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War Widows and the Unknown Warrior: 11th November 1920

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, The Times, September 1914

No recipe today I’m afraid. Instead let’s talk about a tomb in Westminster Abbey that holds the body of a man with no known identity. Carved on the grave are the words:

“Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land…”

Tomb to the Unknown Warrior – a fallen WW1 soldier – was the idea of Rev. David Railton. Whilst serving as Army Chaplain on the Western Front, he noticed a grave marked with a rough cross on which a pencilled note “An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch” was written. Using this experience, and taking inspiration from a similar idea that had been proposed in France in late 1916, he suggested that in order to commemorate the thousands who died across the British Empire, an unidentified deceased British soldier should be picked from a battlefield and buried “amongst the kings”. His idea was strongly supported by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and preparations took place.

On 11th November 1920, the casket containing the body of the soldier – picked at random from a selection of 4 possible men from a range of battlefields – was placed on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and made its way through vast and silent crowds lining the streets of Westminster.

At this time of year, every year, I think back to what it must have been like to stand inside Westminster Abbey 100 years ago and watch the grave finally being capped with its black marble stone. I wonder what it must have been like for the servicemen who stood guard – most of whom had also fought in the war that claimed the life of the Unknown Warrior only a few years ago. I wonder what it was like for children who were too young to remember World War One and yet still had their entire childhoods shaped by the collective memory and trauma of it.

But mostly I wonder what it was like for the women. Specifically the wives and mothers who were left behind by a war that took everything from them and – it must have seemed by the end – gave precious little back.

The price of victory?

Sure, talk of triumph, freedom and liberty was all well and good for politicians and historians with distance from the fighting, but for the real people who had to experience the horror of reading the words ‘Regret To Inform You…’, of telling children their fathers wouldn’t be returning home, of folding and putting away clothes that would never be worn again…? Well, I can’t stop thinking about those people.

Perhaps it’s because it’s 100 years to the day that the Unknown Warrior was interred in his tomb, or maybe I’m just getting softer as I get older, but the thought of all those lives shattered into pieces – physically and emotionally – seems especially poignant this year. Because as well as the king and politicians and sombre crowd, the casket was also flanked by approximately 100 guests of honour: women who had suffered the heartbreaking experience of losing their husbands and all their sons in the war – “every woman so bereft, who applied for a place got it“. What must have been going through their heads as they watched the final journey of this casket, which represented so much to so many?

It’s important to note that it’s easy to get overly sentimental here. Interviews with widows, children and mothers, diary extracts and articles all show a deep sense of loss and desperation, but the grief of these women is not my grief; their loss was not my loss. We can’t imagine what emotions they felt at the time, nor imagine that they all experienced the same ones. All we can do is look at the records that history has left us and try to piece together what the short term reality for some may have been.

The life of a war widow.

Most women of the early 20th century, including many among the 100 at the interment of the Unknown Warrior, relied on their husbands to provide an income for the family. When the men went to war, many women began work in the factories and fields to fill the workplace spaces left behind. The number of women in the Civil Service rose from 33,000 in 1911, to 102,000 by 1921, though women’s wages were, on average, half those of their male counterparts.

When the war ended and the men returned back to work many women had to return home to a life of domesticity again. This was fine (except not really) if you had a returning husband who could pull in his pre-war wages, but if you’d lost your main earner and the job you’d been doing for the past 4 years was given back to a man, what were you supposed to do? Many widows had to continue to work, but for some – especially women with young children – that was impossible.

Fights broke out among employed women – some of whom were widowed – over who should be allowed to keep the jobs that were left. In October 1919, Isobel M Pazzey wrote in the Daily Herald: “No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work… Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.” I imagine she wasn’t someone you’d spend too much time chatting with at the water cooler.

Charity…of a sort.

In 1916, Kitty Eckersley‘s husband Percy was killed in the Battle of the Somme. She was seven months pregnant at the time. “I felt I didn’t want to live. I had no wish to live at all because the world had come to an end for me. I had lost all that I loved.”

Women like Kitty were entitled to a state-funded pension and a dependents’ allowance, which helped support children under the age of 16. Charities like the British Legion also helped with further support for families that were really struggling following the wartime death of the man of the house. Pensions for widows were a relatively new concept, first used during the Boer War of 1881, and their use was ramped up during WW1.

There were caveats to the pensions, though. Women who married ex-soldiers who had been discharged and then died afterwards from wounds weren’t entitled to anything. In around 1920, Ellen Bambrough wrote to the government asking for support following her husband’s death the year before. Her husband had served in the war and had left her with two children to raise. The government, however, initially responded that his death was “not attributable” to the war – he had been struck down by the influenza epidemic of 1919 – and that therefore Ellen was not entitled to any financial support.

Similarly, women could have their pension withdrawn if it was felt they weren’t living morally – for example if they were regularly drunk, had an illegitimate child or dared to live out of wedlock with another man following the death of their husband. Neighbours could report widows to local authorities who had to the power to turn up, unannounced, at a woman’s house to investigate accusations of immorality.

In 1915, 25 year old Mabel Beadsworth‘s husband was killed in action, leaving her with two children under 5. Following the birth of an illegitimate child in 1916, her pension was stopped. After her boyfriend left her destitute in 1930, Mabel ended up in a workhouse. Desperate, she petitioned the government to reinstate her pension and her case was reopened (unsuccessfully), with much probing of her private life and public discussion of her “immorality” and “misconduct.” Reports from witnesses described her as a “disgrace to the name of woman” (that particular witness was her charming mother-in-law, by the way.)

The examples above highlight that post war widowhood wasn’t just a box to be ticked on official forms. In echoes of the Victorian notion of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’, the status ‘widow’ was a tool by which the government could monitor and control women who were no longer under the control of men.

“Is the modern woman a hussy?”

In 1917 Rosamund Essex’s teacher told her female students: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can. The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.

Rosamund’s teacher might have been exaggerating a bit, but her point still stood. Fewer men meant fewer marriages and fewer marriages meant that more women would have to fend for themselves in later life. For some this was a good thing, a chance for women to take control of their own lives. For others it signalled the end of society.

By the end of the war there was, if anything, a preoccupation among some conservative thinkers that some women might be moving on a little too fast. The word “flapper” began to be used to describe young women of the 1920’s who drank, danced and generally had fun with or without a husband.

In fact, some people at the time were worried that women were enjoying life without men so much so that in 1919 the Illustrated Sunday Herald ran the headline “Is the Modern Woman a Hussy?”

“Yes!” came the response from Dr. R. Murray-Leslie. Or at least it probably did, going by a lecture he delivered in 1920 criticising “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.” I don’t know about you but it sounds to me like he’d just been stood up and was feeling pretty bitter about it all.

Admittedly, most of the accusations of frivolity and “loose morals” were aimed at younger women – though widows of any age who didn’t conform to social mourning expectations of the time were also accused of getting over their husbands a little too quickly. There was a real fear among conservative thinkers of the time that the huge numbers of men who had died in WW1 meant that young women, who previously would have married and had children, would now be allowed to run wild.

Final thoughts.

It’s obvious that only thinking about women who experienced the loss of their husbands in WW1 through a lens of permanent bereavement is dangerous, even if it does fit neatly into a patriotic package of remembrance. For many women who had experienced it, widowhood was a defining feature of their post-war lives and many never fully recovered from the trauma of their earlier loss. However, failing to think of the lives of widows beyond their widowhood threatens to romanticise women’s grief and labels them entirely in relation to the men they lost, even if they then went on to remarry. As seen, the process of applying for a widow’s pension was anything but romantic and women had to fight hard to acquire what was legally theirs.

WW1 heralded the start (and end) of many things. As more women moved into the workforce and women gradually became more and more enfranchised throughout the first half of the 20th century, traditional expectations very slowly ebbed away. Widow’s pensions were blunt instruments that were, in some senses, designed to embrace both changes.

On the one hand, there was a genuine intention behind the pensions issued to widows of WW1 to provide relief and support. This was born of an awareness of the scale of suffering and a sense of duty; as their husbands had died fighting for their country, the least their country could do was take care of the widows.

On the other hand, the pensions were still rooted in old Victorian ideals of morality and social order. At a time when many were worrying about the rise of the flapper, there was limited empathy among traditionalists for people who were seen to fall short of the old standards, and little to no understanding of how some socio-economic factors would impact on certain individuals’ ability to maintain a ‘moral’ lifestyle.

The widows of WW1 deserve to be remembered just as the soldiers do. Their stories are often cut short at the moment of their husband’s death, and yet their own lives didn’t end; they couldn’t end. Not when there was work to be found, children to be fed, letters and petitions to be written. The lives of these women continued for years afterwards and so, as I think about the Unknown Warrior and all he represents, I also think about the 100 women who accompanied him to his tomb, and I wonder what became of them afterwards.

E x

Credit here.

Lollipop Apples (A.K.A. Toffee Apples): 1924

“Remember, remember, the 5th November: gunpowder, treason and plot” is about the only thing people recall from key stage 3 history lessons. Well, that and “Richard of York gave battle in vain”, which doesn’t really count now that I think of it.

Ask any child in year 8 around this time of year and they’ll tell you that bonfire night commemorates the date that Guy Fawkes – an aggrieved Catholic intent on overthrowing the anti-Catholic James I – was caught under the houses of parliament holding a lit match atop a mountain of gunpowder, practicing his best ‘wasn’t me, guv!’ expression. Luckily for the king, he was caught in the nick of time and marched off to the Tower of London to be, er, questioned.

It’s often the torture – sorry, questioning – part that’s the most memorable (for 12 year olds, at least.) All that stuff with the rack and deformed signatures on forced confessions just really seems to focus year 8’s. Illegal methodology aside, Guy Fawkes was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 31st January 1606.

Guy Fawkes’ confession signature. The top was written straight after his torture and the second 8 days afterwards. Credit here.

The end.

Well… no. For a start, it wasn’t Guy Fawkes who came up with the plot to blow up the king and houses of parliament. That was the brainchild of Robert Catesby – an influential and wealthy man from a Catholic family who had watched his father and brother in law imprisoned for their faith.

Enraged by years of persecution (and perhaps harbouring a desire for more power), Catesby scouted out a band of like minded rebels and managed to rent out the cellar directly under the houses of parliament. Convenient, right? They spent the next few months gradually filling the space with 36 barrels of premium grade gunpowder and then waited patiently for the right time.

Of course, this situation raises questions about the competency of James’ security; for a notoriously paranoid king, it seems crazy to think that his guards didn’t perform regular checks on the contents of the cellars underneath the most important building in England.

Anyway, poor Guy Fawkes was given the job of lighting the fuse and then legging it like crazy to Europe, safe in the knowledge of a job well done. Meanwhile another plotter, Sir Everard Digby, was due to abduct the king’s daughter at the time of the explosion and install her as puppet queen who the Catholics could control. Unfortunately for Guy Fawkes et al, the plot was uncovered at the last minute and the plotters were exposed, eventually captured and executed.

But is that the truth?

As I said, it seems crazy to assume the government didn’t know about 36 barrels of gunpowder quietly festering just feet below the nobs and nobesses of the land (but not really the nobesses, thanks to a no ladies rule). And in fact, it’s just that: crazy. Sure, James I might not have known about it himself but there are strong arguments to suggest his first minister Robert Cecil did and was keeping a close eye. In fact, an anonymous letter warning one MP to stay away from parliament on the fated night ended up in the hands of Cecil as early as 26th October, yet he chose not to act straight away. Perhaps he was waiting for the plot to continue until he could gather enough evidence to be certain of executions or, for the cynical observer, to catch the plotters at the eleventh hour to make himself and the government appear even more heroic to the public.

And so we gather by every year to remember Guy Fawke’s ill-fated foray into arson by watching a human shaped sack of hay burn on a giant bonfire while children sit on their parents’ shoulders, whining for hot dogs and toffee apples.

