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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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
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.
I was kindly given part of a large crop of gooseberries by my friends Kit and Ellie, their two bushes have been prolific this year. Earlier in the summer, I used some of their underripe berries to make a sauce to accompany mackerel, but now they were large and quite sweet.
I made the lion’s share of them into gooseberry jam and
thought I would give you a recipe, as it is so easy to make, and you are
unlikely to find it in the shops. If you don’t know of any gooseberry bushes,
try a greengrocer – I have spotted them in quite a few shops this year.
The great thing about gooseberry jam is that the
gooseberries change in colour, adopting an appetising warm pinkish hue with the
intense heat of jam-making. This change is apparently due to the anthocyanins
in the gooseberries interacting with metal ions leached from the cooking vessel
Gooseberries are not as juicy as their red, white and blackcurrant relatives so they need a bit of extra added water to help dissolve the sugar. Gooseberries are high in pectin, especially when young, so there should be enough to set the jam. However, if they are late season and ripe, you might want to replace a small proportion of the sugar with jam sugar, which contains pectin, to give them a helping hand.
The jam I made is simple: gooseberries, sugar and water, but
if you have any of the extras in the ingredients list below, feel free to add
them if you like.
The jam makes a great roly-poly or Victoria sponge filling.
The quantities below makes around 1 litre of jam, and it is
easy to scale up or down depending upon the amount of gooseberries you have to
1 kg gooseberries, washed, topped and tailed
1 kg granulated sugar (or 800 g granulated and 200 g jam
sugar, if the gooseberries are ripe
500 ml water
Optional extras: A dozen elderflower heads wrapped in
muslin, a good bunch of sweet cicely tied with twine or replace 250 ml of the
water with Muscat wine.
Before you start, place a saucer in the freezer.
Place all the ingredients in a large, heavy based saucepan on a medium heat.
Stir occasionally and when all of the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up to bring the gooseberries to a really good boil. After around 15 minutes – by now they should have a pinkish tinge about them – test to see if you have got a set. Either take the jam’s temperature with a temperature probe and see if it is 105°C, or take a teaspoon of the mixture and place a few drops on your very cold saucer you had stored in the fridge, let it cool for a minute and see if the drops wrinkle when you push them with a finger.
You can use a candy thermometer instead of a probe, but I
find them imprecise. However, if you have a trusty one, by all means slot it
down the inside of jam before you start to boil it.
Leave the jam to cool for 15 minutes and skim any scum with
a large spoon or ladle.
Have some sterilised jars ready and ladle in the jam. A jam
funnel is helpful here. Alternatively, pour the jam into a Pyrex or stainless-steel
jug rinsed out with scalding water and carefully fill your jars. Seal when
still very hot.
Last post I wrote about the delicious gooseberry. Since I wrote it, I have seen them in quite a few shops, including Morrison’s, so I am feeling good about the gooseberry’s culinary future.
It is important to remember that gooseberries can be served
with meat and fish in rather the same way as tart Bramley apples are: oily fish
such as mackerel is the classic pairing, but I have found recipes that match it
with chicken, goose, pork and mutton or lamb. Sauces and stuffings are made
with the small new tart berries, with just a little sugar. The simplest sauce
being made from halved berries, chopped mint and sugar. The ingredients are
mixed, covered and left to macerate for several hours. Delicious with barbequed
mackerel or herring, and the fact it isn’t cooked means the gooseberries retain
their vibrant green colour.
I mentioned that in France it is known as the mackerel
currant, because it is only ever really served with the oily fish, and even then,
it’s considered particular only to Normandy. It did start life as an English
dish, but as there was much communication between England and Normandy during
the mediaeval period, it’s no surprise that they picked up some tips from the
English during centuries of toing and froing.
I’ve taken elements from three different recipes to come up with mine: Jane Grigson’s English Food (1992), Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1847) and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1604). Talent borrows, genius steals and all that. Many of the ingredients are optional, so if you want a cleaner tasting sauce, omit the cream and maybe the butter too. If you are interested, there’s also a great recipe for a gooseberry stuffing for mackerel on my other blog.
It’s a delicious combination – simply grilled mackerel and
the tart sauce, and maybe a green salad on the side. It’s telling you that
summer is here! This pairing is largely forgotten now, but look in some older British
cookery books and you’ll see it crop up again and again.
Young, green, small gooseberries are required for recipes
that are served with savoury food – the later, large sweet ones are best used
in desserts (recipes for those coming soon).
250 g gooseberries, topped and tailed
50 ml water
50 ml white wine, or a dash of cider vinegar
50 g sugar, or to taste
good pinch of ground ginger
salt and pepper
a knob of butter (optional)
2 to 3 tbs double cream (optional)
Put the gooseberries, water, wine or vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and cook until the gooseberries go pale in colour and start to become very soft, crushing them against the side of your pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
If you want a very smooth sauce with no seeds or pulp, whizz
the whole thing in a blender and pass through a sieve. I like to leave mine
with some texture, but it’s up to you. If you did pass it through a sieve put
it in a clean pan and put it over a medium heat.
Smooth or pulpy, beat in your butter with whisk or spoon
until it becomes glossy, then add the cream.
Add more sugar if you like – remember it isn’t supposed to
be sweet like apple sauce.
Serve alongside grilled or fried mackerel, but also pork,
chicken or goose.