Category Archives: cooking

To Make Sowans

Last post I gave you a potted history of sowans, the Scots drink or flummery made from the starch left clinging to oat husks after the oats were threshed after harvest. Well, since then I have been doing a little experimenting, and have – I think – successfully made some. It’s taken a couple of goes, but I reckon I have a good practical method for you, should you fancy having a crack of making it yourself.

In the main, oat husks are used, but I saw other accounts of sowans making and I saw that some recipes used a proportion of whole oat groats, oatmeal or porridge oats. Other recipes – and it turns out that a similar dish in Wales is made1,2 – using buttermilk or whey instead of water to kickstart the fermentation. One modern recipe by Scotland-based chef Craig Grozier uses whey and salt3; the salt providing an excellent environment for the lactic acid bacteria present in the oats and the whey, hastening the fermentation and ensuring the sowans would not be infiltrated by some other spoilage organism. I’ve made sourdough starters enough times to trust the oats and water to work their own magic, to test this, I designed a simple experiment with three conditions:

  1. Oat husks and water;
  2. Medium cut organic oatmeal and water; and
  3. Oat husks plus one tablespoon of the oatmeal, to make up for the fact that the husks may be lacking in healthy bacteria and fungi. Adding some organic oats might help things out.

I left the sowans to ferment for seven days, after which I tasted the liquid and it was far too sour for my liking, but I was impressed with how well it all worked: the sour-sweet oaty smell give off was certainly not unpleasant. It turned out that actually one is not supposed to drink the sour liquid: it should be poured away and fresh water mixed in.4 I was rather surprised as to how much starch came out of the husks.

Emboldened, I tried again, this time with two conditions: one with water and organic oatmeal and the other exactly the same, except for a couple of tablespoons of the sour liquid from the first experiment, to give the sowans a boost. Note I didn’t use oat husks, and there are three reasons for this:

  1. You get very little starch from them, and we are no longer living in the kind of poverty that existed in Scotland two or three centuries ago;
  2. Oat husks are difficult to buy – though I did manage to get some from the Malt Miller – these oats weren’t organic however, and may have had traces of pesticide and fungicide that might kill the natural community of microbes living on the oats;
  3. Because they were so light, it was very difficult to keep them submerged under the water, and consequently, mould grew on any husks floating on, or touching the water’s surface.
Sowans suspended in water ready to be made into porridge or flummery

I gave it a shorter fermentation time and the results were great: sowans as a drink, i.e. the sour water decantated off and the sediment mixed into fresh water.  It was tart, surprisingly sweet (especially the one with the starter) and had a good, raw oat flavour. It would be great to use in a smoothie, or just sweetened with a little maple or agave syrup. However it was the settled sediment that I was more interested in and was looking forward to making the sowans porridge and the cold flummery.


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I was very pleased with the results, and I present them for you below. Whether you make the drink, the porridge or the flummery, the basic recipe is the same. It makes 550ml of drinking sowans or around 450 ml of porridge or flummery. I ate the porridge with treacle and milk, and I ate the flummery with raspberry jam, and I enjoyed them both. I think the flummery would be great flavoured with sweetened raspberry purée or orange flower water.

Basic ingredients:

150 g organic medium oatmeal

650 ml cool water

2 tbs of the clear liquid from a previous batch (optional)

For sowans porridge or flummery:

2 dsp sugar

½ tsp salt

A smidge of oil (for the flummery)

Place the oats, water and starter (if using) into a tub or jar and stir well. Cover the jar with a square of fabric secured with an elastic band. Leave to ferment for four days, giving the mixture a good stir every other day: give the liquid a sniff or a taste; it needs to have a definite acid tang.

When you are ready to strain your sowans, set a fine sieve or a colander lined with a sheet of muslin over a bowl and pour in the mixture. You might have to add a little water to rinse out all of the meal. Make sure you press the meal with a ladle to get as much sediment out as possible.

