Category Archives: General

To Make a Christmas Pudding Part 1: Stir Up Sunday

Today is Stir Up Sunday, traditionally the day Christmas pudding is made. The day was also a cue to local grocers to begin to make their orders and get ready for the 12-day long Christmastide feast.1 As they mixed, the children would sing:

Stir up, we beseech thee

The Pudding in the pot,

And when we get home,

We’ll it it all hot!

Stir Up Sunday is always the Sunday before Advent; which isn’t 1 December despite what manufacturers of Advent calendars would have you believe. Advent actually begins on the sixth day before Christmas, so this year (2021) Advent begins on 28 November. The day has a deeper meaning beyond reminding us to prep our puds; the children’sl song was sung on the day comes from a hymn: Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord the wills of my faithful people… and is call for everyone to stir up their pious and spiritual feelings in preparation for Advent – a period of fasting and reflection before the festivities begin.

When you make your Christmas pudding (whichever day you make it on) there are various superstitions which should be held. First, each member of the family should add at least one ingredient to the mix, give it a good stir and make a wish. The stirring must either go from east to west (like the Sun).2 The pudding should be made up of 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples.

There are trinkets too of course: a sixpence to represent financial success or good luck in the New Year, a ring to represent romance or marriage, or a thimble – bad luck! No romance for you, spinster!


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Great Aunt Eliza’s Christmas Pudding

I love Christmas pudding, but whenever I’ve made my own (I have used Delia Smith’s and Jane Grigson’s recipes in the past) I’ve always been rather disappointed. I reached out to Twitter for inspiration and food historian (and podcast alumnus) Sam Bilton very kindly let me use her Great Aunt Eliza’s recipe taken from her handwritten recipe book. Sam has cooked it for a demonstration at Petworth House, West Sussex.3 Click here to find out more about Sam’s Great Aunt, and how she adapted and recreated the recipe. Here’s the original:

Note there are indeed 13 ingredients!

I decided to adapt the recipe myself, only later looking at Sam’s interpretation and we took a similar approach, which is pleasing.

I took the recipe and converted it into metric and then divided everything by 3, making a huge pudding with a 15 hour boiling would have been craziness. I could have made one good-sized pudding from my one-third mix, but decided to make 2 smaller ones. I used vegan suet because I already had that in. Fresh beef suet would have been best, but there’s no point buying more if there’s some already in the cupboard.

I hedged my bets on the plums and used half prunes and half raisins, and swapped out almond extract for the bitter almonds. Feel free to toss in some slivered almonds for texture though.

Makes 2 x 800 g puddings:

150 g plain flour

150 g breadcrumbs from a stale loaf

120 g suet

300 g currants

225 g raisins

225 g prunes, roughly chopped

40 g candied peel

2 tsp mixed spice

75 g soft dark brown sugar

½ tsp almond extract

60 ml milk

40 ml brandy

40 ml rum

2 eggs

Making a Christmas pudding batter couldn’t be easier: mix all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl, i.e. everything on the list from plain flour down to the soft dark brown sugar, then add all of the remaining wet ingredients to a jug and give them a good whisk.

Make a well in the centre and pour in the eggy mixture then stir until combined. If after a few minutes’ mixing things still seem a little bit dry, add an extra slug of milk, brandy or rum. Mine needed a bit more rum.

Cover the mixture and leave it somewhere cool overnight to let the flavours develop – if you’re in a rush, leave for an hour.

Next day (or next hour) make you puddings. First get a large pot of water on the boil; deep enough for two puddings to cook without touching the base of the pot. Next, cut two pieces of muslin (cheesecloth) into rectangles of around 30 x 60 cm, place in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. When cool enough to handle, remove one and squeeze out excess water. Fold it in half to make a square shape, then lay it in a bowl.

Dust the muslin very well with plain flour, leaving no bare patches, then spoon in half the mixture, then gather up the corners and twist to tighten. Use some good quality string to tie the pudding tight. If there are folds in the cloth, they can be easily smoothed out. Repeat with the other piece of cloth.

Tie a longer piece of string to your puddings, drop them in the boiling water, and tie them so that they are nicely bobbing about in the water and not touching the bottom. Cover, bring the water back to a boil, and let things cook on a simmer for 2½ hours.

Remove and cool on a cooling rack and keep in a tub or tin. You can feed the puddings a few times if you like with more brandy or rum by untying the top and pouring some in, or by rolling them in a few tablespoons – they quickly absorb it!

Then it’s just a case of giving it a second boil on the big day…I’ll post that a few days before Christmas Day, along with a recipe for brandy or – even better – rum butter to go with.

