Tag Archives: Victorian Era

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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To Make Digestive Biscuits

Just like the workers of the 19th century, my work days are punctuated by tea & biscuits

I have been promising recently a blog post for subscribers containing my recipe for digestive biscuits, it’s taken me a little longer to write it up than I expected, but here it is.

This blog post complements the podcast episode ‘A Dark History of Sugar Part 2’ on the British Food History Podcast.

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To Make a Christmas Pudding Part 2: the Big Day

This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.

On Stir Up Sunday I made my Christmas Pudding, using Sam Bilton’s Great Aunt Eliza’s plum pudding recipe, and now it is time to cook it and get it ready to serve for the big day. If you missed the first post click here to catchup.

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.


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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!

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Scotch Woodcock

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.

The simple foods are best

150 ml double cream

2 egg yolks (or 1 whole egg)

Salt and pepper

Dash of Cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of ground mace (optional)

2 slices of toast kept warm

Around 2 tsp Gentleman’s Relish (my recipe for that here)

Turn your grill to a high setting.

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).

Serve immediately.


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A Cottage Loaf

It is as hard to achieve the right shape and texture, crust and crumb, of an authentic cottage loaf as it is to reproduce true French baguette bread.

Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977

The cottage loaf is a vintage classic, and as far as I can see, a bread unique to England. I would say that most people have heard of one but have never clapped eyes on one in real life. I don’t think I have, my only interaction being with the salt dough loaf one that was part of the play shop my infant school teacher Mrs Bareham put together in the early 1980s. If you are not familiar with one, a cottage loaf is made up of two cobs – i.e. ball-shaped loaves – stacked one on top of the other, the upper loaf around half the size of the bottom one. The shape is curious, making even slicing difficult, which I suppose wouldn’t matter if you are just tearing off rustic chunks to dunk in your stew.

I’ve been meaning to have a go making one for years, but Elizabeth David writing in her classic tome English Bread and Yeast Cookery talked of how fiendishly difficult it is to make and impossible to reproduce at home. That is, unless you are Virginia Woolf, who made an excellent one. These days we have rather more time at home than usual, so I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a waste of time if it turned out to be a disaster. Then, I saw a tweet alluding to its trickiness from Foods of England, so I considered the gauntlet to have officially been thrown down.

The interior of a brick oven (photo: TripAdvisor.com)

I had a look into the history of it with a little trepidation, half expecting it to be a food with no vintage at all like the Ploughman’s Lunch. I needn’t have worried – it turns out to be an invention of the early nineteenth century at least, and a picture of one a little later in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). They were originally baked directly on the bottom of low, flat brick bread ovens like many cobs, muffins and breadcakes are still baked today. There were no shelves in these ovens, unlike modern combi-ovens, meaning one was rather restricted in the area one could bake crusty cobs. That’s where the upper loaf comes in for it made a larger loaf – two really – without taking up extra precious space on the oven bottom. It all makes perfect sense now.


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The trick to making a cottage loaf is to keep that top piece from falling off during proving and baking, though it does need to lean slightly to one side, says Ms David, like a jaunty hat. But, you can’t just sit one on top of the other, you have to fix it in place by taking floured fingers and plunging them through the top and bottom cobs two or three times. That’s what Paul Hollywood says anyway, Elizabeth David does the same, but proves the two loaves separately then attaches them in a similar way but includes extra cuts, crosses and a lot of manhandling. No wonder she found it difficult. Seeing as her baking recipes are hit-and-miss at the best of times, went for the Hollywood method.

I used my basic cobb recipe, but used 500 g of flour instead of 400 g.

For one loaf:

500 g strong white bread flour

10 g salt

10 g easy bake “instant” yeast

25 g oil or softened butter

320 ml warm water.

Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt and the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the warm water into the well along with the butter or oil.

Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook on a mixer to bring it together. Knead well until the dough becomes tight and springy, around 5 minutes in a mixer, or 10 or so minutes if kneading by hand. It will be sticky, but persevere; sprinkle a little flour or a smear a little olive oil on your work surface if you like. Bundle the dough into a tight ball and place in an oiled bowl and cover to allow it to double in volume in a warm place.

When ready, press out the air and cut away a third of the dough. On a lightly-floured work surface, make the cob shape by forming a ball with the dough by tucking your hands under it, tightening the dough. If you twist the ball of dough slightly as you do this, it will be extra tight. Repeat with the other piece of dough.

Dust a baking sheet with flour and set aside.

Sit the small loaf directly on top of the large one, flour the first three fingers of one hand and plunge them right down through the dough right to worktop surface. Repeat one more time and your two pieces should be well-fused together.

