Category Archives: history

Black bun (Scotch Bun) Part 2: Recipe

My traditional yeast-leavened black bun

As promised, and carrying on from my last post, here is my recipe for the traditional yeast leavened black bun (Scotch bun). I must say I was really surprised with how well it turned out: it was enriched with so much stuff and was so huge, I thought the poor little yeast cells wouldn’t be able to do their job. I was wrong, but it did take two days to do two provings required before baking.

The white dough is essentially a sweet brioche made without eggs. When it was time to knock it back after its first rising, I was encouraged by the network of small yeasty bubbles that had formed inside the dough.

The tiny bubbles in my enriched basic dough

The bun was huge and made quite the centrepiece (though if you wanted to reduce the quantities and make a smaller one, go ahead). The cake inside was deliciously moist, and the brioche dough wonderfully buttery and thin and in such contrast with the treacle-black centre.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce and would to start a £3 monthly subscription, or would like to treat me to virtual coffee or pint: follow this link for more information. Thank you.


It may have been big, but it kept well and was perfectly delicious well over a week after baking.

For the basic dough:

450 g plain white flour

450 g strong white bread flour

160 g caster sugar

10 g dried fast-action yeast

20 g salt

160 g softened butter

400 ml hand-hot full-fat milk

A smidge of flavourless oil

For the centre:

750 g basic dough

100 ml black treacle

400 g currants

400 g raisins

100 g candied peel

100 g slivered almonds

1 tsp mixed spice

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and allspice

2 eggs, plus 1 more for glazing

Butter for greasing

Granulated sugar

Two days before you want to bake your black bun, in the evening, make the basic dough. This is best done with an electric mixer, however don’t let me stop you attempting this by hand. Mix the dry ingredients – flours, yeast, sugar and salt – in your mixing bowl, make a well and add the butter and milk. Mix slowly with a dough hook until everything is mixed together, then turn the speed up a little and knead until smooth. Because it’s a low-gluten mixture and there’s all of that butter and sugar, it won’t be very elastic, but when it’s really smooth, you are done. It should take 8 to 10 minutes.

Paint the inside of a bowl with oil, then bundle up the sticky dough as best you can and cover with cling film. Leave to prove until around double in size. This took 18 hours: I use a low amount of yeast on purpose that the yeast ferments slowly. It may take less time for you if you used more yeast, and if your home is warmer than mine.

Knock back the dough and place 750 g of the dough in your food mixer, then add the treacle, dried fruits, candied peel, almonds, spices and eggs. Mix with a flat beater for a couple of minutes until everything looks smooth and like a Christmas cake batter. Set aside.

Take the remaining dough, form into a ball, place on a floured work surface and roll out into a large circle 32-35 cm in diameter. Make sure your pin is floured too; this will prevent sticking. With slightly wet hands, scoop the dark sticky dough and pop it in the centre of your circle. Now gather the dough so that the centre is completely covered – rather like a giant Eccles cake.

Cut away bits of the dough that have bunched up too much and glue any edges with a thin coat of beaten egg. Don’t worry if it looks a bit messy. Turn the bun over and flatten it with your hands, smoothing away any bulging bits to make a nice round shape.

Now liberally grease a 25 cm flan ring with butter and place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and then dusted with flour, and place the bun in the centre. Press the bun or lightly roll it with your rolling pin so that is just a centimetre off from touching the edge. Paint the top with egg and scatter over a little granulated sugar, then stab holes in the top with a thin, pointed knife right down to its base – this keeps it flat as it rises. Cover with a large plastic bag[1] and allow to prove until it has grown large enough to fill the ring. For me, this took 12 hours.

Preheat your oven to 175°C and place a heatproof tin on the bottom of the oven. When it’s time to bake the bun boil the kettle, then open the oven and slide your bun onto the middle shelf, gingerly slide the tin out enough so that you can pour in the hot water, slide it back in and close the door.

Bake at this temperature for an hour, then turn the heat down to 140°C and bake for a further 2½ hours. If the top is getting too brown, cover it with some kitchen foil.

Remove from the oven, and slide onto a cooling rack. Remove the ring when the bun is just warm.

The black bun will keep for weeks in an airtight box or tub. It is delicious eaten with sharp cheese.


Notes:

[1] I find a supermarket ‘bag for life’ is best for this task. I have one that I use only for proving things like this. Turn it over and turn up the edges, as you would your trousers to make it a sturdy shape and hey presto!

2 Comments

Filed under baking, bread, Britain, cake, Christmas, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes, Scotland, Teatime, Uncategorized

Black Bun (Scotch Bun) Part 1: History

Before we begin: a big thank you to Scots chef and food writer Sue Lawrence for helping me out with the research for this post.

