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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.


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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.

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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.


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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

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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.


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Mutton Chops

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

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

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

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

Breaded Mutton Cutlets with Lemon Butter Sauce

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

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

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

Serves 2

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

Zest 1 lemon, grated

2 tsp finely chopped parsley

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

Salt and pepper

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

1 egg, beaten

30 g lard or dripping

2 level tsp plain flour or corn flour

300 ml chicken stock

50 g butter, diced and chilled

A squeeze of lemon juice

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

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

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

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

Beautifully soft and tender mutton chops.

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Forgotten Foods #9: Carrageen Pudding

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

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

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

My ‘Buttery by the Sea’ menu from 2015

What is carrageen?

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

Dried carrageen

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

Carrageen a-bubbling away

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

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

My recipe for carrageen pudding

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References

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

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

Colostrum (Beestings)

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

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

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

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

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

Colostrum in the Kitchen

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

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

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

Beestings pudding hot

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Beestings Pudding

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

Serves 4

500 ml colostrum

60 g caster sugar

60 g raisins

Pinch salt

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg or ground allspice

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

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

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

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

Beestings pudding cold

References

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

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Blue Cheese Ice Cream with Poached Pears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serves 4 to 6

For the ice cream:

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

450 g double cream

1 ½ tbs icing sugar

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

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

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

For the pears:

4 to 6 unripe conference pears

500 ml red wine

100 g caster sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 long peppers (or ¼ tsp black peppercorns)

¼ tsp ground ginger

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

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

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

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

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

To serve:

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

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

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

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A Dark History of Sugar – out 30 April 2022

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been working on a book all about sugar’s dark side over the last couple of years, and I am very pleased to announce that A Dark History of Sugar will be published on 30 April 2022 by Pen & Sword History. It is – as far as I know when I write this – available in the UK and Australia from this date. North America, you’ll have to wait a little longer for it: 30 May.

Before I tell you all about the book, I thought I’d let you know that if you pre-order via Pen & Sword’s website (so there’s not long left) you can get 25% off the cover price. The book is, of course, available from other booksellers. I will be receiving some copies, which of course will be signed by Yours Truly. I’ll let you know when they are available. I’m not sure as yet how much I’ll be able to sell them for, but hopefully it’ll be under the cover price. Keep your eyes peeled here and on my social media.

In fact there’s another reason to look at my social media: I’ll be doing some competitions on here, but also on Twitter and Instagram on, or around, publishing day. If you don’t follow me already I am @neilbuttery on Twitter and dr_neil_buttery on Instagram.

Okay, let’s talk about the book.

Writing it was very involving and sometimes even distressing and upsetting; unfortunately the history of this everyday and all-too-common commodity contains possibly the darkest in human history. But why is its history so bad? Well, it’s because it’s so good.

Botanical plate (c.1880) of sugarcane, Saccharum officinarum

I begin the book looking at the lengths early man went to just to get its hands on honey – the purest natural source of sugar. You see, Homo sapiens adapted to spend a great deal of its time thinking about sugar and how to get hold of it. We evolved bigger brains with the ability to problem solve that feed on glucose only – no other sugar will do – and we evolved pleasure centres that are never sated and stomachs we can stuff with sweet foods well after we are full.

This evolved adaptation is advantageous if there is little sugar about, but when it’s available any time we want in any amount we want, our brains go into overdrive and out pleasure centres spin like Catherine wheels, reinforcing our behaviours, training us up to eat more and more of it. At any cost. As I say in the book:

We take sugar for granted, but now we are paying the price, and have been for some time. With cheap and plentiful sugar came centuries of exploitation, slavery, racism, diabetes, obesity, rotten teeth, and mistreatment of an exhausted planet.

But sugar and sweetness are seen as pretty favourable: sugar is good, heavenly even; little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ Somebody who is described as ‘sweet’ is cute, friendly, kind, and your romantic partner is your ‘sweetheart’. We look at sugar with dewy-eyed nostalgia: baking cakes with Grandma, chocolate coins at Christmas, buying sweets in the corner shop.

