Recipe review: Clarified Punch or “Cup of Stars” from A Gothic Cookbook

I woke suddenly, already knowing the creature was in the room before I saw her. I kept my eyes closed, heart thumping, as the door squeaked open quietly and yet somehow with the impact of an orchestra of foghorns. The orange lamplight glow on my eyelids flickered as the beast crossed the window towards my bedside…

The stench about her was reminiscent of a city on a hot day. She stopped. I heard her paw the ground and imagined twisted claws as sharp as knives tearing through the carpet. The mattress bowed as she heaved her stinking form beside me which was when I finally mustered the courage to open one eye: Matted hair, eyes and skin and teeth glowing in the moonlight. She lunged towards me, mouth in a gaping open howl of an O and an ink-black throat that swallowed my own scream and mingled it with her wail:

“I need a pooooo!”

Okay, so it’s not going to win gothic of the year. But a terrifying midnight waking from a squitty child (mine, I should specify), a few nights ago did at least provide me with a decent opening into today’s creepy post, which comes courtesy of the creators of A Gothic Cookbook – a fully illustrated collection of recipes from some of the finest gothic stories in literature.

I was given the opportunity to try out a recipe and jumped at the chance with more excitement than Dracula at an open window. But before I reveal which recipe and book, here are a few words from Ella Buchan, one of the creatives of A Gothic Cookbook.

What is A Gothic Cookbook all about?

A Gothic Cookbook is, first and foremost, a celebration of food in Gothic literature. It’s about highlighting how authors in the genre, from the Romantic era to contemporary novelists, write evocatively about food. They use it, to varying degrees, to heighten tension, spotlight inequalities, highlight oppression, create a queasy unease, portend doom, reignite memories (warm or terrifying), or to warn of a greedy, gluttonous, dangerous nature.

So what can we expect to see?

Each of 13 chapters focuses on a Gothic tale, from Dracula and Frankenstein to Beloved and The Haunting of Hill House, and discusses how food manifests itself in that story before presenting the reader with recipes inspired by the text. From Rosemary’s Baby, for example, the mousse with the “chalky undertaste” becomes individual Chalk & Chocolate Mousses, with the dark dessert topped with peaks of white chocolate mousse and a walnut. We’ve recreated the Paprika Hendl that Jonathan Harker loved so much he jotted a note to “get recipe for Mina”, and our Rebecca chapter has chicken in aspic (from the ball) and the entire, lavish afternoon tea spread served each day (at half past four) in Manderley.

How do you decide what to include?

Each recipe is either based on a dish mentioned or described in the book, inspired by ingredients and themes that dominate in the story, or has a tale to tell about the author (such as a vermicelli dish galvanised with a lively herb sauce, in homage to Mary Shelley’s tale of being inspired by an experiment that saw a piece of pasta begin to move…)

The book will also include drinks and cocktails, from a breakfast-worthy hot chocolate (Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) to a tangerine sour based on the “bitter” segments that tried so hard to warn the second Mrs de Winter not to become the second Mrs de Winter.

We’ve also created a beautiful cocktail booklet exclusively available via the crowdfunding campaign, with libations such as this “Cup of Stars” cocktail – a nod to the famous passage in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. We chose a clarified rum punch because it has an interesting history, dating back to at least the 18th century, because it’s milk-based (like the drink the little girl loved to sip from her cup of stars), and because it’s just really delicious.

Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped
you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it…

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Design by Ounce of Style

So there you go: today’s experiment is Clarified Milk Punch, or “Cup of Stars”, inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. This recipe comes from the cocktail booklet which accompanies A Gothic Cookbook. Thank you Ella for letting me loose on your creation!

Clarified Milk Punch or Cup of Stars


4-5 green or white tea bags
200g sugar
Cinnamon stick and star anise (optional)
600ml just-boiled water
3 lemons, zest and juice
600ml rum
500ml whole milk


1. Add tea bags, sugar and spices (if using) to a medium mixing bowl or saucepan, pour over boiled water, stir, and steep for around 5-10 minutes. Fish out the tea bags and spices and add lemon zest and juice.

2. Add the rum and stir well.

3. Pour the milk into a separate, large bowl and pour the punch mixture into it, stirring well. It will curdle, as it should.

4. Leave for half an hour to 45 minutes and strain through a sieve lined with muslin cloth. This can take a while, so leave to one side and let it work its magic.

5. Strain again (through the same sieve) and repeat until beautifully clear. You can reserve the curd-like remnants for baking, mixing into cheesecake recipes, or spreading on crackers.

6. Pour into sterilised glass jars or bottles and seal tightly. The punch will keep well, unopened, in the fridge for around 2 months.

7. Serve over ice and garnished with a lemon twist, ideally in cups with stars at the bottom.

In the absence of a cup with stars on the bottom, I strew sugar stars around the plate. Bit of a mistake; the combination of milk bottle, straw and cake decorations made my 3-year old daughter think this was all for her.


This recipe makes enough for about ten servings and suggests that it should keep refrigerated, in unopened sterilised bottles, for about two months. In all honesty my husband and I made it four days into the suggested two month shelf life before we’d finished it all, such was our greed.

I used dark rum which meant my Cup of Stars was slightly more golden than it would have been if I’d used white rum, though I think either type would work well. I’ll also admit that I was too impatient to continue straining the drink until it was “beautifully clear” – I made three cycles through a muslin cloth before my impatience got the better of me, forcing me to settle on “coquettishly murky” rather than gorgeous and translucent. No matter; it still looked and tasted fantastic and after a day in the fridge the remaining cocktail had cleared to a perfectly clear straw coloured liquid.

I’m not normally a liquor fan, but this cocktail might just convert me. It was light and sweet with a refreshing lemony twist, but the rum still caught the back of my throat with its spicy, molasses-tinged heat. Beware: this might look like an innocent drink (especially if you opt to serve it in a cup with stars at the bottom!) but it packs a punch (insert your own pun about ‘seeing stars’ here.)

For more gloriously gothic recipes you need to check out A Gothic Cookbook. At the moment the book is in production, but you can bag yourself a copy – with optional extra goodies – by supporting the crowdfunder on Unbound here. And if that wasn’t good enough you can use the code GOTHSTAILS10 for 10% off pledges up to £100. The code will run until midnight on 19th August.

Oh – and you can also follow the team at A Gothic Cookbook on Twitter here to get your fix of Frankensteinian food and Drac-tastic (not a word) drinks!

E x

“A bowl of stale bread and stewed fruit keeps the doctor away…” Hydropathic pudding: 1894

It’s the start of the summer holidays, and what a year it’s been for teachers and students!

By 6pm on the last day of term I’m usually arse-deep into a profusion of cocktails of unhealthy quantities of alcohol and sugar (sorry for that image). But this year felt a bit different.

For one, it felt like a less triumphant end to term than previous years. After weeks of sanitising upon entering the classroom (“one squirt’s enough, Ryan!”), mask wearing (“for the last time, it goes over your nose, Ryan”) and learning ‘zones’, (“I don’t care if the year 7 toilet area is nicer than year 10’s, Ryan, you still can’t use it!”) the final day felt more like a hobble over the finish line rather than a victory parade. Maintaining COVID protocol and encouraging 1000 kids to as well had been truly exhausting, but somehow* our school managed to avoid the tsunami of cases that overwhelmed many other local schools by the end.

The second reason the end of term felt a little flat was because it was my last one (as a teacher at least). From September I’m off to become a student again and get my Masters. Will I return to teaching? Possibly (probably?) – it’s a career I’m passionate about and I really believe there are very few other jobs that will fulfil me like teaching did. But for now I’m going to try something else – wish me luck!

So I spent Friday evening reading my goodbye cards (“my favourite lesson was when we drew castles” – a supply lesson, as I was away that day…) and generally moping. Until my husband pointed out that with the longest summer holiday ahead of me, I had more time than ever before to focus on historical cooking.

Summer pudding…

He was right, and summer was making its presence felt with a week-long heatwave, so I decided my first foray into summer-hols-historical-cooking should be distinctly sunshiney. Summer pudding, anyone?

Summer pudding is something I remember eating once or twice as a child. I recall being in a gloriously sunny garden aged six or seven, sitting on a stripy deckchair and being handed a bowl of purple and pink bread with vanilla ice cream and thinking it was the oddest jam sandwich I’d ever seen. For the uninitiated: summer pudding is essentially stewed fruit which has been left to soak into a mould of stale bread. It should resemble a bright red/pink/purple dome which when cut into spills forth oozing summer fruits. It’s been decades since I last ate summer pudding and I’d come to associate it with other old fashioned desserts that are slowly dying out.

summer pudding with berries on blue table
The ideal, I’d say. Copyright: BBC Good Food.

Of course it’s not true that summer pudding is completely dying out; Nigella Lawson, pinnacle of modern British baking, includes an updated recipe in her most recent cookbook. Search ‘summer pudding’ in the BBC Good Food website and you’ll get a fair handful of decently reviewed recipes. But for some reason when I think of summertime desserts I think of lemon tart, choc ices and eton mess before I think of summer pudding.

Perhaps it’s the name. It’s too eager, isn’t it? Too full of hope, and if there’s one thing a Brit knows not to trust, it’s the promise of summer of any kind. So come July, we eschew summer pudding for something that can be enjoyed with less irony as the gazebo and BBQ collapse in gale force winds, and hypothermia sets upon Uncle Alan.

But as poor as it may be now, summer pudding’s branding problem is nothing compared to what it was.

…or hydropathic pudding?

Let’s be clear: summer pudding’s reputation and history is murky at best. How do you sell a dome of stale bread drenched in stewed fruit, which has spent 24 hours being squashed down by a plate laden with the heaviest kitchen objects you could find – a cafetiere of stale coffee and a bottle of ketchup balanced precariously atop a kilogram bag of sugar?

To find the first truly identifiable summer pudding reference I had to move my research to the 19th century, when summer pudding went by many different names, including the infinitely less marketable name ‘hydropathic pudding.’ Today’s experiment is from the earliest reference I could find to anything resembling summer pudding and comes from Lizzie Heritage’s 1894 work Cassell’s new universal cookery book.

Hydropathic Pudding

This has many names. It is very nice when properly prepared, and the pudding served very cold. Required: fruit, sugar, and bread. Cost, variable; generally moderate.

The nicest fruits for this are raspberries or currants, or a mixture, or strawberries, with or without a few red or black currants; plums are sometimes used. Take a plain mould, and cut a piece of bread to fit the bottom; then put fingers of bread round; the sides should be bevelled a little so that they overlap and prevent the escape of the fruit. The latter is stewed with enough sugar, and poured in, and a cover of bread put on. A plate with weights on is put on the top, and the pudding put in a cold place to set.

