Category Archives: Britain

Elderflowers

There is no hedgerow glory finer than the elderflower

John Wright

One benefit of lockdown life is my daily hour-long meander around the green areas of Levenshulme. And at this time of year there is a real treat for those who like to forage; all I needed to do was to wait for a few dry, sunny and hot days in a row – something not that common in Manchester – and I could get my paws on probably the best foraged food, the elderflower. Patience was a virtue and last week the planets aligned, and I filled my boots. Well, my tote bag.

A freshly picked ‘hand’ of elderflowers

I love the taste of them so much and I am always disappointed if I don’t get hold of some at least once per year. The smell is heady with that earthy Muscat fragrance, and is a potent addition to many foods, classically partnered with the gooseberry. Elderflower syrups and cordials stretch back to at least Tudor times, and classic elderflower champagne seems to have become popular in the late Victorian era, peaking in popularity in the 1920s. If you have never cooked with them then you are missing a treat, but don’t worry, there is a good few weeks left of the season if you want to get hold of some – all we need are some more sunny days.

The elder has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and has a very interesting folklore; I plan to write a post on the Elder tree later in the year, so for now I’ll just talk about the flowers. Because the foliage and green stalks are mildly poisonous, elderflowers and leaves together have been used as a purgative since the days of Hippocrates. In Britain, it is traditionally used to sooth sore throats and reduce the intensity of flu symptoms. I don’t know if there is truth in any of that, but what I do know is that it has a positive effect on my mental health, so delicious is the uplifting aroma when introduced to all sorts of foods; and in these strange times we all need a mental health boost I’m sure you’ll agree.

A spindly elder tree

The elder is one of Europe’s most common trees and is an almost ubiquitous member of hedgerows and scrubland throughout Britain, only thinning out sparsely in the north of Scotland. It flowers between the months of late May and early July, the precise dates changing with latitude: the north being a good two weeks behind the south. At this time there are few trees you could confuse it with: the bark is pale, gnarly and often spindly and looks old beyond its years. At this time of year though, you smell it before you see it.

The flat arrangement of tiny cream coloured flowerheads are called ‘plates’ that also go under the name of curds, hands or (my favourite) slices of bread depending on where you are in the country. Pick them in the late afternoon after two or three days of dry sunny weather and give the flowers a good sniff to check they are full of fragrance. Snip the heads off with some scissors – aim to get between twelve and eighteen hands. Once collected, head on home and use them before their fragrance begins to dissipate.

Illustration of a flat plate of flowers, from Food in England, Dorothy Hartley

What you do with your elderflowers once home depends upon what you want to make. If they are not going to be heated up or cooked in any way, it’s important to snip away as much green stalk as possible because as mentioned the foliage is slightly poisonous. Whatever you do, don’t wash them; you’ll wash away the scent. Just check over them and pick off any insects that may be residing in amongst the blooms.

Picking elderflowers (pic: Stuart Kinlough)

Elderflowers are normally used to flavour foods, rather than as a food themselves, the only example I can think of where they are actually eaten is the elderflower fritter. When introducing them to hot liquids, snip away the stalks and tie the flowers up loosely in muslin and use it to flavour scalding hot cream or milk to make a delicious elderflower custard to pour over gooseberry pudding – or freeze it to make ice cream. I have made elderflower syllabub, blancmange and even Irish carrageen pudding, which once made it onto a seaside-themed pop-up restaurant back in the day. You can add it to cooking gooseberries if making a crumble, or pop some in toward the end of the cooking time when making gooseberry jam.

Making elderflower gin

Elderflower Gin

The best thing you can make by a country mile is elderflower gin and it is the simplest and quickest of the cold infusions. Because it doesn’t require any cooking, the true taste of the springtime hedgerow is perfectly preserved.

Snip between 12 and 18 elderflower heads into a large jar with a two tablespoons of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Seal the jar and give it a good swirl twice a day to dissolve the sugar. After three days, strain through a muslin-lined sieve into bottles and you are done. You can then enjoy the best gin and tonic of your life.