Nice segue.

It was, wasn’t it?

The term ‘toffee’ traditionally just referred to boiled sugar rather than the creamy, individually wrapped sweets grandmas keep in their pockets. Toffee apples’ simplicity and cheapness makes them a decent money spinner for food vendors on bonfire night, but also a family friendly treat; children can replenish the ebbing sugar rush of Halloween, and parents can soothe their own guilt with the knowledge that somewhere underneath the sugar and syrup is a lump of fruit. The trouble with this bargain, of course, is that most kids throw their toffee apples away once the hard sugary layer has been nibbled off to reveal a disconcertingly mushy apple on a stick.

The idea of preserving fruit in syrup or sugar is as old as time; the ancient Egyptians used honey to preserve all manner of things from food to, er, dead bodies. Toffee apples, while not quite as old as ancient Egypt, made use of that great tradition in a cheap and useful way by ensuring that the final few apple harvests of late October wouldn’t go to waste.

The Oxford Companion to Food suggests the phrase ‘toffee apple’ first crops up in a food context when the BEF Times mentioned them in its 1917 Christmas edition. However, as author Alan Davidson points out, the invention of the 2 inch medium mortar, nicknamed ‘the toffee apple’ in 1915 suggests the sweet treat was already well established in Britain.

What about the recipes?

Popular theory suggests that candy apples (please note the careful wording there!) were the invention of American sweet manufacturer William Kolb who – like Isaac Newton himself – was struck by inspiration when an apple accidentally dropped into a vat of boiling sugar syrup. Okay, maybe not exactly like Isaac Newton. Regardless, Kolb immediately saw the potential to make cash and rot teeth and lo, the toffee apple was born.

Kolb’s invention may have come in 1908, but the first printed recipe for anything resembling a toffee apple wasn’t published until around 1919 (if you have an earlier one please let me know!) It appeared in American book Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher under the less crowd pleasing name ‘Apples on a stick’.

Take small apples and stick in each one at the top, a small wooden skewer, such as butchers use to pin roasts. Now cook a batch of Molasses Taffy to 280 degress F. Then dip the apple in the hot batch so as to cover it completely. Let the surplus syrup drip off, then stand them on a slab until cold.

Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher, W.O. Rigby, 1919.

A 1908 recipe for molasses taffy read thusly:

…for molasses taffy boil to the soft ball 1 quart of New Orleans molasses, 1 tablespoonful of granulated sugar. Now stir in 2 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, ¼ pound of butter, and boil until it becomes hard and brittle in cold water.  Just before removing from the fire stir in ¼ teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water and pull.

Household discoveries: an encyclopaedia of practical recipes and processes, Sidney Morse, 1908.

My attempt(s)…

First I began by making my molasses taffy – an American term for a chewy toffee. I scaled down the sizes and boiled molasses with sugar until it hit 116 degrees Celsius: soft ball stage. Once that had been achieved I threw in some vinegar and butter and boiled it to 146 degrees Celsius: hard crack stage. Then, I dipped a green apple into the mixture and coated it well.

The apples looked impressively sleek and dark. True, they did also look a little like the poisoned apple in Snow White – kind of black and oozing – but even so, still quite magnificent.

You can keep any comparisons between me and the witch to yourself.

Unfortunately though they didn’t taste or feel anything like what I thought of when I thought of toffee apples. I had wanted a satisfying crack to the shell but these were still slightly chewy (though I think that was down to my dodgy thermometer reading.) I’d also hoped for a sweet tangy flavour, whereas these were decidedly more bitter in a treacly kind of way.

So I tried again, this time with a recipe from 1924 for ‘Lollipop Apples‘.

Select very small red apples, wash and dry them, put a stick or skewer in each, and dip them in the glace.
[To make glace] 1 pound sugar, 1/8 pound cream of tartar, 2/3 cupful water. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, stir only until the sugar has dissolved, then cook to 320 degrees.

Mrs. Allen on Cooking, Menus, Service, Ida C. Baley Allen, 1924.

This was more like it. I selected the reddest apples I could find and once my sugar had reached the hard crack stage, dipped the fruit in carefully.

They certainly looked the part as I hung them from a tray to harden: red, glossy, and with a very satisfying tap when I knocked my knuckle against one. They tasted much better too, exactly as I remembered them from my childhood: first a sugary, caramelised sweetness as I bit into the shell and then a slightly sour type of sweetness from the apple. Unlike my childhood self, though, I found I actually wanted to finish my apple even after the sugar had been eaten. Hooray for personal growth!

I know that this year’s bonfire night is different to the bonfire night we might have hoped for but for those of us staying in tonight, I recommend giving these a go; they were truly delicious and comfortingly nostalgic. And hey, maybe if enough of us make them then next year when I ask year 8 what they know about bonfire night they’ll surprise me with a comprehensive historiography of toffee apples instead of the usual!

E x

Lollipop Apples

450g granulated sugar
56g cream of tartar
155 ml water
4-6 apples

  1. Place the sugar, cream of tartar and water in a pan and heat until it is boiling. Swill, don’t stir the pan.
  2. While the sugar is melting, skewer the apples from top to bottom with wooden skewers. Make sure the skewer goes through the full length of the apple.
  3. When the temperature reaches 146 degrees C, turn the heat off.
  4. Quickly dip the apples, one at a time, into the sugar until they are evenly coated all over.
  5. Place the apples on greaseproof paper and allow to harden for several minutes.

Ancient Egyptian(ish) Beer: c. 1800 B.C.

It’s one of the oldest drinks in the world. People have brewed it for millennia for a variety of reasons ranging from religious and solemn (as in sacred offerings or rituals), to the less noble but much more fun (as in going to the pub with friends – remember that?!)

Beer, or more accurately craft beer, is something that certain types of people take very seriously. You know the type, don’t pretend. Friends of mine who know about this stuff talk passionately about ‘hoppiness’ and ‘fermenting yeast’ while I nod along, desperately and hopelessly lost, wondering when’s the best time to mention that I can’t stand any of it – be it ale or lager, craft or commercial.

I’m sorry, it just tastes like soapy water to me. Perhaps I’ve never tried a good one, I hear you cry. My husband is quite into his hipster craft stuff, though, and even these brews – with their funky label designs and heritage signposting – still taste disgusting to me.

The thing is, though, I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year now. Stews and soups and pies and cakes are all well and good, but as time’s gone on, especially as I’ve looked at more ancient stuff, I can’t help but feel I’ve neglected a huge part of food history by ignoring beer. It was such an essential part of everyday life for our ancestors that I felt obligated to give it a go. And so I embarked on what was possibly the most half hearted, begrudging beer brewing process the world has ever seen.

A note on guesswork and adaptation

She looks like she loves her job. Credit here.

I’m dealing with ancient Egyptian beer here, for which there are no surviving recipes. Or if there are, they’re in hieroglyphs which is all, er, Greek to me. Equally, as I found beer brewing to be a totally alien concept, I chose to copy the process that Tasha Marks, Michaela Charles and Susan Boyle (no, not that one) set out when they recreated a version of ancient beer for the British Museum, rather than interpret it for myself.

These women talk a lot more about the science and history behind beer making (and their results are better too), so please do go and check out their post. I mean it; they have a video and everything. Andrew Coletti at Pass the Flamingo has also looked at ancient beer in brilliant depth with some great results, and I used his excellent blog post to guide me on the more practical aspects of this experiment.

The ancient Egyptians loved beer. Couldn’t get enough of the stuff. They had loads of names for it depending on how it was used, or who it was for, or who had made it. In fact, such was the Egyptian preoccupation with beer that they’re often praised as being among the first – if not the first – civilisation to really nail the brewing process. They can’t quite claim to be the inventors of beer, though – that accolade goes to the Sumerians.

Sumerian beer appears to have been a concoction so thick that it had to be drunk through a straw (another Sumerian invention), and was perhaps diplomatically described as an acquired taste “to certain palates” by the Greek writer Xenophon. The Egyptians refined the Sumerian method over time – still favouring the straw, but gradually moving away from a porridge like drink to a smoother, runnier liquid. That’s not to say it was thin or weak, though.

Beer: humanity’s salvation?

In fact, Egyptians relied on beer not being weak. According to one Egyptian myth, the sun god Ra became angry with the people of Egypt when they stopped following his laws. He calmly and logically weighed up his options and decided that in order to lovingly guide his people back to the ways of justice and order, a good old fashioned genocidal purging was needed. He sent his daughter Sekhmet to earth in the form of a lion. There, she ravaged the land and the people until Egypt ran crimson with blood.

At this point, Ra had a slightly-too-late change of heart, and took pity on the blood soaked earth. Perhaps he realised that he was in danger of ceasing to exist if all his followers were eaten? (Ooh, philosophy!) He called Sekhmet off, but she was so full of vengeance and bloodlust that she ignored his orders. Rather than send down another lion to devour the first lion he’d sent to devour the people (like some sort of divine, fly swallowing old lady), he decided to change tact. He poured a thousand jugs of pomegranate stained beer into the Nile, which turned the water red. Sekhmet, believing it to be blood, drank it all and became immediately so shitfaced that she passed out for several days straight. When she woke up, the hangover was presumably so intense that her desire for maiming and destroying had waned, and humanity was saved.

A thousand jugs, eh?

I was not about to make a thousand jugs of humanity-saving beer. Having heard horror stories of home brews gone wrong I was pretty sure that if anything my beer would end up threatening humanity’s existence. More specifically, one human’s existence. Mine.

The starting point for Marks, Charles and Boyle’s creation came from engravings on a clay tablet dating to c. 1800 B.C. This tablet was a hymn to Ninkasi – the Sumerian goddess of beer – who apparently brewed a fresh batch every day as part of her holy rituals. The tablet helpfully details the brewing process, and it was this process which acted as guidelines for the experiments. It’s worth noting here that though the inspiration is Sumerian, the technique (and most of the ingredients) are Egyptian, hence the title ‘ancient Egyptian beer’.

The hymn makes reference to ‘beer bread’ as a starting point in the brewing process. This was a common technique in Mesopotamia whereby leavened loaves were partially baked and then crumbled over pots. Water was poured over the crumbs and the whole mixture was left to ferment for a couple of days before being drunk as beer.

The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom followed this method too but by time of the New Kingdom a new method had emerged. Instead of making little loaves to start with, they made two mashes – a hot one and a cold one. Analysis on pots of ancient beer have shown that the cold mash was made with malted grains and the hot one with either malted or unmalted – the results were unclear. This is a good time to also point out that there were no hops used in the beer brewing process as hops weren’t used until around the 9th century.

The mashes were mixed together, strained, and left to ferment out in the open for a day or two. That was it – end of process. Despite the fact I tend to zone out after two minutes when anyone talks to me about beer, I’d managed to learn enough to know that the Egyptian way seemed suspiciously simple. Where was the carefully controlled heating? The sterilising and meticulous monitoring to prevent unwanted cross-contamination in the yeast? And, bloody hell, had anyone even thought about designing a quirky and original label for the bottle yet?!

The process begins…

First things first I had to get hold of some malted grains. My choice of grain was the only area I deviated from the British Museum’s version. I had a bag of einkorn grains in the cupboard (no, really, I did. My husband uses it as evidence every time he tries to show me that this blog has got out of control.) Einkorn was grown in Mesopotamia from as far back as 10,000 years ago and though there is some disagreement online about whether it was commonly used in Egypt, I decided to work with it because a) it was a fitting tribute to the origins of this experiment and b) when else was I going to use a bag of einkorn grain otherwise?

