like my blog posts, the podcast will have plenty of food history and recipes, but mixed in their will be science, evolutionary biology, natural history and anthropology, as I look at how Lent has been like for people: the hardships, the special events, the lost and forgotten celebrations and practices. I’ve written about Lent and Easter a few times on the blog before, so go and have a look-see if you fancy.
A new tab has appeared on the website where I’ll be posting loads of background bit, photos sand extra material as well as links to each episode of course.
You guys can get involved too – if you don’t follow me on Twitter, find me – @neilbuttery – and post your thoughts and if you have any extra information and facts, or questions, let me know there. Alternatively, email me at email@example.com
It would be great if you could listen and get involved. Don’t forget to keep an eye out on the Lent Podcast tab on 23rd February.
I have been meaning to write a post on this excellent cookbook for quite a while, and it is such a shame that my prompt to pull my finger out was the sad and untimely death of Gary Rhodes at the end of last year.
When I was asked to submit my list of favourite cookbooks to the 1000 Cookbooks project, I put New British Classics as my number one choice, my comment at the time being: “simply the best book on British food around. Everything from lowly haslet to lobster.”
Favourite recipes include salad cream, lardy cake, prawn cocktail, rhubarb and rack-on-black – lamb roasted with black pudding.
My favourite books on food tend to be by food writers rather than professional chefs because they write about their love of food and its importance in our culture and history. Chefs tend to be, well, cheffy; there’s no evocative description of the hustle and bustle of a French market, and they assume that you want to be cooking restaurant-level food at home. This is where Rhodes was different – sure there are cheffy dishes like the very complex rich pigeon faggot – but there are basics such as fried bread, porridge and jam roly-poly. Everything is represented and everything has equal billing, meaning that whatever your ability level there is a way in. You can start off with basics like scrambled eggs or go straight in at the deep end with pigs’ trotters Bourguignonne.
The full gamut of British food is here: fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, pork faggots, white pudding, Welsh rarebit, and the massive range of techniques contained within makes it the most comprehensive book of British recipes there is. What’s more, every single recipe works perfectly; he goes through every stage, assuming you know nothing but never patronises. If you don’t own a copy and you’re interested in cooking British food, it really is essential.
The secret to his success was his attention to detail. Every move made, and technique used was meticulous and done with deftness, even the way he picked up an ingredient to show to camera had an air of precision about it. Take a look at this clip from the accompanying BBC programme, where he shows us how to make cabbage and bacon soup, and you’ll see what I mean:
He was a classically trained chef who applied French techniques to classic British dishes, taking them to new heights while keeping them authentic. His approach definitely rubbed off on me when I was teaching myself to cook; use the best ingredients and don’t cut corners, every stage is there for a reason, so you need to understand why it is there. Only when that penny drops will you develop a cook’s intuition. This approach to cooking won him his first Michelin star at the age of 26, eventually receiving an OBE for services to the hospitality industry in 2006.
On television, he was very enthusiastic, polite and well-spoken; he seemed a little odd and socially awkward (as all the best people are), making him all the more endearing. He got me interested in cooking and wanting to spend my precious leisure time in the kitchen, learning new techniques and tackling novel ingredients.
He was rarely off the telly during the late 1900s and early 2000s, his trademark spiky hair and over-enthusiasm caused many to pooh-pooh him as gimmicky. Eventually the fickle eye of entertainment focused upon other, younger chefs and so he stopped appearing so regularly. But his books and their accompanying TV shows are great; his Rhodes Around Britain and Cookery Year series are worth checking out too (his apple pie recipe from the latter is the best in world in my opinion).
He died on the 26 November 2019 at the age of 59 from head injuries after a fall – no way or age to go, I’m sure you’ll agree. Of course, when someone dies, there work is revaluated and I hope people recognise what he did for British cuisine, because he put it on a pedestal when everyone else was looking elsewhere.
He was ‘discovered’ on the Keith Floyd programme Floyd on Britain & Ireland. On the segment he makes his signature dish: braised oxtails. Ironically, by the time New British Classics was published his most famous dish was illegal to eat – cooking beef on the bone was banned because of health fears surrounding the BSE crisis. Eventually the ban was lifted, and I could make it for myself. Back in my pop-up restaurant days it was the main course at my first everOdd Bits offal evening.
