Just a very quick post for a bit of shameless self-promotion. I’m not very good at bigging myself up, but I’m taking a deep breath and am doing it now because I’ve taken part in a new series on Channel 5 (the best of all the channels) called Fantastic Cakes and Bakes which looks at our love of baking and eating baked goods. I ended up being the resident food historian on it, but I also cooked up a few traditional bakes. The biggest thing was for episode 1 where you can watch me having a total nervous breakdown trying to make the world’s biggest Jaffa Cake.
So if you can, have a gander at 8pm tonight (1st Nov 2020) on Channel 5. I’ll be most grateful. I shall be watching (through fingers and with gritted teeth) and tweeting.
The team were great and the directors had bucketloads of patience with me and they should be applauded.
Round about the cauldron go; In the poison’d entrails throw. Toad, that under cold stone Days and nights has thirty-one Swelter’d venom sleeping got, Boil thou first i’ in the charmed pot. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!
William Shakespeare Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1
As it’s Hallowe’en I thought that I’d write a little post all about cauldrons, because of course along with a broomstick, pointy hat, black cat and warts it is a must-have for any witch worth their salt at this time of year.
Let’s start off with what a cauldron is, just on case you are unfamiliar with them. They are large, rounded cooking pots that are suspended over a fire by a chain or on support legs in the centre of the fire, and they have been used all across Europe since the first millennium BCE. One of the oldest ever found was excavated in Battersea and is therefore known as the Battersea Cauldron. It made up of bronze sheets melded together and is huge. It has been described as “one of the largest and most sophisticated metal objects of the day” and is estimated to be 3000 years old, and it obviously got some use judging by the number of reparation patches it has covering its surface. Whatever size your cauldron was, it was an expensive bit of kit and built to last, so it is more unusual to find out without patches. Precious items such as this were passed down through the generations and the “man who owned an iron cauldron” says Dorothy Hartley, “had a definite standing above those who cooked only in small pots and pans.”
You may be thinking that a selection of pots and pans might be preferable to a massive cooking pot because they give you more options and you don’t have to make giant vats of food all the time, but a cauldron is surprisingly versatile and was rarely used for just cooking great big broths with bones bobbing about the surface. No, the cauldron was in fact the complete cooking and hot water system; take a look at this wonderful illustration from Ms Hartley’s excellent books Food in England:
You can see here how the cauldron was actually compartmentalised and filled with a whole variety of foods. At the base is a large joint of meat that required long cooking, usually wrapped in a flour paste and the tied up with cloth, then sat on that were wooden slats upon which all sorts of things were sat. There would have been some suet puddings wrapped in cloth simmering away, as well as bag puddings made up of peas, beans or cereal grains such as the classic pease pudding. If you did want to make some hearty stew, you placed your ingredients in earthenware jars, filled them with stock or water, covered them tightly and poached it in the cauldron water. This gentle way of poaching meat produced deliciously juicy cuts of meat; in fact, one cauldron found in Warwick Castle bore the legend: “I give meat good savour.” Often the meat was jointed and sat in a large jug, to produce old British classics such as jugged hare (or rabbit, I’ve also seen recipes for jugged kippers and jugged peas). Dorothy illustrates some beef tea being made where the meat is sat in its jar on top of some birch twigs, preventing the meat from sticking to the bottom. I love little details like those. You had to be very careful cooking like this though because those sealed pots acted like pressure cookers and were prone to exploding!
Aside from all of this, the cauldron also provided the washing water and bathwater. “I hope” says Hartley, “you now understand that because there was only one cauldron on the fire there was not one thing for dinner.”
Cauldrons were such important and precious items that they were even found in burial sites such as the Baldock Burial, a Bronze Age burial site in Hertfordshire, where a whole plethora of things were found including a cauldron complete with joints of meat, ready to sustain the dead as they journeyed to the Afterlife. Pagans revered them and they became symbolic of death and resurrection, often being buried in near or bogs and rivers, locations they considered to be domains of both the living and the dead.
