Chocolate Soufflé: 1861

It was world chocolate day yesterday, apparently. Normally these celebrations pass me by a bit – there’s a world meatball day, a coffee day, a hamburger day and a porridge day. Obviously I’m looking forward to 24th October – world tripe day – but mostly I’m a bit cynical and imagine that behind the merriment and random recipes there’s a big fat corporation greedily counting its money.

But it didn’t escape my attention that 7th July was designated world chocolate day. Call me boring, call me clichéd but that’s one food day I can get behind and you’ll be happy to know that I made sure to celebrate by eating as much of it as I could – chocolate biscuits, chocolate bars, chocolate cake, hot chocolate. All enjoyed with appropriate solemnity for the occasion, of course, and not at all gorged with reckless abandon as I attempted to prove the “share” part of a family sized bag of Buttons was more a guideline than a rule.

I’ve not done too many chocolate recipes, mostly because the glorious stuff wasn’t known about in Europe until the 16th century and so recipes containing it (in a modern format) are fairly limited. Its history is fascinating, though.

Who are these people that get paid to take photos of chocolate and how can I get that job?
Photo by Pixabay on

There’s a lot of terminology around chocolate but modern experts tend to refer to cacao as the unprocessed plant or bean while chocolate is the word for anything made from the processed beans. Whatever you call it, chocolate in all its forms was a highly prized item. In pre-colonial Mesoamerica, where it originated, cacao was used as a symbol of wealth; when Cortés arrived to plunder Tenochitlan in 1519, he and his men witnessed a ceremony where Montezuma II was served over 50 jars of chocolate to drink. Cortés and his men might not have fully grasped the awesome display of wealth they were seeing, but to other Mesoamericans the excessive amount of chocolate drink would have signified Montezuma’s extreme power because of the number of beans needed to make so many drinks. Similary, a 16th century document tells us that cacao was valuable enough to the Aztecs to use as currency – in 1543 40 cacao beans were paid daily to workers in maguey fields.

The Spaniards didn’t think much of chocolate at first, describing it as “a bitter drink for pigs“, but brought it back to Spain nonetheless where it continued to be largely disregarded until someone realised that if you added cane sugar or honey to it, it suddenly became an indulgent sweet drink. By the 17th century sweetened chocolate drinks were being enjoyed by the rich all over Europe for its taste but also for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties (Casanova was apparently a great fan.)

It wasn’t until 1828 that Coenraad van Houten invented the cocoa press, which separated out the cocoa fats from the bean and left a powder which could be added to milk, much like a modern day hot chocolate. This process also meant that chocolate could be mass produced, making it cheaper and more available to the wider public. In 1847 J. S. Fry and Sons realised that combining the fat and liqour from pressed cocoa and adding sugar could create a mouldable solid and voila! the chocolate bar was born.

These early bars were dark and were enjoyed in small quantities as the taste was still fairly strong and bitter. Cadbury’s had some initial success in 1861 with boxes of luxury chocolates, branded ‘Fancy Boxes’. The small chocolates in these boxes were branded as indulgent gifts and were designed to be enjoyed in small dainty mouthfuls (a scientific impossibility as experts* on chocolate consumption have since discovered.)

Eventually, in 1875, the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter had the novel idea of adding milk powder (after trying and failing with liquid milk, which caused the chocolate to seize) and created milk chocolate, which was an instant hit. Rival chocolate firms scrabbled around to imitate the creamy taste and in 1905 Cadbury’s released the first Dairy Milk bar, which boasted a higher percentage of milk than any other competitor brand.

Is all this background info just your excuse to try different types of chocolate?

No, actually.

I don’t like dark chocolate. It’s high up on the list of sophisticated tastes that adult palates are supposed to enjoy that I don’t, along with red wine and liquor, blue cheese; strong coffee. In theory I should be a beacon of health, right? In reality I’ve overcompensated for not liking these foods by developing a palate as fond of sugar and fizz as that of a child – frosted cereal, milkshakes, entire jars of Nutella on one slice of toast. Okay, fine – it’s the palate of a child with irresponsible parents. So what? I had a great childhood and my fillings light up a room when I smile.

Because of this I was only sort of excited to try Mrs Beeton’s recipe for chocolate soufflé, given that it was published in 1861 – a full 14 years before anyone had successfully manufactured milk chocolate. My husband, who’s a certified signed up Adult(TM), was, however, delighted by the idea of this experiment (even though I made it for breakfast in rebellious solidarity with my inner child.)

First I separated four eggs and added a few teaspoons of sugar and flour to the yolks. Mrs Beeton then told me to add 85g of “best chocolate”, which unfortunately meant dark chocolate. I used Bournville because even though it wasn’t sold until 1908 – and it definitely isn’t the best quality – it was what was most readily available at 8:00am when I decided to make soufflé. I just had to hope that the average bar of 2020 Bournville chocolate was as good as a very good bar of 1861 chocolate. It took forever to grate, but eventually I had a small pile of very finely grated chocolate, which I mixed into the egg yolks.

My next deviation from the original recipe was to use an electric whisk to whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. Stiff peaks formed, I folded the egg whites into the yolk and chocolate mixture trying not to beat all of the air out of it. The soufflé was then portioned out into buttered ramekins and baked for 20 minutes.

Little fluffy clouds in a pool of sewage.

Once they were in the oven I found I was filled with dread that they wouldn’t rise and I’d be left with two deflated eggy messes. I started to do initially nonchalant but increasingly neurotic soufflé inspections: I began by wandering into the kitchen every couple of minutes to check on the oven, pretending that I’d left the milk out or the hob on. Then there were a couple of innocent peeks through the door to check that they were rising properly and before I knew it I was kneeling on the floor, face pressed against the hot glass, hissing “rise my beauties, rise!”

And rise they did. The second wave of dread washed over me as I read “the proper appearance of this dish depends entirely on the expedition with which it is served…if allowed to stand after it comes from the oven, it will be entirely spoiled, as it falls almost immediately.”

Entirely. Spoiled.

Has a more terrifying phrase ever been written? And what was worse is that it seemed totally unavoidable – I could have absolutely nailed the recipe, even use the very best of best chocolate – and it would all be for nothing if I shuffled instead of sprinted to the table when serving it.

I prepped myself for the worst, took a deep breath and whisked the soufflé’s from the oven so fast I was at risk of breaking the sound barrier.

“Stand back!” I roared at my husband as I ran to the table to photo them before they deflated.

In the end Mrs Beeton had maybe exaggerated the delicate nature of soufflé; yes, they sunk slightly within a minute or so of being out of the oven, but they were hardly “spoiled.” At least, not spoiled enough to render them inedible for breakfast.

Totally forgot to add powdered sugar when they came out of the oven which entirely spoiled them.

Not only did they look like chocolate soufflés, but they damn well tasted like them too; rich and dark without being too sweet. My husband particularly enjoyed this aspect to them because he said it made them feel “healthier”. Inside they were light and airy, but as they deflated they got a bit gooier and more unguent.

I didn’t finish all of mine because, well, dark chocolate. But my husband, buoyed by the seemingly wholesome nature of these, managed to finish off his own and the rest of my ramekin. Dark chocolate soufflé for breakfast: approved by Real Adults.

World chocolate day might be over, but I’m already counting down the days to next year when I can make a (milk chocolate) version of these again. Also, if someone could tell me the shortcut for the acute accent so that I don’t have to keep copy and pasting the “é” every time I write “soufflé” in the future, I would be forever indebted to you.

E x

* It’s me; I’m the expert on chocolate consumption.

Chocolate Soufflé

85g dark chocolate, finely grated.
1 teaspoon plain flour
3 teaspoons caster sugar
4 eggs

  1. Preheat an oven to 160 degrees C.
  2. Separate the egg whites from the yolks.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks and add the grated chocolate. Mix.
  4. Add the flour and sugar to the chocolate and egg yolk and whisk together until fully incorporated.
  5. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
  6. Fold the egg white into the egg yolk. Make sure not to over-fold to prevent the air escaping.
  7. Butter two large ramekins and divide the soufflé mixture between them.
  8. Place the soufflés into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Do not open the oven door during cooking.
  9. Remove the soufflés and dust with icing sugar. Serve immediately.

Modern Chicken Pie: 1864

When planning today’s experiment I suddenly realised I hadn’t done a savoury Victorian recipe in quite a while. In my defense, Victorian food (barring cakes and puddings) doesn’t have the greatest reputation so it was hard to get excited about it. As Talia Schaffer points out, certain Victorian cooks like A. B. Marshall advised boiling food until it no longer resembled its original form and tasted of nothing. This was to avoid scandal befalling the diners; in a society obsessed with morality, strong flavours were believed to ignite sexual arousal – something that was largely condemned in polite Victorian society.

Or was it? Though the Victorian era tends to conjure up images of stuffy and repressed men and women glancing furtively at one another across candlelit parlours (as though making eye contact over a plate of macaroons was a particularly deviant crime), that’s not quite the full story. Of course certain groups fell into this category, but there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that Victorian sexuality wasn’t all repressed and buttoned up; there are many accounts of couples enjoying all elements of their relationship and of same-sex relationships which were ‘allowed’ to flourish in relative privacy (up until 1885, at least, after which any homosexual act – private or public – became illegal.)

The trouble was that many Victorians had never been very good at speaking publically and openly about sex, and so any sexually liberated voices were trampled on by the overpowering moralism of the abstinence crowd. As the century wore on these various groups became louder and more opposed to what they saw as the degeneration of society; social moralists who believed sex caused “enfeeblement” in men even went so far as to promote the wearing of male anti-masturbation devices to ensure that men were not regularly depleting themselves of energy and brainpower by… well, you know.

Though the final few years of the 19th century saw a radical clash of ideas around sexuality, it was the prim and proper (and largely upper class) image of Victorian Britain that won out in popular culture and in the culture of the kitchen. Victorian food became immortalised in images of milk jelly or gristly lumps of unseasoned meat and as it did, so too did society’s belief that Victorian Britain was full of sexually frustrated aristocrats with no outlet other than long-winded poetry and endless walks in the countryside.

This post has not begun the way I thought it would…

Yeah, me neither.

Back to pies?