Another way is to line the mould, and then fill up with layers of bread and fruit; and if the bread is cut very thinly, this will be generally liked better than the first mode, as there is less fruit, and it suits the majority better. For a plainer dish a basin may be used, and slices of bread put to line it entirely; then either of the modes can be followed. These should be turned out with care, and may be served plain, or with a simply made custard. They are useful for those who cannot take pastry or rich puddings, and for children.”

Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book, 1894.

As you can see, the recipe above is almost identical to summer puddings today, further cementing my feelings that it was a very old fashioned dessert. But I wondered: if nothing had changed, ingredients wise, then why the name swap?

References to “those who cannot take pastry” and the suggestions to serve it plain suggest that the pudding was offered as a healthy alternative to heavier steamed puddings that were popular at the same time.

Even more compelling to the ‘healthy’ origins of summer pudding is the original name: hydropathic pudding.

Hydropathy is/was a belief that water alone can cure ailments – be it through drinking particularly pure water or through the use of water therapies like bathing. Now, no one’s disputing that getting plenty of H20 in your system is a good thing, but believing that Radox and a rubber duck will cure you of your gluten intolerance is nonsense. While immersing yourself in water will certainly alleviate certain symptoms (e.g. joint pain or muscle inflammation), it’s unlikely to actually cure you of the actual illness.

The rise and rise of hydropathy

Hydropathy experienced a boom during the 19th century thanks to Austrian farmer Vincent Preissnitz who apparently cured his own broken ribs by wrapping his chest in damp bandages and drinking a lot of water. Inspired by the seemingly miraculous healing properties that clean water, stripped down diets and regular exercise had on patients abroad, English Captain Richard Tappin Claridge popularised hydropathy in Britain.

In 1842 he published Hydropathy; or The Cold Water Cure, as practiced by Vincent Priessnitz, which was an instant hit and ran to multiple editions within a few months. Hydropathy dealt mainly with the various forms of bath invalids could take**, but one chapter explained the diet that hydropathic spas should offer to their customers.

Ah, bottom left corner – my favourite: stand on a balcony wearing a sheet, looking into a bath.

Unsurprisingly, Claridge recommended a diet of water and cold foods. He explicitly stated that hot food or food that had “stimulating properties” such as spices or rich sauces should not be served. Furthermore, he states that the ideal breakfast consist of bread, cold milk (or water), and fruit. Fruit should be eaten cold and regularly, but only the types of fruit that grow naturally in Britain; according to Claridge, exotic fruits were often particularly juicy “to refresh the blood [of those who are] parched up by a burning sun” which is hardly an issue in Britain, so fruits such as mango or pineapple were thought to overstimulate the temperament of the average Brit, undoing the good work of previous hydropathy treatment.

Summer pudding – or rather, hydropathic pudding – fit the bill perfectly: cold, wet, bready and British summer-fruity, it must have had a prominent place on the dining tables of hydropathic spas.

But while holidays to spas were all well and good for the social elite of Europe, when it came to home dining frugal health food wasn’t something you necessarily wanted to serve to guests. Hydropathic pudding might sound enticing to someone who had survived four days on tepid mineral water and raw carrots, but in real life – where the cakes and buns exist – it just sounded… naff.

Hence the name change; by the early 20th century, hydropathic pudding had fallen out of recipe books and had been replaced with identical instructions for summer pudding instead, which was infinitely more appetizing and far less reminiscent of urine-filled pools and eggy smelling water.

Today’s experiment

Whatever you want to call it, the 1894 recipe I followed was delicious. Yes, I had to pour over extra syrup when I turned it out because not all the bread had soaked the juice up. And yes, I did get a tiny bit of ketchup on the bottom of my pudding because someone hadn’t screwed the cap on properly before I used it as a weight. But despite this, my summer pudding was divine: tart and sweet, spongy and, above all, summery.

I stuck mostly to blackcurrants and raspberries as per Heritage’s instructions and added a couple of extra layers of bread inside the pudding itself as she suggested, which went down very well. Rather than plain, as I suspect Claridge would have liked, we ate ours with clotted cream – healthiness be damned.

Would I make it again? Absolutely, and to be honest I don’t know why I don’t make it every summer. Perhaps it’s because it takes a little bit longer than other desserts because it has to be left for quite a while to soak. Perhaps it’s because it seems like a bit more of a faff than ripping open a Vienetta and going to sit in the paddling pool. But I suspect, really, it’s because of the reason I mentioned before: its name is too gloaty, too self-confident; the day after I made this the heatwave ended and the heavens opened. Summer pudding indeed.

Extra juice may or may not have been poured on top…

E x

*It wasn’t really “somehow”; it was down to exhaustive, careful planning by SLT – who worked really hard to keep everyone safe – and sheer luck. Also the fact that Ryan went on holiday the last week of term helped stop the spread within year 10.

**I couldn’t not tell you about one of Claridge’s specific types of bath: the douche bath. Here, he says people can find relief for afflicted parts of the body by stripping off and exposing themselves to the “powerful action” of running water. Now, I’m sure that some people genuinely used these douche baths for purely medicinal purposes, but Claridge’s slightly disapproving instruction to stop using them “when it produces feverish excitement” and that, for some reason, the average duration of a douche bath “is from three to fifteen minutes” and that “most of the patients…are very much pleased with this part of the treatment” suggests many hydropathy spa patients weren’t finding complete relaxation from drinking twenty glasses of water a day alone…

“It’s supposed to be bad. And the worse it is, the more fun it is”: Exploring Eurovision’s predecessors

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; Some of the entrances are from the roof, on high wires. And some are through pyrotechnic flames and glitter.”

So said Shakespeare* in 1599. He was, of course, talking about Eurovision.

Now listen up, Americans, because this may be new to you (although perhaps not after Will Ferrell’s film Fire Saga.) You may have the Super Bowl “world” championships, (in which the only country that enter is the USA) but us Europeans have Eurovision.

What is Eurovision?

There’s no real way to answer that. Imagine a stage lit up with a million bulbs, all flashing with enough intensity to induce some sort of fit, even in people with no pre-existing conditions. A crew of performers wearing either matching neon fancy dress, national costume, or almost nothing at all dances with varying degrees of ease. Someone is singing with extraordinary passion about a loved one, or freedom, or ‘finding themselves’ or the battle of Waterloo. Half of the song will be in English, half of it (the most passionate half) will be in another language). Australia might or might not be there too.

At some point the performer might raise their arms up to reveal an enormous set of fully-feathered wings attached to the back of their dress. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll have a full costume change by the end of the song instead. For no discernable reason, someone will be in a human sized hamster wheel (Will Ferrell was right about that, at least).

Half way through the song the key will change. Thirty seconds later it will change again. If the singer is a woman the key will continue to rise until she is sure to break every pane of glass in the stadium. Someone will be playing the piano or saxophone, despite the fact they clearly can’t. Impossibly muscle-y men will writhe onto the stage, covered in oil, and the singer will awkwardly stroke one of them, like a pet owner stroking a puppy.

A naked man in full body paint might run across the stage with a political message daubed onto his chest but in his exuberance he’ll have run too fast and no one will be able to work out what his message was. At this point, everyone will stop watching the show and will turn to Twitter. Then a glitter cannon explodes, signalling the end of the song and covering the frenzied audience in a billion gold dust particles before the whole thing starts again with a new set of performers.

Now imagine all of that crammed into 3 minutes. And the stage is on fire/rotating/projecting lasers (pick at least two.)

That’s Eurovision.

Photograph of performance of "Love Love Peace Peace" at the 2016 grand final: Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw perform on stage surrounded by performers dressed in costumes of past Eurovision acts
Grannies, demons, topless drummers, sexy milkmaids and a white grand piano: classic Eurovision.
Credit Albin Olsson

I need a lie down

It’s the greatest night of the year. Almost 200 million people from across Europe tune in to give the UK nil points and make pseudo-intellectual comments about political voting (oh, look – Cyprus gave Greece 12 points? Would never have seen that coming!) This year, post-Brexit, promises to be super successful for us in the UK.

But is this crazy, bright, brilliant night a 20th century invention, or are its roots much older?

Well, they’re older, obviously – or else what would be the point of this post?

Today I’m taking a quick tour of singing contests of Europe’s history to see how well Eurovision would have fitted in with events of the past.

The Pythian Games: Ancient Greece

Let’s start with a familiar one, shall we.

Greece has been a member of Eurovision since 1974. But before that, it had a festival of arts and entertainment all for itself.

The Pythian games were held predominately at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo. They were ranked second in importance next to the Olympics – so you could say they were a Big Deal.

Pausanias, the second century traveller and writer, gives a detailed account of what the games entailed:

The oldest contest and the one for which they first offered prizes was… the singing of a hymn to the god.

… But they say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries… refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.

They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian victory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song he sang was not of his own composition. The story is that Hesiod too was debarred from competing because he had not learned to accompany his own singing on the harp.

… At the second Pythian Festival they no longer offered prizes for events, adn hereafter gave a crown for victory. On this occasion they no longer included singing to the flute… for the tunes of the flute were most dismal…

Pausanias, Description of Greece

Pausanias’ account of the Pythian games shows a surprising number of parallels with Eurovision.

Firstly, the idea that some people are ‘too good’ for the competition. Pausanias had Orpheus, a legendary Greek poet and musician who clearly felt the Pythian games were beneath him. In 2009 the UK had Rita Ora – a then relatively unknown singer who was selected to represent the country at the competition but pulled out, later saying “Imagine! If I’d stayed, it would probably have been all over for me. At best, I’d be a contestant on that diving show…?’ Splash!?”

Cesare Gennari Orfeo.jpg
Orpheus – too good for the Pythian games, but was he good enough for Eurovision?

Of course Orpheus and Ora might be right – singing competitions can be a bit naff and Eurovision especially has a reputation for humiliating acts that take themselves too seriously.

Still, ABBA did OK out of it…

Secondly, Pausanias alludes to certain rules – that contestants were supposed to compose their own songs and perform them with accompaniments.

Technically a performer can enter Eurovision without any instruments other than their voice, but they wouldn’t stand a chance. As for the song itself, yet again there are parallels between the games and the modern day competition; the rules of Eurovision state that a song cannot be publicly released before a certain date (usually around a month or so before the main event) – meaning that it must be a new song and not a cover or performance by an established band of their own already released material.

And finally – the flutes, of which Pausanias was clearly not a fan. But neither, it seems, are the judges at Eurovision who have never, not once in the history of the competition, allowed purely instrumental performances.