To start the malting process I placed the grains in a jug of water and left them to soak overnight. The next day I drained the water and spread the grains out in a tray. I sprinkled on a little more water so they were wet but not submerged, covered them with a cloth so that air could get to them but insects couldn’t, and left them on the windowsill for three days. After this time they had grown little tendrils, a bit like eyes on potatoes. After I baked them low and slow for a couple of hours they were ready to be ground.

A sample of sprouted vs. unsprouted grains.

Despite my husband’s belief that my hobby has taken over our lives, I am yet to own a quernstone – it’s on my Christmas list. Because of this, I had to grind the grains little by little in a mortar and pestle. Let me tell you, for those of you who have never done this, it was Not Fun. It took well over half an hour to pulverise even just 100g of grain and at the end of it my FitBit told me I’d done 13 minutes of active cardio – a personal best if ever I saw one.

Ground and unground malted einkorn. I have a new found respect for bakers and brewers of pre-blender times.

For the unmalted mash I decided to do something different and used barley; a common and popular grain of ancient Egypt. I ground another 100g of this, sweating and swearing like I imagine all Egyptian brewers must have done (or perhaps not if they had the right tools – hint hint, J.)

The malted einkorn was then added to room temperature water while the barley was added to water that had recently boiled but was warm rather than hot. The barley was then heated further until it thickened to a porridge like consistency and smelled, well, porridgy and delicious. I mixed both mashes together in a large pan and left the lot to cool completely.

Homebase: the place for all your DIY, garden and ancient cookery needs

The Egyptians brewed their beer in ceramic vessels that looked like tall flowerpots. I didn’t need much more of an excuse, so popped off to Homebase to purchase a terracotta pot. The trouble was that all the pots had holes in the bottom of them to allow water to drain out of. As I explained to the bemused shop assistant, this simply wouldn’t do. Were there any plugs I could buy to stop the hole up? He offered me some sort of plastic tray and backed away slowly, but it didn’t really do the trick.

I was then struck with inspiration, perhaps sent from Ninkasi herself. I could stop up the hole by using a barley flour dough, mixed to the consistency of putty. It wouldn’t be adding anything that wasn’t already in the mixture, and should fill the gap nicely. For the first time ever, an improvised idea of mine worked! The hole suitably plugged and tested with water, I lay a circle of baking paper over the base as an extra precaution, and poured my two now-cool mashes through a sieve into the pot.

Following the method of Marks, Charles and Boyle, I added a date to speed up fermentation, and an aromatic spice mix of crushed roasted pistachios, rose petals, cumin, coriander and sesame seeds. I covered the pot with a thin cheesecloth and left it to fester – sorry, ferment – for a couple of days.

Waste not want not

In the meantime I pondered what to do with my leftover grains sitting in the sieve and thought back to the beer bread. Despite having no proof I felt sure the ancient Egyptians – or any ancient civilisation used to facing droughts, famines or just slightly poor harvests – would have thought twice about throwing food away if it could be transformed into anything even vaguely edible.

I blitzed some dates to a pulp (in a blender, thanks. I wasn’t about to do anything by hand again), and combined the paste with the leftover grain dough. To this I sprinkled in a spoon of the spice mix and patted the mixture into four round discs, which were baked in a low oven for about an hour. They tasted decent enough – a bit molasses-y and nutty, with a powerful spicy punch from the coriander and cumin. I think they’d work well with a sharp cheese, although I ate one on its own without any fuss.

After two days I couldn’t put the terracotta pot sitting on my kitchen counter out of my thoughts any longer. The Egyptians drank their beer straight out of the pots with long straws but I hadn’t made enough to come up to a level that a straw could reach, so I ended up having to pour it into a glass and then wait for it to settle a bit. I somehow ended up with more sediment than drinkable liquid, but there was definitely something there.

The verdict

It smelled unpleasant. Kind of sour, kind of cheesy; not like something I’d normally want anywhere near my mouth. However, I was confident that I’d followed all the instructions and there was no visible mould at least, so I took a gulp.

This would cost you £5 in Shoreditch.

My first mouthful contained too much sediment – a gritty texture with a slight bread-dipped-in-vinegar flavour. I felt my salivary glands go into overtime to combat the sourness of it. Bugger, I thought, it’s gone bad. All that effort for no reward. I’d already eaten a chocolate bar to combat my 13 minutes of active cardio, so I really did have nothing to show for all my work at this point.

Once the sediment had died down a bit more I took a sip of the clearer liquid on top. This was a lot more palatable. It was lighter and thinner than the thick lumpy mixture at the bottom, for a start. It tasted sour, yes, but in a sharp way – a bit like a cheap white wine. The spices weren’t a prominent flavour, but I did pick up a hint of cumin. Whether that was my imagination playing tricks on me or the effects of overzealous seasoning is anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t unpleasant either way. Helen Strudwick explains “the quality of beer depended on both the skill of the brewer and the sugar content…” and while I wouldn’t say my skill was amazing, I didn’t use any added sugar (other than one measly date) and it turned out alright.

I have no idea what the alcohol content was, but research suggests the average Egyptian beer had a 3% – 4% alcohol content. Beer for workers was probably around 2% – the last thing a pharaoh wanted was wonky noses on all his sphinxes because his workers were too pissed to see straight. The content and quality was higher depending on who the beer was for (pharaohs got highest) and how the beer would be used (religious ceremonies got high quality beer, workers taking payment in beer got lower quality.)

As you can see, my enthusiasm for grinding barley was somewhat lacking.

At the end of all this my opinions on beer haven’t really changed. I’d still pick a sugary sweet cocktail over a pint, and I haven’t developed a passion for home brewing (much to my husband’s relief.) Yet it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. It smelled awful, true, but it was light and drinkable and definitely alcoholic – which is about the limits of my appreciation for beer anyway. All in all, not bad.

E x

Ancient Egyptian(ish) Beer

200g sprouted grain (wheat, barley, einkorn, emmer – any will do)
200g unsprouted grain
1l water
1 date
Handful of pistachios
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon rose petals

  1. Grind your sprouted grain to a coarse flour. Add about 500ml of room temperature water to the grain and stir well.
  2. Grind your unsprouted grain. Add 500ml of recently boiled water to the grain and stir. The water should be warm to touch, but not boiling.
  3. Heat the unsprouted grain and hot water mixture until it thickens to a porridge like consistency.
  4. Pour both mashes into a large pot and allow to cool completely.
  5. When the mashes have cooled together, place a sieve over a ceramic pot. Pour the mashes into the sieve and allow the liquid to drip into the ceramic pot.
  6. Toast and crush the spices and place them in a muslin bag or cloth. Place the spice bag in the pot with the liquid. Add the date to the pot.
  7. Cover the pot with a cheesecloth or similar and leave it at room temperature for no more than a couple of days.

Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre: c. 1300

Yesterday was the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which was fought on 14th October 1066. But of course you knew that already, didn’t you? I bet you spent the whole day wishing everyone a Merry Battle of Hastings and couldn’t wait to see what William had left under the tree. Personally I think Battle of Hastings Day gets more and more commercialised every year, but my daughter loves it so we carry on with the tradition.

Fun fact: as well as being a hell of a year, 1066 is also the code to every school gate everywhere in the world. Okay, maybe not every school gate, but most of them. Two of them, at least. My sister used to play county badminton and would spend every weekend competing in school sports halls around the country. Usually these halls were opened before the athletes arrived but one day my dad and sister pulled up to find a gaggle of kids and parents standing forlornly outside the hall, locked out. The lights were on and inside there were the sounds of people warming up (competitors who had locked their competition out in an effort to forfeit the match?) but no one could get the door open.

My dad, a teacher himself and never one to let common sense or law stop him, marched through the crowd and stood in front of the locked door. He paused and then punched in the code 1-0-6-6. The lock clicked open and a surge of tracksuited kids rushed past him, followed by their parents – all of them ignoring the legality of what had just happened in favour of a styrofoam cup of instant coffee.

I know how this sounds, but it’s completely true. It was like a scene from an action movie, only the hero was a frazzled middle-aged man who just wanted to get in and sit down, and the adoring crowds watching him were mostly kids who needed a wee. Still, I think he probably had some sort of epic soundtrack playing in his head when the door swung open.

Once mum had forced him to explain himself and call the caretaker to suggest they update their security, he told us it was because his school used the same code and he thought it “might be worth a try.”*

Back to the battle?

You all know the story, let’s not pretend here – Bayeux Tapestry, arrow in the eye (or was it?) yada yada.

In an effort to keep this post to a reasonable length, you can find out here why most of the stuff you think you know about the Battle of Hastings is wrong. In short – Harold might not have been killed with an arrow and the Bayeux Tapestry uses a huge amount of artistic license with many of the events of the battle.

Not a real part of the tapestry but still a good excuse to post my favourite meme ever.

Once Harold had been suitably dispatched (be it by arrow, sword or death squad), William sat on the battlefield and had his first meal as Conqueror. Accounts tell us it was roasted meat, possibly mutton or beef, which he ate among the bodies of the dead and dying, having left the English soldiers to rot on the battlefield. Not quite what you’d call fine dining.

William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. Apparently the crowd cheered so loudly during his coronation that the Norman guards outside Westminster Abbey thought a fight had broken out, and set fire to Anglo Saxon houses in retaliation. It set an appropriate tone for William’s early years as king, and he wasted no time in enforcing his will over his new kingdom.

As the current Norman England GCSE spec will tell you, Norman lords replaced most of the Anglo Saxon nobility, the language of the rich became French, and motte and bailey castles were erected in most major towns as a both an enduring symbol of Norman power and a method of ensuring the English population behaved themselves. But though these changes had huge and long term effects on the country as a whole, day to day life for the average peasant didn’t change that much. There was still ploughing to be done and animals to be fed, it was just that now their local lords were all called Jean or Henri and there was a faint whiff of smoke in the air as William’s (or should that be Guillaume’s) soldiers burned rebellious towns to the ground in an effort to maintain Norman control.

Food in Norman England

It might be easy to think that, almost 1000 years later, we English are finally free of Norman influences. Sure, we might still visit the odd castle when we need to check our eyesight, but the everyday effects of William’s conquest have long gone, right?

Well, not quite. Not when it comes to food at least.

One popular theory for why we have words such as ‘pork’ today is that the French equivalent ‘porc’ was brought over to England after 1066 and used at the dining tables of the rich (who were usually French themselves, or otherwise Anglo Saxons trying to curry favour with their continental counterparts.) As time went on these Norman words filtered down the social classes to become part of everyday language, even in people who could not usually afford to eat meat regularly. There’s been a lot written about this theory online but I couldn’t find definitive ‘proof’ of it, so if anyone knows anything more about this etymological aspect of history please let me know!

What I did find evidence of was that consumption of pork increased in England in the years following 1066. A recent study concluded that though the Anglo Saxon diet of vegetables, cereals and meat such as beef and mutton remained largely intact, and that cooking methods among the poor remained virtually unchanged, certain foods such as pork and chicken rose in prominence.

It was this discovery that spurred me on to find a medieval French pork recipe in honour of 1066, the Battle of Hastings and our Norman overlords – and it was typing that last sentence that made me realise what a suck up I am; if I’d been around in 1066 I reckon I’d have been waiting at Pevensey Bay for William to arrive, holding a banner saying “WELCOME TO ENGLAND, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF!”

Subtle English Brouet

Soutil brouet d’Angleterre. Prené chastaingnez cuitez et pelés, et moiaux de eufs cuis et ung pou de foie de porc; broier tout ensemble, destrampés d’un pou de eaue tiede, coulez; affinez gingembre, canelle, garingal, poivre long, graine, de saffren; fetez boullir ensemble.

Subtle English brouet. Grind together chestnuts that have been cooked and peeled, egg yolks cooked in wine, and a little pork liver, moisten this with a little warm water and strain it. Grind ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, grains of paradise, galingale, spikenard, and saffron for colour, and boil everything together.