The ‘Victorians-hated-flavour-because-they-hated-sex’ myth can also be busted by looking at a range of recipes. Sure, a quick flip through the pages of the quintessential Victorian Mrs Beeton’s Household Management shows us that pretty bland recipes for the likes of tapioca and kale broth existed, but as well as being recommended for invalids (who were supposed to eat plain things to aid recovery) these recipes are interspersed with more exciting ones for things like chocolate cream and cake so laden with booze it was literally called “Tipsy cake”.

Powerhouse of the Victorian culinary scene though she was, Mrs Beeton wasn’t the only celebrity chef and today’s experiment is from another well-known 19th century cook: Eliza Acton.

Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was originally published in 1845 but became so successful that it had been reprinted 13 times by 1853. Even modern day cooks praise Acton for her writing and recipes; Delia Smith commented that Acton was “the best writer of recipes in the English language” and food writer Bee Wilson referred to her as “my heroine” in 2011.

It seemed as though I was looking in the right place if I wanted to challenge the idea of Victorian food as being dull and bland. I flipped through the pages searching for something that would be a tasty thing to eat for dinner without tipping me into the abyss of moral corruption. Then I found it: chicken pie. Not just any chicken pie either: modern chicken pie. Acton didn’t explain what made this pie modern but it may have been the ingredients used; modern chicken pie contained a heady mixture of spiced chicken and sausage meat whereas an alternative recipe for “common chicken pie” didn’t have any sausage meat at all – not even a little bit – which must have appealed to the anti-sex members of Victorian society.

Don’t you dare do a ‘sausage meat’ joke. Your mother reads this blog.

Although Acton’s modern chicken pie recipe looked pretty tasty on its own, I still wanted more ‘wow’ factor to really put an end to the bland food myth. Over the next couple of pages I found instructions to make a raised pie – a type of pie that was generally taller and more ornate than standard pies and wasn’t baked in a tin or dish. Raised pies were the showstopper challenge on the Great British Bake Off 2017 pastry week episode, so it seemed a fitting choice. Acton also recommended that any of her pie recipes could be used for raised pies but cautioned that for an inexperienced pie baker (such as me) it was best to start by making a small one first, as the technique of hand moulding the case might take practice.

Following Acton’s method, I began on the pie crust. After making a dough of flour, melted butter and hot water I began to shape my pastry case by rolling it into a large mound and then pushing down to hollow out the centre so that it resembled a clay pot on a pottery wheel. One technique that’s sometimes used today is to shape the dough around a cake tin or pie dolly to ensure smooth edges and lines, allowing it to firm up and then removing it from the tin or dolly before baking. Acton also mentioned that it was difficult to achieve good results by “using the fingers only” and that usually only French cooks excelled at a totally free-hand form of pie making, which to me suggested that inexperienced cooks sometimes relied on props. Anyway, I counted myself as an inexperienced cook and shaped my dough round a small spring-form cake tin and popped it into the fridge to firm up for 20 minutes while I worked on the filling.

I could say I spent time making my own sausage meat but that would be a lie. I don’t feel too bad though as Acton’s recipe for sausage meat was lean pork, fat, sage, salt and pepper and these were the only ingredients listed in the sausage meat I bought. I also don’t have a meat grinder so any sausage meat I made was liable to be quite coarse, which Acton expressly mentioned as being a problem and something cooks should take great care to avoid.

Once I’d carefully unwrapped the parcel of sausage meat, I chopped two chicken breasts up into small chunks and seasoned them with cayenne pepper, salt, pounded mace and nutmeg. Things were definitely not looking bland! In fact, I was pretty impressed with how well the pie was holding its shape and how colourful the cayenne stained chicken was. It was then time to fill the pie with alternating layers of sausage meat and chicken before topping it and brushing with egg wash.

After one and a half hours it was done. It smelled delicious and, amazingly, it had held its shape and looked pretty impressive – if I do say so myself.

I desperately wanted to cut into it to see if I’d be greeted with neat layers or (as I half expected) pools of grey water and amorphous meaty mush, but I waited until it had cooled a little to give everything time to settle.

After five minutes I cut into the pastry which gave a heartening crack as it split open to reveal… distinct layers of sausage meat and chicken, still moist and steaming, yes! It was definitely time to taste it.

Stick an 18+ certificate on that and you’ve got some Victorian smut right there.

The next time someone comments that Victorian food was all overcooked meat and milky mush I’m going to send them a copy of this recipe. I’m going to print out and frame this recipe – one copy for each room in my house. Hell, I’m going to tattoo this recipe onto me so I never forget it. This. Was. Excellent.

Okay, so the pastry was a little thicker than perhaps Acton had intended, but it didn’t matter because it was surprisingly rich considering it was just three ingredients. However, it was the filling that really stood out. Chicken and pork work really well together anyway, but encasing them in pastry and allowed them to steam in their own juices for a couple of hours was a revelation. Each bite was tender and not at all dry, as pies without gravy can sometimes be. The sausage meat was subtle and slightly peppery, but the chicken was the stand out star. Faintly spicy with a slightly sharp aromatic after taste from the mace, this was not your usual meat pie. It was, in all honesty, one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten. In an instant I understood why some people could consider food a gateway to degeneracy because there was nothing dignified about the way I shovelled it into my mouth.

It was also incredibly filling – I cut two ordinary slices for both me and my husband but because the pie had a bit more height than normal we could only manage about 3/4 of a slice each. Luckily, Acton recommended that the pie could be enjoyed hot or cold so though it’s unorthodox, we’ll be having more of it for breakfast tomorrow.

Unfortunately for Acton her fame, reputation and glorious pies were eclipsed by Mrs Beeton when Household Management was published in 1861. Fans of Acton might take a little morbid comfort in the knowledge that Eliza had been dead for two years by this point, though, so didn’t live to see her fame dwindle in comparison to Beeton’s rising star. Slightly meaner fans who enjoy seeing Mrs B’s recipes lambasted (or who just enjoy it when I cook something that ends up inedible) might want to click here for an example of stereotypical bland Victorian fare.

Comparative fame or not, it’s clear that Acton’s chicken pie wins hands down out of the Victorian recipes I’ve tried so far. Myth-busting and delicious, this is one dish I’ll definitely make again and would really encourage anyone who likes pie to give it a go – raised or not.

E x

Modern Chicken Pie

2 large chicken breasts
300g sausage meat
500g plain flour
250g butter
Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
A good grating of nutmeg
A good pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Melt the butter in hot water and gradually add it to the flour until it forms a dough. Set aside about 150g worth for the lid.
  3. Knead the rest of the dough into a lump and then, as if pushing down on clay on a pottery wheel, hollow out the centre to form a rough shaped case. Don’t push all the way through the dough as you want to ensure the filling doesn’t leak out of the sides or bottom.
  4. Continue shaping the pastry case by pushing the dough down and kneading up the sides until it is about 5 inches in diameter and 4 or 5 inches tall. You may want to use a bowl or small cake tin to help give it a neat form.
  5. When the pastry is the required size and shape, pop it into the fridge to firm up for about 20 minutes.
  6. Chop the chicken into small lumps and place in a large bowl.
  7. Add the salt, mace, nutmeg and cayenne to the chicken and make sure each piece is coated.
  8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and push a layer of sausage meat into the base. Sprinkle with water and then add a layer of chicken. Repeat each step until the case is filled (I managed two layers of chicken and three of sausage meat.)
  9. Roll out the dough set aside at the start to a small disk and place on top of the pie. Make sure the edges are sealed by crimping them or pinching them to the edge.
  10. Make a slit in the top of the pie to allow steam out of the pie when cooking and brush the pastry all over with egg yolk wash. You can add some pastry decorations at this point if you want to.
  11. Bake. After an hour, check that the pie crust isn’t turning too brown and if it is, cover it with foil. Turn the oven to 180 degrees C and continue baking for another hour after which time the pie should be cooked.

Crispe Pancakes: 19th century

I didn’t go to uni in Wales.

It’s an odd statement to begin with, sure, but it’s something that has brought endless shame and disappointment to my parents who both went to Aberystwth Abersythwith Aberystwyth university.

I remember one summer they took me and my sister on a long and winding car trip to their old stomping ground which basically consisted of us standing in drizzle while they oohed and ahhed over university buildings saying things like “oh look darling, didn’t this used to be maths?” and “gosh I can’t believe that’s still standing!” The whole trip culminated in a maddening journey where we walked, shivering, along the seafront to kick an old post – sorry, bar – for no reason whatsoever. As an eleven year old whose friends were all sending me postcards of their fortnights in Mallorca and Tenerife it was not the highlight of my summer holiday.

Ten years later my sister proudly made her way to Aberysy…Aberysywt… the same uni too, where she met her boyfriend who also had two brothers who had studied there. Cue more dizzying car trips to visit her and engage in more nonsensical violence against public railings once we got there. But now I was outnumbered – when my sister suggested we walk up something very high and steep called Constitution Hill (because, speaking from experience, you need an iron constitution to survive it) everyone got very excited instead of quite rightly asking if she’d gone mad. Later that very same day she offered to show us round the uni. The catch? To get there we had to walk up another seemingly never ending hill. Cue more gleeful hand clapping as I stood there, still dripping in sweat, wondering when we’d get to come down from all these hills (the answer was never – to this day I’m convinced that Aber operates like some sort of Penrose staircase; always going up, up, forever and exhaustingly up.) Those Aberystwyth sunsets though? Phew.

Did…did my sister go to uni at Hogwarts?!
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Credit here.

Needless to say I was very interested when I was contacted a month or so ago by an archivist at the Ceredigion Archives who introduced me to their records of life in Wales (including lots of Aber life) and most notably a 19th century recipe book from the Webley-Parry papers. Finally, here was my chance to earn my family’s respect!

The Webley-Parry family were landed gentry from Cardiganshire, and the Ceredigion Archives houses many papers relating to various members of the family through the 18th and 19th centuries. The recipe book from today’s experiment contains handwritten everyday tips, hints and recipes for the Webley-Parry family written by different authors from different times, most likely the cooks of rich households who shared recipes with each other. There are loads of interesting recipes in the archives that have been digitally uploaded – for roasts, tea biscuits (which one archivist has already made), wines and something called ‘Shrub’. Today I chose pancakes because it was Sunday – a day made for ‘fancy breakfast’ (read: cereal out of a bowl rather than stood over the sink gobbling dry fistfuls of it).