This is my version of Gary’s signature dish; it’s slightly simplified but just as gutsy. It really is one of the most delicious things you will ever cook. Nothing else needs to be said – except ‘cook it’!
Enough for 6
2 oxtails, trimmed of excess fat
Salt and pepper
Around 100 g each carrot, onion, celery and leek
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
2 tbs tomato purée
Small bunch thyme and rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic, crushed
300ml red wine
1 litre beef stock
Season the oxtails and fry in dripping until well browned, transfer to an ovenproof pot, then fry the vegetables until nicely brown too. Tip those into the pot along with the tomatoes, garlic and herbs and bring to a simmer. Pour the wine into the original pan and reduce until almost dry. Add to the pot with the stock.
Simmer very gently on the hob or braise in an oven set to 160⁰C. Whichever you choose, it needs to tick away for 3 hours.
Remove the cooked meat and keep warm and pass the cooking liquor through a conical strainer, really pressing the vegetables hard to get all the flavour out.
Throw in a big handful of ice cubes, and stir so they freeze the fat; you should be able to lift out ice and fat in one nice big satisfying lump.
Reduce the liquor to a sauce and season with more salt and pepper, then add back the oxtails to heat through.
As you may know, I like to write a boozy post at this time of year and this year’s is small but perfectly formed: the Christmassy and rather kitsch classic, the Snowball, a blend of the Dutch egg yolk-based liqueur Advocaat and lemonade.
A lot of people think Snowballs are a bit naff, but I love them. The problem is that they can be too sweet and cloying, but that’s because folk don’t realise that there are two other very important ingredients – brandy and fresh lime juice. They both cut through the custardy sweet Advocaat and subtly transform it. I recommend you go out and buy the ingredients right now!
The Snowball cocktail was invented in the 1940s but didn’t become popular until the 1970s, where it was stripped of all sophistication by those who used only Advocaat and lemonade, missing out the ingredients they supposed to be superfluous producing the sickly cocktail we all know today.
Advocaat is a Dutch liqueur. Its name is a bit of a mystery; most reckon it comes from the Dutch word for advocate or lawyer. The 1882 edition of the Dictionary of the Dutch Language says it is ‘…a good lubricant for the throat and thus considered especially useful for a lawyer, who must speak in public.’
There is another theory that it was originally made by 17th-Century Dutch settlers in the Americas using creamy avocados, sugar and rum. I am assuming that because this is the most exciting story of the two that it is the apocryphal one. Occam’s Razor and all that…
Anyway, I hope you have a great Christmas – and a good few PROPER Snowballs.
25 ml (1 shot) Advocaat
12.5 ml (a ½ shot) brandy
Juice ¼ of a lime
Around 75 ml lemonade
To garnish: a thin slice of lime
Pour the Advocaat, brandy and lime juice in a cocktail shaker and add plenty of ice.
Shake well and strain into glasses. Add a single ice cube per glass and top up with a little lemon (it will fizz up!).
I was supposed have written and posted this for Hallowe’en,
but then life got in the way. Hey-ho.
I found an excellent old story that goes right back to Anglo-Saxon
times and I thought would recount it for you.
Gather round for…
The Tale of TheDragon of Knucker Hole
The Knucker – a type of water-dragon – sat in its
bottomless pool in Lyminster, Sussex. It had been terrorising the village for
weeks by eating its cattle, men and fair maidens. The townspeople were
terrified of the beast and they hardly dared leave their homes.
Lyminster, Sussex (westsussex.info)
King of Sussex one day declared, “Whoever can rid us of
this Knucker, shall be greatly rewarded.”
The only person brave – or perhaps foolish – enough to take the King up on his offer was one Jim Pattock who, one day, made the biggest Sussex pudding you have ever seen. It was so huge that he had to heave it into his cart so his horse could pull it the dragon’s pool.
The Knucker was snoozing, heard a distant rumbling sound
and opened one eye only to see some idiot walking right into his lair. He rose.
“What you got there?” boomed the Knucker.
A rather cute looking Knucker for the Dragonology book Series
“Pudden”, said Jim.
The Knucker looked over the pudding, gave it a sniff and
promptly devoured the pudding, cart and horse in one single bite!
