You Should Get Vaccinated: The Leicester Method – 19th century

Let’s take a break from lockdown 2.0 and go on holiday. Not a proper holiday, obviously, but an imaginary one. Better yet, a holiday through time – about 150 years ago – to, er, Leicester.

Like many other towns during the second half of the Industrial Revolution, Leicester saw rapid population growth going from a population of just under 20,000 at the start of the century to about 167,000 by the end.

In fact it was such a vibrant, bustling metropolis that Oscar Wilde quoted: “I can resist everything except Leicester”* and Queen Victoria herself, after being asked if London was exciting enough for her, was overheard to complain: “We are not amused – if only we were in Leicester, where everything is better.”**

She is fuming because she agreed to meet a friend at 11:00 but didn’t realise she was waiting for her on the other side of the clock tower.

But was it actually better?

It would appear that for parts of the 19th century, much of Leicester was quarantined. As in stay indoors, close shops, don’t mix with others. Sound familiar?

The reason for this? Smallpox. It was one of the biggest killers of the 18th century, killing up to 30% of its victims. Those that survived were often left physically scarred and mentally traumatised by experience.

You would think that once a vaccine had been developed people would flock to book their jabs. After all, this newly invented method of preventing disease promised to stop the disease in its tracks, freeing millions from fear and heartache.

The things is, vaccination was just that: newly invented (in 1796, if you were wondering.) Many people didn’t trust it as a method of prevention. This included some doctors who argued it was dangerous, under-tested, and (as the government offered it free of charge) would take away a source of their income at a time when people paid for medical treatment.

But no group argued against vaccinations as loudly or passionately as the people of Leicester. Now don’t get me wrong, as a Leicestershire girl myself I have an obvious soft spot for my county town. But it’s fair to say that the people of the city during the 19th century were, well, pretty stubborn when it came to vaccination.

Let’s get this straight: to distract us from the current pandemic you’re telling us about an anti-vax town in the grip of its own pandemic?

Sort of?

In 1853 the government made vaccination against smallpox compulsory in the first three months of a child’s life. This law was known as the New Vaccination Act because the first Vaccination Act of 1840 had largely failed to take off; despite being free, vaccination was also voluntary and, still a relatively new invention, many were yet to be convinced by its safety.

The New Vaccination Act was followed in 1867 by a decree that stated all children below the age of 14 must receive their smallpox vaccine. For the people of Leicester, many of whom were working class with no workers rights which allowed them to take time off work to get their children vaccinated, being told to fall in line so rigidly by upper class politicians was a step too far. In 1869 the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League was founded.

Yeah, why would anyone want to vaccinate against smallpox?!

Anti-vaccination sentiment wasn’t just a negative response to being told what to do, however.

There were many reasons people in Victorian England opposed vaccination. Religion accounted for a large number of excuses as some felt the smallpox vaccine – which relied on matter from cowpox -mixed humans and animals together in an unholy way. Others suggested that smallpox was God’s punishment of sin and to attempt an eradication of it was to overturn his will.

A fear of side effects and a mistrust of doctors accounted for other reasons. In 1841 the UK census suggested almost 1/3 of doctors were untrained, and vaccines, new as they were back then, had not been tested safely which initially led to a number of deaths. Along with these reasons, a feeling that vaccination was being forced on the working classes by those in power (who had previously done precious little to improve the lives of ordinary folk) left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

Back to Leicester.

In 1871, angry at being ignored, the government reiterated its position on the compulsory nature of vaccination and threatened fines on anyone who disobeyed. In Leicester the number of prosecutions for flouting the Act grew from 2 in 1869 to 1,154 in 1881 as parents refused to vaccinate their children, angry at what they perceived to be a curtailment to their rights. Furthermore, for the second half of 1883, only 707 out of 2,281 babies born in that half of the year were vaccinated.

Punishment for the people of Leicester was swift. In 1884, George Bamford was fined 10 shillings (half the average weekly wage) or told to spend a week in prison for refusing to vaccinate his fourth child. One of George’s other children had died not long after receiving their mandatory vaccination and George’s mistrust of vaccines was set in stone afterwards.

The Leicester Method vs. vaccination.

In 1877 a report by Dr W. Johnson, Assistant Medical Officer of Health, showed that though smallpox had appeared in Leicester, it only caused six deaths. Despite refusing vaccinations, the citizens of Leicester somehow seemed to have avoided mass infection.

Dr Johnson suggested that the low mortality rate was down to one main factor, which he termed ‘the Leicester Method’. This method relied on fast acting notification of smallpox to the local authorities and quarantine of those infected – as well anyone who lived with them – before the disease had a chance to spread. It really was the track and trace of the Victorian age, only with fewer glitchy apps. Dr Johnson urged parliament to grant Leicester a Local Act recognising the Leicester Method as an alternative to compulsory vaccination. In 1879, this Act was created in the Leicester Corporation Act.

Following the 1879 Act, Leicester became the only town to openly substitute the following measures for infant vaccination:

1. Prompt notification
2. The isolation and segregation of smallpox cases in hospital
3. Quarantine of all persons found to have been in contact with the patient
4. The vigilant inspection and supervision of all contacts during the incubation period of fourteen days
5. Cleansing and disinfection of clothes, bedding and dwellings
6. The burning of clothes, bedding, etc., when necessary

Despite the steps highlighted above, many authorities rightfully had concerns about the Leicester Method and continued to prosecute those who refused vaccinations. like today, the track and trace element of the rules, for example, only worked if people actually adhered to it.

In 1882, 2,274 summonses were issued for people withholding from vaccination and by 1885 tensions between the authorities and people of Leicester were at an all time high (yes – even higher than that year Leicester council faced strong criticism for how it decorated the city’s Christmas tree.)

On 23 March 1885, contemporaries estimated that 100,000 people (although historians suggest it was more like 20,000) gathered in protest in the streets of Leicester, carrying banners with succinct messages such as “The President of the Local Government Board cannot deny that children die under the operation of the Vaccination Acts in a wholesale way” and equally snappy placards of solidarity from other corners of Britain: “Cordial greeting and sympathy to the heroic martyrs of Leicester”, as was sent from St. Pancras.

Children are fed to the disease ridden cow creature, representing vaccination. Images like this one appeared on banners at the 1885 protest.

The demonstration was every official’s worst nightmare: well organised, popular and held on a surprisingly sunny day. More and more people joined the crowds, both as supporters and general onlookers. As well as protesters, there were movable stunt stalls to entertain the crowd. A particularly graphic one had a gallows and every 20 yards or so performed an execution of a dummy Edward Jenner – the man responsible for the smallpox vaccination. We love a bit of the macabre in Leicester.

The event ended with rousing speeches from guest speakers and promises to oppose vaccination in all its forms as much as any individual could. The following year at the next guardian elections (think local elections), most of the successful candidates were staunch opponents to compulsory vaccination.

The people of Leicester finally achieved some of what they wanted when the 1898 Vaccination Act was passed. This Act removed some of the penalties imposed for resisting vaccination and included a conscience clause, which allowed parents to get a certificate of exemption if they did not wish to vaccinate their children. Now anyone with a suspicion of vaccination could cite the Leicester Method as a government sanctioned alternative and, as long as they followed the rules rigorously, couldn’t be prosecuted.

So…what’s the problem with the Leicester Method?

Suspicion of vaccines is still rife among some communities today and there have been arguments for a modern day Leicester Method to be used like the one used to combat smallpox. With a “world beating” track and trace system, proponents of the Leicester Method argue, there’s no need for a vaccine.

I asked one of my oldest friends (who happens to be a doctor) why the Leicester Method isn’t a reasonable long term alternative to vaccination. In between rolling her eyes in exasperation and requesting that instead of “oldest”, she be referred to as my “most beautiful and intelligent” of friends, she told me that there are several reasons.

Firstly, there’s one key difference between smallpox and coronavirus: symptoms. There are no asymptomatic smallpox patients. In 100% of smallpox cases patients develop rashes and fevers. Putting aside whether or not the track and trace system we have in the UK could be accurately described as “world beating”, smallpox symptoms made it easy in the 19th century to identify who was infected and needed to quarantine. However, recent modelling suggested that in the best case scenario with an R rate of 2, 10% of patients with coronavirus could be asymptomatic, making it much harder to identify who needs to isolate.

Secondly, the method relies heavily on everyone doing it properly. Under the Leicester Method, staying indoors means exactly that – staying indoors. No going out for a vague amount of exercise, no trips to the shops for essential bread, milk and M&Ms. Medicine and provisions were left at your door and you did not come out until an approved amount of time had passed. Quarantine meant quarantine for everyone – school children and essential workers included. This was easier to do at a time when children didn’t attend school for as long as they do now and the overall population was lower (current estimates are that there are over half a million citizens of Leicester city, compared to well under 200,000 at the end of the 19th century.)

Thirdly, the Leicester Method doesn’t actually protect people from catching illness if they’re quarantined with an infected person. A bit of a brutal fact about quarantining an entire household with a sick member is that it’s sort of guaranteed it will spread within the house. Fine if your household is all generally fit and well, but for those living with a vulnerable person then the reality of being locked in an infected house for days on end is a lot grimmer and frightening.

And finally, my beautiful and intelligent friend pointed out that we are still learning about this virus. What role, for example, do children play in spreading the disease? How much is there we still don’t know about ‘long covid‘? We know the incubation period can be as long as ten days, and that people can be asymptomatic and spread it around like butter on a hot crumpet before realising they have it. Indefinite and repeated periods of lockdown following the Leicester Method won’t fix these issues, but are more likely to compound existing issues like mental health problems, poverty and unemployment.

Vaccination is the best method of prevention.

In short, the Leicester Method only worked 150 years ago because people seem to have adhered much more strictly to the rules enforced at the time. This is partly because it’s easier to control the spread of disease in smaller populations. It’s also worth pointing out that the method ended up being used alongside vaccination rather than just on its own. At the start of the 20th century, Charles Killick Millard, the Medical Officer of Health for Leicester, ordered the vaccination against smallpox of medical and nursing staff. The vaccination of key front line staff helped stop the disease spreading further and effectively created a bubble around the non-vaccinated citizens of Leicester.

