Tag Archives: history

Black bun (Scotch Bun) Part 2: Recipe

My traditional yeast-leavened black bun

As promised, and carrying on from my last post, here is my recipe for the traditional yeast leavened black bun (Scotch bun). I must say I was really surprised with how well it turned out: it was enriched with so much stuff and was so huge, I thought the poor little yeast cells wouldn’t be able to do their job. I was wrong, but it did take two days to do two provings required before baking.

The white dough is essentially a sweet brioche made without eggs. When it was time to knock it back after its first rising, I was encouraged by the network of small yeasty bubbles that had formed inside the dough.

The tiny bubbles in my enriched basic dough

The bun was huge and made quite the centrepiece (though if you wanted to reduce the quantities and make a smaller one, go ahead). The cake inside was deliciously moist, and the brioche dough wonderfully buttery and thin and in such contrast with the treacle-black centre.


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It may have been big, but it kept well and was perfectly delicious well over a week after baking.

For the basic dough:

450 g plain white flour

450 g strong white bread flour

160 g caster sugar

10 g dried fast-action yeast

20 g salt

160 g softened butter

400 ml hand-hot full-fat milk

A smidge of flavourless oil

For the centre:

750 g basic dough

100 ml black treacle

400 g currants

400 g raisins

100 g candied peel

100 g slivered almonds

1 tsp mixed spice

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and allspice

2 eggs, plus 1 more for glazing

Butter for greasing

Granulated sugar

Two days before you want to bake your black bun, in the evening, make the basic dough. This is best done with an electric mixer, however don’t let me stop you attempting this by hand. Mix the dry ingredients – flours, yeast, sugar and salt – in your mixing bowl, make a well and add the butter and milk. Mix slowly with a dough hook until everything is mixed together, then turn the speed up a little and knead until smooth. Because it’s a low-gluten mixture and there’s all of that butter and sugar, it won’t be very elastic, but when it’s really smooth, you are done. It should take 8 to 10 minutes.

Paint the inside of a bowl with oil, then bundle up the sticky dough as best you can and cover with cling film. Leave to prove until around double in size. This took 18 hours: I use a low amount of yeast on purpose that the yeast ferments slowly. It may take less time for you if you used more yeast, and if your home is warmer than mine.

Knock back the dough and place 750 g of the dough in your food mixer, then add the treacle, dried fruits, candied peel, almonds, spices and eggs. Mix with a flat beater for a couple of minutes until everything looks smooth and like a Christmas cake batter. Set aside.

Take the remaining dough, form into a ball, place on a floured work surface and roll out into a large circle 32-35 cm in diameter. Make sure your pin is floured too; this will prevent sticking. With slightly wet hands, scoop the dark sticky dough and pop it in the centre of your circle. Now gather the dough so that the centre is completely covered – rather like a giant Eccles cake.

Cut away bits of the dough that have bunched up too much and glue any edges with a thin coat of beaten egg. Don’t worry if it looks a bit messy. Turn the bun over and flatten it with your hands, smoothing away any bulging bits to make a nice round shape.

Now liberally grease a 25 cm flan ring with butter and place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and then dusted with flour, and place the bun in the centre. Press the bun or lightly roll it with your rolling pin so that is just a centimetre off from touching the edge. Paint the top with egg and scatter over a little granulated sugar, then stab holes in the top with a thin, pointed knife right down to its base – this keeps it flat as it rises. Cover with a large plastic bag[1] and allow to prove until it has grown large enough to fill the ring. For me, this took 12 hours.

Preheat your oven to 175°C and place a heatproof tin on the bottom of the oven. When it’s time to bake the bun boil the kettle, then open the oven and slide your bun onto the middle shelf, gingerly slide the tin out enough so that you can pour in the hot water, slide it back in and close the door.

Bake at this temperature for an hour, then turn the heat down to 140°C and bake for a further 2½ hours. If the top is getting too brown, cover it with some kitchen foil.

Remove from the oven, and slide onto a cooling rack. Remove the ring when the bun is just warm.

The black bun will keep for weeks in an airtight box or tub. It is delicious eaten with sharp cheese.


Notes:

[1] I find a supermarket ‘bag for life’ is best for this task. I have one that I use only for proving things like this. Turn it over and turn up the edges, as you would your trousers to make it a sturdy shape and hey presto!

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Black Bun (Scotch Bun) Part 1: History

Before we begin: a big thank you to Scots chef and food writer Sue Lawrence for helping me out with the research for this post.