If you want drinking sowans you are now done, and it can be used now or stored in the fridge.

Cooked sowans ready to eat as porridge or set into flummery

For the porridge or flummery, leave the sowans to settle for 1 or 2 days, pour away the liquid, reserving it to use like buttermilk in another recipe. Don’t worry if there is a small layer of liquid remaining. Give it a good stir and pour into a saucepan; you should have around 150 ml of sediment. Add double the volume of water, plus the sugar and salt, and cook over a medium setting, stirring all the time until the sowans thickens – it will soon become very thick and glossy. If it seems too thick, add a little more water. It should be ready in 7 or 8 minutes.

For porridge: pour into bowls and eat with treacle and milk, or whatever you usually eat with your porridge.

For flummery: pour into a mould or moulds, I used teacups brushed lightly with oil. Cover them and refrigerate overnight before turning onto plates.

References

  1. Sowans. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513127 (2016).
  2. White Sowans. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513062 (2016).
  3. Mervis, B. The British Cook Book. (Phaidon, 2022).
  4. Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud. 12, 41–47 (2013).

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Mutton Chops

This post has been written in a collaboration with Swaledale Online Butchers, ‘a strictly whole-carcass, nose-to-tail butchers based in Yorkshire.’ Their meat is of the highest quality, and they supply to some of the best restaurants in the country.

I was contacted by Swaledale Butchers recently to write some traditional recipes using their excellent meat. Swaledale is an online butcher who share exactly the same ethos as I do: championing all cuts of meat, not just the prime ones, so when they asked me to choose a couple of items to cook at home, I jumped at the chance.

I decided to choose mutton, a meat that many folk think is tough and not worth eating. They couldn’t be more wrong! Eating mutton over lamb is no different to eating beef over veal. A longer life gives the meat more flavour, but it is certainly not tough. To prove my point I chose two very different cuts one requiring slow cooking, the other a quick cook: shoulder and chops. I’ll deal with the shoulder in a future post soon. Today it’s all about tender mutton chops.

A 19th century chap sporting a fine set of mutton chops

Breaded Mutton Cutlets with Lemon Butter Sauce

Mutton chops were a very popular food, grilled or fried and served with a strong tasting sauce or gravy. Devilled mutton chops are very good – indeed if you fancy a go at that, I have an excellent devil sauce recipe here. My recipe for breaded chops couldn’t be more different though; it’s an excellent summery dish that’s especially useful for people who, like me, don’t have a barbecue but really enjoy eating al fresco.

The chops may be breaded and fried, and the sauce somewhat buttery, but it’s surprisingly light; using chicken stock over beef or mutton stock, as one might usually expect. For the aromatics, I eschew rosemary and mint completely and go instead for zesty marjoram and grassy parsley.

Feel free to trim the chops into cutlets, but I always think you’re losing a lot of the meat, and these chops from Swaledale have such soft fat, it really would be a crime to cut it off. Because it is a rather quick cook, you may want to trim the small amount of rind, but it is really not a necessity.

Serves 2

80 g breadcrumbs made from stale bread (gluten-free bread works very well here, by the way)

Zest 1 lemon, grated

2 tsp finely chopped parsley

1 tsp finely chopped marjoram (oregano, thyme or savory are good substitutes)

Salt and pepper

4 mutton chops, cut around 1 ½ inches/4 cm thick.

1 egg, beaten

30 g lard or dripping

2 level tsp plain flour or corn flour

300 ml chicken stock

50 g butter, diced and chilled

A squeeze of lemon juice

Mix the breadcrumbs, lemon zest and herbs, season with salt and pepper and spread the mixture out onto a plate. Coat each chop in egg, then coat in the breadcrumbs, tapping away excess. Set aside.