Elderflower Tom Collins:

We have now reached the pinnacle of deliciousness. This was not my idea, but my ex-business husband Mr Brian Mulhearn’s and it is very delicious. For one drink, you will need:

Ice

2 shots of elderflower gin

1 shot fresh lemon juice

½ – 1 shot gomme (stock sugar syrup)

Soda water

Place some ice in a cocktail shaker with the gin, juice and gomme to taste. Shake well and strain into a glass generously filled with ice. Top up with soda water. Bliss.

Variations:

For a liqueur far superior to St Germaine, make as for the gin, but use vodka and add between 120 and 150 g of sugar, depending upon the sweetness of your tooth.

For elderflower vinegar, make as for gin, using 500 ml of cider vinegar. Leave in a sunny spot for a week, swirling regularly. For a great salad, dress some rocket leaves and a few halved or quartered strawberries with the vinegar plus salt and plenty of black pepper. It makes an excellent accompaniment for poached salmon.

Elderflower Tom Collins

References:

Collins Tree Guide (2004), Owen Johnson & David More

Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabeth Country Cooking at Home (1986), Hilary Spurling

Food in England (1954), Dorothy Hartley

River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow (2010), John Wright

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Filed under Britain, food, foraging, General, natural history, Preserving, Recipes

Irish Treacle Bread

As I write this, we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. Everyone is baking bread and I must say it is lovely to see people making time to bake during these strange times. Many home bakers have resorted to making sourdough because one of the most difficult items to get hold of at the moment is bakers’ yeast. This is infuriating to regular bakers, as is the lack of string bread flour, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. Delicious Irish soda bread requires neither bread flour nor yeast, instead regular plain flour and a chemical raising agent. it’s perfect if the thought faffing about with sourdough starters is too much to bear. There are no proving stages and it is made in a trice, baking in just a little over half an hour.

Irish soda breads originated in eighteenth century America when settlers discovered that potash made an excellent instant chemical leavening agent. Forever ingenious, the early Americans worked out a way to refine the process easily and instead used bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). It caught on big time, especially because it meant travelling folk could made bread quickly and easily without the need to for long fermentations. It wasn’t before long that news of this magic raising agent got to Britain and Ireland.

Up until that point, the Irish and Scottish were used to dealing with very low gluten flours such as oat and barley, because they grow well in northern latitudes. Even flour made from wheat grown in Southern England had a low gluten content (our modern plain flour) and although great for pastry, it was never going to make the pillowy fluffy loaves that we think of as standard today; for that, high gluten flours imported from Canada were required. This lack of stretch from their doughs and batters prevented the slow-release bubbles produced by yeast from growing and remaining stable; it made much more sense to make unleavened breads and griddle cakes. These new baking soda leavened breads however, suited their low-gluten flours very well, and they were infinitely adaptable.

Soda breads are different to regular breads, they very crumbly, so a sandwich would be disaster, but they are great with soup, especially when still a little warm.

A cousin to soda bread is treacle bread which I think this is much superior so I thought I would share with you my recipe for it because I think it’s the best of all soda breads, and I have been making it a lot over the last couple of months.

With this treacle bread, you get a mild bitter sweetness and a lovely brown colour from the treacle, and a good nutty chew from the oats. It’s like a giant delicious cakey digestive biscuit and it goes excellently with a good farmhouse Cheddar or Stilton cheese.

It is easy to make, and it is easy to make substitutions too: buttermilk is tricky to get hold of in the United Kingdom at the best of times, so go for a mixture of milk and yogurt, or just milk. If you can’t find plain flour, use self-raising and add just one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the mix. Medium-ground oatmeal can also be substituted for porridge oats.

Makes one large round

250 g plain flour

250 g medium oatmeal

1 tsp salt

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbs black treacle

250 ml buttermilk, or 200 ml milk and 50 ml yoghurt

Preheat your oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper

This could not be simpler: mix the flour, oats, salt and bicarbonate of soda in a mixing bowl, make a well and add the treacle then the liquid(s). Mix with a wooden spoon and when you have brought it together, tip onto a floured surface and knead just once or twice.

Make into a round, place on the baking tray and cut a deep cross in the dough going from edge to edge. Quickly slide into the oven on the centre shelf and bake until golden brown, around 30 to 40 minutes. Give it a little rap on the base with your knuckle – if it sounds hollow, it is done.