Until the much hoped for vaccine arrives, a modern day version of the Leicester Method is all we’ve got. With a widely available, effective vaccine, though, it wouldn’t matter about asymptomatic patients or adhering to lockdown rules. It would mean we wouldn’t need to worry as much about track and trace, and your 85 year old great aunt could lick every outdoor railing or snog anyone who coughed within a mile of her, so long as she’d had her jab. You know, if she wanted to.

E x

*Not true.
** Also not true. Come on!

Jowtes In Almond Milk: 14th century

It’s easy to joke about lockdown, I think. A month ago if you’d told me I would soon be spending work days lying on the sofa wearing what I’m now calling my ‘work pyjamas’ and that my most difficult day to day decision would be deciding whether to crack open the custard creams or the bourbons first, I’d probably have thought you were some sort of genie. And I’d have been right – because everyone knows genies are awful manipulative bastards who give with one hand and take away a whole lot more with the other.

It also seems especially cruel of this Coronavirus genie to coincide everyone’s house arrest with what is likely to be our designated 5 days of summer before we return to grey drizzle and mud.

But don’t despair, my woefully imprisoned wretches, for I have a recipe to bring you joy in these days of pestilence. I can guarantee that at least one of the following accolades is true: it is a meal that is unapologetically bold in colour, powerfully flavourful, and guaranteed to be enjoyed by the whole family. The very definition of comfort food for these trying times.

Jowtes. In. Almond. Milk.

I know, I know. “Jowtes in almond milk?” you’re all thinking. “Does she think we come here for something as mundane as that? Who hasn’t tried jowtes before?!”

It’s embarrassing to admit this but I didn’t have a clue what a jowte was. At first glance I thought it sounded meaty, but not in a good way. I envisioned left over cuts from the jowls and jaws of unspecified animals boiled together in Alpro’s finest. Hardly an uplifting image. The recipe I used, from Maggie Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, stated that jowtes were basically herbs cut up fine and cooked in a soup or pottage. So, jowtes in almond milk wasn’t meaty at all.

But I was still quite unclear why herbs were called jowtes – was it a specific herb? Was it a method of cooking? I didn’t have time to find out myself because I had to make a very important work decision about whether to allow my daughter to watch yet another episode of Peppa Pig, or whether to usher her out into the garden for some Government Approved Fresh Air. I will also admit that I lacked the intelligence, skills and patience to find out, so I asked someone far cleverer than myself who is an absolute whizz at this sort of thing, Dr Christopher Monk.

He confirmed that a jowte wasn’t a specific ingredient, per se, but was just a word lost to history that referred to a stew, soup, pottage or dish itself of chopped up herbs and vegetables:

‘Joute’ is a borrowed word from Anglo-Norman (spelt variously: ‘jute’, ‘jote’, ‘joute’) where it is used both in singular and plural form to mean a soup or pottage made using vegetables or herbs. Ultimately, the derivation is medieval Latin (not classical Latin), where ‘juta’ means a soup/stew.

But Dr Monk also had an interesting theory of his own about the origins of the dish’s name – and it’s based on what the finished meal may have looked like. He speculated that since the medieval Latin word ‘jota’ meant ‘a pot herb’, there could be a link between the Latin ‘jota’ and the Greek word ‘iota’ (meaning ‘the least part’) possibly giving rise to the word ‘joute’ (spelled in my recipe ‘jowte’) as a description of the meal: “could the herbs, chopped up so fine as they are, allude to ‘iotas’…of vegetation floating in one’s pottage…?”

Dr Monk reiterated that this idea was purely his own speculation and needed more research into any possible connections but I feel qualified to state, as someone with no knowledge of etymology at all, that it sounds very plausible to me! (I warned you he was clever!)

So: what I was dealing with was a meatless soup where the herbs were chopped so fine that they appeared like dots floating around in the milk. Admittedly, it wasn’t an image I would have chosen when asked to describe the ultimate comfort food in the face of a pandemic, but it was something that now at least I understood.

Maggie Black described the soup as filling and speculated that, because of its meat free content, it probably made an ideal meal for monks during Lent. Perfect for monks and those adhering to a Lenten diet? Definitely not my idea of comfort food…

As per my post last week, I’m trying to only cook with things I have in. This suits me just fine; as someone who prefers to limit my time outdoors and with other people anyway, I’m secretly delighted to have a ready made reason not to go out, and it means I can save my go-to excuse of blaming last minute cancellations on my daughter’s imaginary illnesses for another time.

I used leeks, spinach and chives for the soup – all already in and slowly rotting in the bottom of the fridge; the remnants of good intentions past. I also had half a bag of ground almonds from a flourless cake experiment a month or two ago which suited the purposes of almond milk just fine. Technically I should have used whole almonds, blanching and pulverising them myself for a truly authentic experience, but sod that. I don’t think going to get a single bag of whole almonds would count as an essential trip to the supermarket anyway.

First, I made my almond milk – a medieval staple when a base was needed for a meal that contained no dairy, meat or egg. This sounds very grand, but basically involved tipping the bag of ground almonds into a pan of water and heating it slowly for 15 minutes until it thickened. Almonds were an essential ingredient in much medieval cooking, apart from meals for the very poor, and during the 14th century water could be used to create almond milk but wine or broth may also have been added to create a richer flavour. I thought back to the Lenten monks, abstemiously chanting in vegetarian tones in my imaginary monastery and thought that if I was going to do this properly it was probably best to use water. Besides, I’m currently trapped indoors with a toddler; I’m going to need all the wine in my house to remain in a completely unadulterated state, thank you very much.

Okay, so at this point it doesn’t live up to any of the three promises mentioned earlier, but just you wait…

Once it was thick and bubbling I strained the mixture and got rid of the boiled almond mush, leaving a grainy milk behind. It tasted not unpleasant, but wasn’t as strongly almond-y as I’d thought it would be. Perhaps using fresh whole almonds would give a better depth of flavour?

While the milk was thickening, I’d used my time to prepare the vegetables: two leeks chopped finely, 300g of shredded spinach and two tablespoons of chives. I added the vegetables to the finished milk and boiled them together until the mixture turned a faintly green colour. I wasn’t convinced that I’d chopped them small enough to be worthy of the ‘iota’ theory, so I ended up using a hand held blender (the first one was invented around 1350, by the way) to finish the job for me.

It went violently green.

Soup that resembles alien slime: I don’t understand how this couldn’t be considered comforting.

Yes, I know what it looks like. It wasn’t my idea of comfort food either. I was beginning to see why many monasteries made their monks take a vow of silence – imagine the protests and unionising abbots would face if monks were allowed to speak after being served this day after day. However, after one spoonful I was converted to the Way of the Jowte.

In the bowl, steam rising off it, it smelled very earthy and wholesome. It was also, as my husband put it, very green tasting. By which he meant that the first flavour was a sharp and unmistakable allium tang. It was refreshing and even zingy.

I had expected a watery-ness to this soup. Once the taste of the leek and chive had subsided, I thought I’d be left with a broth like texture and thin flavour but that wasn’t the case at all. Thanks to the almond milk the soup was very creamy and rich. It was a subtle flavour and I don’t think I would have guessed that the veg had been cooked specificially in almond milk if I’d not known already, but I didn’t find it watery.

It used up ingredients which meant I didn’t have to go out to buy anything ridiculous and frivolous, it was actually delicious with a bit of cheese sprinkled on top (sorry, fasting monks) and it was a healthy alternative to the steady diet of toast, biscuits and weetabix we’d all been living on for the past couple of days. When *all this* is over, I’d even make it again.

But for now, once during lockdown is enough. Nutritious and surprisingly tasty as it was, it wasn’t proper comfort food. Someone pass me the bourbons.

E x

Jowtes in almond milk

300g spinach
2 large leeks
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1.2 litres water
125g ground almonds

  1. Boil the water and almonds together until the mixture thickens (about 15 minutes).
  2. Chop the leeks, spinach and chives up finely.
  3. When the water and almonds have thickened, strain the almonds from the milk. Place the chopped vegetables into the almond milk and cook on a low heat with a lid on until the leeks are tender.
  4. Add more water if you prefer a thinner soup, and blitz in a food processor to get a finer consistency.
  5. Serve with grated cheese and crusty bread. Or don’t, if you’re a monk.

Entertainment: Tudor style

It would appear none of you listened to me last time when I told you to cease and desist emptying the shops of food and loo roll. I understand that some of you might have struggled to take Boris Johnson at his word when he asked people to stop panic buying and exercise more control in their social gatherings but what I find astounding is the number of you who ignored me. I’m very, very disappointed in you all. I want you to go away and think seriously about what you’ve done. You can tell your mum to expect a phone call later – on Mothers’ Day of all days! Do you think she’ll be proud of you?

Obviously, the implications of your actions are clear. Upset and broken by seeing yet more year 7’s arrive to school with apples and (and I can’t believe I’m having to write this), bananas in their lunchboxes instead of chocolate cake and doughnuts because the shelves continue to be emptied of these treats, schools this week have taken the very difficult decision to close. It’s for the best; the kids need time to recover the social humiliation of having no one willing to trade lunches with them, and teachers need therapy after finding cornucopia’s worth of rotting apple cores stuffed down the backs of radiators and mashed banana between the pages of textbooks. Hang your heads in shame, people.

A whole host of people are now going to be stuck indoors, possibly with small children (hopefully their own), for the foreseeable future. I may be one of them, because unfortunately my efforts to escape isolation with my family by hiding behind a big shelf of tinned tomatoes when we were out shopping was thwarted by the fact that people kept stockpiling the bloody things, so my husband and daughter found me pretty quickly.

So, here I am: in the house, awaiting emails from school to see if I’ll be called in to care for those who need support or whose parents are key workers heroes. So far, I’m not rota-d on for next week, which means I’m faced with the alarming prospect of having to do some Actual Mothering.