The Viander of Taillevent, An Edition of All Extant Manuscripts. Edited by Terence Scully.

The recipe comes from the early 14th century French work Le Viandier de Taillevent, which exists in four surviving manuscripts. It is generally attributed to Guillaume Tirel, master cook to Charles V of France, but the earliest version of the manuscript dates to around 10 years before Tirel’s birth, calling into question the true authorship.

There are a few pork recipes in Le Viandier and I pondered over which one to pick. Should I go for something simple, like roasted pork in a verjuice sauce or something a bit more ‘out there’, like boiled pork tripe? I know – it was a tough one.

A quick scan of the pork tripe recipe ensured my curiosity was cut short when I read that, once cooked, it would “smell of dung”. But another recipe underneath caught my eye: subtle English brouet.

From a 15th century version of Le Viandier. Credit here.

The recipe

It seemed fitting for the context: a French recipe with a possible English connection (incidentally, if anyone knows what the connection actually is, I’d be grateful if you could let me know!)

In this case the word ‘subtle’ didn’t relate to any complexity of the dish, but instead was intended to highlight how easy the dish was to digest. During this time the theory of the 4 humours was prevalent, (the belief that the body contained four liquids which, when imbalanced, caused illness), and foods were described as subtle to tell the reader they were not likely to cause a humoural imbalance. Could it have been that this dish was intended for invalids or those considered particularly vulnerable to illness? A medieval French dish to stave off sickness made on the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings during a global pandemic – surely there had never been a more timely meal?!

Terence Scully went on to explain that the composition of the dish, with its finely ground and blended ingredients, would ensure a fairly homogeneous result. This might also account for the term ‘subtle’ – to distinguish it from other brouets which had chunks of meat or bread in them.

So what was a brouet? There are several brouet recipes in Le Viandier alone. The Middle English Compendium describes brouet as a meat or fish broth, sauce or stew. The addition of saffron in this particular recipe suggested I was looking to end up with a fairly smooth yellow soup.

The method

I began by poaching two egg yolks in white wine. While they were cooking, I blitzed some pork liver with some cooked and peeled chestnuts. When the eggs had cooked almost all the way through, I added them to the mixture.

I have to say that it did not look pleasant or fill me with hope. A combination of liver, eggs and nuts may have been considered subtle 700 years ago, but it seemed pretty bloody outrageous to my modern sensibilities. Nevertheless I persevered.

The whole mixture was tipped into a pan and I added a bit of water to loosen everything up – after all, this was meant to be some sort of broth. To this I added ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, ground grains of paradise, galangal paste, and saffron. The only thing I couldn’t get hold of in the original recipe was spikenard (no, I had no idea either), which seemed to be sold only as an “essential oil” on dubious websites, and since I didn’t fancy poisoning myself I decided to skip it. I left the lot to boil and hoped it would mellow out.

Left to right: grains of paradise, galangal paste, long pepper, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, cloves.

It seemed very stodgy in the pan, no matter how much water I added. I read through the recipe again and saw I was supposed to strain the liver mixture to ensure a very smooth, thin soup. So, once it was cooked, I dutifully mashed the lot through a sieve, which led to a thin broth collecting in the bowl alongside an amount of very smooth meat paste. The paste and broth were mixed together and I called my unsuspecting husband to lunch.

The verdict

Mmm…pungent offal broth.

Let’s face it: this dish wasn’t exactly a looker. In its favour, though, was the fact it did both smell and look like a broth for invalids – in that it was the sort of thing no well person would ever want to try.

“It’s very…medieval”, my husband said, pinching his nose.

I tried it. Despite its somewhat lacklustre appearance it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d been expecting. I’m not an offal fan at all, but I found the taste of this quite bearable. The meat flavour was less intense and much sweeter than I’d expected, possibly because it was being masked by the chestnuts. It was still obviously offal, but in a relatively inoffensive way. The consistency was thin and smooth, but grainy – a bit like homemade pea and ham soup.

The second taste I noticed were the spices as a mixture of warming pepper and ginger gave way to saffron and cloves. Having such warming spices in the dish would have been a deliberate choice by the cook; in the 4 humour theory, pork was considered a cold and wet food, and spices such as ginger and pepper were hot and dry. Therefore the two ingredients were needed to balance each other out and ensure no one type of humour became corrupted – and therefore cause illness – once the dish was eaten.

Weirdly I think I liked this more than my husband did. That’s not to say I was slurping ladlefuls of the stuff, just that I could see how it would have been a warming and even comforting dish for the 14th century. My empathy only got me so far, though – after a few spoons I was done, and I don’t think I’d make it again in a hurry. Pungent offal broth, no matter how surprisingly sweet and spicy, just isn’t on my list of favoured foods.

And so another Battle of Hastings Day drew to a close. The decorations were returned to the attic for another year, the costumes were hung up at the back of the wardrobe. My daughter played with her new bow and arrow set, aiming for our eyes as we swung at her with swords and later we all settled down to look at pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry together. Classic.

E x

*This was a few years ago so the codes should have been updated now. Hopefully. It’ll be on someone’s To Do list at least.

Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre

2 egg yolks
150g cooked and peeled chestnuts
200g pork liver
White wine for poaching
Ground ginger
Ground cinnamon
Ground cloves
Ground long pepper
Ground grains of paradise
Ground galangal
Few strands of saffron

  1. Poach the egg yolks in the white wine.
  2. While the eggs are cooking, blend the liver and chestnuts together to form a paste.
  3. Once the egg yolks have almost cooked through, add them to the liver and chestnuts.
  4. Add some warm water to the mixture and blend together to form a smooth paste.
  5. Add the mixture to a pan and add the spices. Cook for 5-8 minutes or so, until the mixture is bubbling and hot throughout. Add more water if you think it’s getting too thick.
  6. Push the mixture through a sieve to get a thin consistency and serve.

Jollof Rice

October is Black History Month. For today’s recipe I wanted to learn about (and try to make) a dish I’ve never eaten before: Jollof Rice, a hugely popular and quintessentially West African food. I didn’t specifically set out to make Jollof rice when I began researching the history of West African food, but it was impossible to escape it – everywhere I turned, recipes for Jollof rice popped up, each proclaiming to be better than the last. It was too tempting to resist…

Firstly, let me start with a bit of a disclaimer by saying that I am not an expert in any way about the vast and various cuisines of West Africa. All I have done for this post is a bit of research, chatted to a few friends and colleagues who know how to cook Jollof Rice, and given it my best shot. If you want to find more African recipes or know more about the history of Jollof Rice (also here) then please do click on those links to see what people far more knowledgeable than me have to say.

I’ve written a bit about the cuisine of non-European food such as ancient Egypt and Persia, but it feels easier to write about this food when it’s framed in terms of ancient civilisations and the dishes either aren’t made anymore, or have changed significantly from the original.

This is one reason I tend to write mostly about the history of European food; it feels more familiar to me. Similarly, when I wrote about the history of my Indian grandad’s food it felt familiar because I was writing about my family first and foremost. It’s a totally daunting different feeling to be writing about the history of a food that is still loved by millions today. Jollof Rice is so treasured and fiercely defended that there are ongoing bitter online rivalries about which nation makes the best version. Seriously, the scrutiny on any recipe that claims to be for Jollof is fierce and the condemnation, if such a recipe is found lacking, is harsh.

Hence the disclaimer. I can’t pretend to fully understand the nuance and symbolism of Jollof Rice, I didn’t grow up eating it and I don’t have any stakes in the #jollofwars. Instead what I can do this Black History Month is to read, research and listen to others. I hope you’ll spend some time this October (and, to be honest, all year round!) doing the same.

What’s in a name?

When I naively typed ‘Jollof Rice recipe’ into Google I was immediately hit with over 3 million results. This was genuinely a bit terrifying to me; I enjoy variety up to a point, but after a quick look it seemed that each recipe on the first page was different from the last. The second page of hits yielded similarly overwhelming results too. People also had Strong Opinions on these recipes and the only thing I came away knowing for certain was that if I wanted authentic Jollof I should avoid Jamie Oliver’s recipe and Tesco’s ready-meal version at all possible costs.

At its most basic, Jollof Rice is a dish of rice that is cooked slowly in stock and a mixture of blended tomato, onion and pepper. Over time the rice absorbs the liquid and takes on a deep red hue. Many variations of Jollof Rice contain other things, such as peas, carrots, meat or fish – and it’s in these additions that disputes between what is ‘the best’ Jollof often focus their attention.

Sadly, there isn’t an original written Jollof recipe we can point to as the first version of this dish and as far as I could see there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare it. However, the consensus among many West Africans seems to be that Jollof Rice originated from the Wolof people, possibly some time during the Jolof (or Wolof) Empire – a collection of West African states including modern day Senegal and the Gambia, dating from 1350-1549.

Empires of West Africa. Credit here.

In Senegal today the Wolof people are the largest ethnic group, accounting for almost 40% of the country’s population and Wolof is the lingua franca of the country. The history of the Wolof people probably dates to around the 12th century when people migrated west following the collapse of the Empire of Ghana in c.1100, which was situated in present day Mali and Mauritania. In Wolof, Jollof Rice is called ‘benachin’, which translates as ‘one pot’ because everything is cooked in the same pot.

Yet despite the connection between names, Jollof Rice is the national dish of Nigeria, not Senegal. The national dish of Senegal is another rice dish, thiebou dieun. This dish contains more ingredients than the Jollof Rices of other countries and the main similarity seems to be that it is red and also contains rice and tomatoes.

So what are the ingredients of Jollof rice?

Well, rice. Duh. Also stock, onions, tomatoes and peppers. After that it gets…contentious.

Rice had been cultivated in Africa for around 3000 years and was an important part of West African cuisine long before the Jolof Empire existed. Judith A Carney writes that in the mid 15th century, an early Portuguese visitor described the cultivation of wetland rice on floodplains possibly near the Gambia: “They arrived sixty leagues beyond Cape Verde, where they met with a river which was of good width, and into it they entered with their caravels … they found much of the land sown, and many fields sown with rice…”

Onions were also a native crop, grown in North Africa from as far back as 5000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians held a special place for onions, with some arguing that the onions represented symbols of eternity because of the rings-within-rings. When Rameses IV died in c. 1160, onions were placed in his eye sockets. Don’t ask me why.

Detail from the tomb of Rameses IV. The hieroglyphs are actually a shopping list and read: “bread, cheese, onions and cat food.” Credit here.

However tomatoes and peppers, other key ingredients in Jollof Rice, weren’t introduced to Africa until the early 15th century when the Portuguese set up trading posts along the river Gambia. Therefore we can say with some confidence that if Jollof Rice (in its modern day form at least) was a creation of the Jolof Empire it wasn’t part of the cuisine until sometime around 1440, which is when Portuguese traders appear to have arrived in the Jolof Empire.

Initially the Portuguese trading posts were intended to develop trade links between Africa and Europe, though in reality they were more like garrisons and were designed to force West Africans to trade only with Portugal, rather than other European traders. In exchange for manufactured goods such as firearms and new foods, the Portuguese took items such as gold and terracotta. However, these actions later contributed to the beginnings of one of the most brutal and horrific atrocities in history: the transatlantic slave trade.

The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade refers to the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans from their homeland to the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries by European traders – notably the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. To this day it is one of the worst periods of human history, involving suffering on an unimaginable and harrowing scale.

Map showing the Middle Passage and transatlantic slave trade. Credit here.

The effects of the slave trade echo through history into today’s societies and in his work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the late historian Walter Rodney argued there was a fundamental economic imbalance between some European and African countries as a result of Europe benefiting economically from enslaved human labour while Africa was bled of its citizens.

