Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been working on a book all about sugar’s dark side over the last couple of years, and I am very pleased to announce that A Dark History of Sugar will be published on 30 April 2022 by Pen & Sword History. It is – as far as I know when I write this – available in the UK and Australia from this date. North America, you’ll have to wait a little longer for it: 30 May.
Before I tell you all about the book, I thought I’d let you know that if you pre-order via Pen & Sword’s website (so there’s not long left) you can get 25% off the cover price. The book is, of course, available from other booksellers. I will be receiving some copies, which of course will be signed by Yours Truly. I’ll let you know when they are available. I’m not sure as yet how much I’ll be able to sell them for, but hopefully it’ll be under the cover price. Keep your eyes peeled here and on my social media.
In fact there’s another reason to look at my social media: I’ll be doing some competitions on here, but also on Twitter and Instagram on, or around, publishing day. If you don’t follow me already I am @neilbuttery on Twitter and dr_neil_buttery on Instagram.
Okay, let’s talk about the book.
Writing it was very involving and sometimes even distressing and upsetting; unfortunately the history of this everyday and all-too-common commodity contains possibly the darkest in human history. But why is its history so bad? Well, it’s because it’s so good.
I begin the book looking at the lengths early man went to just to get its hands on honey – the purest natural source of sugar. You see, Homo sapiens adapted to spend a great deal of its time thinking about sugar and how to get hold of it. We evolved bigger brains with the ability to problem solve that feed on glucose only – no other sugar will do – and we evolved pleasure centres that are never sated and stomachs we can stuff with sweet foods well after we are full.
This evolved adaptation is advantageous if there is little sugar about, but when it’s available any time we want in any amount we want, our brains go into overdrive and out pleasure centres spin like Catherine wheels, reinforcing our behaviours, training us up to eat more and more of it. At any cost. As I say in the book:
We take sugar for granted, but now we are paying the price, and have been for some time. With cheap and plentiful sugar came centuries of exploitation, slavery, racism, diabetes, obesity, rotten teeth, and mistreatment of an exhausted planet.
But sugar and sweetness are seen as pretty favourable: sugar is good, heavenly even; little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ Somebody who is described as ‘sweet’ is cute, friendly, kind, and your romantic partner is your ‘sweetheart’. We look at sugar with dewy-eyed nostalgia: baking cakes with Grandma, chocolate coins at Christmas, buying sweets in the corner shop.
The reality is different, for we are a world of sugar junkies, and as consumers we have had the wool pulled over our eyes for centuries. Of course, sugar manufacturers, confectioners and fizzy drinks companies much preferred it when we knew nothing about how sugar was made and what its effects are upon the human body.
Just how did we in Europe go from returning crusading knights bringing back a few sugar samples to pass around at court, to a transatlantic trade in African slaves that displaced 12 million African men, women and children to the sugar colonies via the horrific Middle Passage?1 The slave and sugar trade made many people rich; not just investors and merchants, but also those in Britain selling fancy goods, food, tools and furniture to the colonies. This intricate web of commerce reached into almost every aspect of trade is called the ‘sugar-slave complex’.2
When the slave trade, and then slavery itself, was abolished, one might think that working conditions might have improved. Sadly they did not: new World sugar plantation owners simply swapped one type of exploitation for another, making it nigh-on impossible for freed slaves to leave them.
As the British Empire grew, so did the British sugar manufacturing industry, with sugar plantations cropping up wherever it was viable to do so. At this point, the association of sugar manufacture with exploitation could have been decoupled, but sadly this was not the case, and the indigenous people who had become suddenly, and usually violently, subjects of the empire were worked to death, and many were displaced to work on plantations thousands of miles away from home. Indian workers, for example, were forced to work on the West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius as well as India itself.
And it still goes on today: people across the world are still being exploited to make sugar, even children.