Sängerkrieg and Eisteddfod

Sounds like the name of a Eurovision group.

According to German literature, the Sängerkrieg was a 13th century singing contest between 6 minstrels in order to find who was best placed to sing the praises of princes. The judges were to be the Count and Countess of Thuringia. The story contains trickery, peril and wizards, so not too far off the standard Eurovision fare.

In the end a minstrel called Wolfram won the contest by singing such beautiful music about God that the devil (who had been summoned by the wizard to defeat the minstrel – do keep up) fell down, exhausted.

Whether the Sängerkrieg actually happened is murky, but what isn’t is the Eisteddfod.

The Eisteddfod is an ancient Welsh tradition of musical and literary competition where bards and performers would gather to sing it out for the privilege of being judged by the royal kings of the time.

The first documented Eisteddfod was hosted by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1176 but it’s likely the tradition stretches back further than this. In 1523 an Eisteddfod was held in Flintshire where a statute was drawn up detailing what the bards who were due to compete could and could not do. The statute stated that bards could not drink, womanize or gamble.

Rhys ap Gryffydd getting excited for the next performer.

Now I’ve never been to a backstage Eurovision party but judging by the performances I think it’s safe to assume that each one of these rules is soundly broken every year. In fact, gambling on who the winner will be though sweepstakes and bingo cards is pretty much compulsory where I am. This year, with coronavirus restrictions in place, will therefore perhaps be the first time all of the rules are adhered to.

As well as stating what the behaviour of the performers should be like, the statue also decreed that no bard worthy of his salt would perform “satirical” songs. Often political in nature, satirical songs would poke fun at the ruling classes and restrictions placed on the working people.

Clearly the powers that be were concerned with unpleasant tensions and controversial messages being spread through the performances, and the overseers of Eurovision must have similar concerns, because today every singer must operate under restrictions that prohibit songs and performances that are political or commercial.

Not that that rule is always stuck to, of course. In 2009, following conflict between Russia and Georgia, Georgia’s entry was criticised for being too anti-Putin (to make things more awkward, Russia was the host of the competition that year). When the Georgian delegates refused to change the lyrics, they were told to withdraw from the competition. In a similar way, in the sixteenth century a bard called Richard Gyyn was caught singing without a license he was accused of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and for criticising the practices of the protestant church including “certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers”.

Unfortunately for Richard it seemed Elizabeth (who feared the Welsh were plotting against her and the Church of England) wanted to make an example of his satirical songs. He was hung, drawn and quartered on 15 October 1584.

Victorian Opera

And so we arrive in Britain in the 19th century, where a new form of entertainment – full of drama, divas and divine dresses – was taking hold: opera.

If the costumes of Eurovision are extravagant then the costumes of 19th century divas were out of this world lavish. Adelina Patti, a darling of the opera scene at this time, once required a police escort at her Covent Garden performance of Verdi’s La Traviata after she had her jewellery taken apart and sewn onto the bodice of her costume – all £200,000 worth of it.

But an emphasis on the aesthetics could sometimes come at a cost to the performance itself. The French composer Berlioz commented at the time that the “music of the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more… They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.” Berlioz was famously anti-Italian in his musical choices, but his criticism of how unchallenging and vanilla opera was is echoed today by some Eurovision enthusiasts.

Now I’m not saying Eurovision attracts the same standard of critic, but every year there are murmurings online that the songs are becoming more and more ‘radio-ready’ and the performances less unique as singers use the show to launch their careers. A few years ago we had performers like Conchita Wurst and Verka Serduchka who didn’t give a damn about what they were ‘supposed’ to look and sound like – now we have mostly very conventionally beautiful people wearing very beautiful gowns singing very beautifully about the struggles of the beautiful. Close your eyes today and you might find it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins.

Of course this isn’t completely true – one or two truly wow acts stand out every year. There’s always the performer who croons a little too much to the camera, or the one whose dress design looks like she’s sucked up a muddy puddle, or the singer who reaches notes only heard by dogs.

In 1821 Giuditta Pasta played the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. Not only was her voice well received, but her showmanship held her audience absolutely captive. Her career continued after this part, with composers falling over themselves to write roles specifically for her. Even when she was too old to perform confidently, she continued to give performances with the singer Pauline Viardot commenting that Pasta was like the da Vinci painting The Last Supper: “a wreck of a picture, but it is the greatest picture in the world.”

Which brings us to the most famous Eurovision performance – one that won acclaim during the show itself but also spawned a successful career. Of course, I’m talking about ABBA.

Eurovision winners in 1974, ABBA went on to sell at least 200 million records worldwide. They are – to this day – the best selling Swedish band of all time. With eight UK number one albums and a Wikipedia page just for their awards and nominations, ABBA stands as the goal for all Eurovision entrants, proving once and for all that if you can embrace campness and novelty, Eurovision can be a career making event.

Have a happy Eurovision everyone!

So to any Americans watching for the first time – welcome. You won’t understand it all – nobody does – but if you can make it through the strobe lights, gyrating and 100 hour long voting system, you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic night. Happy Eurovision!

E x

*Seriously, people?!

No such thing as a bad sandwich?Three historical sandwiches you won’t find in a meal deal

This past week was British Sandwich Week, so in honour of this most auspicious of occasions I thought I’d try out something a little different. After all, as the saying goes: “once you tire of sandwiches, you tire of life.”

The sandwich is one of my personal favourite foods; sweet, savoury, hot or cold – there is a sandwich out there for everyone. Perhaps you’re adventurous and won’t touch anything unless it contains whopping slices of 2-day marinated meat, at least three types of mayo and some sort of “slaw”. Maybe you prefer to keep it simple with a couple of slices of cheese and, if you’re feeling particularly daring, a smear of chutney.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a chip butty, good news: they count too! We don’t discriminate in the sandwich circle. There genuinely is no bad sandwich (apart from Tesco’s no-butter, no-mayo, wafer-thin ham. Dear God, why?)

Until recently, I thought that my marriage was built on the standard values of matrimony: love, respect and a mutual adoration of picnic food. Just this morning, however, my husband confessed to me that after working from home for so long he’s come to view sandwiches as – and I quote – “a bit of a ballache to make” and has switched his lunchtime allegiance to pot noodles.

So once again I find myself in the market for a new husband. Potential suitors please apply via my contact page.

The history of sandwiches.

We know the story, right? During a game of cards, John Montagu – 4th Earl of Sandwich – was so engrossed that he asked his servants to bring him a slice of meat between bread, rather than step away from the gambling table for his dinner. Thus the humble sandwich was born.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.jpg
John Montagu mentally ranking all the sandwiches he had ever eaten.

Except that might not be 100% true. The first time this story is mentioned is in Pierre-Jean Grosley’s 1770 work A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants. Just in case his name wasn’t a giveaway, Monsieur Grosley was French, and his book was a collection of fairly dry remarks about the English.

Take, for example, his comments on trade between England and France which, were it not for the flowery language, could be straight from the pages of a post-Brexit trade agreement today:

…Whilst England draws articles of importance from France, such as wines, silks, etc., she supplies the French in return with nothing but trifles of little or no value.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

The origin of the sandwich itself is treated in fairly understated terms, considering how popular it would become. Grosely seemed more concerned with the fact it was being used as a means to allow “destructive” habits to continue:

The English, who are profound thinkers, violent in their desires, and who carry all their passions to excess, are altogether extravagant in the article of gaming: several rich noblemen are said to have ruined themselves by it… A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, without ever quitting the game.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

Of course this quote does rather beg the question: did he use the toilet at all in that 24 hours?

Grosley’s story could of course be completely true, but it could also be a dig at the slovenly ways of the English: too addicted to gambling to rise from their card games and too vulgar to appreciate anything more sophisticated than hunks of meat in bread.

The second problem with Grosley’s story is that it appears 8 years after the first literary reference to sandwiches. In the 1762 Journal of Edward Gibbon, he mentions men at a club dining on sandwiches:

“I dined at the Cocoa Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”

Journal of Edward Gibbon.

So either Grosley got his dates wrong and was recounting an earlier story, or he wasn’t witness to the creation of the very first sandwich after all.

So no sandwiches before the 18th century?

Though the term ‘sandwich’ might be an 18th century invention, putting meat, or cheese, or veg into bread isn’t. In fact, it’s not even an English invention.

Every culture has its own version of the sandwich, and the origins of using bread to hold a filling is probably as old as bread itself – in which case we’re talking neolithic, some some 12,000 years ago.

The 1st century Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder instituted the eating of a ‘sandwich’ using matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover. By eating this sandwich – called korech – he said that Jewish people would experience the taste of both the bitterness of slavery and sweetness of freedom.

Ancient Babylonian cylinders also show depictions of flatbreads with meat on top of them in what Cathy Kaufman suggests may have been forerunners of souvlaki sandwiches. Historians A.W. Lassen, E. Frahm and K. Wagensonner highlight a humorous cuneiform text known as “The Infernal Kitchen” which contains an allusion to bread with a filling:

Month of Šabaṭu, what is your food?
– You shall eat still hot bread with the buttock of a donkey stallion stuffed with dog excrement and the excrement of dust flies.

A literal shit sandwich.*

Ancient Babylonians debating the merits of margarine over butter.
Photo by Nic McPhee.

As the authors point out, this ‘recipe’ is not a real one, but one that combines authentic elements with ridiculous ones to create a semi-satirical commentary on food preparation and reliance on seasonal ingredients.

Please don’t make that.

You just can’t get hold of donkey buttock anymore.

Anyway, in honour of British Sandwich Week I decided to make three sandwiches that you don’t see on cafe menus anymore.

For ease and clarity I’ve decided to use only recipes that refer to sandwiches – rather than meat on flatbread or cheese stuffed rolls or the like.

Cheshire Sandwich

The first is found in John Farley’s 1811 work The London Art of Cookery and is called a Cheshire Sandwich.

TAKE anchovies, Cheshire cheese, and butter, in equal proportions; made mustard to the palate; pound well in a marble mortar, and with this composition spread thin slices of bread, and cover with thin slices of any kind of cold meat, and again with bread, & cut into shapes.

The London Art of Cookery

This actually didn’t sound too bad at all. In fact, it sounded like something I would choose to eat already – and had. A week ago or so I attempted a WW1 version of this (almost identical except for the meat), and it was very pleasant. Salty and very savoury, this was a sandwich I was looking forward to.

I chose beef as my cold meat in honour of the Earl of Sandwich but honestly I think I would have preferred it without. The beef just added another flavour to what was already a pretty bold palate and I’m not 100% sure it all worked together. 6/10.

