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Gooseberries

‘Country life has its advantages’, he used to say, ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good…and there are gooseberries.’

Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898

The humble gooseberry is not the first of the British summer fruits that springs to mind, but it is the first of the season, and I think it should be celebrated just as much as the strawberry or blackcurrant.

It’s quite difficult to find gooseberries in the shops these days – even good greengrocers don’t seem to sell them, which is odd, because they keep better than any of our other soft fruits. I suppose one of the reasons for its unpopularity is that they are usually sold when vibrant green, looking lovely and fresh but tasting very sour and astringent. In this form they need to be cooked and sweetened with sugar. Its other disadvantage is that it usually has to be cooked, no competition amongst the huge variety of exciting dessert fruits available. It’s a crying shame. Gooseberry season starts in June, but you have to wait until July for them to ripen into dessert fruit. Patience is a virtue, after all.

The gooseberry is usually a fruit more suitable for cooking, needing considerable sweetening for palatability unless a savoury accompaniment for meat or fish.

Laura Mason & Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain

The gooseberry is one of 150 species of the Ribes genus, which also includes the smaller and daintier black, red and whitecurrants. They can be found growing wild in patches of scrub all over Britain, so keep an eye out wherever you see such areas on walks, there may be a hidden gooseberry plant (I have my own a secret patch). Gooseberry shrubs are typically three for four feet high, and as any gooseberry forager knows, somewhat spikey.

Gooseberry colour plate from the Oxford Book of Food Plants

There are many cultivated varieties including two hybrids; red and white gooseberry varieties have been crossed with red and whitecurrants respectively. The hybrids make excellent dessert fruit, helpfully indicting ripeness when they’ve achieved a good ruby or white colour.

Though looked over now, gooseberries were extremely popular and have been cultivated in Britain since al least the Fifteenth Century. They were important because they were the first soft fruit of the summer, cropping well as far north as the Shetland and Orkney Islands. In the Midlands and Northern England they were revered, a tradition of competitive growing quickly developing. There was a single aim in these competitions: to grow the heaviest berry. These clubs were widespread and at one point there was 170 growing clubs, a handful still exist today in Yorkshire and Cheshire. To achieve heavy berries, by the way, you must strip your shrub of berries as soon as they appear, leaving behind a dozen so that the plant can put all its energy into growing just a few fruits.

A gooseberry shrub in the rain

Gooseberries are also known colloquially as feabes, feaberries, carberries and wineberries – the latter name coming from the fact they make excellent wine.

Aside from some parts of northern Europe, gooseberries haven’t really travelled much further than Britain from a culinary point of view. According to Jane Grigson, the French ‘have no name for them distinct from that of redcurrants’. This does seem to be the case; the French word for redcurrant is grosielle and when gooseberries are called for, they are called grosielle à maquereaux – the mackerel redcurrant.

Although sometimes served with goose, it is not the origin of the gooseberry’s name as you might assume. It comes from the Old Norman/Middle English groses or grosier, the old word for – wait for it – grosielle, the French for redcurrant, so in effect we called gooseberries redcurrantberries! All of these words come from the Frankish root krûsil which means ‘crisp berry’, and the gooseberry certainly is that.

Yellow and red are dessert fruit, let them lie on the hottest sunshine till warm through before serving – it brings out the sweetness and flavours.

Dorothy Hartley, Food in England

Preparing and Cooking Gooseberries

Whether you are picking them or buying them, you need to know how ripe your gooseberries are. This important because small, vivid green gooseberries are best for accompanying savoury dishes, and large riper ones are best made into puddings. I remember as a child, dipping raw, tart gooseberries straight into the sugar bowl. I expect the Sugar Police would have something to say about that these days.

The top and the tail

To prepare your gooseberries, wash well with and top and tail them with sharp scissors or pinching fingernails.

If you have lots of gooseberries, you can do several things. Pop some straight into freezer bags or stew them with sugar, a little water and a knob of butter and freeze that. I prefer to make jam or vinegar if I’m going to preserve them. When they cook, they start to lose their colour and if boiled very thoroughly, like for jam, they attain a lovely deep pink.

Gooseberry compote is very useful; it can be served simply with ice cream for a quick dessert, or baked in the oven as a pie, crumble or cobbler. A classic dessert is gooseberry fool, simply compote folded into lightly whipped, sweetened cream, or even better a mixture of custard and whipped cream.

A gooseberry haul from just two modestly-sized shrubs

Other desserts include steamed puddings and a delicious baked pudding rather like an Eve’s pudding: I shall be certainly posting a recipe for that. Old fashioned pies called Oldbury tarts made with hot water pastry used to be very popular. Sometimes the pies were filled with red or whitecurrant jelly, just like an old-fashioned raised pork pie – I bet they would be great served with cheese.