Fortunately, my child is too little to have a clue what’s going on so I’m spared the difficult conversations of explaining what’s happening or alleviating any fears or anxieties. All she knows is that we can only see grandma and grandpa over the computer and that if she smashes her fists into all the buttons on the keypad at the same time we can’t even do that anymore. Unfortunately, this means that she’s not of an age where she can entertain herself for any reasonable amount of time. Finding activities to fill the hours has therefore become something of a specialty.

The rainbow idea? Lovely! Heartwarming! A true show of community spirit in difficult times. Whose idea was it, and how do I contact them to pay for the dry cleaning to remove 7 different paints out of my carpet and off my walls? What about films? My daughter will snuggle up under a blanket and watch a movie as long as that movie is no longer than 7 minutes, contains only talking tractors and has a jingle she can shout at the top of her voice for several hours after it ends. She’ll clamour to watch it 3 times in row and will then have the mother of all tantrums when asked if she wants to watch it again. Nothing holds her attention apart from everything, immediately, and her skills at tidying up after herself leave much to be desired:

Scenes like this one have been achieved within in 10 minutes. Please, I am not joking: send help.

My husband and I have resorted to hiding under the stairs whenever we hear her coming. It’s the only place we can eat anything without having to share it. It’s not quite big enough to accommodate both of us and the Hoover and ironing board, so there’s always a bit of a Hunger Games tussle between us where one of us ends up sacrificed to the Insatiable and Ever Present Toddler, but today I managed to eat a half an Easter egg, a left over sausage and can of Diet Coke in blissful uninterruption, albeit in the pitch black (the light would give me away.) True, she was waiting for me when I emerged with an accusatory “chocolate?” but it was already gone.

I’m therefore having to temporarily change the focus of this blog. There will still be meals and snacks made of the historical kind however, with a tiny force of nature to care for more often than before, and with fewer and fewer ingredients on the shelves, it’s not possible to research, prepare and cook things that might not be able to be eaten by 1/3 of the household on a regular basis. With that in mind, therefore, I’m switching today’s focus on entertainment in Tudor England. What did people do to keep busy? Can I replicate any of it? Is there a precedent for sending my daughter off with a travelling theatre to tour Europe for several months so she can earn some money for us and ease our childcare woes (probably not, for multiple reasons.)

Before I began to transform all our free time into a plan of Tudor activities (a teacher without a timetable is a rudderless soul), I ran the idea past my husband, who has (mostly) suffered in silence while I’ve fed him dubious meals and cared for him according to pre-NHS standards. He was only too happy to share some of his misfortune with our daughter; “I don’t see why not – if she’s been spared most of what you’ve been up to so far it’s high time she experienced a little of it now”, was his response.

First up was dancing. This was a past time enjoyed by pretty much every strata of Tudor society, from formal choreographed dances enjoyed by the rich, to spontaneous drunken jigs danced by the poor. It seemed a good place to start the Timetable of Tudor “Fun”.

It’s a source of constant amusement to my family that my husband, who has two parents who were both professional dancers for much of their lives, has two left feet. For our first dance when we got married we employed the timeless cling-on-to-each-other-and-sway-aimlessly technique rather than risk choreographing what would just inevitably become an elaborate tumble into the wedding cake. Imagine my husband’s delight when I told him we were going to prepare a dance routine as our first activity.

I took my inspiration from this Key Stage 2 lesson which showed several people, all splendidly dressed up, very seriously glaring at each other as they hopped round in a circle and wagged their fingers to lute music. At one point they did a move that involved throwing their hands up (seemingly in despair), turning round and sort of skipping away a bit. Since this move was reminiscent to one I do whenever I try to reason with my daughter, I thought it would be perfect.

We stood in a circle, but since there was only three of us, it was more of a triangle, and held hands. My husband and I attempted to keep straight faces and my daughter wrestled with us as she sought to free her sweaty palms. At first, I had planned to just play the video on the TV so that we could copy the moves and use the music, but it became very clear that Tudor music wasn’t my daughter’s jam. We had to use Baby Shark instead.

There we were, holding hands, moving in a slow circle, stopping and clapping, while Baby Bloody Shark serenaded us. One of us couldn’t contain herself and broke rank to act out the moves to Baby Shark, whizzing round the room screeching ‘Mummy shark! Daddy shark!” as she did so. I tried to wag my finger at her, but I only ended up copying yet another of the ridiculous dance moves by accident so she didn’t take it seriously. Meanwhile, my husband had slightly twisted his ankle trying to replicate one of the twiddly jumps (or was he trying to run away?) and was demanding a break. It felt a bit silly to continue without her and with one of us injured (and besides, I think the neighbours across the road had spotted us through their window at his point) so we stopped.

Next up was hunting. This was a big thing for the rich in Tudor England, with larger animals such as deer being popular animals to hunt. For Henry VIII, hunting was a way to show his power and sporting prowess. In 1519, the Venetian ambassador commented that Henry VIII “never took that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses” and Henry considered hunting so important an past time to him that he ordered many hunting lodges to be built across England, including one in 1543 at Epping Forest, from which he could see the deer on the chase.

Obviously, hunting was something we couldn’t overlook if we were going to do this Tudor entertainment thing properly. However, we did have just a few teeny tiny ethical qualms – not least of which was the idea that rushing around our local town centre brandishing kitchen knives and catapults made of rubber bands might put the public in more danger than it already was, thus defeating the point of our social distancing. It was decided that a game of hide and seek would have to do instead, and my husband dutifully donned a pair of Rudolph antlers left over from Christmas to get into the mindset of a Tudor deer before going to hide upstairs, in the bed, under the duvet for half an hour.

Whilst rich people could hunt big game, poor people had to make do with fishing in certain areas (not everywhere, as the king still controlled many of the lakes and ponds in England, for which permission had to be sought to fish from.)

It’s a very special type of panic buying, semi-hysterical Tudor themed pet shopping is. The lady in the pet shop remained very calm when I told her I was looking for a goldfish “such as might have been kept in the ponds of Tudor England.” She implied quite heavily that it would be a pretty serious crime to use pet shop fish for fishing and that we couldn’t ‘just build’ a pond in our back garden by the end of the day. What we could have, however, was a starter tank with 6 little fish in and an aquatic plant, so we did that instead. I asked my daughter what they should be called and she just shouted “Bosh!” over and over again for a full minute, so we assumed that’s what she wanted them to be called. All of them. I have since learned that the 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch, who painted at the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII, was famed for his scenes of doom and pestilence. How very fitting, and unnerving of my daughter.

Okay, so maybe the hunting and fishing was just an excuse to have a nap and go and buy some new pets. But that still left one more thing to try: dice.

Dice games were exceptionally popular in Tudor England. I suppose after a day of bashing your ankles together in dancing and getting gored by deer you’d want to do something that was primarily focused on sitting down. Between 1529 and 1532, Henry VIII lost £3,243 5s 10d because of gambling, showing how fond and popular gambling with dice was. By 1604, there were so many legal cases being brought that centred on the issues of loaded and false dice that legislation had to be brought in to prevent their manufacture and sale.

A dice game that could cost us thousands? That had the potential to lead to a law suit? What could go wrong? The High German game Glückhaus, known as Lucky Pig in England during Tudor times, was just the sort of game we needed. Once my daughter was in bed, we drew up the board and began to play.

A Lucky Pig board

We took it in turns to throw a pair of dice. If we threw a 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 11, we had to place a coin on the King Space, the empty one with a crown on it. We settled on £1 coins initially, because we didn’t use our maths skills to see that most of the time we’d be placing coins on the King Space, before downgrading the £1s to any old coins, since it was all coming out of our joint piggy bank anyway. We decided that the winner would get to pick the takeaway for the evening. If we threw a 7, the coin was placed on the 7 space. This space was known as the Wedding Space. If we threw a 2, the Pig Space, we got to take all the coins on the board apart from the ones on the Wedding Space. If we threw a 12 then we got to keep all the coins on the board, including the ones in the Wedding Space. So really, this game should have been called ‘Lucky Pig, Greedy King’, but you’d probably have lost your head.

By the end (10 minutes or so) I was the winner with £3.47 to my husband’s £1.15. I picked Chinese.

Times are a bit rough at the moment and I still don’t know how to entertain my daughter any more than I did at the start of the day. Tomorrow my Tudor diary’s suggesting falconry followed by bear baiting, but I’m fairly sure they’ll be cancelled as they always attract a crowd. Back to drawing on the walls and eating lunch under the stairs it is, then.

Stay safe.

E x

Continue reading “Entertainment: Tudor style”

Potted Shrimp (or prawns): 1861

I’d hate to run a food blog right now. Especially a niche food blog with form for advocating the frivolous purchase of numerous ingredients to turn into unspeakable mush before declaring it all “inedible!” and washing it down the sink. Insensitive bastards.

I’m sure that eventually the shops will be able to restock without needing protective riot shields but that time isn’t quite yet. Be kind to store assistants, people, they’ll be carrying tasers soon (but also be kind to them anyway because they all seem so tired and fed up of repeating that no, Sandra, there isn’t more bread “out the back.”)

The kids at school appear to coping with things admirably. As I write this, it’s unclear whether or not schools will close at the end of the week, and even though it’s clear the students all desperately want them to (“Miss, I’ll pay you to say we can go home now!” “What if we promise we’ll only go on the X-Box after we’ve done all the work though?”) overall they’re doing a pretty good job of getting on with things as normally as possible. The only time I’ve seen a break in resolve is when one year 7 sadly told me that she had to have another apple in her lunch box instead of her usual chocolate muffin for pudding because her mum hadn’t got to the bakery aisle in time before everything was bought up.

At least panic buying has shown quinoa for the unwanted fad food it truly is. Actually, a late night wander round Sainsbury’s reveals in stark relief what the true essentials of British life seem to be; good luck getting a packet of mini rolls in South Leicestershire at 8:00pm is all I’ll say.