“Bring me more!” demanded the Knucker.
Off home he trotted; he knew the dragon would ask for
more Sussex pudding because it is so delicious. He made another pudding just as
big as the last one and dragged it over to the Knucker hole.
The dragon licked his lips and devoured it, but then the
dragon suddenly came over with the collywobbles.
“I don’t feel so good”, the Knucker grumbled and slumped
Jim Pattock rushed in as though he was going to help the terrible
creature, but that is not what he was doing it all. Instead, he pulled out his
axe from behind his back and cleaved the water dragon’s head clean from its
Jim returned to the town of Lyminster triumphantly
holding the Knucker’s head high and was hailed a hero by the townspeople and
richly rewarded by the King.
Now you know what to do should you live near a pool
should a Knucker make its home there.
So there you go: I would tread carefully if you live near a
lake or pond because it might be a Knucker hole too! The moral, I suppose, is
beware that second helping of pud.
In another version of this story, Jim laces the second
pudding (or pie in some versions) with poison, killing the dragon. When he gets
back to the town, he is bought a huge flagon of ale, but has some of the poison
on his hands and dies! Poor old Jim.
The word knucker, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word nicor, which means water dragon, and there were many similar stories told around the country. In Yorkshire for example, the dragon is fed by Billy Bite when the dragon steals his delicious parkin. The Knucker demands more and his rather belligerent wife is so angry with him she brings the parkin to the dragon who promptly eats both gingerbread and wife.
The parkin is very sticky and gets it all over his teeth
“clinging so lovely like ivy-bine”, the Knucker is distracted and is quickly
done away with by some of the townspeople.
The moral here is beware of sticky gingerbread, I suppose.
I quite like this version as it subverts the usual tale of
the hero saving the townspeople; poor old hen-pecked Billy is completely
passive in the story, yet is responsible – albeit indirectly – for the riddance
of the foul beast.
Cornish splits are soft and pillowy enriched bread rolls and were the original cakey element of the Cornish cream tea. Bread rolls such as these were – and indeed are– eaten all around the country. There were Devonshire chudleighs, Yorkshire cakes and Guernsey biscuits, for example. But it was the people of Devon and Cornwall who combined them with clotted cream and jam.
These light, fluffy rolls are enriched with butter and are
made extra soft by being made with milk rather than water and are covered with
a tea towel as soon as they come out of the oven – the captured steam softening
the exterior crust. Once cooled – or better, just warm – the rolls are not cut
open, but split open with the fingers, hence their name.
Of course, the cream tea as we know today it is made up a scone, clotted cream and jam. Some places sell them made with whipped cream, but that will not do. The phrase ‘cream tea’ meaning a scone/split with jam and cream (as opposed to tea with cream in) seems to be relatively modern – the earliest printed reference of one coming from a 1932 article in The Cornishman newspaper (see foodsofengland.com). The earliest mention of a combination of jam, cream and bread eaten together pops up in the Devon town Tavistock’s accounts dating from the tenth century!
Cutting from The Cornishman, Thursday 3rd September 1931 (foodsofengland.com)
Some establishments in Cornwall still serve a split instead
of a scone in their cream teas, but they are few and far between. Many folk
reckon that the split is superior to the scone in a cream tea, the scone winning
out by virtue of it being much quicker and easier to make. The Devonians apparently
turned to scones before the Cornish, presumably because Cornwall is more
cut-off. So, we have a situation where the rivalry between the two lands can be
stoked. The Cornish can claim they invented the cream tea because they invented
the split, but the Devonians can claim they invented it because they came up
with the cream tea we think of today.
The bakery where I grew up in Pudsey, West Yorkshire sold Cornish
splits filled with whipped cream, thin seedless raspberry jam and lots of icing
sugar. I used to love them, so I was keen to make them myself and have a proper
Cornish cream tea.
This enriched dough is a little trickier to work with than regular white bread dough, but you can make it by hand without things becoming too much of a horrible sticky mess. I prefer to use the dough hook these days I must admit. I use strong bread flour to gain a nice rise, but older recipes use regular plain flour; feel free to use it too, but whilst your splits will be more historically authentic, they will be less light for it: your choice!