As well as people, Africa lost parts of its own food identity from the 16th to the 19th centuries as European colonisers took over land and systematically set about destroying the existing culture. According to the food historian Igor Cusack, it is near impossible to overestimate the colonial impact on African national cuisines. The West African dish groundnut stew, for example, came about partly because French colonisers destroyed many of the indigenous crops in Senegal and used almost all of the agricultural land there for groundnuts, which were then exported for profit. Likewise the use of broken rice in the aforementioned thiebou dieun is due to colonial rule where large quantities of poor quality rice were imported from French Indochina to Africa, with the best quality rice to going straight to France.

One more reason it’s challenging trying to gather early evidence of Jollof rice is because there aren’t many sources available. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that either my research skills aren’t good enough, or that making pre-16th century African sources readily available to the general population of the UK hasn’t been prioritised by archives and libraries. Or it could be a combination of both (probably this one, to be honest.)

Much of West Africa’s history is also oral and told through stories and customs that are passed down through generations in the form of songs or folklore. Griots – akin to ancient Greek bards or epic poets – are one important way the history of West Africa was passed down.

A griot performing. Credit here.

Despite the issues I had with gathering reliable evidence about the history of pre-16th century African food, I did find this OpenEdition journals collection and this British Library article hugely helpful when researching the history of language, writing and food across the African continent.

Back to Jollof

What is clear is that in spite of the distorting influence of the slave trade and colonialism on the history of African food, Jollof Rice is a quintessentially West African dish. Its reach into numerous countries – both in Africa and across the world – under various names and versions, and the joy and love it generates by those who share its culture, is testament to that.

In lieu of a ‘first ever’ Jollof recipe, I settled for something arguably better: a Jollof recipe that had remained largely unchanged for a couple of generations, shared with me from an exceptionally generous colleague. Out of respect for him I am not publishing his family recipe, though I have included links to similar recipes that are already available online at the end of this post.

Full disclosure to anyone following the #jollofwars, though: it is a Nigerian version. This was actually perfect for me as my dad spent quite a bit of his childhood growing up in Lagos, so I felt like if I was going to make any type of Jollof recipe I’d have wanted to try a Nigerian one, just to see if it was similar to the ones he remembered.

Let’s make Jollof (finally.)

Cooking Jollof.

I actually made this Jollof twice because the first time I added an entire un-deseeded scotch bonnet to the tomato/pepper/onion purée and then spent the next 12 hours in the fetal position when I tried a teaspoon of it. I had though I wasn’t too bad with spice, but oh my god.

The second time I made it I avoided all the seeds in the scotch bonnet and added only the tiniest scraping of the flesh to the tomato mixture. This mixture was then added to a stock, which I made by hand following my colleague’s instructions, and then I added the rice.

Nigerian Jollof Rice is rinsed of all its starch, so I had to wash the rice I used multiple times until the water ran totally clear. Following the recipe, I then added the rice to the pot of stock and tomato purée and left it to cook, stirring it frequently to stop it sticking to the pan.

After a while it was done. The liquid had mostly been absorbed by the rice, which had turned a deep red colour. As per my colleague’s instructions, I served the Jollof alongside the chicken which had been used for the stock and which I had baked after removing it from the liquid.

Heaven on a plate.

This. Was. Incredible.

Spicy (but not too much this time) but surprisingly sweet, and with a deep savoury flavour in the background because of the stock used to cook the rice in. I think maaaaybe my Jollof was slightly wetter than it should have been (looking at other versions online they seem less sticky), but even if it was it didn’t seem to affect how good it tasted.

Before I made it I had tried to think of food I’d eaten before that might be similar, and had wondered if paella might fit the bill. After one bite I could see that though these two dishes shared common ingredients, they were clearly distinct from each other. Given that both West Africa and Spain have historical links to Portugal, it’s not surprising that comparisons are sometimes drawn between the two dishes, but the truth is there are clear differences. Paella has a more fishy and saffron-y flavour, whereas Jollof is peppery, more herby and meatier.

Ultimately I’d urge anyone who, like me, has never tried Jollof Rice before to give this a go. Set aside a few hours to really appreciate the process and you won’t be disappointed. Hold back on the scotch bonnet if you don’t enjoy breathing fire, though.

E x

Links

Jollof Rice/Thiebou Dieun Recipes:
Nigerian Jollof
Nigerian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Senegalese Thiebou Dieun

Lumpy Tums: 1857

I love cereal. I wanted a cereal bar at my wedding rather than an actual meal, but reactions ranged from laughter followed by “oh, you’re not joking?” to “I will literally take my gift back if you do that.”

I’m not talking any old cereal, though. Offer me a bowl of muesli and I will end our friendship right there on the spot. Same goes for plain Shredded Wheat, Special K or Fruit and Fibre (actually, anything with ‘fruit’ in the title.) No, good cereal has to be so sweet it could melt my face and it has to come in small pieces (piss off, Weetabix). There are many lists online ranking the top cereal choices but I have yet to find one that is truly accurate and so I present a world wide exclusive: the first correct ranking of the top five UK cereals.

The top 5 UK cereals…

  1. Cocopops. It’s a surprise to no one; this cheeky little contender has been top of my list since I could eat. I have never met a person who doesn’t like Cocopops – and I don’t want to. Cocopops are so small you can eat a half a family sized box in one go without feeling too bad, they transform your milk into chocolate milkshake and if you drizzle a spoon of double cream over the top of them they clump together and you get a mouthful of delicious chocolatey, creamy goodness.
  2. Frosties. I’m happy with branded or unbranded to be honest. These are my go to when I crave a sugar hit. I eat them straight out of the bag, standing over the sink like a first year undergrad student and not like the 28 year old married mother I am.
  3. Crunchy Nut Clusters. Here’s the thing – no one knows what these are. No one knows what makes the clusters taste like that. On the packet it just says ‘wheat and rice flakes’, but I’ve been eating wheat and rice for a long time now and I’ve never known them to taste as good as whatever these are. They could be little balls of crack cocaine for all I know. They probably are little balls of crack cocaine given how addictive they are.
  4. Bran Flakes with sugar and sprinkles. A controversial choice but hear me out. People love rebelling, right? Me too. But I don’t love actually getting into trouble. The most rebellious thing I’ve ever done is press the bell on a bus and then not get off when it stopped (and that was an accident anyway.) So here’s what you do: take the most boring, grown up cereal available – nothing more than dehydrated cardboard, really – and you slather it in full fat milk. Now it’s marginally more edible. Then you get a bag of really cheap uber refined white sugar and a ladle and you go to town on it. Once the Bran Flakes have mostly been covered, dig out some cake decorations: hundreds and thousands, silver balls, jelly diamonds – whatever you like. Decorate and serve. This one WILL get you in trouble with your dentist but you only have to see them twice a year anyway.
  5. Frosted shreddies. Not as good as their bog standard Frosties cousins, because once the sugariness has melted into the milk you are essentially just left with a bowl of pap, but still good in a pinch.

Runners up include Cinnamon Grahams (I will not call them Curiously Cinnamon – not now, not ever), mini chocolate Weetabix and Cookie Crisp (when eaten dry – as soon as you add milk to them they’re ruined.)

The king of cereal. Credit here.

…The worst UK cereals.

For balance I have also included the top 5 worst cereals.

  1. Muesli. There isn’t one adult alive who disagrees, no matter how zen and clean eating they are.
  2. Bircher muesli. See above.
  3. Literally anything with dried fruit. Dried fruit is really sugar dense, so why do these cereals try and market themselves as a healthy option? If you’re getting your sugary kicks from freeze dried strawberries or teeny tiny raisins then please stop, have a look at yourself, and get hold of some Frosties instead.
  4. Sugar Puffs. You’d think I’d be all about these, right? Nope. They taste burned, they’re too chewy and the monster on the front looks like a perv.
  5. Golden Nuggets. Just thinking about how soft and melty they go round the edges makes me feel a bit sick. It’s like eating foam.

What’s the point of this?

Just doing my job as an educator.

Sadly for them, the people of 19th century Britain didn’t have access to Cocopops or Frosties. They were lucky if they could get hold of some muesli. Imagine! Lucky!

The first ready to eat breakfast cereal was an American creation called Granula, in 1863. In Britain, ready to eat cereal didn’t appear until 1902 when Force brought Wheat Flakes over to the country from America. But that didn’t mean that the idea of eating something wholesome in milk in the morning was non existent until this point; evidence of porridge like meals have been found in Britain dating from 2500 years ago.

The secret to his sunniness is gin instead of milk. Credit here.

This is where Lumpy Tums comes in, with possibly the cutest name ever. The first reference to it is in Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English: Containing Words from the English Writers, where it is called Lumpy-Jumms. In 1881 it crops up again in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily, being described as “the porridge of our forefathers”. Both references imply it is an incredibly simple but wholesome dish.

Lumpy Tums, still eaten in some parts of the UK, are made of oatmeal which is sprinkled with water, squeezed into firm balls and then boiled before being served in pools of hot milk. They were originally from the Peak District, where oats grew particularly well, but filtered down to the Midlands over time – anywhere where farming communities needed sustenance on a budget. The beauty of Lumpy Tums was that they were adaptable depending on individual circumstances; you could eat them with honey, butter, treacle or plain, but the core ingredients always stayed the same: oats and water.

I wonder what the collective noun for Lumpy Tums is. A lumpening? An oatery?

I have to admit that a bowl of boiled oat balls without anything added to it sounded like it belonged on my worst UK cereals list. As I read more of the Gazette’s opinion on Lumpy Tums, my concern grew: “It is not too much to say that we should not have subdued India, or peopled the Colonies, or destroyed the Armada, or won Gibraltar, or conquered Napoleon, charged at Balaclava, or stormed the gates of Delhi, but for porridge!” I didn’t have the desire to do any of this, but I appreciated the flex it took to attribute some of the brutalities of the British Empire to a hearty breakfast and not, say, pathologically racist ideologies of the time.

Anyway. I began tentatively (lest I became overwhelmed with an urge to invade South Asia or declare war on France) by weighing out 100g of Scottish oatmeal and adding 3 tablespoons of water. The mixture took some squidging, but eventually I was able to form small balls the “size of a nut”, as suggested. I had already heated a pan of water to boil so I cooked these in batches of five for about four or five minutes. Trying to remain positive about how simple and tasteless these seemed, I considered that they had already met one of my criteria for Good Cereal – small pieces.

I heated a bowl of milk to just below boiling and plopped the boiled Tums into it. They sat, a little underwhelming, in the pool of steaming milk. I deliberately chose full fat milk as this was closest to the type people would have had in the mid 19th century and I hoped adding a little creaminess would help improve the blandness.

The verdict.

An interesting way to eat porridge.

There’s not a lot to say about the taste; it was like eating balls of plain porridge. Inoffensive and warming, but not exciting. The texture was more interesting than the taste. I’d expected these to disintegrate in the boiling water but they held their shape well and could even be sliced clean in half. They were far chewier than regular porridge, which I quite liked. Eating them with hot milk was far better than eating them with cold milk – it just felt more right, somehow. Perhaps it was because the heat added another element to an otherwise fairly boring meal.

Fortunately for me, Lumpy Tums could also be enjoyed in ways other than plain. I experimented with honey and treacle, finding a good drizzle of honey improved the taste significantly, and eventually ended up on Paul Couchman – The Regency Cook‘s excellent Twitter account, which had fortuitously posted an excerpt of Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe for Hasty Pudding, another oatmeal and water concoction.

At the bottom of the excerpt, Glasse recommended eating Hasty Pudding with sugar and wine. I quickly spooned a liberal helping of sugar onto the Lumpy Tums (abstaining from wine as it was still fairly early and I was unsure whether a glass of wine mixed into a bowl of milk would work well or not) and finished them up.

As interesting a way to eat porridge as these were, I think at the end of the day (or the start of the day?) I’d still rather have a bowl of Cocopops.