Because they were imbibed with magic, they appear in several myths and legends; for example, the Irish god Dagda owned a cauldron that did not just magically produce food but also cured disease, healed wounds and brought the dead back to life. There was also a Cauldron of Knowledge that told you everything you wanted (and did not want) to know. There are plenty of Welsh and English stories that involve cauldrons too (though I haven’t come across any Scottish ones for some reason).
Cauldrons of course sat upon flames and were extensively found in medieval and Tudor Christian art to depict what might happen to you if you went to Hell. One example depicts Dives – a rich man Jesus tells us of in the New Testament, who was very rich but would not share his food with a poor beggar. He is shown “tormented with thirst stewing forever in one of Hell’s capacious cauldrons.” Another manuscript knows as the Hours of Henry VIII clearly shows St. John the Evangelist sat in cauldron of boiling oil looking pretty chilled out and happily preaching whilst being tormentind by his captors. He would be later be miraculously preserved in the oil rather like, one supposes, like some nice comfit duck legs.
So there we go, I hope you have enjoyed my brief history of cauldrons and appreciate that they are not just for witches…or Hallowe’en!
Well didn’t Autumn descend rather quickly this year? It was quite the shock to the system. Sat inside watching the persistent Manchester drizzle, my mind turned to steamed puddings, and the pud came to me was the classic suet pudding known as Apple Hat. For the uninitiated, it’s a pudding cooked in a basin lined with suet pastry and filled with apples, sugar and spices.
In the cold autumn and winter months, apples were one of the few fruits that could be stored fresh, therefore there are lots of recipes for apple-based puddings and desserts in British cookery; in fact, someone could probably write a blog on that subject alone! Apples were essentially the spuds of the fruit world: cheap, hearty, easy to grow and a big crowd-pleaser.
So why is it a hat? Well that’s because when the pudding is turned out onto a plate, it looks like a hat, the plate being the brim. Simple as that.*
The dessert doesn’t have to be made with apples of course – rhubarb, pears and gooseberries all work excellently. The tart fruit can be flavoured with any sugar you like, though some believe golden syrup should be used. If you’re being a real stickler for tradition, the apples would be flavoured with a few cloves, but they can be omitted or substituted with mixed spice, cinnamon or even a star anise. I like to substitute some of the apples with a few raisins or with some quinces, blackberries or blackcurrants. If you are feeling opulent, you could add a knob of butter or the grated zest of half a lemon or orange.
Apple Hat appears to be of a Victorian vintage – the earliest example I can find is in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 work Modern Cookery for Private Families, it’s simply called an ‘Apple Pudding’ but it is made up of apples encased in suet pastry and steamed, though in her book it is made in a pudding cloth rather than a basin and therefore boiled, as what typical of puddings at the time.
Steamed puddings were a cornerstone of British cooking, but they are a dying breed now. I don’t think it’s because they are hard to make, folk certainly still like them, and it can’t be that they are too expensive (they are quite the opposite). No, I think it’s because they take so long to cook – often several hours – which seems like a great waste of energy today. Long gone are the days that the family coal range would be on all day every day where it made perfect sense to utilise the energy given off. Nowadays it makes more sense to bake something instead. That said, you can successfully steam a pudding in a slow cooker, and many modern ovens have built in steamers that require much less energy, so there is hope of a comeback yet.
I use a regular steamer, but if you don’t have one you can easily make one by placing a folded tea towel on the bottom of a large saucepan with an upturned saucer on top of that. The pudding can sit on top of the saucer and filled halfway with boiling water. (The tea towel stops the saucer rattling).
Here’s my recipe for Apple Hat but remember you can use whatever spices and fruits you like. I fancied a few sultanas and I went for the knob of butter, natch.
You can make it vegan by making the pastry with your favourite plant milk or water.