Makes 12 splits:
500 g white strong bread flour
8 g instant yeast
10 g salt
60g caster sugar
75 g softened butter
280 g warm milk
I’ve written before about making and forming bun dough in more detail before, so if there’s too much brevity here, click this link.
Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar in a bowl. Make a well and
add the butter and then the milk. If you have a food mixer with a dough hook, mix
slowly to combine, then turn up to speed 4 and knead for around 6 minutes or
until the dough has become tight and smooth and no longer sticky.
You can of course do all of this by hand, using a little
flour for kneading at first until the dough loses its stickiness.
Using your hand, form the dough into a tight ball, pop in a
lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave
somewhere warm until it doubles in size, which could take 90 minutes depending
upon the ambient temperature.
When ready, divide into 12 equal sized pieces, form them
into balls and arrange on a baking sheet. Cover with a large plastic bag or tub
and wait for them to prove. Once doubled in size again – it should take much
less time than the first rising – place in a cold oven and turn it to 200°C.
Bake for 25 minutes, but if at any point, the splits look like they getting too
brown, turn the temperature down to 175°C.
When ready, remove from the oven to cooling tray and quickly
place clean tea towels over the buns to prevent them crisping up.
When cold, you can sprinkle with sugar if you like, then slice
or split and fill with jam and cream.
There’s nothing more Cornish than a good blob of clotted
cream on a lovely cream tea. Unless you are from Devon of course, then there’s
nothing more Devonian than a good blob of clotted cream on a lovely cream tea.
For those not in the know, clotted cream is a very thick
cream with a much higher butterfat content than double (heavy) cream; weighing
in at 64% and 48% respectively (for comparison, single cream is 18% fat, and
full-fat milk is around 4%).
Clotted cream has a long history in Devon and Cornwall, and
it is reckoned that it was first introduced to England by Phoenician settlers around
2000 years ago. Phoenicia was on the eastern Mediterranean coast in, what is
now Syria, Lebanon and northern Isreal. The clotting of cream was a way of
preserving buffalo milk. By removing the watery liquid, leaving mainly
butterfat, the growth of spoilage organisms is retarded. The folk of Devonshire
knew of its efficacy in this area; it was said that not even a witch’s breath
could turn it sour.
If you have ever tried it, you will know that clotted cream
– aka clouted cream or scalded cream in older books – is absolutely delicious
and is well worth buying. It is possible to make your own and there is a recipe
at the end of the post of you would to try your hand at it.
The best thing about it is the buttery, nutty crust that
forms on the top as part of the manufacturing process. It is made by gently
heating rich milk or cream in large shallow pans to a temperature of 80 to 90°C,
the heat traditionally coming from cinders or charcoal. Once the buttery crust
had formed, it was carefully but quickly moved to a cool place and sat upon
some slate so make the cooling process as rapid as possible; the cold shocking
the thin skimmed milk into sinking quickly and making a layer underneath the
thick cream. These days, it’s all done with centrifuges, which is rather less
Once completely cooled, the clotted cream was lifted away
with cold, wet hands and mixed in cold, wet wooden bowls to remove the last of
the watery milk. It was then layered up in pots. I found a 1755 home recipe
from an Elizabeth Cleland who recommended sprinkling rose water and sugar
between the layers – the result must have been delicious!
The left-over skimmed milk, by the way, was taken away and
either drank or used to make scones or Devonshire splits.
From the point of view of butterfat extraction, clotted
cream is a much more efficient method than basic skimming techniques. The
reason it is not the standard technique, I assume, is that double skimming requires
no heating or centrifuges, tipping the balance of economy in double cream’s
favour. Couple this with the fact that modern refrigeration and pasteurisation
is doing the lion’s share of the preserving today means that the process of
clotting cream is no longer required for that purpose. We eat it for the sheer
love of it (ditto smoked fish and meat).
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management says that
there are two types of clotted cream: Devonshire and Dutch. She goes on to
explain the difference – Dutch clotted cream is thick enough to stand a spoon
up in. Now, in my (humble) opinion, it ain’t clotted cream unless you
can stand a spoon up in it, so I can only conclude that English clotted cream –
at least from a Victorian Londoner’s point of view – was relatively runny
compared to that of today’s
Clotted cream is used to make ice cream, some biscuits and as a topping to the old-fashioned pudding Devonshire junket, a sweetened milk dessert set with rennet, producing curds and whey. It can be used to enrich sauces and soups too but use with caution – things can end up too rich.
