This post complements the episode ‘Forme of Cury with Christopher Monk’ on The British Food History Podcast.
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This post complements the episode ‘Forme of Cury with Christopher Monk’ on The British Food History Podcast.
Read more of this content when you subscribe today. Follow this link for more details.
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.
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.
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!
Some exciting news! The second series of my podcast will drop from Sunday 25th of July, which is also the tenth birthday of the blog; it seemed appropriate somehow. Craziness. It’s had a slight name change and it now has the less clumsy title of The British Food History Podcast. I would love it if you subscribed to it via your favourite provider. It’s taking a little time to appear on Apple and Google podcasts but is all ready to go on the others: Spotify, Amazon, Deezer etc.
I’ve chosen Captivate to be my host and if you don’t have a podcast provider, you can listen to it there: https://the-british-food-histor.captivate.fm/listen
If you look on the episode list you’ll see I have added the episodes of the Lent special I made last year with Sonder Radio. Sorry it’s taken so long to do a second series: in lockdown everyone else made a podcast, but I had such a bee in my bonnet about going on location for interviews etc., I thought I’d wait for enough normality to resume before I started again. Anyway, I got bored of waiting for that obviously. (That said, I did manage to do some real life interviews and jaunts.)
I’m going to produce the podcast in packets of six episodes – life often gets I the way and as much as I’d like to make an episode every single week, the day job rather gets in the way of that.
One final thing – and I flush red as I type – I love making content and hope to be able to spend more time making it so if you like my blog posts and podcast episodes, please consider a monthly subscription or buying me a virtual coffee or a pint?
You can pay a one off donation or start up a monthly £3 subscription. The great thing about being a subscriber is that you get some extra bonus Easter eggs (deleted podcast scenes, bonus episodes, cookery videos) as well as extra blog posts. As more subscribe, the more content I can add for everyone. To find out more visit the Support the Blog and Podcast tab on the blog. I thank you in advance xxx
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.
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
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.
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.
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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*In fact it has been demonstrated that there is no safe minimum alcohol levels – it’s all bad, sorry!
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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).
Hello all – a very quick post to let you all know that this Saturday 10th April at noon (GMT) I’m taking part in a free event called ‘A Bite of History’. I’ll be in conversation with poet Dan Simpson and we’ll be discussing allsorts of things: food history and historical cooking, the evolution of our never-sated desire for sugar, the trials of running a restaurant and of course the blog. There’ll be a Q&A session too, so if you have any burning questions I shall do my best to answer them.
I’m also going to attempt a live cook spot – what could possibly go wrong!?
The event is part of the Inter-Action Book Club Cook Book Club which has been putting on free events throughout lockdown.
Hopefully see you there on the 10th of April.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
Hello everyone! It’s been a while hasn’t it? My apologies but getting the book ready for handing in took rather longer than expected.
I thought I’d break the ice with a post all about the pressure cooker – an odd subject to choose, you may think, but bear with me, for it has a particularly interesting genesis. (Also, I recently received one from my sister-in-law.)
Pressure cookers are ingenious things because they cook food much more quickly than regular saucepans or stockpots, and this is because the food – usually a stock or casserole – is cooked under high pressure and therefore a higher temperature. A regular pot of water boils at 100°C, but cannot reach a higher temperature because the water becomes steam, boiling away into the ether. However, place a sealed lid on top, the steam – a gas – cannot escape and consequently pressure builds up in the air space within the cooker. Because the steam it at high pressure, it’s harder for water to enter the gaseous phase, and it requires more energy to do so, effectively raising the boiling point. Inside a domestic pressure cooker, water boils at 120°C (around 2 atmospheres of pressure), and reduces the cook time by as much as 80%.
Until recently, I was a bit dubious about cooking in this way, because whenever I make stock, or slowly braise some meat, I bathe the meat and vegetables in water or stock at around 80°C, I don’t boil them; that usually results in tough meat and a lot of scum. Not good. The thought of cooking something at 120°C and having something tender as a result, seemed unintuitive, but I was wrong, tenderness is expected; in fact some “gourmets” are of the opinion that the meat is too soft and cannot “replace the traditional method of simmering.”
Its origin story goes right back to the 17th century. French physician Denis Papin invented his ‘Digester’, as he called it; a large cylindrical sealed chamber, heated over coals able to reach pressures of eight atmospheres (boiling point around 175°). He presented it to the Royal Society in 1679; amongst the fellows were luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, and so impressed were they that they commissioned his book A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681. The next year, he cooked the Society a Digester dinner. Present at the meal was the great diarist and champion of salads, John Evelyn, who later wrote:
12th April, 1682. I went this afternoon with several of the Royal Society to a supper which was all dressed, both fish and flesh, in Monsieur Papin’s digestors, by which the hardest bones of beef itself, and mutton, were made as soft as cheese, without water or other liquor, and with less than eight ounces of coals, producing an incredible quantity of gravy; and for close of all, a jelly made of the bones of beef, the best for clearness and good relish, and the most delicious that I had ever seen, or tasted. We ate pike and other fish, bones and all, without impediment…the natural juice of all these provisions acting on the grosser substances, reduced the hardest bones to tenderness…I sent a glass of the jelly to my wife, to the reproach of all that the ladies ever made of their best hartshorn.