450 g apples of any kind, but Bramley apples are best, peeled and cored weight
Spices (optional): e.g. 5 cloves or 1 star anise, or ½ tsp mixed spice, cinnamon, etc.
40 g caster sugar, light brown sugar or golden syrup
A knob of butter (about 15 g; optional)
Make the suet pastry either by hand or with a mixer – see this post for instructions.
Grease a 1-litre/2-pint pudding basin liberally with butter, then shake in the Demerara or brown sugar, if using, rotating the bowl to completely coat the butter.
Roll out three-quarters of the dough into a round large enough to line the basin, using the bowl to check it is large enough. Keeping everything well-floured, fold the dough into quarters and place inside the bowl so that the corner is in the very centre of the base and unfold it, pressing the pastry down well and popping any air bubbles.
Chop the apple into chunks between 1 ½ and 2 cm in size and put in the bowl, tucking in any whole spices, if using. If using ground spices, mix them with the sugar and shake over the apples, tapping the bowl a few times to disperse it evenly.
Now roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid, gluing it down with a little more milk or water. Press down the edges to seal and trim away excess. Make a steam hole and pop the lid on and cover with a lid, or tie on a pleated piece of greaseproof paper and foil.
Steam for two hours over a medium-high heat for the first 20 minutes, then turn down to a medium-low heat for the remaining time. Don’t forget to check the water level now and again.
When ready, remove the lid, loosen the edges with a small knife and turn out onto a serving plate. Serve with plenty of proper custard (obvs.).
*Before you write in, I do know that there is another dessert with the same name consisting of steamed sponge topped with a stewed fruit ‘hat’, but that sort of hat is a more recent invention and therefore loses out.
English Cooking: Discover the true value of pie (2015) Sophie Waugh, The Spectator 28 November 2015
Good Old-Fashioned Puddings (1983) Sara Paston-Williams
Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) Eliza Acton
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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 Lanercost1272-1346
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.
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.
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.
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.
For centuries, the British were famous for their roast meat, attached to a spit before being hand-turned by some poor soul in front of a devilishly hot fire. We no longer do this, today we cook them in the oven, so technically they are baked meats not roasted ones. Searching for historical recipes for roast chicken is rather tricky: they were rarely roasted – they were a dependable source of eggs after all – so only chickens that stopped laying were eaten, those so-called ‘old boilers’. Instead, capons provided tender meat; these castrated cockerels were put to good, being otherwise surplus to requirement. Unfortunately, in today’s mass production of eggs, male chicks are killed as soon as they can be sexed.
When you do find a recipe, there is little focus on the roasting itself. Check out this recipe for ‘Chicken Endored’ from around 1450:
Take a chicken, draw it and roast it; let the feet be on and take away the head. Then make a batter of egg yolks and flour, and add to it ground ginger and pepper, saffron and salt, and spread it over until it is roasted enough.
By the eighteenth century, there is little more instruction, but we do at least get a cooking time:
To roast young chickens, pluck them very carefully, draw them, only cut off the claws, truss them, and put them down to a good fire. Singe, dust and baste them with butter, they will take a quarter of an hour roasting. Then…lay them on your dish.
We can only assume that the roasting part of the process was already in the readers’ skill set.
My recipe is below, but there are a few things I should mention first: First, never wash your chicken! It’s unhygienic and it will stop the skin crisping up. Second, do not overcook and don’t fear the salmonella; follow the times and temperatures precisely and you will be grand. Thirdly, use plenty of butter and bacon to season the bird and keep moist. I make a flavoured butter for the roasting, but using just butter will still produce great results.
1 free-range chicken
100 g butter, softened
Salt and pepper
Any flavourings you like: e.g. 1 to 4 finely chopped cloves of garlic, 1 tsp chopped thyme or lemon thyme, truffle trimmings, chopped rosemary, grated zest half a lemon, chopped olives, anchovies or capers, ½ tsp smoked paprika. The list really is endless.