E x

Lumpy Tums

100g oatmeal
3 tablespoons of water
A cereal bowl of milk
Sugar, honey or any other alternatives you prefer

  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil.
  2. Pour 3 tablespoons of cold water into the oatmeal and mix until it is combined and you can form solid round lumps by squeezing it in your hand.
  3. Roll the oatmeal into balls and gently place into a pan of boiling water.
  4. Cook each ball for four to five minutes and then remove with a slotted spoon. Leave to drain for a minute or two on a plate.
  5. Heat the milk to just below boiling and add it to a bowl.
  6. Place the Lumpy Tums into the boiling milk and add whatever toppings you like. Eat.
  7. Declare war on France.

Julia Child’s Coq au Vin: 1961

I’ve been meaning to do a recipe by Julia Child – an absolute stalwart of 20th century American cooking – for a while, but other things kept cropping up. Truthfully, I also felt a little daunted by her recipes, which seemed to go on for pages.

Child co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, but it was initially rejected because, at over 720 pages long, the publisher thought it read too much like an encyclopaedia than a recipe book. This was especially problematic given its target audience: inexperienced household cooks trying French cooking for the first time.

French cooks Beck and Betholle had collaborated with Le Cordon Blue trained Child because they wanted to create a French recipe book that would appeal to American audiences. It was hoped that Child would be able to offer appropriate translations and alternatives to ingredients that were hard to come by in America. To ensure the recipes could be replicated by anyone, no matter how inexperienced, the three authors placed a great deal of emphasis on precise measurements and detailed instructions. This approach helped make the book a success in the end (that’s putting it mildly: it sold over 100,000 copies within 5 years and spawned multiple editions), but at the cost of brevity and ‘lightness of touch’, which are now highly valued by lazy busy cooks like me. Hence my apprehension.

The Julia Child approach

In the end I shouldn’t have worried. The recipes may be long but, like the woman herself, they are also straightforward. In preparation for cooking Child’s Coq au Vin, I did a little bit of research and watched a clip of her making crepes to get over my irrational fear that everything she made was fiddly. She moved fast, but her approach to cooking was essentially the same as I’d grown up with: bung stuff in a pot in the right order, whisk it up a bit, and cook simply. There were no fancy gadgets used, no careful dressing of the plate with alarming smears of sauce or foam, no discussion of “dressing the plate” at all, actually. As the woman herself said about nouvelle cuisine: “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”

In interviews she came across as friendly and warm, and when I read she had coined the phrase “a party without a cake is just a meeting” and advised those who were wary of using lots of butter in cooking to “just use cream” instead, I knew I could follow her recipes with wholehearted confidence.

Julia Child’s kitchen on display at the National Museum of American History. One day they’ll make my kitchen a museum feature too, I’m sure. Credit here.

Coq au Vin…

…Is a dish that was made for autumn. It’s rich, it’s comforting, it’s hearty. It’s something my dad tries to make every year once the weather turns, but he calls it chicken stew and his usually includes half a tin of beans, or an opened jar of olives in an effort to “use them up”. Though dad’s chicken stew is delicious (see, I can be nice about my family!) it’s not always 100% authentic, and I’m fairly sure it’s a recipe he follows from his own instinct rather than Julia Child’s version.

I found Child’s instructions a little bit confusing initially as the ingredients were only listed as and when they were being used, rather than all at the start. This made shopping for them a bit frustrating; I had already been down the veg aisle to get garlic when I realised I’d need to return to it for onions, so I continued in the one way system until I could loop round to collect them. Aha, I thought, butter next. But then I read on and realised I’d need to go back again to collect herbs. Cue more shuffling down aisles I didn’t need to visit in the name of Being A Good Citizen. Okay, sure, a sensible and methodical cook would have prepared the recipe in advance so they could see what they needed from the shop before they arrived but we all know being sensible or methodical isn’t quite my style; I’ve clearly inherited my dad’s ‘see what’s in the house and stick it in a pan’ approach to cooking.

Julia Child’s version

To start with I sliced bacon into lardons and simmered it in water for 10 minutes. Child’s instructions were very exact – there wasn’t any of this vague ‘cook for approximately the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice, or until the bacon turns a dark shade of taupe and seems cooked-but-not-too-cooked’ malarky. It was the absolute opposite to some ancient and medieval recipes I’d done before, where no clear instructions were given at all, and I almost felt ungrateful for begrudging its rigidity.

Once simmered, the lardons were sautéed in butter and then removed from the pan. The chicken breast, cut into chunks, was browned in the fat of the lardons which were then re-added to the pan and cooked together for 10 minutes. I added 70ml of cognac to the pan and winced as I followed instructions to “avert your face [and] ignite the cognac with a lighted match.” I tried to set the dish on fire five times, but each time the match just fizzled out. Eventually I gave up and reconciled myself to the fact that I was just going to have to put up with the extra alcohol content. Shame.

After abandoning my attempts at flambéeing (which would have inevitably ended up with me losing my eyebrows anyway), I added wine, chicken stock, and other bits and bobs and left the lot to simmer for a while as I focused on the brown braised onions that Child recommended be served with the chicken. She recommended using pearl onions, which I couldn’t get hold of, so I used shallots instead. As well as onions and a sprig of parsley to garnish the plate, she also suggested serving the dish with sautéed mushrooms but I didn’t because, well, gross (and we also had some broad beans to use up instead.)

At this point I want to say that the house smelled like 1960’s France but I think, given the lack of cigarette smoke in the ingredient list, it probably didn’t. It still smelled bloody amazing, though.

When the chicken was done I took it out of the pan and placed it on a serving dish, covered with foil to keep it warm. I boiled the remaining liquid until it reduced to about a pint. I added some blended butter and flour – a beurre manié, apparently – to the liquid and whisked until it was thick enough to coat a spoon. The thickened sauce was poured onto the chicken, which was surrounded by onions, and served.

Such a restrained plate. I ate it out of the pan with a wooden spoon once I’d finished this.

The verdict

In a conclusion that will surprise exactly no one, this was delicious. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, probably because it felt like over 50% of it was just alcohol or butter. The chicken was tender and fell away in chunks and the bacon just melted into the background. The sauce was thick and rich – tomato-y and winey – which only highlighted how buttery and sweet the onions were as an accompaniment. The whole thing was divine. Seriously. I know I can be a bit OTT, but it was. The next day it was still just as good eaten as leftovers and I actually had a mini argument with my husband when I realised he’d eaten more than his half.

Would I make this again? Do you have to even ask? True, at times it felt a little like I was cooking with a benign drill sergeant, and I was definitely much more tired by the end of it from double checking and the exact timings. I also found it a bit odd that the ingredients popped up when they were used, rather than listed at the start, because it made me feel like I was playing a stressful round of at-home Ready Steady Cook – suddenly lurching to get the flour out the cupboard and weigh it out whilst peeling shallots or whisking sauces. Overall, though, it was worth it.

E x

P.S. No, I haven’t seen the film…yet.

Julia Child’s Coq au Vin

For the Coq au Vin
85g bacon
1kg diced chicken
56g soft butter
70ml cognac
700ml red wine (Burgundy, Beaujolais, Chianti)
235ml chicken stock
1 dessert spoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
Sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
28g flour

For the braised onions
450g pearl onions or shallots
1.5 tablespoons butter
1.5 tablespoons olive oil
120ml of beef stock
1 bay leaf
Sprig of thyme

  1. Remove the rind from the bacon and cut into lardons.
  2. Simmer in 900ml of water for 10 minutes. Remove and pat dry.
  3. Fry the bacon in 28g of the butter until brown.
  4. Remove the bacon and add the diced chicken to the bacon grease. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and fry until brown.
  5. Return the bacon to the pan with the chicken, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the cognac and, if you like, set it on fire. Good luck.
  7. Add the wine, chicken stock, garlic, tomato paste, bay leaf and sprig of thyme and cover and cook for 30 minutes.
  8. Begin on the braised onions. Heat the oil and butter in a pan.
  9. Add the onions, whole, and cook for 10 minutes, coating them well.
  10. Pour over the stock, add the herbs, and cook for 40 minutes until the onions are soft but still hold their shape and most of the liquid has evaporated.
  11. Begin on the beurre manié. Mix the flour and remaining 28g of butter together to form a paste.
  12. Remove the chicken from the liquid and place on a serving bowl. Continue cooking the liquid until it has reduced to about a pint’s worth of liquid.
  13. Whisk the beurre manié into the liquid until it thickens enough to coat a spoon.
  14. Pour the thickened liquid over the chicken and serve with the onions.

Tiger Nut Cake: c. 1400 B.C.

Right, hello, I’m back again.

My seating plans are done, the classrooms are laid out in Victorian front facing style and there are lines of yellow tape marked around my desk to maintain a safe 1m distance between me and the students during lessons. Of course, this means that I can’t get to anyone at the back who may or may not be copying out their maths homework instead of analysing timelines of William’s conquest of England, but such is life now. On the plus side, I can legitimately throw things at kids and pretend it’s because I’m not allowed to hand things to them, rather than because they were annoying me (and if my headteacher happens to stumble on this blog, I’m joking. Ignore whatever Fred tells you.)

My first lesson back was to a class of fresh-faced year 7’s. With an alarmingly high level of energy I have no way of maintaining to next week, let alone Christmas, I started by asking them the age old question ‘what is history?’

“Stuff in the past.”

Okay, good start, I said. Any advances on “stuff”?

“The Tudors.” “The Victorians.” “My mum says we’re living through history right now.” Silently, I crossed off the last statement on my ‘first-day-back-post-lockdown’ bingo card. I would go on to hear the same sentence three times again that day. Truly, everyone’s mum is a history teacher now.

All great suggestions, I told them. I was clearly in a room with experts. But no one had quite answered the question yet: what is history?

Truth be told, I was stalling. The projector had packed in – shocked to death when I started it up after 5 months of inactivity – and I needed to reboot the system. While we waited, I overenthusiastically prompted them a bit more. Was history just the study of events and people? Was it just about reading accounts of things that happened a long time ago? And, that most golden of all nuggets: if history is about reading accounts of the past, who gets to decide what is and isn’t worth recording? Put ‘history’ on trial, kids, I said. Question it. Always look for the source of information and think: what is the real message here and why do they want me to know it?

And so, as their little eyes glazed over and they shared worried glances with each as if to say “trust us to get the mad one”, the projector sputtered back to life. A blurry photo of Tollund Man – our first lesson – appeared on the board, but upside down and in shocking fluorescent pink. I gave up and told them to turn to page 4 while I contacted IT support. A great start back.

Oh my God, what is the point of all this?

The point is I inspired myself that day, if no one else, to think about the aspects of history that are harder to define. This is where today’s experiment – a weird combination of historical sources – comes in: recipe, inventory, memorial, biography and art work all rolled into one. It is, of course, tiger nut cake from the iconography on the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian noble and official.

I don’t know loads about ancient Egypt. I signed up to a class in my first year of uni because I thought it would make me look clever and cool if I could decipher hieroglyphs and I dropped out of it when I realised that I was neither (at least, not enough to keep up with the others.) A low point was when we were handed a small section of text to decipher and the only thing I could do was draw moustaches and hats on all the figures whilst those around me made expressive noises of wonder and revelation. Apparently, once translated, it was meant to be a poem or something but all I’d managed to do was transport Hercule Poirot back to the age of the Sphinx.

Anyway, Rekhmire belonged to the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt, A.K.A. the 1st dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – 1077 BC) – a relatively late period in ancient Egyptian history. The New Kingdom followed the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – 2181 BC “the Age of the Pyramids”) and the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050 – 1710 BC) and is known for its pharaohs. Tutankhamun and Akhenaten and his wife queen Nefertiti all belonged to the 18th dynasty, with Ramesses I (A.K.A. Ramesses the Great) following in the 19th. The New Kingdom can also boast the most famous of all Egyptians: Imhotep of Universal’s The Mummy fame (sorry not sorry to any genuine Egyptologists.)

