This post complements the episode ‘Savouries’ on The British Food History Podcast.
When I asked Twitter what the best savoury is, I was surprised and very delighted that Scotch Woodcock was by far the most popular choice. Most of the other votes seemed to be for dishes containing lashings of anchovies too; I obviously need to write more about the popular, salty fish. I talk about Scotch Woodcock in the podcast, so I won’t repeat myself here, except I forgot to mention was that it was a Victorian invention and then, as now, one of the most popular savouries of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The earliest mention of the dish can be found amongst the pages of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and is pretty similar to mine except Gentleman’s Relish is swapped for simple drained anchovies which are mashed and spread on the toast and no spices are used.
If, by the way, you know not of Scotch Woodcock or the concept of the savoury, have a listen to the podcast episode. I also wrote a post about savouries a few years ago.
This makes enough for two for lunch and is very good with a green salad dressed only with salt, pepper and cider or wine vinegar.
Put a small saucepan on a medium-low heat. Pour in the cream and beat in the egg yolks (or whole egg) then the spices with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring until the mixture becomes scalding hot, but do not allow it to boil. You can tell when it’s ready if when you scrape your wooden spoon through the savoury custard you can see the base of the pan.
Spread the Gentleman’s Relish thinly over the toast (if you’re using my recipe, you can be a little more generous) then spoon over the savoury custard. Don’t worry if there are a few small lumps of cooked egg: it’s very forgiving. Use the back of a spoon to spread the custard right to the very edges of the toast, and grill until the top turns a delicious dark golden brown (or do as I did, and use a chef’s torch).
Want to know more? This podcast episode complements this blog post:
Straight off the heels of my last post, two more savouries.
Apparently, it is incorrect to call it a rarebit, it is a “false etymological refinement”; it should be called Welsh rabbit. Why? Well it’s a bit of a dour Welsh joke. The poor Welsh peasants of yore named this cheesy mixture – which is high in fat and protein – a ‘rabbit’ to make up for the fact they couldn’t get hold of any meat; they were not allowed hunt themselves, or even to eat the unwanted rabbits caught in hunts by nobles. Actually, no one really knows where it comes from, but that explanation will do me. See this post for more on hunting.
There are, in fact, three types of rabbit/rarebit: Welsh, English and Scottish. After the success of the integration of Welsh rarebit into posh folks’ savoury courses, the rest of the kingdom tried to jump on the rarebit bandwagon. I don’t know why, because they have many perfectly good savouries themselves. I have made these other rarebits, and they are pale imitations. In fact, the English rarebit was so disgusting, I ended up dry-retching into a sink, and I have a pretty strong constitution as I’m sure you all know by now! English rarebit is a slice of toast, with a glass of red wine thrown on it, topped with sliced cheese and grilled. The combination of soggy toast, congealed cheese and the breath-taking hit of hot wine in my mouth and nostrils tipped me over the edge.
Scottish rarebit is more sensible with the ingredients, but tricky to fathom:
Toast a piece of bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.
That recipe comes from 1747, and I have never worked out how you toast a piece of cheese on both sides without disaster!
These days we are used to a very thick cheese topping piled on our toast for Welsh rarebit, but traditionally it is quite liquid, soaking into the toast as it grilled. The base of the rarebit should be ale or stout, but the result is very rich, so if you prefer, cut it with some milk. This recipe makes quite a lot of the mixture, but if you don’t use it all, don’t worry as keeps in the fridge for five or six days.
45g plain flour
250ml ale or milk or a mixture, warmed
250g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
1 tbs Worcestershire sauce (or 1/2 tbs of mushroom ketchup)
Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally until the roux goes a pale brown colour.
Using a small whisk, beat in around one third of the ale. Once smooth, add another third and beat again before mixing in the last of it. To avoid lumps, make sure the ale is fully mixed into the roux before adding. Simmer gently for a few minutes, beating occasionally.
Remove from the heat and mix in the cheddar and seasonings except the salt. Taste and add salt if required – usually the cheese and other seasonings are salty enough. Return to a very low heat and stir until the cheese has melted into the smooth sauce. Be careful not to heat it too much as the melted cheese will split.
The topping can be used straight away or poured into a tub and refrigerated – the mixture can be moulded onto the toast not unlike cheesy Play-Doh.
Make your toast and spread, or mould, on the rarebit mixture. Make sure the mixture covers the whole of the slice, right to the edges. Place under a hot grill and toast until bubbling and the colour of a deep golden brown.