It has become a Christmas tradition of mine to ask my Twitter followers to select by Christmas post for me by way of a poll. I like to include both obvious and obscure options and was very pleased this year to see roast turkey receive no votes all (though I suppose I’ll have to write about it at some point!), and the most obscure on the list – the black bun – win out with 46% of the votes.[1]

The black bun – sometimes called a Scotch bun – is a Scottish speciality that has changed in shape and constitution through the years, but is today a type of fruit cake baked in a loaf tin lined with shortcrust pastry. It is then covered with more pastry, egg washed and baked. The cake was often made black with the addition of black treacle; Sue Lawrence says of these very rich black buns, ‘the malevolent appearance of the black inner of its shiny golden pastry case might be off-putting to some black bun virgins.’ It might come as no surprise that the bun ‘is almost invariably served with a dram of whiskey.’[2]

Black buns today are fruit cakes wrapped in pastry (pic: BBC)

It is traditional to eat black buns at Hogmanay, the Scots new year festival. Food writer and chef and Sue Lawrence writes evocatively of childhood experiences of the Hogmanay celebration:

‘As I grew up, Hogmanay…was always a time for friends and fun. Friends and neighbours would get together to have a drink and the traditional shortbread (often eaten with cheese), sultana cake, black bun and such delights as ginger and blackcurrant cordial.’[3]

For many Scots Hogmanay, was – and is – more important than Christmas Day is the Christmastide calendar. The black bun is actually the Scots’ Twelfth Cake, but the food and the party was, according to F. Marion McNeill, ‘transferred to Hogmanay after the banning of Christmas and its subsidiary festival, Uphaelieday or Twelfth Night, by the Reformers.’ Christmas Day saw a similar treatment, hence the importance of Hogmanay over other days.[4]

It’s worth mentioning that the black bun wasn’t eaten throughout Scotland: in the Highlands and islands the clootie dumpling was eaten instead.[5] I talk about the clootie dumpling and other Hogmanay foods and traditions with Ulster-Scots chef Paula McIntyre in a new episode of The British Food History Podcast published on 28 December 2022:

You may be wondering why it is called a bun. Well. If you look at older recipes, you’ll see that it was using an enriched white bread dough, a proportion of which is mixed with all of those ingredients one  might expect in a Twelfth/Christmas cake: currants, raisins (sultanas are avoided because of their paler colour), candied peel, etc. The mixture was then wrapped in the remaining dough, proved and baked. They were huge and ‘graced many a festive table in the big houses of Scotland over the centuries’, one recipe, provided by Sue Lawrence, used 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) of flour!

I first heard of the black bun, not in a Scottish cookery book as one might expect but in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[6] She described it as ‘a remarkable confection’, and it is one of the few British, but not English, recipes included in the volume. Indeed, as I found out whilst researching this post, black buns were sold by Edinburgh bakers and sent as gifts all across the British Isles; so it was, at a time, well-known outside of Scotland. Because her book is on yeast cookery, Elizabeth only includes older recipes that use yeast as a leavening agent. She provides several recipes from several sources, and it is interesting to see how the bun became richer and fruitier as time went on. Black buns grew to be so enriched that it became almost impossible to leaven them using yeast, luckily this happened around the same time chemical raising agents were commercially available. At first the chemically-leavened buns were made with bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk – just like a soda bread – but over time, it became more like a regular fruit cake.[7] The pastry initially used was a huff paste – a pastry somewhere between a hot water pastry and a shortcrust. At first it wasn’t eaten, the paste simply protecting the interior, however as time went on, the pastry was swapped for a richer, more buttery shortcrust.[8]

The black bun also gets a special mention in another classic book of English food, Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England,[9] where it is described as a pastry-lined cake. Interestingly, in this book, there is a rare illustration showing the variety of shapes in which the black buns were made:

There are many fantastic recipes for the cake/pastry sort of black bun; Sue Lawrence has one in her forthcoming Scottish Baking Book, and there is one is F. Marion McNeill’s wonderful The Scot’s Kitchen[10] too, so I thought I’d give the yeast-leavened one a go.

I read through a few recipes and based mine on a recipe by Florence Jack, provided by Ms. David in her book. What I liked about it was that it seemed very black: loads of currants and raisins as well as added treacle. I did tone some of the ingredients down because it seemed to me that it enriched it simply wouldn’t rise.

I’ll let you know how I got on in the next post….


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Notes:

[1] The other two options were Brussels sprouts and buche de Noel which attained 21% and 33% of the votes respectively.

[2] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999) The Taste of Britain. Devon: Harper Press.

[3] Lawrence, S. (2003) Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. Headline.

[4] McNeill, F. M. (1968) The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. 2nd edn. Blackie & Son Limited.

[5] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999)

[6] David, E. (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Grub Street.

[7] Hartley, D. (1954) Food in England. Little, Brown & Company.

[8] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

[9] Hartley, D. (1954)

[10] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, Christmas, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes, Scotland

Eggnog

Merry Christmas everyone! It’s been yet another long and arduous year, but now it is time to kick back your heels – even if it is only for a short time – and to aid you in this I present my annual Christmas boozy drink post. This year, it one of my favourites: eggnog (regular readers will know of my love of anything custardy).