It took several hours to make this when I should have been marking.

Rekhmire

We know a lot about Rekhmire from his tomb; almost every inch of the walls inside are covered with carvings depicting scenes of his life and administration. As well as being an official, it appears he was also a high priest of Heliopolis, amassing great wealth and prestige during his lifetime which explains why he was able to afford his own tomb. Despite the name, however, there’s no burial chamber inside and therefore no body – Rekhmire’s final resting place remains so far undiscovered. (Any intrepid explorers who fancy themselves as the heroes of a real life The Mummy can just wait until 2020 is over before they go poking around ancient Egyptian burial sites, thank you very much.)

Unfortunately for Rekhmire it seems he was deposed towards the end of his life, though we aren’t fully certain why; the scenes on his tomb unsurprisingly don’t tell us too much about that part of his life. What some of the pictures do show us, however, are scenes of cooking and it’s these scenes I was most interested in.

Egyptian cooking

There are no recipes from ancient Egypt. Anything we know about cooking comes from archaeological evidence – pots, grains, wall paintings or hieroglyphs and fragments of documents. Some of those documents are official records (detailing the cost of bread, or the purchase of meat for example) but many are more narrative accounts of Egyptian life, which historians have carefully analysed. On Rekhmire’s tomb there’s one scene depicting people making some type of cake or bread.

Having already spent most of the day constructing a timeline I will never use again and working out how to put fancy borders round the pictures, I didn’t have the time (or the ability) to analyse the hieroglyphs and paintings myself. Most of them would have ended up getting the Poirot treatment after a few minutes anyway. Luckily, Rekhmire’s tomb had already attracted the attention of people far more qualified than me who had done the intellectual heavy lifting. The brilliant Ancient Recipes blog explained that the first scene on the walls of the tomb depicted workers piling tiger nuts and pounding them into flour which was then mixed with a liquid – most likely honey given the image of a honeycomb on the same wall. Fat was then added, such as olive oil.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

Tiger nuts were not something I’d come across before. I had to order them online specially for the recipe. They aren’t actually nuts but tubers, and are one of the oldest cultivated plants in ancient Egypt. Tiger nuts are still used in cuisines around the world today, for example in the Spanish drink horchata de chufa.

I began by blitzing 150g of tiger nuts in a blender – ignoring the judgemental expressions of the workers in the picture of Rekhmire’s tomb who were having to pound the nuts by hand. It took a while as they were very hard, despite being pre-soaked in warm water. I ended up having to blitz them in batches until they were the consistency of ground hazelnuts. I sifted them to ensure as fine a flour as I could get and added 75g of honey and 35g of olive oil to them to create a thick and coarse paste.

It’s worth pointing out here that I bought a special type of honey for this as well. Ancient Recipes advised using raw sidr honey, a monofloral honey made from the sidr tree. Sidr trees were common in ancient Egypt and there is evidence of these trees being planted near temples and palaces. As most bees in ancient Egypt were kept near temples and tended to by temple beekeepers, it’s likely much of the honey in ancient Egypt was sidr honey, made by these temple bees collecting pollen from the nearby sidr trees. It was a bit expensive so if anyone wants to make these cakes for themselves rest assured that they’ll also work well with whatever local honey you can get.

To bake or not to bake, that is the question…

The next image on the tomb shows the baking (or not) of the tiger nut cakes.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

There seemed to be some disagreement online about how these were cooked and prepared. Some people suggested the cakes were baked, whilst others pointed to evidence of them being fried. Furthermore, some suggested the cakes were conical whilst others thought they were triangular. Both sets of people pointed to the images in the top and bottom centre of the drawing which showed four triangular shapes with bevelled edges as proof of the final cone/triangle shape.

I decided to try two methods in an effort to placate both camps. Firstly, I moulded half of the mixture into four triangles about 1.5cm in thickness and heated them in a frying pan over a low heat for about 20 minutes, turning each side over regularly until they were evenly browned. The kitchen smelled of honey and bread, which was nice if a little surprising given the lack of wheat in these.

The second cooking method was more involved, but arguably more fun. Ancient Egyptians had many ways of baking and these methods developed over time as new ideas and techniques were discovered. One of the most well known baking methods from throughout ancient Egypt involved baking bread in conical clay moulds. In the bottom of the second drawing of Rekhmire’s tomb, next to the finished triangular shapes, are images of what appears to be conical moulds stacked on top of each other. It was time to get creative…

Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you only got the tip and someone else got the end slice…
Credit here.

I didn’t have any ready made clay moulds or anything that could stand in for one, like a tagine lid. So, like a teacher trying to fill time as she waits for the broken projector to restart, I improvised. I fashioned a couple of cylinders out of folded tin foil which I greased with olive oil and packed the other half of the (uncooked) nut mixture into. Then I used the lid of an egg poaching pan balanced on a panettone tin as a frame to hold the cones upright. It wasn’t what you’d call authentic, as the picture below shows, but hey, if you wanted truly accurate Egyptian baking you should have gone to Seamus Blackley.

Not a method seen on Rekhmire’s tomb but just as effective.

After 20-30 minutes of baking the cones were done. I let them cool in the oven for another hour or so and then gently unpeeled them, pleased to see that they held their shape well.

Conclusion

The fried cakes were a more appetising colour – golden brown with clear markings where the heat had hit them, whereas the conical ones looked a little anemic in comparison. Despite this, there was little difference in terms of taste between the two – perhaps these popular cakes were prepared and cooked both ways in ancient Egypt?!

These were soft but very crumbly, and not as sticky as you might expect. The first flavour was a deeply intense honey that had a buttery almost molasses undertone to it, but still with a bit of a lighter – almost sharp – initial tang. This was down to the sidr honey, which was much darker and deeply flavoured than my usual supermarket bought stuff. The tiger nuts had a subtle flavour, which I could taste once the honey had washed away and reminded me and my husband of brazil nuts. Together the whole effect was like eating very soft, very honeyed nougat. It was surprisingly moreish and though two cones and four triangles was too much to eat in one go, I found myself nibbling at bits of it throughout the rest of the day.

Would I make these again? Yes, actually. Maybe not into cones and triangles (small bite size pieces like sweets would be better), and maybe with easier to obtain ingredients. I’ve seen people suggest that almonds or hazelnuts would work well in place of tiger nuts. Others suggest that the Egyptians may have added extra ingredients such as dates to these and I think this would work well too.

In the end I don’t know how Rekhmire enjoyed his tiger nut cakes, but I found that they went best in small bites with a cup of tea and an episode of Poirot (I recommend ‘Death on the Nile’…) and were so pleasant that I relaxed enough to ignore the pile of marking already stacking up in the corner of the room. It would be future Ellie’s problem; for now, I was just enjoying being back in the world of food history.

E x

Tiger nut cake

150g tiger nuts
75g honey (any type will do)
35g olive oil

  1. Soak the tiger nuts in warm water for 10-20 minutes to soften them.
  2. Blitz them in a blender until they are the consistency of ground almonds. It may take some time and you may need to blend the nuts in batches.
  3. Sift the nuts through a sieve to ensure as fine a texture as possible. Blitz any nuts left in the sieve or pulverize them in a mortar and pestle until they are fine as ground almonds as well.
  4. Add the sifted nuts to a bowl and add the honey and oil. Combine until it forms a coarse paste.
  5. If frying: take a portion of the dough in your palm, about a large walnut size. Roll it into the shape you want, flatten it slightly to allow for even cooking, and fry in a pan over a low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn the dough over regularly to stop it burning. You should not need to add oil to the pan if you are using a non stick pan.
    If baking: shape your dough into the shapes you want – cone or otherwise. Place on a non stick baking tray and bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes, until they smell toasted but not burnt.
  6. Drizzle with honey and serve.

Compost: 1390

Sometimes you just have to try things even though you already know they won’t end well, don’t you?

Today’s experiment is from the medieval stalwart Forme of Cury – the cookbook of Richard II’s own cooks. Designed to be a comprehensive instruction manual, the work contains no fewer than 196 recipes ranging from the simple (common pottage) to the alarming (porpoise frumenty.)

Despite it’s off-putting name, Compost isn’t inherently dreadful and sits comfortably in the centre of the simple/alarming scale. The word “compost” in a medieval sense meant a stew, or preserved mixture of cooked fruit or veg. It was probably meant to be an accompaniment to main dishes, rather than a dish on its own.

Forme of Cury.

The recipe in Forme of Cury is only one of about half a dozen medieval recipes for Compost, and no two versions are the same. Whilst Forme of Cury‘s version is clearly savoury, others aren’t. This suggests the title denotes a type of dish, rather than a set meal – a bit like how modern “crumble” can be apple, or blackberry, or rhubarb. A fifteenth century recipe for “Perys en Composte“, for example, instructs cooks to boil wine, cinnamon and sugar together before adding sliced dates and pears and stewing them in the mixture. Actually, that one sounds a bit nicer than the one I did…

Some useful context for why my husband isn’t currently talking to me.

We’re in the process of trying to sell our house. I haven’t eaten breakfast for days because no-one knows where the cereal’s kept now. We can’t move from room to room without knocking over half a dozen vases of flowers on the way. All of my daughter’s neon plastic tat has been shoved under the bed tidied away so that when people come round they will think she only plays with demure grey wooden blocks and that we are a demure grey wooden family, or something. Everything we’ve done has been to give off the impression of sophistication and elegance in the hopes that people will fall over themselves to buy our house.

Do you know what doesn’t give off the impression of sophistication and elegance? The smell of pickled turnip. I haven’t seen the form that estate agents ask viewers to fill in when giving feedback on a property, but after today I would expect to see “smelled of vinegar” high up on the list of negatives.

Compost in Forme of Cury.

Take rote of parsel & pasternak of rasenns. Scrape hem waisthe hem clene. Take rapes & caboches ypared and icorne. Take an erthen panne with clene water & set it on the fire. Cast all þise þerinne. Whan þey buth boiled cast þerto peeres & parboile hem wel. Take þise thynges up & lat it kele on a fair cloth, do þerto salt whan it is colde in a vessel take vineger & powdour & safroun & do þerto & lat alle þise thinges lye þerin al nyzt oþer al day. Take wyne greke and hony clarified togider lumbarde mustard & raisouns corance al hool & grynde powdour of canel powdour douce & aneys hole & fenell seed. Take alle þise thynges & cast togyder in a pot of erthe and take þerof whan þou wilt & serue forth.

Take parsley root and parsnips [or carrots]. Peel them and wash them. Take turnip [or radish] and cabbage and carve into pieces. Take an earthen pot, fill with water and set it over the fire. Cast all these therein. When they have boiled, cast thereto [chopped] pears and parboil them. Take these things up and let it cool on a cloth and thereto add salt when it is cold. In a vessel, take vinegar, powder and saffron and add thereto and let all the things lie therein all night (over a day). Take Greek wine and clarified honey together with French mustard and whole currants and powdered cinnamon, powder douce and whole anise and fennel seeds. Take all these things and cast together in an earthen pot and take thereof when you will and serve forth.

Forme of Cury. Translation is my own attempt.

The word “pasternak” gave me some confusion as others seemed to believe it meant a carrot whilst the online Middle English dictionary translated it as “parsnip”. The carrot museum (a thing, apparently) cleared up my confusion: “[The 17th century botanist John Gerard] gives daucus as a name for carrot in Galen, but notes that many Roman writers called it pastinaca or other names. [Parsnips and carrots] were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases only the written word, if the Medieval writer referred to “pastinaca”, it is impossible to know if they were carrots or parsnips.”