It has become a Christmas tradition of mine to ask my Twitter followers to select by Christmas post for me by way of a poll. I like to include both obvious and obscure options and was very pleased this year to see roast turkey receive no votes all (though I suppose I’ll have to write about it at some point!), and the most obscure on the list – the black bun – win out with 46% of the votes.[1]

The black bun – sometimes called a Scotch bun – is a Scottish speciality that has changed in shape and constitution through the years, but is today a type of fruit cake baked in a loaf tin lined with shortcrust pastry. It is then covered with more pastry, egg washed and baked. The cake was often made black with the addition of black treacle; Sue Lawrence says of these very rich black buns, ‘the malevolent appearance of the black inner of its shiny golden pastry case might be off-putting to some black bun virgins.’ It might come as no surprise that the bun ‘is almost invariably served with a dram of whiskey.’[2]

Black buns today are fruit cakes wrapped in pastry (pic: BBC)

It is traditional to eat black buns at Hogmanay, the Scots new year festival. Food writer and chef and Sue Lawrence writes evocatively of childhood experiences of the Hogmanay celebration:

‘As I grew up, Hogmanay…was always a time for friends and fun. Friends and neighbours would get together to have a drink and the traditional shortbread (often eaten with cheese), sultana cake, black bun and such delights as ginger and blackcurrant cordial.’[3]

For many Scots Hogmanay, was – and is – more important than Christmas Day is the Christmastide calendar. The black bun is actually the Scots’ Twelfth Cake, but the food and the party was, according to F. Marion McNeill, ‘transferred to Hogmanay after the banning of Christmas and its subsidiary festival, Uphaelieday or Twelfth Night, by the Reformers.’ Christmas Day saw a similar treatment, hence the importance of Hogmanay over other days.[4]

It’s worth mentioning that the black bun wasn’t eaten throughout Scotland: in the Highlands and islands the clootie dumpling was eaten instead.[5] I talk about the clootie dumpling and other Hogmanay foods and traditions with Ulster-Scots chef Paula McIntyre in a new episode of The British Food History Podcast published on 28 December 2022:

You may be wondering why it is called a bun. Well. If you look at older recipes, you’ll see that it was using an enriched white bread dough, a proportion of which is mixed with all of those ingredients one  might expect in a Twelfth/Christmas cake: currants, raisins (sultanas are avoided because of their paler colour), candied peel, etc. The mixture was then wrapped in the remaining dough, proved and baked. They were huge and ‘graced many a festive table in the big houses of Scotland over the centuries’, one recipe, provided by Sue Lawrence, used 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) of flour!

I first heard of the black bun, not in a Scottish cookery book as one might expect but in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[6] She described it as ‘a remarkable confection’, and it is one of the few British, but not English, recipes included in the volume. Indeed, as I found out whilst researching this post, black buns were sold by Edinburgh bakers and sent as gifts all across the British Isles; so it was, at a time, well-known outside of Scotland. Because her book is on yeast cookery, Elizabeth only includes older recipes that use yeast as a leavening agent. She provides several recipes from several sources, and it is interesting to see how the bun became richer and fruitier as time went on. Black buns grew to be so enriched that it became almost impossible to leaven them using yeast, luckily this happened around the same time chemical raising agents were commercially available. At first the chemically-leavened buns were made with bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk – just like a soda bread – but over time, it became more like a regular fruit cake.[7] The pastry initially used was a huff paste – a pastry somewhere between a hot water pastry and a shortcrust. At first it wasn’t eaten, the paste simply protecting the interior, however as time went on, the pastry was swapped for a richer, more buttery shortcrust.[8]

The black bun also gets a special mention in another classic book of English food, Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England,[9] where it is described as a pastry-lined cake. Interestingly, in this book, there is a rare illustration showing the variety of shapes in which the black buns were made:

There are many fantastic recipes for the cake/pastry sort of black bun; Sue Lawrence has one in her forthcoming Scottish Baking Book, and there is one is F. Marion McNeill’s wonderful The Scot’s Kitchen[10] too, so I thought I’d give the yeast-leavened one a go.

I read through a few recipes and based mine on a recipe by Florence Jack, provided by Ms. David in her book. What I liked about it was that it seemed very black: loads of currants and raisins as well as added treacle. I did tone some of the ingredients down because it seemed to me that it enriched it simply wouldn’t rise.

I’ll let you know how I got on in the next post….


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce and would to start a £3 monthly subscription, or would like to treat me to virtual coffee or pint: follow this link for more information. Thank you.


Notes:

[1] The other two options were Brussels sprouts and buche de Noel which attained 21% and 33% of the votes respectively.