At this point you can make some cuts with a sharp serrated knife, but to do so you have to pick it up, so avoid this step if you think it might be too risky. Sit in on the floured baking tray and cover with a large bag and leave to prove again, until twice the size and springy to the touch.

To achieve a really good crust, set your oven to 220°C as you wait for the loaf to prove and sit a roasting tin on the bottom of the oven. When the loaf is ready to go in, boil the kettle and place the loaf on the middle shelf, pull out the roasting tin a little and pour in the water – careful of the steam! – and quickly shut the door.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

As it turns out it’s not that tricky in the end, and it even leaned to one side without falling off just like Beeton’s!

References:

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David

‘Cottage Loaf’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/cottageloaf.htm

How to Bake (2012), Paul Hollywood

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton

The Taste of Britain (2006), Laura Mason & Catherine Brown

The cracked crisp crust

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Smoking Bishop

Fine oranges well roasted with sugar and wine in a cup, they’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolk sup.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

I spent part of the week in London this week and made sure I had a wander around the Tower Bridge area, my favourite part of the great city. The tiny roads are still so very evocative of Dickens with many of the street names and yards appearing in his writings. Much of Little Dorrit takes place in this area of London, but it was such a bitingly-cold day that it put me more in mind of the winter scenes described in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.

At the very end of the story, when it dawns upon the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s nice to be nice, he offers his long-suffering clerk a well-deserved pay rise and some delicious steaming-hot smoking bishop:

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

The Christmas Bowl

The Christmas Bowl:

Original illustration from A Christmas Carol by John Leech

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a heady hot boozy snifter and smoking bishop is the best of all, in my opinion. Everyone is sick of mulled wine these days – or at least I am – this is the way to go; a marvellous mixture of port, oranges and spices.

The drink is smoking because the oranges – preferably bitter Seville oranges – are roasted until blackened. The drink is a bishop because it is one of several drinks once known as ‘ecclesiasticals’; drinks named after various orders within the Catholic church. Indeed, if you substitute the port for claret, you have a smoking cardinal; better still, use champagne and you’ve got yourself a smoking pope! I have never tried these, but I think I might give smoking pope a go but using Prosecco instead. There was a spate of these somewhat anti-Catholic snifters during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was just a wry dig, compared to what had happened in the past (e.g. this post). If you look up the recipe for a smoking bishop in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, inset is an illustration of a mitre-shaped punch bowl into which it should be served!

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A mitre-shaped punchbowl, from Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845

Many port drinks were created around this time too because France and England were tied into an out-of-control tit-for-tat game with tariffs for exports between the two countries, making French wine – the preferred drink at the time – too expensive for most people, and so eyes moved to Spain and it was soon Cheerio! Chateau Neuf de Pape and Hello! lovely port wine.

One of the reasons I don’t always like mulled wine is that it can be a little heavy on the spices. A smoking bishop uses fewer spices, in fact my recipe uses only one: cloves. The only other aromatics being the oils released from the burnt bitter orange rinds. Aside from that, just a little water and some dark brown sugar are added to taste.

It’s a delicious and easy drink to make, and you will never go back to mulled red wine again once you’ve tried it, so please give it a go; you won’t be disappointed!

Smoking bishop can be made ahead of time, strained, and reheated with great success.

One 750 ml bottle of port

3 oranges (Seville, if possible)

8 cloves

250ml water

Dark brown sugar to taste

Place the oranges on a tray and bake at 200°C for around 25 minutes until they have started to blacken and give off their delicious burnt aroma. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before slicing them up.

2018-11-23 19.29.29

Next, pour the full bottle of port into a saucepan (very satisfying to do) along with the oranges and any orange juicy bits, as well as the cloves and water.

Bring to a bare simmer – don’t let it boil! – and let it gently tick away at a scalding temperature (around 80°C) for around 20 minutes.

2018-11-23 19.56.52

Add sugar to taste – if the oranges are very bitter and black, you might need quite a bit. If you don’t want bits of orange pulp and clove floating about in the drink, strain into a clean pan before adding the sugar.

If, in the unlikely event, you do not have a mitre-shaped punch bowl, you can simply ladle straight from the saucepan into punch glasses or small mugs.


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2018-11-23 20.17.37

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Savouries

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Devilled Chicken Livers

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

chopped parsley

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.

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Meat, Recipes, The Edwardians, The Victorians, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized

Mock Turtle Soup

“Neil, it’s your butcher, Lee.”

“Hi Lee, what can I do for you?”

“Did you by any chance order a calf’s head a couple of weeks ago? It’s the kind of thing you would order.”