References

1.           Simpson, J. & Roud, S. A Dictionary of English folklore. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

2.           Kerensa, P. Hark: The Biography of Christmas. (Lion Hudson Ltd., 2017).

3.           Bilton, S. A Proper Plum Pudding. Comfortably Hungry http://www.sambilton.com/plum-pudding/ (2019).

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Filed under baking, Britain, Christmas, food, General, history, Podcast, Puddings, Recipes, Uncategorized

Samuel Pepys Buries His Parmesan

Samuel Pepys

Early in the morning of Tuesday 4 September 1666 the great diarist and raconteur Samuel Pepys was rudely woken by a servant telling him to get up and get out of his house because a fire, which had started two days prior on Pudding Lane* in the City of London, was fast approaching his home on Tower Hill. The Great Fire of London was well underway. What would you do in this situation? Well Pepys told his servant to go away (or words to that effect), turned over, farted (probably) and went straight back to sleep.1

Things obviously took a while to sink in and he realised later a catastrophe was afoot. According to his diary entry for the day he was ‘[u]p by break of day [we can that with a pinch of salt] to get away the remainder of my things; which I did by a lighter at the Iron gate and my hands so few, that it was the afternoon before we could get them all away.’2

Pepys lived on Seething Lane and was a naval administrator and lived close to several other navy chums near to the Tower of London, so they really were in the thick of it. He tells us in detail what he saw and what he and his friends did:

Sir W. Pen [this is Admiral William Pen, Commissioner of the Navy Board] and I to Tower-streete, and there met the fire burning three or four doors beyond Mr. [Richard] Howell’s, whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells, &c., were flung all along Tower-street in the kennels, and people working therewith from one end to the other…’2

He managed to get the majority of his belongings to Bethnal Green and safety, but not everything.1 Left with little time, and perhaps no horses and carts either, snap decisions had to be made:

the fire [was] coming on…both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten [Master of Trinity House which specialised in all things naval] not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.2

Parmesan cheese has medieval origins

But – you may be thinking – if he was taking plenty of belongings, surely he could make room for some wine and cheese? One issue was size: the wine would have been in barrels, not bottles, and the Parmesan cheese – if a full round – could have weighed 40 kilos or more. But – you may also be thinking – these are just food items, why risk hanging about the inferno just to save them? Was he that greedy!? Well, in part, yes – he certainly liked his food, and he relished writing about the food he ate, and the booze, coffee, tea and chocolate he drank. His diaries are essential reading for the food historian for this very reason. Mainly it was because they were very expensive and a great status symbol, so it wasn’t all about not wasting good food. No doubt he shed a tear as he shovelled it over with clods of earth.

A young Henry VIII

Parmesan cheese was a particularly sought after food and was commonly part of diplomatic gifts. For example, in 1511 Pope Julius II gave Henry VIII 100 rounds of Parmesan cheese for helping him fight the French3 (yes, there was a time the English Crown and the Catholic Church got on!). Parmesan, then, was perfect for the greedy aristocrat or great gourmand in your life.

Detail from a 19th century map of 1660s London showing where Pepys lived (ringed in red) and Bethnal Green. Almost everything west of Bethnal Green and the Tower was destroyed.

He dined that evening with friends in Woolwich, and from their house he could see the blaze rampaging through the city:

Only now and then walking into the garden, and saw how horridly the sky looks, all on a fire in the night, was enough to put us out of our wits; and, indeed, it was extremely dreadful, for it looks just as if it was at us; and the whole heaven on fire. I after supper walked in the darke down to Tower-streete, and there saw it all on fire… the fire is got so far that way, and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and [Saint] Paul’s is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go.2

The Great Fire would go on to decimate four-fifths of the city, destroying over 13 200 homes, 87 parish churches, as well as several important and iconic buildings such as the Royal Exchange. Pepys’ home was destroyed.1

The Parmesan cheese was never recovered and who knows, it could still be there, waiting to be found…


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*There is currently some debate as to whether this actually was the source of the fire.

1.         Martin, K. ‘London’s Burning’: Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London. Royal Museums Greenwich https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blog/curatorial/londons-burning-samuel-pepys-great-fire-london (2015).

2.         Pepys, S. Tuesday 4 September 1666. The Diary of Samuel Pepys https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/04/ (1666).

3.         Wooding, L. Henry VIII. (Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).

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Filed under Britain, Dairy, food, General, history, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized

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

Ten Years of British Food: a History!