Interestingly, this was the first recipe I’ve recreated from an original source. I had to spend a while deciphering the handwriting but I think I managed to follow most of the instructions accurately with the right ingredients. If you think I’ve made a mistake please let me know by writing me a letter and popping it straight into the recycling bin.

I’ve written about making pancakes before, and the recipe here struck me as being similar to medieval ‘Crespes’, so I was interested to see what the differences were.

Before we start I will admit to one tiny mistake; the last instruction said to fry the pancakes in lard “as you do fritters”. This was what made them so crispy, I assume. I misread the handwriting and thought it said fry in lard “as you do kittens.” I was alarmed; I had never fried a kitten in lard (or any other cooking oil) and wasn’t sure of the best way, so carried on cooking them in in ordinary amounts of butter. By the time I’d worked out what it meant most of the batter had been used up so I was only able to fry two as if they were fritters.

First I took a pint of flour and added six egg yolks and two egg whites to it. A ridiculous amount of eggs, I agree, but at least now I have an excuse to make meringue. To make it into a batter I added warm water, sherry and mixed together before adding a little salt and mixed spice.

The recipe then said to add the mixture to a small pan and “bake them, but not too much” (helpful) before frying them in lard (like fritters, not kittens.) Because, as discussed, I wasn’t entirely sure of the handwritten instructions, I ended up cooking most of them like conventional crepes (in a little bit of butter until cooked on each side) – which resulted in very tasty but much floppier pancakes than what was intended.

Tasty but, unfortunately, not accurate. Try again.

The last two, however, I was able to recreate more closely to the original. The “bake them, but not too much” instruction confused me – if I baked what was left one at a time in a pan in the oven I’d be there all day baking and frying, waiting for the pan to cool before discarding butter and baking and frying all over again. If I just poured the batter out into pancake size blobs onto a baking tray and baked them surely it would all pool into one big pancake which I’d then not be able to fry? I ended up ‘baking’ them in a dry pan over a low flame until the wetness of the batter had disappeared but there were no dark spots.

Then it was time to fry them properly. I removed my barely baked pancakes and dolloped about half a packet of butter into the hot pan. After I’d opened a window, gulped down a few lungfuls of fresh air and blinked the smoke out of my eyes I tried again with the remaining butter (that’s right – I wasted a whole packet for this) in a cold pan heated slowly over time. Once the butter was hot, but not so hot it sent the town’s fire brigade to my front door, I cautiously placed one of the pancakes into the pool. It puffed up a little bit like a chapati, but not all the way round, and after about 30 seconds I flipped it over to cook on the other side.

Sunburned pancakes…mmmm.

So, what were these pancakes like? Well, the first lot which I hadn’t cooked in a whole packet of butter were absolutely delicious. Rich and quite eggy without being cloying and with a definite hit of sherry – they were like a very fancy modern pancake. The mixed spice added a lovely warming hit which meant that (and I never thought I’d say this) they had enough flavour that I found myself wondering if I’d even need sugar and lemon to complete the dish at all. As somewhat of a pancake purist, to put it mildly, the idea of serving a crepe pancake without lemon and sugar was anathema to me – yet here I was quite happily forking this delicately spiced, slightly alcoholic pancake into my mouth while the expectant lemon sat un-squeezed and un-needed.

The properly fried ones were something slightly different, however. As my husband put it, they were like “concentrated pancake.” The taste was a lot more overpowering – the sherry was gone, replaced with a butteriness that seeped into every taste bud. The spice was still there, but it was fighting more to be heard and with the fried ones I found myself wanting the citric tartness of a lemon to cut through the grease. Were they crispy, though, as the recipe promised they would be? Well, not really. They were certainly crispier than the other ones, but once you bit through an initial crust-like layer, they were still soft inside. I also think they needed to be eaten immediately to enjoy maximum crispiness – again, much like a chapati, they began to deflate quickly once off the heat.

While I’m still not 100% sold on the fried ones, the first batch I made were truly delicious and I have to thank Ceredigion Archives for bringing the recipe book to my attention – these just might become my new Sunday ‘fancy breakfast’, they were lovely and I will definitely be making them again.

So am I sad I missed out on the chance to study at Aber? I mean, sure. It’s true I’ll never be an authentic Aberystwythian(?), not least because I lack the levels of fitness required to live anywhere that’s not dead on sea level. But in making these pancakes and delving into the Ceredigion Archives I sort of feel like I got a little glimpse into a small sliver of the history of Wales and Aberystwyth (spelled it right first time round – get in!)

Unlike my parents and sister I may not have studied or lived in Wales – but if it’s as good as these pancakes I get why my family was, and is, so charmed by the country.

Ond nid af i fyny’r bryn hwnnw eilwers.*

E x

*I don’t speak Welsh so this is the work of Google translate. I know what I was trying to say but please forgive me if it’s been translated as “hurry spatula fourteen eels” or some other nonsensical slogan – you know what Google translate can be like.

Crispe Pancakes

1 pint of plain flour
6 egg yolks
2 egg whites
A sherry glass of sherry
A pinch of mixed spice
Warm water
Lardto fry

  1. Combine flour, eggs, sherry and spice together to form a dough.
  2. Add warm water to create a consistency of double cream.
  3. Cook the pancakes until just cooked through but not browned in a pan.
  4. In another pan, melt a good spoonful of butter – you want to be able to cover the pancake in it.
  5. Place the pancake into the melted hot butter and fry until it puffs up. Flip over and fry again.
  6. Repeat for the remaining pancakes.

Poor Knight’s Pudding: 1859

A friend of mine was visiting New Zealand at the end of February. All was going well – she’d been welcomed by her daughter and son-in-law, was enjoying immersing herself in the local customs (read: doing the park run every weekend) and had eschewed traditional tourist sites in favour of public toilets so splendid and magnificent they had their own tourist marker on the map and 4/5 stars on Tripadvisor.

And then: lockdown. Months have passed and she remains, in her own words, stuck passing the time on the phone to the airport trying to book various flights home, only for them to be pushed back indefinitely or cancelled. It gives her something to do now the toilets have stopped taking visitors, apparently.

One thing she did manage to do before we were all plunged into quarantine was visit Poor Knights Islands, whose English name possibly comes from the islands’ resemblance to an English dish called Poor Knight’s Pudding – a sort of Anglo version of French toast. Poor Knight’s Pudding was a popular dish at the time of Captain Cook; the man who ‘discovered’ the islands, much to the surprise of the Ngatiwai people who already lived there, in 1769. The islands are also famed for their red flowering summer pohutukawa blossoms which mimic jam on Poor Knight’s Pudding. Maybe I could do some research on the dish, she wondered, and possibly recreate it?

Jammy French toast? Count me in.

The earliest records of Poor Knight’s Pudding comes from ‘W.M.’s 1658 work The Compleat Cook (“To make poore knights”) where bread is dipped in cream and eggs, fried in butter and drizzled with rosewater, but this recipe doesn’t shed much light on why it was called Poor Knight’s Pudding. Foods Of England reveals that there are similar European dishes with equivalent names (a German recipe called arme rittera and a Finnish one called köyhät ritarit), but that none of these alternatives gives any indication as to the dish’s name either. To add some more confusion to the mix, Regula Ysewijn points out that after 1791 the English version of the dish seems to have changed name to Poor Knights of Windsor and the cream was replaced with white wine and sugar before being fried and served with cinnamon.

The original Poor Knights of Windsor were a group of knights who became financially ruined during the Battle of Crécy in 1346 by having to ransom themselves after being captured by the French; probably the most awkward and expensive realization of one’s own unpopularity that ever existed. Though Edward III clearly didn’t think enough of them/have enough money to pay their ransom personally, he did set up The Alms Knights of St. George’s Chapel which provided shelter and a pension to twenty-six ‘Poor Knights’ in exchange for them attending four Church services a day and praying for the king. As time went on, the Alms Knights for retired impoverished military personnel continued to lodge ‘Poor Knights’ at Windsor Castle with subsequent kings and queens decreasing and increasing the number of ‘Poor Knights’ on roll as they saw fit, until William IV renamed them the Military Knights of Windsor in 1833.

Whether or not this dish was named after them, one thing was becoming clear: there was a distinct and disappointing lack of jam in all of the early recipes. Now, it’s very probable that jam or stewed fruit was served alongside traditional Poor Knight’s Pudding so maybe Captain Cook wasn’t totally delusional when he looked at flowery rocky islands and saw a bread and jam based pudding, but as jam is absent from all the recipes I looked at I didn’t include it in today’s experiment.

The recipe used today is a Victorian incarnation from J.H. Walsh’s 1859 The English Cookery Book, chosen for one thing alone: its accompanying side dish.

First I took a stale white bread roll and sliced it thinly into five slices. The slices were then dipped into a mixture of whole milk, one egg, one tablespoon of sugar and nutmeg and left to absorb it for an hour. After an hour the soggy, swollen slices were lifted and drained on a wire rack over a bowl for another hour.

Poor, flabby, blob knight’s pudding.

Once the dunking and draining had been completed it was time to transform the bread from globby blobs to golden brown toast. I fried each slice in a pan of butter for a few minutes on each side and then turned to the reason I’d chosen this version of the dish – the wine sauce.

Walsh insisted the way to serve Poor Knight’s Pudding was with wine sauce, which it turned out was melted butter and sugar mixed with sherry and brandy. Who was I to argue?

For some reason (probably because we are both in our 20’s and neither of us is landed gentry) we didn’t have any brandy in. We did have sherry though, left over from Christmas and – inexplicably – cherry brandy. God knows why, maybe we won it in a raffle?

It wasn’t quite what Walsh recommended, but it would have to do. Almost as soon as I added the sherry and cherry brandy to the melted butter I knew I was onto a winner. The liquid turned a deep amber and the smell became intense and fragrant. I added lemon rind and nutmeg and took it off the heat. There might have been a chronic lack of jam, but I felt confident that the wine sauce would make up for it.

Everything looked great, and I was looking forward to eating this alone. I’d timed it all to perfection; the fried bread was still steaming, the wine sauce was warmed through and, best of all, my daughter was napping upstairs only able to dream of stealing my food rather than attempt it for real. And then. And then.

“That looks good. What is it?”

A shadow in the doorway loomed larger and my husband came into the room.

“I’ve just been outside fixing the trellis, like you asked” he said to my plate of food. “I’m starving.”