Cool on a rack.

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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, food, General, history, Ireland, Recipes, Teatime

Lent podcast episode 7: Figs & Lambs (ending Lent)

Helen’s Hebridean sheep

In the final episode of the series we look at how the last Sunday of Lent was marked in the past, focussing on Fig Sunday and Palm Sunday.

Neil cooks up some historical pax cakes to give out to shoppers and traders at Levenshulme Market so see how then would go down today.

Pax cakes

With Easter Sunday on his mind, Neil gets hold of some very special meat from a Hebridean sheep farm and has a chat with farmer Helen Arthan about what it’s like working with such characterful little sheep. On his return to Manchester, he cooks up some roast hogget for two friends of the show.
 
For episode notes, photos and recipes please visit

https://britishfoodhistory.com/lent-podcast/

Helen, Neil & Vicky

Links and extra bits:

The story of Holy Week: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/holy-week-and-easter/holy-week

Recipe for pax cakes:

200g icing sugar, plus extra

30 g cornflour, plus extra

1 tsp orange flower water

Zest half a lemon

1 medium egg white

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C.
  2. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk slowly to combine, then use an electric mixer to beat the mixture very smooth.
  3. Dust your worktop with icing sugar and cornflour and roll the mixture out to a thickness of around 3 mm.
  4. Cut into rectangles and prick with a fork, then arrange on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper and dusted with a little cornflour.
  5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until slightly golden brown.
  6. Cool on a rack.

Levenshulme Market website: https://www.levymarket.com/

Hebridean Sheep Society website: https://www.hebrideansheep.org.uk/

‘Neil Cooks Grigson’ blog: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/

Rectangular livestock paintings: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-rectangular-cows-of-art-uk

Roast hogget/lamb, recipe number 438: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/2020/04/04/438-plain-roast-primitive-lamb-with-gravy/

‘English Food’ by Jane Grigson: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/242/24292/english-food/9780140273243.html

Other primitive/ancient sheep breeds of the UK: https://www.accidentalsmallholder.net/livestock/sheep/british-rare-and-traditional-sheep-breeds/

Written and presented by Dr Neil Buttery
Produced by Beena Khetani
 
Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio

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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Easter, Festivals, food, General, history, Meat, Podcast, Recipes

Lent podcast episode 6: Cheating & Altruism

Well here we are, it’s the penultimate episode of the podcast already!

In this episode, we look at what goes on in the fifth Sunday of Lent, which was called Carlin Sunday in some parts of Britain, a day when carlin (aka black) peas were traditionally eaten. Neil goes on a trip to Bury Market to seek them out and hopefully get a taste.

We also find out about how social evolution theory can explain our behaviour during Lent, and Neil has another chat with Professor Matthew Cobb of Manchester University about how the source of our morals is our genes themselves.

Professor Matthew Cobb

Written and presented by Dr Neil Buttery Produced by Beena Khetani Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio.

Links and extra bits

Bury Market website: https://www.burymarket.com/

Things you find in chip shops, including PEA WET: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/eb3657e9-28e6-4157-a6fb-9af1e74fcfb8

Matthew Cobb’s new book, The Idea of the Brain: https://profilebooks.com/the-idea-of-the-brain-hb.html

Irish Times article on Alfred Russell Wallace & Spiritualism: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/evolutionist-who-fell-for-spiritualism-1.192971

Why animals (like peacocks) have costly ornaments and others don’t: https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2016/11/study-explains-evolution-phenomenon-that-puzzled-darwin/

‘Tragedy of the Commons’ video with fish instead of cows:

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Lent podcast episode 5: Lent & Diet

In the fifth episode of the series we look at Mid-Lent Sunday, traditionally a day where lots of different celebrations occurred, but we focus on Mothering Sunday and the lesser known Clipping the Church.

Neil with David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

Neil bakes a simnel cake and chats again to the Right Reverend David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, about the history of Mothering Sunday, which is not necessarily the same as Mothering Sunday.

Neil then looks at the evidence that suggests that fasting has many potential health benefits and puts theory to the test by going on a two weeklong fast of his own. There are mixed results and mood swings aplenty.