There is not enough space on the blog to go through everything discussed in the book: sugar as (useless) medicine, the Coca Cola Company, Cadbury and Queen Victoria, environmental disasters, the horrors of the sugar making processes and squalor of the slaves, rotting teeth, diabetes, Big Sugar, Christopher Columbus, the Haitian Revolution and the fact that every English monarch from Elizabeth I to George III had a stake in the sugar-slave trade. The list goes on…
I hope you find A Dark History of Sugar interesting and informative, and that I achieve my aim: to connect the dots between the first time sugar was made in Asia to the mess we are in now…and some thoughts upon how we can get out of it.
Curtin, P. D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
Abbot, E. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. (Penguin, 2008).
This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.
I used to believe that brandy butter – that infamous accompaniment to Christmas pudding and mince pies – was far too rich and sweet, and always preferred custard. I made a traditional Christmas pudding from a 19th century recipe and because it wasn’t as rich as modern day puds, I found the buttery sauce complemented the dessert perfectly – though I still prefer the rum butter.
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I fed the pudding a couple of tablespoons of rum (but brandy is also good) twice, and I found the best way to do this was the untie the pudding, open the top and sprinkle in the rum, before retying with fresh string.
On Christmas Day, get your big pot of boiling water just like you did for the first boiling. Simmer the pudding for 2 hours, making sure the pudding doesn’t touch the base of the pot and scorch.
When ready, remove from the pan and gingerly cut away the string and carefully unwrap the pudding; don’t worry too much about it breaking because it develops a skin made from the flour that had been dredged on the cloth before its first boiling, keeping it all together. Pop it on a serving dish with a sprig of holly.
When you want to serve it, flame with rum or brandy, turn the lights down and carry it into the dining room. There will be applause.
I served the pudding with rum butter, but you can also serve it with brandy butter (which I must admit, I don’t like as much as the rum butter), or good old custard. I’ll be publishing a post tomorrow with my recipe for brandy or rum butter.
The pudding was delicious, I must say, and it will forever be my standard, so thanks again to Sam Bilton for her letting me use the recipe.
Listen to the podcast episode for more information, including the history and folklore surrounding Christmas pudding, plus a cooking spot, and a handy guide to flaming your pudding safely and effectively!
This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.
Today is Stir Up Sunday, traditionally the day Christmas pudding is made. The day was also a cue to local grocers to begin to make their orders and get ready for the 12-day long Christmastide feast.1 As they mixed, the children would sing:
Stir up, we beseech thee
The Pudding in the pot,
And when we get home,
We’ll it it all hot!
Stir Up Sunday is always the Sunday before Advent; which isn’t 1 December despite what manufacturers of Advent calendars would have you believe. Advent actually begins on the sixth day before Christmas, so this year (2021) Advent begins on 28 November. The day has a deeper meaning beyond reminding us to prep our puds; the children’sl song was sung on the day comes from a hymn: Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord the wills of my faithful people… and is call for everyone to stir up their pious and spiritual feelings in preparation for Advent – a period of fasting and reflection before the festivities begin.
When you make your Christmas pudding (whichever day you make it on) there are various superstitions which should be held. First, each member of the family should add at least one ingredient to the mix, give it a good stir and make a wish. The stirring must either go from east to west (like the Sun).2 The pudding should be made up of 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples.
There are trinkets too of course: a sixpence to represent financial success or good luck in the New Year, a ring to represent romance or marriage, or a thimble – bad luck! No romance for you, spinster!
I love Christmas pudding, but whenever I’ve made my own (I have used Delia Smith’s and Jane Grigson’s recipes in the past) I’ve always been rather disappointed. I reached out to Twitter for inspiration and food historian (and podcast alumnus) Sam Bilton very kindly let me use her Great Aunt Eliza’s recipe taken from her handwritten recipe book. Sam has cooked it for a demonstration at Petworth House, West Sussex.3Click here to find out more about Sam’s Great Aunt, and how she adapted and recreated the recipe. Here’s the original:
Note there are indeed 13 ingredients!
I decided to adapt the recipe myself, only later looking at Sam’s interpretation and we took a similar approach, which is pleasing.