Similarly, the M.E. dictionary suggested the word “rapes” could mean turnip or radish. Feeling generous, I added both.

The method.

I began on Thursday evening by preparing a variety of root vegetables and herbs: parsley, turnip, parsnip, radish and pear, which I boiled together. At this point my husband commented that it smelled – fittingly, for its name – “a bit vegetable-y” in the kitchen. “Will it have gone by the time the people look round tomorrow?” has asked anxiously.

I promised him it would.

Once the vegetables had boiled for a while, I strained them and lay them out on a sheet of greaseproof paper to cool. To the cooled vegetables I then added salt and spices and white wine vinegar. As with all good medieval recipes there were no specific measurements. However, given that the dish was meant to be pickled, I kept adding vinegar until a small pool of it had formed under the veg, unaware that with each shake of the bottle I was slowly but surely devaluing my house.

Looks great, smells beastly.

The tray of vinegar veg sat uncovered in a cold oven overnight. The next morning I was alarmed to find a layer of condensation on the oven door. I tried to wipe it off; it didn’t budge. I realised the droplets were on the inside and that the vinegar veg must have been releasing moisture all night.

Trapped inside, with no ventilation, the smell had run rampant. A mist of vinegar condensation lined not only the door, but the walls of the oven too. My eyes began to water and an acidic taste filled my throat with each breath that made me splutter.

I had four hours to clear the smell. Every window in the house was flung open, every candle was lit. The candles were quickly blown out when we realised the only thing worse than an overpowering scent of vinegar was an overpowering scent of vinegar mixed with knock-off Yankee “vanilla latte”.

While my husband fumed for Britain, I carried on to the bitter end by draining most of the vinegar off the veg. Then, I boiled white wine and honey in a pan, along with mustard, star anise and fennel seeds. Once this had heated and the spices had infused a little, I tipped the pickled veg into the wine mixture and stirred. The Compost was done. Well, technically the phrase “cast in an earthen pot and take thereof what you will” implies it was meant to be left to preserve further, like a pickle or chutney today, but we tucked in straight away.

If only my house was as nicely presented as this.

The verdict.

By now, the house smelled less awful. Still very much like we lived downwind of Branston, but less vinegary and more spicy. It was a scent I was familiar with, coming from a family who spent every autumn pickling and preserving anything that stood still for long enough. I was confident that whilst it might not be the traditional freshly baked bread smell that viewers would expect, it also wouldn’t strip them of their nostril hair anymore, which was about as much of an improvement from last night as I could expect.

We tried a small bowl of it, my husband somewhat begrudgingly. In terms of taste, it was pretty decent. Because I’d drained the vinegar off the veg earlier, the taste of it wasn’t overpowering. In fact, it worked well with the sweetness of the honey wine mixture.

Admittedly the veggies had lost most of their individual subtle flavours and instead had developed overall tastes – the pears just tasted slightly sweet, the radishes were a bit spicy, for example. But this wasn’t a bad thing, because it meant that the qualities of each one altered the flavour of the pickling liquid they sat in, so each mouthful was slightly different.

As the vinegar/veg/honey flavours died away, the aftertaste was of saffron and spices – actually quite pleasant. Though you wouldn’t want to eat a whole bowl of this on its own (not that the original would have been eaten alone anyway), with a jacket potato or bit of bread and cheese this would work very, very well.

But did they buy the house in the end?

Ha, no. Of course they bloody didn’t!

Though my husband’s adamant it’s because of the vinegar smell, I’m not so sure. Maybe it was because I’d forgotten to take down the joke sign I’d stuck on the oven that said “WARNING: FUMIGATION NEEDED!” Or perhaps it was because when the estate agent opened a cupboard up to demonstrate how much storage there was, everyone was suddenly engulfed in a tsunami of cereal, flowers and neon plastic toys.

Who knows?

E x

Compost

A large handful of parsley
3 turnips
2 parsnips
7 or 8 radishes
A small white cabbage
3 pears
3 tablespoons of salt
A pinch of saffron
A teaspoon powder forte
400ml white wine vinegar
40g currants
500ml sweet white wine
4 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon powder douce
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

  1. Peel and chop the vegetables.
  2. Bring a pan of water to boil, then add all the veg apart from the pears. Boil until just turning soft.
  3. Add the chopped pears and boil for a further 3 or 4 minutes.
  4. Drain the water and tip the veg out onto a lined baking tray.
  5. Pour the vinegar over the veg.
  6. Add the salt, powder forte and saffron to the veg and leave overnight, or for 12 hours.
  7. Drain the veg, leaving no more than a tablespoon of vinegar. Put the vegetables in a bowl.
  8. In a pan, heat the wine and honey.
  9. When the honey has dissolved, add the mustard, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon and powder douce. Heat on low for about 15 minutes. You can leave the mixture to steep for longer if you prefer a stronger taste.
  10. Pour the wine mixture over the vegetables and serve.


Egges in Mone Shine: 1575

I’ve thought about making today’s experiment for a while now. It’s not particularly difficult or outrageous, but other things kept cropping up and the dish kept getting pushed down on my “to do” list. Well, today’s the day!

Egges in Mone Shine is a weird one and one that I think of as encompassing all the things I’ve learnt to expect of Tudor cooking: a combination of sweet and savoury, a degree of poetry in the name, a prettily arranged dish, and, of course, bloody rose water.

The recipe is from the anonymously authored A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye, which was one of the first cookery books to be aimed at a female audience. High levels of literacy remained low among many ordinary women (and much of the population in general) so only the households of the elite would have had a copy. Similarly, some of the ingredients used in the book – sugar, spices, peacock (!) – show that its intended audience was wealthy.

Despite that, it appears that a real effort was made to make the book more accessible than the medieval works that had come before it. It includes helpful guidance for quantities and timings as well as general advice on when in the year was best for eating different types of meat. Some of this advice is even pertinent to today’s kitchens, such as the best time to eat bacon, which was (correctly) deemed to be “good all times of the yere”.

Instructions to draw out a thorn in Proper New Booke of Cokerye. Credit here.

Egges in Mone Shine.

When I first read the title I raised an eyebrow, given the modern meaning of “moonshine”. According to Wiki – which has a whole article on the legality of moonshine across the globe, obviously – a license is required to manufacture spirits in England and illegal manufacturing can lead to fines.

As a teacher and hitherto upstanding member of the community, I figured that it would be a while before the authorities suspected me of running an illegal spirits racket. This gave me an advantage as I began planning how I would manufacture my moonshine for the dish.

To start with, I imagined I’d need to begin by converting the space under the stairs from “general dumping ground” to “secret laboratory”. I could smuggle necessary ingredients and equipment into the house by putting them in my daughter’s buggy and covering them with her blanket, and if I could convince my family of the benefits of bathing with a hose in the garden, the bath could be used to store the liquor…

You’ve just started watching Breaking Bad, haven’t you?

Er…

Imagine, then, my disappointment when I read on and realised that “moonshine” in the Tudor context was a description of the appearance of the dish, rather than an ingredient itself. In this context the eggs represented little moons shining out of a hazy sky, which was recreated by a perfumed syrupy sauce.

The Proper New Boke of Cokerye had the earliest recipe for Moonshine I could find, but there are several other versions from later centuries. Some of these later versions include onion, such as the one from the 1660 work The Accomplish’t Cook and by the 18th century the dish had changed yet again and referred to a variety of blamange like desserts, sometimes shaped like half moons.

The recipe was straightforward and as I read it I thought it might make a pretty decent breakfast. It’s not 100% clear to me at which time of day this dish would have been eaten, but looking at the ingredients I assume it would also have made a good dessert or sweet snack.

Do you love eating vast quantities of rose water? Congratulations – you might be a Tudor noble!

Take a dyche of rosewater and a dyshe full of suger, and set them upon a chaffyngdysh, and let them boyle, than take the yolkes of viii or ix egges newe layde and putte them therto everyone from other, and so lette them harden a lyttle, and so after this maner serve them forthe and cast a lyttle synamon and sugar upon them.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye

Unfortunately I’m not a great lover of rose water, although I’ve tried to learn to appreciate the taste. Alas, my palate isn’t sophisticated enough and the flavour always makes me feel like I’m eating something that was boiled in my great aunt’s perfume. Because of this, (and because a “dishful” of rose water would be an enormous expense for one measly experiment), I diluted a couple of tablespoons of rose water, which was still a lot, with a glug of boiled water. I was certain the overall effect would be the same.

I added two tablespoons of sugar to the water and heated the lot until boiling. It was slightly unclear to me whether it was supposed to boil until it became a syrup, but the instruction to cook egg yolks in the mixture made me think I was dealing with sweet poaching water first and foremost. Rather than crack eight or nine egg yolks, as suggested, I just did one.

After a while the yolk had hardened and I removed it from the pan. Thinking back to one of the criteria for Tudor dishes – that they be pretty – I decided to cook the liquid a little longer to allow it to thicken slightly; I thought the egg would look better under a glossy film of syrup than sitting in a pool of water. Once this was done, I poured the syrup over the yolk, sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on it, marvelled at its elegant simplicity, and served.

Is it an egg or is it the moon?

The verdict.

I don’t know whether the Tudors had their own version of the runny egg debate or not, but my personal taste is soft boiled eggs over hard boiled. The phrase “lette [the yolks] harden a lyttle” made me suspect the author intended a combination of both. However, the idea of lapping up a syrup of rose water and runny egg yolk made me feel a bit sick, so I’d made sure the yolk would be hard throughout when I cut into it.

Turns out the runniness of the yolk was the least of my problems. Without a doubt, this was The Worst. Worse than the goat, worse than the rabbit, worse than the custard pudding. It was the worst thing I, or you, have ever tried. Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever eaten? It was worse than that.

No, that’s not hyperbole. The first flavour to hit you was just: burnt. But what was burnt? The syrup was still see through without even a hint of gold in it. The egg yolk was yellow with nary a tinge of black round the edge. It was a mystery. Once the bitter burnt taste had subsided the next flavour to wage a full assault on the tastebuds was rose water. But, like, rose water on steroids. Maybe the heating process had altered the chemicals in the liquid or maybe that’s just what happens when you eat a huge spoonful of hot rose water. I don’t know and wasn’t able to critically evaluate the dish because my brain disassociated itself from the reality of what was happening to my taste buds in protest and I spent several involuntary moments in my happy place instead. All I remember was: it was intense and it was horrible.

Once the bitter, burnt, flowery attack had abated, the egg reared its ugly yellow head. A weird sweetness was the first weapon in its arsenal, jarring after the acridness of the first mouthful. This was swiftly followed by a rubbery textured ball of overdone egg which announced its arrival in an overpowering puff of cinnamon. This caused me to splutter and cough, rekindling the burnt flavour lingering at the back of my throat, and sending me back into the fetal position on the kitchen floor.

When my husband had finished gagging, he turned to me and asked if I was sure this was a dish that was meant to be eaten, or just one that was meant to look pretty on the table. Clearly, something went wrong with my method because Egges in Mone Shine was absolutely intended to be consumed and was not some sort of Tudor prank (a thought that had crossed my mind as I lay recovering on the tiles.) As it was, we ate less than a quarter of the dish between us.

It might not have been a triumph, or a success in any form of the word, but at least it…actually no, I can’t think of anything positive. Like I said: it was THE WORST.

E x

Egges in Mone Shine

2 tablespoons of rose water
2 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon

  1. Heat the rose water, water and sugar together until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just coming to the boil.
  2. Gently place the yolks in the pan, trying not the break them. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes, spooning the water over the top of the yolk if necessary.
  3. Remove the yolks when cooked and place on a side dish. Continue to cook the water until a thermometer reads 110 degrees C.
  4. Pour the syrup over the eggs and sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon over them.