Melt the lard or dripping in a heavy based frying pan over a medium heat. Once hot, add the chops. It’s important to leave them be for the first two or three minutes, lest you lose the breadcrumb coating. After four minutes turn them over and cook the other side, basting the chops every now and again. After 8 minutes they will be ready, remove and place on kitchen paper and put them in a warm oven to keep them crisp.

Now make the sauce. In the same frying pan, turn up the heat to medium-high (don’t worry about any dark brown breadcrumbs, we’ll deal with those soon) sprinkle the flour and stir with a wooden spoon so that the flour absorbs any stray fat, then pour in the stock by degrees, making sure there are few lumps. Bring to a boil and simmer for a couple of minutes to cook out the flour, then take off the heat and whisk in the cubed butter two or three cubes at a time. Add a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and check for seasoning, adding more lemon, salt or pepper as required. Pass through a sieve and straight into a sauceboat.

Serve the cutlets and the sauce with steamed new potatoes, mushrooms fried in butter and a rocket salad.

Beautifully soft and tender mutton chops.

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Forgotten Foods #9: Carrageen Pudding

This pudding has been on my ‘to post’ list for absolutely ages. It has become of my favourites, though as you will discover as you read the post, not everyone agrees with me. I’ve called it a forgotten food, but it is still well-known in Ireland. It was popular in many parts of England too, but it doesn’t seem to get made anymore. Carrageen pudding is a set dessert akin to jellies, blancmanges and flummeries, but it is made from the gelatinous seaweed carrageen, also known as Irish moss. It used to be gathered in Yorkshire and South-West England, going by the name ‘Dorset Moss’.1

I first made it in 2015 as part of one of my semi-regular Pud Clubs; I always liked to make one risky pud, and carrageen pudding was it. I flavoured it the traditional way with sugar, lemon and brandy. I didn’t particularly like the taste: there was something of a Lemsip about it. If I remember rightly, it was voted worst pudding of the day. However it wasn’t the flavour that put people off; it is more gummy than a gelatine set dessert, and doesn’t dissolve cleanly in the mouth. As John Wright puts it: it doesn’t have an acquired taste – it barely has any  – ‘more of an acquired texture.’2 That particular Pud Club was the closest I’ve seen anyone get to vomiting at one of my paid food events.

I returned to it later in the year after I’d had the idea for a seaside-themed popup restaurant, and though I could use it in the dessert course. I refined the recipe, adding some whipped cream to give it a mousse-like texture and flavoured it with elderflowers. I combined it with a gooseberry sherbet, and I was pretty pleased with it.

My ‘Buttery by the Sea’ menu from 2015

What is carrageen?

Carrageen is a common seaweed found throughout the coasts British Isles, except for parts of Lincolnshire and East Anglia.2 It is found in rockpools, is branched and a dark red colour. The wonderful food writer Theodora Fitzgibbon describes it as ‘a branching mucilaginous seaweed found on all rocks in Ireland’, which does not sound appetising, I realise. She goes on the comfort the reader, telling us that ‘it does not taste at all marine when properly prepared.’3 It is picked and dried in the sun, typically in April and May, and during the process it lightens from a dark red-brown to a creamy brownish beige, tinged with a pink-red hue.

Dried carrageen

To prepare carrageen, it is reconstituted in cold water, drained and then simmered in fresh water. It quickly turns viscous, bubbling away like the contents of a witch’s cauldron. The gloopiness is caused by the release of a trio of closely-related carbohydrates together called carrageenan.2 To extract it properly, the whole lot has to be squeezed through some muslin (cheesecloth). These carbohydrates are not digested by the body, and are therefore an excellent source of soluble fibre. Indeed, carrageen has been used as a treatment for a range of stomach and digestive complains and it ‘is considered extremely salutary for persons of delicate constitutions’.4 Its viscosity also made it a common treatment for sore throats and chest complaints. It also ‘fills plaster pores, makes wallpaper dressings…and fixes false teeth.’1

Carrageen a-bubbling away

Today carrageenan is commonly found in factory foods. For example, fat-free yoghurts no longer able to set properly are thickened with carrageenan. It is perfectly safe to eat, but foods that contain it should be avoided, because its inclusion is a dead giveaway that the food has been highly processed. Eat your yoghurt lipid intacta.