Well, I never expected to reach this milestone, and I certainly did not foresee what would happen in the years after I started up British Food: a History. In fact, I only set it up because my other blog – Neil Cooks Grigson – a blog created only to help me practise my writing skills after starting a PhD at Manchester University in evolutionary biology. The idea behind the blog is that I cook and blog about every recipe in Jane Grigson’s book English Food; cooking and reading her work had got me so enthusiastic about the history and tradition of British food I felt I needed a second blog! Cooking was still intended/expected only be a hobby and an escape from the laboratory, however I had started to find NCG a little restrictive: I was interested in dishes and ingredients that were not included in her book (there are no jam roly-poly, fish and chips or custard recipes for example). I had also become interested in the food and traditions of the other nations of Great Britain as well as Ireland. I was no longer tied to basing every post around a recipe either, I could write essays too.

Another reason for creating the blog was the yearning I had for all things British at the time – by now I had completed my PhD and had started a Post-Doc position in the lab of Joan Strassmann and David Queller in St Louis, Missouri, USA. I loved American culture, but being away from home focussed my own identity as a Brit, fuelling my enthusiasm for the hobby even further.

I can’t remember when the idea dawned on me that I should try and turn the cooking skills I had unwittingly gained into a food business, but off I went, back to the UK and to Manchester, with good wishes from Joan and David, and support from my friends and family – if there were nay-sayers in the camp, they were keeping their ideas to themselves. I returned to Manchester at the start of August 2012 and by the end of it I had set up The Buttery as a market stall. Under a year later I graduated up to pop up restaurant and then eventually restaurant-bar with Mr Brian Mulhearn. Busy as I was, I did try to blog, but it was tricky and I came close to stopping altogether.

The Buttery existed as a bricks-and-mortar affair for two years, but when it closed I decided to write more: it was therapeutic if nothing else, and I was at a very low ebb, so needed any help I could get. How I had missed it! Unfortunately blogging does not pay the bills, so I kept my toe in as a chef, baker and caterer.

A pop-up restaurant highlight: the Titanic’s last meal inside Victoria Baths!

Over the last couple of years, the blog has become much more popular and seems to be getting recognised more, leading on to a bit of TV and radio work, and I was even approached by publishing house Pen & Sword History to write my first book A Dark History of Sugar which has led to a second book, this time on a subject of my own choosing (I will let you know more about this when I can!).

The British Food History Podcast

The other project that has been borne of the blog was the Lent podcast I made with Sonder Radio and Beena Khetani. What great fun it was. I learned a lot and really wanted to get a second season made…and here it is! It’s taken me almost 18 months to organise myself, but I spotted the anniversary in my diary and thought it a good day to kick season 2 off.

I’m doing all of the writing, presenting and producing myself this time and I’ve come up with a format (I think) of separate seasons of 6 episodes. Each episode will be a standalone subject, but then use the last 2 or 3 episodes to look at a meatier subject in more depth. Kicking off season 2 today is an episode about gingerbread and my guest is the excellent writer, chef and food historian Sam Bilton, author of the cookbook First Catch Your Gingerbread.

To subscribe simply search for ‘The British Food History Podcast’ wherever you usually find your podcasts, or follow this feed to the Captivate website. Please follow, like, subscribe, rate and leave comments: I would be most grateful.

Food historian Sam Bilton helps me kick off season 2

Here’s to another 10 years

What will the next decade bring I wonder? I have no idea, but one thing I do know is that I shall still be writing blog posts and putting together podcast episodes. I just love creating them, and I certainly would have given up years ago if I didn’t have such great, supportive followers on here commenting and telling me about their own memories and experiences – good and bad – on British food. So here’s a big thank you to all of you who have followed the blogs and cooked up my recipes; if I were a religious chap, I would be saying that I feel blessed right now.

I really want to carry on producing more content with more variety, but it is getting increasingly more expensive to produce online content, so if you can please support the blogs and podcast and treat me (should you think I deserve it) to a virtual coffee or pint.

If you like, for £3 per month you can also become a subscriber. If you do, you get access to premium content: extra blog posts and recipes, as well as access to my Easter Eggs tab which will soon start to fill with podcast extras: full interviews, deleted scenes and outtakes. I’m also planning to make some ‘how to’ videos demonstrating some techniques that are best taught by showing rather than by writing a long-winded method.

Right, off I go, this was only supposed to be a quick post and I’ve wittered on for ages. Here’s to the next 10 years!