The only thing Neil could be bothered to do. *Hangs head in shame*

There’s also the answer to Professor Matthew Cobb’s minnow mystery from last week.

Produced by Beena Khetani. Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio.

Links and extra stuff:

David Walker’s page on the Church of England website: https://www.manchester.anglican.org/bishop-manchester/

My recipe for Simnel Cake: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/

Diabetes and fasting study in more detail: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/intermittent-fasting-and-type-2-diabetes

Lab mice and fasting study in more detail: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/fasting-increases-health-lifespan-male-mice

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Lent podcast episode 4: Bluebells & Magpies

In this week’s episode we start with a little look at how Lent was dumbed down over the years from extremely strict to almost non-existent.

However, the bulk of the episode is about natural history during Lent – there are lots of interesting animal behaviours around at this time of year, such as mad March hares doing their dashing about and boxing matches. Plants are starting to reappear too and seeing their blooms can really lift our spirits.

A bit of Bud…

Neil has a conversation about plants with Brenda Smith of Bud Garden Centre, Burnage, Manchester. Brenda grows many of her own plants and has an allotment so she was the perfect person to tell us about what gardeners and growers can be doing. Neil asks if there is anything growing or can be grown this time of year for the dinner table, and we discuss the importance of avoiding peat when gardening at home. We also chat about wild plants that we see in the early spring and how they have adapted to thrive in a rather bleak time of year.

Neil then speaks to Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at Manchester University, about animals and their behaviour in spring including mad March hares, aggression and territoriality in male animals, nesting building, how horrible mallards and robins are, sexual selection, horrible nature, stoat attacks and more.

Professor Matthew Cobb

One of the common threads in both chats is how climate change is affecting things for both plants and animals, which is a bit depressing, but we leave the episode on a fun cliff-hanger from Matthew. If you think you know what happened next, leave a comment below or tweet me at @neilbuttery or email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com.

Click the link below to go straight to the episode:

Produced by Beena Khetani. Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio.

Bud’s website: https://www.budgarden.co.uk/

Guardian article about the importance of conserving peat bogs: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/28/ultimate-bogs-how-saving-peatlands-could-help-save-the-planet

More on bluebell hybridisation: https://www.wildsheffield.com/wildlife/wildlife-conservation/true-bluebells-2/bluebell-hybridisation/

Matthew’s brand new book ‘The Idea of the Mind’: https://profilebooks.com/the-idea-of-the-brain-hb.html

Matthew’s new OUP book about smell: https://global.oup.com/ukhe/product/smell-a-very-short-introduction-9780198825258?cc=gb&lang=en&

More on phenology and diaries: https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/what-we-record-and-why/why-we-record/a-brief-history-of-phenology/

Boxing hares (and rock music, for some reason): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnF9SryDa6A

Stoat behaviour including pack attacks (I wasn’t making it up!): http://www.harpur.org/stoats.htm

The Fortean Times website: https://subscribe.forteantimes.com/

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Lent podcast episode 3: Eostra & Eggs

In this week’s episode we look at Pagan Lent and Easter – and look at the ancient pre-Christian celebrations and symbolism that endured to the present day. We also see how the Christian church on one hand had to let the Pagans keep their traditions so they would accept this new religion, yet have them reject it all as heathenous hocus-pocus at the same time. We also find out about the Pagan goddess Eostra, who, as it turns out, we know absolutely nothing about.

Two of the most Pagan things at Easter time are eggs and buns, so Neil looks at the history of those. He gives out his hot cross bun recipe, and takes a visit to the wonderful Dormouse chocolates – Manchester’s only bean to bar chocolatier.

A big thanks to Isobel of Dormouse Chocolates for sparing the time to chat to me about chocolate eggs and the process of making artisan chocolate.

…and of course, thanks to everyone for listening – if you have any comments, questions or queries about anything you hear, leave a comment on this post, email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com or find me on twitter @neilbuttery.

Please listen, like and subscribe.

Scroll down to see a list of photos and links all about the things discussed in this episode. See you next week!