Detail from A compleat map of the West Indies (1774). The tiny islands of the Lesser Antilles are dwarfed by the greater islands, Cuba and Hispaniola.

The reality is different, for we are a world of sugar junkies, and as consumers we have had the wool pulled over our eyes for centuries. Of course, sugar manufacturers, confectioners and fizzy drinks companies much preferred it when we knew nothing about how sugar was made and what its effects are upon the human body.

Just how did we in Europe go from returning crusading knights bringing back a few sugar samples to pass around at court, to a transatlantic trade in African slaves that displaced 12 million African men, women and children to the sugar colonies via the horrific Middle Passage?1 The slave and sugar trade made many people rich; not just investors and merchants, but also those in Britain selling fancy goods, food, tools and furniture to the colonies. This intricate web of commerce reached into almost every aspect of trade is called the ‘sugar-slave complex’.2

Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves on the sugar colonies. From the 1807 book The Penitential Tyrant by Thomas Branagan.

When the slave trade, and then slavery itself, was abolished, one might think that working conditions might have improved. Sadly they did not: new World sugar plantation owners simply swapped one type of exploitation for another, making it nigh-on impossible for freed slaves to leave them.

As the British Empire grew, so did the British sugar manufacturing industry, with sugar plantations cropping up wherever it was viable to do so. At this point, the association of sugar manufacture with exploitation could have been decoupled, but sadly this was not the case, and the indigenous people who had become suddenly, and usually violently, subjects of the empire were worked to death, and many were displaced to work on plantations thousands of miles away from home. Indian workers, for example, were forced to work on the West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius as well as India itself.

A political cartoon from 1791 titled Barbarities of the West Indias showing a cruel overseer plunge a slave into a kettleful of boiling sugar syrup to ‘warm’ them up.

And it still goes on today: people across the world are still being exploited to make sugar, even children.

There is not enough space on the blog to go through everything discussed in the book: sugar as (useless) medicine, the Coca Cola Company, Cadbury and Queen Victoria, environmental disasters, the horrors of the sugar making processes and squalor of the slaves, rotting teeth, diabetes, Big Sugar, Christopher Columbus, the Haitian Revolution and the fact that every English monarch from Elizabeth I to George III had a stake in the sugar-slave trade. The list goes on…

An 1890s Coca Cola advertisement. Coca Cola managed to keep its price set at five cents a bottle until the close of the Second World War.

I hope you find A Dark History of Sugar interesting and informative, and that I achieve my aim: to connect the dots between the first time sugar was made in Asia to the mess we are in now…and some thoughts upon how we can get out of it.

References

  1. Curtin, P. D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
  2. Abbot, E. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. (Penguin, 2008).

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Happy New Year!

Enjoying an NYE Smoking Bishop

Well I didn’t think I would be starting my New Year post in the same way as last year’s, but hey:

2020 2021 is finally over, and 2021 2022 is here. I hope the blog has been a bit of escapism from all turmoil the last 12 months 2 years have brought us; I’ve tried not to mention it too much.”

It has been surprisingly busy year: I handed in the manuscript of my first book A Dark History of Sugar, and am currently working through a draft of my second, plus I contributed to some food and cookery shows: I made Christmas Pottage and Christmas Cakes on Amazing Christmas Cakes & Bakes, plus some Wassail! On Our Victorian Christmas both on Channel 5. Then there has been the return of the podcast as well!

The Christmas pottage I made for Amazing Christmas Cakes & Bakes

I mention this only because none of it would have happened without you, dear reader: it’s the followers, and the comments and shares that make the blog popular, and makes me want to write year after year…

…and what a year! 2021 saw the blog’s 10th birthday and a record number of views! Gosh.