I cannot talk about the culinary potential of gooseberries without mentioning elderflowers. I love their delicious sweet-musk scent and add it to anything I possibly can. Back in the days of the restaurant, I made an excellent elderflower blancmange with gooseberry compote and shortbread biscuits, and I must say it was one of the best desserts I’ve ever made.

To add an elderflower air to your gooseberry dishes simply tie up a few heads in muslin before dunking them in your gooseberries or whatever.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you some of the recipes I have mentioned above, just in case you get a glut of them or spy a punnet in the greengrocers.

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‘Neil Cooks Grigson’ moves to WordPress

Hello lovely followers. Just a quickie to let you know that the sister blog to British Food: A History, Neil Cooks Grigson has moved from Blogger to WordPress. It makes much more sense to have them on the same format.

If you’ve never checked it out, now is your chance – there’s over 400 recipes on there, all fully reviewed. There are some amazing ones, and a fair few disasters, warts and all. So if there’s a classic English dish or recipe you’ve always wondered about, chances are I’ve cooked it up.

Just click on this link here and follow – I’d be most grateful!

I’ll be putting a few posts on there to help newcomers get up to speed on the project in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out.

Over and out!

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Blancmange

Last post I wrote all about the mediaeval dish Blanc Mange, an almond and rice stew served with chicken or fish. Obviously, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to give you a recipe for the dessert blancmange we know and love (or hate).

Blancmange went from a savoury to a sweet dish somewhere around 1600 – 1604 is the earliest recipe for it I can find that sounds like the pudding we eat today.

When one thinks of blancmange, a shuddering over-sweet pale pink mass doused with cloying raspberry flavouring is imagined. This is not a proper blancmange. When I make one, I go back to basics.

photo: unknown

Blancmange should be a simple affair: cream, milk, sugar and almond extract set with gelatine. In the recipes from earlier than the 20th Century, the gelatine would have been prepared in house from calves’ feet or pigs’ trotters. There was an alternative setting agent called isinglass which is made from the dried swim bladders of fish.

By the way, the pronounced almond flavour of almond extract is not supposed to emulate that of regular almonds, but of bitter almonds which were high in cyanide and therefore used in small, highly aromatic doses. Other things were sometimes added to this basic mixture: lemon zest, cinnamon, brandy and rose water all crop up in recipes through the centuries.

The blancmange went rather downhill once you could buy it in packet form. The almond extract or bitter almonds replaced with almond flavouring and instead of gelatine, cornflour was used. This is the dessert that many people hate. I must confess to quite liking the preparatory blancmange, but then, I’ll eat anything. It shouldn’t be called blancmange though, as it is quite a different beast; fake flavour and thick cornflour base making the final pud less jiggly and delicate. I suppose that after the realisation you could set custard with cornflour instead of egg yolks, the ‘magic’ formula was applied to blancmange.

I like to serve blancmange with a compote of cherries flavoured with a dash of kirsch and some delicate shortbread biscuits, but it is pretty good served all on its own. Who needs panna cotta!? If you want to turn the blancmange out of its mould, it is worth brushing the inside with a thin layer of sunflower oil so that it is easier to turn it out.

Makes 600 ml:

250 ml whole milk

gelatine leaves (see method)

100 g caster sugar

300ml double cream

1 tsp almond extract

Heat up the milk in a saucepan and as you wait, soak the gelatine leaves in cold water – check the instructions in the packet and use the correct number to set 600 ml except use one leaf fewer than instructed – you want a good wobble.

A good wobble…

When the milk is very hot, squeeze out the excess water from the gelatine and whisk it into the milk along with the sugar. Once dissolved, add the double cream and almond extract. Pour into your mould or moulds, cover with cling film or a plate and refrigerate overnight. If you like, you can whip the cream until floppy and stir it through the milk when it is just warm. This way you get a mousse-like consistency – good if you want to serve it at a dinner party.

To turn out the blancmange, dip the moulds in hot water for around 10 seconds. To make it release you may have to carefully coax the blancmange from the inside edge of the mould with your finger; if you can move it away easily, it should come out. Place a serving plate on top and quickly flip it over – the blancmange should release, if not, simply dip it in the water for a further 10 seconds.

Once turned out, you may find that some of the blancmange has melted, so tidy up the plate with a piece of kitchen paper before serving.