I like to eat Welsh rarebit with a rocket or watercress salad simply dressed with cider vinegar and salt, a dollop of chutney and a glass of the ale I made it with.
Variation: Locket’s Savoury
This might even be better than rarebit! Apparently, this dish comes from Locket, a Westminster gentleman’s club, but I can find no trace of the club on the interweb, so I’m taking that with a pinch of salt. The original recipe just asks for one to cover toast with pear and watercress, top with slices of Stilton and grill, but I think it works better with a roux-based sauce like the rarebit, which smothers the pears. I also prefer to serve the watercress as a salad leaf alongside grapes and walnuts, but feel free to pop it under the cheese mixture.
50g plain flour
250ml milk, warmed
250g blue Stilton, grated
half a ripe pear per person, peeled cored and thinly sliced
1 slice of toast per person
Make the topping just as for Welsh rarebit, grinding a good amount of black pepper.
Make some good, crisp toast, lay the pear slices over the toast, then liberally spread or mould on the cheesy topping.
Grill until a deep brown and serve with the salad.
About five years ago, a reader asked if I could write about savouries, that now forgotten course served up towards the end of a Victorian or Edwardian meal. Well I’ve finally pulled my finger out and written one, so here we go:
The savoury course used to be extremely popular; a delicious morsel, which was salty, creamy and spicy, serving as a digestive after a rich meal, either as a final course, or before a sweet. What often happened was that the gentlemen ate their savouries and went off to drink whiskey and play bar billiards, and the ladies had their sweets and swished off to the withdrawing room for cards, chats and sherry; there were no non-binary genders allowed here, let me tell you.
I’m a big fan of the savoury course and I often include one in my supper clubs and pop-ups. They had gone out of fashion by the mid-twentieth century, the only real survivor being the cheeseboard.
Potted chicken livers
Savouries have of course lived on as first courses, canapés, teatime snacks and light lunches, and you will have eaten some of them, and many have already appeared on the blog. Delicious morsels like devilled kidneys, Welsh rarebit, potted chicken livers, potted cheese, Patum peperium, rillettes, angels & devils on horseback and sardines on toast have all been served up by Yours Truly at some point. Two of my favourites are Scotch woodcock – a spiced anchovy butter served on toast covered with a creamy, savoury custard – and Locket’s savoury, a slice of toast topped with ripe sliced pears, wilted watercress, and a thick blue cheese sauce which is then grilled, rather like Welsh rarebit. Delicious! It was nice to see Nigella Lawson championing the devilled egg recently; a woman after my own heart.
Angels & devils on horseback
Savouries are often served on toast, fried bread or some kind of biscuit or cracker. In Eliza Action’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, there is just one recipe for savouries which appears to be a proto-croque monsieur, with a small footnote. She doesn’t seem to approve. In the twentieth century, however, you get entire books of the subject, the best being Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath (1934).
Want to know more? There’s a podcast episode that complements this blog post:
What makes a good savoury?
Size matters: it must be one or two mouthfuls, so the best vehicles are toast, fried bread or crackers. However, boiled eggs work well as do oysters in the shell. As long as you can eat it without cutlery, you’re doing good.
Salt: savouries are almost always highly seasoned with salt. This is apparently the digestive part, but it also functioned to give people a good thirst ready for a boozy evening ahead. Salt itself was rarely used, it’s much better to use more interesting ingredients such as anchovies, cured meat and fish, cheese and relishes such as mushroom ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, etc.
Heat & spice: quite a lot of the ingredients served more that one purpose, so most of those listed above fit into this category too, but there was also good old black pepper, English mustard, Cayenne pepper, curry powder and Tabasco sauce.
Strong flavours: other strong flavoured things were used, such as blue Stilton, kidney, liver, game and smoked meats and fish like ham, bloaters and even red herrings.
Creaminess: all that salt, spice, richness and heat was often tempered with something bland and creamy and a variety of things were used for this purpose, such as cream (obviously), egg yolks, savoury custards, béchamel sauces, soft cheeses, brains, sweetbreads, lambs’ fries, fish roes, oysters and left-over poultry meat.
Probably the most infamous savoury is the devilled kidney, but you can devil lots of things. I pride myself on my devil sauce, and at The Buttery devilled chicken livers on toast became a rather unlikely signature dish. This recipe can be easily adapted if livers aren’t your thing: fish roes, kidney, brain, lambs’ fries, left over roasted poultry, mushrooms and even tofu can all be devilled with great success. My favourite is chicken liver because it has all of the qualities listed above in abundance. It’s a good idea to make extra devil sauce as it keeps in the fridge for a good ten days or so, and I can guarantee, you’ll be wanting to devil everything you eat from now on! Here’s how to make it.