I took the recipe and converted it into metric and then divided everything by 3, making a huge pudding with a 15 hour boiling would have been craziness. I could have made one good-sized pudding from my one-third mix, but decided to make 2 smaller ones. I used vegan suet because I already had that in. Fresh beef suet would have been best, but there’s no point buying more if there’s some already in the cupboard.
I hedged my bets on the plums and used half prunes and half raisins, and swapped out almond extract for the bitter almonds. Feel free to toss in some slivered almonds for texture though.
Making a Christmas pudding batter couldn’t be easier: mix all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl, i.e. everything on the list from plain flour down to the soft dark brown sugar, then add all of the remaining wet ingredients to a jug and give them a good whisk.
Make a well in the centre and pour in the eggy mixture then stir until combined. If after a few minutes’ mixing things still seem a little bit dry, add an extra slug of milk, brandy or rum. Mine needed a bit more rum.
Cover the mixture and leave it somewhere cool overnight to let the flavours develop – if you’re in a rush, leave for an hour.
Next day (or next hour) make you puddings. First get a large pot of water on the boil; deep enough for two puddings to cook without touching the base of the pot. Next, cut two pieces of muslin (cheesecloth) into rectangles of around 30 x 60 cm, place in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. When cool enough to handle, remove one and squeeze out excess water. Fold it in half to make a square shape, then lay it in a bowl.
Dust the muslin very well with plain flour, leaving no bare patches, then spoon in half the mixture, then gather up the corners and twist to tighten. Use some good quality string to tie the pudding tight. If there are folds in the cloth, they can be easily smoothed out. Repeat with the other piece of cloth.
Tie a longer piece of string to your puddings, drop them in the boiling water, and tie them so that they are nicely bobbing about in the water and not touching the bottom. Cover, bring the water back to a boil, and let things cook on a simmer for 2½ hours.
Remove and cool on a cooling rack and keep in a tub or tin. You can feed the puddings a few times if you like with more brandy or rum by untying the top and pouring some in, or by rolling them in a few tablespoons – they quickly absorb it!
Then it’s just a case of giving it a second boil on the big day…I’ll post that a few days before Christmas Day, along with a recipe for brandy or – even better – rum butter to go with.
1. Simpson, J. & Roud, S. A Dictionary of English folklore. (Oxford University Press, 2000).
2. Kerensa, P. Hark: The Biography of Christmas. (Lion Hudson Ltd., 2017).
Early in the morning of Tuesday 4 September 1666 the great diarist and raconteur Samuel Pepys was rudely woken by a servant telling him to get up and get out of his house because a fire, which had started two days prior on Pudding Lane* in the City of London, was fast approaching his home on Tower Hill. The Great Fire of London was well underway. What would you do in this situation? Well Pepys told his servant to go away (or words to that effect), turned over, farted (probably) and went straight back to sleep.1
Things obviously took a while to sink in and he realised later a catastrophe was afoot. According to his diary entry for the day he was ‘[u]p by break of day [we can that with a pinch of salt] to get away the remainder of my things; which I did by a lighter at the Iron gate and my hands so few, that it was the afternoon before we could get them all away.’2
Pepys lived on Seething Lane and was a naval administrator and lived close to several other navy chums near to the Tower of London, so they really were in the thick of it. He tells us in detail what he saw and what he and his friends did:
Sir W. Pen [this is Admiral William Pen, Commissioner of the Navy Board] and I to Tower-streete, and there met the fire burning three or four doors beyond Mr. [Richard] Howell’s, whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells, &c., were flung all along Tower-street in the kennels, and people working therewith from one end to the other…’2
He managed to get the majority of his belongings to Bethnal Green and safety, but not everything.1 Left with little time, and perhaps no horses and carts either, snap decisions had to be made:
the fire [was] coming on…both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten [Master of Trinity House which specialised in all things naval] not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.2
But – you may be thinking – if he was taking plenty of belongings, surely he could make room for some wine and cheese? One issue was size: the wine would have been in barrels, not bottles, and the Parmesan cheese – if a full round – could have weighed 40 kilos or more. But – you may also be thinking – these are just food items, why risk hanging about the inferno just to save them? Was he that greedy!? Well, in part, yes – he certainly liked his food, and he relished writing about the food he ate, and the booze, coffee, tea and chocolate he drank. His diaries are essential reading for the food historian for this very reason. Mainly it was because they were very expensive and a great status symbol, so it wasn’t all about not wasting good food. No doubt he shed a tear as he shovelled it over with clods of earth.