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Saltpetre and Salt Prunella

On my Jane Grigson blog I recently completed a recipe, the 441st, Smoking Meat. It wasn’t so much a recipe, more a bit of advice, and the advice was: don’t bother. However, I wanted to have a go at curing and smoking my own bacon, so took this as an opportunity, and because there was no recipe in English Food, I could do my own thing with respect to the recipe (see The Premise). All of Jane’s cured meats contain a combination of salt and saltpetre – also known as potassium nitrate – which has a bad rep these days because it has been implicated as a causative agent in diseases associated with eating processed meat products (more on that later). So, with my bacon, I thought it a good opportunity to see if leaving out the saltpetre would have any observable detrimental effects. SPOILER ALERT! My bacon is still completely fine three months after making it, stored at room temperature – there isn’t the merest trace of mould – and it got me thinking about its use in meat curing and processing and whether it needs to be included.

Pure Potassium chloride

Just what is the function of saltpetre? Everyone does agree that the pink colour saltpetre gives the meat is attractive. However, there is certainly disagreement out there as to its efficacy in preservation. According to Jane Grigson saltpetre ‘no preservative value’1 and Elizabeth David is of the belief that it is simply ‘the cosmetic of the preserved meat industry.’2

On the other side of the argument Larousse Gastronomique reckons it a ‘powerful bactericide [that] has been used since ancient times to preserve food.’3 Harold McGee concurs, adding that it is particularly effective against the bacteria that causes botulism.4

In conclusion: I don’t know what to think.

It seems that it hasn’t been used since ‘ancient times’ either; according to Peter Brears, ‘there appears to be no evidence for the use of saltpetre, sugar or smoking in medieval meat preparation, only salt.’5

Natural deposits of saltpetre pic: William Haun

Saltpetre can be found deposited naturally as veins in rocks – indeed, saltpetre literally means salt stone. Houses built on foundations dug into rocks containing the mineral sometimes find saltpetre can be found in crystalline forms in damp cellars. It is relatively rare, but it was in demand in the Middle Ages, not for its preserving powers but as an ingredient in gunpowder. In the sixteenth century a method of production was devised after an alchemist found that after boiling the water from urine the crystalline material left behind was highly flammable.6 With further refining of the process, urine was combined with faeces and lime on an industrial scale. It was said that the best urine for the job was ‘Bishops’ piss’; not because it was the urine of a holy man, but because of the large volume of wine that Bishops drank. The process even makes an appearance in the Canterbury Tales:

Chalk, quicklime, ashes and the white of eggs,

Various powders, clay, piss, dung and dregs,

Waxed bags, saltpetre, vitriol and a whole

Variety of fires of wood and coal.7

Everyone was well aware how saltpetre was made, and people – as you might expect – did not want to use a product derived from human waste in their food and continued to use saltpetre from natural sources at great expense. Today it is made from ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride.

An engraving showing equipment used to extract saltpetrefrom ‘soil’. From The Laws of Art and Nature, in Knowing, Judging, Assaying, Fining, Refining and Inlarging Bodies of Confin’d Metals (1683) by Lazarus Erckern (pic: science photo library)

When saltpetre comes into contact with meat, the nitrate part of the molecule reacts with haemoglobin (in the blood) and myoglobin (in the muscle) to form a nitrite, which reacts further to form nitric oxide. It is the nitrite and globin molecules reacting that form the pink colour. The products of reduction are stable away from oxygen in the air, however if one takes a slice from the meat to reveal the pink meat within, the nitrites oxidise back into nitrates and the meat loses its rosy tinge.

Some recipes ask for salt prunella, which is simply saltpetre that’s been formed into little balls and dissolve at a slower rate that regular saltpetre. It also contains a small proportion of potassium nitrite to help kick-start the chemical processes in the meat. Again sources disagree as to the truth of this.

Saltpetre is used in very small amounts – when I used it in the past, I used approximately a teaspoon or two to every 500 g salt. You can purchase it on the internet, but it is much better to buy salt mixes for curing that contain salt and nitrates already mixed and measured.

Pre-mixed pink curing salt

This brings us to health – this chemical which is added in small amounts is getting the blame for causing heart disease and bowel cancer in those who eat processed meat products. Well, there is certainly a correlation between consumption of processed meats and cancer. But let’s not jump on nitrates as the causative agent: correlation is not causation, after all. Remember when red wine was supposedly good for your heart? It wasn’t true – there was a correlation, sure, but only because folk who drink red wine tend to be middle class, and therefore tend to also exercise regularly and eat a heathier diet. Nothing to do with wine.* I suspect there is something similar going on with nitrates: they are used in processed meats, which are cheap and much more likely to be consumed by poorer families, who in turn, are less likely to eat fewer fresh fruit and vegetables, and less likely to own a gym membership. As it turns out, nitrates may actually be beneficial in that they help lower blood pressure.