As the government releases new information by the hour and shops have today announced restrictions on buyer’s baskets, I began to think how people in the past coped with similar issues. Now, I know the food shortages that will be seen in supermarkets in the coming weeks are the result of numerous issues: problems in supply chains, closed borders and a nation that is newly out and proud about its compulsive fetish for toilet paper, whereas food supply issues of 500 years ago were usually to do with crop failures or wars, but I was still curious.

If you can hide a shelf’s worth of UHT milk under your loo roll, you’ve bought too much.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there were two main ways of coping with food shortages in the past: you had either managed to preserve enough food to eke out through the long hungry months, or you starved. There wasn’t a welfare state in medieval England. If you were a subsistence farmer who had been unable to grow enough grain to set some aside there wasn’t much hope for you, as the Great Famine of 1315-17 showed when approximately 5% of the population perished.

I know that’s no comfort to families who are currently struggling to find baby formula, or vulnerable groups who struggle to get to the shops in the first place only to find that every loaf of bread has gone. If people had realised that there was plenty for everyone if people had shopped normally then we wouldn’t even have a food shortage issue right now. I am exceptionally fortunate that for my family, the worst this food shortage is likely to get is that we’ll start eating more tinned food and my husband will have to self isolate within our own home to protect me and our daughter from the smells caused by his baked bean heavy diet.

So, I’m trying to do a little bit of my civic duty and avoid emptying the shops of things for this blog that others might need for their actual, real lives. It means more space to talk about history, and also involves a switch in how I usually research historical recipes. Instead of Googling “weird recipes from history – no mushrooms” (a standard research starting point, I’m sure historians everywhere will agree), I’m now going to have to look in the fridge or freezer for what we have in and search for things like “chicken nugget recipes from history – no mushrooms” instead.

Which brings me to the focus of today’s food – preserving. We have a freezer. Just the one, unlike some who, in the grip of panic buying mania, have reportedly taken to panic buying extra freezers – presumably to store all their toilet paper in. I can pack it full of frozen margaritas, ice cream, chips and burgers healthy and nutritious meals which won’t go off and means I don’t need to worry about other methods of preserving food for my family.

The history of the fridge (yes, we’re really doing this – I have more space to fill and less content to fill it with now, so buckle up) starts a lot earlier than I’d realised. In 1748, an Edinburgh professor called William Cullen developed the ‘vapour compression system’ and demonstrated its cooling power to other scientists, who were impressed in a science-y kind of way, but failed to see how it might be used commercially. 100 years later in 1834, American inventor Jacob Perkins showed off his wacky idea of a wooden box that could “cool fluids and produce ice” to some easily impressed Londoners on Fleet Street but, in a surprising turn of events for a city where £11.50 is now a reasonable price to pay for poached egg on toast, the people of London said the cost of the machine was too high and sales failed to take off.

In around 1890, refrigeration experts tried to improve the cooling process by adding methyl chloride gas as a refrigerant. Unfortunately, methyl chloride attacks the central nervous system and causes death if people are exposed to high enough doses of it for too long, which is what happened to several factory workers in Chicago when a faulty refrigeration unit began leaking at their workplace. An alternative was quickly sought and the compound Freon was created – great news for fridge businesses, terrible news for the environment.

In Britain up to the 1950’s, most housewives still preferred a cold marble slab in the kitchen to keep things chilled and people bought groceries to use every day, rather than every week, to ensure food wasn’t kept lying around the house for too long. In 1959, however, Britain experienced one of the hottest summers on record and lots of food struggled to last longer than a day or two. Meat bought in the morning wasn’t necessarily safe to consume by the evening and so Brits began turning to American fridge company Electrolux to store their food for them.

There were, of course, other methods of preserving food. Most people know that we have been making food last longer for millennia through the use of salting or sugaring and drying or smoking. As a deliberately jarring example of preservation, the ancient Egyptians used to pack corpses in natron salt for 40 days to dry the body out before mummifying it. In a similar vein, Herodotus – that most dubious of historians – indicates that the Assyrians used to embalm their dead with honey and after his death in 323BC, Alexander the Great was reportedly laid to rest in a sarcophagus filled with honey. Centuries later, in Victorian slums, racks of herring were sometimes hung up in the communal lavatory (think a wooden bench over a big hole inside a garden shed and you’ve pretty much thought of a slum loo), and smoked to turn them into kippers. The favourable effects of this would be threefold: firstly, the fish would last much longer after being smoked which allowed shopkeepers to put them on sale for longer, secondly the smell of smoked fish would go some way to disguising the smell of a rapidly filling cesspit, and thirdly the acrid smoke would cause people to cough and their eyes to water which would mean people wouldn’t take too long on the toilet – perfect if there’s a queue of 15 slum dwellers all waiting for their turn.

‘Alexander the Great on his way to Panic Buy Honey’ Unknown artist, c. 325BC.

There’s one type of food preservation that’s used less commonly today, and when it is used it’s usually for taste reasons rather than preservation ones: potting.

In the 16th century, cooks discovered that if you placed cooked meat in a pot, covered it with melted butter and let it set, it would last much longer than if it was left out. Sir Hugh Plat advised that potted meat would keep “sweet and sound” for at least three weeks, even in summer and thus a craze was born. Potting was quicker than salting or smoking, which took days to do properly, and it took up less space in a busy (or tiny) kitchen too. Plus, if you only had to worry about preserving enough food for your own family, there was less chance of getting faeces splashed onto the food than there was from the cesspit kippers. Odd as it may sound, not having human excrement smeared onto food has been a universal goal for all cooks, in all time periods, in all cultures.

It wasn’t necessarily cheaper, though. You couldn’t be stingy with the butter or else it wouldn’t work and you’d just be left 3 weeks later with bowls of rotting and particularly greasy meat. In very hot weather the butter could melt or turn rancid, which would cause the meat to spoil anyway and another downside was that it only tended to be useful if scraps of leftover meat were used, rather than an entire carcass, because you had to have enough pots (and therefore butter) in the first place.

The recipe I used for my potted shrimp comes from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which I’ve talked more about here. Mrs Beeton advises this recipe would set a household back 1 shilling 3 pence, equivalent to £3.70 today, so wouldn’t have been a recipe for those looking to preserve entire meals out of extreme poverty.

The only thing that I’ve changed in this recipe is substituting shrimp for small prawns. A few weeks ago, I was being forced to drone on to my form about the NHS Eat Well Guide as part of PSHE and we all had a horrible moment of realisation when it became apparent that microwave pizzas did not count as part of the Eat Well advice. That evening I vowed, as I had so many times in the past, to do better both for myself and as an example to my daughter. The next day I bought some frozen prawns that were on special offer to fling into healthy stir fries and curries. It will come as no surprise to any of you that I’ve made approximately 0 healthy stir fries or curries since that week, and if anything my consumption of microwave pizza has gone up. But the point is I had prawns in, not shrimp, and in the spirit of not doing any needless shopping, Mrs Beeton was going to have to deal with it.

I defrosted 1 pint of pre-cooked prawns, trying to ignore the whine of cognitive dissonance of un-preserving something in order to preserve it for a shorter amount of time in a riskier way, and placed them in a saucepan, to which I’d added 1/4 pound of butter, and a pinch of mace, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. This all cooked together for about 5 minutes and then the prawns were scooped out and placed in two ramekins.

After they’d cooled a little I poured the melted butter over the prawns (I had to melt a little more to cover both pots). I stuck some earplugs in to drown out the now siren-like wail of dissonance as I placed the ramekins in the fridge to speed up the preserving and setting process of the butter, and waited.

It took several hours until the butter was solidified, which meant these were ready just in time for a late lunch. Again, totally defeating the point of potting since we were eating them on the same day, but we’re in a time of National Crisis; people aren’t thinking straight and pyjamas now count as work attire – so what if a few potted prawns get eaten two days too early!

At this point my husband took this opportunity to tell me he didn’t actually like prawns at all and asked if potted baked beans were a thing?

A bit of prawn mashed up with butter, slowly melting on toast made a very pleasant lunch. Faintly warming because of the cayenne and nutmeg, and because it wasn’t something we would normally eat, it felt like a bit of a treat. It wasn’t better than a microwave pizza, but it wasn’t worse.

Hopefully you’re all safe and sound and have enough food, loo rolls and soap to last you just as long as you need without depriving others, especially innocent year 7’s who are being forced to suffer the indignities of eating fruit instead of muffins, for God’s sake! If you can, it’s worth checking that your neighbours are all set too and, if you can manage it, offer to help out with shopping or collections or dog walking etc for those who can’t leave their homes for a bit. Sometimes even just swapping numbers and having a phone conversation every couple of days with an isolated person is all that’s necessary.

Oh, and remember to wash your hands. Especially if you’ve been smoking herring in the public loos, you dirty beast.

E x

Potted Shrimp

250g prawns
120g butter (possibly more to cover)
Pinch of mace
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of nutmeg

  1. Cook butter, prawns and spices together in a pan until heated thoroughly and prawns are pink and cooked through.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, divide prawns between two ramekins.
  3. Pour over melted butter until it completely covers the prawns.
  4. Leave to set.

Beef Tingler and Stimulating Jelly: 1970’s and 1905

It’s okay – this is still a food history blog, despite the title it’s not become that sort of website.

The lurgy has struck our household but it’s not the One That Must Not Be Named. It’s just a general run down-end of winter-haven’t had a break since Christmas one. I should mention I’m talking about my husband here. He’s spent most of the day in bed, grunting at me when I offer him tea and saying things like “I couldn’t possibly eat a thing, you know I have no appetite” before scoffing half a packet of medicinal chocolate hot cross buns.

I’m not surprised he’s feeling rotten, and I’ve tried to be the very model of a dutiful and caring wife; I’ve made sure he has something to drink, opened the windows to let the fresh air in and fought a pensioner for the last packet of paracetamol and toilet roll for him in the shop (twas a bitter fight but I don’t reckon I’ll be seeing much of Doris again, because neither of us are allowed back into Sainsbury’s anymore.)

