Category Archives: history

A Cottage Loaf

It is as hard to achieve the right shape and texture, crust and crumb, of an authentic cottage loaf as it is to reproduce true French baguette bread.

Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977

The cottage loaf is a vintage classic, and as far as I can see, a bread unique to England. I would say that most people have heard of one but have never clapped eyes on one in real life. I don’t think I have, my only interaction being with the salt dough loaf one that was part of the play shop my infant school teacher Mrs Bareham put together in the early 1980s. If you are not familiar with one, a cottage loaf is made up of two cobs – i.e. ball-shaped loaves – stacked one on top of the other, the upper loaf around half the size of the bottom one. The shape is curious, making even slicing difficult, which I suppose wouldn’t matter if you are just tearing off rustic chunks to dunk in your stew.

I’ve been meaning to have a go making one for years, but Elizabeth David writing in her classic tome English Bread and Yeast Cookery talked of how fiendishly difficult it is to make and impossible to reproduce at home. That is, unless you are Virginia Woolf, who made an excellent one. These days we have rather more time at home than usual, so I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a waste of time if it turned out to be a disaster. Then, I saw a tweet alluding to its trickiness from Foods of England, so I considered the gauntlet to have officially been thrown down.

The interior of a brick oven (photo: TripAdvisor.com)

I had a look into the history of it with a little trepidation, half expecting it to be a food with no vintage at all like the Ploughman’s Lunch. I needn’t have worried – it turns out to be an invention of the early nineteenth century at least, and a picture of one a little later in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). They were originally baked directly on the bottom of low, flat brick bread ovens like many cobs, muffins and breadcakes are still baked today. There were no shelves in these ovens, unlike modern combi-ovens, meaning one was rather restricted in the area one could bake crusty cobs. That’s where the upper loaf comes in for it made a larger loaf – two really – without taking up extra precious space on the oven bottom. It all makes perfect sense now.

The trick to making a cottage loaf is to keep that top piece from falling off during proving and baking, though it does need to lean slightly to one side, says Ms David, like a jaunty hat. But, you can’t just sit one on top of the other, you have to fix it in place by taking floured fingers and plunging them through the top and bottom cobs two or three times. That’s what Paul Hollywood says anyway, Elizabeth David does the same, but proves the two loaves separately then attaches them in a similar way but includes extra cuts, crosses and a lot of manhandling. No wonder she found it difficult. Seeing as her baking recipes are hit-and-miss at the best of times, went for the Hollywood method.

I used my basic cobb recipe, but used 500 g of flour instead of 400 g.

For one loaf:

500 g strong white bread flour

10 g salt

10 g easy bake “instant” yeast

25 g oil or softened butter

320 ml warm water.

Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt and the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the warm water into the well along with the butter or oil.

Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook on a mixer to bring it together. Knead well until the dough becomes tight and springy, around 5 minutes in a mixer, or 10 or so minutes if kneading by hand. It will be sticky, but persevere; sprinkle a little flour or a smear a little olive oil on your work surface if you like. Bundle the dough into a tight ball and place in an oiled bowl and cover to allow it to double in volume in a warm place.

When ready, press out the air and cut away a third of the dough. On a lightly-floured work surface, make the cob shape by forming a ball with the dough by tucking your hands under it, tightening the dough. If you twist the ball of dough slightly as you do this, it will be extra tight. Repeat with the other piece of dough.

Dust a baking sheet with flour and set aside.

Sit the small loaf directly on top of the large one, flour the first three fingers of one hand and plunge them right down through the dough right to worktop surface. Repeat one more time and your two pieces should be well-fused together.

At this point you can make some cuts with a sharp serrated knife, but to do so you have to pick it up, so avoid this step if you think it might be too risky. Sit in on the floured baking tray and cover with a large bag and leave to prove again, until twice the size and springy to the touch.

To achieve a really good crust, set your oven to 220°C as you wait for the loaf to prove and sit a roasting tin on the bottom of the oven. When the loaf is ready to go in, boil the kettle and place the loaf on the middle shelf, pull out the roasting tin a little and pour in the water – careful of the steam! – and quickly shut the door.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

As it turns out it’s not that tricky in the end, and it even leaned to one side without falling off just like Beeton’s!

References:

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David

‘Cottage Loaf’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/cottageloaf.htm

How to Bake (2012), Paul Hollywood

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton

The Taste of Britain (2006), Laura Mason & Catherine Brown

The cracked crisp crust

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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime, The Victorians

One Million Hits!

Hello wonderful readers!