8 rashers of dry cured bacon, smoked or unsmoked
100 ml white wine
300 ml chicken stock
1 tbs cornflour
Remove the chicken from the fridge and hour before you want to roast it. Untruss it and preheat the oven to 190°C.
Mash the butter with the salt and pepper using a fork and stir in the flavouring ingredients, if using. Set aside.
Sit the chicken on a board, untruss it and turn it so that the cavity is facing you and carefully lift the skin away from the breasts. The technique is to insert the tips of your middle three fingers gingerly underneath the skin lifting it away from one breast, using your other hand to keep the skin taught, lest it tears. Repeat for the other breast
Next, place the flavoured butter under the skin, massaging it so to evenly distribute it over the breasts.
Make sure there is plenty under there, but reserve around a quarter of it to spread it over the legs. Next, lay the rashers of bacon over the bird so they overlap only slightly.
Weigh the chicken then pop it on a roasting tin. Don’t be tempted to truss it. Calculate the cooking time: 45 minutes per kilo plus 15 minutes and place in the oven.
Leave undisturbed for 30 minutes, and then baste with any butter that has melted and leaked from the bird. Tip to one side, so that buttery juices come out of the chicken. Baste with the juices every 20 minutes or so, and when the bacon is sufficiently crisp, remove it and let the bird roast without its porky jacket for the remaining time.
Remove and check its cooked all of the way through by easing the leg away from the body, it should be filled with delicious, clear juices. If unsure, use a sharp knife to test the juices are clear in thickest part of the leg. If they are tinged with pink, roast ten more minutes.
Remove the tender chicken – be careful it may start to collapse a bit, so be swift and use a fish slice and a pair of tongs to help you guide it to a board safely and all in one piece. Cover with foil to rest while you make the gravy.
Tip the juices into a jug and allow to settle for a few minutes. Place the roasting tin over a medium-high heat and brown any delicious detritus that remains in the roasting tin. Deglaze with the wine, scraping off any brown bits with a wooden spoon, then tip the whole lot into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile skim away most of the fat from the chicken juices and pour them into the pan along with the stock. Bring to a boil and let it bubble away for ten minutes so it reduces a little.
Now slake the cornflour with a few tablespoons of cold water and whisk it briskly into the gravy. Give it a couple of minutes to thicken, and if it seems on the thin side, slake a little more; it’s all down to preference, I prefer a thin gravy.
Check for seasoning and leave on a low heat whilst you get everything ready.
To carve the chicken I find it easiest to remove the legs first, cutting them at the knee to give two thighs and two drumsticks, and then cutting each breast away in one piece, cutting them into four or five thick pieces.
Arrange them on a warmed serving plate and don’t forget to serve the bacon.
The Culinary Recipes of Medieval England (2013) compiled and translated by Constance B Hieatt
The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) Elizabeth Raffald
It is as hard to achieve the right shape and texture, crust and crumb, of an authentic cottage loaf as it is to reproduce true French baguette bread.
Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977
The cottage loaf is a vintage classic, and as far as I can see, a bread unique to England. I would say that most people have heard of one but have never clapped eyes on one in real life. I don’t think I have, my only interaction being with the salt dough loaf one that was part of the play shop my infant school teacher Mrs Bareham put together in the early 1980s. If you are not familiar with one, a cottage loaf is made up of two cobs – i.e. ball-shaped loaves – stacked one on top of the other, the upper loaf around half the size of the bottom one. The shape is curious, making even slicing difficult, which I suppose wouldn’t matter if you are just tearing off rustic chunks to dunk in your stew.
I’ve been meaning to have a go making one for years, but Elizabeth David writing in her classic tome English Bread and Yeast Cookery talked of how fiendishly difficult it is to make and impossible to reproduce at home. That is, unless you are Virginia Woolf, who made an excellent one. These days we have rather more time at home than usual, so I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a waste of time if it turned out to be a disaster. Then, I saw a tweet alluding to its trickiness from Foods of England, so I considered the gauntlet to have officially been thrown down.
