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Forgotten Foods #8: The Grey Heron

When we think of the meat that was eaten at mediaeval feasts, we conjure up images of huge pieces of roast ox, venison or wild boar’s head. There was, in fact, a wide variety of meats, especially wild birds. One of these was the grey heron and its meat was regarded very highly, only fit to serve at the top tables of a banquet; the only other waterfowl with a higher status was the regal swan. According to the late, great Clarissa Dickson-Wright, heron tastes like swan too: “it was very fishy”, she tells us, “rather stringy and reminiscent of moorhen…” It’s quite odd to think they were eaten at all; they’re such a lanky things – all neck, legs and wings. There can’t be that much meat on one.

Grey Heron (RSBP)

So how does one prepare and cook a heron fit for a top table? If we look in Forme of Cury – the earliest cookbook in the English language, dating from around 1400 – and it tells us: “Cranes and herouns shul be armed with lardes of swyne, and eaten with ginger.” The “lardes of swyne” are strips of backfat or fatty bacon that are threaded through the meat so that as the lean meat cooks, the fat melts and bastes it. That’s all we get though.

Wynkyn de Worde (National Portrait Gallery)

We can glean more information from another book, The Boke of Keruynge or, The Book of Carving, which was written in 1513 by the splendidly named Wynkyn de Worde. He provides a long list of different animals, along with instructions on how to carve them for the table. Curiously, there are many words for carving – a specific word for each type of animal, so for a heron, you don’t just carve it, no, you “dysmembre” it:

“Dysmembre that heron.

Take an heron, and rayse his legges and his wynges as a crane, and sauce hym with vynegre, mustarde, poudre of ginger, and salte.”

(And to “Displaye” a crane, simply “unfolde his legges, and cut of his winges by the Joints.”)

So, we get am extra modicum of information: a piquant mustard sauce or glaze, but we still don’t know how it was cooked.

To get any detailed information, we need to go to 1660 and look at the classic tome The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, and he had obviously read Mr de Worde’s book, because he uses the same words for carving:

“Dismember that Hern.

Take off both the legs, and lace it down to the breast with your knife on both sides, raise up the flesh, and take it clean off with the pinion; then stick the head in the breast, set the pinion on the contrary side of the carcase, and the leg on the other side, so that the bones ends may meet cross over the carcase, and the other wings cross over upon the top of the carcase.”

He also tells us that herons are not simply hunted and brought to the dinner table, but stolen from nests before they have fledged and kept in special barns

“…where there is many high cross beams for them to pearch on; then to have on the flour divers square boards with rings in them, and between every board which should be two yards square, to place round shallow tubs full of water… and be sure to keep the house sweet, and shift the water often, only the house must be made so, that it may rain in now and then, in which the hern will take much delight.”

The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May (British Library)

In these sheds, the herons were not fed fish, as one might expect, but “livers, and the entrails of beasts, and such like cut in great gobbits [bite-sized pieces].” They were not just kept for the table either, many were kept for “Noblemens sports”, specifically for training their hawks. When raised for sport, they were instead fed on “great gobbits of dogs flesh, cut from the bones”

Why dogs’ flesh? Well, this was a time when Bubonic Plague was common, and at the time it was thought that dogs carried the disease, and so any strays would be routinely caught and killed. But why catch and kill an animal that you thought had plague and then feed it your own hawks? I would have thought they’d be taken to the edge of town and burned them or something, but that’s seventeenth century logic for you. CDW makes a further point:

“It’s ironic when you consider that the dogs might very well have killed the rats whose fleas did carry the plague and therefore might have prevented it.”

Indeed.

May also provides us with some recipes. In general, they are boned and filled with a minced meat and suet stuffing, seasoned with spices and oysters, then poached. Sometimes they are baked in ovens.

Herons do seem to drop out of the cookbooks after that, but they were still being eaten. The most recent reference I could find is from the 1914 book Pot Luck; or The British home cookery book by May Byron and is for Heron Pudding. It uses chunks of meat taken off the bone, and the reason why is very interesting:

“Before cooking it must be ascertained that no bones of the heron are broken. These bones are filled with a fishy fluid, which, if allowed to come in contact with the flesh, make the whole bird taste of fish.”