“Yeah. Really hungry.” Eyes still on the plate.

There was a pause almost as awkward as a knight realising he was going to have to pay his own damn ransom.

Long story short: I did 100% of the research for these myself, I made 100% of these myself, I ate 40% of them. Ladies, add Poor Knight’s Pudding to things that are victims of a gender-gap.

I didn’t even get the bigger slices. Outrageous.

They were bloody brilliant, though. Which kind of made the fact I semi-voluntarily gave three of the five slices up even more bitter. The fried bread was much softer and richer and less ‘toast-y’ than normal French toast because it had been soaking for so long. It had a slight spiciness to it thanks to the nutmeg and a sweetness thanks to the sugar.

But the real star was the wine sauce. Buttery and boozy, it was almost too indulgent. Even once the fried bread had been eaten we sipped at the leftover sauce with spoons. As time went on the butter separated from the alcohol which created a pretty two-tone element to the sauce; gold overlaying amber.

French toast, eggy bread, Poor Knight’s Pudding – call it what you want. As long as you’ve got wine sauce (or jam if you prefer a modern version) I can think of no better way to use up a stale bun.

E x

Poor Knight’s Pudding with Wine Sauce

For the fried bread:
1 white roll
1 egg
1/2 pint whole milk
Sugar to your taste (I added 1 tablespoon)
Grated nutmeg

For the wine sauce:
50g butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 sherry glass of sherry
1/2 sherry glass of brandy
Rind of 1/2 lemon
Grated nutmeg

  1. Slice the bread roll into slices approximately 2cm thickness.
  2. Add egg, milk, sugar and nutmeg to a large bowl and mix together well.
  3. Place the bread slices into the mixture and coat each slice. Then leave the slices in the mixture for 1 hour.
  4. After an hour, pour off the mixture and drain the bread on a wire rack for 1 hour.
  5. Fry the slices of bread in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Fry each side for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a warm plate.
  6. In a pan heat the butter for the wine sauce. When melted, add the sugar and dissolve over low heat.
  7. Add the sherry and brandy and swirl into the butter and sugar.
  8. Add the lemon rind and nutmeg and heat on a low heat for a couple of minutes to give time for the flavours to infuse.
  9. Remove wine sauce from heat and drizzle over the fried bread. Eat immediately before your husband can see.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake: 1879

Happy Easter!

In honour of Jesus’ disciples (NOT YOU, JUDAS) and as a virtual homage to modern simnel, there are eleven hidden* Easter eggs of the nerdy variety in this post – find them all, win a prize.** In the Easter spirit of goodwill and peace I feel I must tell you that there are also a good few egg-related puns thrown in to keep hardcore egg fans (you know who you are) sunny side up. I make no apologies for these, although I’m aware we’ll all be feeling eggstremely awkward by the end. Feel free to log off now (I would.)

Hopefully by the time the day’s done you’ll have argued with loved ones over how large your Easter hunt haul is, vomited up an unholy (ha) amount of chocolate and had at least one Zoom call that went: “We can see you! We can see you! Can you see us? Oh wait…it’s frozen. Darling, do you know how to get it to unfreeze? It’s just showing me a picture of their dog’s crotch at the moment. Hang on… yes! HAPPY EASTER! How are you? Oh no it’s frozen again. Gosh, she’s got quite the nose on her hasn’t she? I’ve never really noticed it before – oh! You can still hear us? Ah.”

Easter will be a weird one for lots of us this year, what with the Easter bunny not being allowed out apart for non-eggsential travel, but that’s no reason to negglect history. I know, I know. You thought you could use these unprecedented times as an excuse; that I’d take pity on you and give you a break. But really – do you think that Jesus arose on the third day to make an Easter bonnet out of pipecleaners and mini chick toys so that you could “have a break” from my ego?

Get over yourselves.

Gone are the days of meaningless night-before trips to the supermarket to load up on Cadbury’s 3 for 2 to dole out to our nearest and dearest. This year I’ve been surprised at how touched I’ve been by the gifts left by family members on our doorstep for my daughter – a bunch of flowers, a chocolate rabbit, an Easter card. They feel extra poignant and though it’s true I ate that bunny within 30 seconds of it being inside the house and before she knew it existed, it’s nice to think that despite our troubles this year still can still feel special.

It’s family that’s the focus for today’s cake, actually. There’s a million and one posts about the history of Easter, why we celebrate Easter bunnies and the hot cross bun and they’re all much better than anything I could write, but there’s only a million about the history of simnel cake so plenty of space for me to crack on and throw my take on it into the ring.

I don’t know the reason, but this guy’s Easter has taken quite the turn.

Why’s it called Simnel?

Eggsellent question (I know you were waiting for that one.)

Modern day Simnel is a light fruit cake with a marzipan top and 11 marzipan balls circling the edge to represent Jesus’ disciples. Yes it’s true there were 12 disciples, but in order to show how cross they were with Judas for betraying Jesus, bakers denied him his own little marzipan ball. It’s the baking equivalent of cropping someone out of a picture – which is what da Vinci should have done. It’s a cake that lots of people feel they should make at Easter, but don’t really want to on account of the abundance of much more convenient and “treaty” food after 40 days of Lent (I mean, who would pick fruit cake over chocolate? Lunatics, that’s who.)

Having said that, Simnel Cake wasn’t originally a cake for Easter. In fact it wasn’t even a cake, and the marzipan balls that are so synonymous with simnel are actually a relatively modern concept. True simnel contained no marzipan whatsoever.

An almost certainly untrue story told in Chamber’s Book of Days of 1879 says that a couple a long time ago called Simon and Nelly found some spare dough one Easter and had a fight over what to do with it. Simon, the bloody weirdo, wanted to boil it but Nelly, who was clearly carrying over 50% of the brains of the couple, said they should bake it instead. In the end they came to a pointless compromise and boiled it for a bit before baking it afterwards so that “this new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known as the cake of Simon and Nelly…Sim-Nel, or Simnel!” An earlier 1838 poem in the Wiltshire Independent switches the madness round and has Nelly insisting on boiling the dough and Simon as the voice of reason, but the general absurdity of the tale is still the same. In reality simnel has been around for a lot longer than either Simon or Nelly.

Simnel is referred to as early as the 13th century, though it probably pre-dates this, but there are no surviving recipes for it. This is partly because the word simnel wasn’t necessarily describing a specific recipe; possibly a scrambled form of the Latin ‘simila conspera’, meaning ‘fine flour’, medieval simnel refers to a type of leavened bread that was prepared for spring. This bread was high quality indeed: the Chronicle of Battle Abbey tells us that William the Conqueror granted the monks there 36 oz. of “bread fit for the table of a king, which is commonly called simenel.”

As the 13th century progressed, however, simnel began to take on another meaning, much more similar to our concept of a cake. In 1225, John of Garland wrote in his Dictionarius that simineus was a French word for the Latin for cake, placenta, possibly highlighting that simnel was moving away from a description of flour into something more like a cake we would recognise.

Skipping past the story of the 15th century pretender Lambert Simnel (who’s nothing more than an eggregious red-herring in the history of the simnel), by the 17th century the simnel cake had eggceeded simnel bread in popularity. It seems to have been particularly popular in Shrewsbury, Bury and Devizes with all three locations claiming slightly different variations of the simnel cakes as their own.

At the same time, the symbolism of the simnel was forming. Since the Middle Ages people had followed the tradition of returning to their ‘mother’ church and bringing presents to their mothers on the fourth Sunday of Lent: Mothering Sunday. As the centuries progressed Mothering Sunday became more of a bank holiday with domestic servants, girls in particular, given the day off to return home to visit family and the church of their baptism. Naturally, as good daughters, they brought their mothers homemade gifts and it’s in this context that the simnel cake came into its own.

A servant might have to poach some ingredients from her mistress to make the cake or, if she was well thought of, the mistress would donate the ingredients to her. The better quality the ingredients, the higher regard the mistress had for the servant – meaning that a girl had to adopt a souffle souffle approach with her mistress in the weeks preceding Mothering Sunday to ensure she was given the best ingredients. The mother would be given the simnel by her daughter but wouldn’t usually eat it until Easter Sunday, when she would cut into it and, in an act of motherly love, intensely scrutinize the efforts of the daughter to see whether the cake was still moist or whether she’d raised a disappointment.

The best simnels are gluten-free, dairy-free and Judas-free.
Image credit here.

Shrewsbury simnel

Since I’d missed Mothers’ Day by a good three weeks I wasn’t off to the best start. In addition to this, the Take That Greatest Hits albumen I’d bought for my mum hadn’t gone down well, least of all because my mum can’t stand Take That so there was a lot resting on this cake.

Traditional Shrewsbury simnel cake was nothing like I was expecting. Slightly disconcertingly, I had to start by making a dough out of flour, water and saffron until it was a very stiff, which I had to shape into a pastry case that would hold its shape, without baking it.

Luckily for me my temperamental kitchen gets very hot at the slightest hint of sun and I had chosen to make this on the first day of the mini heat wave. I wailed as my pastry case wilted under my clumsy hands. When I’d had en-oeuf of failing, I cheated and shaped the dough in a saucepan lid and stuck it in the fridge to firm up while I got on with the actual cake.

The recipe for simnel in Book of Days is succinct and unhelpful: “a very rich plum cake with plenty of candied lemon and other good things.” I can’t stand fruit cake myself, so wasn’t sure how to just whip one up. I consulted Chambers’ English contemporary, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management for what constituted “rich plum cake” and “good things”.

Mrs Beeton had three distinct recipes for plum cake, of varying quality. The best one, which she enticingly called “an unrivalled plum pudding” used a cholesterol-boosting 16 eggs. Since my hypothetical mistress had granted me 2 because that was all we had in before the next shop, I worked my way onto the second best recipe, which called itself “an excellent plum pudding made without eggs”. This one looked good eggcept it contained mashed carrot and mashed potatoes. These ingredients might seem bizarre today, but they would have helped keep the cake moist for the weeks leading up to its consumption. Unfortunately we didn’t have carrots or potatoes in either. With a heavy heart, already seeing the disappointment in my mother’s eyes, I turned to her most basic of recipes which she had tartly entitled “a baked plum pudding.” No eulogising here – just a straightforward cake with currants, sultanas, suet (we actually did have some of that in, don’t ask me why), flour, eggs and lemon peel. No sugar, I noticed. Also, Mrs B wanted to me to add milk to this, (or water for a “very plain pudding”, which really highlighted how far I’d strayed from my quest for Chambers’ rich plum pudding), but I added brandy instead, which she’d used in her unrivalled plum pudding.