The jury then is still out. And in the case of my own homemade, nitrate-free bacon, leaving out the nitrates hasn’t caused the meat to go bad, and it stayed relatively pink too. Removing it might not improve the nation’s health, but at least it removes a chemical that’s been produced from nasty chemicals which can only be good for the environment.

Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Let me know them in the comments.


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My home-made bacon

*In fact it has been demonstrated that there is no safe minimum alcohol levels – it’s all bad, sorry!

References

1.           Grigson, J. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. (Grub Street, 1969).

2.           David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).

3.           Larousse Gastronomique. (Hamlyn, 2001 edition).

4.           McGee, H. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. (Allen and Unwin, 1984).

5.           Brears, P. Cooking & Dining in Medieval England. (Prospect Books, 2012).

6.           Beach, H. By the Sword Sundered. (Authorhouse, 2014).

7.           Chaucer, G. The Canterbury Tales. (Translated by Nevill Coghill, Penguin, 1951).

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Filed under Britain, food, General, history, Meat, Uncategorized

To Make a Seed Cake

Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa partook, in their way, of my joy. It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake – the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1849


I do love a seed cake, once a key element of a British teatime table. Sadly, it’s largely either forgotten, or worse, ignored in our modern world of ‘instagrammable’ drizzle cakes, or multi-coloured creations slathered with luxurious buttercreams and frostings. With that sort of competition, the poor old seed cake doesn’t get a look in, bless it. As a result, the only way you are going to taste is to make one.

For those in the dark as to what I’m banging on about, a seed cake is a plain, rather dry cake flavoured subtly with caraway. It’s texture is similar to that of a madeira cake; dry enough so that it is perfect to have with a nice cup of tea for your elevenses. It has just the right amount of clack, as we northerners say; a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. Don’t let this put you off – it’s plainness is what makes it perfect. Super-sweet cakes covered with their myriad fillings are fine, but often a little too much to take.

Hannah Glasse had several seed cake recipes

Seed cakes appear in cookbooks from the seventeenth century, but only really became a cornerstone of the tea table in the eighteenth. They were a different beast then; sugary cakes also said something of both your status and sensibilities, so other things were added. Hannah Glasse added allspice, cinnamon and ambergris in one of her recipes.1 It was a time before chemical raising agents too, so cakes at this time were made light by the action of live yeast. Seed cake, therefore, was reserved for those who had a taste for the finer things in life, such as Parson Woodforde, diarist and great lover of cakes, puddings, pies and confectionary. He loved listing what he’d had for dinner. Take this entry from 17 August 1778:

7 p.m. Hot hash, or cold mutton pies. Saturday night an addition of good seed-cake of one pound, covered with sugar and a quart of good beer poured over it.2

Fast-forward a century and we see that the seed cake is pretty much what we would expect to see; the only difference being that a splash of brandy, rather than milk, is used to slacken the mixture.3

A seed cake cannot be made with any other seed than caraway. Sure, you could swap them for poppy seeds or some such, but you will have made a cake with seeds in it, not a seed cake! What’s so special about caraway then? Well, caraway was used to flavour all sorts of foods ever since ancient times, because unlike the other spices* it grew happily throughout Europe. It is an essential flavouring in German sauerkraut for example. In Britain, folk seemed to prefer to use in sweet foods, as Elizabeth David noted: “Apart from seed cake, (why were those cakes always so dry?) once the great English favourite, and caraway sweets and comfits, caraway appears little in English cooking.”4


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Elizabeth’s quote eludes as to why this cake fell out of favour – it’s viewed as boring, dry, stale perhaps, but I disagree. It is light, and because it contains very little liquid compared to, say, a moist Victoria sponge, it is paramount that the butter and sugar are well creamed together, the flour is carefully folded in without over-mixing, and that it is not over-baked. This is where I fear folk may go wrong: baking an extra ten minutes, just to be on the safe side, will produce a dry, boring cake. Done well, however, a seed cake can be as superlative as any Proustian madeleine.

175 g salted butter, softened

175 g caster sugar

3 eggs

250 g self-raising flour

1 tbs ground almonds

1 tbs caraway seeds

 Around 3 tbs milk (or brandy)

Preheat your oven to 180°C and line a 2 pound loaf tin (usually around 23 cm long) with greaseproof paper, keeping it in place with a smear of butter or cooking oil.