Toast Sandwich

The next sammie was from the trustiest Victorian stalwart of all: Mrs Beeton.

A few years ago I went out to lunch with a friend who ordered a hash brown sandwich with bread sauce on the side. At the time I made fun of her carbohydrate obsession. But it turns out her love of carbs may have had a Victorian precedent:

Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.

The Book of Household Management

I mean, Beeton had given up by that point in the book, hadn’t she? I imagined her writing this recipe out as a dare, chuckling to herself as she wondered which idiot – which unsophisticated, dullen palated dunce – would bother making a bread sandwich?

Anyway, I popped a slice of bread into the toaster and then tried to forget about it until it had gone cold – an easy feat as I’m a mum to a toddler; I can’t remember the last time I got to eat something straight away.

This was not terrible, but definitely not what I’d call a sandwich. It was just three slices of salty bread – one of them slightly crunchier than the other – with butter. Decent, but not delicious. 4/10.

Dandelion leaves and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

Leave the weirdest til last, right?

This recipe is from Florence White’s Good Things in England and is a recipe she claims dates to 1929.

Thin slices of nicely buttered white bread, with just a speck of Worcester sauce spread on them, sprinkled thickly with finely chopped young dandelion leaves, and covered with a thin slice of brown bread and butter.

Good Things in England

Finally – an excuse not to cut the lawn! Dandelion leaves get bitter as they age so choosing young leaves was important here. I managed to grab a soggy handful from the garden that seemed small and fresh and onto a Worcester sauce specked slice of bread they went.

This was an odd one. It wasn’t unpleasant but butter was the main taste, with a very green, quite bitter herbal aftertaste at the back of my throat. Perhaps my leaves weren’t as young as I’d thought. 5/10.

L to R: Cheshire, Dandelion leaf, Toast.
I haven’t added the second layer of bread in order to show off these highly photogenic fillings.

No such thing as a bad sandwich?

I still stand by this – sandwiches are the greatest invention of all time and unless you hate sandwiches and only like boring, butterless, plastic cheese on plastic bread type things you really can’t go wrong.

Were these sandwiches ‘perfect’? No, not even close. No sooner had I finished my dandelion lead concoction I made a peanut butter and golden syrup sandwich for pudding and to get the slightly bitter taste out of my mouth. And as I munched on that delicious bready treat I realised that maybe not every sandwich was meant to be perfect; maybe some are there to remind us of the really great sandwiches of our past, and encourage us to keep searching for the truly remarkable sandwiches of our futures.

E x

*I also toyed with a joke about “ass ass”.

Dandelion and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

A handful of young dandelion leaves
A slice of brown bread and a slice of white bread
Worcester sauce

  1. Butter a slice of white bread and shake a few drops of Worcester sauce on top.
  2. Wash and finely chop your dandelion leaves and strew them over the buttered bread.
  3. Butter a slice of brown bread and place on top.

Toast Sandwich

3 slices of bread
Salt and Pepper

  1. Toast one slice of bread
  2. While waiting, butter the other slices of bread.
  3. Once the bread has toasted, let it cool and then roll it out thinly with a rolling pin.
  4. Sprinkle the toast with salt and pepper, and lay in between the slices of buttered bread.

Cheshire Sandwich

3 anchovies
A handful of grated cheshire cheese
A tablespoon of butter
A slice of meat
Mustard powder

  1. Pound the anchovies into a paste in a pestle and mortar.
  2. Add the mustard, cheese and butter and then mix to combine and form a smooth paste.
  3. Spread this on a slice of bread and then top with a slice of meat.
  4. Butter another slice of bread and lay on top.

New kid on the (writer’s) block: A history of writer’s block through food

Here’s a funny joke: writer’s block when you’re not a writer.

I know I write but as I don’t do it for a living I really thought I’d get only the fun and none of the pain with this hobby.

For a week or so I’ve been wracking my brains: could I write about the history of spoons? Seasonal vegetables? Dare I attempt another goat recipe? Nothing captured my attention and the more I tried to sit down and get something – anything – down, the more I found myself sinking miserably into season 6 of Schitt’s Creek instead.

So in true writer’s cliche style I’m attempting to break my writer’s block by writing about writer’s block and its relationship to food. Feel free to switch off now because I’m pretty sure this will be painful to write and even more painful to read.

Have you tried going for a long walk?

Yep. It didn’t work.

In fact I walked all the way back to ancient Greece, figuring that the culture which developed Western philosophies and art could surely shed some light on my congested creativity.

Ancient philosophers weren’t only writing to be read, they were writing to be heard, too. Plato wasn’t standing on his soapbox spontaneously spouting out his beliefs about mankind and nature; rhetoricians constructed their arguments beforehand so as to be most convincing and engaging before they gave their speeches.

Jonathan wished Dave wouldn’t get so lairy at these things.

This made for a polished speech, but it meant that ancient writers didn’t grapple with the notion of writer’s block in the way we do today. Firstly, as Irene Clark points out, speakers would be addressing current events or topics with a view to ‘solving’ issues and were therefore imbued with a sense of purpose beyond really wanting people to know about the history of spoons.

Secondly, and in terms of creative writing rather than speechwriting, how people viewed ideas and inspiration was different to how we do today. For many, inspiration was a gift from the muses – you were either worthy enough of this gift or you weren’t. Great creative writing was therefore divinely ordained and nothing to do with a mortal’s ability to imagine new ideas and convert those ideas into writing.

If we were back in Ancient Greece my malaise – or its symptoms – would probably be classed as ‘melancholy’ – a humoral diagnosis that school textbooks will tell you meant depression but also covered more general lethargy, wistfulness and restlessness too. This term was coined by the 5th century BC physician Hippocrates who noted that bouts of melancholia were more likely in springtime, along with “epileptic disorders, bloody flux, quinsy, coryza, hoarseness, cough[s] [and] leprosy…” …Yay.

Though Hippocrates had no cure for writer’s block per se, he did recommend a cure for “anxiety, yawning [and] rigor” which was to drink a glass of wine mixed with an equal amount of water. However, I decided that my case was so great that I could probably forgo the water.

Winebottle in hand, I sat down to see if there was any other ancient wisdom that could help me.

Seneca, the 1st century CE philosopher wrote about feelings of ennui which were perhaps closer to my emotions than melancholy.

Who Is Seneca? Timeless Wisdom from the World's Most Controversial Stoic
It took a team of four strong men to bathe Seneca.

“Here comes…a thousand waverings of the unsteadfast mind, which is held in suspense by unfulfilled hopes, and saddened by disappointed ones: hence comes the state of mind of those who loathe their idleness [and] complain that they have nothing to do.”

While I’m not sure I could describe an unwritten blog post on the history of spoons as an “unfulfilled hope held in suspense”, the sentiment was there – my mind was idle. So what was Seneca’s remedy?

“Occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs and the duties of a citizen… to benefit individual men and mankind alike, both with intellect, voice and advice.”

I’d never thought of my blog benefitting the whole of mankind before, but I had to admit my chest puffed up a bit when I read Seneca’s words. The whole of mankind, eh? Well, when you put it like that…

Nice to see your ego hasn’t been affected by this block

Shut up, inner voice.

Trouble was, Seneca was a Stoic who believed that food was just a vehicle to stop hunger. He advocated for a very simple diet and turned his nose up at over indulgent or rich foods. Even more, he suggested that luxurious eating could cause certain illnesses and argued that to seek out expensive and lavish food rather then eat what was cheap, simple and readily available was the real sign of mental imbalance: “A hankering after delicacies is a sign of self-indulgence; by the same token, avoidance of those comforts that are quite ordinary and easy to obtain is an indication of insanity”.

The trend of linking food and melancholy continued through the ages. By the 15th century, scholars such as Marsilio Ficino ruled out certain foods which were believed to bring on bouts of melancholy, such as “burned food” and “old cheese”. No hardship to avoid these, but instructions to abstain from fried food, rich food and wine might be slightly harder to stick to.

And then, in the 17th century, something quite remarkable happened – the first full length look at melancholy as a subject in its own right.

In 1621, English writer Robert Burton published a book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Or to give it its full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. Which would have intrigued me, had I not been suffering from melancholy and lost the will to read on half way through the first title-sentence.

The Anatomy of Melancholy - Wikipedia

Luckily for me, Jonathan Sadowsky (a medical historian at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio) has read and dissected Burton’s work, which was so popular that it was republished multiple times over the first few decades of its existence. Like me, Burton wrote about melancholy “by being busy to avoid melancholy”.

Burton thought of melancholy as something more than an imbalance and viewed it as a deeply complex range of emotions, including “…heaviness or vexation of spirit…and lumpish[ness]” Again, there was no reference to writer’s block specifically but after a quick glance in the mirror I had to admit that after a week of consolatory biscuits my ‘lumpishness’ could not be denied. Perhaps his book was what I needed after all.

“Member II” of the book contained a list of foods to avoid if trying to get over a bout of melancholy/lumpishness. A long list. A very long list. If you have time you can read the full list here but the headlines include beef, pork, goat (thank God), venison, rabbit, milk, chicken, fish, cucumber, cabbage, melon, ALL FRUIT, ALL PULSES, honey, ginger, pepper, sugar, bread made of anything but wheat, wine and beer.

T’would appear Burton’s remedy for lumpishness was starvation.

Getting off topic…

By the 18th and 19th centuries, writers were back on the idea that inspiration could be given or blocked by unknown forces.

In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month – O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!”

English Romantics like Coleridge were pretty aware of the effects of writer’s block but had no definitive way to cure it, other than sighing despondently and looking out of rainy windows. I’ve tried both, neither works.

But writing just after the time of the English Romantics, the British doctor George Blandford may have had some idea of how to cure the poets’ ailments:

“Before getting out of bed in the morning, [nervous or depressed patients should drink] rum and milk, or egg and sherry; breakfast of meat, eggs, and café au lait, or cocoa; beef tea, with a glass of port, at eleven o’clock; and a good dinner or lunch at two, with a couple of glasses of sherry; at four, some more beef-tea, or an equivalent; at seven, dinner or supper, with stout and port wine; and at bed-time, stout or ale, with the chloral or morphia.”

I’ve actually tried beef tea before and let me tell you: never again. Nevertheless I felt it was at least worth exploring the medical properties of Blandford’s multi-course regime of alcohol and meaty dinners.

Sadly for pre 20th century writers, it wasn’t until 1947 that writer’s block even had a name. Coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, the idea of suffering from lack of inspiration or motivation became less about airy fairy ideas of tortured artists denied by gods, and more about science.