[2] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999) The Taste of Britain. Devon: Harper Press.

[3] Lawrence, S. (2003) Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. Headline.

[4] McNeill, F. M. (1968) The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. 2nd edn. Blackie & Son Limited.

[5] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999)

[6] David, E. (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Grub Street.

[7] Hartley, D. (1954) Food in England. Little, Brown & Company.

[8] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

[9] Hartley, D. (1954)

[10] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

1 Comment

Filed under baking, bread, Britain, Christmas, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes, Scotland

Eggnog

Merry Christmas everyone! It’s been yet another long and arduous year, but now it is time to kick back your heels – even if it is only for a short time – and to aid you in this I present my annual Christmas boozy drink post. This year, it one of my favourites: eggnog (regular readers will know of my love of anything custardy).

Eggnog isn’t really drunk that much in Britain, but it is very popular in the United States. Indeed, it is where I discovered it; I remember walking through the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the winter term seeing several students chugging big cartons of the stuff on their way to lectures (it’s worth pointing out that the bought stuff in cartons contains no alcohol; you add your own later, should you wish to).

A selection of U.S. eggnog cartons

For those not in the know, eggnog is a thick, creamy drink made from a dark spirit, usually rum (though brandy, whisk(e)y or sherry can be used), cream or milk, eggs, sugar and spices. The ingredients are either whisked up and served chilled and frothy, or cooked like a custard and drunk hot or cold. Here’s a description of the process from nineteenth century American historian and politician Nathaniel Bouton, writing about the US in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Another favourite drink was egg-nog, which was composed of an egg beaten and stirred together with sugar, milk and spirit…The stick used for this purpose was split at the end and a transverse piece of wood inserted, which was rapidly whirled around, back and forward, between the palms of the hands. Skilful men made graceful flourishes with…“egg-nog” sticks in those days.[1]

The drink was invented in the late colonial era, and was enjoyed all year round; it became associated with Christmas because two of the primary ingredients – eggs and cream – were expensive in wintertime and so could only be enjoyed as a treat. Therefore, it was saved for Christmastide (unless you were rich, then it didn’t matter). A tradition, one I whole-heartedly agree with, was quickly established to breakfast upon eggnog on Christmas morning. This was extended, for those who could afford it, to the full twelve days of Christmas.[2] So ubiquitous was it that eggnog was ‘consumed heartily by slave owners, slaves and children alike.’[3]

There was a drop in popularity during Prohibition,[4] but it has certainly since recovered because according to Indiana University ‘[i]n 2007, eggnog consumption nationwide was 122 million pounds with peak sales occurring the week before Thanksgiving, the weeks of Christmas, and just after Christmas.’[5]


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce and would to start a £3 monthly subscription, or would like to treat me to virtual coffee or pint: follow this link for more information. Thank you.


You may be wondering: “Er, why are you telling me about an American drink on a blog about British food history?”

Good question.

Well first you could argue that colonial America was a part of Britain, being part of its proto-empire; and second, eggnog is part of the evolution of a British drink called posset, something I have already written about. Possets were made[6] by beating or whisking alcohol – usually sweet wines and sack – with hot milk or cream, sugar and spices. Sound familiar? There was a problem for anyone making a posset in North America because sweet, imported wines were very expensive, prohibitively so for many, and so a cheap alternative was required. In eighteenth century America this was rum, and so the posset was adapted and became eggnog.

You can make your eggnog hot or cold. The hot version is a wonderful, luscious silky-thick custard, and with freshly grated nutmeg it’s just like a boozy, liquid custard tart. This you can enjoy cold too. The uncooked cold one is very different, the eggs, milk and cream froth up after a good shaking, to produce a surprisingly light and refreshing drink.

My recipe makes enough for two people so that if you are going for the uncooked version you can fit the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. If you want to make more, you’ll have to froth the mixture in a bowl with your best eggnog stick, or failing that, a whisk.

If you want to make a cold eggnog, use sugar syrup,[7] if hot can use sugar syrup or caster sugar. Note that the cold one uses raw eggs, so buy good quality free-range eggs, and avoid giving the drink to anyone immunosuppressed.

Cheers! And a very merry Christmas

Serves 2

4 shots (100 ml) dark rum (or brandy, whisk(e)y, sherry etc.)

50 ml sugar syrup or 25-30 g caster sugar

2 eggs

150 ml whole milk

150 ml double cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

Ice cubes (if drinking cold)

To make cold: In a cocktail shaker filled with cubed ice, add the alcohol, sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream. Shake very well indeed and strain the eggnog through a fine sieve into two glasses filled with more ice cubes. Grate some nutmeg over the top and serve.