The top 10 posts are below; it is nice to see two seasonal posts getting high views – simnel cake and Twelfth Night cake have never made it into the top 10 before. It is, of course, very good to see puddings and offal represented there too.

So thanks for reading, liking, listening and watching; it really does mean a lot. Also: a massive thank you to anyone who had pledged me a virtual coffee or pint, or become a regular subscriber. It is getting increasingly expensive just to have a blog and podcast. It really does help, and it means that I can make more online content.

I’m gonna stop gushing now: I’m a Yorkshireman for goodness sake.

This year the blog covered a wide range of topics including: the surprising history of the pressure cooker, the problem with saltpetre and other nitrates in meat preservation, why Samuel Pepys buried his round of Parmesan in the garden, as well as the difference between a cobnut, filbert and hazelnut. There were recipes, and the histories behind them, too for frumenty, seed cake, Glamorgan sausages and the humble hot toddy.

Cobnuts (or are they hazelnuts?)

The other blog (Neil Cooks Grigson) saw me cook probably the craziest recipe in there, Hannah Glasse’s Yorkshire Christmas Pye for the TV (which was then subsequently cut out of the show), smoking my own meat, including a cold-smoked chicken. There was too an inedible three gourd garnish, plus two chapter reviews: Poultry and Saltwater Fish. I have only five recipes to cook to complete the book!

My home-made cold-smoked bacon

The second and half the third season of the podcast was published this year, and it is doing much better than I expected. If you have any suggestions of topics for the podcast, by the way, please let me know. Topics this year have included: food in gothic literature, savouries (with recipe for Scotch woodcock), gingerbread, Christmas pudding, the dark history of chocolate, Forme of Cury and, of course, the trilogy of eel episodes!

The first part of the new year ahead looks pretty busy: A Dark History of Sugar will be out at Eastertime and my second book will be handed to publisher at the end of January. I’m going to take a few months off from writing books after that – two in two years has been pretty full-on – and concentrate on the blogs and podcast. I have a large backlog of posts, and I really want to get those final Jane Grigson recipes cooked!

I really do hope that by the time we are approaching wintertime 2022 there will be a better looking – dare I say normal? – year ahead of us. But for now, we shall soldier on, eat plenty of puddings, and read more cookery books.

Take care and be safe,

Neil x

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A Hot Toddy

Merry Christmas! I hope you are all able to have some fun in yet another strange Yuletide.

At Christmas we often receive bottles of booze we don’t really like as gifts. My most hated alcoholic drink is whisky, but it is delicious in a hot toddy. Well I was recently gifted some and that’s why it is this year’s Christmas boozy drink post.

What do you think of when imagine a toddy? I think of Scotland, whisky. I think of lemons and spices, and its warming effects on those who have just come in from the cold.

There is a popular myth that the drink was invented in the early 18th century at Tod’s Well Tavern, Edinburgh, to warm up the very cold patrons1, but I found that the hot toddy’s history is a little more complicated. The trouble is, toddies were not created in Scotland, not were they hot, and nor were they laced with whisky.

Whenever I am researching the vintage of a recipe, I always visit The Foods of England website – even if the recipe is Welsh, Scots, or Irish. It’s definition is I would say standard: ‘Spirit such as whisky with hot water, sugar, lemon and sometimes spices such as cloves.’ On the webpage is a quote from the 1788 book Grose Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which states: ‘Toddy, originally the juice of the cocoa tree, and afterwards rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg.’2

Going by that quote, the drink looks like it has its origins in the West Indian plantations. Note it is not a hot drink.

It turns out, however, to have its roots in the East, rather than the West, Indies, or rather the British Raj. There was a Hindi drink known as taddy, which was made from slightly fermented palm sap since at least the early 17th century. During the British occupation of the country in the 18th century, the fermented juice was used to ‘water down’ expensive beer3: expensive because at the time it was difficult to make in hot climates, and therefore had to be imported (this is before the invention of Indian pale ale, or IPA).