British Food a History: Lent was produced by Beena Khetani and is a Sonder Radio production

Extra bits:

Neil’s hot cross buns recipe: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2012/04/05/hot-cross-buns/

More on Eostra: https://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/ostara/about.html

Dormouse Chocolates website: http://dormousechocolates.co.uk/

More on Faberge and the Winter Egg: https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/kings-queens/george-vis-fight-against-fascism-history-of-royals-issue-12-on-sale-now/

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Filed under Britain, Easter, Festivals, food, history, Podcast, Recipes

Lent podcast episode 2: Fish & Humours

In this episode we look at the history of Lent: When was it enforced? What were the rules? That sort of thing. Neil looks at how the belief in the four humours shaped what we ate in Lent, and how they caused illness and changed our moods throughout the year.

This week – the first full week of fasting – is an Ember Week. There are four Ember Weeks throughout the year – one for each season – and this is the spring one.

Neil then goes to the beautiful John Ryland’s Library in Manchester to see an early manuscript of the Forme of Cury, the earliest cookbook written in the English language, to find and cook from it ‘a tart for Ember Day’ which he cooks for his friends Kate and Pete with mixed results (recipe below).

A huge thanks to the staff of the John Ryland’s Library, who were very helpful indeed, and to Kate and Pete for letting me assault their taste buds.

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 neil@britishfoodhistory.com.

Please listen, like and subscribe.

Scroll down to see a list of photos and links all about the things discussed in this episode. See you next week!

British Food a History: Lent was produced by Beena Khetani and is a Sonder Radio production

Extra bits:

More on the four humours: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/shakespeare/fourhumors.html

The story of how King Alfred burnt the cakes: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/10/25/king-alfred-burns-the-cakes/

A blog post all about Forme of Cury: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/08/10/favourite-cook-books-no-3-the-forme-of-cury-part-i/

…and another with some recipes: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/08/14/favourite-cook-books-no-3-the-forme-of-cury-part-2-recipes/

Forme of Cury online: https://archive.org/stream/theformeofcury08102gut/7cury10.txt

The John Ryland’s Library website: https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/

Not a tart! A biog of Eleanor of Aquitaine: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eleanor-of-Aquitaine

The mediaeval cinnamon bird: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast242.htm

A recipe for ‘a tart for Ember Day’:

Shortcrust pastry made with 400 g flour

1 medium onion

2 tbs parsley, chopped

1 tbs mint, chopped

1 tsp sage, chopped

A handful of raisins

150 g blue cheese, grated

Pinch of saffron

2 tbs hot milk

10 eggs

75 g melted butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

  1. Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 10-inch flan ring. Prick the base and place in the fridge to firm up
  2. Preheat the oven to 220°C and bake the case lined with greaseproof paper and filled with baking beans for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, peel the onion and simmer in salted water for 20 minutes, then drain.
  4. Remove the beans and paper and return the pastry case to the oven  for 7 or 8 minutes to crisp the base.
  5. Turn down the oven to 160°C
  6. Sprinkle over the base the herbs, raisins and cheese, chop up the onions and scatter those too.
  7. Steep the saffron in the hot milk for five minutes, then beat with the eggs, butter, salt and sugar
  8. Pour the eggs over and bake until set, around 45 minutes.

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Filed under Britain, cooking, Easter, Festivals, food, history, Mediaeval Age, Podcast, Recipes, Uncategorized

Lent podcast episode 1: Collops & Pancakes

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 neil@britishfoodhistory.com.

Scroll down for a more description of the episode as well as some useful links and photos.

Please like, follow or subscribe:

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.

Useful links:

David Walker’s webpage on the Manchester Diocese website: https://www.manchester.anglican.org/bishop-manchester/

An Atlas Obscura post all about eating the honorary fish capybara: https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/capybara-venezuela

‘Jif Lemon Day’ ad:

Yvette Fielding’s pancake fail:

‘Pancakes for the Poor’ recipe: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/2008/02/06/25-harvest-pancakes-for-the-poor/

 ‘Pancakes for the Rich’ recipe: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/2007/12/07/13-pancakes-for-the-rich/

Follow Neil Buttery on twitter @neilbuttery

British Food a History: Lent was produced by Beena Khetani and is a Sonder Radio production

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British Food: A History podcast coming soon…

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 neil@britishfoodhistory.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.

Cheers!

Neil x

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