Parmesan cheese was a particularly sought after food and was commonly part of diplomatic gifts. For example, in 1511 Pope Julius II gave Henry VIII 100 rounds of Parmesan cheese for helping him fight the French3 (yes, there was a time the English Crown and the Catholic Church got on!). Parmesan, then, was perfect for the greedy aristocrat or great gourmand in your life.
He dined that evening with friends in Woolwich, and from their house he could see the blaze rampaging through the city:
Only now and then walking into the garden, and saw how horridly the sky looks, all on a fire in the night, was enough to put us out of our wits; and, indeed, it was extremely dreadful, for it looks just as if it was at us; and the whole heaven on fire. I after supper walked in the darke down to Tower-streete, and there saw it all on fire… the fire is got so far that way, and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and [Saint] Paul’s is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go.2
The Great Fire would go on to decimate four-fifths of the city, destroying over 13 200 homes, 87 parish churches, as well as several important and iconic buildings such as the Royal Exchange. Pepys’ home was destroyed.1
The Parmesan cheese was never recovered and who knows, it could still be there, waiting to be found…
One of my favourite seasonal foods are fresh Kentish cobnuts, and they are in season right now, so I thought I’d write a little post about them in case you see them at your local greengrocer’s shop. In the north of England they are difficult to get hold of, and when you do see them they cost a small fortune, but luckily for me, I was in London last weekend and spotted a fruit seller outside Borough Market selling big punnets at just £3.50 a pop. Up North, I’d have had to remortgage.
Cobnut season runs from late August to October in the UK, and they can – or, at least, their wild cousins can – be found growing on wild hazel trees all around the country – in fact they grow in abundance near me in Manchester. Unfortunately, the squirrels beat me to them every year. Nutting season traditionally started on 20 August on St Philibert’s Day.1
There’s a little confusion regarding nomenclature here, as is so often the case, some call these nuts cobnuts, others filberts, and some call them simply hazelnuts. Are there any real differences between the three or are they just regional names for the same thing? Well that all depends upon whom you ask, and when in time you ask.
Let’s start with the wild tree, the hazel, or to give its Latin name Corylus arellana. These nuts are hazels, or hazelnuts, they are elongate and flatter that the supermarket variety, but they still have the same smooth shells. This is what many people today would call a cobnut. This common tree produces nuts that was an important foodstuff for Neolithic humans, and they have been cultivated since Roman times.2,3 These cultivated trees were bred for greater yields and larger nuts changing making them more spherical in shape. These round nuts were called cobs, or cobnuts, and they are what we would call hazelnuts today. They grow so well in Kent that at one point 7000 acres of land was put aside for their cultivation, plenty to export a significant number to the United States.3
Okay, let’s, for the sake of argument, say that hazels are the wild nuts and cobnuts are their cultivated cousins, where do filberts fit in? Well, these are a larger cultivated nut from a completely different species of hazel (C. americanus).4 They were regarded as a rather upmarket orchard fruit, whilst cobnuts were considered more suitable for the hedgerow (or did they mean hazels!?).3
Today, cobnuts appear to be a catch-all term for any of the elongate forms of hazelnuts. The great thing about getting them fresh is that they have a lovely crisp, refreshing flavour, rather like water chestnut but with a mild hazelnut flavour. They are still covered in their green protective coats (shucks) and sometimes even the shell is still green. They store well and can be dried and eaten months later. An alternative to drying is to shell the fresh kernels and store them in honey. I expect the fresh kernels would make very successful pine nut replacement in pesto.