So imagine my surprise – no, my utter outrage – when, after I lovingly asked how much longer he was going to groan and flop about for because I had actually planned on changing the sheets today and he still had to bring the bins off the street because we were at risk of becoming those neighbours, he snapped back “you could show a bit of kindness, you know, I feel really poorly!”

Well. I retreated downstairs, his words ringing shrilly in my ears like Doris’ battle cry. Maybe he was right. Maybe I hadn’t been sympathetic enough. Maybe what he needed was some good old fashioned care (you know I love a tenuous link.)

History’s cookbooks are littered with recipes for ‘invalids’. These recipes are intended to be bland but nourishing, simple yet enticing, and fortifying without containing really containing any ingredients in any useful quantities that could propel someone from the sick bed fully recovered. One of the earliest records of food playing a role in recovery comes from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who is supposed to have said “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food” (actually, it’s probably a misquote or a fanciful Renaissance scholar embellishing history, as no-one’s found any evidence for the saying in any of Hippocrate’s surviving works.)

Looking at Hippocrates’ understanding of illness, it’s clear that he felt food played an important role in health. For those afflicted with hemorrhoids, for example, Hippocrates recommends a lentil-heavy diet, and he suggested other legumes such as chickpeas could help with stomach ulcers and problems of digestion.

If we’re talking about Hippocrates we might as well mention Galen, who built on Hippocrates’ idea of the Four Humours (previously mentioned here) and added the Theory of Opposites. Galen was a big believer that all food had certain qualities (spicy, dry, hot, wet, etc) and that these qualities could cause or cure illnesses, depending on how they were mixed. To highlight this theory, Galen used the example of the cause of ‘hot’ diseases “[one cause of excessive heat] lies in foods that have hot and harsh powers, such as garlic, leeks, onions, and so on. Immoderate use of these foods sometimes sparks a fever…” Now, I’m not an expert at all but it seems pretty obvious that to keep coronavirus at bay, as well as frequent handwashing, all the greengrocers in the country should be forced to self-isolate as a matter of urgency.

Moving forward through time and one thing that begins to spring out of recipes for the sick is an emphasis on broth and gruel, presumably to ensure that the patient was genuine in their illness and not just faking it to get a day off school? One broth in particular stands out: beef broth. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management contains no fewer than three recipes for it (though she calls it beef tea) under the chapter ‘Invalid Cookery’. The recipes are without fail bland and uninspiring: basically just boiling beef in water with a little salt. Mrs Beeton somewhat optimistically recommends that when caring for the sick, one should always have ready “a little beef tea, nicely made and nicely skimmed [so] that it may be administered as soon almost as the invalid wishes for it.” I imagined I would be waiting a fair while if I told my husband that was going to be lunch.

But what to make him? Every cookery book I consulted told me in no uncertain terms that food for the sick should be as plain as possible – an edible punishment for daring to succumb to various virus and bugs. And then – inspiration, in the form of the marvelously stomach churning 70s Dinner Party: Beef Tingler.

I have to work very hard not to get too Carry On Matron about this. Beef Tingler seemed to combine all of the beef broth elements of invalid cooking but attempted to zhush (how do you spell that?!) them up a bit, mostly through the misguided addition of whipped cream. Two things I have to confess here – one: unable to find any tins of condensed beef broth, I just used ordinary canned beef broth, and two: I halved the recipe because I didn’t want any more of this nightmare in my kitchen than was absolutely necessary.

First, I heated up a can of plain beef broth. As someone who feels caring for the sick should be made as quick and easy as possible, so that the caretakers might get on with other things (like recapping Inside Number Nine and occasionally texting spoilers to the invalid), it was a promising start. To this broth I added 1/8th of a tin’s worth of brandy.

While this was cooking I whipped up 1/4 of a tin of cream and added vanilla extract, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange zest. The soup was then poured into a bowl and a dollop of cream was placed on top, whereupon it immediately melted and rendered any chance of a photo impossible. Luckily I’m a bit of a pro by now and had suspected this might happen, so had reserved half just in case. I decanted the remaining soup into a glass tumbler, added on another spoon of whipped cream and cackled to myself that I wasn’t going to be the one to eat it.

What was an especially appetising touch was the way the lipids in the cream separated out into a greasy yellow layer upon contact.

Even I felt this might be a step too far as I carried it up the stairs to my husband at 11.00am. The cream was sort of frothing about and the smells were confusing – hot meat and alcohol, cinnamon, vanilla, orange. There was a lot going on.

I think my husband sensed it wasn’t going to go well for him and was doing a fabulous bit of pretending to be asleep when I came to the bedroom. He opened one eye blearily.

“No, no, no, no…”

“It’s Beef Tingler -” (in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have opened with that.)


“It’ll be good for you, possibly.”

“Please, just take it away. No. Dear God, what’s that smell?”

It was clear he would not sip even a little. It would have to come down to me. I managed two spoonfuls in total before it went down the sink. The cream was very odd – foamy but quite thin because so much of it had melted. It had mixed with the top part of the broth by now which was really quite alcoholic but not in a good way and tasted faintly cheesy.

I assume the brandy was meant to be the ‘tingler’ in this but who the bloody hell would know? No one, I repeat, no one, will have ever managed to swallow down enough of it to find out.

On to dessert and straight faces are maintained all around for the arrival of ‘Stimulating Jelly’ and its author, Fannie Farmer. I kid you not.

This recipe is from the 1905 edition of Ms Farmer’s American cookbook Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. I liked that title, it lent an air of occasion to the situation I was in. It made me feel almost like a real doctor consulting a manual – which food to help with this illness, which food to avoid for that. Ms Farmer’s approach to food in this book is nothing short of astoundingly scientific for its time. She starts off with a pretty impressive chapter on the classification of foods, including a diagram of a classification tree of organic and inorganic matter and the chemical elements of each type of food (carbon, hydrogen, sulphur etc) and makes a big deal of the fact that food for the sick should be both appetising to look at and not just variations on faintly flavoured water.

The book is broken down into sections depending on the type of meal one wishes to cook, so I flipped straight to chapter 24: ‘Jellies’. If beef broth was the quintessential convalescent’s meal, then surely jelly was the quintessential convalescent’s pudding.

It started off normally enough and I flipped lazily past recipes for lemon jelly and orange jelly and milk jelly until I stumbled across the alcoholic jellies – which is where I found Stimulating Jelly. The main flavour in this was port, which we randomly happened to have in (possibly a gift a from some polite guest who clearly doesn’t know either of us?). I couldn’t see my husband objecting too much if I brought him a jelly made mainly of alcohol, so I ploughed on.

The port bubbled away for 10 minutes or so with half a cinnamon stick and one (Fannie was very precise about that) clove. After this had cooked, I added lemon juice, sugar, 3/4 granulated gelatin and – you guessed it – beef extract. This was essentially the liquid that had been squeezed out of a raw steak. Even in puddings, the belief that even tiny quantities of meat juice would perk you up was prevalent.

I poured the mixture into a ramekin, noting that Ms Farmer assumed there would only be one invalid in the household judging by the amount her recipe yielded, and popped it into the fridge.

At least it set…

I attempted to convince my husband (who had rallied enough for a chicken tikka sandwhich while I spluttered my way through Beef Tingler, by the way), to give this a try. I didn’t tell him about the beef juice at the time. Like all good nurses I eventually succeeded in trapping and exhausting my patient into submission and he took one tentative spoonful. And another.

“It’s not too bad,” he conceded. “I can’t finish it all though.”

He wasn’t wrong – it was a much stronger flavour than we might expect a jelly to be, because of the alcoholic nature, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was even quite refreshing, dare I say – stimulating? The beef juice lent a subtle savoriness to it rather than being a taste of its own; as my husband put it “it’s not too overwhelming, I’m not like ‘oh my god what’s this cow doing in here?'”

I’m pleased to report that after a day cowering under the duvet from me and dishes of various wobbling shades of brown, my husband is feeling fit to work tomorrow. I may not know much about modern medical practices, but I reckon a return back to serving beef broth, in all its various forms, to invalids might ease some of the pressure on our hospitals. At the very least it would free up more time for NHS staff to watch some well deserved TV.

E x

Beef Tingler

1 can of beef broth
1/8 can of brandy
1/4 can of whipping cream
Zest of 1/4 orange
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg

  1. Heat the broth and brandy in a pan.
  2. Whip the cream, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg together into soft peaks.
  3. Fold the orange zest into the cream.
  4. Dollop a spoon of the cream onto the soup.

Stimulating Jelly

3/4 teaspoons granulated gelatin
1/3 cup of port
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 clove
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice

  1. Heat the port with the cinnamon stick and clove for about 10 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat and add the lemon, sugar and gelatin and stir.
  3. Pour into a mold and set in the fridge for 5 hours.

Zamzaganu: c. 1750 B.C.

No, it’s not a Dr Seuss character.

I’m fortunate that I’m able to teach topics that are often not covered in mainstream education. One of them is the early history of the Persian Empire. Oh, sure, none of the kids can pronounce or spell any of the names of the people without the help of complex mnemonics that take half the lesson to get through (Nebuchanezzar, anyone? Alright – how about Udjahorresnet?) and they all seem to think that finding a decent coach company is the main reason why we won’t be going on a school trip to the Iranian site of Pasargadae any time soon, but overall it’s a privileged position to be in.

Like all good ancient history, lots of our knowledge about ancient Persia is made up. Details of heroic feats and daily life have come to us from historians who either had an agenda to push at the time, or had an agenda to push a couple of hundred years later. You can usually tell when a historian isn’t being completely authentic when they quote, supposedly word for word, the private pillow talk that convinced a king to go to war. Of course, Herodotus could have had a time machine and a much more open relationship with Persian king Darius and his wife Atossa than other historians had previously understood, but evidence for that is limited.

Unfortunately, the historian Herodotus is pretty much all we have in terms of writing when it comes to the Persians. As he embellished a lot of his texts with anecdotes and stories, we have to take a lot of what he says about the history of Persia with an entire cellar of salt. Combined with other fragments of text and physical artefacts, though, historians who specialise in non-fiction are at least able to fill in some of the gaps about this ancient civilization (and Daniel, if you’re reading this – for the last time: no – that doesn’t mean you can just ‘make it all up in the exam’.)