Rodda’s is the largest producer of clotted cream and is based in Cornwall. There is much debate between the folk of Devon and Cornwall as to whether the cream should be added before or after the jam. Nick Rodda reckons his grandfather knew why:
We always put our cream on top because we are proud of it, Devonians are slightly ashamed of theirs, so they cover it up with their jam.
I must confess to siding with the Devonians on this one.
It’s all down to what you think the buttery cream’s role is. The argument goes
something like this:
The Cornish: it is the cream, and you wouldn’t put cream under
your fruit salad/trifle/fruit tart etc, now would you?
The Devonians: it is the butter, and you wouldn’t spread
butter over the jam on your toast/crumpet/muffin etc, now would you?
Home-Made Clotted Cream
All you need to make your own is some double cream, an oven
Preheat your oven to 80°C. Pour around 1 litre of
double cream into a wide, shallow ovenproof dish, place it in the oven and
leave in there for 12 hours. If you are really patient, leave for 18 hours to
achieve a darker, more delicious caramel-flavoured crust.
Carefully remove from the oven, cover with kitchen foil and
pop straight into the fridge to cool quickly and undisturbed.
Once fully chilled, lift the clotted cream from the dish and
layer up in pots. I filled three good-sized ramekins with mine. The amount of
skimmed milk at the bottom will vary depending upon how long you left the cream
in the oven for.
The cream keeps for 7 days in the fridge.
Clotted Cream, RS Chavan, A Kumar & S Bhatt,
2016, In Encyclopedia of Food and Health
As promised, some Cornish recipes and I start with a classic. Cornish pasties are a simple combination of chopped (not minced) beef, potatoes, turnips and onions. It’s seasoned well – especially with black pepper and baked in shortcrust pastry. You can moisten it with a bit beef stock and season it further with some thyme leaves if there’s some hanging around, but you really don’t need to. Sometimes you may find some carrot in your pasty, if you do, thrown it back the face of the person who gave you it, because there is no place for carrot a Cornish pasty.
Cornish pasties were given to Cornish tin miners or field-workers so they could slip one into their pockets and eat them for lunch, the thick crimp being a useful handle protecting it from dirty fingers. The meat-to-vegetable ratio varied depending upon what folk could afford at the time. It don’t think it should be too meaty, but if you disagree simply alter my proportions in the recipe below.
Also, for a Cornish pasty the crimp must go down the side,
not over the top, as you might see in some bakeries. That is a Devonshire
pasty, I believe.
As discussed in the comments in my previous post, these pasties did not have a sweet filling at one end and a savoury one at the other. What you have there is Bedfordshire clanger, but I’m sure you knew that.
One final thing, some advice from Jane Grigson: “Cornish
pasties are pronounced with a long a”. We use a short a Up North,
and I refuse to change.
If you’ve never made a pasty in your life, this is the one
to start with; the ingredients are raw so there is no messy gravy and juices
getting everywhere and making things difficult. It seems too simple to be delicious,
but it is. The secret is in the seasoning. I use a rounded teaspoon of salt,
but you can use less; be warned though, use no or little salt, and you will
have a bland stodge-fest before you, my friend.
On the subject of salt, notice the crazy amount of salt in
the egg wash – a good half-teaspoon of salt in your beaten egg provides a
strong and appetising shine to the final product. I believe that is, as the
kids say, a kitchen hack.
For 2 large or 4 medium-sized pasties:
For the shortcrust pastry:
400g plain flour
100g each salted butter and lard, diced
around 80g water
For the filling:
300g chuck, skirt or braising steak, gristle and fat removed
125g onion (a medium-sized one), chopped
125g turnip, peeled and thinly sliced
250g potato, peeled and thinly sliced
salt and freshy-ground black pepper
thyme, fresh or dried (optional)
4 tbs beef stock or water
1 egg beaten with ½ tsp salt
Begin with the pastry. Place the flour, butter and lard in a
mixing bowl. If you have an electric mixer, use the flat beater and turn on to
a low speed until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. If you are doing this by
hand, rub the fat into the flour with the tips of fingers. It shouldn’t take
longer than five minutes.