The best known traditional food made with cobnuts is Kentish cobnut cake. A dense cake flavoured with ginger and sweetened with some kind of unrefined sugar or honey. Some are made like a sponge cake by creaming butter and sugar, others are made by melting butter and syrup/sugar together. I go for the latter method. I found a few recipes that include a good dollop of double cream in the mix, so I’ve added it my recipe. This produces a dense cake, which I prefer, but if you want to make a lighter one, mix a teaspoon of baking powder into the flour and swap the cream for around half its volume of milk (i.e. 80 ml). Being a syrupy cake, it benefits from a couple of days’ maturing time in an air-tight box. You can use any syrup you like, or indeed any unrefined sugar. Honey works very well, especially if you have stored within it some cobnut kernels. As far as the nuts go: hazels, cobnuts or filberts all work equally well.
Makes one 8 inch/23 cm cake.
180 g butter
120 g golden syrup or honey
80 g Demerara, or any brown sugar
150 ml double cream (or 80 ml milk, if going for the lighter option)
3 knobs preserved ginger, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
240 g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder (optional; use if going for the lighter option)
1 ½ tbs ground ginger
100-150 g whole cobnuts, shelled weight
Preheat oven to 160°C and line a 20 cm round cake tin.
Melt the butter, syrup or honey and sugar in a saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and mix in the cream (or milk), chopped preserved ginger and then the eggs.
Mix the baking powder, if using, into the flour, then mix in the ground ginger and cobnuts. Make a well in the centre and pour in the butter-sugar mixture, stirring slowly with a whisk until the batter is smooth.
Pour into the lined cake tin and bake for anywhere between 1 and 1 ¼ hours. Test it is ready using a skewer. Cool in the tin.
1. Wright, J. River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow. (Bloomsbury, 2010).
2. Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. (Oxford University Press, 2009).
3. Mason, L. & Brown, C. The Taste of Britain. (Harper Press, 1999).
4. Johnson, O. & More, D. Collin’s Tree Guide. (Collins, 2004).
On my Jane Grigson blog I recently completed a recipe, the 441st, Smoking Meat. It wasn’t so much a recipe, more a bit of advice, and the advice was: don’t bother. However, I wanted to have a go at curing and smoking my own bacon, so took this as an opportunity, and because there was no recipe in English Food, I could do my own thing with respect to the recipe (see The Premise). All of Jane’s cured meats contain a combination of salt and saltpetre – also known as potassium nitrate – which has a bad rep these days because it has been implicated as a causative agent in diseases associated with eating processed meat products (more on that later). So, with my bacon, I thought it a good opportunity to see if leaving out the saltpetre would have any observable detrimental effects. SPOILER ALERT! My bacon is still completely fine three months after making it, stored at room temperature – there isn’t the merest trace of mould – and it got me thinking about its use in meat curing and processing and whether it needs to be included.
Just what is the function of saltpetre? Everyone does agree that the pink colour saltpetre gives the meat is attractive. However, there is certainly disagreement out there as to its efficacy in preservation. According to Jane Grigson saltpetre ‘no preservative value’1 and Elizabeth David is of the belief that it is simply ‘the cosmetic of the preserved meat industry.’2
On the other side of the argument Larousse Gastronomique reckons it a ‘powerful bactericide [that] has been used since ancient times to preserve food.’3 Harold McGee concurs, adding that it is particularly effective against the bacteria that causes botulism.4
In conclusion: I don’t know what to think.