In a mixing bowl cream the softened butter until pale and fluffy. Add an egg and one tablespoon of the flour and beat in until smooth. Repeat with all of the eggs. Mix the remaining flour with the ground almonds and caraway seeds and tip into the mixture.

Fold in carefully and when combined, add the milk (or brandy) to loosen the batter slightly – unlike a regular sponge, you are not looking for a dropping consistency with seed cake, so don’t go overboard: start with two tablespoons and see how it looks.

Spoon into the tin and smooth the top – you don’t have to be fastidious here, as the batter cooks it levels out all on its own.

Bake for around an hour – this will depend on the dimensions of your tin, in my wide one, it took just 55 minutes. Test with a skewer if it is ready – I’ll say it again: it’s important not to overbake seeing as the batter is on the dry side.

Let it cool in its tin for 15 minutes before removing and cooling on a rack. These sorts of cakes are best eaten on the day, or the day after, they are baked.

*Mustard also grows in Europe, hence its heavy use in British recipes throughout history.

References:

1.           Glasse, H. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Prospect Books facsimile of the 1747 original).

2.           Woodforde, J. The Diary of a Country Parson Volume 2. (Oxford University Press, 1924).

3.           Beeton, I. The Book of Household Management. (Lightning Source, 1861).

4.           David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).

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Glamorgan Sausages (Selsig Sir Forgannwg)

The breakfast was delicious, consisting of excellent tea, buttered toast and Glamorgan sausages, which I really think are not a whit inferior to those of Epping.  

George Barrow, Wild Wales, 1862*

I don’t know about you, but I’m a beggar for freezing all sorts of bits and bobs left over from kitchen tasks or clearing out the fridge – carcasses, egg whites, vegetable trimmings – all in the name of frugality, and then promptly forgetting about them entirely. Because of this bad habit my freezer is full to bursting, and desperately needs emptying. The worst offender is fresh breadcrumbs: two bags full of them, in fact. As soon as I saw them, three foods flashed up in my mind: a nice stuffing for poultry, Queen of Puddings or the Welsh classic, Glamorgan sausages. Unsure which to make, I turned to Twitter, and Twitter resolutely told me it should be Glamorgan sausages. I was sure Queen of Puddings would win, but I’m always terrible at guessing the outcomes of these things.

A Glamorgan sausage is “a kind of savoury rissole made of cheese, leek or onion, eggs and breadcrumbs.”1 and they hail from the Vale of Glamorgan, south-east Wales. The Vale has been excellent spot for dairy farming for millennia, says Jane Grigson: “the Iron and Roman Age Welsh were largely a pastoral people moving about and dependent upon flocks and herds.”2 The work was – and is – hard, and communities were often cut off from other for whole seasons at a time; it seems that it was worth it though because the cows were very productive, and there was often a surplus of milk and cheese. This cheese was mixed with leftover bread and flavoured with leek, spring onions and parsley. This mixture was formed into sausage shapes and fried in lard or beef dripping.

A 1627 map of Wales, the Vale of Glamorgan is circled in black

There is a myth that the Glamorgan sausage is actually a twentieth century invention, created by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War to push meat-free cooking during rationing. As the quote at the top of this post tells us, they have been around a lot longer than the 1940s.

Traditionally Glamorgan sausages were made using Glamorgan cheese from the milk of the old Glamorgan and Gwent breeds3,4 which declined to almost extinction in the twentieth century, and so a replacement cheese is used today, the best known Welsh cheese, Caerphilly. It is described by the Welsh Cheese Company thus: “Caerphilly has a lactic, fresh lemony flavour and a slightly crumbly texture.”5 They also complain – as do I – of the wan, tasteless Caerphilly cheese we find in our supermarkets today.

If you cannot find a good Caerphilly from a good cheesemonger, I would advise going for a different cheese altogether, the best substitute being Lancashire. You can, of course, use Cheddar, indeed I have used it several times in past, so I will not judge.

Glamorgan sausages ready for frying

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If you’ve never made them before, have a go because they are easy to make and delicious, and, in my mind, a much superior vegetarian sausage to any masquerading as ‘meaty’ in supermarkets’ freezer cabinets. They can also be made and kept in the fridge for up to three days until you want to fry them. They also freeze well uncooked.

The great food historian Theodora Fitzgibbon suggests eating them “hot with fried puréed potatoes [or] for breakfast with bacon.”4 I heartily agree.