However, since this meal isn’t really about the Persians, but rather the people of Babylon who came before them and ‘lent’ their land and people to the Persian empire, I’m not going to go into too much depth about them. Read it here if you’re desperate. What I will say is that Herodotus tells us that “there is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians” and so even if today’s meal wasn’t Persian per se, it’s likely that if a recipe was good enough to write down then it was good enough to ‘adopt’, and so may well have been enjoyed by founding father of the Persian Empire Cyrus the Great 1,000 years later as he and his army conquered Babylon in 539BC. In fact, the Persians seem to have been exceptionally fond of fine dining and consumed such excessive amounts of food that Alexander the Great, when conquering the Persian Empire, found a pillar detailing some of the details of Cyrus’ banquets and was so horrified by the levels of excess and gluttony that he ordered it to be torn down. Problematic as he is, Herodotus also tells us that costs for food for the Persian king Xerxes and his entourage were so enormous that the royal mob risked bankrupting the Greek cities they swept through if they stayed longer than one day.

What I’ve attempted for this post is one of the oldest recipes ever found. It comes from a set of broken tablets from ancient Mesopotamia which the team at the Yale Babylonian Collection have been painstakingly repairing and translating from cuneiform – the oldest form of writing in the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been an easy task. There are words that have no modern day equivalent and whole chunks that are missing. Like many of the recipes that would follow, these read more as inventories of ingredients rather than clear instructions and assume a level of cultural understanding I don’t have. Despite every effort, sometimes a best fit guess has had to be used in order to glean an insight into what these people meant – for example the word suhutinnu, which seems to appear in almost every recipe found, has no description other than an indication it might be some sort of root vegetable as it’s referred to being “dug up”.

Historians were disappointed to learn that when translated, this particular cuneiform cylinder said “Oi Darren you’re dumped, I saw you kissing Chloe behind the chip shop, never contact me again.”

The recipe was taken from this blog. It was unclear exactly what meat should be used but Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet has conducted research into the dish’s name ‘Zamzaganu’ and discovered that it may translate as ‘field bird’. I chose guineafowl for the not at all academic reasons that it was currently on special offer, I’d never cooked one before and it sounded more interesting than chicken. The second problem was how to cook it. The recipe just said to ‘cast the meat in a kettle’ (not that kind) but I didn’t fancy de-boning a raw carcass that, even if it was on special offer still cost £6.50, just to boil it to death in plain water and end up with disappointingly bland chunks of meat like Mrs Beeton’s rabbit stew. Since the instructions were vague, I decided to employ some of Daniel’s imagination skills and chose to interpret this as a primarily roasted meat dish. Laura Kelley may agree with this choice as she states “the recipes allow for a great deal of creativity in using what is on hand or in reinterpreting dishes…” I cooked the guineafowl in the oven for just over an hour and after it had been cooked and rested tore it into lumps and placed them in a pan.

To this I added chopped dates, cumin seeds and coriander seeds and fried it all together in the juices of the roasted guineafowl and a little water until a fatty sauce had formed. Once that had been cooked through and the dates were softened, I strained the meat and dates from the sauce and placed it in a bowl. It was then time to work on the Babylonian equivalent of a side dish.

An absolute staple of Mesopotamian food appears to have been garlic and leeks, with most recipes found including these ingredients in some form or another. It’s amazing, actually, just how much garlic is mentioned in the tablets and so I became a bit blind to how much I was adding – it was like each time I read the word ‘garlic’ I thought I had to add to another clove, forgetting that I was reading about multiple recipes and techniques, and not just the one I was working on. This recipe called for mashed leeks and garlic to be cooked in the sauce of the meat, which sounded brilliant. The trouble was that I had become so emboldened by how well it was all going I ended up mashing about five or six cloves of garlic before I realised that I’d gone quite mad and just because the texts mentioned garlic a lot, didn’t mean they added that much to individual dishes. It was too late by this point and although the mashed leek and garlic looked strong and punchy it also smelt strong and punchy. Very punchy. To this I added slices of raw turnip – the suhutinnu mentioned earlier – and let it all cook for a few minutes.

Immediately had to go and wash everything I owned after this in case the smell of garlic lingered and year 11 made fun of me on Monday. You know they would.

That was it. The recipe gave no indication of whether the meat should be added back to the greens or not. Luckily for me, this fantastic blog gave me an insight into how Cyrus the Great might have enjoyed this meal if did survive the centuries between its creation and his conquest of Babylon. It would appear that dishes were served separately in the palaces of Cyrus, with meat, bread and vegetables all being brought out on individual platters from which guests could help themselves. I therefore decided not to add the guineafowl back to the bowl, but serve it as its own dish.

To finish off the Babylonian banquet I added a final staple of all ancient dinner tables: bread. Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria states that there were four varieties of bread that were consumed in the ancient kingdom. The most common and widely eaten was a flatbread made of barley flour and would have almost certainly been consumed at the palaces of Persian royalty centuries later too: on Cyrus’ dining pillar that had so offended Alexander the Great there was a list of provisions for the king’s table, among which was barley flour. The flatbreads were likely cooked on griddles over open flames, or in domed clay ovens. I compromised and employed the same technique I used for my Anglo-Saxon bread: dollops of barley flour mixed with water on a griddle pan with a wok placed over the top to encourage some element of leavening from the steam.

After a few minutes, the barley breads were done. I placed the various elements of the dish into individual bowls and summoned my husband with all the imperiousness of a Persian king.

Now I understand why they called him Cyrus the Great

Sod Cyrus, I was ready to invade Babylon myself when I plated it up. My husband liked it so much he’s taking the leftovers to work (not the leeks and garlic – we need him to keep his job.) If you get the quantities right there was nothing about this that was unpleasant and in fact most of it was absolutely delicious. I could see why the Persians kept it!

The guineafowl was very flavoursome, probably because it had been roasted before being fried with the dates and spices and the dates were sticky and sweet, but not overbearing. The coriander and cumin worked particularly well too. Each fork was a sticky, treacly mouthful – the only criticism I had was that it was slightly drier than I’d like, possibly because of the double cooking. I’d drizzle oil over it and baste the meat during the roasting stage next time – the only reason I didn’t this time round was to try and be as authentic as possible since the recipe didn’t mention using oil at all.

Obviously, the leeks and garlic were very, uh, garlicky but even so still delicious. The turnip was a bit odd because it was pretty undercooked, but I just ate around the slices. Because the leeks had been mashed with the fat from the meat it wasn’t an insipid side dish but almost rich enough to be a meal on its own – you could taste traces of fat and cumin and occasionally a touch of date syrup would trickle through too. In fact this was probably the part I enjoyed the most.

The barley cakes were excellent at mopping everything up once it was finished. The barley flavour gave a more nutty finish than wheat flour, which went well, and the fact they’d been grilled meant that the chargrilled parts added yet more flavour and texture.

I know I employed some of Daniel’s technique of ‘make it up and hope the examiner doesn’t realise’ when approaching this dish, but it was really tasty. Even if this Babylonian meal had been lost to time by the time the Persians rolled into town, I can absolutely see why flavours and combinations such as these survive in much of the foods consumed in the Middle East today.

E x


1 guineafowl
8 – 10 dates
Cumin seeds
Coriander seeds
1 leek
2 – 3 cloves of garlic
1/2 Turnip
5 dessert spoons of barley flour

  1. Brush the guineafowl with a little olive oil. Roast at 190 degrees for 75 minutes, basting frequently.
  2. While the bird is cooking, chop and quarter the dates.
  3. When the guineafowl is cooked, tear the meat from the bones and place in a pan. Pour the fats from the baking tray into the pan and add the dates and cumin and coriander. Add a little water to the pan and cook until the dates are soft and sticky. You may need to add more water as it cooks.
  4. Strain the liquid and place the meat, dates and spices to one side, cover with foil to keep the heat in. In the pan of liquid, mash the leek and garlic and add slices of the turnip. Cook together for 10 minutes.
  5. While the leeks cook, mix the barley flour with enough water to form a thick paste and pour dessert spoon sized disks of the paste onto a hot griddle pan. Cook the dough disks on each side until cooked through (about 5 minutes per side).
  6. Serve!

Meat Pie: 1901

It’s that time of year again, the week we’ve all been waiting for: National Pie Week! Get your bibs on and gather round to sing the most festive and famous of all Pie Week carols:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Pie Week
Everywhere you go
Take a look at the five and ten
It’s glistening once again
With gravy stains and smeared on mashed ‘tato…

Johnny Mathis ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Pie Week’

National Pie Week is the thoughtful contribution to British culture from the creative team at pastry manufacturers Jus-Rol who I’m sure had only public spirited reasons for coming up with this national holiday and no other ulterior motives whatsoever when they introduced it back in 2007. Since then, however, it does seem to have taken on a bit of a life of its own; this year has seen the topic of ‘Pie Week’ feature in several national newspapers and debates on morning TV about the best and worst pies. Truth be told I didn’t know National Pie Week was a thing until a few days ago when I was searching for inspiration on what to cook next for this blog. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy we have a National Pie Week, it’s just it’s not something that I’ve ever noticed up until now.

The notion of a ‘worst’ pie got me thinking, though. What would that look like? I wasn’t looking for mud pies of the sort I made when I was a child (which involved mixing compost and manure in a flowerpot before squodging it into frisbee and trying to force feed it to my sister when mum wasn’t looking – recipe below!), but something that was actually meant to be eaten. Did such a ‘worst’ pie exist? Would I be doomed to a Lord Woolton’s Pie fiasco again or would it be another apple pie triumph? Furthermore, what were the criteria for a ‘worst’ pie and who did they belong to? I didn’t know.