Don’t let my previous description put you off making this dessert; I really think I have the recipe right. The texture is good and is certainly better than using cornflour to set desserts.

My recipe for carrageen pudding

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References

  1. Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
  2. Wright, J. River Cottage Handbook No.5: Edible Seashore. (Bloomsbury, 2009).
  3. FitzGibbon, T. Irish Traditional Food. (St. Martin’s Press, 1983).
  4. Leslie, E. Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery: Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches. (Summersdale Publishers Limited, 1851).

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Filed under Britain, cooking, Desserts, food, foraging, General, history, Ireland, natural history, nature, Puddings, Recipes, Uncategorized

Colostrum (Beestings)

It is always an exciting day when I happen upon an ingredient I have never cooked or eaten, but have read about. I was, therefore, very excited when I approached the market stall of organic dairy farmers Hook & Son at London’s Borough Market at the end of December last year. They specialise in raw dairy products – indeed, it was spotting raw milk and butter that originally piqued my interest – but then I saw on their products list amongst the more typical dairy produce: colostrum. I immediately bought some (along with some excellent raw salted butter).

Colostrum is the name given to the milk produced by female mammals from their mammary glands for the first few days after giving birth to their young. It is very rich and is particularly high in protein: in the case of cows, around five times the protein of whole milk. Because it is the milk produced in order to give a newly-born calf a nutritional boost, it is not a commercial product. A calf should not be ‘deprived of this first natural aperitif’ as Dorothy Hartley put it.1 Whilst this is true, the reality is that there is a great deal of surplus colostrum ever since dairy cows have been bred to produce huge amounts of milk following the agricultural revolution of the 18th century. It was surplus because the highly nutritional colostrum – the beestings (sometimes spelt beastings) as they were called – gave calves diarrhoea.2 Some was reserved for motherless calves.

Leftover beestings would be sent into the community in jugs where it was considered a great treat. ‘It could not be bought’, Florence White tells us, ‘the farmer’s wife used to send a jugful to some of her oldest and best customers’, she would insist that the jug came back unwashed. Superstition held that ‘[t]o return the jug washed [would] bring about the death of the new-born calf.’3 It is today a niche foodstuff, and is typically considered ‘unmarketable’. Today colostrum is dried into powder and sold as a supplement to calves that would otherwise miss out in this very important food.4

Colostrum has been described as ‘golden yellow and as thick as double cream’.1 Well as you can see from my photograph, mine was certainly golden in colour: like a rich egg yolk custard. Upon inspection, however, it did not seem thick at all; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it appeared watery. I tasted it and rather than it tasting lusciously creamy, it lacked sweetness. In fact, it had an almost savoury minerality about it. It still tasted nice; just not what I was expecting.

As colostrum comes to just the barest simmer, it thickens noticeably

Colostrum in the Kitchen

Being rich in fat and protein, colostrum was a foodstuff in its own right, but it was more often consumed cooked. This special milk has a rather curious property in that when it is poured into a saucepan and heated, it thickens just like a custard without having to add egg yolks or cornflour. The reason is down to the proteins. Regular whole milk contains broadly three types of protein: casein, whey protein and immunoglobulins (aka antibodies). The vast majority of the protein is made of casein in whole milk. This protein is temperature stable and doesn’t unfold (‘denature’) when hot. Therefore regular milk doesn’t gel or thicken. Colostrum however is very high in whey proteins (5x more than whole milk) and immunoglobulins (80x more than whole milk), both of which denature between around 55°C and 70°C.5 There is so much protein that colostrum will thicken and set like a custard all on its own. There can be so much protein in there that it has to be diluted with milk.