This may explain CDW’s issue with roast waterfowl like swan and moorhen. I wonder if they boned before cooking and if that would make them taste better?

Byron goes on:

“This fluid however, should be always extracted from the bones, and kept in a medicine cupboard, for it is excellent applied to all sorts of cuts and cracks.”

You heard it here first folks.

Heron is no longer legal game and therefore no longer eaten – as far as I know. However, if you have any stories to prove me wrong, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.

References

The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May

The Boke of Keruynge (1513) by Wyknyn de Worde in Early English Meals and Manners (1868) edited by Frederick James Furnivall

Forme of Cury (c.1400) in Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (1985) edited by Constance B Hieatt and Sharon Butler

Heron Pudding, Foods of England website: http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/Heron_Pudding.htm

A History of English Food (2011) Clarissa Dickson-Wright

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, history, Meat, Uncategorized

The Great Famine 1315-1317

Such a mortality of men in England and Scotland through famine and pestilence as had not been heard of in our time.

The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346

In the autumn and winter of 1314, Britain experienced a period of extreme wet and “bizarre” weather; torrential rain flooded the fields, rotting crops and drowning livestock. The staple food of the time was of course bread, but the ‘daily’ bread was becoming more and more scarce as stored grains either went mouldy or were “innutritious”. In a good year, one might expect a good return on grain planted: for each grain sown, you could get up to seven grains back. In 1315 the return was devasting: now you reaped one grain for every two planted – had they known it, they would have been better off not sowing seeds in the spring, but of course they did not know that this spell of bad weather would devastate crops for almost two years.

Edward II

What could be causing this? Naturally at this time, all eyes turned to God – it was obvious He was punishing the English, but what could they have done to deserve this? One answer could be found in the King’s Vita. Edward II was on the throne, and at this time all kings had a running commentary-cum-almanac written about them and their times called a Vita, and his Vita placed the finger of blame directly on the English people themselves. Apparently, the English “excel other nations in three qualities in pride, craft and in perjury. All of this comes from the wickedness of the inhabitants.”

In reality, it wasn’t just the English who were affected by the weather, it was widespread, hitting the whole of the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany and West Poland. At the time, each country seemed to think the ordeal was happening only to them, and all of them insularly blamed their own nations for their own personal famines.

A map showing the areas of Europe affected by the Famine (from Arizona Geographic Alliance)

During winter of 1314/5 people quickly realised that if they were to keep aside some of their grain to sow in the springtime there was very little spare to grind into flour for bread. This was not uncommon; England is, after all, wet and warm a lot of the time. Things usually picked up the next year and as long as there were some seed and livestock reserved for the new farming year all would be well. The problem was the weather did not change in the springtime and produced next to no crops. It was obvious a real famine was on its way.

In response to this, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, ordered Parish Churches throughout the realm to partake in some ‘solemn processions’ in an attempt to curry favour with God. King Edward and his Parliament tried something a little more practical and attempted to stave off, or at least put off, the famine by rationing and regulating food prices so that everyone could get at least something. Parliament fixed the price of wheat, sheep, cattle, chickens and eggs. It cost 12 shillings for ‘a live fat cow’ and a penny for two dozen hens’ eggs.

This was a great idea in theory, but in reality, it was a disaster; there was so little food that traders’ and farmers’ businesses were no longer viable. Things really were at a stretch, even the King, when he turned up with his household at St Albans for a visit, something that kings loved to do – they would turn up with their entourage and expect their hosts to house, feed and water them opulently. It was a great honour to have this thrust upon you, and dukes and earls of the land all dreaded finding out the King was coming to them. They knew the royal party would clean them out and have them haemorrhaging money for the entire period. Well not this time – August 1315 – for his host could barely find enough bread to feed them.

As the year progressed price fixing was ditched, and prices increased hugely. Now, a quarter barrel of wheat (a bit under 13 kg) rose in price from five shillings to forty shillings, and all you were getting for a penny now was “2 little onions”. By 1216 there had been two years without a harvest and the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to sell his holy relics to pay for food.