Edmund Bergler
No you’re not imagining it – he is judging you.

Amazingly, Bergler also believed that writer’s block was inherently linked to food – of a kind. A huge Freudian theorist, Bergler argued that writer’s block was caused by mothers who refused or were unable to breastfeed their babies. Trapped by rage towards their mothers, people who grew up to suffer writer’s block were – in Bergler’s mind – experiencing a physical representation of the emotional starvation they had experienced as children.

“I have never seen a ‘normal’ writer” Bergler declared. All writers were, to him, megalomaniacs “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life.” Moreover, he wrote that “every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.”


So are you still blocked?

Who knows. Maybe that spoons post will see the light of day, maybe not. At the end of this all I know is three things:

  1. Writer’s block, or the associated emotions, are not new.
  2. Despite the literally thousands of years people have had to figure it out, no one has come up with a watertight solution to it.
  3. I probably shouldn’t mention this post to my mum without deleting Bergler’s comments first.

And on that note, I’m out.

E x

“Tinder for the 20th century” Dumb Cake: 1911

Yesterday was the 24 April – St Mark’s Eve.

Normally I don’t keep track of whichever saint we are celebrating on whatever day, but a Twitter post by Foods of England made me sit up and take notice of St Mark.

Just Mark, sitting on a lion while a disembodied hand waves at him from above.

Because, you see, St Mark’s Eve is the chance of a year for women to see into their own future, in a limited sort of way. Specifically, it’s a chance for unmarried women to get a glimpse of their future husbands through the use of *~*ritual magic*~*.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m already married. And while that may be true, the opportunity to check that there wasn’t a future husband out there was too good to pass up. Perhaps one who was willing to build me a replica Roman kitchen in our garden rather than moaning about “building regulations” and “fire hazards” and “parental responsibility to spend our money on school shoes instead” blah blah blah…

The ritual

According to Foods of England there are a few versions of Dumb Cake and the ritual that goes with it. The name may come from the Middle English word “doom” which originally meant “fate” or “judgement” – as in the Domesday Book (sometimes spelled Doomsday).

Anyway, the basic principals of the ritual were the same: unmarried girls had to bake some sort of cake together in silence. They would either eat the cake themselves or give it to another girl to eat, and that night would dream of the man they were to marry.

Cake before bed was an idea I could get behind. Though there seemed to be a few versions of the cake, many of them had missing ingredients or required the use of more girls than my family of 3 could accommodate.

In the end I settled on the 1911 recipe from Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District by Charles Dick. It seemed most appropriate – a complete (if very plain) recipe requiring the use of only 2 girls and, as Peterborough is not that far from me, semi-local.

Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future.

Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm.

Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken.

Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.‘ by Charles Dick (1911)

The process

I had to make peace with the prospect that this might not work. Firstly, I was married and in every case the ritual stressed it was for unmarried girls. Secondly I intended to rope my husband into helping me; the recipe said it should be two girls making it, but I thought that he might appreciate the chance at seeing if there was a future husband for him too.

As the recipe made it clear the girls should go to bed as soon as the cake had been baked and eaten we decided to make it relatively late, so as not to waste our evening. Personally, I’d have quite liked an evening of silence.

We began by finding things we had never stood on before. I chose two books and spent much of the following hour slowly descending into the splits as the books slid further apart on the tiles. My husband, being a bit more practically minded, put one foot in a gift bag and one foot in a bag of our daughter’s toy blocks.

He was very smug about this. I mean, he couldn’t say anything, obviously, but the whole time we were cooking he just radiated smugness.

Then we began our cake in silence. Together we scrubbed a bowl and dried it. We each put a spoon of flour, a spoon of water and a pinch of salt into the bowl and mixed it up to a dough.

We rolled the dough out and shaped it into a circle. Then we scored it down the centre with a knife and added our initials to each side. The cake (although let’s be honest – it was bread dough really) was baked for 12 minutes while we shuffled around each other without saying a word and trying to make as little noise as possible. Of course within three minutes I’d slipped off my book-shoes and pulled a pile of plates off the side as I fell.

Once it was cooked we took it out of the oven together and very solemnly broke it in half. We ate our halves in silence, then, walking backwards, made our way upstairs (if you’ve never walked up steps backwards you’d be surprised at how tricky it is. I looked like a broken marionette, exaggeratedly lifting each leg because I couldn’t judge the step height.)

When the cake’s this plain, how good a husband are you hoping to attract?

But did it work?

This morning the first thing I asked my husband was what he’d dreamed of. His reply was “you”. Lovely, I thought.



“We were having an argument, and I decided I didn’t want to be married to you anymore.”


My outcome was equally disappointing. Rather than a dashing prince, or an exciting adventurer (or even my current husband I guess I should add), I dreamed of Jim Henson. You know, the guy who invented the Muppets and who passed away in 1990.

Trouble was, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Jim Henson, so what I actually dreamed was that I met a man in a full body banana suit – like the ones people run in for charity – who told me he was Jim Henson.

Bloody dumb cake indeed.

E x

“Your worthiness is the result of chance”: Kanasu Broth c. 1700 BC

Language is a funny thing. Most of us know what good writing looks like, but few of us can actually write good.

That’s partly because writing is so subjective; what’s funny, moving, interesting to one person is awkward, vapid, dull to another (apart from the work of Terry Pratchett which is universally fantastic.)

Sumerian is the oldest written language and was spoken in regions of ancient Mesopotamia. Clay tablets dating as far back as 3200 BCE have been found bearing Sumerian writing and, like the writing of the late great Sir Pratchett, much of the content found on the various tablets is pretty inspiring:

“A heart never created hatred; speech created hatred.” “Fate is a raging storm blowing over the land.” “A good word is a friend to numerous men.”

When the writing wasn’t being insightful it was being practical.

“Putting unwashed hands to one’s mouth is disgusting.” “Before the fire has gone out, write your exercise tablet!” (guess kids have always resisted doing their homework). “The owner of a house should reinforce the windows against burglars.”

But just to balance it out so that no-one became too self-confident or capable, the Mesopotamians also had language to remind you of your place in society.

“Your worthiness is the result of chance.” “Your role in life is unknown.” “The battle-club would not find your name – it would just find your flesh.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a civilisation so adept at putting ink to paper – or more accurately stylus to clay – would go hard when writing recipes.

Not quite.

Kanasu Broth

Leg of mutton is used. Prepare water add fat. Samidu; coriander; cumin; amd kanasu. Assemble all the ingredients in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed garlic. Then blend into the pot suhutinnu and mint.

Recipe 23, tablet A. The Babylonian Collection at Yale University.

So why so brief? Let’s break it down.

Firstly, Ancient Mesopotamians were writing on clay tablets, not papyrus or paper. Because the letters were pushed and embedded into the clay, rather than scratched on, each tablet had to be fresh and pliable before writing. This meant that someone had to make the tablet and carve out the stylus before any writing could occur.

Secondly, the script used was cuneiform. This script (which was developed by the Sumerians), underwent a huge number of transitions during a 2000 year period (3000 BCE – 1000 BCE), developing from pictograms to glyphs to horizontal and vertical wedge shaped lines. Recipe 23 dates to about 1700 BCE, placing it in the middle of the Old Babylonian era, and uses cuneiform script but is written in the ancient language of Akkadian.

The Akkadians were another Mesopotamian civilisation who, according to linguist Guy Deutscher, developed a culturally symbiotic relationship with the Sumerians which included widespread bilingualism. By 1700 BCE, Akkadian had just about taken over Sumerian as the main spoken language of Mesopotamia, but Sumerian cuneiform script continued to be used. However, Sumerian was structurally inconsistent to Akkadian. To combat this, (and save time developing a brand new script), the Akkadians began to write out their texts phonetically using the Sumerian cuneiform symbols that most closely corresponded to the Akkadian sounds.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Akkadian cuneiform was also pretty wild to look at. As time went on the Akkadians altered cuneiform script into highly abstract versions of the original pictograms, some of which contained as many as 20 separate marks. Furthermore, some of the signs could be read either logographically or syllabically, making their true meaning more difficult to decipher.

This is confusing.

Basically it boils down to this: cuneiform script could be relatively time consuming to copy out and the meanings could be pretty unclear.

Also, recipe writing simply wasn’t that important to Mesopotamians, be they Sumerian or Akkadian. As Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson point out, most ancient texts dealt with numeracy and were quantitative in nature, focusing on administrative matters; wages, accounts and contract. How to make the perfect pavlova or a lasagne to wow the in-laws just wasn’t a major part of the Mesopotamian literature.

That’s not to say that Mesopotamian food was simple, far from it. In fact, you could argue that the annoyingly sparse succinct nature of the recipe suggests that Mesopotamian cooks were so adept that they knew, as standard, what phrases like “prepare water add fat” meant without needing extra hints and tips.

In addition to this the Mesopotamians enjoyed an abundance of fruit and vegetables, baked over 300 types of bread and made many types of cheese. They recorded their bounty on stelai and relief panels which show fruits like pomegranate, apricots and apples, vegetables such as radishes, lettuces and leeks, and meat including wild fowl, goat and cattle – hardly the range of inexperienced chefs.

Babylonian relief carving. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock
“Do you serve chips though?”

The problem for modern historians trying to recreate these recipes, though, is that we don’t share their common knowledge. Knowing that the ancient Mesopotamians were experienced cooks who could understand the nuances of “prepare water add fat” was all well and good, but I still ended up in my kitchen boiling five kettles just in case and having a breakdown over whether to use lard, butter or olive oil.

And what the hell was samidu? Kanasu? Suhutinnu? Even Waitrose didn’t sell these ingredients (and they stock seven different types of salt and pepper!)

“Hey Google, translate ancient Akkadian”

Google translate was no help at all. It failed to detect any translation for samidu, told me that suhutinnu meant “mouthwash” and that kanasu was a “dream”. Reluctantly I accepted that I was going to have to do some proper research.

The authority on Mesopotamia was Jean Bottéro. He wrote the first book on cooking in Mesopotamia, The Oldest Cuisine in the World, and provided translations for some of the words found in the recipes.

Bottéro translated the samidu and suhutinnu as allium vegetables, like leeks or shallots. However, the food historian Laura Kelley believes that some of Bottéro’s translations are incorrect, and that rather than being a vegetable, samidu was more like semolina.

Her argument for this is based on similar words from nearby regions: The Syrians used the word semida to mean “fine meal”. The Greek word semidalis meant “the finest flour”. And “a fine flour [was] called semida in the Talmud (Pesachim 74b, Shabbat 110b, Moed Katan 28a.)” Similarly, Kelley argues that the word semida “is the Targum Yonatan translation for solet – also meaning “fine flour”.” The University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary also defines semidu as semolina.