The mixture was very wet because it used a higher ratio of egg to flour than I was used to working with. I realised later that I’d messed up my calculations when converting Mrs B’s lbs to grams so I ended up adding a bit more flour and suet to firm it up a bit. I then spooned it into the chilled pastry case it went, which promptly began sagging at the sides, all my careful chilling undone.

The next stage involved boiling the pastry encased pudding for several hours. I had added a pastry lid and by this point the whole thing resembled a sort of deflated pastry ball. In my mind I saw my mother’s eyes fill with angry tears. Panicked, I tied it in a muslin cloth and forced it back into the saucepan lid for structure and as I crossed my fingers I poured boiling water over it. After half an hour I pulled it out of the saucepan lid, confident that 30 minutes boiling would have helped set the pastry, and replaced it, lidless, back into the water.

I did feel eggceptionally Victorian during this bit, it has to be said.

After two and half hours I lost patience. I was already pretty sure this wasn’t going to redeem me from the Take That CD and wanted to get it over and done with. Tentatively, I pulled the dense mass from the seething pot, peeled off the muslin and looked upon my deformed doughy creation. My husband chose that moment to wander in.

“What’s that?” he asked fearfully.

“It’s a simnel cake.”

He paused. “Oh, for Easter?” Then, completely oblivious to the irony: “It looks like a cake for Satan.”

Once I’d chased him out of the kitchen I dotted some pastry blobs on, because I’d seen them on a drawing of a simnel in Book of Days (though Chambers made no reference to them being the disciples), glazed the Satan cake with egg wash and baked it for an hour. It was then that I read that truly authentic simnels should be so hard that they felt “like wood” and that Chambers could recall a lady who had never seen one before mistaking a large one “for a foot stall.” Because nothing says Happy Belated Mother’s Day/Easter like a cake that could double up as furniture.

After an hour it was ready. I took a photo of it and texted it to my mum.

“Happy Easter! It’s a simnel cake!”

I saw she’d seen it. Three little dots appeared as she formed a response. Then they went away. They came back for a minute and then disappeared again. She was either really, really delighted or cutting me from her will. Finally:

“Is it though?”


Despite her lukewarm response, it was instantly obvious why this would have been a good cake to take back home to keep for the weeks before Easter – with its thick impenetrable pastry case there was no way this cake could go off. Even before I cut into I knew that if I left it for 1000 years it would survive.

Taste-wise, this was not as good as a modern day simnel. It was incredibly eggy, because I had messed up the ratios, although it wasn’t completely inedible because the amount of currants and sultanas provided a little natural sweetness. I could definitely taste the brandy, and was glad I’d not just used milk because it made the whole thing slightly richer. Without it it would have been quite bland, which is why I see why Chambers called for a “very good” plum pudding because what I’d made was essentially a weak fruity flan.

The pastry was weirdly pleasant, though. It tasted of saffron, because there were no other flavourings in it and eating it felt like a bagel. The outside crust was very hard and I reckon if I’d wanted to I absolutely could have used it for a little foot stall. Once I got through it, though, it was softer and chewy. I know it looks a bit underdone in the picture, but it wasn’t – again, it had the dense chewiness of a pretzel.

All in all though, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t able to give this to my mum. Even though I hope I’ve shown the modern day simnel isn’t technically traditional, she counts herself as a simnel purist and the lack of marzipan balls and over abundance of pastry in this version wouldn’t have impressed her one bit.

Hopefully you’ve had a great, if weird, Easter with at least one chocolatey treat in it somewhere. I also hope you managed to catch up with family or friends without Skype freezing on a picture of the dog’s marzipan balls, that you were able to enjoy the sunshine and that wherever you are you remain healthy and safe. This will end, one day, and when it does? Well, let’s just say there’s a boiled simnel cake encased in pretzel pastry waiting for you. Aren’t you eggstatic?

Happy Easter.

E x

*Loosest use of the word hidden
**Prize does not eggist.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake

160g plain flour
80g currants
80g sultanas
80g suet
2 eggs
1/4 pint of brandy
Candied peel or lemon rind

(For the pastry)
250g plain flour
Water to mix

  1. Mix the ingredients for the pastry together and knead until it forms a very stiff dough.
  2. Shape the dough around a pan so that it forms a pastry case. Keep some dough back for a lid. Place in the fridge to chill and set.
  3. Begin on the cake. Mix flour, suet, currants, sultanas and lemon peel in a bowl.
  4. Add the eggs and brandy and mix well.
  5. Spoon the cake batter into the pastry case. Add the pastry lid onto the case and pinch the edges tightly to stop cake batter escaping during cooking.
  6. Wrap the pastry case with cake in it up in a muslin cloth and place in a pan of boiling water. Boil for at least 2 hours.
  7. Remove pastry case with cake in it and unwrap. Glaze with egg wash.
  8. Place it on a baking tray and bake in an oven at 190 degrees for 1 hour.

Apple Pandowdy: 1869

It’s very hard to sum up America in the 19th century. Every day I lament to myself: why, oh why, can’t America in the 19th century be summed up more easily? But that’s just the way it is.

Where were its skyscrapers, malls and subways? Its millions of tourists flocking to see shows on Broadway and the sights of the Grand Canyon? Where were its property tycoons rigging up chains of luxury hotels before inexplicably becoming president? And, for the love of God, just what was going on with the flag?! (There were over 20 incarnations of it during the 19th century alone as more and more states were admitted to the Union.)

From the 1810 census we are told there were just over 7 million people living in America, with most of them listed as living in the Northern and Southern Eastern states such as New York and South Carolina. However, it’s best not to take everything the 1810 census says at face value; until 1830 there was no standardised method of acquiring and presenting information, some states’ census returns got lost or altered over the years and, pretty crucially, it didn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains to the West. It’s also pretty inaccurate in that it categorises the free white settlers into groups (males under the age of ten, females aged 26-44 etc), but then allowed slave owners to record a single lump sum for the number of slaves they owned, so detailed records of the demographics of an entire 1.5 million people are absent.

Flawed as it was, the 1810 census did provide some context to how much America changed in the 100 years of the 19th century to become more like the America we know today. As the 1890 census attests, the population (including Native Americans this time) had increased to just under 63 million and because slavery had been abolished in 1865, no slaves are listed either. That didn’t mean the problems of slavery had vanished; the reconstruction of the south following the American Civil War (1861-1865) had been messy and many ex-slaves found their lives had changed not a jot and in some cases worsened as they were left to fend for themselves in communities that made it clear they were still slaves in all but name, despite the then President Ulysses S. Grant’s attempts at promoting civil rights.

Ulysses S Grant, American president 1869 – 1877. Also half alien, apparently.

Who were the Americans?

As well as political changes, the people of America were changing their perceptions of what it meant to be American. Was it that you had to have been born in the country, or was ‘American’ a state of mind? This was the century to find out.

In the first half of the 19th century there were some very dull land exchanges which men with big beards sitting in wood panelled rooms tend to get very excited about, but your average 15 year old always switches off for when it comes round to that part of the GCSE course. Essentially, in 1803, the Americans experienced their first major foray into capitalism when they bought 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River off the French for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the size of America but the problem was the Americans didn’t quite know what to do with all this land. In 1819, one particularly excited beardy man called Major Stephen Long was sent on a mission to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River and came back to tell the government that, in a spectacular example of ‘Buyer Beware’, the lands the government had paid so much for were:

“…wholly unfit for cultivation and farmers cannot hope to live on this land. Occasionally there are large areas of fertile land but the shortage of wood and water will mean settling in the country is impossible.”

Major Long, 1819

Yikes. So inhospitable and barren did the American people believe the West to be that they called the Great Plains the ‘Great American Desert’ (thereby proving that the American talent for self promotion has grown over time, or at the very least that PR and advertising has changed dramatically.)

The government tried to promote the idea of moving westwards for expansion as much as it could until in 1845 John L O’Sullivan, founder of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review coined the term ‘Manifest Destiny’. He argued that since God had given Americans all this land, they had a duty – nay, a destiny – to take it, cultivate it and control it. Never mind that there were already people living on the Great Plains, the government said. Were they white? No? Christian? No? They didn’t count. This slant was very popular, (and helped by the discovery of gold in 1849), and from the 1840’s onwards America’s population boomed as migrants from the East and immigrants from other countries flocked West to take their share of the land and its resources.

Conflict and tension between settlers and the Native Americans of the Great Plains increased sharply in the 1860’s as more and more Native Americans fought against the settlers for the land they had lived on for generations. Stories of brutality were common on both sides, although it’s worth remembering that one of those sides was made up of people with non mechanical weapons and the other side was made up of organised armies backed up with guns and profoundly racist passions: “…It is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” John Chivington, a pastor-turned-colonel (yes, really), said in 1864 before the Sand Creek Massacre.

Ironically, there was now a sense that the land, which had seemed too enormous and unending only a few decades ago, was suddenly at risk of overcrowding and of natural resources drying up. As settlers fought to take over the land and Native Americans fought to stop them, it might seem to some that this was a fight about more than just space; this was a fight about national identity and ideals. By the 1890’s it seemed that being a true American meant having a fighting spirit, a devotion to God and a belief that the right thing to do was to make use of all the resources available in order to better oneself, whatever the cost. That doesn’t mean that all people of the 1890’s were heartless, not at all. Just that they mostly operated, as with everyone else, within the parameters of their time and society.

Are you going to talk about food soon?

That’s a pretty long and surprisingly impassioned preamble to what is essentially a recipe for dry apple crumble, sorry. I’m struggling not having a class in front of me so you, poor reader, have become a bit of a stand in – I hope you were taking notes, there will be a test.

The reason for that not very relevant history is that for 19th century America, a recipe wasn’t just a chance to show off wealth or skill. It was often a mark of who you were – what your brand was. At a time when people were making the most of the new opportunities available to them and fighting for a sense of identity and belonging, no one published anything, not even cookbooks, without wanting to say something bigger about themselves than just ‘I make a good pound cake.’