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Medieval Rose Pudding (Rosee)

Last post I wrote about my little experiment making almond milk. With my batch I decided to make a mediaeval recipe from the first cook book in English, Forme of Cury. It was written around 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II; I’ve written about it and cooked up a few recipes from it before.

The one I chose is called Rosee, and it is like a pudding – in the American sense of the word – i.e. a thick custardy dessert. This one is thickened with rice flour instead of eggs like a regular custard and is flavoured with rose petals (“with flours of white rosis”) as well as some ginger and cinnamon. It’s not the right time of year for roses, so in lieu of the blooms, I used some rose water instead. It’s also flavoured with pine nuts and dates, which also adds a little texture. Sugar is the sweetener – which wasn’t refined to pure white in the 1400s, so I used soft light brown sugar to replicate this.

You don’t have to use mediaeval almond milk, you can buy it, or just use regular cows’ milk.

Here’s how it is written in Forme of Cury. It’s hard to decipher, but once you know the now defunct letter thorn (þ) is makes a th sound (so seþe is pronounced seethe), it makes it a lot easier.

Rose Pudding 1390:

Take thyk mylke; seþe it. Cast þerto sugur, a gode porcioun; pynes [pine nuts], dates ymynced, canel [cinnamon], & powdour ginger; and seeþ I, and alye [mix] it with flours of white rosis, and flour of rys. Cole it; salt it and mess it forth. If þou wilt in stede of almaunde mylke, take swete crem of kyne [cows].

Hopefully you get the gist – it takes a while to tune in!

I didn’t follow the method exactly – I used my own cook’s logic to the dish – but I made quite a delicious pudding, and it didn’t feel as though it was a vegan dessert. A knob of butter or a glug of cream, goes a long way with making food satisfying, but I genuinely didn’t miss them. It really goes to show that the King and his court did not go without during Lent!

Rose Pudding 2019:

Makes 4 to 6 puddings

25g rice flour or cornflour

¼ tsp each ground ginger and cinnamon

250 ml mediaeval almond milk, bought almond milk or full fat milk (or a mixture)

60 g soft light brown sugar

Pinch salt

50 g chopped dates, plus extra for decoration

25 g pine nuts or chopped mixed nuts, plus extra for decoration

2 to 3 tbs rose water

Put the flour and spices in a small saucepan and whisk in the milk, starting by adding just a third of it at first to prevent lumps. When all of the milk has been added, put the pan on the heat and bring to a simmer, stirring well with a wooden spoon or small whisk as it begins to thicken. Add the sugar, salt, dates and nuts. Keep it simmering very gently for around 10 minutes to cook out the flour. If it looks like it will be too thick, add more liquid (it sets quite firm, so when it is hot, you’re looking for the consistency of thick double cream).

Remove from the heat and add the rose water – I like quite a lot, but it can be rather overpowering, so add enough that seems just right and then add a shake more. By doing this you are compensating for the fact it will be served cold, the flowery aroma less pungent.

Pour into serving cups – I went for small coffee cups – scatter with a few more dates and nuts and cover with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Pop them in the fridge until set.

Half an hour before you want to serve them, take them out of the fridge to take off the chill.

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Mediaeval Almond Milk

Over recent years, as we have become more aware of people’s food intolerances and allergies there has been a great rise in the amount of plant-based milks consumed in the western world. We’ve also realised that there are many benefits associated with the cutting down of animal products in our diets. One of these plant milks – almond milk – is actually having a Renaissance because it was a food that used to be consumed in abundance in mediaeval Europe. Indeed, if I was writing this 20 years ago, it would be appearing in my ‘Forgotten Foods’ series on the blog.

As you may know, mediaeval Christians fasted a lot. There were two great fasting episodes: Advent and Lent. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays was a fast day, meaning that around half of the days of the year were spent fasting. No meat or animal produce was allowed to be eaten, except for fish which was considered cool and calming and so appropriate for these days of solemnity.

The nutrition contained within almond milk. Notice the added ingredients.

Just like the people do today, mediaeval folk tried to make alternative products that could fill the same satisfying gastronomical niche as the real thing. Almond milk was one of those products.

Almonds were imported (as they are now) and very expensive. Households were expected to make almost all their own food and drinks and almond milk was no exception. The expense and effort required to make it made it a fasting ingredient reserved only for the rich, and they consumed a lot of it. King Edward I went through a startling 40 000 pounds of almonds in just two years!

I must admit I quite enjoy modern almond milk as a drink or in porridge but find it otherwise a little insipid, so I was interested in finding out how mediaeval people went about making it and what it was like. From my reading, it seems to be thicker and more substantial than todays, where it was refined into a thick almond cream or curdled to make a kind of almond curd cheese. I’m not sure if this would be possible using the almond milk of today!