If you didn’t fancy your chances stealing food, you could have a stab at some foraging. The trouble was much of the undeveloped lands were boggy and filled with rotting vegetation too. People tried digging up roots, eating grass and even the bark from trees.*

Sheep and cattle were killed from outbreaks of ‘murrain’ (a highly virulent disease, probably food-and-mouth); in Berwick, starving soldiers boiled and ate the carcasses of their diseased horses for sustenance. Animals all around the country died in their thousands, and the people literally could not eat them fast enough. In a normal year when animals were killed their meat was cured in salt to preserve it, but because of the extreme weather it was too wet to dry salt, causing a shortage making it extremely expensive so they rotted.

An image showing both people starving and cattle succumbing to murrain

For England, it was worst in the north (it is ‘grim Up North’, after all). Northumbria had to deal with constant raids from starving Scots and were reduced to eating “dogs and horses and other unclean things”. There was even talk of cannibalism: “others stole new-born babies to devour.” Hopefully this story was apocryphal.

One in twenty died during the famine but for those who survived, insult was added to injury because a “great pestilence” came and devasted a population weak with malnutrition and dysentery. The next year would improve a little, and in 1318 there was bountiful harvest. However, it took years for the livestock population to recover from murrain. As for the people, they were affected by cold winters, poor harvests and disease much more than before the famine; the Great Famine had left Europe in a weakened state for several decades and “[t]here would be really no sustained growth for a hundred years.” Quite so, because little did they know that soon Europe would be hit by its first wave of the Black Death, which devasted those countries hit by the Famine even harder that the rest.

Today, we cannot imagine being at the mercy of the elements like this; with modern technology and farming methods, we reckon these events are things of the past – in the Western World at least. To some degree I am sure it is true, but today we have never been so UNaware of how our food is grown and processed. I wonder just how many narrow squeaks we have had. I expect they are not infrequent.

*this might seem a little far-fetched, but deer commonly strip and eat the bark and its inner green layer in times of hardship such as wintertime. I wonder if folk observed this behaviour and thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try too.

References

‘10 Things to Know About the Great Famine’, Medievalists.net website https://www.medievalists.net/2019/06/great-famine/

‘Edward II: The Unconventional King’ (2017) by Kathryn Warner

‘The Great Famine’, halinaking.co.uk website: http://www.halinaking.co.uk/Location/Yorkshire/Frames/History/1315%20Great%20Famine/Great%20Famine.htm

‘The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century’ (1997) by William Chester Jordan.

‘The Great Flood and Great Famine of 1314’ by Ben Johnson from Historic UK website: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Great-Flood-Great-Famine-of-1314/

‘The History of England Volume I: Foundation’ (2012) by Peter Ackroyd

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Summer Pudding

Summer pudding is one of the best and one of the most surprisingly versatile puddings there is. It’s also great fun to make and seeing as the first soft fruits crops are coming in, I thought I’d share my recipe with you. Before I do though, I should get the uninitiated up to speed on this quintessentially British dessert.

Summer pudding is typically a mix of red summer soft fruits lightly poached and set in a pudding basin that has been lined with berry juice-soaked white bread. For many, the thought of cold soggy bread makes them feel a little queasy, but they shouldn’t because the texture is not as one would expect; it is soft and giving and nothing like the texture of soggy bread in hot broth, for example. One way it is versatile, however, is that you can use other things in place of the bread, such as slightly stale slices of madeira or pound cake. Indeed, this is the way I prefer to make it because this way, you quickly dip the cake in the juices (otherwise it just breaks apart) unsoggy and much more pleasing in texture, rather like the base of a trifle, though a less vibrant colour. It’s swings and roundabouts isn’t it.

The other way in which it is versatile is in the fruit you can use. There are many who are purists who insist you use 100% raspberries, for others there must be at least 50% redcurrants, and some think there is no place for the strawberry. These people are all pudding fascists. I’m not picky and I go for what’s in season at the time: gooseberries, red, white or blackcurrants, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, whatever.

The summer pudding goes back to the nineteenth century as far as I can see, the earliest mention of something resembling it popping up in an American publication from 1875. It describes a hot pudding consisting of currants and sugar steamed in a basin lined with bread. I’ve also found a British ‘midsummer pudding’ that is also hot but uses a suet crust and is – oddly – more recent. A cold pudding made in the manner we know and love today appears around the turn of the twentieth century under the curious name of ‘hydropathic pudding’, so called because it was introduced to ladies at health spas as a low-calory alternative to regular stodgy suet puddings.