The recipe for Apple Pandowdy comes from Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 and although the origin of the word ‘pandowdy’ isn’t clear, some historians believe it came about because of the dish’s appearance as being a bit boring, or ‘dowdy’, and having been baked in a pan.

For Charlotte Winslow, the 1800’s were the perfect opportunity to make her fame and fortune. A paedriatric nurse, she rose to prominence in the 1840’s as the face of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup – a cure all for ‘fussy babies’ that was manufactured by her son in law and his partner for sale in America and Britain. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was sold as a remedy for babies who were teething or had dysentery, because obviously those two things are very similar. It was hugely popular and in 1868, more than 1.5 million bottles were sold. The secret? Morphine.

“Would baby like his syrup inhaled or injected?”

One teaspoon had enough morphine in it to kill the average child. Just to make sure that non-average, already morphine-addicted children didn’t miss out, it also contained alcohol. Unsurprisingly, parents began to notice the adverse affects (to put it mildly) of giving the syrup to their children and the medicine quickly gained the nickname ‘Baby Killer.’ Despite this sales continued to do well and it wasn’t until 1906 that morphine was removed from the ingredient list (although the alcohol remained) and 1930 when it was finally removed from the market completely.

Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 proudly advertised itself as a book, or pamphlet, which could help women cook meals for their families as well as cure them with home made treatments. If the remedies inside the pages couldn’t help, then the adverts on the front of the book for Mrs. Winslow’s ready-made cough and cold remedies could be purchased at nearby pharmacies (or maybe street corners, given the contents of such treatments.)

What better recipe book to cook a meal for my family – including a young child – than from the manufacturer of the ‘Baby Killer’ herself?

It was a surprisingly easy recipe to follow and only used five basic ingredients. (Un?)Fortunately none of them was morphine.

First, I sliced three apples and laid a layer of them in a buttered dish. On top of this I scattered a tablespoon of brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs, sprinkled on a pinch of lemon zest and dotted some blobs of cold butter on top. I then repeated the process another two times until I had almost reached the top of the dish and the whole thing looked very ‘dowdy’ indeedy.

Mrs. Winslow added to the bottom of her recipe a note stating that “a little cider improves this very much” which was unnerving because a) she was basically telling me that this wasn’t worth eating without alcohol and b) given the proliferation of alcohol in her medicines I wasn’t sure what counted as ‘a little’ by her measurements. Also c) we didn’t have any in. We did have boring old apple juice, though, so I tipped 1/2 a cup full in. No baby killers here, thank you very much.

It baked for just over 30 minutes until the apple slices were soft enough to pierce with a fork and then I served it with some ice cream (which actually wasn’t anachronistic at all given that the first hand cranked ice cream freezers were introduced to America in the 1840’s.)

I don’t think I need to tell you that it was pretty dry. Perhaps my cup was too small, but it seemed as though I’d not added any liquid at all. I was thankful for the ice cream, which when melted into the dowdy made it much more like an apple crumble and less like slices of dehydrated apple under bits of toast. I also think that in my lockdown induced panic to make food last I’d been a bit stingy with my butter blobs, so that probably contributed to the dryness a bit too.

It smelled lovely, though, like sweet bread and other than the fact it sucked all the moisture out of my head it tasted pretty good too – faintly citrusy and not overly sweet. For an 1860’s family trying to save all the money they had in order to pay for the long journey westwards, it did a good job of acting like a sweet treat. Plus, it was handy for using up bread that had gone a bit stale and also didn’t need to use any eggs, like other recipes for stale bread did.

A recipe that used simple ingredients, was quick and easy to make and – bonus – didn’t kill any children: I think that’s as close to the American Dream as I could hope to achieve.

E x

Apple Pandowdy

3 large cooking apples
4 or 5 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
4 or 5 tablespoons of brown sugar
Grated lemon rind
150ml of apple juice or cider (or more if you want a bit of a sauce.)

  1. Peel and slice the applies thinly. Spread a layer of them into a buttered dish.
  2. Sprinkle some grated lemon rind onto the apples.
  3. Sprinkle over the apples a tablespoon and a half of brown sugar and a table spoon and a half of breadcrumbs.
  4. Dot five or six chunks of cold butter onto the breadcrumb and sugar.
  5. Repeat the whole process twice more.
  6. Bake in the oven at 190 degrees for 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.

The Leicester Method: 19th century

I’ve been practising my imaginary teleportation. For the uninitiated, this is a technique I use where I imagine myself transported to another place, or time, as a few seconds of escape from reality. Usually I only have to use it half way through the last lesson on Friday with year 11, but, well, y’know…

Trouble is I’m not amazing at it. I tend to find the thud of scrunched up paper balls bouncing off the whiteboard and the sounds of Ryan’s dulcet tones as he shouts “Miss, have I told you that I’m not doing any revision cos mum says there’s no point to it – she’s written you a letter”, a bit distracting (although who know Ryan’s mum would be right this year?!)

So, I’ve had a bit more time to hone my skills, and I’d like to share the technique with you. Besides, I think we could all do with a break from tending to the sourdough starters we all began back when being stuck indoors with partners was an opportunity to learn new skills together rather than a legitimate reason to consider mariticide.

For one or two minutes we’re going to take a break from the background drone of the TV and the incessant smothering proximity of our nearest (literally) and dearest, and go on a virtual holiday. Somewhere exotic, somewhere exciting. Somewhere so good you’ll forget all about how loudly and annoyingly your partner breathes while you’re trying to work and then if you do remember, it’s only for long enough to send a ‘Wish you Weren’t Here’ postcard. The holiday of a lifetime.

Close your eyes. Let the sounds of your house wash over you, lulling you into a trance like state. Feel your body sink…sink…sink down deeper into the couch and allow your mind float away…

…to Leicester.

(I did tell you I wasn’t very good at this, sorry.)

Okay, but this isn’t just any old Leicester – this is 19th century Leicester! Still not convinced about this holiday? What if I told you that, like many other towns during the second half of the Industrial Revolution, Leicester saw rapid population growth going from a population of just under 20,000 at the start of the century to about 167,000 by the end? Practically metropolitan! This bustling community was made up of many types of people: immigrants from the countryside seeking work, immigrants from other countries seeking new opportunities, long standing families and people just passing through, leading Oscar Wilde to quote: “I can resist everything except Leicester”* and Queen Victoria herself was overheard to complain frequently: “One cannot understand why London is not more like Leicester.”**

I know what those of you who grew up in Leicester are thinking: how would people in this new booming population find each other when they wanted to meet up? And so, to give the people of Leicester somewhere to congregate and listen to the Hari Krishna singers battle it out with the evangelical eschatologists (and also to ease congestion on the site of the former hay and straw market), the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower was created in 1868. Now people could chant to their hearts content as they munched on Big Macs from the McDonald’s adjacent to the clock tower whilst puffing on their inhalers to combat the powerful aromas of the LUSH store (by law there should be one in every town centre). Truly, the whole system was a Victorian marvel.

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

All this growth and building work expanded the town significantly and as a result Leicester became a county borough in 1889. This brought wealth and prestige (well, wealth at least) to the city and in 1898 the Grand Hotel was opened to accommodate the flocks of (lost?) tourists and traders visiting the city. What would those tourists come to see? Well, in 1862 Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester and began touring in 1884 as “the Elephant Man“. So I suppose if you could quash your conscience you could go along to one of the ‘freak shows’. Those of you preferring gentler methods of entertainment might want to jump to 1880 to enjoy a show of male brutality at the newly formed Leicester Tigers Rugby Union Football Club.

But what I think you’ll really enjoy is the freedom to get out of the house and mingle with people again…if you can find them.

It would appear that for parts of the 19th century, much of the population of Leicester was quarantined. “How strange!”, I hear you cry. “You’ve brought us to a self-isolating town, of all places, in order to escape self-isolating! It’s almost as if you’d engineered it for blogging purposes.”

Would I do that?

Anti-Vaccination in Leicester

The thing about Leicester in the 19th century is that lots of people there held pretty radical views. They held these views very strongly and whilst the stubbornness and sheer force of will were excellent for propelling certain groups forward, such as the Leicester Secular Society (the oldest secular society in the world, founded in 1851 to challenge what it called ‘religious privilege’), sometimes the strength of feeling around certain topics could cause problems for the authorities.

One of these certain topics was vaccination.

In 1853 the government made vaccination against smallpox – a common killer disease of the 18th and 19th century – compulsory in the first three months of a child’s life. This law was known as the New Vaccination Act, because the first Vaccination Act of 1840 had, somewhat naively, only made vaccinations free and hoped that would be enough to compel people to get vaccinated. The New Vaccination Act was followed in 1867 by a decree that stated all children below the age of 14 must receive their smallpox vaccine. For the people of Leicester, many of them working class, being told to fall in line so rigidly by upper class politicians who had up to now shown little to no interest in the plight of the poor was a step too far. In 1869 the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League was founded.

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

There were many reasons people in Victorian England opposed vaccination; religious grounds made up a large percentage of reasons (some felt the origins of the smallpox vaccine, which relied on matter from cowpox, mixed humans and animals together in an unchristian way whilst others suggested that smallpox was God’s punishment and to attempt a cure was to defy His will.) A fear of side effects and a mistrust of doctors accounted for other reasons (in 1841 the UK census suggested almost 1/3 of doctors were untrained and vaccines, new as they were back then, had not been tested safely which initially led to a number of deaths.) Along with these reasons, a feeling that vaccination was being forced on the working classes by those in power left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

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

Punishment for the people of Leicester was swift – in 1884, George Bamford was fined 10 shillings (half the average weekly wage) or told to spend a week in prison for refusing to vaccinate his fourth child – even though his mistrust of vaccines had been brought about by the death of one of his previous children following mandatory vaccination.

The Leicester Method

And yet smallpox, deadly and contagious though it was, failed to decimate the city. In 1877, a report by Dr W Johnson, Assistant Medical Officer of Health, showed that smallpox had appeared in Leicester but only caused six deaths.

Dr Johnson suggested that the low mortality rate was down to one main factor, which he termed ‘the Leicester Method’. This method relied on fast acting notification of smallpox to the local authorities and quarantine of those infected before the disease had a chance to spread. Dr Johnson urged parliament to grant Leicester a Local Act recognising the Leicester Method as an alternative to compulsory vaccination. In 1879, this Act was created in the Leicester Corporation Act.

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

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

Not exactly unfamiliar to us today.