Kelley translates suhutinnu as some kind of root vegetable, but cannot be more specific. She suggests carrot, turnip or parsnip (but not an allium) based on the fact that tablets tell us nothing more than suhutinnu is “dug up”.

Bottéro gave no translation for the word kanasu (other than “a kind of edible plant”, which doesn’t really narrow it down), but Kelley believes it refers to emmer wheat flour. Emmer was one of the earliest crops domesticated in the Near East, growing naturally throughout the Fertile Crescent before domestication.

This amazing document is a field plan of a property in the Sumerian city Umma showing the acreage of each parcel of land. c. 2100 BC – 2001 BC

Making Kanasu Broth.

I gathered my ingredients: mutton was sourced at a local farm shop (I had to get diced rather than a full leg), emmer wheat was bought from a specialist mill, and semolina was found lurking on a back shelf in Waitrose, resentfully eyeing the more commercially successful rice pudding grains.

But how to cook it?

In his book A History of Food in 100 Recipes, William Sitwell points out that when the collected recipes are examined together, myriad cooking techniques are mentioned: “slicing, squeezing, pounding, steeping, shredding, marinating and even straining.” He suggested that despite the thousands of years separating us from the ancients, cooking techniques and food preparation hadn’t changed all that much.

So I followed my gut. Would I want to eat meat boiled in water without having been seared first? Not really; searing helps build flavour. I assumed, then, that the ancient Mesopotamians had a similar thought process.

With the meat seared and set aside I began work on the water and fat. Assuming I was making a stew rather than a broth after all, I added just 200ml of water to a pan .

The fat mentioned in the recipe was likely to have been sheep tail fat, which I couldn’t find anywhere at all at short notice, so I used olive oil. I figured that since olives had been cultivated in Mesopotamia from around 5000 years ago it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility that oil might have been used in place of animal fat when needed.

As the water and oil mixture heated, I crushed coriander and cumin seeds with a pestle and mortar and mixed the spices with semolina and emmer flour. Then the whole lot was tipped into the water and oil mixture and stirred to prevent lumps.

Once the sauce had thickened a little, I returned the browned meat to the pot. I added crushed garlic, sliced parsnips and a handful of mint and then let the whole thing cook on a low heat for just over an hour.

Final thoughts.

This meal was probably intended for the wealthy. The ingredients and tools needed (knives, caldrons, mills or grinders), to make it suggest it was probably cooked in palace or temple kitchens, rather than bog standard houses. Though literacy among Mesopotamians wasn’t just the domain of rich men, the idea that ordinary people would see the value in writing out recipes such as this just for personal use is also far fetched.

And the food itself? Delicious! Far more stew like than broth in my opinion, which I actually preferred. The mutton gave it a stronger flavour than lamb, but it wasn’t too dissimilar. The mint worked exceptionally well (who would have thought that the lamb/mint combo stretched back so far?!) and the spices were subtle enough to add depth, but not so overpowering that they drowned out the other flavours. In fact, I could probably have added half a teaspoon more than I did.

If you’d like to watch how I made this then please see the video below (and hang around til the end where I attempt a visual joke that made my husband declare he would “divorce me within 20 years” when he saw my preparations for it.)

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Kanasu broth

500g (1 pound) of mutton or lamb (I used diced but the original recipe refers to a leg. I give instructions below for both methods but if you are using a 1kg (2 pound) leg of lamb you will need to double the rest of the ingredients.)
200ml (6.7 fl. oz.) water
2 tablespoons of flour (any type will do)
1 tablespoon of semolina (or another tablespoon of flour if you can’t find semolina)
1 parsnip
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
Handful of mint

  1. Sear the meat in a pan if using diced meat. (If using a full 1kg leg, cut holes in it and rub with olive oil and salt before roasting in an oven at 220C / 200C / gas mark 7 / 425F for about 45 minutes and then skip ahead to step 3. Remember to double the quantities for the rest of the ingredients!)
  2. When the meat is browned, remove it from the pan.
  3. Add the water and oil to the pan and heat.
  4. Grind the coriander and cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar and then add the flour and semolina to them. Grind everything together and then add to the water and oil. Keep stirring! (If cooking a leg, skip to step 6.)
  5. As the sauce thickens, add the diced meat back to the pan to allow it to cook through.
  6. Chop the parsnip into chunks and add it, along with the garlic and some torn mint, to the pan.
  7. Cover the pan with a lid and cook on a low heat for about an hour if using diced lamb or until the leg of lamb is cooked if using a leg. Keep checking on it regularly to stir it and add more water if it gets too thick.
  8. Serve! (If using a leg of lamb allow the lamb to rest for 15 minutes or so after cooking before pouring the sauce over it.)

Easter bunnies and Killer Hares

Do you know what’s one subject you don’t want to take at GCSE if you’re not very good at it?


Unfortunately for 15 year old me, all my friends wanted to do art and I wasn’t very good at the alternative option either (Design Technology – I think the exam had something to do with birdhouses, or ashtrays, or ashtrays for birdhouses?) so art it was.

Big mistake. In French I could mumble my way through the verbs I’d spent my weekend not revising. I could play with enough enthusiasm during music lessons that my teachers didn’t mind that most of the notes were wrong. But art? Each week I’d have to pin my feeble attempts at fruit bowls on my easel for all to see. And worse still, everyone else’s attempts (which were also pinned up at the end of each lesson) were always so much better.

“You have a very medieval way of drawing people”, my teacher told me once.

“Is that good?” I asked hopefully.

“It’s certainly… distinctive.”

I dropped art as soon as I could, but my teacher’s comments stayed with me and a couple of years later I applied to study medieval history at university, citing the moment I realised I had a “medieval” style of drawing as the moment I realised I was interested in medieval history.

What has this got to do with Easter?

Today’s post is basically just a way for me to prove my art teacher wrong by making my shoddy drawings the star of the show. But I’ve cunningly disguised that fact by pretending it’s all about the festive topic of the Easter bunny.

The Easter bunny’s origins are a bit vague. A commonly held belief is that as abundantly fertile animals, rabbits represent new life which ties in nicely with the religious message of Easter, but it’s really not as simple as that.

Our modern bunny is a commercial creature with his soft floppy ears and non-threatening, chocolate-loving persona. This creation is, unsurprisingly, thanks to America. When German Lutherans arrived in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought the tradition of the “Osterhase” with them. This tradition stated that children would be judged every Eastertime by a hare. If they had been good, they would be rewarded with a treat. Over time the tradition grew and developed until it became the sugar-fuelled, garden-destroying day we all know now.

Some people argue that the Easter bunny’s origins date back even further to the pagan festival Ēostre which used the hare as a symbol of renewed life. However, this might be wishful thinking; A Dictionary of English Folklore states there’s little evidence of any links between Ēostre and hares – and even if there were, these links would have been unlikely to have survived the subsequent centuries of invasion and Christianisation of Britain.

Despite the ambiguity, it’s likely that hares originally had more to do with Easter than rabbits. In Leicestershire there was an annual hare hunt held every Easter Monday, the first recording of which was in 1668. The 1620 Calendar of State Papers recorded that “…huntsmen say that those who have not had a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.” And in Warwickshire the parson supposedly offered a groat, a calf’s head and one hundred eggs to the man who presented him with a hare before 10:00am on Easter Monday.

A hare hunt featuring either an absolutely massive hare or a couple of ridiculously tiny hunting dogs.

A many-anused beast…

But people were interested in hares long before the 17th century.

“Hares are seldom tamed…”, wrote Pliny the Elder in The Natural History. “In the hare, the number of cavernous receptacles in the body for the excrements always equals that of its years.” Basically, hares were not pets you’d want to keep indoors without protecting your soft furnishings from their many “cavernous receptacles for excrement.”

By the middle ages, hares and rabbits were relatively luxurious commodities. Manorial lords would have an automatic “right to warren” on land they owned and would often grant tenants leases to maintain their warrens for them.

Sometimes the lords would complain about the abundance of rabbits or hares outside their warrens, as in the case at Freckenham in 1551 when rabbits were condemned for “increasing and multiplying on the common land” and the lessee of the warren was ordered to block up all the rabbit holes on the common land.

Hare was also a popular dish for the rich; as far as I can see there are two separate recipes for hare in the 14th century English cookbook Forme of Cury and about seven or eight from the contemporaneous French text Le Menagier de Paris.

In addition to food, rabbits and hares were seen as good gifts and in 1345, the Prior of Ely sent sixty rabbits to Edward III – an enormous display of wealth. In fact, by the 14th century rabbits were seen as such a status symbol that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt “hares in the field.”

Despite this, hares and rabbits were seen negatively in some circles. In medieval art and literature hares were sometimes seen as symbols of promiscuity. Even more concerningly, some thought hares were linked to the occult; the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German text on witchcraft, commented that witches had the ability to transform themselves into hares.

Malleus Maleficarum. Fun fact: a large amount of this text talks about the many ways witches can steal a man’s penis.

Later, when the witch-crazes swept Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Scottish woman called Isobel Gowdie confessed to turning herself into a hare by chanting:
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.

Having confessed to the crime of witchcraft, the law stated that she be executed, but there’s no firm evidence whether this happened to Isobel or whether she was acquitted. Perhaps she really did turn herself into a hare and hopped away?

Killer hares

Whether witches in disguise or the real deal, you messed with hares at your peril.

The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where hares enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.

In this highly decorated manuscript there are numerous drolleries – fanciful drawings meant to titillate and amuse the reader.

Often these images depict imaginary mash-ups of animals; snails with human torsos or birds with elephant heads. As well as the more usual ones, the ones in the Smithfield Decretals also depict what can only be described as killer hares enacting revenge on the humans who would destroy them.

In one image two hares flay a bound man alive, starting at his feet. Rather than watching the unfortunate victim, the hares’ unfeeling, bulbous eyes are askew – an artist’s comment on nature’s detachment from human suffering or, (like my own arty shortcomings) an inability to draw perspective? You be the judge.

In another, a hare carries a trussed up man on a stick while another triumphantly blasts a tune on a hunting horn. In yet another, a hare is seen with a ridiculously long sword, beheading a man. It’s probably worth noting that medieval people didn’t do realism in their art (in case you’d not worked it out.) This included realistic facial expressions – so rather than screaming in agony, the man being beheaded is just frowning sadly, as if the whole thing is slightly inconvenient (take a look at the images at the end to see what I mean.)