On the other hand, modern almond milk may be more nutritious. When people moved from cow’s milk to plant-based milks, many didn’t realise there would be a massive drop in their consumption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This led to concerns that people would become deficient, and so modern manufacturers fortify almond milk with extra nutrients to help people to achieve their recommended nutritional allowances for the day.

Making Mediaeval Almond Milk

The basic method was acquired from the Arabs who were supplying much of the almonds themselves via the vast network of trade routes that stretched out through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

The begin almonds would be pounded very fine, sometimes with a little spring water or rose water to stop them oiling;  they didn’t want to make almond nut butter by accident! After this initial exhausting task, the almonds would be soaked in spring water (though I have found references to soaking them in barley water too). After soaking, it was passed through a strainer and seasoned with salt and some honey or sugar. Cream could be made by boiling the milk down until very thick or made into curds by adding vinegar before straining. I came across this recipe for an almond cheese so thick, you could slice it:

Take almond milk, and boil it, and when it is boiled take it from the fire, and sprinkle on a little vinegar. Then spread it on a cloth, and cast sugar on it, and when it is cold gather it together, and leche it [slice it] in dishes, and serve it forth.

So how does mediaeval almond milk compare to compare to todays, and how is it to use as an ingredient?

I updated the mediaeval approach to making almond milk, but the ingredients essentially remain the same.

100g ground almonds

2 tsp rose or orange-flower water (optional)

1 tsp sugar or honey

A good pinch of salt400 ml boiling water

60 ml white wine (optional)

The first task is to get those ground almonds super-fine. Put them in a blender (a Nutri-bullet style blender is perfect) with the rose water and about 50 ml of the hot water and blitz in pulses until very smooth. Add the rest of the boiling water and leave to stand and soak for around 20 minutes.

Give the milk a good swish around and pass it through a sieve to remove any large pieces of ground almond. Sweeten with the sugar or honey, add the wine if using and allow to cool.

The mediaeval almond milk is now ready to use.

The Verdict

Well I must say, I was quite impressed with the end result. It was more substantial than bought almond milk in both texture (it was creamy) and taste (the honey, salt and rose water). It wasn’t chalky or gritty either like I expected. I don’t recommend adding the wine however; it put the flavours out of kilter for me, but each to their own I suppose.

I heartily recommend making some. I made a rose-flavoured pudding (see next post) and I even tried making the cheese with the left-over almond milk.

I was rather odd in flavour, I added soft dark brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar, let it stand for a few hours and then passed it through a scalded tea towel sat in a sieve. It could make an interesting mediaeval version of a Yorkshire Curd Tart I think.

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Suet – A Beginners’ Guide

Suet is the essential fat in many British puddings, both sweet and savoury, as well as stuffings and dumplings, mincemeat at Christmastime and – of – course suet pastry. It makes some of my most favourite British foods. It’s role is to enrich and lubricate mixtures, producing a good crust in steamed suet puddings.

Suet is the compacted, flaky and fairly homogenous fat that is found around animals’ kidneys, protecting them from damage. Here’s a very quick little guide to buying and using it in recipes.

snapseed-02Flaky fresh beef suet

Don’t be put off by suet – I served up Jam Roly-Poly to a group of 18 American undergraduates recently, and they’d never heard of a suet pudding before. They all came back for seconds!

Several recipes already on the blog use suet:

Fresh Suet

Fresh suet can be bought from your local butcher at a very low price. Most commonly available is beef suet and it can be used in any recipe in the book. You can also buy lamb and pork suet – and sometime venison – which are all great when using the meat of the same animal in the filling (e.g. Lamb & Mint Suet Pudding). Pork suet is sometimes called flead or flare fat. Sweet suet puddings, however, require beef because it is flavourless, whilst lamb is distinctly lamby; not great in a Jam Roly-Poly.

Fresh suet can be minced at home or by your butcher or can be grated. I prefer to do the latter, as it’s quick and easy. You must avoid food processors however, as you end up with a paste. Grater or mincer, you will need to remove any membranes and blood vessels – much easier to do as you grate, hence why it’s my preferred method.

snapseed-01Freshly-grated beef suet

I find it best to buy enough suet for several puddings, grate it and then freeze it. Fresh suet can be kept frozen for up to 3 months.

atora

Preparatory Suet

Although not as good as fresh, packet suet bought from a supermarket is a perfectly good product and store cupboard standby. Atora is the iconic brand producing a shredded beef suet as well as a vegan alternative; these vegetable suets are made from palm oil and are therefore somewhat environmentally unfriendly. However, Suma produce one that is made from sustainably sourced palm oil, so keep a look out for that in shops.

suma_vegetarian_suet

Preparatory suet can be switched weight-for-weight in any recipe unless otherwise indicated.