I had a look into the history of it with a little trepidation, half expecting it to be a food with no vintage at all like the Ploughman’s Lunch. I needn’t have worried – it turns out to be an invention of the early nineteenth century at least, and a picture of one a little later in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). They were originally baked directly on the bottom of low, flat brick bread ovens like many cobs, muffins and breadcakes are still baked today. There were no shelves in these ovens, unlike modern combi-ovens, meaning one was rather restricted in the area one could bake crusty cobs. That’s where the upper loaf comes in for it made a larger loaf – two really – without taking up extra precious space on the oven bottom. It all makes perfect sense now.
The trick to making a cottage loaf is to keep that top piece from falling off during proving and baking, though it does need to lean slightly to one side, says Ms David, like a jaunty hat. But, you can’t just sit one on top of the other, you have to fix it in place by taking floured fingers and plunging them through the top and bottom cobs two or three times. That’s what Paul Hollywood says anyway, Elizabeth David does the same, but proves the two loaves separately then attaches them in a similar way but includes extra cuts, crosses and a lot of manhandling. No wonder she found it difficult. Seeing as her baking recipes are hit-and-miss at the best of times, went for the Hollywood method.
Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt and the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the warm water into the well along with the butter or oil.
Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook on a mixer to bring it together. Knead well until the dough becomes tight and springy, around 5 minutes in a mixer, or 10 or so minutes if kneading by hand. It will be sticky, but persevere; sprinkle a little flour or a smear a little olive oil on your work surface if you like. Bundle the dough into a tight ball and place in an oiled bowl and cover to allow it to double in volume in a warm place.
When ready, press out the air and cut away a third of the dough. On a lightly-floured work surface, make the cob shape by forming a ball with the dough by tucking your hands under it, tightening the dough. If you twist the ball of dough slightly as you do this, it will be extra tight. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
Dust a baking sheet with flour and set aside.
Sit the small loaf directly on top of the large one, flour the first three fingers of one hand and plunge them right down through the dough right to worktop surface. Repeat one more time and your two pieces should be well-fused together.
At this point you can make some cuts with a sharp serrated knife, but to do so you have to pick it up, so avoid this step if you think it might be too risky. Sit in on the floured baking tray and cover with a large bag and leave to prove again, until twice the size and springy to the touch.
To achieve a really good crust, set your oven to 220°C as you wait for the loaf to prove and sit a roasting tin on the bottom of the oven. When the loaf is ready to go in, boil the kettle and place the loaf on the middle shelf, pull out the roasting tin a little and pour in the water – careful of the steam! – and quickly shut the door.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.
As it turns out it’s not that tricky in the end, and it even leaned to one side without falling off just like Beeton’s!
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David
This week I made the great achievement of accruing one million views on British Food: a History, so this is just a very quick post to say thank you for subscribing to the blog, for reading and commenting on my posts and for cooking the recipes I put out there, even the weird ones!
A lot has happened in the last (almost) ten years since I started it – way back when I was living in St Louis as an evolutionary biologist – and there have been some major ups and downs between now and then. At low points I barely posted, but now I’m back in the swing and so chuffed about the lovely comments and discussions that get going on the blog.
All this writing has even landed me with a book commission which I am working on right now*, plus a smattering of recent television jobs. The podcast series which started earlier in the year (and will return once the book is written) was well received too it seems, so hopefully things are on the up, or will be once we have adjusted to our post-covid lives, whatever that will entail.
I know that none of this would be happening if you were not reading it, so thanks again! I’ll be toasting you all (or maybe wassailing you all?) this evening.
*obviously not right now, I’m writing this right now.