Rather than being a crafty design to get people to go vegetarian by forcing them to confront the reality of their hare-hunting ways, these images represented the idea of the world turned upside down; the hunted becomes the hunter. Just think on that while you’re searching for your eggs on Easter Sunday.

Who wants a biscuit?

I could have written a post about hot cross buns or tried making another Simnel Cake. But I didn’t fancy any of that. Instead, I wanted to draw some art and I wanted art that celebrated the mighty Easter bunny in all its glory. And I wanted it to be delicious.

So this Easter, in addition to my foil wrapped egg(s), I’ll also be tucking into some very special Easter biscuits depicting the more unusual aspects of the human/Easter bunny relationship. The images are taken from a variety of texts so even though the recipe isn’t medieval the artwork, according to my teacher at least, sure is.

Who’s “not suitable for A Level art” now, Mrs Haworth?

Happy Easter!


“For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina”: Advice on motherhood through the ages

When you have a baby everyone gives you advice. Some of this is excellent (to this day the best thing I’ve ever been told in regards to child rearing is “lower your standards. If things are still hard, you didn’t lower them enough” – as a result my carpets rarely get hoovered and we pretend not to see the ‘best before end’ date on food, but my sanity has remained intact.)

Much of the advice is well meaning, but hopeless: “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a lovely phrase but what should I do if she doesn’t – ever?

Most of it, though, is tripe: “enjoy every second”, “don’t complain, it all goes by so fast.”

I just couldn’t understand those who spouted out the tripey advice; what was it I was supposed to enjoy, exactly? My daughter, like all other newborns, was distinctly useless at first and completely unable to help me out in any way. At bathtime I ended up bent over the tub like Quasimodo, one arm frantically scooping water onto her chest and one arm doing the job her neck should have been doing, which was holding up her gigantic, lolling head. I had similar problems getting her into the car, getting her dressed, changing her nappy: limbs flailing madly, none of them in the right direction, and most of them, somehow, covered in poo.

As time went on my daughter’s neck started pulling its weight and I didn’t rely on hours of physio after every bath time so I started to enjoy motherhood. But no sooner had we worked out how this small dictator child worked, then the advice changed again.

“Don’t wean her too soon or she’ll end up with underformed bowels.” “Don’t let her sleep in your room or she’ll never move out.” “Don’t wean her too late or she’ll be a fussy eater.” “Limit TV to only 30 minutes a week and even then only allow her to watch bilingual educational videos.” “Let her sleep in your room until she’s an adult woman – insist that she raise her own children there too.”

It got me thinking about motherhood advice through history. Were there medieval pamphlets on the pros and cons of cloth nappies? Tudor ‘yummy mummies’ on Instagram showing us how to whip up vegan, organic, zero-waste baby-friendly smoothies? Not quite, but almost.

Getting pregnant (AKA the fun bit)

So you’ve decided you don’t need to sleep or shit alone again for the rest of your life.

The 2nd century Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed he’d come up with a good indication of female virility so that prospective partners could make the best decisions when picking a mate. According to this highly learned doctor, women “from the ages of fifteen to forty” who were “not mannish, compact, oversturdy or too flabby” had been endowed with a natural virility.

If finding such a woman by physical appearance alone was problematic, Soranus had a solution: an alternative way to check a woman’s fertility was to inspect her uterus. To conceive a child a woman’s uterus should be “neither very moist or dry, not too lax or constricted.” I don’t know how one was supposed to check out a woman’s uterus before committing to her (though I imagine it made for a pretty awkward date night activity) but it clearly struck a chord with those in the medical profession; Soranus’ writings set the precedent in gynaecology and obstetrics for almost 1,500 years.

In contrast, women with small heads and eyes were more likely to struggle to conceive. Likewise, women with protruding foreheads were best avoided if one was hoping to start a family (Rouselle 1988, p. 22).

If Soranus’ ideas haven’t put you off relying on ancient science to conceive then you might also want to consider the work of the Greek physicians Hippocrates (c. 460-c.370 BC) and Galen (129-c.210 CE).


Though centuries apart, these two men together shaped much of the medical knowledge found in medical textbooks and universities up to the 16th century. Hippocrates – whose influence on medicine remains so great that the now defunct Hippocratic oath was named after (but not attributed to) him – is chiefly known for developing humoral theory. This was the belief that the human body was made up of four key fluids (blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile) which, when disrupted or imbalanced, caused mood changes and even illness. This theory would crop up in most Western medical teachings for the next two thousand years or so.

Hippocrates was also preoccupied with female fertility. Out of 1500 or so recipes for medicine in Hippocrates’ work, 80% of them relate to gynaecology (Totelin 2009).

Unfortunately, Hippocrates’ teachings tended to place the burden of conception squarely on the shoulders of women; male infertility was not something he considered a likely issue in problems with conception. Among others, Hippocrates wrote that some of the problems women faced when trying to conceive included:

  1. A too narrow passage between the vagina and cervix which may also have become blocked by the retention of “old” coagulated menstrual blood and thus prevented sperm reaching the uterus.
  2. An “inability” of the uterus to retain the sperm due to its failure to “close” shut once the sperm had entered. 
  3. A humoral imbalance in the woman which led to conditions that were too hot or cold in the uterus, thus “overcooking” or “[drying] out” the sperm (Verskin 2020, 138).

‘For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina’ was basically Hippocrates’ attitude.

Hippocrates also advocated for a “two seed” theory; that in order to make a baby, ‘male seed’ and ‘female seed’ were necessary. In both cases, the seed could only be produced during arousal. This led physicians who followed the ‘two seed’ theory down some pretty ropey conception theories: husbands were encouraged to ensure their wives enjoyed sex, so as to ensure a fruitful production of ‘female seed’ and therefore increase the chances of making a baby. So far, so sex-positive. The negative aspect to this theory was of course the issue of conception arising from non-consensual sex. Though rape was condemned in most ancient societies, the ‘two seed’ theory allowed some to argue that pregnancy was evidence of a woman’s enjoyment of sex and, therefore, evidence of her willing participation, even if she hadn’t consented.

Writing some five or six hundred years after Hippocrates, Galen sought to add weight to the ‘two seed’ theory by attaching to it the ‘one sex’ theory (stay with me now, I’m almost done.)

The ‘one sex’ theory promoted the belief that women’s reproductive organs were an interior version of a man’s, but that due to an absence of necessary heat while the woman was in her mother’s womb, they failed to turn outside, rendering women a sort of inferior version of men (Schleiner 2000).

I don’t know what the thing on the far right is. Maybe a floating scrotum? Credit here.

It made sense to Galen, then, that women produced semen in much the same way as men did, though the semen was produced inside their bodies which, because of the aforementioned defectiveness of female organs, could lead to problems. Galen believed that menstrual blood was a both a consequence of female defectiveness and also a necessary element of conception as it provided the uterus with texture, without which the “male seed” would slip out before it could mingle with the ‘female seed’. A woman who therefore suffered irregular periods or had gone through menopause, Galen argued, was far less likely to conceive than a woman who “enjoyed” regular periods. Galen was playing quite fast and loose with the word ‘enjoy’ there, I think, but we’ll move on.

But what if both partners enjoyed sex and a baby wasn’t made? Well, for those diagnosed with infertility Hippocrates had a variety of solutions. The most common ones included pessaries of herbs, fumigation or probing of the vagina to remove “blockages” and changing one’s diet. In his empathetically entitled treatise On Barrenness, Hippocrates also advocated eating boiled puppies and/or fumigating one’s vagina with smoke from their burned carcasses. The argument was that puppies supposedly had a laxative effect, which would dislodge any coagulated menstrual blood and allow the passage between the cervix and vagina to open (Verskin 2020, 139). You’re welcome to try it, but the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Britain is five years; you’ll miss the cute chubby toddler years and be landed with a stroppy school kid by the time you get out.

Pregnancy and childbirth

So let’s assume all your puppy-eating has paid off and you’re with child. Congratulations.

But no sooner does that little red line appear on the pregnancy test then a whole host of other questions and problems come to the fore: what food can I eat or not eat? How much exercise should I do? Was that a twinge of labour or do I just need a big fart (it’s always a big fart – even when you’re actually in labour, it will still be a big fart.)

The Trotula, a 12th century compendium of the medical conditions of women, states that when a woman is just starting out her 9 month journey it’s vitally important that no one mention in front of her the long list of things she is not allowed to eat (Green 2002, 77).

“What is this? Don’t care – can I eat it?”

Trotula argued this was to prevent pregnant women from becoming fixated on out-of-bounds food, not just for their own health, but the sake of their unborn child, which was apparently as risk of miscarriage if they ruminated on smoked salmon or soft cheese for too long.

On the subject of farting, Trotula had a remedy. Taking celery, mint and cowbane and mixing it with a combination of mastic, cloves, watercress, sugar, honey and wine (as well as other herbs) could apparently cure even the guffiest mother.

To reduce the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy, the 15th century manuscript Sloane 2463 recommended making a paste of bean-meal flour, vinegar and oil and anointing it on the areas that were swollen (Rowlands 1981, 153). Some lucky women might have got away with only needing to apply it to their fingers or ankles; for me I’d have needed a full body cast.

The last trimester of pregnancy is often one of the hardest, and women have resorted to all kinds of tricks to induce labour and kick their ever expanding lodger out.

For women in their final month eager to meet their screaming bundles of joy and light, taking a bath with herbs could apparently help speed labour along, especially if the woman drank an ounce of balsam sap in wine afterwards. If she couldn’t afford balsam sap then she could make do with a cocktail of bull’s gall and wine instead, or “the water from a man’s skin after he has washed his hands”. If bull’s gall and bathwater wasn’t her thing she could try a combination of hyssop juice and mercury which would “cast out the child alive or dead”. Well, quite.

Assuming that these drinks worked, what was one supposed to do when the birthday arrived? By the 15th century there were plenty of European manuscripts detailing the medical problems of women, but relatively few that dealt in detail with childbirth itself (Rowlands 1981, 22).

This was probably down to the fact that midwifery was usually the domain of women, and the writers were usually men who either didn’t know how to help women give birth or, more possibly, didn’t care.

Women’s health wasn’t always counted as ‘proper’ medicine worthy of book writing – and in 1421 a petition was put forward to the English parliament banning women from practising as physicians (Green 1989), so chances for women to elevate the status of midwifery remained slim.