And that’s my very quick beginners’ guide to suet, have a go at cooking with it, you won’t be disappointed.

 

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Macaroni Cheese

At the end of last year, I finally had the opportunity to visit the United States to visit old friends – and haunts – in Houston, St Louis and Chicago, as well as discovering new cities such as Dallas, New York and New Orleans. It was a crazy whistle stop road trip and no mistake.

Having lived on both sides of the Pond, I can really appreciate the American influence on British cuisine. So much deliciousness has drifted over the Atlantic to wedge itself firmly in the psyche of British – nobody in the UK could possibly imagine a world without mouth-watering pulled pork, pillowy cinnamon buns or squidgy chocolate brownies (and blondies!).

One of the best foods of all is Mac and Cheese, and although considered very much an all-American (or perhaps the American) meal, macaroni cheese has its origins firmly planted in Britain.

Macaroni cheese emigrated to the US and Canada with the British settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that it really became part of American culture. Millions were starving, but one entrepreneurial salesman from St Louis, Missouri had the idea to combine nonperishable dried pasta with dried processed cheese. It could be mass produced and priced low. It was a huge hit, quickly establishing itself as the ‘American Housewife’s Best Friend’, feeding a family of four for just twenty cents. It literally saved a nation from starvation.

Elizabeth Raffauld

The first mention of it my side of the Pond can be found in the 1769 classic cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld. It says To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese:

Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill [a quarter of a pint] of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.

All the elements of a modern macaroni cheese: the appropriate pasta, a proto-béchamel sauce, plenty of cream and lots of cheese; perhaps surprisingly, parmesan cheese.

But we can go back even further; back to the 1390s in fact, with Britain’s earliest cookbook Forme of Cury. Pasta made from breadcrumbs (I must try it sometime) cooked in a velouté sauce (like a béchamel but made with stock instead of milk), and something called chese ruayn which was a hard cheese similar in taste to brie, resulting in something half-way between macaroni cheese and a lasagne. I wonder if there’s an extant French cheese that could fit the bill if I tried to cook this dish?

Take good broth and do in an earthen pot. Take flour of payndemayn [high quality white bread] and make thereof past[e] with water, and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it hard and seeth [simmer] it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powdour douce [a mix of warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves etc], and lay on the loseyns [the pasta sheets] isode as hole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyce or thrice [i.e. layer it up], & serve it forth.

This dish must have remained popular because macaroni and other pasta dishes using cheese and velouté sauce appear crop up again in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. There is also the more familiar béchamel sauce version. What is interesting is that there is a variety of cheeses used in these recipes: Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and blue Stilton all feature. I love blue cheese, so this one really stood out for me and I have adapted it below.

If blue cheese isn’t your thing, replace it with another. Cheddar, red Leicester or a mature Lancashire would all work. This recipe produces a rather saucy macaroni cheese, if you prefer a thicker consistency, add an extra 50 grams of pasta.

Blue Stilton Macaroni Cheese

Serves four:

30 g plain flour

30 g butter

400 ml hot full-fat milk

150 ml double cream

200 g macaroni

1 slice stale bread

½ tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or ¼ tsp fried rosemary (optional)

225 g Stilton cheese, grated

200 g Gruyere or Cheddar cheese, grated

Pinch Cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

First of all make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan. As soon as it has finished foaming, tip in the flour and mix well with a small whisk or wooden spoon. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. If the roux starts to brown, turn down the heat.

Beat in around a quarter of the milk with your whisk, adding another quarter once the first lot is fully incorporated. Repeat until all of the milk is used up. Add the cream and allow the béchamel sauce to simmer gently for around 10 minutes. Make sure you stir every minute or so, to stop the flour sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile cook the macaroni in plenty of salted water – follow the instructions on the packet and cook for two minutes less than the instructions state.

Make the bread into breadcrumbs by pulsing in a food processor. If using, add the rosemary half way through the pulsing process.

Take the sauce off the heat and drain the pasta. Stir in the cheeses, mixing until fully incorporated. Tip in the pasta and mix. Now season well with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper.

Pour the whole lot into a baking dish of a capacity of 1.5 litres, or thereabouts and bake for around 20 minutes at 180°C until brown and bubbling and the breadcrumbs are well-toasted.

Serve straight away with crusty bread or a rocket salad.

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