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Christmas Pottage


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It’s getting close to Christmas and I am sure that many of you are starting to plan what food you will making for the big day. I try and give you a Christmas recipe every year and I narrowed things down to four, and then asked Twitter which I should post and Twitter answered: the traditional Christmas pottage, the forerunner to the more familiar Christmas pudding.

Then, in a strange coincidence, Channel 5 asked me to take part in their Christmas special for their Cakes & Bakes show, asking if I would do a bit on the history Christmas pottage/pudding/cake. It won’t be broadcast until Christmas 2021, but it can be viewed on their streaming service to watch right now, just follow this link. As usual it was great fun to film, though – as always – rather nerve-racking.

Pottages were thick soups – stews really – made from meat and vegetables, made thick with grains or breadcrumbs. The meat was omitted if it was a fast day of course. Everyone ate them; if you were poor it wasn’t much more than a thin gruel. If you were rich it was packed with meat, boose, dried fruits and spices, and at Christmas they really went overboard.

As far as I know this pottage was made from at least the Late (or, if you prefer, ‘High’) Middle Ages and it was eaten either on Christmas Day, or even better on Christmas Eve: a big steaming bowlful of it would be the perfect way to mark the end the 24-day fast that was Advent and start of the 12-day piss-up that was Christmastide.

And as all the people in the neighbourhood dine with [my uncle] at Christmas, he takes care to place those who are married at the upper end of the table with himself, and to provide them each with a silver spoon to eat his plumb-porridge, which is generally very good, while the batchelors and maidens, at the lower end of the table, are furnished only with wooden spoons, and have their plumb-porridge serv’d up in a wooden bowl.

From ‘Excursion of an Oxonian into the Country’ in The Student, Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750)

Here’s the eighteenth century recipe I based mine on:

Plum-Pottage, or Christmas-Pottage.
Take a Leg of Beef, and boil it till it is tender in a sufficient quantity of Water, add two Quarts of red Wine, and two Quarts of old strong Beer; put to these some Cloves, Mace, and Nutmegs, enough to season it, and boil some Apples, pared and freed from the Cores into it, and boil them tender, and break them; and to every Quart of Liquor, put half a Pound of Currans pick’d clean, and rubb’d with a coarse Cloth, without washing. Then add a Pound of Raisins of the Sun, to a Gallon of Liquor, and half a Pound of Prunes. Take out the Beef, and the Broth or Pottage will be fit for use.

Prof. R Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728)

It really was quite the dish.

Often pottages were cooked in a hot water pastry instead of expensive earthenware or iron pots; these were given the name ‘coffins’ and overtime pastry and baking became more refined and produced for us the mince pie. Sometimes the pottage (or porridge) was cooked in a bag and boiled (see Cauldron Cooking). It had to be less soupy and bound with eggs but cooking it this way provided us with the Dickensian cannonball-shaped Christmas pudding.

I took a look in the excellent University of Leeds Special Collections and found that they cite this fifteenth century recipe as the first example of the dish. It is more savoury, packed with onions and herbs and died red with saunders (a dye made from cedarwood).

My recipe will feed the whole family, including the “batchelors and maidens” that’s for sure. If you don’t want whole spices you can use ground ones and if you don’t want to use beef (or don’t have the time) just swap the water for beef stock:

500 g shin beef, sliced

1 litre cold water

1 tsp salt

400 ml red wine

400 ml stout

2 nutmegs, cracked, or 1 tsp ground nutmeg

6 blades of mace, or 1 tsp ground mace

1 heaped teaspoon whole cloves, or ½ tsp ground cloves

2 medium-sized Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced

200 g currants

100 g raisins

100 g prunes

2 or 3 handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs (optional, see recipe)

Place the beef shin in a large saucepan with the salt and pour in the water. Heat over a medium flame – take your time – until the wate begins to just simmer. Skim away and scum, cover and leave to simmer very gently 2 ½ to 3 hours or until tender.

Add the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs, bring back to a simmer and cook until the apples are tender, and the fruit has plumped up nicely, around 30 minutes.

Break up the beef (if it hasn’t already fallen apart on its own) with the back of your spoon and then add enough breadcrumbs to achieve the desired consistency: you can leave it soupy if you like and add none, though I think it was better thickened slightly. Start by adding 2 handfuls and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, and then add more if you think it needs it.

Taste, adding more salt if you think it needs it and serve.

References

The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728) by Prof. R Bradley

‘The Festival of Christmas’ by Joan P Alcock in Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, 1990: Feasting and Fasting: Proceedings (1991)

‘Stewet of Beef to Potage’ in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns. From King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary. Also receipts in ancient cookery (1790) by the Society of Antiquaries of London; University of Leeds Special Collections: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/view/811

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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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Forgotton Foods #3: Umbilical Cord

umbilical cord

I have been writing posts of late on the huge variety of cuts we can get from meat, whether prime cuts or more humble (or should that be umble?) cuts, but I fear I may not be able to cook you all this one!