Makes 8 sausages

180-200 g Caerphilly cheese (or Lancashire or Cheddar)

120 g fresh breadcrumbs

3-4 cm section of leek, finely chopped

2 tbs chopped parsley

4 sage leaves, chopped

Leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme

2 tsp English mustard (or up to 3 if using a mature Cheddar)

2 eggs

Salt and pepper

2 tsp water

2 tbs seasoned flour

Extra breadcrumbs (fresh or dry) for coating

Sunflower oil, beef dripping or lard for frying

Grate the cheese and place in a food processor with the breadcrumbs, leek, herbs, mustard and one of the eggs and some salt and pepper. Pulse to a sticky rubble – the mixture should easy come together, if all seems a little dry, add the water and pulse again. This can all be done by hand, of course, if you prefer.

Bring the mixture together with your hands to form a nice yellow-green dough and divide into eight equal pieces. Wet your hands and roll the pieces into little sausages, around 1 ½ cm thick.

Now find three saucers, sprinkle the seasoned flour on one, beat the egg and pour that on another, then scatter your extra breadcrumbs on the third.

Now roll a sausage in the flour, tapping away excess, then the egg and then the breadcrumbs. Repeat for the remaining sausages.

Heat a deep frying pan over a medium-high heat with the oil or lard; you need enough for a half-centimetre depth. When hot fry the sausages for around 3 minutes, then turn them all a quarter turn – use two forks for this – cook another 3 minutes, etc until they are golden brown all over.

Remove and drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately.

*This quote is taken from, A Taste of Wales by Theordora FitzGibbon. The Epping sausages referred to in the quote are a skinless type made from pork and sometimes breadcrumbed or floured before frying, hence the comparison.

References

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

2.         Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).

3.         Glamorgan. The Cheese Wiki https://cheese.fandom.com/wiki/Glamorgan.

4.         FitzGibbon, T. A Taste of Wales. (J M Dent & Sons Ltd, 1971).

5.         A brief history of Caerphilly cheese. The Welsh Cheese Company https://www.welshcheesecompany.co.uk/blog/brief-history-caerphilly-cheese/ (2020).

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Pie-Style Pressure Cooker Pigeon

Last post I told you all about the origins of the pressure cooker, and how it was invented by Frenchman Denis Papin in the seventeenth century. One part of his story really struck a chord with me, and that was an almost throwaway comment made by diarist John Evelyn. He attended the ‘philosophical supper’ where Papin cooked for the members of the Royal Society, everything pressure-cooked in his “Digester”. Evelyn wrote about in his diary and described how deliciously tender everything was, but noted that the pigeons were particularly delicious:

We ate pike and other fish, bones and all, without impediment; but nothing exceeded the pigeons, which tasted just as if baked in a pie, all these being stewed in their own juice, without any addition of water save what swam about the digestor

As soon as read that, I knew I had to try it.

I don’t know what your mind conjures up when you imagine what a pigeon pie was like in days of yore, but I always think of Dorothy Hartley’s illustration and description in her wonderful book Food in England. Hers has a double crust and a layer of suet dumpling dough inside, but it was the interior of the pie that I was interested in here.

Dorothy Hartley’s pigeon pie

After a pie dish is lined with the pastry, a slice of braising steak is laid inside with the pigeons on top, then there is a sprinkling of bacon pieces and mushrooms. Stock or gravy is poured over them before the dumpling layer and second pastry layer are added on top. This recipe is for old pigeons that require long cooking, but if young pigeons (squabs) were used, the pies were cooked quickly and at a high temperature, the shortcrust pastry swapped for flaky or puff pastry and the stewing steak swapped for sirloin or veal. There is no definitive recipe, and there are recipes for pigeon pie from the seventeenth century that contain oysters, bone marrow, pistachio nuts and cockerels’ stones (testes). However they are cooked, pigeon pies were well regarded because of their tenderness.


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In my interpretation of pie-style pressure cooker pigeon, I stuck quite closely to Hartley’s description, though I added a few aromatic herbs and vegetables and good glug of red wine. I heartily recommend it, and the pigeons do come out exceedingly tender:

Serves 4

1 good knob of butter or bacon fat, around 30 g

4 cloves of garlic

1 leek, trimmed and sliced

2 sticks of celery, chopped

3 bay leaves

12 sprigs thyme

2 portobello mushrooms, sliced

Salt and pepper

2 tbs plain flour

6 rashers dry cured streaky bacon (smoked or unsmoked)

2 oven ready woodpigeons

400 g piece of braising steak (I used top rib)

125 ml red wine

250 ml beef stock

2 tbs chopped parsley

Melt the butter or fat over a medium high heat and add the garlic, leek and celery. Tie the bay leaves and thyme with some string and toss into the mixture. Season well with salt and pepper. Fry and brown the vegetables for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and fry for a further 5 minutes.