Trickle in the water with the mixer on its slowest speed and
stop it as soon as the dough comes together. If doing by hand, add half the
water and mix in with one hand, trickling in the rest of the water as you mix.
Either way the dough should some together and not feel
sticky – it shouldn’t stick to your worktop, but it will feel a little tacky.
Lightly flour your work surface and knead the pastry briefly.
This is where you may go wrong – over-kneading results in tough, shrinking
pastry. The way to tell you are done kneading is to pinch some of the dough
between your thumb and forefinger – it should just split around the edges when
you pinch it hard (see pic).
Cover the dough and pop in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.*
Meanwhile, get the filling ready. Place all the vegetables
and a good pinch of thyme if using in a large mixing bowl. Season and mix with
your hand, then add the meat, season that and then mix in. Remember to be generous
with the black pepper – add what you think is sufficient, then do a couple more
twists of the milk.
Remove the pastry from the fridge and split into two or four
equal pieces. Form into balls and roll each out on a lightly floured surface,
using a lightly floured rolling pin. I rolled out two large dinner plate sized
circles of dough to around 3mm thickness – that of a pound coin. Don’t worry if
they are a little wonky, they get tidied up as we go. That said, if it’s
looking more like a map of the Isle of Wight than a circle, you might want to
neaten up a little.
Now heap up the filling in a line just slightly off centre,
dividing equally between the circles of dough. Sprinkle with the beef stock or
water. Brush a semi-circle of egg wash down the edge nearest to the filling and
then fold the dough over leaving the dough beneath poking out by 5 or 10mm.
Next egg wash the side again and crimp down the edge – this makes things extra-secure as the filling
expands in the oven. To crimp, fold over one corner inwards with a finger, squidge
down the next section of pastry and repeat until you have worked all your way
around the pasty.
Place on a lined baking tray, egg wash the tops and poke in
a couple of holes with a sharp knife. Bake for 1 hour at 200°C,
turning down the temperature to 180°C once the pastry is golden brown,
around 20-30 minutes into the bake.
Remove and eat hot or cold.
*I will write a more in-depth method for pastry at some
Last month I managed to grab a little getaway to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom – Cornwall. I’ve always loved going there, having wonderful memories of holidaying in places like Newquay and Torquay as a child. It was only when I arrived that I realised that the last time I visited was August 1999, the year of the total eclipse of the Sun – twenty blinking years ago! I felt so old.
This time I visited with my partner, and avoided the obvious
holiday places, our headquarters being a picturesque seventeenth century
cottage in the lovely little town of Camelford. The nearest place to visit from
there is Tintagel with its ancient castle and apparent birthplace of the
mythical King Arthur. We also had a nosey round the Boscastle, which is worth
visiting for the eerie Museum of Witchcraft and Magic if nothing else. We
climbed Exmoor and hiked around the lovely harbour town Fowey (pronounced to
rhyme with joy). Padstow was on the itinerary too, where I had the best
fish and chips I’ve ever had.
For those of you not familiar with the geography of the UK, Cornwall is a county that takes up the tip of the long peninsula that makes up the very south-west of England. Because it is out on a limb, Cornwall feels different to the rest of England. The is due to the fact that the indigenous people – the Britons – were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century BCE. As a result they retained their own language, Cornish, just as the other unconquered Britons did such as the Welsh. It really does feel ancient and magical – and this coming from a devout atheist! It has wild and untouched landscapes, beautiful dramatic skies and a real connection with the past. It’s also great for foraging – I spotted wild cabbage, fennel, rock samphire, sea kale and rocket all lurking about the sandy and rocky beaches.
To the east of Cornwall is the county of Devon. The two have
a friendly rivalry (I’m sure this wasn’t always the case!) especially when it
comes to food, as you will see.
I tried to eat as many Cornish things as possible during our
three-night stay, so I thought I would write a quick guide to Cornish food and
follow it up with a few regional recipes.