So it seems that Evelyn not only confirms that cooking under pressure makes meat – and even bone – exceedingly tender, but also that it is a very good thing.
As good as it may be, that it was invented in the first place seems rather odd – why build a machine for softening bones? Papin makes his objective very clear: “no body can deny that…by the help of the Engine here treated thereof, the oldest and hardest Cow-Beef may be made as tender and as savoury as young and choice meat.” Cheap cuts that cost little but require a lot of fuel to cook tenderly, were suddenly quick to prepare and very pleasurable to eat, and he knew that this had huge implications for the working poor, and the improvement of their scant, and often miserable, diet.
Papin was very influential as part of the Royal Society, and worked alongside Robert Boyle, assisting him in his experiments exploring the nature of pressure, the result of which being Boyle’s Law. It wasn’t long before someone realised that his Digester had potential beyond the softening of bones: “all you need to do is attach a piston and you have begun to produce a steam engine.”
The Digester as a piece of cooking equipment did not take off – it was expensive to build and could be rather dangerous. It wasn’t until the addition of safety valves that effectively stopped the pressure from getting too high, and safety locks preventing the lid from flying off if opened too soon, would it become more common. This would take a while, and domestic pressure cookers only became available in Britain from 1949 where they were “hailed with delight”. The cookers were still prone to exploding, and they still wouldn’t become very popular until the 1970s when safety legislation was tightened further.
Today, pressure cookers are very safe and are very easy to use; though I do admit I was a little worried using one for the first time. With a pressure cooker, a rich beef stock can be made in 2 ½ hours rather than 12, making stock-making suddenly economically-viable. This fact convinced me to give it a go. After a quick rummage in the freezer, I found not beef bones but hogget bones, leftover from the legs I roasted for the podcast and Grigson blog last year (see here and here). The resulting stock was magnificent – richer and more delicious than any meat stock I had cooked before. Then, I tested it out on some pigeons, cooking them pie-style just as John Evelyn had mentioned in his diary, but you’ll have to wait until the next post to hear about that!
A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones (1681) by Denis Papin. Available to view at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/heyqybu9
The Diary of John Evelyn Volume II (1665-1706) by John Evelyn. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42081
The Instant Pot of the 1600s Was Known as ‘the Digester of Bones’, Atlas Obscura website (2018): https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/who-invented-the-instant-pot
Larousse Gastronomique (2001)
Marguerite Patten’s Century of British Cooking (2015) by Marguerite Patten
On Food and Cooking, Second Edition (2007) by Harold McGee
Happy New Year! I hope you aren’t too hungover.
Mine was low key. I drank cider and made this massive Spotted Dick.
2020 is finally over, and 2021 is here. I hope the blog has been a bit of escapism from all turmoil the last 12 months have brought us; I’ve tried not to mention it too much.
But the best thing about 2020 is you, my lovely readers: thanks for following and reading, AND using the recipes. I’ve had a lot of new followers and great comments. Not only did I have my one-millionth view, but I also had the best year ever – and by quite a stretch. I wouldn’t have made those milestones if you all didn’t visit it and use it. The blog went very quiet in the years the restaurant was open, and I was worried the blog had died a bit of a death, but I couldn’t have been so wrong.
There’s been a wide range of topics this year from cottage loaves to roast chickens, apple hats to cauldron cooking, as well as medieval famine, the non-binary world of muffins and crumpets and the best way to cook a heron. Click this link to see all of 2020’s posts.
I have lots of plans for the year ahead: I hope to bring back the podcast, and season 2 will be coming later in the year (though I’ll be re-releasing season 1 in February). I’ll let you know all about season 2 when I know more. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any television though; since the Channel 5 show Amazing Cakes & Bakes*, the phone has never started ringing.
It is hard to think any way beyond my book, which is due at the end of this month so I feel the blog will be going a little quiet until I hand in the completed manuscript. Again, I shall keep you all abreast of developments with that too (and hopefully send out a few copies in competitions). It’s called A Dark History of Sugar, and it has taken over my life since March, and I shall be glad to let it go!
So, I thank you again: you might not be hearing from me much in January, but I’ll be posting again as soon as I can.
*and Christmas special. Link here in case you missed it