“You’re right it is the sort of thing I’d order, but I didn’t, sorry.”

“Well someone did, but I can’t remember for the life of me who it was!”

“Oh dear. Well if you don’t find the culprit, let me know, I’m sure I can take it off your hands.”

And that’s how I became the owner of a calf’s head; and I knew exactly what I was going to make with it once it got my hands on it: the mysterious Victorian classic, Mock Turtle Soup.

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Mock turtle soup was invented from necessity – turtle soup had become immensely popular in the 1750s after sailors coming from the West Indies landed a couple of them upon British soil. Sailors would catch them and keep them alive on their ships as a source of fresh meat. They were very delicious, and it’s a surprise that any even made it back. Those that did, were readily snapped up by royalty. Now everyone wanted to get their hands one and suddenly no banquet or dinner party was complete without its turtle soup. At its peak in trade, 15 000 live turtles were being shipped live from the West Indies per year. Of course, these huge beasts were very expensive, and because such numbers were being caught, trade was not sustainable and the green turtles were almost hunted to extinction, driving up price even further.

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But why were they so popular? Obviously the royal family enjoying themgot the ball rolling, but their huge bodies were made up of different cuts of meat tasting of veal, beef, fish, ham and pork!

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So real turtle soup quickly became out of the question for all but the super-rich, and so mock turtle soup was invented. Recipes vary in their ingredients containing beef, ham, oysters, vegetables, skin, tongue and brain in an attempt to replicate the diverse tastes and textures of turtle meat. One ingredient common to all of the recipes I’ve seen is calf’s head – an economical addition with plenty of tastes and textures in itself. Recipe-writers are quite particular about the fact that the head should have the skin on – the fat and skin adding to the texture and flavour of the dish. My head arrived skinned and it still tasted good. If your butcher sells veal, see if you can get hold of one. Mine cost a fiver!

Some recipes are very complex, but are essentially a consommé of meat served with the meat cut into chunks with various accompaniments such as forcemeat balls (or fish balls or egg balls), fried brains, oysters and fresh herbs.

Mock turtle soup became a British classic; Heinz even made and canned it! Alice in her trip to Wonderland met a real Mock-Turtle, depressed that he was no longer a real turtle. He was quite tiresome if I remember rightly.

mock turtle

Alice meets the Mock-Turtle

I adapted a recipe for an ‘old fashioned’ mock turtle soup from the 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton, then my chefs Harry and Matthew and I got to work on producing it as a special for the restaurant.


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To make mock turtle soup

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As the butcher to split the head. As soon as you get home, remove the brain carefully and place in a bowl of well-salted water, cover with cling film and keep in the fridge until needed. You don’t need to include the brain if you don’t want to; it is tricky to prepare, but it is delicious. We didn’t use the brain as we took our time over a couple of days to make this in-between regular food service, and brain doesn’t really keep more than 24-hours. Because the head had already been frozen, we couldn’t re-freeze it either. If you don’t have the same issues as we did, get it cooked! There are brief instructions below on how to prepare brain, but for more detail, check out the sister blog here.

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1 calf’s head with tongue, brain removed, split and soaked in salted water for several hours

4kg beef neck or shin

75g butter

1 smoked ham hock

4 large onions, quartered

3 large carrots, peeled and halved lengthways

2 heads of celery, quartered lengthways

Bouquet garni: rosemary, bay, thyme, pared rind of a lemon

1 dsp black peppercorns

Rinse the calf’s head and place in a large stockpot, cover well with tepid water and bring slowly to a bare simmer. Skim any scum that rises to the surface of the water, then cover with a lid and let the head cook for 90 minutes.

In the meantime, heat up the butter in a large frying pan and fry beef until well browned. Add this, along with the butter, to the pot with the ham hock, vegetables, bouquet garni and peppercorns. Turn the heat up a little and bring back to light simmer, letting the whole lot tick over for seven hours.

Carefully remove the larger pieces of meat and bone and strain the soup well. If need be, reduce the resulting broth to produce a more concentrated flavour. Discard the vegetables and herbs and carefully remove the meat from the bone. Skin the tongue and cut away any gristle and bone from the root end. The meat can then be either shred or cut into even-sized pieces.

To finish the soup:

Beurre manie of equal amounts of butter and flour mashed together to form a paste

200ml sherry

½ tsp ground mace

¼ tsp Cayenne pepper

Salt

Double cream (optional)

Forcemeat balls (see below)

Prepared brain (see further below)

Chopped parsley

As you prepare the meat, get the strained stock back onto a simmer. Whisk in knobs of beurre manie until the soup is as thick as you like, add the sherry and spices and season with salt. Return the meat to the pan. If you like, add cream to the soup.