To make hot: place the alcohol, three-quarters of the sugar or sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream in a saucepan and place over a medium-low heat and beat with a small whisk. When fully mixed, keep stirring until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat but continue to stir. Taste, and add more sugar if desired.

Pass through a fine sieve into two glasses, grate nutmeg over the top and serve.


Notes:

[1] Bouton, N. The History of Concord From Its First Grant in 1725, to the Organization of the City Government in 1853. (Benning W. Sanborn, 1856).

[2] Wondrich, D. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. (Oxford University Press, 2021).

[3] Shanahan, M. Christmas Food and Feasting: A History. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019).

[4] Wondrich, D. (2021).

[5] Christmas by the Numbers. Indiana University https://www.ibrc.indiana.edu/studies/factoid/dec09.pdf.

[6] I say were made. Modern day possets are not really a drink, more a set dessert. Very delicious, but really quite different to those of the eighteenth century.

[7] To make a sugar syrup mix equal weights of white or golden caster sugar and hot water. Stir to dissolve and leave to cool. Easy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Christmas, Dairy, General, history, Recipes, Uncategorized

Season 5 of ‘The British Food History Podcast’

Baby, it’s [bloody] cold outside.

I hope everyone is managing to keep warm in this terribly long cold spell we’re having. It’s pretty miserable, but I hopefully have something for you to help distract you during these cold, long winter nights, at least for a little while: a brand new season of The British Food History Podcast.

Yes, season 5 has just launched with a very special Christmas special with food historian Dr Annie Gray, who came on the podcast talk about Christmas feasting and Christmas food through the ages.

Food historian Annie Gray (Kristy Noble Photography)

Annie is author of several books including the excellent Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria and Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook. She is also a frequent panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and has appeared on countless television shows, including the excellent A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley.

Her most recent, At Christmas we Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages, published by Profile Books, is out now in paperback, and she kindly came on the podcast to tell me about it. We talked about many things: the myths and misconceptions about the food we eat at Christmas; why and how we feast; how the feast of Christmas has changed through time; what the Victorian’s DIDN’T invent; jelly; wassail; the ancient Xmas centrepiece the boar’s head; trifle; Yorkshire Christmas Pye; and her favourite recipes contained within the book.

If you are a £3 monthly subscriber on the blog, there are three Easter Eggs associated with this episode:

  1. An excised discussion about the merits of making one’s own mincemeat for mince pies
  2. The uncut discussion about recipes and revelations, including Yorkshire Christmas frumenty
  3. The uncut discussion about the boar’s head and squeamishness.

Follow this link to get to the Easter Eggs page which is filled with all sorts of aural food history delights that you cannot hear anywhere else.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce and would to start a £3 monthly subscription, or would like to treat me to virtual coffee or pint: follow this link for more information. Thank you.


I have some fantastic guests lined up for this season and quite the variety of topics, including Hogmanay with Paula McIntyre, Eighteenth Century Dining with Ivan Day, and London’s Street Food Sellers with Charlie Taverner. You heard it here first!

If you’ve never tuned in before, just search ‘The British Food History Podcast’ wherever you get your podcasts – it’s available from all providers. If you haven’t already, please follow, like and leave a review: every single one counts and helps the podcast move up those algorithms so that it become easier to find by others.

If you don’t listen to podcasts and don’t have an account with a provider, don’t worry, you can listen through this link below:

Leave a comment

Filed under food, history, Podcast

Manchets and Payndemayn

Some of this article contains premium content just for subscribers, if you are not a subscriber, but would like to be one, follow the link further down the page.

As I mentioned last post, I used Elizabeth David’s research on the medieval and early modern bread roll called payndemayn (medieval period) or manchet (medieval and early modern), to recreate my own. The two words at one point, it seems, were interchangeable. There are many spellings of payndemayn, the root of this word being French, pain demesne, from the Latin panum dominicum, the lord’s bread.[1] The word appears in medieval manuscripts such as Forme of Cury. Manchet is believed to be a contraction of the word payndemayn – main – and cheat, the name for another, similar bread made from refined flour that wasn’t quite as white as the really good stuff. Main and cheat eventually became manchet.[2]

It was ‘the lord’s bread’ because the small bread rolls – weighing in at around only 7 ounces (200 grams) – were so expensive that only the lord, at the head of the top table, would receive one. The small loaf would be cut by the lord’s server as described here in the Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving) written in 1513:

take a lofe in your lyfte hand. & pare y lofe rounde aboute / than cut the over cruste to your souverayne, and cut the nether crust, & voyde the parynge, & touch the lofe no more after it is so served.[3]

The over crust, being considered the best part was eaten by the lord, and the rest divided up and given to whomever he so pleased. This is the origin of the idiom the upper crust we sometimes use when referring to the upper classes.