Someone who felt they did know what ‘the worst’ meant was Charles Dickens. Arguably his most famous work, Oliver Twist, deals with themes such as poverty though the lens of the Victorian workhouse and acts as a commentary on what Dickens perceived to be the failings of 19th century society towards its most vulnerable members: the poor. In Oliver Twist, a cherubic but immensely irritating young boy is cast into the brutal world of the workhouse where children are beaten, starved and forced to work all day long; they are just about as downtrodden as you can get before turning into complete caricatures. The most famous line of all – when Oliver asks for second helpings: “please sir, I want some more” – and the consequential beating given to the boy was a Dickensian tut of disapproval at those parishes which, during the 19th century, made it illegal to serve second helpings to workhouse inmates. By the way, I’m using the term ‘inmate’ deliberately – partly because that’s what members of a workhouse were called and partly as a reminder that however flippant this post gets, conditions were no better than in a prison and the people who voluntarily and out of complete desperation entered workhouses were stripped of all freedoms and dignity.

Southwell Workhouse. It’s probably a 5 star hotel now. Or a luxury block of flats.

The idea of a typical workhouse is something that everyone has some understanding of – either through the musical Oliver! (where the character Oliver is made so undeniably kick-able that one can’t help rooting for Mr Bumble) or from year 4 history lessons on the Victorians, or year 6 history lessons on the Victorians, or year 8 history lessons on the Victorians…

In fact, workhouses form so much of our understanding of Victorian poverty that there’s the risk of thinking that’s all they are: Victorian inventions designed to punish people for being poor. And that’s not true. Well, it is, but that’s not the whole truth. Like so much in history, the whole truth isn’t as black and white or easy as workhouses=bad and so the full truth has sort of been swept away in favour of songs about petty larceny and the rise of capitalism (I assume that’s the theme of ‘Who Will Buy’ – I stop listening when Oliver begins to sing in that dog whistle tone of his.)

The history of English workhouses is complex but stems back to as far as the medieval period, possibly further, when the Statute of Cambridge of 1388 placed heavy restrictions on the movements of beggars and sought to put some responsibility for the care and provision of such people on the community they came from. Although lack of thorough enforcement limited the success of such laws, the Statue of Cambridge became seen as the first Poor Law Act of many to come.

Efforts to control the poor (and more importantly establish who was responsible for them) continued throughout the centuries through various acts and laws and included efforts to define who counted as ‘poor’ and the types of provisions that should be offered to them. In 1722 Sir Edward Knatchbull drew up The Workhouse Test Act which gave guidance to parishes on how to set up workhouses and advised them that, as the idea of being sent to a workhouse should act as a deterrent to poor people, workhouses should only accept those in most desperate need. Sixty years later the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (AKA that attention seeking oddball who had his body preserved and put on display after he died) went a step further and attempted an early form of privatisation in the form of a national company which would build and maintain 250 workhouses, financed by investors. The inmates would be put to work and fed a sparse diet thereby ensuring profit margins stayed fat and inmates stayed desperate (and thin). All for the greater good, eh, Jeremy?

Still, workhouses offered refuge to a range of people: the sick, elderly, impoverished and unlucky. If you had a great enough need, the workhouse was there to provide a roof over your head, a small amount of food and shelter from the dangers of living on the street. It wasn’t a caring place, however; unmarried mothers in particular were scorned and pregnant unmarried women were often treated harshest because the cost to keep them was considered disproportionately high in comparison to their “social worth” as England entered the era of the “deserving poor” vs the “undeserving poor”.

The image of workhouses most of us are familiar with peaked in the mid 19th century and coincided with the economic boom of the Industrial Revolution. It’s hardly a coincidence that the cramped, dark, disease ridden images of workhouses that fill history textbooks almost exactly mirror the cramped, dark, disease ridden factories from this time. In 1834 the government was becoming increasingly concerned that the cost of running workhouses would prove too much, so it created the Poor Law Amendment Act. This Act enabled the creation of the Poor Law Unions which grouped parishes together under the control of several appointed ‘guardians’ and encouraged them to think of workhouses as unofficial mills. Those inmates who were well enough to work in such workhouses were now forced to labour in silent factory style production lines; the focus was now on profiteering from people’s misery and misfortune rather than solving the problem of poverty. The government took a cut of whatever income the workhouse produced, and the workhouse guardians and shareholders split the rest. Families were split up according to the jobs they could do, with children usually separated from their mothers and forced to live and work in entirely different buildings often for several years or even, if their fates did not improve, separated for the rest of their lives.

By the end of the 19th century there was at least one workhouse in every parish and people were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that they were living in close proximity to such dreadful institutions. One reason for this cultural shift was the fact that a significant number of women were elected as guardians of workhouses and worked to highlight and improve current conditions through organisations such as the Workhouse Visiting Society, founded by Louisa Twining. Another reason was that in 1892 the property rental value of some workhouses was lowered to £5. This price drop allowed some working-class people to reach the threshold income needed to be elected as Board members and, as some of these Board members had experienced first hand the conditions inside workhouses, they sought to change things.

As attitudes around workhouse conditions began to change, so too did the function of the workhouses. By the late 19th century most of the people in workhouses were there because they were ill, alone and couldn’t afford medical care. Workhouses increasingly took on the role of unqualified hospitals and homeless shelters, with an emphasis on attempting to get inmates back on their feet if possible through nutritious food and a no-nonsense brand of Christian charity. With this in mind (and seeing a way out of a business model that had lost much of its profitability) the government released new legislation in 1929 which stated that local authorities could take over workhouses and use them as hospitals instead. It wasn’t a quick or ever fully completed change over, however, as Susan Swinton’s childhood spent growing up in a workhouse in the 1960’s and 70’s shows.

Anyway, time to put away the woe-is-me violin and get back to the food.

The recipe I’m using is from the Manual of Workhouse Cookery which was issued to guardians in 1901 and has been reprinted in Peter Higginbotham’s excellent book The Workhouse Cookbook. What immediately struck me about the recipes in this cookbook were that they sounded…okay. Not amazing – it was a workhouse after all, but definitely not just gruel. As Higginbotham reveals “[the] benchmark in formulating the workhouse diet was that on no account should it be superior or equal to the ordinary mode of subsistence of the labouring classes of the neighbourhood.” There were also different menus according to whether it was a meat day or not, and according to how ‘deserving’ you were of the workhouse’s charity – able bodied men in work received better food than unemployed women, for example.

The meat pie that I made today was basically meat and potatoes with a pastry topping (therefore not a true pie, in my opinion) but it used salt, pepper and dripping to add flavour. I could see no reason for the workhouse to add seasoning like this other than for the enjoyment of the diners, which suggests that in the workhouses of London parishes where this book was issued the guardians were at least partially concerned with something more than just the profits to be made out of the inmates. Okay, so maybe it was also partly because in some workhouses the cooks had to eat the same fare as the inmates and it’s true, there are stories of some of the more unscrupulous guardians mixing chalk and lower grades of flour in with pastry dough to make supplies stretch further, and the beef used in the recipe is described as being made up of “clods and stickings” left over from proper cuts, but the sentiment was there.

The recipe seems to give instructions for single serve pies – 5oz of meat and 4oz of potato per pie. Because I wanted to share the joys of the workhouse with my family, I multiplied the quantities by 3 to make one large pie instead.

Other than some mental maths, the instructions were really rather easy to follow, which I suppose was the point: the guardians weren’t running a 5 star restaurant here and the meals had to toe the line between being nourishing and an unintentional advertisement for an ‘easy’ life for those looking to dodge work.

First I put the cloddiest looking beef chunks I could find in Sainsbury’s in a pie dish and seasoned with a good twist of pepper and salt. Then I laid sliced potato over the meat in a jaunty spiral pattern that I hoped would delight the two wretches who were going to eat it (my husband and daughter) whilst also inspiring them to better themselves, as all workhouse inmates should do. Honestly – I might have been fired if I’d been a workhouse cook because I felt that 12oz of potato wasn’t sufficient to cover the meat so I stole another 4oz from the pie of an imaginary workhouse inmate and added it to my own.

Making a recipe from a workhouse cookbook is the perfect excuse for not peel potatoes before cooking them – those paupers need all the nutrients they can get!

The pastry was made by rubbing beef dripping into flour and mixing it with water before lying on top of the meat and potatoes. Then it went into an oven at 160 degrees for just under two hours.

There were two main things that stood out about this pie: first – it was dry. It was a dry pie. Not inedible dryness, but definitely in need of additional gravy. Most of the water I’d added had evaporated and what was left was enough to provide a thin clear meat jus at the bottom. Fancy that, an inadvertent jus in a workhouse recipe.

Secondly – once you’d given your salivary glands a chance to recuperate, the meat tasted lovely. It’s amazing what a good amount of salt and pepper can do and I think because the seasoning had been sprinkled directly onto the meat but not stirred in with the water or potato, I could really taste it as if it were a salt and pepper crust. A jus and salt encrusted meat? No wonder Oliver wanted more.

The pastry case was underwhelming both in terms of taste and aesthetics – workhouse budgets didn’t stretch to egg washes or milk glazes so it was a bit pale to look at. Flavour wise I couldn’t tell the difference between a basic pastry made with butter and this one made with dripping – it was fine, but nothing spectacular.

It was clear that the aim of this pie was to be hot and filling (pastry and potato!) and inoffensive to even the most sensitive of stomachs (although again, I’m not sure workhouse charity would have cared that much if you didn’t like beef, or preferred a non-dripping pastry case). It fed my own workhouse mob nicely as a mid week dinner with some emergency Bisto and broccoli and those of you who may have been increasingly concerned for my daughter’s welfare with every new post will be pleased to know that when she demanded ‘more!’ she was only lightly beaten but was spared the singing.

Definitely not too GRUELling. Hilarious, I am.

Am I advocating a return to workhouse food? No, not really. But was it as bad as I’d been led to believe? No. Now, there is a caveat to that: my recipe is from the period when workhouses were becoming more socially aware and there are many accounts from the previous century of inmates being served mouldy bread and “milk porridge of a very blue complexion” instead of the relatively filling and nutritious pie I made. Additionally, this meal would not have been made available to everyone – unemployed but able bodied men, for example, could expect nothing more than the plainest of diets as punishment for their lack of work.