It seems that it hasn’t been used since ‘ancient times’ either; according to Peter Brears, ‘there appears to be no evidence for the use of saltpetre, sugar or smoking in medieval meat preparation, only salt.’5
Saltpetre can be found deposited naturally as veins in rocks – indeed, saltpetre literally means salt stone. Houses built on foundations dug into rocks containing the mineral sometimes find saltpetre can be found in crystalline forms in damp cellars. It is relatively rare, but it was in demand in the Middle Ages, not for its preserving powers but as an ingredient in gunpowder. In the sixteenth century a method of production was devised after an alchemist found that after boiling the water from urine the crystalline material left behind was highly flammable.6 With further refining of the process, urine was combined with faeces and lime on an industrial scale. It was said that the best urine for the job was ‘Bishops’ piss’; not because it was the urine of a holy man, but because of the large volume of wine that Bishops drank. The process even makes an appearance in the Canterbury Tales:
Chalk, quicklime, ashes and the white of eggs,
Various powders, clay, piss, dung and dregs,
Waxed bags, saltpetre, vitriol and a whole
Variety of fires of wood and coal.7
Everyone was well aware how saltpetre was made, and people – as you might expect – did not want to use a product derived from human waste in their food and continued to use saltpetre from natural sources at great expense. Today it is made from ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride.
When saltpetre comes into contact with meat, the nitrate part of the molecule reacts with haemoglobin (in the blood) and myoglobin (in the muscle) to form a nitrite, which reacts further to form nitric oxide. It is the nitrite and globin molecules reacting that form the pink colour. The products of reduction are stable away from oxygen in the air, however if one takes a slice from the meat to reveal the pink meat within, the nitrites oxidise back into nitrates and the meat loses its rosy tinge.
Some recipes ask for salt prunella, which is simply saltpetre that’s been formed into little balls and dissolve at a slower rate that regular saltpetre. It also contains a small proportion of potassium nitrite to help kick-start the chemical processes in the meat. Again sources disagree as to the truth of this.
Saltpetre is used in very small amounts – when I used it in the past, I used approximately a teaspoon or two to every 500 g salt. You can purchase it on the internet, but it is much better to buy salt mixes for curing that contain salt and nitrates already mixed and measured.
This brings us to health – this chemical which is added in small amounts is getting the blame for causing heart disease and bowel cancer in those who eat processed meat products. Well, there is certainly a correlation between consumption of processed meats and cancer. But let’s not jump on nitrates as the causative agent: correlation is not causation, after all. Remember when red wine was supposedly good for your heart? It wasn’t true – there was a correlation, sure, but only because folk who drink red wine tend to be middle class, and therefore tend to also exercise regularly and eat a heathier diet. Nothing to do with wine.* I suspect there is something similar going on with nitrates: they are used in processed meats, which are cheap and much more likely to be consumed by poorer families, who in turn, are less likely to eat fewer fresh fruit and vegetables, and less likely to own a gym membership. As it turns out, nitrates may actually be beneficial in that they help lower blood pressure.
The jury then is still out. And in the case of my own homemade, nitrate-free bacon, leaving out the nitrates hasn’t caused the meat to go bad, and it stayed relatively pink too. Removing it might not improve the nation’s health, but at least it removes a chemical that’s been produced from nasty chemicals which can only be good for the environment.
Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Let me know them in the comments.
Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa partook, in their way, of my joy. It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake – the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1849
I do love a seed cake, once a key element of a British teatime table. Sadly, it’s largely either forgotten, or worse, ignored in our modern world of ‘instagrammable’ drizzle cakes, or multi-coloured creations slathered with luxurious buttercreams and frostings. With that sort of competition, the poor old seed cake doesn’t get a look in, bless it. As a result, the only way you are going to taste is to make one.
For those in the dark as to what I’m banging on about, a seed cake is a plain, rather dry cake flavoured subtly with caraway. It’s texture is similar to that of a madeira cake; dry enough so that it is perfect to have with a nice cup of tea for your elevenses. It has just the right amount of clack, as we northerners say; a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. Don’t let this put you off – it’s plainness is what makes it perfect. Super-sweet cakes covered with their myriad fillings are fine, but often a little too much to take.