Eggnog isn’t really drunk that much in Britain, but it is very popular in the United States. Indeed, it is where I discovered it; I remember walking through the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the winter term seeing several students chugging big cartons of the stuff on their way to lectures (it’s worth pointing out that the bought stuff in cartons contains no alcohol; you add your own later, should you wish to).

A selection of U.S. eggnog cartons

For those not in the know, eggnog is a thick, creamy drink made from a dark spirit, usually rum (though brandy, whisk(e)y or sherry can be used), cream or milk, eggs, sugar and spices. The ingredients are either whisked up and served chilled and frothy, or cooked like a custard and drunk hot or cold. Here’s a description of the process from nineteenth century American historian and politician Nathaniel Bouton, writing about the US in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Another favourite drink was egg-nog, which was composed of an egg beaten and stirred together with sugar, milk and spirit…The stick used for this purpose was split at the end and a transverse piece of wood inserted, which was rapidly whirled around, back and forward, between the palms of the hands. Skilful men made graceful flourishes with…“egg-nog” sticks in those days.[1]

The drink was invented in the late colonial era, and was enjoyed all year round; it became associated with Christmas because two of the primary ingredients – eggs and cream – were expensive in wintertime and so could only be enjoyed as a treat. Therefore, it was saved for Christmastide (unless you were rich, then it didn’t matter). A tradition, one I whole-heartedly agree with, was quickly established to breakfast upon eggnog on Christmas morning. This was extended, for those who could afford it, to the full twelve days of Christmas.[2] So ubiquitous was it that eggnog was ‘consumed heartily by slave owners, slaves and children alike.’[3]

There was a drop in popularity during Prohibition,[4] but it has certainly since recovered because according to Indiana University ‘[i]n 2007, eggnog consumption nationwide was 122 million pounds with peak sales occurring the week before Thanksgiving, the weeks of Christmas, and just after Christmas.’[5]


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You may be wondering: “Er, why are you telling me about an American drink on a blog about British food history?”

Good question.

Well first you could argue that colonial America was a part of Britain, being part of its proto-empire; and second, eggnog is part of the evolution of a British drink called posset, something I have already written about. Possets were made[6] by beating or whisking alcohol – usually sweet wines and sack – with hot milk or cream, sugar and spices. Sound familiar? There was a problem for anyone making a posset in North America because sweet, imported wines were very expensive, prohibitively so for many, and so a cheap alternative was required. In eighteenth century America this was rum, and so the posset was adapted and became eggnog.

You can make your eggnog hot or cold. The hot version is a wonderful, luscious silky-thick custard, and with freshly grated nutmeg it’s just like a boozy, liquid custard tart. This you can enjoy cold too. The uncooked cold one is very different, the eggs, milk and cream froth up after a good shaking, to produce a surprisingly light and refreshing drink.

My recipe makes enough for two people so that if you are going for the uncooked version you can fit the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. If you want to make more, you’ll have to froth the mixture in a bowl with your best eggnog stick, or failing that, a whisk.

If you want to make a cold eggnog, use sugar syrup,[7] if hot can use sugar syrup or caster sugar. Note that the cold one uses raw eggs, so buy good quality free-range eggs, and avoid giving the drink to anyone immunosuppressed.

Cheers! And a very merry Christmas

Serves 2

4 shots (100 ml) dark rum (or brandy, whisk(e)y, sherry etc.)

50 ml sugar syrup or 25-30 g caster sugar

2 eggs

150 ml whole milk

150 ml double cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

Ice cubes (if drinking cold)

To make cold: In a cocktail shaker filled with cubed ice, add the alcohol, sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream. Shake very well indeed and strain the eggnog through a fine sieve into two glasses filled with more ice cubes. Grate some nutmeg over the top and serve.

To make hot: place the alcohol, three-quarters of the sugar or sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream in a saucepan and place over a medium-low heat and beat with a small whisk. When fully mixed, keep stirring until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat but continue to stir. Taste, and add more sugar if desired.

Pass through a fine sieve into two glasses, grate nutmeg over the top and serve.


Notes:

[1] Bouton, N. The History of Concord From Its First Grant in 1725, to the Organization of the City Government in 1853. (Benning W. Sanborn, 1856).

[2] Wondrich, D. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. (Oxford University Press, 2021).

[3] Shanahan, M. Christmas Food and Feasting: A History. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019).

[4] Wondrich, D. (2021).

[5] Christmas by the Numbers. Indiana University https://www.ibrc.indiana.edu/studies/factoid/dec09.pdf.

[6] I say were made. Modern day possets are not really a drink, more a set dessert. Very delicious, but really quite different to those of the eighteenth century.