More typically, it was made into a thick ‘porridge’ with sugar and various flavourings: in Yorkshire it went under the name ‘bull jumpings’,6 in Wales it was called pwdin llo bach (calf’s pudding),7 but more generally, it was called beestings pudding. It is made by simply heating colostrum in a saucepan with sugar, some spices and dried fruit. It could also be set in the oven if more convenient. In fact it could be baked inside a pastry case like a Yorkshire curd tart (but without the curds or eggs!).

There was a certain amount of trepidation when I made mine – I thought that perhaps it would be too thin to thicken up. Well I needn’t have worried, it thickened readily with a pleasant slight graininess, just like a curd tart. Whilst it did feel rather odd to be eating colostrum, I have to admit it was a delicious milk pudding – one I heartily recommend.

Beestings pudding hot

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Beestings Pudding

Beestings pudding takes a matter of minutes to make. It tastes very much like the filling of a Yorkshire curd tart, especially if the pudding is flavoured with allspice. If you like, the pudding can be baked in shallow dish, or even better, a blind-baked sweet shortcrust pastry base. Follow the instructions for baking a Yorkshire curd tart if you fancy having a go at that.

Serves 4

500 ml colostrum

60 g caster sugar

60 g raisins

Pinch salt

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg or ground allspice

Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over a low to medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

When the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat to medium. It’s a bit like making custard now, but the heat can be higher: keep stirring until the beestings thicken – as if by magic – as it comes to a simmer.

When the beestings are thick like creamy, but slightly granular, porridge, it is ready.

Divide between four bowls and serve, or refrigerate and eat cold.

Beestings pudding cold

References

  1. Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
  2. The Medical Times and Gazette (1857).
  3. White, F. Good Things in England. (Persephone, 1932).
  4. Foley, J. A. & Otterby, D. E. Availability, storage, treatment, composition, and feeding value of surplus colostrum: a review. J. Dairy Sci. 61, 1033–1060 (1978).
  5. Hege, J., Ghebremedhin, M., Joshi, B. L., Schreiber, C. & Vilgis, T. A. Soft gels from bovine colostrum. Int. J. Gastron. Food Sci. 23, (2021).
  6. Brears, P. Traditional Food in Yorkshire. (Prospect Books, 2014).
  7. Beestings Pudding. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513615.

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To Make Digestive Biscuits

Just like the workers of the 19th century, my work days are punctuated by tea & biscuits

I have been promising recently a blog post for subscribers containing my recipe for digestive biscuits, it’s taken me a little longer to write it up than I expected, but here it is.

This blog post complements the podcast episode ‘A Dark History of Sugar Part 2’ on the British Food History Podcast.

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Blue Cheese Ice Cream with Poached Pears

As I promised in my last post, I have a second cheese recipe for you that uses a traditionally-made British cheese. Harvey & Brockless sent me a whole loads of excellent cheeses and other goodies, and tucked in there was probably my favourite British blue cheese, Isle of Wight Blue:

‘Established in 2006 by mother and son Julie and Richard Hodgson, Isle of Wight Cheese Co. flagship blue is soft and creamy with a bluey green natural rind and blue veins.’

Beautiful Isle of Wight Blue (pic: Harvey & Brockless)

It’s strong, yet mellow and very creamy. Nothing like a Stilton at all (I love a good Stilton too, of course).

This is exactly the sort of cheese Professor Peter J. Atkins and I were talking about in my podcast episode about the British cheese industry, and how there is a resurgence in traditional styles and methods: softer cheeses made in small batches in small farms – before the behemoth that is Cheddar came along!

This cheese, because of its blue cheese flavour, low acidity and smooth consistency, is perfect to make into an ice cream. Cheese ice creams used to be popular, hitting a peak in the Regency period: indeed, the Prince Regent himself tucked into Parmesan cheese ice cream. My ice cream, like Prince George’s, is sweetened, but it is not over-sweet. It’s very simple to make – a case of mixing soft cheese into some cream and sugar. A curdy, hard or crumbly cheese would not work here.