I have also found other recipes for autumn pudding and winter pudding, that have swapped the summer fruits for stewed apples, pears and dried fruit or blackberries, sometimes switching white bread for brown.

This is my recipe and it makes just one small pudding, unlike most other recipes that make a giant one using a re-mortgage worth of redcurrants, so this is the recipe for those who do not grow their own. In fact, all you should need are two or three punnets of soft fruit.

Serves 4:

300 g ripe soft summer fruits (raspberries, blackcurrants, red or white currants, blueberries, strawberries, gooseberries etc)

80 – 100 g caster sugar

A shot of an appropriate liqueur such as Chambourd, optional

2 or 3 slices slightly stale bread, crusts removed, or one stale madeira or pound cake, cut into 7 to 10 mm slices

To serve: clotted cream or lightly whipped double cream

Rinse the fruit, cutting any large fruits such as strawberries and gooseberries into halves or quarters as appropriate. Scatter in the sugar, but don’t make things too sweet, especially if using cake rather than bread. However, if you are using green gooseberries you many want to shake in the full quota. Pour in the liqueur if using, stir, cover and leave to macerate overnight.

Next day, put the contents of the bowl in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir gently to dissolve the sugar, trying not to squish the fruit too much. When dissolved, bring to a boil and simmer gently for two minutes, then turn off the heat. Set aside to cool down.

Cut your slices of cake into enough pieces to line a 450 ml / 1 pint pudding basin. I cut rectangles that taper slightly at one end so that they fit nicely.

Dip each piece of cake or bread in the juicy warm fruit and press into the inside of the basin. Repeat with more slices until you have covered the sides, then cut a circle to fit in the bottom. Be careful if using cake at this point as they are prone to break when soggy.

Now spoon the fruit mixture into the pudding, packing everything in well with the back of a spoon.

Cut more cake or bread to make a lid, press down hard with fingers, then place a saucer on top with a suitable weight and place in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to serve, loosen the pudding a little with a knife before inverting it on a plate. Be patient as the pudding leaves the mould – do not be tempted to hurrying things, lest disaster strikes. If using a plastic basin, massage it a little to help it along.

Serve with any remaining juice or fruit and the cream.

References:

Cookery from Experience (1875) Sara T Paul

English Food (third edition; 1992) Jane Grigson

Pride and Pudding (2015) Regula Ysewijn

‘Summer Pudding’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/summerpudding.htm

‘Winter Pudding’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/winterpudding.htm

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Lent podcast episode 6: Cheating & Altruism

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

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

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

Professor Matthew Cobb

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

Links and extra bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lent podcast episode 5: Lent & Diet

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

Neil with David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

Links and extra stuff:

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

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

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

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

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Lent podcast episode 4: Bluebells & Magpies

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

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

A bit of Bud…

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

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

Professor Matthew Cobb

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

Click the link below to go straight to the episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lent podcast episode 2: Fish & Humours

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

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

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

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

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

Please listen, like and subscribe.

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

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

Extra bits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A recipe for ‘a tart for Ember Day’:

Shortcrust pastry made with 400 g flour

1 medium onion

2 tbs parsley, chopped

1 tbs mint, chopped

1 tsp sage, chopped

A handful of raisins

150 g blue cheese, grated

Pinch of saffron

2 tbs hot milk

10 eggs

75 g melted butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

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

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Lent podcast episode 1: Collops & Pancakes

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

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

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

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

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

Please like, follow or subscribe:

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

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

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

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

Useful links:

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

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

‘Jif Lemon Day’ ad:

Yvette Fielding’s pancake fail:

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

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

Follow Neil Buttery on twitter @neilbuttery

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

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Cornish Pasties

As promised, some Cornish recipes and I start with a classic. Cornish pasties are a simple combination of chopped (not minced) beef, potatoes, turnips and onions. It’s seasoned well – especially with black pepper and baked in shortcrust pastry. You can moisten it with a bit beef stock and season it further with some thyme leaves if there’s some hanging around, but you really don’t need to. Sometimes you may find some carrot in your pasty, if you do, thrown it back the face of the person who gave you it, because there is no place for carrot a Cornish pasty.