The umbilical cords of calves born on dairy farms were often collected by thrifty farmers and turned into a dish known as ‘muggety pie’ by famers’ wives. There’s a description of it in the excellent book Food in England by Dorothy Hartley; she says:

The umbilical cord of the calf was washed, soaked in salt water, and cut into short lengths which were then split open end to end twice, and cut, so making small oblong pieces. These were then boiled, till soft, with onions and seasoning, chopped again and made into a pie, using the gelatinous stock and some milk to make the filling gravy. The whole white pie was then covered with crust and baked.

Muggety pie was popular in the West Country, particularly in Gloucestershire and Cornwall, “all jelly soft it was…it was the jelly gravy was the best part – some did put taters and a turnip and sech, but ‘twas best plain, and good cold,” told old farm-hand.

Foods like muggety pie are dishes that probably never travelled much further than the dairy or cattle farmers’ houses and quickly forgotten. It was borne out of a necessity that no longer exists, but why kill an animal for meat that can be sold on when there is good protein laying there in the hay?

So, if there are any diary or cattle farmers that have a spare umbilical cord or two hanging around, let me know and I’ll bake you a delicious pie!

Don’t worry though, you don’t have to miss out on muggety pie because it can also be made out of sheep’s intestines or a sheep’s pluck (i.e. lungs, heart and liver) that latter of which should easily be found at butchers given a little notice…


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Tail to Nose Eating: Oxtail Soup

‘Nose to tail’ eating is en vogue these days and thank goodness it is. The stigma that offal and cheap cuts of meat are of poor quality has been around since at least the Victorian era. The anglophile French chef Alexis Soyer despaired that so much good food was going to waste; he couldn’t understand why we turned our noses up at it whilst countries like France ate the whole animal without worrying about such things. This was all compounded further during the rationing people faced, where there was no choice but to eat cheaper cuts and offal.

Alexis Soyer

Now that times are tough these cuts are appearing in our butchers’ shops once more; hopefully it is also because of the good work of today’s chefs and food writers promoting and cooking with these ingredients and showing us all that good food does not mean expensive food. When our counry’s finances turn around, I do hope that offal doesn’t get dropped for the expensive cuts again. It is so important that we treat our animals with respect by eating the whole thing, after all it helps the environment by reducing waste, and whilst we are doing this, we are opening ourselves to whole other gastronomic world previously veiled by sirloins and silversides. It can only be a good thing.

I have always been an offal fan and I can honestly say whether liver, kidney, sweetbread or brain, I have never eaten a bit of animal that I have not liked. All those odd bits, wobbly bits and squidgy bits have such an amazing range of textures and flavours and I thought I would add my favourite recipes to the blog. I am going to start this a little backwards with oxtail soup – I suppose I am championing tail to nose eating…


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Oxtail Soup

My favourite soup of all time. A few years ago this was actually quite an expensive dish to make – offal was unpopular, inflating the price. These days you can pick one up for about £4 from your high-street butcher. This soup is full of rich beefy flavour that is heightened by the inclusion of a bottle of stout – the darkest you can find, Guinness works well though I like to use Marston’s Oyster Stout. The most important ingredient here is time – to make a good soup with large tender pieces of meat you need the soup to be barely simmering for at least 2 hours. A full simmer often leads to tough meat that loses too much of its flavour to the surrounding stock.

The recipe itself only seems to appear in the latter half of the eighteenth century and apparently came from France. I can’t believe this recipe is so recent, I imagined that we’d been eating a version of it for a millennium. If anyone can find an earlier reference, please let me know.

beef dripping or lard

2 oxtails, cut into 2-3 inch pieces and trimmed of very large pieces of fat

2 onions, finely chopped

2 leeks, finely sliced

3 carrots, peeled and diced

3 sticks of celery, diced

3 or 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

4 healthy sprigs of thyme

2 bay leaves

300 ml stout

1.5 litres (2 ½ pints) beef stock

salt and black pepper

1 tbs Worcestershire sauce

1 tbs mushroom ketchup (optional)

4 tbs finely chopped parsley

Heat a small amount of dripping or lard in a heavy-based stockpot or large cast-iron casserole on a high heat – the highest you dare go – add the pieces of oxtail and brown thoroughly on all sides – this should release their fat, quickening the whole process. Don’t overcrowd the pan; cook in batches if need be. Remove the oxtail and set aside before browning the onion, leek, carrot and garlic. Add the thyme and bay leaves then the stout, making sure you get all the burnt bits scraped off that will have built up from all that hard-frying.

Add the stock and browned oxtail and bring to a simmer. The soup needs to quietly tick over for at least two hours, three if you can.