I’ve combined it with a dessert classic: pears poached in red wine. There’s a recipe in Forme of Cury for it, so it really does have quite the vintage. The poaching wine is sweet and spiced and is reduced to a delicious, tart and slightly fiery spooning sauce. On the side: a nice digestive biscuit.

This is a well tried-and-tested recipe: it’s popped up on restaurant and pop-up restaurant menus in the past, but I originally made it as part of The Telegraph Fabulous Foodie competition all the way back in 2015. It was judged by none less than Xanthe Clay, John Gregory Smith and Jeremy Dixon and it took me to the grand final. So if you are still unsure as to whether you’ll like it, take it from them, not me, that it is good!

Give it a go, you won’t be sorry. Also, see below for an excellent way of using up left over ice cream and sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

For the ice cream:

1 x 225 g round of Isle of Wight Blue at room temperature

450 g double cream

1 ½ tbs icing sugar

In a bowl, break up the cheese as best you can and beat into it one third of the cream. You won’t be able to blend it in perfectly, but a little texture is no bad thing.

Sift the icing sugar with the reminder of the cream in a second bowl and whip until just slightly floppy, then fold into the cheese.

Freeze it in an ice cream churn if you have one. Alternatively, place in a tub, pop in the freezer and beat it with a small whisk every 20 to 30 minutes or so until it becomes too difficult; at that point you are done, and it can be left in the freezer until required. If you don’t want to freeze it, you can whip the cream a little more and use it like clotted cream.

For the pears:

4 to 6 unripe conference pears

500 ml red wine

100 g caster sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 long peppers (or ¼ tsp black peppercorns)

¼ tsp ground ginger

Peel the pears, leaving the stalks intact. Slice the bottom so that the pear is able to stand up sturdily. If you have one, use a melon baller to remove the core from beneath.

Bruise the cinnamon stick and long pepper (or crack the peppercorns) and place in a pan with the wine and sugar. Put over a medium-low heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved, add the pears.

Bring to a simmer and cover the pan, turn down the heat and poach until tender. This will take around 20 minutes. The pears won’t be completely submerged, so to ensure an even colouring from the wine, turn them half way through cooking.

Remove the pears and set aside. They can be stored in the fridge for up to four days.

Now make the syrup: turn up the heat and bring the wine to the boil and let it reduce by around three-quarters or more, until viscous. Pour into a jug or jar and allow to cool.

To serve:

Remove the ice cream from the fridge around half an hour before you want to serve. Place a pear in the centre of a plate – it may need another trim at the bottom if it’s been in the fridge a day or two – and carefully spoon a couple of teaspoons of the syrup over the tip of the pear.

Place a biscuit next to the pear – I used a homemade digestive (post coming soon), but a hob-nob would also work very well – and place a scoop or quenelle of ice cream on top the biscuit.

Leftovers: there will probably be leftover ice cream and syrup, the latter of which keeps for weeks. Treat yourself to a very grown-up ice cream cookie sandwich using digestives instead of cookies, cheese ice cream instead of vanilla, and red wine syrup in place of raspberry sauce.

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Rum Butter & Brandy Butter

This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.

I used to believe that brandy butter – that infamous accompaniment to Christmas pudding and mince pies – was far too rich and sweet, and always preferred custard. I made a traditional Christmas pudding from a 19th century recipe and because it wasn’t as rich as modern day puds, I found the buttery sauce complemented the dessert perfectly – though I still prefer the rum butter.

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To Make a Christmas Pudding Part 2: the Big Day

This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.

On Stir Up Sunday I made my Christmas Pudding, using Sam Bilton’s Great Aunt Eliza’s plum pudding recipe, and now it is time to cook it and get it ready to serve for the big day. If you missed the first post click here to catchup.