There is no hedgerow glory finer than the elderflower
One benefit of lockdown life is my daily hour-long meander around the green areas of Levenshulme. And at this time of year there is a real treat for those who like to forage; all I needed to do was to wait for a few dry, sunny and hot days in a row – something not that common in Manchester – and I could get my paws on probably the best foraged food, the elderflower. Patience was a virtue and last week the planets aligned, and I filled my boots. Well, my tote bag.
I love the taste of them so much and I am always disappointed if I don’t get hold of some at least once per year. The smell is heady with that earthy Muscat fragrance, and is a potent addition to many foods, classically partnered with the gooseberry. Elderflower syrups and cordials stretch back to at least Tudor times, and classic elderflower champagne seems to have become popular in the late Victorian era, peaking in popularity in the 1920s. If you have never cooked with them then you are missing a treat, but don’t worry, there is a good few weeks left of the season if you want to get hold of some – all we need are some more sunny days.
The elder has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and has a very interesting folklore; I plan to write a post on the Elder tree later in the year, so for now I’ll just talk about the flowers. Because the foliage and green stalks are mildly poisonous, elderflowers and leaves together have been used as a purgative since the days of Hippocrates. In Britain, it is traditionally used to sooth sore throats and reduce the intensity of flu symptoms. I don’t know if there is truth in any of that, but what I do know is that it has a positive effect on my mental health, so delicious is the uplifting aroma when introduced to all sorts of foods; and in these strange times we all need a mental health boost I’m sure you’ll agree.
The elder is one of Europe’s most common trees and is an almost ubiquitous member of hedgerows and scrubland throughout Britain, only thinning out sparsely in the north of Scotland. It flowers between the months of late May and early July, the precise dates changing with latitude: the north being a good two weeks behind the south. At this time there are few trees you could confuse it with: the bark is pale, gnarly and often spindly and looks old beyond its years. At this time of year though, you smell it before you see it.
The flat arrangement of tiny cream coloured flowerheads are called ‘plates’ that also go under the name of curds, hands or (my favourite) slices of bread depending on where you are in the country. Pick them in the late afternoon after two or three days of dry sunny weather and give the flowers a good sniff to check they are full of fragrance. Snip the heads off with some scissors – aim to get between twelve and eighteen hands. Once collected, head on home and use them before their fragrance begins to dissipate.
What you do with your elderflowers once home depends upon what you want to make. If they are not going to be heated up or cooked in any way, it’s important to snip away as much green stalk as possible because as mentioned the foliage is slightly poisonous. Whatever you do, don’t wash them; you’ll wash away the scent. Just check over them and pick off any insects that may be residing in amongst the blooms.
Elderflowers are normally used to flavour foods, rather than as a food themselves, the only example I can think of where they are actually eaten is the elderflower fritter. When introducing them to hot liquids, snip away the stalks and tie the flowers up loosely in muslin and use it to flavour scalding hot cream or milk to make a delicious elderflower custard to pour over gooseberry pudding – or freeze it to make ice cream. I have made elderflower syllabub, blancmange and even Irish carrageen pudding, which once made it onto a seaside-themed pop-up restaurant back in the day. You can add it to cooking gooseberries if making a crumble, or pop some in toward the end of the cooking time when making gooseberry jam.
The best thing you can make by a country mile is elderflower gin and it is the simplest and quickest of the cold infusions. Because it doesn’t require any cooking, the true taste of the springtime hedgerow is perfectly preserved.
Snip between 12 and 18 elderflower heads into a large jar with a two tablespoons of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Seal the jar and give it a good swirl twice a day to dissolve the sugar. After three days, strain through a muslin-lined sieve into bottles and you are done. You can then enjoy the best gin and tonic of your life.
Elderflower Tom Collins:
We have now reached the pinnacle of deliciousness. This was not my idea, but my ex-business husband Mr Brian Mulhearn’s and it is very delicious. For one drink, you will need:
2 shots of elderflower gin
1 shot fresh lemon juice
½ – 1 shot gomme (stock sugar syrup)
Place some ice in a cocktail shaker with the gin, juice and gomme to taste. Shake well and strain into a glass generously filled with ice. Top up with soda water. Bliss.