[7] To make a sugar syrup mix equal weights of white or golden caster sugar and hot water. Stir to dissolve and leave to cool. Easy.

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Season 5 of ‘The British Food History Podcast’

Baby, it’s [bloody] cold outside.

I hope everyone is managing to keep warm in this terribly long cold spell we’re having. It’s pretty miserable, but I hopefully have something for you to help distract you during these cold, long winter nights, at least for a little while: a brand new season of The British Food History Podcast.

Yes, season 5 has just launched with a very special Christmas special with food historian Dr Annie Gray, who came on the podcast talk about Christmas feasting and Christmas food through the ages.

Food historian Annie Gray (Kristy Noble Photography)

Annie is author of several books including the excellent Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria and Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook. She is also a frequent panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and has appeared on countless television shows, including the excellent A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley.

Her most recent, At Christmas we Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages, published by Profile Books, is out now in paperback, and she kindly came on the podcast to tell me about it. We talked about many things: the myths and misconceptions about the food we eat at Christmas; why and how we feast; how the feast of Christmas has changed through time; what the Victorian’s DIDN’T invent; jelly; wassail; the ancient Xmas centrepiece the boar’s head; trifle; Yorkshire Christmas Pye; and her favourite recipes contained within the book.

If you are a £3 monthly subscriber on the blog, there are three Easter Eggs associated with this episode:

  1. An excised discussion about the merits of making one’s own mincemeat for mince pies
  2. The uncut discussion about recipes and revelations, including Yorkshire Christmas frumenty
  3. The uncut discussion about the boar’s head and squeamishness.

Follow this link to get to the Easter Eggs page which is filled with all sorts of aural food history delights that you cannot hear anywhere else.


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I have some fantastic guests lined up for this season and quite the variety of topics, including Hogmanay with Paula McIntyre, Eighteenth Century Dining with Ivan Day, and London’s Street Food Sellers with Charlie Taverner. You heard it here first!

If you’ve never tuned in before, just search ‘The British Food History Podcast’ wherever you get your podcasts – it’s available from all providers. If you haven’t already, please follow, like and leave a review: every single one counts and helps the podcast move up those algorithms so that it become easier to find by others.

If you don’t listen to podcasts and don’t have an account with a provider, don’t worry, you can listen through this link below:

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Manchets and Payndemayn

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As I mentioned last post, I used Elizabeth David’s research on the medieval and early modern bread roll called payndemayn (medieval period) or manchet (medieval and early modern), to recreate my own. The two words at one point, it seems, were interchangeable. There are many spellings of payndemayn, the root of this word being French, pain demesne, from the Latin panum dominicum, the lord’s bread.[1] The word appears in medieval manuscripts such as Forme of Cury. Manchet is believed to be a contraction of the word payndemayn – main – and cheat, the name for another, similar bread made from refined flour that wasn’t quite as white as the really good stuff. Main and cheat eventually became manchet.[2]

It was ‘the lord’s bread’ because the small bread rolls – weighing in at around only 7 ounces (200 grams) – were so expensive that only the lord, at the head of the top table, would receive one. The small loaf would be cut by the lord’s server as described here in the Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving) written in 1513:

take a lofe in your lyfte hand. & pare y lofe rounde aboute / than cut the over cruste to your souverayne, and cut the nether crust, & voyde the parynge, & touch the lofe no more after it is so served.[3]

The over crust, being considered the best part was eaten by the lord, and the rest divided up and given to whomever he so pleased. This is the origin of the idiom the upper crust we sometimes use when referring to the upper classes.

There are mentions of this bread all over, but there are no real recipes in the Middle Ages. There are several mentions of these loaves in recipes though, take this recipe for ‘Soppes Dorre’ from fifteenth century manuscript Harl.4016 (c.1430):

…take a paynmain, And kut him and tost him, And wete him in wyne, And ley hem in a dish, and caste [almond flavoured] syrup thereon.[4]

Elizabeth David went to great lengths in writing English Bread and Yeast Cookery to try and get an idea of what these breads were really like, gleaning cues from several sources and combining them. The earliest decent recipes and descriptions crop up in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but there are no complete ones: sometimes the ingredients are listed, but the amounts or the shape of the loaves are not given; other times, the shaping is described but the ingredients are missing. She also used artwork from the era to work out the likely shapes.