Meanwhile season the flour and scatter it over a plate. Give the steak a good coating of seasoned flour by pressing it down so that it gets a good covering of flour: make sure you do both sides.

Lay out 3 bacon rashers side by side on a board, sit a pigeon at one end and roll up, tucking the rashers underneath. Repeat with the other pigeon.

Take the pan off the heat, sit the beef on top of the vegetables, sprinkling in any flour that refused the stick to the beef. Sit the pigeons on top and pour over the wine and stock. The liquid should cover the beef, but only go up around a third of the pigeons. Add more stock – or plain water – if necessary. Add the parsley and then close the pressure cooker lid.

Bring up to full pressure and then turn down to a quiet hiss for 1 hour. Turn the heat off and allow to cool enough so that the lid can be removed safely.

To serve, remove the pigeons from the cooker, take off the bacon and return it to the vegetables, then remove the pigeon breasts – you should be able to do this with a spoon – and divide the beef into four pieces.

Just look how clean the meat comes from the bone. Deliciousness.

Mash the very soft bacon into the vegetables. Place a piece of beef in the centre of a plate or deep bowl, sit a pigeon breast on top and spoon over the vegetables and gravy.

Serve with mashed potatoes and garden peas.

References

The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22790

The Diary of John Evelyn Volume II (1665-1706) by John Evelyn. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42081

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) by Eliza Acton

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Scáiltín (hot Irish milk punch)

Merry Christmas readers! It’s time for my annual Yuletide boozy drink recipe.

This year Christmas is a very different one, of course, scaled back so much many of us are spending it on our own of the first time, and there’s no chance of getting to a pub any time soon. But we’re a resolute lot, and I am sure we all plan to make the best of it.

If you need a bit of extra comfort this year (and I suspect you do), you could do a lot worse than making scáiltín, a delicious Irish milk punch. It’s very simple to make and you probably already have the ingredients at home.

I came across this delightful drink a few years ago inside The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook and served it up at my little restaurant in the wintertime where it was very popular. Scáiltín is a hot punch made with milk and Irish whiskey; we can agree on this. However, the flavourings vary quite a lot. I’ve scoured my books and the internet and, as so often is the case, found that there is a lot of disagreement. Some insist it should be sweetened with honey, others brown sugar; some say it’s not scáiltín unless it is flavoured with caraway, yet many claim that ginger and cinnamon must be used. Butter is added to enrich it, but only sometimes.

Of course, all of these variations are correct: by nature, regional foods vary within and between towns, and many of the differences probably came down to class. Spices were costly, so many had to miss them out altogether; though some of middling wealth would have reached for the caraway because it was one of the few spices that could be grown in Europe and was relatively cheap.

It seems to be a very old drink, probably mediaeval. However, there is very little information about this delicious drink out there, so if you know anything about this drink’s pedigree or have a recipe for it of your own, please leave a comment.

I have settled on the recipe below, essentially cherry-picking my favourite ingredients, but feel free to change them. I do insist you add the small knob of butter though. I think it makes all the difference. If you are not a fan of whiskey, you can substitute dark rum, but I must urge you to try it with the whiskey; I hate the bloody stuff usually, but somehow, combined with the ingredients below it is perfect. How many of us have received a bottle of it as a gift in the past only for it to collect dust on a shelf? Put it to good use, I say.

I hope you have a great Christmas despite everything that is going on, and if you are feeling a little too much like Scrooge this year, knock back a couple of these, I guarantee they will warm your cockles, and get you in the Christmas spirit.

See you on the other side! Neil xxx

Per person:

240 ml full-fat milk

1 to 2 shots (25 to 50 ml) Irish whiskey, dark rum or (heaven forbid!) Scotch whisky

1 tbs honey

Good pinch of mixed spice

1 tsp salted butter

A few rasps of freshly ground nutmeg

Place everything in a small saucepan except the nutmeg and heat gently whisking with a small whisk to get a good froth. Even better, if you have a proper coffee machine, heat it with the milk froth attachment for an extra silky scáiltín.

Pour the scáiltín into cups or mugs spooning the froth on top and quickly grate a little nutmeg over the top. Serve immediately.

Excellent with mince pies.


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References

The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook (2012) by Christine McFadden

Éigse: a journal of Irish studies; 1948, Volume 5

The Milk Punch Episode (2018) by Eric Kozlik, Modern Bar Cart https://www.modernbarcart.com/podcast/episode-076-the-milk-punch-episode

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