Despite the steps highlighted above, many authorities rightfully had concerns about the Leicester Method and continued to prosecute those who refused vaccinations. In 1882, 2,274 summonses were issued for people withholding from vaccination and by 1885 tensions between the authorities and people of Leicester were at an all time high (yes – even higher than that year Leicester council faced strong criticism for how it decorated the city’s Christmas tree.)

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

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

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

Once the marching and dummy executions had been completed, the crowd met at the Market Place (thank god they’d finished the clock tower) to hear from anti-vaccination guest speakers. The whole event ended with rousing songs and a firm affirmation from the crowd to oppose vaccination in all its forms as much as any individual could. True to form, the following year at the next Guardian elections (think local elections), most of those returned were staunch opponents to compulsory vaccination who continued to petition and nag the governement relentlessly. Finally, in 1898 the people of Leicester achieved some of what they wanted in the 1898 Vaccination Act.

This Act removed some of the penalties imposed for resisting vaccination and included a conscience clause, which allowed parents to get a certificate of exemption if they did not wish to vaccinate their children. Now anyone with a suspicion of vaccination could cite the Leicester Method as a government sanctioned alternative and, as long as they followed the rules rigorously, theoretically couldn’t be sanctioned. Though the Leicester Method was used over 100 years ago when concerns over vaccinations and the manner in which they were carried out were legitimate, some anti-vaxxers still seek to uphold it as a viable alternative to vaccination today.

So, why is this wrong? Why can’t we just use the Leicester Method today? Why bother with a vaccine for coronavirus at all – apart from the fact it would mean staying indoors more often and for longer with those you’ve tried to escape from by reading this for the past 10 minutes?

I asked one of my oldest friends who is currently working as a doctor in New Zealand why the Leicester Method isn’t a reasonable alternative to vaccination. In between rolling her eyes in exasperation and requesting that she be referred to as my oldest ‘and most beautiful and intelligent’ of friends she managed to tell me, before popping off to save some more lives, that there are several reasons.

Firstly, the method relies heavily on everyone doing it properly. Under the Leicester Method, staying indoors means exactly that – staying indoors. No going out for a vague amount of exercise, no trips to the shops for essential bread, milk and M&Ms. You had medicine and provisions left at you door and you did not come out until an approved amount of time had passed. Given that people are still holding house parties it seems unlikely most of us would manage it.

Secondly, the Leicester Method doesn’t actually protect people from catching illness if they’re quarantined with an infected person. It’s a bit of a brutal fact that in quarantining an entire household with a sick member, you’re sort of guaranteeing it will spread within the household. Now, that’s pretty much where we are now because coronavirus is so new – but in the future, if a vaccine is created, you could stop the spread to family members and society wouldn’t have to shut down for an indefinite amount of time.

Thirdly, my beautiful and intelligent friend pointed out that we still don’t know loads about this virus. There are some studies to suggest it can live on some surfaces for three days. But the incubation period is longer than three days, so people could be asymptomatic and be spreading it around like butter on a hot crumpet before realising they have it. If there was a vaccine it wouldn’t matter if your 85 year old great aunt licked every outdoor railing she could find day after day, as long as she’d received the vaccination.

In short, the Leicester Method of the 19th century worked because people seem to have adhered much more strictly to the rules enforced at the time and because it’s easier to control the spread of disease in smaller populations. It’s worth also pointing out that once the Leicester Method had been approved for use, Charles Killick Millard, the Medical Officer of Health for Leicester from 1901 to 1935 advocated for the vaccination of medical and nursing staff who would treat patients, to stop the disease spreading further. This effectively created a bubble around the non-vaccinated citizens of Leicester where the disease was free to ravage as much as it could, but was prevented from escaping the city thanks to the protection of the voluntarily vaccinated.

Probably not the holiday you wanted or needed – a trip to self isolating 19th century Leicester. Sorry. But hey – that model of Edward Jenner getting hanged was good wasn’t it? And did you or did you not forget about how infuriating it is that your partner breathes that way?

Ultimately my friend’s advice is clear: stay indoors and when/if a vaccine is produced, use it if you’re advised to. And if you don’t want to use it then get used to the sound of your partner’s very loud and ever present breathing while you write your work emails from home as your colleagues celebrate their freedom with cake bought during non essential shopping trips and chat at the water cooler at a distance of less than 2 metres.

Oh and remember – I can make fun of Leicester because it’s my town. But if you do? Well. We’ll be ready to march in protest, all 100,000 of us. Meet us at the clock tower.

E x

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

Potted Shrimp (or prawns): 1861

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Potted Shrimp

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

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

Meat Pie: 1901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely not too GRUELling. Hilarious, I am.

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

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

E x

Meat Pie

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

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

Pancakes through time

I know – I’m late to the party. It seems the world and its wife have been posting about pancakes and their histories recently but work has been busy and I missed the chance to cook them all yesterday, so I hope you’re ready for another Pancake Opinion Piece today instead.

Let’s be honest right from the start – there are two types of people in the world: those that like their pancakes thin with sugar and lemon, and those that are wrong. You were all thinking it (and if you weren’t you need to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror.)

Oh, pancake fads may come and go – and yes, I’m counting Nutella in this, deal with it – but the eternal Queen of pancakes is a paper thin lacy crepe absolutely drowning in fresh lemon juice and rapidly dissolving mountains of sugar. I have known people who swear by abominations such as fresh fruit and cream or melted chocolate with a glug of Baileys or Cointreau and have even met truly twisted souls who say they enjoy a ham and cheese pancake (it’s pancake day not galette day!) Since I don’t have time for that sort of nonsense in my life I try to spend as little time with these people as possible and will deny all friendship with them if directly asked. Sorry, mum, but some of us have standards.

I didn’t want to add to the mountain of information about why we celebrate pancake day – Shrove Tuesday – as there’s really only a limited amount to say about it but you know the drill: last day before Lent to use up all the food you actually want to eat before embarking on a miserable 40 days of hiding in the pantry secretly stuffing crisps in your mouth when you should be fasting instead. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that all this is in preparation for gorging on chocolate at Easter as a celebration of the time Jesus returned from the dead as a man-sized bunny and performed the miracle of handing out candy eggs to children who happened to be visiting Golgotha that day on a school trip. Or something like that.

Shrove Tuesday may be a distinctly Christian celebration but it has roots that are much, much older. There’s evidence to suggest that before Christianity arrived in Britain, pagans enjoyed pancakes at the start of spring (because the round shape symbolised the returning sun) in a celebration a bit like the Eastern Slavic tradition of Maslenitsa. Before that, pancakes were enjoyed by Ancient Roman soldiers as they ate their breakfast before returning to their station to keep guard over the portions of Britain they’d conquered. And before that too, high up in the Italian Alps the 5,300 year old Stone Age man Otzi enjoyed pancakes as part of his last meal – traces of charcoal in the grain found in his mummified stomach indicate that he cooked and ate something that may have resembled a pancake before he died.

Go on – find another pancake blog that would lead with an image of a mummified corpse

So you’d think that this foodstuff – which spans millennia, religions, countries and customs – would have undergone some pretty radical changes. The pancake Otzi munched on as he hunkered down from the snow and tried to dodge skiers must have looked unrecognisable to the one my daughter kindly left festering on the floor under the table, right?

And yet, not so. Okay there may be some differences in thickness and the laciness so evidently required for a pancake to be truly worthy of its title, and some of the basic elements may have become more refined over the years, but the fundamental principle of what a pancake is doesn’t seem to have changed: flour and liquid (and sometimes eggs) mixed together and fried in a pan in fat.

For this pancake day I had planned to do something spectacular – attempt the original Crepe Suzette. Despite having no previous experience of flambéing or the ability to speak French beyond ‘le weekend, je vais à la piscine’ (a phrase I haven’t needed to use as much as my French book made me think I would) I did not immediately foresee a problem with this. No, it was only when it became apparent that there was no definitive first Crepe Suzette that I began to question whether it was possible.

One of the most popular origin stories of Crepe Suzette relates to a teenage waiter Henri Charpentier in 1895. The story goes that whilst working at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Cafe de Paris, he was called upon to prepare a dish of pancakes for the Prince of Wales and his entourage. As he sensibly mixed the alcohol together next to a naked flame, it accidentally caught fire and he thought the dessert was ruined. Fearing the loss of his job, he tasted it in the hope it could be salvaged and to his delight found it was “the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted.” The Prince thought so too, and when he asked what it was called the suck-up Charpentier told him that in honour of His Royal Highness he had named it Crepe Princesse (because like chairs, police stations and socks, all French pancakes are apparently girls.) The Prince asked that since there was a lady present in his entourage, could Charpentier rename the dessert after her – and so Crepe Suzette was born. Soon after Charpentier published this tale in his autobiography, the Maitre restaurant released a vehement response calling his version of accounts a lie because, given his young age at the time, there was no way he’d be let loose as the waiter to royalty. Other less self-aggrandizing stories tend to give versions that link Crepe Suzette to the French actress Suzanne Reichenberg, or the chef Monsieur Joseph’s desire to wow his diners and keep the food warm at the same time.

Whatever the truth was, it was clear that I was going to struggle with this one. Actually, it’s probably good that I didn’t attempt it as one restaurant critic wrote that the flames reached heights of 4 foot – and that was in the hands of an expert. So instead I decided to look at pancakes from three distinct time periods: Ancient, Medieval and Georgian.

Teganitai: 2nd century

Our first pancake comes courtesy of Galen, a man who’s well known as a 2nd century physician and philosopher in the Roman Empire but who somehow manages to escape the well-deserved title of ‘twit who helped halt medical advancement for a thousand years’ thanks to his promotion of the 4 Humours. History is full of twits like this so to be fair it’s not solely Galen’s fault that for years people thought that if someone was really sickly draining them of their blood would somehow cure them, but he definitely had key role in the tenacity of this belief.

When he wasn’t inadvertently contributing to humanity’s demise, Galen liked to write his thoughts down. He liked it a lot. In fact, he wrote so much down that even though an estimated two thirds of his works have been lost, the surviving texts we do have account for almost half of all the extant works of ancient Greece. One of these texts is called On the Properties of Foodstuffs and is a sort of treatise on various foods and their perceived attributes and abilities to cure or cause illness. For example, Galen advised boiling lentils once and seasoning with garlic to give a laxative effect (known as ‘purging’ in Humoural Theory) and that onions should be eaten by people with colds to thin the phlegm and restore the balance of the Humours.