Serve the soup in bowls topped with forcemeat balls fried in butter or lard, breadcrumbed brain slices and chopped parsley.

For the forcemeat balls:

300g streaky bacon, chopped

100g grated beef suet, fresh is best, but the packet stuff is fine too

75g fresh breadcrumbs

1 tbs chopped parsley

1 tsp chopped marjoram

2 eggs, beaten

Freshly grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Mix together the first six ingredients together in a bowl and season with the spices and salt. Roll into walnut sized pieces. Fry in butter or lard over a medium heat.

For the brain:

The brain, soaked in salted water for several hours in the fridge

Seasoned flour

1 egg beaten

Dried breadcrumbs

Sunflower oil or lard for frying

A brain is covered by a membrane of blood vessels which need removing. To do this, gingerly place the brain on a chopping board, with its underside facing upwards. Here the membrane is thickest, and is the easiest place to begin. Carefully pull the membrane away. This is quite tricky and takes a little practise. Ease your fingers between the folds and get as many of blood vessels pulled away.

Now poach the brain in salted water for about 6 minutes. Remove, drain and cool.

Cut the brain into thick slices, pulling away any bits of membrane you might have missed.

Set out three plates: one with flour, the other with beaten egg and the last with the breadcrumbs.

Coat the brain slices in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs.

Heat up the oil or lard in a frying pan and fry the brain quickly until golden brown – don’t overcook! Fry for three minutes maximum.

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, history, Meat, Recipes, Soups, The Victorians, Uncategorized

Spotted Dick

It’s been a while since I wrote a post on a good old British steamed pudding, and this is one of my all-time favourites. Spotted Dick is a great pudding because it lies somewhere in between a suet pudding and a sponge pudding and is borne of that period of prolific pudding invention: the Victorian Era.

If British puddings are new to you, I’ve already written a couple of posts on the history of puddings (the first one here, and the second one here).

If you’ve never heard of Spotted Dick, it is a spongy steamed pudding that contains suet instead of butter. It is only slightly sweet and flavoured delicately with lemon. The spots on the Spotted Dick come from currants. You don’t want a pudding that is too sweet, the sweetness – I believe – should come from the currants and the custard that must be served with it (for a custard recipe, click here).

For some unknown and crazy reason, Spotted Dick doesn’t appear in my favourite cook book of all, English Food by Jane Grigson (to see why it’s my favourite, see my other blog).

Now for the big question: who the heck is Dick?

The pud is first mentioned in a book from the 1850s by the famous Chef Alexis Soyer called The Modern Housewife, or, Ménagère. Alexis Soyer was the first celebrity chef and he deserves a whole post just to himself! He mentions Spotted Dick in passing when listing a typical week’s meals during tougher times. This was Tuesday’s dinner:

Tuesday. – Broiled Beef and Bones, Vegetables, and Spotted Dick Pudding’

The ‘Dick’ in Spotted Dick seems to come from the shortened Old English names for pudding: puddog or puddick. In Scotland it is often called Spotted Dog Pudding.

Spotted Dick is a very simple pudding to make; it can be steamed in a basin or be rolled out like a sausage and covered in buttered foil and then steamed. Sometimes it takes the form of a roly-poly pudding with the currants and some brown sugar making the filling. Personally, I prefer to use a basin.

Anyways, here’s the recipe:

For a 2 pint/1 litre pudding basin, that serves 6 to 8 people:

300g self-raising flour

150g suet (fresh or packet)

75g caster sugar

100g currants

Zest 2 lemons

275-300 ml milk

butter, for greasing

In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, suet, sugar, currants and lemons. Add the milk, mixing slowly until all is incorporated. You’re looking for a mixture of dropping consistency.

Liberally butter a 2 pint pudding basin and spoon in the mixture. Cover with a lid. It’s easiest to buy a plastic basin with a fitted lid. If you’re using a glass or porcelain basin, make a lid from a double sheet of pleated foil and secure with string. It is worth making a foil or string handle for the pudding so that you can get the basin out of the steamer safely.

Ready for the steamer!

Place in a steamer and steam for 2 hours. Make sure there’s a good brisk boil for the first 20 minutes and then turn the heat down to medium-low. If you don’t have a steamer, simply place an upturned saucer in the base of a deep saucepan and pour over it boiling water straight from the kettle. Gingerly place in the pudding.

Turn out the pudding onto a serving plate and serve immediately with plenty of custard.


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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Desserts, food, General, history, Nineteenth Century, Puddings, Recipes, The Victorians, Uncategorized