There are mentions of this bread all over, but there are no real recipes in the Middle Ages. There are several mentions of these loaves in recipes though, take this recipe for ‘Soppes Dorre’ from fifteenth century manuscript Harl.4016 (c.1430):

…take a paynmain, And kut him and tost him, And wete him in wyne, And ley hem in a dish, and caste [almond flavoured] syrup thereon.[4]

Elizabeth David went to great lengths in writing English Bread and Yeast Cookery to try and get an idea of what these breads were really like, gleaning cues from several sources and combining them. The earliest decent recipes and descriptions crop up in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but there are no complete ones: sometimes the ingredients are listed, but the amounts or the shape of the loaves are not given; other times, the shaping is described but the ingredients are missing. She also used artwork from the era to work out the likely shapes.

Elizabeth David’s oval-shaped manchet

It seems that they were also enriched with milk and/or butter and/or eggs, or none of the above, so perhaps something rather like a brioche (sometimes). Elizabeth took the information and created a flour mix of plain white flour, with some strong white flour and a little wholemeal flour, to replicate the lower gluten, not-quite-white nature of the wheat flour used at the time. She enriched her dough with butter and milk, avoiding egg. It put me in mind of my recipe for Cornish/Devonshire splits. She liked that in some descriptions the loaves were oval in shape. To replicate this, she made a deep slash in the dough before it went into the oven. However, I much preferred the sound of Gervase Markham’s 1623 way of shaping his loaves. He instructs us to take the risen dough and

mold it into manchets, round, and flat, scotch [cut] about the wast to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put it into the Oven, and bake it with a gentle heat.[5]

He stabs their tops so that they wouldn’t rise too much in the oven.

My attempt at ‘scotching’ my manchet loaves

I used my Devonshire splits dough as the basis of my manchet recipe, which, as it turned out, was pleasingly very close to Elizabeth’s, except – of course – I used much less salt than she. I decided to make some in the oval shape preferred by Elizabeth, and some like those described by Gervase Markham.

By the way: coincidentally just as I was cooking and researching this post, esteemed food historian Ivan Day posted on his excellent Instagram page a photo of Markham’s manchet, showing that scotched waist, along with some other breads of the same era. Here’s a link to his post, if you want to take a look at those.

Subscribe to get access

This recipe is for my subscribers. Read more of this content when you subscribe today and support the blogs and podcast.

To subscribe please visit the Support the Blog & Podcast tab.


References

[1] David, E. English Bread and Yeast Cookery. (Grub Street, 1977).

[2] Hieatt, C. B. & Butler, S. Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century. (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[3] de Worde, W. The Boke of Keruynge. in Early English Meals and Manners (ed. Furnivall, F. J.) (The Early English Text Society, 1897).

[4] Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books. (The Early English Text Society, 1888).

[5] Markham, G. Country Contentments, or The English Huswife. (I.B., for I Jackson, 1623).

1 Comment

Filed under baking, bread, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Mediaeval Age, Recipes, Seventeenth Century

Favourite Cook Books No.5: ‘English Bread & Yeast Cookery’ by Elizabeth David

The cover of the 1st edition of English Bread & Yeast Cookery

The great food writer Elizabeth David wrote several extremely popular and influential cookery books about food and food culture in France , Italy and the Mediterranean, introducing to the people of Britain a vibrant food culture of which they could only dream: her first being published when the country was still in the grip of post-war rationing.[1] However, less well known to many are her more scholarly books that she wrote in the latter half of her career. Most celebrated of these is English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).

I was introduced to Elizabeth David via Jane Grigson as I was cooking my way through Grigson’s book English Food for my blog Neil Cooks Grigson. Grigson was very much influenced by David, and several of her recipes appear in English Food, including three from English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[2] I bought myself a copy (the 2010 Grub Street edition). I distinctly remember the day I received it I the post: I was immediately struck by both the sheer amount of research and her wonderful evocative writing style. I then spent the next few hours, flicking the through the book, poring over her words and the wonderful illustrations.

Elizabeth David in her kitchen (Elizabeth David Archive)

But she was on a mission: she was depressed at the state of Britain’s bread and other baked goods, and she wanted to communicate just how good bread can be. She looked to France to show us that good, affordable bread was being baked today, but she also travelled back into our past to demonstrate just how good, varied and culturally important our own breads were.