Strain the soup into another pan and remove the pieces of oxtail, picking out the meat which should come away easily from the bone. Cut into small pieces of you do so wish. Return the meat to the rich stock. If you want you can throw away the vegetables, but I prefer to pop them back into the pot too. We need our roughage now, don’t we? It’s best to let the soup cool so that you can skim off any unwanted fat – plus a little waiting time helps the flavours to develop.

Reheat and season well with salt and pepper, add the Worcestershire sauce and mushroom ketchup if using. Taste and add more if you like. Finally stir through the parsley and serve hot with buttered toast and a glass of stout.

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How the British Royal Family was saved by soup…

It’s Queen Elizabeth the Second’s diamond jubilee this year, so thought I should write a post or two on the Royal Family…

In recent times, the Royal Family have been under threat of being dissolved in Britain, due to what seemed like a total lack of support. It feels that in the past the Royals were revered, but they have fallen in and out of favour with the public rather alot. Popularity during the early twentieth century for example was pretty low. Today, Prince William seems to have picked up today’s royals’ momentum again, but back then it was King George V that turned them around, and what helped him to do that was soup…

The Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary

George became King of England in 1911 in a time of turmoil and constitutional crisis, the Great War was a-brewing and the Royal Family were seen as totally outdated. George himself was vehemently against modernisation, and things seemed a lost cause. George and his wife, Queen Mary, spend much time visiting the poor and doing their bit, but to little effect. The reason for all this was because of the Labour Party’s increasing popularity and also the rumblings of revolt in autocratic Russia. Was the smell of revolution in the air? Possibly, but things began to change during the Great War. In 1917, the Russian Royal family sought asylum in Britain and the British Government duly granted it. But then, in waded George and refused them entry – he knew that helping such an old and autocratic institution would be embarrassing and most probably disastrous for the British Royal Family and for the country too. He realised he must distance the two families. Tsar Nicholas and his family were brutally killed the following year by the Bolsheviks.

The Silver Jubilee edition of The Daily Mirror, 7 May 1935

George then realised that the Royal Family needed to distance themselves from their German ancestry, deciding to anglicise the surname – Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha was not helping them at all during the fight against the Bosch. But what to change it to? After some pondering, the private secretary came up with a name that would inspire Britishness (and George considered himself to be British through and through). The name was, of course, Windsor. Why Windsor? Well, it was because of the ubiquitous Brown Windsor soup served up by every housewife at the time. It was ‘a nourishing brown…with a certain hearty dullness’. Windsor also linked to the ancient Windsor Castle. This was just what George needed, and it really changed the public’s views. Soon after, he introduced the Order of the British Empire (or, OBE), which clinched the whole affair. He died in 1936 much beloved by the British Public.

The people of Yarmouth celebrate the King’s Silver Jubilee


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Brown Windsor soup, later shortened to simply ‘brown soup’ went a little downhill. It became a rather thin and tasteless affair served up in hotels and it gave British soup a bad name. This seems to happen all too often to much of our food. I always blame wartime rationing for these things, but I think I right this time: small amounts of meat made the soup boring, and over time people perhaps simply forgot what Brown Windsor soup used to be like.

Well take it from me, it used to be a delicious thick and hearty soup, perfect for this cold weather we are having. It’s pretty cheap too. This recipe comes from the wonderful cookery writer Lindsey Bareham’s book A Celebration of Soup. Her version cranks up the stodge-o-meter with the addition of horseradish dumplings; and we all need stodge mid-February.

For the dumplings:

4 oz. self-raising flour

¼ tsp salt

2 oz. beef suet

ground black pepper

1 oz. grated horseradish, or a good creamed proprietary brand

Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the suet and a seasoning and pepper. Mix in the horseradish and stir in enough cold water to bring the dough together in your hands. The dough should be soft and elastic, but not too sticky to handle. Flour your hands and roll 16 to 20 small dumplings. To cook the dumplings, turn up the heat on soup and plop them in. They should take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook.

For the soup:

1 oz. butter

a small onion, thinly sliced

the green of a leek, thinly sliced

a small carrot, diced

10 oz. stewing steak

1 tbs flour

2 ½ pints of beef stock

a bouquet garni made with 2 bay leaves, 4 parsley stalks, a sprig of thyme and a crushed garlic clove

1 tbs chopped parsley (optional)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and cook the onion for a few minutes to soften slightly, then add the leek and carrot. Season well with salt and pepper – the salt is very important as it helps to draw the flavour from the vegetables – cover the pan and cook for a further 5 minutes or so. Turn up the heat and add the meat, browning it all over. Next, stir in the flour and cook for a couple more minutes before adding a little stock. Make sure you scrape off any crusty bits of beef or flour from the pan’s bottom with your wooden spoon.  Now pour in the rest, bring to the boil, add the bouquet garni and then turn the heat down, cover and simmer for 2 hours. Liquidise the soup and reheat, adding more seasoning should it need adjusting. Stir in the parsley just before you serve the soup.

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