Cornish pasties were given to Cornish tin miners or field-workers so they could slip one into their pockets and eat them for lunch, the thick crimp being a useful handle protecting it from dirty fingers. The meat-to-vegetable ratio varied depending upon what folk could afford at the time. It don’t think it should be too meaty, but if you disagree simply alter my proportions in the recipe below.

Cornish tin miners, pasties in hand

Also, for a Cornish pasty the crimp must go down the side, not over the top, as you might see in some bakeries. That is a Devonshire pasty, I believe.

As discussed in the comments in my previous post, these pasties did not have a sweet filling at one end and a savoury one at the other. What you have there is Bedfordshire clanger, but I’m sure you knew that.

One final thing, some advice from Jane Grigson: “Cornish pasties are pronounced with a long a”. We use a short a Up North, and I refuse to change.

Pasties ready for the oven

If you’ve never made a pasty in your life, this is the one to start with; the ingredients are raw so there is no messy gravy and juices getting everywhere and making things difficult. It seems too simple to be delicious, but it is. The secret is in the seasoning. I use a rounded teaspoon of salt, but you can use less; be warned though, use no or little salt, and you will have a bland stodge-fest before you, my friend.

On the subject of salt, notice the crazy amount of salt in the egg wash – a good half-teaspoon of salt in your beaten egg provides a strong and appetising shine to the final product. I believe that is, as the kids say, a kitchen hack.

For 2 large or 4 medium-sized pasties:

For the shortcrust pastry:

400g plain flour

100g each salted butter and lard, diced

around 80g water

For the filling:

300g chuck, skirt or braising steak, gristle and fat removed

125g onion (a medium-sized one), chopped

125g turnip, peeled and thinly sliced

250g potato, peeled and thinly sliced

salt and freshy-ground black pepper

thyme, fresh or dried (optional)

4 tbs beef stock or water

Egg wash:

1 egg beaten with ½ tsp salt

Begin with the pastry. Place the flour, butter and lard in a mixing bowl. If you have an electric mixer, use the flat beater and turn on to a low speed until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. If you are doing this by hand, rub the fat into the flour with the tips of fingers. It shouldn’t take longer than five minutes.

Trickle in the water with the mixer on its slowest speed and stop it as soon as the dough comes together. If doing by hand, add half the water and mix in with one hand, trickling in the rest of the water as you mix.

Either way the dough should some together and not feel sticky – it shouldn’t stick to your worktop, but it will feel a little tacky.

Lightly flour your work surface and knead the pastry briefly. This is where you may go wrong – over-kneading results in tough, shrinking pastry. The way to tell you are done kneading is to pinch some of the dough between your thumb and forefinger – it should just split around the edges when you pinch it hard (see pic).

Cover the dough and pop in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.*

Meanwhile, get the filling ready. Place all the vegetables and a good pinch of thyme if using in a large mixing bowl. Season and mix with your hand, then add the meat, season that and then mix in. Remember to be generous with the black pepper – add what you think is sufficient, then do a couple more twists of the milk.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and split into two or four equal pieces. Form into balls and roll each out on a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin. I rolled out two large dinner plate sized circles of dough to around 3mm thickness – that of a pound coin. Don’t worry if they are a little wonky, they get tidied up as we go. That said, if it’s looking more like a map of the Isle of Wight than a circle, you might want to neaten up a little.

Now heap up the filling in a line just slightly off centre, dividing equally between the circles of dough. Sprinkle with the beef stock or water. Brush a semi-circle of egg wash down the edge nearest to the filling and then fold the dough over leaving the dough beneath poking out by 5 or 10mm.

Next egg wash the side again and crimp down the edge –  this makes things extra-secure as the filling expands in the oven. To crimp, fold over one corner inwards with a finger, squidge down the next section of pastry and repeat until you have worked all your way around the pasty.

Place on a lined baking tray, egg wash the tops and poke in a couple of holes with a sharp knife. Bake for 1 hour at 200°C, turning down the temperature to 180°C once the pastry is golden brown, around 20-30 minutes into the bake.

Remove and eat hot or cold.

*I will write a more in-depth method for pastry at some point, honest!

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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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