For a liqueur far superior to St Germaine, make as for the gin, but use vodka and add between 120 and 150 g of sugar, depending upon the sweetness of your tooth.
For elderflower vinegar, make as for gin, using 500 ml of cider vinegar. Leave in a sunny spot for a week, swirling regularly. For a great salad, dress some rocket leaves and a few halved or quartered strawberries with the vinegar plus salt and plenty of black pepper. It makes an excellent accompaniment for poached salmon.
Collins Tree Guide (2004), Owen Johnson & David More
Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabeth Country Cooking at Home (1986), Hilary Spurling
Food in England (1954), Dorothy Hartley
River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow (2010), John Wright
As I write this, we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. Everyone is baking bread and I must say it is lovely to see people making time to bake during these strange times. Many home bakers have resorted to making sourdough because one of the most difficult items to get hold of at the moment is bakers’ yeast. This is infuriating to regular bakers, as is the lack of string bread flour, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. Delicious Irish soda bread requires neither bread flour nor yeast, instead regular plain flour and a chemical raising agent. it’s perfect if the thought faffing about with sourdough starters is too much to bear. There are no proving stages and it is made in a trice, baking in just a little over half an hour.
Irish soda breads originated in eighteenth century America when settlers discovered that potash made an excellent instant chemical leavening agent. Forever ingenious, the early Americans worked out a way to refine the process easily and instead used bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). It caught on big time, especially because it meant travelling folk could made bread quickly and easily without the need to for long fermentations. It wasn’t before long that news of this magic raising agent got to Britain and Ireland.
Up until that point, the Irish and Scottish were used to dealing with very low gluten flours such as oat and barley, because they grow well in northern latitudes. Even flour made from wheat grown in Southern England had a low gluten content (our modern plain flour) and although great for pastry, it was never going to make the pillowy fluffy loaves that we think of as standard today; for that, high gluten flours imported from Canada were required. This lack of stretch from their doughs and batters prevented the slow-release bubbles produced by yeast from growing and remaining stable; it made much more sense to make unleavened breads and griddle cakes. These new baking soda leavened breads however, suited their low-gluten flours very well, and they were infinitely adaptable.
Soda breads are different to regular breads, they very crumbly, so a sandwich would be disaster, but they are great with soup, especially when still a little warm.
A cousin to soda bread is treacle bread which I think this is much superior so I thought I would share with you my recipe for it because I think it’s the best of all soda breads, and I have been making it a lot over the last couple of months.
With this treacle bread, you get a mild bitter sweetness and a lovely brown colour from the treacle, and a good nutty chew from the oats. It’s like a giant delicious cakey digestive biscuit and it goes excellently with a good farmhouse Cheddar or Stilton cheese.
It is easy to make, and it is easy to make substitutions too: buttermilk is tricky to get hold of in the United Kingdom at the best of times, so go for a mixture of milk and yogurt, or just milk. If you can’t find plain flour, use self-raising and add just one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the mix. Medium-ground oatmeal can also be substituted for porridge oats.
Makes one large round
250 g plain flour
250 g medium oatmeal
1 tsp salt
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbs black treacle
250 ml buttermilk, or 200 ml milk and 50 ml yoghurt
Preheat your oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper
This could not be simpler: mix the flour, oats, salt and bicarbonate of soda in a mixing bowl, make a well and add the treacle then the liquid(s). Mix with a wooden spoon and when you have brought it together, tip onto a floured surface and knead just once or twice.
Make into a round, place on the baking tray and cut a deep cross in the dough going from edge to edge. Quickly slide into the oven on the centre shelf and bake until golden brown, around 30 to 40 minutes. Give it a little rap on the base with your knuckle – if it sounds hollow, it is done.