Elizabeth David’s oval-shaped manchet

It seems that they were also enriched with milk and/or butter and/or eggs, or none of the above, so perhaps something rather like a brioche (sometimes). Elizabeth took the information and created a flour mix of plain white flour, with some strong white flour and a little wholemeal flour, to replicate the lower gluten, not-quite-white nature of the wheat flour used at the time. She enriched her dough with butter and milk, avoiding egg. It put me in mind of my recipe for Cornish/Devonshire splits. She liked that in some descriptions the loaves were oval in shape. To replicate this, she made a deep slash in the dough before it went into the oven. However, I much preferred the sound of Gervase Markham’s 1623 way of shaping his loaves. He instructs us to take the risen dough and

mold it into manchets, round, and flat, scotch [cut] about the wast to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put it into the Oven, and bake it with a gentle heat.[5]

He stabs their tops so that they wouldn’t rise too much in the oven.

My attempt at ‘scotching’ my manchet loaves

I used my Devonshire splits dough as the basis of my manchet recipe, which, as it turned out, was pleasingly very close to Elizabeth’s, except – of course – I used much less salt than she. I decided to make some in the oval shape preferred by Elizabeth, and some like those described by Gervase Markham.

By the way: coincidentally just as I was cooking and researching this post, esteemed food historian Ivan Day posted on his excellent Instagram page a photo of Markham’s manchet, showing that scotched waist, along with some other breads of the same era. Here’s a link to his post, if you want to take a look at those.

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References

[1] David, E. English Bread and Yeast Cookery. (Grub Street, 1977).

[2] Hieatt, C. B. & Butler, S. Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century. (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[3] de Worde, W. The Boke of Keruynge. in Early English Meals and Manners (ed. Furnivall, F. J.) (The Early English Text Society, 1897).

[4] Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books. (The Early English Text Society, 1888).

[5] Markham, G. Country Contentments, or The English Huswife. (I.B., for I Jackson, 1623).

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Favourite Cook Books No.5: ‘English Bread & Yeast Cookery’ by Elizabeth David

The cover of the 1st edition of English Bread & Yeast Cookery

The great food writer Elizabeth David wrote several extremely popular and influential cookery books about food and food culture in France , Italy and the Mediterranean, introducing to the people of Britain a vibrant food culture of which they could only dream: her first being published when the country was still in the grip of post-war rationing.[1] However, less well known to many are her more scholarly books that she wrote in the latter half of her career. Most celebrated of these is English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).

I was introduced to Elizabeth David via Jane Grigson as I was cooking my way through Grigson’s book English Food for my blog Neil Cooks Grigson. Grigson was very much influenced by David, and several of her recipes appear in English Food, including three from English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[2] I bought myself a copy (the 2010 Grub Street edition). I distinctly remember the day I received it I the post: I was immediately struck by both the sheer amount of research and her wonderful evocative writing style. I then spent the next few hours, flicking the through the book, poring over her words and the wonderful illustrations.

Elizabeth David in her kitchen (Elizabeth David Archive)

But she was on a mission: she was depressed at the state of Britain’s bread and other baked goods, and she wanted to communicate just how good bread can be. She looked to France to show us that good, affordable bread was being baked today, but she also travelled back into our past to demonstrate just how good, varied and culturally important our own breads were.

Elizabeth split her book into two halves: the first being the history, not just of bread, but every single element of it: milling, yeast, salt, ovens, tins, weights and measures, the list goes on. The second half focusses upon the recipes themselves. Usually she provides several historical recipes taken from a variety of sources, showing us how the food has changed over the years, and then, at the end, she provides us with her own recipe updated for modern kitchens, measures and ingredients. No stone is left unturned. There is an astounding variety of different enriched buns and teacakes, many of which are regional and working class. I particularly love her introduction to the section on lardy cakes, saying they ‘are just about as undesirable, from a dietician’s point of view, as anything one can possibly think of. Like every packet of cigarettes, every lardy cake should carry a health warning.’ She tells up about the shapes of traditional loaves, and the cuts that were made upon them; and the weights of various loaves from our past – how many of us have been puzzled over an old recipe asking for ‘the crumbs of a penny loaf’ or some such, having no idea to how much to add? Well Elizabeth David has got your back. One of my favourite of her rabbit holes is the account of Virginia Woolf’s excellent bread making skills, something about which I have already written.

One very important section is Elizabeth’s chapter regarding payndemayn, the refined white loaf that furnished the dinner tables of the upper classes. They were eaten in the High and Late Middle Ages, morphing into manchet rolls by the early modern period. There are few examples or complete descriptions of these breads, other than that they were made of white flour (or the whitest that was possible at the time). In writing this chapter, David managed to piece together a method for them. Her work in this area is still the ‘go-to’ piece for food historians today.


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There are a couple of downsides to her approach however; sometimes I find her a little too acerbic, I go away after reading some passages feeling both personally attacked and responsible for the state of the country’s bread, essentially blaming the English’s preference for cheapness, whiteness and shape of their bread, over nutrition and taste. In part, I suppose, she has a point: it might not be our fault, but we do hold the power to change it on a personal basis at least. Just buy or make better bread: it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, and as I often say, two slices of home-made bread and butter are so much more filling than two slices of factory-made bread. The latter is really a false economy. But this brings me to my second point, and it might be a little controversial: I don’t think her bread recipes are very good. Her cooking tips are great (e.g. baking bread in a cold oven, or by covering it with a cloche) but her descriptions of the bread-making process are not clear. In reading this book I have learnt everything about bread except how to make a loaf of it.