Elizabeth split her book into two halves: the first being the history, not just of bread, but every single element of it: milling, yeast, salt, ovens, tins, weights and measures, the list goes on. The second half focusses upon the recipes themselves. Usually she provides several historical recipes taken from a variety of sources, showing us how the food has changed over the years, and then, at the end, she provides us with her own recipe updated for modern kitchens, measures and ingredients. No stone is left unturned. There is an astounding variety of different enriched buns and teacakes, many of which are regional and working class. I particularly love her introduction to the section on lardy cakes, saying they ‘are just about as undesirable, from a dietician’s point of view, as anything one can possibly think of. Like every packet of cigarettes, every lardy cake should carry a health warning.’ She tells up about the shapes of traditional loaves, and the cuts that were made upon them; and the weights of various loaves from our past – how many of us have been puzzled over an old recipe asking for ‘the crumbs of a penny loaf’ or some such, having no idea to how much to add? Well Elizabeth David has got your back. One of my favourite of her rabbit holes is the account of Virginia Woolf’s excellent bread making skills, something about which I have already written.

One very important section is Elizabeth’s chapter regarding payndemayn, the refined white loaf that furnished the dinner tables of the upper classes. They were eaten in the High and Late Middle Ages, morphing into manchet rolls by the early modern period. There are few examples or complete descriptions of these breads, other than that they were made of white flour (or the whitest that was possible at the time). In writing this chapter, David managed to piece together a method for them. Her work in this area is still the ‘go-to’ piece for food historians today.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


There are a couple of downsides to her approach however; sometimes I find her a little too acerbic, I go away after reading some passages feeling both personally attacked and responsible for the state of the country’s bread, essentially blaming the English’s preference for cheapness, whiteness and shape of their bread, over nutrition and taste. In part, I suppose, she has a point: it might not be our fault, but we do hold the power to change it on a personal basis at least. Just buy or make better bread: it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, and as I often say, two slices of home-made bread and butter are so much more filling than two slices of factory-made bread. The latter is really a false economy. But this brings me to my second point, and it might be a little controversial: I don’t think her bread recipes are very good. Her cooking tips are great (e.g. baking bread in a cold oven, or by covering it with a cloche) but her descriptions of the bread-making process are not clear. In reading this book I have learnt everything about bread except how to make a loaf of it.

One curious thing I noticed when trying to make her breads is they are often too salty (as a lover of saltiness, this is a view I rarely hold) but in researching this post, I found I was not the only one with this opinion, with one critic saying of her book ‘the facts are impressive and so is the amount of salt.’[3] David gives her reason for this; she uses unsalted butter and therefore makes her bread saltier to make up for it. However there is another reason why she was liberal with her salt: in 1963, Elizabeth suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after which she lost the sensation in many of her tastebuds. This experience made her change tack in her own work, withdrawing to her personal library to focus upon research. As writer Melissa Pasanen put it: ‘[this] may explain the emphasis on history over flavour.’[4]

But none of this matters: the book is wonderful, and her beautiful writing more than makes up for its short-fallings, and if you don’t own a copy, please get hold of one, you will not be disappointed.

Next post I will go for a deep dive into her payndemayn recipes.


Notes:

[1] Her first being A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950.

[2] These are ‘Rice Bread’, ‘Wigs’ and ‘Elizabeth David’s Crumpets’

[3] Pasanen, M. (2003) ‘Enough Saffron to Cover a Sixpence: The Pleasures and Challenge of Elizabeth David’, The Art of Eating.

[4] Ibid.

19 Comments

Filed under baking, Books, bread, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Uncategorized

My Best Yorkshire Pudding Recipe

Carrying on from my conversation about Yorkshire pudding with Elaine Lemm on the podcast recently, I thought I should toss my hat into the ring with my own recipe.


This post complements the episode ‘Yorkshire Pudding with Elaine Lemm’ on The British Food History Podcast:


This is a simple affair, and after some rigorous recipe testing, using fewer eggs or different mixtures of milk and water, as well as different receptacles in which to cook the batter, I think it is both excellent and fool proof. It goes by the tried-and-tested equal ratio method: i.e. equal volumes of plain flour, milk and eggs, plus a good pinch of salt, and animal fat (in my case, lard).

The pudding takes around 40 minutes to cook, the perfect amount of time to rest your roast meat before carving and serving.

In the podcast episode Elaine and I came to the conclusion that anything made in a muffin tin, isn’t really a proper Yorkshire pudding. Indeed, the consensus on my Special Postbag Edition of the podcast, cooking the batter in a tray achieves the best proportion of crispy, crunchy bits on the fringes and nice puddingy softness in the base. Listen to that episode here:

Have something to add to the debate? Please get in contact or leave a comment at the end of this post, I’m sure I shall be revisiting the subject in future postbag episodes.