Seed cakes appear in cookbooks from the seventeenth century, but only really became a cornerstone of the tea table in the eighteenth. They were a different beast then; sugary cakes also said something of both your status and sensibilities, so other things were added. Hannah Glasse added allspice, cinnamon and ambergris in one of her recipes.1 It was a time before chemical raising agents too, so cakes at this time were made light by the action of live yeast. Seed cake, therefore, was reserved for those who had a taste for the finer things in life, such as Parson Woodforde, diarist and great lover of cakes, puddings, pies and confectionary. He loved listing what he’d had for dinner. Take this entry from 17 August 1778:
7 p.m. Hot hash, or cold mutton pies. Saturday night an addition of good seed-cake of one pound, covered with sugar and a quart of good beer poured over it.2
Fast-forward a century and we see that the seed cake is pretty much what we would expect to see; the only difference being that a splash of brandy, rather than milk, is used to slacken the mixture.3
A seed cake cannot be made with any other seed than caraway. Sure, you could swap them for poppy seeds or some such, but you will have made a cake with seeds in it, not a seed cake! What’s so special about caraway then? Well, caraway was used to flavour all sorts of foods ever since ancient times, because unlike the other spices* it grew happily throughout Europe. It is an essential flavouring in German sauerkraut for example. In Britain, folk seemed to prefer to use in sweet foods, as Elizabeth David noted: “Apart from seed cake, (why were those cakes always so dry?) once the great English favourite, and caraway sweets and comfits, caraway appears little in English cooking.”4
Elizabeth’s quote eludes as to why this cake fell out of favour – it’s viewed as boring, dry, stale perhaps, but I disagree. It is light, and because it contains very little liquid compared to, say, a moist Victoria sponge, it is paramount that the butter and sugar are well creamed together, the flour is carefully folded in without over-mixing, and that it is not over-baked. This is where I fear folk may go wrong: baking an extra ten minutes, just to be on the safe side, will produce a dry, boring cake. Done well, however, a seed cake can be as superlative as any Proustian madeleine.
175 g salted butter, softened
175 g caster sugar
250 g self-raising flour
1 tbs ground almonds
1 tbs caraway seeds
Around 3 tbs milk (or brandy)
Preheat your oven to 180°C and line a 2 pound loaf tin (usually around 23 cm long) with greaseproof paper, keeping it in place with a smear of butter or cooking oil.
In a mixing bowl cream the softened butter until pale and fluffy. Add an egg and one tablespoon of the flour and beat in until smooth. Repeat with all of the eggs. Mix the remaining flour with the ground almonds and caraway seeds and tip into the mixture.
Fold in carefully and when combined, add the milk (or brandy) to loosen the batter slightly – unlike a regular sponge, you are not looking for a dropping consistency with seed cake, so don’t go overboard: start with two tablespoons and see how it looks.
Spoon into the tin and smooth the top – you don’t have to be fastidious here, as the batter cooks it levels out all on its own.
Bake for around an hour – this will depend on the dimensions of your tin, in my wide one, it took just 55 minutes. Test with a skewer if it is ready – I’ll say it again: it’s important not to overbake seeing as the batter is on the dry side.
Let it cool in its tin for 15 minutes before removing and cooling on a rack. These sorts of cakes are best eaten on the day, or the day after, they are baked.
*Mustard also grows in Europe, hence its heavy use in British recipes throughout history.
1. Glasse, H. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Prospect Books facsimile of the 1747 original).
2. Woodforde, J. The Diary of a Country Parson Volume 2. (Oxford University Press, 1924).
3. Beeton, I. The Book of Household Management. (Lightning Source, 1861).
4. David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).
Hello all – a very quick post to let you all know that this Saturday 10th April at noon (GMT) I’m taking part in a free event called ‘A Bite of History’. I’ll be in conversation with poet Dan Simpson and we’ll be discussing allsorts of things: food history and historical cooking, the evolution of our never-sated desire for sugar, the trials of running a restaurant and of course the blog. There’ll be a Q&A session too, so if you have any burning questions I shall do my best to answer them.
I’m also going to attempt a live cook spot – what could possibly go wrong!?