One curious thing I noticed when trying to make her breads is they are often too salty (as a lover of saltiness, this is a view I rarely hold) but in researching this post, I found I was not the only one with this opinion, with one critic saying of her book ‘the facts are impressive and so is the amount of salt.’[3] David gives her reason for this; she uses unsalted butter and therefore makes her bread saltier to make up for it. However there is another reason why she was liberal with her salt: in 1963, Elizabeth suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after which she lost the sensation in many of her tastebuds. This experience made her change tack in her own work, withdrawing to her personal library to focus upon research. As writer Melissa Pasanen put it: ‘[this] may explain the emphasis on history over flavour.’[4]

But none of this matters: the book is wonderful, and her beautiful writing more than makes up for its short-fallings, and if you don’t own a copy, please get hold of one, you will not be disappointed.

Next post I will go for a deep dive into her payndemayn recipes.


Notes:

[1] Her first being A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950.

[2] These are ‘Rice Bread’, ‘Wigs’ and ‘Elizabeth David’s Crumpets’

[3] Pasanen, M. (2003) ‘Enough Saffron to Cover a Sixpence: The Pleasures and Challenge of Elizabeth David’, The Art of Eating.

[4] Ibid.

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Filed under baking, Books, bread, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Uncategorized

Season 4 of The British Food History Podcast

Hello folks! Just a very quick post to let you all know that the fourth season my podcast – The British Food History Podcast – is underway and the first two episodes are ready for you to download and listen to.

Felicity Cloake

In episode 1, I talk to journalist and food writer Felicity Cloake about the Great British breakfast. Listen here:

We talk about how breakfast might be the only thing uniting all 4 countries that make up the UK, the complexities of planning a nation-wide breakfast tour, injuries, why it’s okay to like both red and brown sauce, as well as neither, the importance of pudding on a fried breakfast, regional specialities and recipe writing.

Emma Kay

In episode 2, my guest is historian and friend of the show Emma Kay. Today we talk about Emma’s new book A History of Herbalism: Cook, Cure & Conjure which was published in June 2022. Listen here:

We talk about the importance of herbs in medicine, magic and food, and how these things were interconnected, the four humours, Anglo-Saxon medical texts, the double standards surrounding men and women who practised magic and medicine, two female pioneers of botany and herbalism, and narcotic garden vegetables.

I have a few extra guests lined up for you throughout August and September, so make sure to subscribe, follow and like wherever you get your podcasts, and if you can, leave comments, ratings and reviews.

There are Easter Eggs associated with the episodes which are available to subscribers.


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Mutton Chops

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

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

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

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

Breaded Mutton Cutlets with Lemon Butter Sauce

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

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

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

Serves 2

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

Zest 1 lemon, grated

2 tsp finely chopped parsley

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

Salt and pepper

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

1 egg, beaten

30 g lard or dripping

2 level tsp plain flour or corn flour

300 ml chicken stock

50 g butter, diced and chilled

A squeeze of lemon juice

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

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

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

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

Beautifully soft and tender mutton chops.

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The Corn Laws Part 2 – Repeal

The Corn Laws were in place between 1815 and 1842. During this time several petitions of repeal were made to Parliament; in all 1,414,303 signatures were presented within 467 petitions. There were, of course, signatures scribbled upon petitions against repeal of the Laws, but they were far fewer: just 145,855 signatures, a whole order of magnitude fewer!1 This goes to show just how powerful the country landowners were; no matter how bad things got, and no matter the number of signatures, Parliament would not budge. But there were folk chipping away at this issue, whether it be in the streets, in the townhouses, or in the corridors of power. Repeal would come, and there were several key players in the story, and in the second of my two posts on the Corn Laws, we shall meet them.

Thomas Tooke

Thomas Tooke (1774-1858)

An experienced merchant and economist, Thomas Tooke could see that the Corn Laws were having a deleterious upon the majority of the population. He argued that stopping the free grain in foreign grain was harmful to trade in broader terms, saying

There appears to be at the moment, a quantity of corn on one side of an impenetrable barrier, and a quantity of manufacturers on the other, which would naturally be interchanged, if it were not for the artificial hindrance occasioned by the present system.