A large pudding has both softness and crunch

Cooking in a dish that is good and thick is important for a good rise: you need something that will heat up in the oven, but also retain it when the cool batter is poured in. Don’t go for anything flimsy here: a really thick metal tin, or even better, an earthenware dish: it’s thickness and its property of retaining heat creates a pud with a fantastic rise: I got such a good one it almost hit the grill elements in my oven when put on the middle shelf! I give the dimensions of my dish in the recipe, but don’t worry if yours is slightly different; puddings like this are very forgiving with respect to dish size.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


Make the batter a few hours (minimum one) before you want to cook it.

Serves 6 to 8 if eaten with a roast dinner:

¾ cup (180 ml) plain flour

A good three-finger pinch of sea salt

¾ cup (180 ml) eggs

¾ cup (180 ml) milk, full fat, if possible

30 g lard, dripping or goose or duck fat

Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and pour your eggs inside the well. Use a whisk to combine the eggs and flour, starting in the well, gradually mixing the flour into the eggs. This prevents lumps forming.

Once the flour and eggs are mixed, add the milk, whisking slowly at first, until it is fully mixed in, then give it a good thrashing for 30 seconds or so. Leave, covered, at room temperature until you want to cook it. If you like, pour the whole lot into a jug, for easier handling later.

When you are ready to cook your pudding, preheat the oven to 200°C.

Place the fat in your tin or dish – I used an earthenware dish of dimension 20 x 28 cm, with steeply sloping sides – and place on the centre shelf of your oven. Give the dish and fat plenty of time to get fully hot: I leave it in there for a good 25 minutes.

Now give the batter a final good whisking, quickly (but carefully) open the oven door, pull the shelf of the oven out slightly so that you can pour in the batter. The batter should sizzle and frill up in the fat.

Quickly push the shelf back into place and close the door. Do not open the door until 25 minutes have elapsed.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, depending upon how dark you like your risen crispy edges.

Remove and slice into squares, serving it up with your roast dinner.

A pudding of high proportions

12 Comments

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

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.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


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).

2 Comments

Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Puddings, Recipes, Scotland

Sowans / Sowens

Experiments are under way!

Live-fermented foods are becoming more and more popular here in the UK. We seem to have embraced sourdough bread and its heady community of wild yeasts and bacteria; a community of microbes that not only leaven the dough but also provide that distinctive flavour. They also digest the gluten and other constituents in the flour, making it easier on our own stomachs. The microbes also create nutrients such as vitamins and essential amino acids, and make the food inhospitable to other microbes which would otherwise spoil it; a necessity in a world before refrigerators and freezers. Another live-fermented food is sauerkraut, traditionally made with cabbage, flavoured with caraway, and there are also fermented drinks like kefir (fermented milk) and kombucha (fermented sugar or honey, and tea) which are available in almost every supermarket and grocer’s shop around the country.

I think for many of us in the UK, all of this enthusiasm for live ferments looks like a bit of a fad, despite the growing evidence that foods that contain live cultures of fermenting microbes are very good for us. One reason why some regard them with suspicion is that in the UK we have never had a culture – as it were – of consuming these sorts of foods, except perhaps yoghurt, which unfortunately is all too often laced with sugar, had its fat skimmed away and its healthy microbes killed by pasteurisation.

But the thing is, we did have a culture of eating live-fermented foods, we have simply lost it; but the more I read old cookery books or manuscripts, the more I come across examples of these types of foods and drinks. One of these foods has recently captured my imagination, and that is the Scots fermented oat ‘milk’ or porridge called sowans (sometimes spelt sowens, and pronounced ‘soo-ans’). Sowans goes by a couple of other names; it is called subhan or súghan in Gaelic, and is known as virpa on the Shetland Isles.1

I discovered it leafing through the classic The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill.2 She describes how it was made: steeping the inner husks of the whole oat grains in water for several days in a large jar called a sowans-bowie until it soured, before being passed through a sieve.3 The resulting liquid would be left to settle for a day or so, where there would be a layer of white starch at the bottom. The liquid would be decanted off, and the starch cooked and eaten like porridge. Reading it, I simply could not understand how a foodstuff could be made just from the oat husks, known as sids in Scots.2 The husks are obviously inedible so how could a porridge or oat milk be made from them?