So, back to Pie Week. As the end of this glorious, much celebrated national holiday looms closer I’m wondering whether we should promote workhouse meat pie up there with all the other staples: beef and ale, chicken and mushroom etc. It certainly fits a lot of the criteria – meat filling, gravy (of a sort) and it even comes with its own serving of potatoes. The one problem? It’s not a pie, is it? Not really. Call me a Pie Purist if you must (just don’t let anyone hear you, you weirdo) but if it’s not got a crust all the way round it, it’s not a pie. And really, when all the evaluation of working conditions and family separation is done, that’s the real social injustice here.

E x

Meat Pie

400g beef chunks
400g flour
Salt and pepper
125g dripping or lard
125g sliced potato

  1. Place the beef in the bottom of a pie dish.
  2. Add a little water and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Cover the beef with sliced potato.
  4. Rub dripping into flour until it is the consistency of sand. Add water to form a dough.
  5. Roll dough out and cover the potato and beef mixture.
  6. Cook at 160 degrees for 1.5 – 2 hours.

Orange Marmalade: 1600

My daughter has started waking earlier and earlier. I don’t mean 6:00am, which is still an unholy hour at the weekend but kind of manageable, I’m talking hours of the morning that shouldn’t be legal. 3:00am! 4:00am! Before having a child I didn’t know there was a 4:00am; it was like an urban myth. I’d heard Proper Adults talking about catching early morning flights for holidays, or doing shift work, or having to get up to let the dog out, but I always assumed they just had a really sick sense of humour.

But alas, my husband and I are now well acquainted with 4:00am get ups – the starless pitch black outside and the oppressive quietness punctuated only by our gentle sobs of defeat as we reload Baby Effing Shark onto the TV yet again. 6:00am has become the new lunchtime and by midday we aim to be back in pyjamas.

This morning I realised that, if our day is destined to start in darkness and fumbled panic as we usher our daughter downstairs to prevent her shouts travelling through the walls to the neighbours, we’d need some reinforcements. Usually this involves biscuits of some kind, but we didn’t have any in and neither of us fancied this idea too much because at the rate we’re going we’d get through several packets a day (actually I didn’t see a problem with that, but my husband – who is working towards his Proper Adult badge – pointed out it might not be very good health wise.)

So – biscuits were out. The second problem was that none of the shops near us would be open until 10:00am, it being a Sunday. This left an unacceptable six hours to go. What we wanted, what we really wanted, was a wholesome breakfast that wasn’t too much faff and felt healthy without being tediously ‘Instagram’: I wasn’t going to ‘enjoy’ a jog later, I don’t believe a bowl of mashed banana with a crescent of seeds tossed over it is a treat and at that time in the morning I was definitely not feeling #blessed.

Marmalade was what we needed. Even the word ‘marmalade’ sounds luxurious and inviting, especially when you imagine great spoons of it slathered on toast already dripping with butter. I also thought there would be something inherently comforting about big amber blobs of it glinting in the darkened living room as neon rays of whatever awful animated cartoon was now playing tried to penetrate through.

This scene of domestic chaos was probably not what Sir Hugh Plat had in mind when he wrote a recipe to ‘Preserve Orenges after the Portugall Fashion’. I imagine he envisaged women delicately nibbling at lozenges of it over fine needlework – not me wrestling with my toddler as I cut chunks of it out of her hair. Nevertheless, his recipe for marmalade (found in Sophie Lillingon’s excellent booklet A Recipe Book in the Tudor Fashion) was exactly what we needed this morning.

Published in 1600, the snappily entitled Delightes for Ladies: to adorn their persons, tables, closets, and distillatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters was yet another collection of recipes and household tips written by a man to help women run their households more efficiently, whilst also remaining beautiful and fashionable in order to keep up with aristocratic Tudor society. Delightes for Ladies is therefore a bit of a maze of practical recipes, make up tips and hints on how to create the perfect Tudor banquet. It was therefore arranged alphabetically, which explains why advice on how to correctly perfume gloves is next to a recipe for boiled pike, and why tips to maintain oral hygiene immediately follow instructions for stewed duck.

Marmalade was introduced to England from Portugal where quinces – called ‘marmelos – were preserved in thick syrup and cut out into sweets. Orange marmalade in particular was a wintertime favorite of the Tudor elite. In 1560, Robert Dudley, would-be husband of Elizabeth I, purchased “a brick of marmalade” for a banquet to impress the Queen at a personal cost of 2s 4d – the equivalent of approximately half a week’s wages. Because the cost of of oranges was so high, recipes for marmalade preserve every aspect of the orange to get the best value for money, including flesh and rind. Rather than eaten on toast for breakfast, it seems marmalade was treated almost like a sweet and was set hard enough to slice into lozenges to be enjoyed at formal dinners.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and pioneer of the marmalade wooing technique

One hobby for rich Tudor gourmands was to disguise certain foods as something else; as part of the instructions for a brilliant banquet, Sir Plat gives recipes for sugar paste flowers and various sugar molds, including molds for plates, so that guests may be tricked into thinking sweet foods were savoury and crockery was, well, crockery. Tudor cooks in rich houses were nothing short of 16th century Heston Blumenthals (or should that be Heston Blumenthal is nothing short of a 21st century Tudor cook?) If all that food deception wasn’t exciting enough, Tudor hosts who could afford oranges and lemons and didn’t want to cook with them or eat them raw (thanks to a belief that uncooked fruit and vegetables were bad for you) would often have the rind carved into intricate decorations to adorn the table and delight guests with the patterns. Truly, the long winter evenings must have flown by.

Sir Plat seems to have tried to incorporate the spirit of food trickery into his recipe, but went one step further by hollowing out an orange and filling it with marmalade – thereby succeeding in creating an orange disguised as…an orange: “then there will be marmalade of Orenges within your Orenges…” Orangeception.

My parents kindly came to relieve us of toddler duty mid morning so, having left them at the mercy of our daughter who was happily pushing playdough up her nose (hey – it was an improvement on mashing it into the carpet), I crept away to begin work on the marmalade.

I put two oranges, cut into quarters, in a pan and then added the hollowed out flesh of two more. I added enough water to just cover them (like all good historical cooks, Sir Plat gives no quantities) and boiled them together for half an hour until I could pierce the rinds easily with a fork. Then I removed the orange pulp, leaving the liquid behind and blended it until the rind was cut up fine. Instead of a food processor, Sir Plat recommended pulverising the oranges by beating them until they formed a paste, but time was of the essence here and my energy reserves did not stretch to mashing oranges by hand. Once the blended oranges had been put back into the liquid, the original instructions were ambiguous about how much sugar to add. Sophie Lillington recommended weighing the combined pulp and liquid and adding the same weight of sugar. For me, this was approximately 500g but will vary depending on the size of the oranges and how much water is added in the first place. Then it was time to boil the sugar and oranges up into marmalade.

I know that there are various stages to boiling sugar with suspicious names like ‘soft crack’ and ‘firm ball’ but I’ve not really had much need to dwell on them before. Desperate for this marmalade to be a firm success (in every sense of the word), and not trusting Sir Plat’s naive advice to just “boil [the oranges] in youre sirup: then there will be marmalade”, I resorted to using a very authentic Tudor sugar thermometer to measure when the mixture was up to 105 degrees – the setting point for jam. Even though oranges have a lot of pectin in them, in order to keep this authentic I wasn’t using jam sugar so I wasn’t going to take any chances.

Temperature reached, I spooned the thick amber goodness into four orange halves and poured the rest into a dish to keep in the fridge (show me one parent who has time to sterilise jars for God’s sake). After another half an hour or so the mixture was pretty much set and I was ready to create my own orange marmalade filled oranges.

Bloody. Hell.

Look at it. Look at it! Maybe I am a bit tediously ‘Instagram’ after all. After a lot of swearing and near disaster I managed to sort of glue two halves of an orange together and glazed them with a little of the syrup left in the pan in order to see how this might have looked when served in 1600. The other two halves I cut open to show just how successfully set the marmalade was – it was a bit like a soft jelly. Sir Plat had advised that when cut the marmalade should be “like an hard egg”, and it wasn’t far off. Admittedly the photos did have to be taken quickly but that was only partially to do with the fact that the marmalade oozed ever so slowly downwards the longer it was kept tipped up, and more to do with the fact that we couldn’t wait to try it.

The marmalade tasted divine. I understand that there were various factors keeping Elizabeth from marrying Dudley, but I don’t get why she didn’t just abdicate the throne and run away with him if this was the sort of thing he was buying for her. It was sweeter than modern marmalade but still had a bit of the bitterness from the rind. Being exceptionally sticky it was soon clinging to every available surface but I didn’t care; I was in marmalade heaven.

Overall this was really straightforward to make (minus the orange stuffing bit at the end, which was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done) and didn’t take half as long as I thought it would. It tasted far better than any shop bought marmalade too. I know I didn’t bother to sterilise any jars to keep this ‘cupboard fresh’ but to be honest it wouldn’t last long enough anyway – after twenty minutes all the marmalade in the oranges had gone and there were several teaspoon gouges in the stuff in the fridge.

Is it worth voluntarily getting up at 4:00am for? No. Don’t be stupid, nothing is. But does it make enforced 4:00am get ups bearable when nothing else so far has? Definitely.

E x

Orange Marmalade

4 large oranges
Enough water to cover the oranges
500g caster sugar

  1. Cut 2 oranges into quarters and place them in a pan. Add the pulp of the other two oranges (but not the rind) to the pan and cover with water.
  2. Boil for half an hour or until the rinds are very soft.
  3. Remove the orange rinds and pulp from the liquid and blitz in a food processor until the rind is chopped fine. Add this back to the liquid and weigh.
  4. Add the same weight of sugar to the orange mixture and boil until the temperature is 105 degrees.
  5. Spoon the marmalade into sterilised jars or containers.