This week I made the great achievement of accruing one million views on British Food: a History, so this is just a very quick post to say thank you for subscribing to the blog, for reading and commenting on my posts and for cooking the recipes I put out there, even the weird ones!

A lot has happened in the last (almost) ten years since I started it – way back when I was living in St Louis as an evolutionary biologist – and there have been some major ups and downs between now and then. At low points I barely posted, but now I’m back in the swing and so chuffed about the lovely comments and discussions that get going on the blog.

All this writing has even landed me with a book commission which I am working on right now*, plus a smattering of recent television jobs. The podcast series which started earlier in the year (and will return once the book is written) was well received too it seems, so hopefully things are on the up, or will be once we have adjusted to our post-covid lives, whatever that will entail.

I know that none of this would be happening if you were not reading it, so thanks again! I’ll be toasting you all (or maybe wassailing you all?) this evening.

Neil xxx

*obviously not right now, I’m writing this right now.

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Filed under Blogs, Britain, food, General, history

Irish Treacle Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes one large round

250 g plain flour

250 g medium oatmeal

1 tsp salt

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbs black treacle

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

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

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

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

Cool on a rack.

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

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

Helen’s Hebridean sheep

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

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

Pax cakes

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

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

Helen, Neil & Vicky

Links and extra bits:

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

Recipe for pax cakes:

200g icing sugar, plus extra

30 g cornflour, plus extra

1 tsp orange flower water

Zest half a lemon

1 medium egg white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent podcast episode 6: Cheating & Altruism

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

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

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

Professor Matthew Cobb

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

Links and extra bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Britain, Easter, food, General, history, natural history, nature, Podcast, Uncategorized

Lent podcast episode 5: Lent & Diet

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

Neil with David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

Links and extra stuff:

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

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

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

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

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

Lent podcast episode 4: Bluebells & Magpies

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

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

A bit of Bud…

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

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

Professor Matthew Cobb

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

Click the link below to go straight to the episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Britain, Easter, Festivals, food, General, history, natural history, nature, Podcast, Uncategorized

Lent podcast episode 3: Eostra & Eggs

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

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

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

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

Please listen, like and subscribe.

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

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

Extra bits:

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

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

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

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

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

Lent podcast episode 2: Fish & Humours

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

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

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

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

Most of all, thanks to you for listening – if you have anything to add about anything you hear, feel free to post a comment, tweet me (@neilbuttery) or email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com.

Please listen, like and subscribe.

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

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

Extra bits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A recipe for ‘a tart for Ember Day’:

Shortcrust pastry made with 400 g flour

1 medium onion

2 tbs parsley, chopped

1 tbs mint, chopped

1 tsp sage, chopped

A handful of raisins

150 g blue cheese, grated

Pinch of saffron

2 tbs hot milk

10 eggs

75 g melted butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

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

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

Lent podcast episode 1: Collops & Pancakes

Welcome to my first episode all about the history of Lent in Britain. There will be a new episode every Sunday throughout Lent, and over the weeks we will be looking at it from every direction possible.

I’m having great fun making it and it has been amazing to get help and support from Beena Khetani at the amazing Sonder Radio.

A huge thanks to David Walker, Bishop of Manchester for giving up his time to talk to me, and to my pals Kate and Pete for letting me take over their kitchen.

Most of all, thanks to you for listening – if you have anything to add about anything you hear, feel free to post a comment, tweet me (@neilbuttery) or email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com.

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

Please like, follow or subscribe:

In episode one we start our historical journey through Lent, the Sunday before it begins by finding out what Lent (and indeed Easter) is with the help from the Very Reverend David Walker Bishop of Manchester, where we discuss what Lent and Easter means in the Christian Church, the benefits of fasting, how Lent has changed over the centuries, and how eating world’s largest rodent during Lent is absolutely fine (if you live in Venezuela).

Neil then tell us all about Shrovetide. Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, is the best-known day of Shrovetide of course, but what about its forgotten partner Shrove Monday, aka Collop Monday? You’ll have to listen to find out.

Neil then cooks two different pancakes: ‘Pancakes for the Rich’ and ‘Pancakes for the Poor’ for a couple of his friends Kate and Pete who are used to him shoving historical food under their noses all the time. They discuss the correct way to eat a pancake, what the best toppings and reminisce about that classic Jif Lemon advert from days long gone as well as Yvette Fielding’s massive pancake fail on Blue Peter.

Once well and truly shriven, we gather ourselves and head on to the first day of the 40-day fast Ash Wednesday.

Useful links:

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

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

‘Jif Lemon Day’ ad:

Yvette Fielding’s pancake fail:

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

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

Follow Neil Buttery on twitter @neilbuttery

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

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