After a little more detective work, I found that the husks do contain some residual starch. As the oats are threshed to remove their husks, which is a quite violent process, inevitably some of the seed would be left attached to the husks. By mixing the husks in water, the starchy seed residue becomes suspended in the liquid and the natural yeasts and bacteria present on the husks begin to ferment it. After a few days – anywhere between 3 and 14 days depending upon time of year – the mixture becomes sour, rather like, I suppose, a sourdough starter, and then passed through a fine sieve. The milky liquid was drunk as it was, or the starch was allowed to settle so it could be used to make a porridge and eaten with salt, treacle or sugar. The decanted liquid wasn’t wasted, by the way, it was used to make sowans scones, where it was used rather like the buttermilk in regular scones.2 The fermented husks would sometimes be formed into cakes and baked. More often, though, they were fed to pigs or chickens.4

Oat husks

As a foodstuff, sowans is associated with harvesttime and commonly eaten by oat farmers. It is also associated with Hallowe’en, which falls not too long after harvest and the harvest festival. By making sowans, farmers were able to extract every scrap of carbohydrate from the sids that were left behind, after they had sold their crop. In Ireland, sowans was drunk or eaten in some parts of Ireland on St. Brigid’s Day in February.5

It was regarded as good for one’s health – and no doubt it was! The starch would be a precious source of energy and the microbes, and the products of the microbes’ metabolism, provided a whole suite of nutrients. ‘Some authorities claim it had sexual qualities.’ This seems to be because of its resemblance to semen when taken as a drink, which went by the name ‘Bull’s Semen’ or ‘White Bull’s Milk’ in some places. I’ve found one mention of farmlads teasing and goading young women, saying “I’ll be at you wi’ me sowans.”6,7


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


Sowans was particularly associated with Christmas. I found an article in The Family Friend, published in 1861, describing sowans drinking on ‘Auld Yule morning’. The author is simply known as ‘A.H.’. It says it was enjoyed all year round, but at Yuletide it was consumed only as a milky drink. In fact it was customary, and everyone was expected to drink some sowans out of bickers (beakers), “[n]ot that any of us were immoderately fond of sowans”, said one. That said, folk did get a taste for it and ‘there was a good rivalry, too, amongst the sowans makers.’8

After finding all of this out, I hope you can see why I was so intrigued by this unusual food. Determined to make some, I managed to get hold of some oat husks – and they are not easy to get hold of these days! I am currently part way through having a go at making sowans. They are not quite ready to drink or eat, but things seem to be working well. I shall report back soon with the results of my little experiment and hopefully a usable recipe.

Fermentation is occurring!

References

  1. Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud. 12, 41–47 (2013).
  2. McNeill, F. M. The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. (Blackie & Son Limited, 1968).
  3. Dawson, W. F. Christmas: Its Origin and Associations (Illustrated Edition). (e-artnow, 2018).
  4. Macdonald, F. Christmas, A Very Peculiar History. (Salariya Book Company Limited, 2010).
  5. Nic Philibín, C. & Iomaire, M. C. M. An exploratory study of food traditions associated with Imbolg (St. Brigid’s Day) from The Irish Schools’. Folk Life 59, 141–160 (2021).
  6. Douglas, H. The Hogmanay Companion. (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2011).
  7. Asala, J. Celtic Folklore Cooking. (Llewellyn Publications, 1998).
  8. A.H. Auld Yule; Or Christmas in Scotland. Fam. Friend Ed. by R.K. Philp (1861).

14 Comments

Filed under Britain, food, history, Preserving, Scotland

Season 4 of The British Food History Podcast

Hello folks! Just a very quick post to let you all know that the fourth season my podcast – The British Food History Podcast – is underway and the first two episodes are ready for you to download and listen to.

Felicity Cloake

In episode 1, I talk to journalist and food writer Felicity Cloake about the Great British breakfast. Listen here:

We talk about how breakfast might be the only thing uniting all 4 countries that make up the UK, the complexities of planning a nation-wide breakfast tour, injuries, why it’s okay to like both red and brown sauce, as well as neither, the importance of pudding on a fried breakfast, regional specialities and recipe writing.

Emma Kay

In episode 2, my guest is historian and friend of the show Emma Kay. Today we talk about Emma’s new book A History of Herbalism: Cook, Cure & Conjure which was published in June 2022. Listen here:

We talk about the importance of herbs in medicine, magic and food, and how these things were interconnected, the four humours, Anglo-Saxon medical texts, the double standards surrounding men and women who practised magic and medicine, two female pioneers of botany and herbalism, and narcotic garden vegetables.

I have a few extra guests lined up for you throughout August and September, so make sure to subscribe, follow and like wherever you get your podcasts, and if you can, leave comments, ratings and reviews.

There are Easter Eggs associated with the episodes which are available to subscribers.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription. Subscriptions give you access to the Easter Eggs page as well as special blog posts: follow this link for more information.


Leave a comment

Filed under General, history, Podcast, Uncategorized