I fed the pudding a couple of tablespoons of rum (but brandy is also good) twice, and I found the best way to do this was the untie the pudding, open the top and sprinkle in the rum, before retying with fresh string.

On Christmas Day, get your big pot of boiling water just like you did for the first boiling. Simmer the pudding for 2 hours, making sure the pudding doesn’t touch the base of the pot and scorch.

When ready, remove from the pan and gingerly cut away the string and carefully unwrap the pudding; don’t worry too much about it breaking because it develops a skin made from the flour that had been dredged on the cloth before its first boiling, keeping it all together. Pop it on a serving dish with a sprig of holly.

When you want to serve it, flame with rum or brandy, turn the lights down and carry it into the dining room. There will be applause.

I served the pudding with rum butter, but you can also serve it with brandy butter (which I must admit, I don’t like as much as the rum butter), or good old custard. I’ll be publishing a post tomorrow with my recipe for brandy or rum butter.


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The pudding was delicious, I must say, and it will forever be my standard, so thanks again to Sam Bilton for her letting me use the recipe.

Listen to the podcast episode for more information, including the history and folklore surrounding Christmas pudding, plus a cooking spot, and a handy guide to flaming your pudding safely and effectively!

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Cobnuts, Filberts & Hazelnuts (& Cobnut Cake)

One of my favourite seasonal foods are fresh Kentish cobnuts, and they are in season right now, so I thought I’d write a little post about them in case you see them at your local greengrocer’s shop. In the north of England they are difficult to get hold of, and when you do see them they cost a small fortune, but luckily for me, I was in London last weekend and spotted a fruit seller outside Borough Market selling big punnets at just £3.50 a pop. Up North, I’d have had to remortgage.

Cobnut season runs from late August to October in the UK, and they can – or, at least, their wild cousins can – be found growing on wild hazel trees all around the country – in fact they grow in abundance near me in Manchester. Unfortunately, the squirrels beat me to them every year. Nutting season traditionally started on 20 August on St Philibert’s Day.1

Wild, unripe Mancunian hazel/cobnuts

There’s a little confusion regarding nomenclature here, as is so often the case, some call these nuts cobnuts, others filberts, and some call them simply hazelnuts. Are there any real differences between the three or are they just regional names for the same thing? Well that all depends upon whom you ask, and when in time you ask.

Let’s start with the wild tree, the hazel, or to give its Latin name Corylus arellana. These nuts are hazels, or hazelnuts, they are elongate and flatter that the supermarket variety, but they still have the same smooth shells. This is what many people today would call a cobnut. This common tree produces nuts that was an important foodstuff for Neolithic humans, and they have been cultivated since Roman times.2,3 These cultivated trees were bred for greater yields and larger nuts changing making them more spherical in shape. These round nuts were called cobs, or cobnuts, and they are what we would call hazelnuts today. They grow so well in Kent that at one point 7000 acres of land was put aside for their cultivation, plenty to export a significant number to the United States.3

Okay, let’s, for the sake of argument, say that hazels are the wild nuts and cobnuts are their cultivated cousins, where do filberts fit in? Well, these are a larger cultivated nut from a completely different species of hazel (C. americanus).4 They were regarded as a rather upmarket orchard fruit, whilst cobnuts were considered more suitable for the hedgerow (or did they mean hazels!?).3

Today, cobnuts appear to be a catch-all term for any of the elongate forms of hazelnuts. The great thing about getting them fresh is that they have a lovely crisp, refreshing flavour, rather like water chestnut but with a mild hazelnut flavour. They are still covered in their green protective coats (shucks) and sometimes even the shell is still green. They store well and can be dried and eaten months later. An alternative to drying is to shell the fresh kernels and store them in honey. I expect the fresh kernels would make very successful pine nut replacement in pesto.