The Laws were there to protect the landed gentry in the countryside at the expense of the income and quality of life of the working classes. It didn’t even help the farmers in the countryside because landowners charged them higher rents. As far as Tooke was concerned, making staple foodstuffs scarcer raised prices and adversely affected the working classes.2

Lord Liverpool, the Tory Prime Minister blocked his petition, but Tooke still presented his case to a House of Commons Select Committee in 1821. So impressive was his thinking and well laid-out his argument, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society later in the same year. So, whilst his petition wasn’t debated, he still got to say his piece, which reinforced the idea to lower tariffs and emboldened those for whom repeal of the Corn Laws was the only fair and sensible option.2

Richard Cobden and John Bright

As soon as the idea of implementing the first Corn Law was debated in Parliament, anti-Corn Law groups sprang up all around the country, but they were not a united, cohesive front. This changed however with two industrialists Richard Cobden and John Bright, who together formed what would become known as the Manchester School. Tooke had taken the argument for repeal to the Commons, but Cobden and Bright would be so effective in communicating their argument that would both become MPs.

Richard Cobden owned a calico[*] printing mill and was the son of a poor farmer from Sussex, so could appreciate the harm the Corn Laws were inflicting on industry, and both the urban and rural workforce. He created the Manchester Anti-Corn League in 1839. His writing and speeches were based on the notions that free trade benefited the majority, and that manufacturing and trade should be allowed to continue with minimal interference from Parliament. In short, the Corn Laws ‘were both economically disastrous and morally wrong.’3

In 1941, he invited John Bright to join him and help him develop the political, economic and moral argument against the Corn Laws.4 John, also an industrialist, was Lancashire born and bred, a devout Quaker and a skilled orator, who managed to make protest and debate entertaining, ‘produc[ing] an entire theatre of opposition activity.’5

John Bright (1811-1889) & Richard Cobden (1804-1865)

They made quite the team: John was the man of the people, the salt of the earth, able to communicate their ideas to the common man In the North of England. The country had – and still has – a strong north-south divide, and Cobden’s southern accent made his speeches in Parliament more palatable, allowing him to give insight into the economics of the industrial north. Together they began to turn the tide of opinion both within and without the House of Commons.


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Robert Peel

Robert Peel (1778-1850)

Sir Robert Peel became Prime minister for the second time in 1841. He had won his position – partially – on his view that the Corn Laws should stay in place. However, Cobden and Bright’s arguments persuaded him to rethink his position. Peel could see that the Laws were only benefiting landowners and that the working classes – and some of the middle classes too – were beginning to starve. It was not sustainable, and revolution was on the cards: the early 1840s had seen a series of wet summers, lowering production and raising prices greatly. Then, the Irish Potato Famine hit Britain received much of its corn from Ireland, but with a dying population, the workforce didn’t exist that could farm the grain; add to that, a great number of Irish emigrating to Britain to escape the crisis only exacerbated the problem.6 Something had to be done: the Corn Laws had to be repealed. The opposition party, the Whigs – the more liberal party of the day – were generally up for repeal, but two-thirds of the Tory party were vehemently against it. Peel had tried to pass an act to real the Corn Laws twice already, but as the Potato Famine reached its peak in 1942, he attempted to pass it one more time. This was a rare case of a Prime Minister going against their party majority, and he knew it would be career suicide should the act get through, and it did, with a majority of 98.

Peel resigned shortly afterwards, and the legislation surrounding the Laws was dismantled over the space of three years, leaving behind a country where the working and lower-middle classes were empowered and very much pro-free trade.6 The Manchester School had achieved its goal. The School is considered by many to be the first political pressure group, and a most successful one at that.

References

  1. Carpenter, K. Petitions and the Corn Laws. UK Parliament: Petitions Committees https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/326/petitions-committee/news/99040/petitions-and-the-corn-laws/ (2019).
  2. Smith, M. Thomas Tooke on the Corn Laws. Hist. Polit. Econ. 41, 343–382 (2009).
  3. Briggs, A. Richard Cobden. Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Cobden (2022).
  4. John Bright. Quakers in the World https://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/304/John-Bright.
  5. Philp, M. John Bright and Richard Cobden: The Corn Laws. To the Barricades https://barricades.ac.uk/items/show/103.
  6. Boudreaux, Donald, J. Repealing the Corn Laws, 175 Years Later. Discourse Magazine https://www.discoursemagazine.com/culture-and-society/2021/06/18/repealing-the-corn-laws-175-years-later/ (2021).

[*] Calico is a wafty thin-weave cotton fabric.

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The Corn Laws: Part 1 – The Landowners’ Monopoly

Britain in 1815 was a country exhausted. Under the Duke of Wellington’s command, Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The country was victorious. But it had come at a huge cost.

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo

The country had been haemorrhaging money to pay for the war, and the series of naval blockades had prevented the import of certain key food imports. It had meant very lean times; Britain was far from being self-sufficient when it came to key cereal crops, and a poor domestic harvest in 1812 forced up prices, hitting the working poor hard. Indeed, the poverty had started to creep up to the middle classes. The next year saw a bumper crop, and prices dropped, but they were not decreased exactly in line, so the starving poor didn’t feel as great a benefit as they should in the good growing years.