In fact, so limited was the information on how to help women give birth that one 14th century treatise recommended that women should be encouraged to sneeze the child out. Similarly, the 15th century work Inventarium also recommended labouring women sniff pepper, which would induce sneezing. It hardly goes without saying that both authors were male. Guy de Chauliac commented “because the matter [of childbirth] requires the attention of women, there is no point in giving much consideration to it.” I bet he wasn’t brave enough to say that to a labouring woman, though.

Anyway, Sloane 2463 does cover what to do when giving birth. Chapter 10, “sickness that women have in childbearing”, covers a great deal of potential problems which it divides into two types: ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.

With a natural birth the child should “come out in twenty pangs…head first.” So far, so simple. If the child was a stubborn bugger, however, and refused to come out within twenty “pangs” (bless) or headfirst, this was termed an ‘unnatural’ birth. There were apparently 16 ways a child could be born ‘unnaturally’ and, in diagrams that were simultaneously helpful and hilarious, the writer had provided sketches highlighting the ‘unnatural’ ways. The three here are my favourites.

Raising the buggers

Assuming you’ve survived childbirth (research is ongoing but it’s estimated that among the lower classes in England during the 14th – 16th centuries, between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 women died either giving birth or from complications afterwards), how should you go about raising them to be decent humans?

For this section I’m jumping forward several centuries to the trustiest of Victorian cooks, Mrs Beeton. Her book Household Management wasn’t just a collection of bland restrained recipes, it also contained practical advice on the rearing of children.

Almost immediately I began to suspect that Mrs Beeton’s experience of motherhood was slightly divergent to my own.

“The mistress [of the house]” she began, quoting Proverbs XXXI “eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed…” (Project Gutenberg 2003)

I thought back to this morning when my child had arisen at 5:30 and waddled into my room, calling for the iPad instead.

One piece of advice that might raise a few eyebrows today was the instruction to breastfeeding mothers to drink large quantities of malt liquor. Mrs Beeton believed that the strength of this alcohol had certain reinvigorating qualities which would aid production of milk and help stave off maternal exhaustion. “To the lady accustomed to her Madeira and sherry, [malt liquors] may appear a very vulgar potation for a delicate young mother to take…”

In fact, Mrs Beeton spent rather a lot of time discussing alcohol and motherhood. As any mother will tell you, this isn’t that surprising.

According to Mrs B, brandy was less beneficial than wine for nursing mothers, though would do if there was nothing else in. Be careful of port, though, as that could affect the baby’s bowl movements as it passed through the milk.

But the very best alcoholic beverage a breastfeeding mother could drink was stout, of which mothers were instructed to drink no less than half a pint, three to four times a day.

No photo description available.
As a “delicate young mother”, sitting alone in the babycage playpen, I preferred to drink white wines rather than port.

Her advice on drinking and breastfeeding might have been a bit out of touch with today’s standards, but there were moments where her tips were surprisingly modern. She gave pretty thorough and sympathetic advice to mothers who were bottle feeding their child (“hand rearing”, as she called it) and, as someone who bottle fed her own child, I found much of what she said was less judgemental than 21st century advice: “A child can be brought up as well on a spoon dietary as the best example to be found on those reared on the breast; having more strength, indeed, from the more nutritious food on which it lives.”

As the child grew, Mrs Beeton’s advice changed. She recommended a fairly bland, milk heavy diet for young children. This was common for the time, the belief being that children’s stomachs could only deal with uncomplex flavours and nothing too heavy. One of the few times Beeton strays from the advice to give children milk, however, was when serving a drink called Negus which involved mixing pints of port, sherry or white wine with water and sugar and serving at children’s parties.

Another Victorian book, How I managed my children from infancy to marriage by Eliza Warren stressed the importance of teaching children to obey from a young age. “A babe of three months, when I held up my finger and put on a grave look, knew that such was the language of reproof…” (Warren 1865, 27.) (I have tried this on my child – it does not work.)

The way to achieve this level of obedience was through repetition – Ms Warren stated that children must learn that crying was “useless” and that if they wanted something they should wait patiently, or do without.

But perhaps the most amusing thing from How I managed my children was the account of mealtimes with young children. Like Mrs Beeton, Ms Warren followed a milk heavy, reasonably bland diet for her children, apart from one day of the week when the meal that was served was “always hailed with delight, and always looked forward to.” What was this magical, awe inspiring dinner? Boiled onions.

As if that wasn’t a treat enough, Ms Warren recounted gleefully that the children were also allowed chives on their bread and butter with this meal too. The whole meal combined, she said, was an excellent cure for worms. Nice.

If you’re thinking that there’s really nothing here useful to new parents and that people throughout history have just been muddling along in the dark when it came to childrearing, you’d be right. But before I finish, I’ll leave you with this one final piece of advice from Ms Warren that I know I’ll struggle to accept as my daughter gets older and her world gets bigger, but that I must: “…if we[love] our children we must give up our own selfish feeling of desiring to have them always with us and so place them in positions that we should be enabled to feel life again renewed in their happiness.” (Warren 1865, 57.)

Happy birthday, G.

E x

Bibliography (yes, I actually did one this time but no, it’s not in alphabetical order because if I have to spend any longer on these bloody citations I will actually die of boredom.)

Rousselle, A. 1988. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Totelin, L. 2009. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth and Fourth Century Greece. Boston: Brill.

Verskin, S. 2020. Barren Women: Religion and Medicine in the Medieval Middle East. De Gruyter: Berlin.

Schleiner, W., (2000) Early Modern Controversies about the One-Sex Model. Renaissance Quarterly [online]. 53 (1), 180–191. [12.06.2020]. Available from:

Green, M. 2002. The Trotula. Pennslyvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rowlands, B. 1981. Medieval Women’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Green, M. (1989) Women’s Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe. Signs [online] 14 (2), 434-73. [27.03.2021] Available from:

Project Gutenberg., (2003) The Book of Household Management [online] Project Gutenberg. [Viewed 27.03.2021] Available from:

Warren, E. 1865. How I managed my children from infancy to marriage. London: Houlston and Wright.

“No jokes please, we’re British”: Surprise Potato Balls 1940s.

I realised I’d been neglecting my 20th century history, so today’s experiment is an attempt to rectify that.

In all honesty I chose it because of the title: surprise potato balls. What’s not to like?

The recipe came courtesy of the Ministry of Food, which was the government department tasked with rationing during World War Two.

Technically, the original ministry was established in 1916 to regulate food stocks and deal with supply and trade issues. This first ministry was disbanded in 1921 and for the next 18 years Britain was presumably overflowing with unregulated cheese and never-ending supplies of luncheon paste.

But alas, with the dawning of World War Two the nation was plunged into desperation again, and the second ministry was set up in September of 1939. Its role was similar to the first one, but as well as rationing it was also tasked with researching ways food could be used and preserved.

Ration books were issued to every person in the land with different coupons depending on your age and health. Pregnant women and nursing mothers, for example, were allowed a supply of 1 pint of milk per day when (by 1942) the typical allowance for others was 3 pints per week.

By the end of the war the only things not covered by rationing were fresh fruit and veg. The government, eager to encourage the use of as much of these non rationed foodstuffs as possible, published leaflets with an array of questionable and unappetising enigmatic and inventive recipes for desperate cooks to try out at home. And the veg with the most potential? The humble spud.

Oh, how the ministry loved potatoes. Perhaps Lord Woolton, the minister for food during World War Two had shares in a potato farm. Perhaps he just loved chips. But the ministry churned out pro-potato propaganda as if people’s lives depended on it. Which, I guess, they sort of did.

A superfood?

“There is no vegetable more useful than the potato”, one leaflet cried. The potato provided “fine energy” as well as being a “protective food”, crowed another. People were advised to eat at least 12 ounces or even 1lb of potatoes a day, in any form they could stomach.

Don’t get me wrong – I love potatoes. Any type of potato is fine by me, but I have to admit that even I’d begin to find a never ending diet of mash, chips and roasties a little dull. So, to prevent people getting too bored, the government created the not at all creepy character Potato Pete – a cheeky, slightly pervy potato cartoon who they hoped would appeal to housewives everywhere.

Why are your eyes so red, Potato Pete?

Potato Pete even came with his own potato recipe book, complete with brightly coloured pictures of him spouting out catchphrases, or linking arms with delighted and presumably lobotomised human women who skipped off giddly into the sunset with him, a potato.

Do you remember Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete?
Who knew the pied piper of housewives was a potato?

Making Surprise Potato Balls

One of the recipes in Potato Pete’s recipe book is for Surprise Potato Balls. The writers of the booklet did at least have the wherewithal not to call them Potato Pete’s Surprise Potato Balls, but I still found them hilarious, because I have the sense of humour of a ten year old.

They were straightforward enough: mashed potato with grated carrot and parsley, rolled into balls. I peeled the potatoes, which was a mistake because the ministry actually encouraged people to eat the skins to minimise waste.

One the balls were done, each one was filled with a teaspoon of Branston pickle and then rolled in breadcrumbs and baked for 15 minutes.

The surprise was obviously meant to be the shot of sweet and tangy chutney, but in reality it was how underwhelming these were. I’m not sure what I expected, it being a wartime recipe and all, but the potato was extremely bland. The recipe had said to use milk only if it was absolutely required, which it wasn’t, so I hadn’t. There was no butter or margarine included. This meant that the flavour was quite lacklustre and a little watery.

I served the potato balls with brown gravy (another war time staple, for fashion reasons as much as culinary ones) and the whole effect was of a meal of filling, hot, beigeness. And I suppose that was the point: war was not luxurious. People were making the best of what they had and if a meal could manage to fill you up without tasting outright awful then that was cause to stick it in a recipe book and encourage others to try it.

Potatoey, gravy, chutney goodness.

If you’d like to see Potato Pete’s Potato Balls in full swing (gross) then head over to YouTube where you can watch me make these.

E x

This post is part of Twinkl’s VE Day Campaign, and is featured in their Best Wartime Recipes to Celebrate VE Day from Home post”

Surprise Potato Balls

450g or 2 cups of potato
A jar of sweet pickle, such as Branston’s
1 large carrot
Teaspoon chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

  1. Chop and boil your potatoes. (For a more authentic WW2 experience don’t peel them first.)
  2. Once they are soft, drain the potatoes and mash them with a fork.
  3. Grate the carrot and add it to the mashed potato.
  4. Add the salt, pepper and chopped parsley and combine fully.
  5. Roll the mixture into balls that are slightly smaller than the size of your palm and place on a baking tray.
  6. Make an indent in each ball with your finger and dollop a teaspoon or so of pickle into the hole.
  7. Reseal the holes and roll each potato ball in breadcrumbs.
  8. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees C (356 F) for about 15 minutes.
  9. Serve with brown gravy.