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Kentish Cobnut Cake

The best known traditional food made with cobnuts is Kentish cobnut cake. A dense cake flavoured with ginger and sweetened with some kind of unrefined sugar or honey. Some are made like a sponge cake by creaming butter and sugar, others are made by melting butter and syrup/sugar together. I go for the latter method. I found a few recipes that include a good dollop of double cream in the mix, so I’ve added it my recipe. This produces a dense cake, which I prefer, but if you want to make a lighter one, mix a teaspoon of baking powder into the flour and swap the cream for around half its volume of milk (i.e. 80 ml). Being a syrupy cake, it benefits from a couple of days’ maturing time in an air-tight box. You can use any syrup you like, or indeed any unrefined sugar. Honey works very well, especially if you have stored within it some cobnut kernels. As far as the nuts go: hazels, cobnuts or filberts all work equally well.

Makes one 8 inch/23 cm cake.

180 g butter

120 g golden syrup or honey

80 g Demerara, or any brown sugar

150 ml double cream (or 80 ml milk, if going for the lighter option)

3 knobs preserved ginger, chopped

2 eggs, beaten

240 g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder (optional; use if going for the lighter option)

1 ½ tbs ground ginger

100-150 g whole cobnuts, shelled weight

Preheat oven to 160°C and line a 20 cm round cake tin.

Melt the butter, syrup or honey and sugar in a saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and mix in the cream (or milk), chopped preserved ginger and then the eggs.

Mix the baking powder, if using, into the flour, then mix in the ground ginger and cobnuts. Make a well in the centre and pour in the butter-sugar mixture, stirring slowly with a whisk until the batter is smooth.

Pour into the lined cake tin and bake for anywhere between 1 and 1 ¼ hours. Test it is ready using a skewer. Cool in the tin.

References

1.           Wright, J. River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow. (Bloomsbury, 2010).

2.           Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

3.           Mason, L. & Brown, C. The Taste of Britain. (Harper Press, 1999).

4.           Johnson, O. & More, D. Collin’s Tree Guide. (Collins, 2004).

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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, food, foraging, General, history, Recipes, Teatime

Scotch Woodcock

This post complements the episode ‘Savouries’ on The British Food History Podcast.

When I asked Twitter what the best savoury is, I was surprised and very delighted that Scotch Woodcock was by far the most popular choice. Most of the other votes seemed to be for dishes containing lashings of anchovies too; I obviously need to write more about the popular, salty fish. I talk about Scotch Woodcock in the podcast, so I won’t repeat myself here, except I forgot to mention was that it was a Victorian invention and then, as now, one of the most popular savouries of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The earliest mention of the dish can be found amongst the pages of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and is pretty similar to mine except Gentleman’s Relish is swapped for simple drained anchovies which are mashed and spread on the toast and no spices are used.

If, by the way, you know not of Scotch Woodcock or the concept of the savoury, have a listen to the podcast episode. I also wrote a post about savouries a few years ago.

This makes enough for two for lunch and is very good with a green salad dressed only with salt, pepper and cider or wine vinegar.

The simple foods are best

150 ml double cream

2 egg yolks (or 1 whole egg)

Salt and pepper

Dash of Cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of ground mace (optional)

2 slices of toast kept warm

Around 2 tsp Gentleman’s Relish (my recipe for that here)

Turn your grill to a high setting.

Put a small saucepan on a medium-low heat. Pour in the cream and beat in the egg yolks (or whole egg) then the spices with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring until the mixture becomes scalding hot, but do not allow it to boil. You can tell when it’s ready if when you scrape your wooden spoon through the savoury custard you can see the base of the pan.

Spread the Gentleman’s Relish thinly over the toast (if you’re using my recipe, you can be a little more generous) then spoon over the savoury custard. Don’t worry if there are a few small lumps of cooked egg: it’s very forgiving. Use the back of a spoon to spread the custard right to the very edges of the toast, and grill until the top turns a delicious dark golden brown (or do as I did, and use a chef’s torch).

Serve immediately.


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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Podcast, Recipes, The Edwardians, The Victorians