On the Properties of Foodstuffs also contains one of the earliest written pancake recipes which Galen calls ‘teganitai’. It’s a very simple dish of wheat flour and water mixed into a paste the consistency of thick cream and then fried in olive oil. Galen mentions that there are two main flavourings that people added to the mixture – sea salt and honey. So, once my daughter had hoovered up her pancakes and set a new world record for stickiest toddler, I set about making my own teganitai.

Having just eaten binned my daughter’s rejected floor pancakes (as well as being deeply disappointed that the two flavourings weren’t lemon and sugar), I only made enough to make one of each type of teganitai. The batter was a doddle to mix up and heating the oil wasn’t exactly a minefield either. It’s interesting, then, that Galen writes about the production of these as if it were intricate surgery, going so far as to give detailed instructions on how to flip the pancake once it was cooked: “…the cook turns it, putting the visible side under the oil, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or three times till they think it is all equally cooked…” I mean I know I complain about a lack of detail in older recipes but that was too much.

After my basic kitchen competency had been sufficiently challenged, I tasted them. They. Were. Delicious. I take back everything I said before about Galen being a twit – who cares that his party piece was performing live dissections on squealing pigs? – the man knew how to make a pancake. I had been a bit wary of frying them in olive oil because I thought, given how few ingredients there were, that fried oil would become the dominant flavour and they would be limp and greasy but they weren’t at all. They were very reminiscent of doughnuts in that they were soft on the inside but crunchy outside but because of their smaller and flatter size they weren’t as greasy or heavy. Because they had been fried all over they weren’t soft and flexible, and of the two I preferred the honey pancake (the sea salt one was a little bland) because I naturally associate pancakes with sweeter tastes. The sea salt pancake cooked quicker and easier than the honey one because the batter was thicker whereas I found the honey one dripped a bit when I first flipped it (thus bringing the sufficiently fried side, which had been underneath at first, up to the top – cheers for the tip, Galen.) Although they cooked for the same amount of time, the honey one came out a couple of shades darker than the sea salt one, but it didn’t affect the flavour; I would genuinely make them again.

Teganitai – because Splodgeroos doesn’t sound Greek enough

Crespes: 1393

And so on to the medieval pancakes. Or should that be crepes?

I still really wanted to pay homage to my original idea of Crepe Suzette, but I also wanted to keep my eyebrows in tact. It was then that I was struck by the pancake gods of inspiration – why not make the first documented version of French crepe instead?

Enter the Goodman of Paris – a man who needs to thank his lucky stars he’s been dead several hundred years because the #MeToo movement would definitely want to have words with him. Written in 1393, Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Parisian Household Book’) was written by an anonymous 60 year old man for his very new and very young bride – an anonymous 15 year old girl. The central purpose of the book is to instruct the young girl on how to run a household and perform her wifely duties (gross) and, surprise, surprise, it comes off exactly as nobbish and pervy as you’d expect.

“Each night, or from day to day, in our chamber [I would] remind you of the unseemly or foolish things done in the day or days past, and chastise you, if it pleased me, and then you would strive to amend yourself according to my teaching and corrections, and to serve my will in all things, as you said.”

The Goodman of Paris to his wife

Dodgy relationships aside, one of the things the Goodman of Paris is concerned with is making sure his wife knows how to supervise and instruct her cooks in the correct preparation of fine food. Being a woman of some means (no, actually, a girl of some means – again: he is sixty years old, she is fifteen), she wasn’t expected to cook the food herself but should ensure her cooks knew how to. One of the many things her cooks should be able to prepare was ‘crespes’ and it appears that this is the first recorded recipe of something resembling modern day crepes.

This recipe was a step up from Galen in that it contained eggs and wine, but the general method was still the same: mix flour and liquids together and fry in sizzling butter. The difference was that this mixture was clearly meant to have higher quantities of liquid to flour, given that the Goodman says the mixture should “run around the pan”.

In an uncharacteristic bit of forward planning, I checked the recipe before I went out for the morning. I had to take my daughter to the dentist and figured that I could stop off at the shops beforehand to pick up anything I needed. Unfortunately it turned out the only thing I needed for this was white wine. No matter, I thought, I think I can style this out. Let me tell you now – I couldn’t. There can be little that’s more awkward than sitting in a dentist’s waiting room at 9:30 in the morning clutching a single bottle of Sauvignon blanc in one arm and a wriggling, shouty toddler in the other; I’m pretty sure that the receptionist called social services when we left.

In spite of the slight embarrassment, the wine was necessary because the recipe didn’t use any milk and only called for enough water to ‘moisten’ the egg and flour mix if it got too thick. I measured 150ml out and added it to the flour and eggs, which had been beaten into a smooth paste. The consistency was exactly the same as modern crepe batter and it cooked exactly like a crepe too, in a blob of butter. I felt delighted at the prospect of getting some real pancakes after all! Maybe, like his name implied, the Goodman of Paris wasn’t so bad after all?

Proper pancakes

These were also lovely. I could definitely tell there was alcohol in them but because they were so thin it was a background flavour rather than a key element. They had the texture of modern crepes and were just as satisfying. The only disappointment was that the Goodman served his with powdered sugar and made no mention of going one step further to add lemon juice, without which they were slightly dry.

I’d like to imagine that after a couple of years of putting up with him his young wife wrote her own version of Le Menagier de Paris filled with amendments and notes for him to improve on, but I suspect she didn’t. Maybe she just spat into his batter occasionally.

Rice pancakes: 1755

Someone who would have dished out criticism to the Goodman of Paris with the same relish as my daughter eating pancakes, was the English writer Hannah Glasse (of Curry ‘the Indian Way’ fame.) Hannah Glasse does not seem to have suffered fools gladly and wrote against French cooks specifically for being (as she saw it) wasteful and pretentious in their cooking: “I have heard of a [French] cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when everybody knows…that half a pound is full enough, or more than need to be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age [people] would rather [use] a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!” Yikes. Also, what were 18th century French cooks getting up to in their kitchens?!

Glasse first published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy with the modest tagline ‘which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published’ in 1747. It sold quickly and went on to run to over 40 editions, each with new recipes in it. Lots of these recipes were plagiarised, but Glasse was on to a good thing and simply swiped criticism away with a well manicured hand.

The 1755 version of The Art of Cookery contains several recipes for pancakes ranging from “a fine pancake” which contained an insane 18 eggs and which Hannah ensures us “will not be crisp, but very good” to an equally decadent pancake containing orange blossom water and sherry. The one that caught my eye, however was rice pancakes.

I’d never cooked with rice flour before but expected these to be very gelantinous and imagined they’d be reminiscent of scotch pancakes in their thickness and size. Hannah implied they should too as she described the mixture as being the consistency “of pap” and just as appetising. A quick analysis of the pap batter in more depth shows that it’s based on exactly the same principle as the previous two pancakes – the main ingredients are flour and a liquid (eggs and cream or milk in this case) fried on a pan. The one difference with this recipe is that the fat is incorporated into the batter before frying.

The American Dream

Okay – these do look like the quintessential fluffy American pancakes – all that’s missing is a blob of butter and syrup. I admit they’re the most photogenic of all three pancakes and are probably what most people incorrectly think of when they think of pancakes. However, they were a pain to cook.

The recipe started off well enough and smelled lovely, kind of creamy and semolina-ish, thanks to the rice flour. As someone who loves a milk pudding, I was all over the idea of them at this point. I also found the rice flour really pleasant to work with, it just sort of dissolved into the milk as I stirred – unlike its temperamental plain flour cousin who always throws a hissy fit and clumps if I take my eye off it for even a second.

The trouble came when it was time to cook them. I don’t know if the measurements were off slightly, but it was hard to flip these. They kept disintegrating, so what you see in the photo is actually only about two thirds of the total, the rest ended up in fluffy piles in the corner or shovelled into my daughter’s mouth who now thinks it’s pancake day every day.

Taste wise, they were also the most disappointing of the three. Because I’d only put in a little sugar and Hannah doesn’t suggest serving them with any accompaniments they were a bit bland and underwhelming. Very fluffy and light, but just a bit…meh. Unlike American ones, these rice pancakes wouldn’t hold up against maple syrup – the liquid would just make them disintegrate even more. Amazingly and against all my natural instincts, I found myself thinking that would would really work would be melted chocolate and fruit, so I guess that in that respect they were a success.

Overall, it’s easy to see why the basic recipe for pancakes is so unchanged – they’re easy and quick and can be adapted to be as classic or as flamboyant as needed. I may not quite have achieved pancake nirvana in any of these recipes, but I’m glad they paved the way for my beloved lemon and sugar variety – and to anyone reading who still thinks there’s a better topping: flip off.

E x


120g plain flour
225ml of water
2 tablespoons of honey or a pinch of sea salt
Olive oil for frying

  1. Heat enough oil to cover the base of a pan
  2. While the oil is heating, mix flour and water together. Add either honey or sea salt.
  3. Spoon two tablespoons of mixture into the oil at a time, or until you have a pancake the size of your palm. Fry on one side for 1 minute.
  4. Flip the pancake and fry on the other side for 1 minute.
  5. Continue flipping over until evenly cooked.


3 dessert spoons of plain flour
2 eggs
150ml of white wine
Dessert spoon of water
Butter to fry the pancakes

  1. Mix flour and eggs together.
  2. Mix water and wine and gradually add to the flour and egg mix.
  3. Melt butter in a pan and when it is bubbling, add enough batter to the pan, making sure it thinly covers the entire base.
  4. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes and flip the crepe over.
  5. Cook for 1 minute and then serve. Makes 5 or 6.

Rice pancakes

500ml whole milk
5 dessert spoons of rice flour
125g butter
Grated nutmeg
Sugar to taste
2 eggs

  1. Slowly heat the milk and 4 spoons of flour together until the mixture has thickened completely.
  2. Stir in the butter and let it melt.
  3. Grate the nutmeg into the mixture.
  4. Beat the eggs.
  5. Leave the mixture to cool a little before stirring in another spoon of flour and the beaten eggs and enough sugar to suit your taste.
  6. Cook in thick dollops on a hot frying pan for a couple of minutes on either side, turning when bubbles form and pop on the surface.