By 1820 the drink had evolved into a mixture of alcohol, sugar, ginger and lime.4 It wasn’t hot, but the delicious drink spread through the British Empire, changing depending upon what was available. The palm sap swapped for ‘the juice of the cocoa tree’ in the West Indies, and perhaps the Scots were the first to think of warming it up? Who knows?

Drinking hot toddies in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

However it became the classic whisky-based drink, it certainly became popular as a cure-all for colds and flu. And why not? There’s the lemon with its vitamin C, honey or sugar making the drink viscous and soothing, and hard liquor – nature’s anaesthetic. There may be an element of practical truth to this; those who drink a moderate amount of alcohol are able – on average – to fend off colds better than those who drink heavily, and those who do not drink at all.5

So what should I put in my recipe? I turned to another favourite of mine: the classic and comprehensive Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). Disappointingly, there are just three toddy recipes, and of those only one is hot and contains no whisky (Calvados is the booze of choice) and uses roasted apples. The cold toddies contain whisky only as an option.6 In the end I came up with my own, I had a play around and I think I have the proportions of ingredients just right. I also tried the Calvados toddy, which was also a great success.

Here are my recipes for both cocktails. Let me know if you give them a go.

Whatever you do, be safe, eat and drink plenty, and do as little as possible this Christmas. Thanks for reading my posts, trying the recipes, leaving comments, listening to the podcast, and for supporting me this year. I have the best followers! I’ll be back on 1 Jan 2022 with my usual review of the year.


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.


A classic hot toddy

Per person:

1 shot (25-30 ml) whisky (or rum or brandy)

2 tsp honey or sugar

Juice of quarter of a lemon

75-100 ml hot water (or tea)

1 cinnamon stick (optional)

1 slice of lemon

Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Put whiskey, honey or sugar, lemon juice and most of the hot water, or tea, into a small glass or coffee cup. Stir with a cinnamon stick, or a spoon, to dissolve the honey.

Taste and see if you need to add more water (I go with the full 100 ml).

Garnish with a lemon slice, the cinnamon stick and a few rasps of freshly-grated nutmeg.

Calvados hot toddy

This is adapted from the entry in The Savoy Cocktail Book. I always buy a bottle of Calvados at Christmastime, but I think rum or brandy would be good substitutes.

For four:

1 dessert apple

400 ml hot water or tea

2 tbs sugar

4 cloves

4 shots (100-120 ml Calvados)

Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Take your apple and make an incision around the apple two-thirds of the way up, cutting just the skin. Place on a baking sheet and roast until, pale brown and the juices have begun to caramelise, around 40 minutes.

In a small saucepan add the hot water, sugar and cloves. Slice the apple in half, roughly chop one half and place in the pan. Keeping the heat very low, allow the flavours to steep in the hot water for around 10 minutes.

Place a shot of calvados in four small glasses, and divide the hot steeped liquid between the four cups, passing through a tea strainer or small sieve.

Garnish each with a clove and a neat piece of roasted apple cut from the reserved piece. Grate a little nutmeg over the top and serve.

References:

  1. Schofield, J. & Schofield, D. Schofield’s Fine and Classic Cocktails: Celebrated Libations & Other Fancy Drinks. (Octopus, 2019).
  2. Toddy. Foods of England http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/toddy.htm.
  3. M., N. Warding Off Jack Frost: The History of the Hot Toddy. Arcadia Publishing https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Navigation/Community/Arcadia-and-THP-Blog/November-2018/Warding-Off-Jack-Frost-The-History-of-the-Hot-Tod.
  4. Burton, D. The Raj at the Table: A Culinary History of the British in India. (Faber & Faber, 1993).
  5. Barrett, B. Viral Upper Respiratory Tract. in Integrative Medicine (ed. Rakel, D.) (Saunders Elsevier, 2007).
  6. The Savoy Cocktail Book. (Constable & Co., 1930).

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