Serves 2 as a light lunch or snack, or three as a first course, or six as a savoury course.
For the devil sauce:
2 tbs English mustard
2 tbs Worcestershire sauce or mushroom ketchup, or a mixture of the two
1 tbs vinegar
good pinch of Cayenne pepper
dash of Tabasco sauce
freshly ground black pepper
Simply beat all the ingredients together – taste and add more Tabasco and pepper if you like. There’s no need to add salt.
For the livers:
6 chicken livers
a decent knob of salted butter
the devil sauce
3 or 4 tbs double cream
1 slice of crisp toast per person
First of all, check the livers for any bitter green gall sacks, which are often accidentally left on. If you sport one, snip it off with scissors.
Get a frying really good and hot and melt the butter. As soon is stops foaming, add your livers. Try not to disturb them. After 2 minutes, turn them over and cook for one more minute. Next, add most of the devil sauce and fry a further minute, making sure the livers get coated in it. Add the cream and let form a lovely rich sauce, turning the livers over in it. Have your toast ready on plates so you can top it with the livers and then the sauce. Scatter over some parsley and serve immediately.
The Victorians and Edwardians had a real thing for what they called savouries, which were small dishes served alongside or after the dessert course at dinner. We don’t do this any more, all that survives is the cheese option one sometimes finds on the pudding menu at restaurants. I expect the gout is to blame. Savouries need a whole post to themselves so I won’t go into them here…
For me, Gentleman’s Relish is the savoury that really conjures up romantic images of that era, I think just for the name alone. I can just imagine the bank manager or maybe a member of the British Raj eating a slice of toast, relish melting and seeping into it, as he reminisces of home.
Gentleman’s Relish is essentially potted anchovies that are heavily spiced – it also goes by another name Patum Peperium which is Latin for ‘pepper paste’, and it should only be used “very sparingly”.
It was invented in 1828 by John Osborn an expatriate living in Paris which, when he unveiled it the Paris Food Show in 1849 and again in 1855, won a Citation Favorable. High praise indeed. It is still made now in Elsham, Hertfordshire, but what exactly goes in there is a closely-guarded secret.
FYI: the company have started making a salmon version called Poacher’s Relish. I’ve never tried it, but I am sure it is wonderful too.
Now, Patum Peperium is not to everyone’s taste – saying it is piquant would be doing it a gross injustice – it is very fishy, very salty and very spicy, so some may consider it totally foul. However, I love strongly tasting robust food like this. To show it off as its finest, it should be scraped thinly across hot toast. When you first try it, the first thing that hits you is the fishy odour, then you take a bite and find the fish taste is actually a perfect marriage between anchovy, salt and spice. You can’t have a marriage between three things can you? Make that a love triangle between anchovy, salt and spice. It is addictive stuff; if it is to your tasting, like Marmite, you either love it or hate it.
Gentleman’s Relish is a cooking ingredient in its own right: the fish, salt and spices all provide a great seasoning to stews, especially lamb, and is great stirred into scrambled eggs. It can be melted upon steaks, or used as a simple sauce with pasta. It is also used to make another amazing savoury called Scotch Woodcock.
After doing a bit of research I found that major players in the spice mix seemed to be nutmeg, mace, Cayenne pepper and black pepper – all classically Victorian, the amounts used vary from pinches to teaspoons, with the spices sometimes mixed equally, other times, one spice dominated.
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Here is my recipe – the dominant spice here is Cayenne pepper, because it provides a good punch of chili heat and not that much other flavour, which the other – what are often called warmer – spices do magnificently. You can include less of the mix in the relish, or change the ratios or even the spices to suit your own taste.
For the spice mix:
1 tsp Cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
For the relish:
1 x 50 g can of anchovies, drained
120 g softened butter
1 tsp spice mix
Start off by mixing together the spices. To get maximum flavour it is best to freshly grind your spices, but it is not essential. What is essential, however, is to cook your spices. Do do this, melt between 1/3 and 1/2 of the butter in a small saucepan. When hot and bubbling fry the spices for around 30 seconds; mind the butter doesn’t burn though. Now mix it with the anchovies and the remaining butter. The idea is to produce a paste – there are several ways to do this: blender, food processor, pestle & mortar or fork will do the job, it is a trade-off between how homogenous you like your relish and how much washing up you can be bothered doing. Spoon the mixture into a small pot, cover with a lid or some clingfilm, and allow to cool.