The war may have brought the country to its knees, but it did bring the country landowners a monopoly; that significant drop in cheap imports, meant that the British, in the main, had to buy British. This came in contrast to the Britain before the wars: the idea and implementation of free (or nearly free) trade was driving down the prices of staples and luxuries alike, and the working classes were finding that they had a little surplus money to buy more of life’s luxuries. It also kept wages low, meaning that the new industrialists, who employed citizens in the factories could make a tidy profit. Low food prices, in short, were powering the people of the industrial revolution, and the tax from the profits were paying for the country’s empire building. There was, then, a tension between the landed gentry and landlords in the countryside and the industrialists in their towns and cities.

A Cruikshank cartoon from 1815 showing the English turning away cheap foreign corn whilst the poor starve

When the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, the landowners did not want a return to a world where competitive foreign imports drove down prices, forcing them to sell their grain for less than they were prepared to sell it, and so a plan was hatched to protect them and their grain prices. This plan was not done in secret, but in plain sight in the House of Commons. The landowners were powerful, indeed many of the country’s MPs were landowners. At this point in history, one could only vote if one owned a certain amount of land. Industrialists, though vocal, did not – in the main – own large amounts of land, and therefore there was a political bias toward the rich men of the countryside, and away from the rich men of the towns and cities.

At first glance their arguments seemed not just solid, but patriotic too: after all this war, and the lack of domestically-grown foods that came with it, Britain should never find itself in this situation again. We need to favour our own farmers and develop our agriculture so that we can be self-sufficient. Not only that, Britain had led the world in the agricultural revolution the century before, and without that, the industrial revolution would never have got off the ground. As 20th century historian C.R. Fay put it: ‘Producers’ strength pulled one way and consumers’ necessity the other. For wheat was a necessity of the poor, and agriculture was the symbol of productive strength at home.’ Britain’s agriculture had to keep going.1 Lord Liverpool leader of the Tory Party and Prime Minister argued that millions of British citizens ‘could not depend upon foreign nations for the necessities of life’.2

Tory Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool

This all sounds fine in theory doesn’t it? But the reality would be very different when Liverpool passed the Corn Law Act on 23 March 1815. You see, the Act allowed the free trade of grains imported into the country, but only after domestic prices reached a threshold amount. And it was high: 80 shillings per quarter3[*] in the case of wheat, these prices were ‘were near famine inducing levels’.4 The only way prices would go above the threshold would be when there were extreme droughts or crop failures from cold or wet weather. So despite there being cheap and plentiful cereals available from outside the country, because of their monopoly, British landowners could sell their grain at any price up to that threshold.

When the Act was announced there were riots in the streets, but despite the vocal lobbying from industrialists, they arguments fell largely upon deaf ears. Before the Act was announced Anti Corn Law Leagues were set up too, but their efforts came to nought.

The passing of the Act in 1815 incited rioting in the streets

As the poor became more destitute, the Acts were reissued with lower thresholds, but they were still too high. The Duke of Wellington during his tenure as Prime Minister introduced a sliding scale, allowing some foreign grain into the country, but not it was not freely-traded. Over the following decades (they wouldn’t be repealed until 1842), the working classes were ground down by degrees: never before or since was the country so close to revolution. In the 1840s, wages reached their lowest levels in a century, and staple foods were expensive and hard to come by.5 It didn’t just affect the urban poor either. A Shetland fisherman, who before the laws were passed happily traded his fish for grain from Spain and Germany. This cashless exchange of goods suited all parties, but after the pass he had to sell his fish within Britain for cash, and being able to buy British grain only, found he could afford to buy just have the amount he used to before the acts were passed.4

The country was stuck under the thumb of greedy landowners and the House of Commons, but they would be repealed, and in part two, we’ll look at the key players on both sides of the battle.


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References

  1. Fay, C. R. The Corn Laws and Social England. (Cambridge University Press, 1932).
  2. Thompson, T. P. Catechism on the Corn Laws: With a List of Fallacies and the Answers. (Westminster Review, 1834).
  3. An Act to amend the Laws now in force for regulating the Importation of Corn. (1815).
  4. Carpenter, K. Petitions and the Corn Laws. UK Parliament: Petitions Committees https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/326/petitions-committee/news/99040/petitions-and-the-corn-laws/ (2019).
  5. Drummond, J. C. & Wilbraham, A. The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet. (Pimlico, 1939).

[*] A quarter was a unit of measure used typically for dry goods rather than liquids and it was equal to 8 bushels, a bushel being 8 gallons. In metric units, a quarter is the equivalent of 291 litres.

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