The Cornish pastry is probably Cornwall’s most famous food. It’s a simple affair, containing beef, potato, turnip and onion, all generously seasoned with ground black pepper. On no account must you add carrot to your Cornish pasty, and the meat must be chopped, not minced. They are crimped down one edge; never have your crimp go across the top of the pasty, because what you have there is a Devonshire pastry, and that will never do. There are other pasties – or “oggies” as the are called colloquially, made with apples or jam. There’s also a squab pie which is made from lamb and apples.
One of my most favourite things in the world is a cream tea. It is made of a nice pot of tea, a scone (plain or fruit), jam and clotted cream. Now – this is very important – for a Cornish cream tea you apply the jam first and then the clotted cream, in Devon however, it’s cream first and then jam. Both counties believe that the other’s way is the work of heathens. Clotted cream is a very thick cream made by evaporating double cream over a very low heat, resulting in a cream that is butter-like in consistency and topped with an appetising pale crust. It is also used to make heavenly Cornish ice cream.
I’ve always found it odd that as an Island nation, we
British don’t really like fish. Cornwall lands some of the best quality fish
and seafood in the world, and yet its most identifies with a meat pasty. Cornwall
has particularly fine – and plentiful – crabs, and one of the best things
anyone could eat is dressed crab, brown bread, salted butter and fresh lemon.
You’ve to look for it to find it, but it is available.
An infamous dish in these parts is stargazy pie a simple
dish of sardines baked under a pastry crust. The fishes are boned, but their
little heads are left on so that they can peek out the pie’s edge looking up to
In Padstow, we visited Rick Stein’s fish and chip shop. Mr Stein (a food hero of mine) gets a hard time from the locals because he has so many businesses there; so much so, they have nicknamed it rather glibly ‘Padstein’. We didn’t get the chance to visit his restaurant, but we were not disappointed with the chip shop – I had the best cod and chips I have ever eaten. Beautifully crisp batter, creamy soft fish and proper made-from-scratch tartare sauce. Delish!
Another sweet treat made up of simply a bun made from a bread
dough enriched with sugar, egg and butter, filled with jam and whipped cream.
The grandfather to the doughnut, I would imagine.
Very popular – and very regional to the south-west are these
delicious little buns. They are very similar to a hot cross bun, except it
is a beautiful golden-yellow colour due to the healthy pinch of saffron which
is added to the mix.
There are other regional dishes too, such as hog’s pudding –
often found on a Cornish fried breakfast instead of black pudding. There is
Cornish heavy cake (aka hevva cake), which is similar to a the Chorley cakes
one finds in North West England, and the delicious cheese known as Yarg which
is similar to the Welsh cheese Caerphilly but is wrapped in nettle leaves.
Apologies if I have missed anything off – if you spot
anything, please add to the comments section below. I’ll be back soon with some
The last in a quartet of gooseberry posts – I promise I will change the subject next post.
In my honest, humble opinion this is the best
gooseberry dessert recipe. It’s old-fashioned and simple to make – gooseberries
are baked with a little brown sugar and a knob or two of butter, all covered in
cake sponge. The berries are still very sharp and are perfectly balanced with
the warm, sweet sponge. This is much more superior to the better-known Eve’s
pudding – stewed cooking apples covered in sponge cake. I suspect this would work
excellently with blackcurrants.
This recipe crops up in my traditional English or British cookery books, but I first heard of it from Jane Grigson (as I have many dishes) in her book English Food.
For the pudding, you can make any amount of topping, it’s
dependent upon whether you like a thin or thick layer of sponge and the
dimensions of your baking dish. I used a soufflé dish of diameter around 7
inches/18 centimetres. I think this is a good amount for this size, and for
most family-sized dishes.
The sponge is made using the all-in-one method, so make sure
your butter is extremely soft to ensure a light topping.
Scatter the sugar and dot the butter on the bottom of your
baking dish and cover with the gooseberries; you are aiming for a generous
single layer of them.
Place the butter, flour, caster sugar and eggs in a bowl and
beat together with an electric mixer until the mixture is smooth and
well-combined. Using a large spoon or spatula, add the cake batter in big
spoonfuls over the gooseberries and level it, you don’t have to be very neat
here, the baking batter will flatted itself out.
Place in the oven and bake for around an hour until the top
is a deep golden-brown colour.
Serve immediately with custard or lightly-whipped cream sweetened with a little icing sugar.