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?”

Oof.

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
Saffron
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
Butter
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.

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
Water
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

Teganitai

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.

Crespes

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.

Curry ‘the Indian Way’: 1774

My daughter loves colouring in. She loves it so much, easily more than she loves me or her father. She will colour in anything at all: books, bank statements, walls, sleeping cats – if it sits still enough she will colour it in. We’ve tried giving her crayons and chalks, figuring that these may leave fewer marks or be easily rubbed off, but there’s only one tool she ever wants for the job: highlighters.

What started out as a cute game of help-mummy-mark-essays has now become a frenzied version of hide and seek whenever she approaches the desk; me desperately scraping up papers with one arm and throwing a rainbow of pens over her head to my husband as I shriek “hide the highlighters! For the love of God, hide the highlighters!”

Alas, she remains in the thrall of neon. Our carpets are dotted with fuschia and blue spots, our dining room table is streaked with fluorescent yellow which, especially when eating dinner, looks unnervingly reminiscent of cat piss.

It’s important you understand all this so that you’ll also understand why, from a toddler’s point of view, after today’s experiment I don’t have a leg to stand on when I try to take the highlighters away.

Curry is one of those things that everyone seems to enjoy without ever really understanding what it is – a bit like Derren Brown. Just as with Derren, Britain loves a curry. So much so that there’s an official National Curry Week every October and in 2001 Britain’s then foreign secretary Robin Cook called chicken tikka masala “a true British national dish”.

In truth, ‘curry’ isn’t a dish on its own. The word itself is an anglicised form of the Tamil word kaṟi which roughly translates as ‘sauce’. We kind of know that to be the case in Britain because we distinguish between the different types of curry such as vindaloo or korma, but I think lots of us think these dishes are also widely eaten in India, when they aren’t. As someone with Indian heritage through my dad, it’s shamefully only recently that I’ve learnt more about the differences between British and Indian curries. As one of my friends put it – “just sticking turmeric in something does not make it Indian!’

Searched ‘curry’ and predictably this is what came up. Hi, turmeric!
Photo by Mareefe on Pexels.com

The entrepreneur Dean Mahomed is often credited with serving the first curries to the British masses in the early 19th century when he opened the first Indian restaurant in London called the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is rightfully celebrated as a champion of the fusion of Anglo-Indian culture in an altogether more peaceful way than the earlier method employed by the East India Company which involved invading parts of India and basically saying ‘all this is ours now’ whilst holding guns.

In truth, curries were known about in Britain before Dean Mahomed set up the Hindoostane Coffee House. Cooks in the rich households of the East India Company men, who missed the flavours of India when they returned to England, had been experimenting with new recipes designed to mimic the food enjoyed by the ‘nabobs’ (as the East India Company men were known after the Indian word ‘nawab’, meaning governor.) In 1733, curry was even served in the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket.

But it wasn’t until 1747 that an English writer thought to write a recipe for curry that could be easily replicated throughout the land. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was intended to be a manual for servants – the “lower sort” of people, as she charmingly called them. In this edition there are 3 recipes for pilau rice. Over the years more recipes were added in each new edition and it is in the 1774 version of her book that the first known English version of curry appears. Glasse was not a professional writer; she was a housewife and her main aim was to make money. Taking inspiration from the actions of the East India Company, many of the recipes in her cookbook aren’t her own and are in fact stolen from other cooks and writers. In total, 342 of the 972 recipes found in her pages are directly lifted from other sources. Hannah got away with it though because her writing style was engaging and straightforward, written in simple language that ordinary people understood – a welcome relief to those “lower sort” of maids who were “at a loss to know what [the original recipes] mean.” In fact, her book was so eloquent that for decades after its publication many thought it had been written by a man, not believing that a woman could be capable of such a feat.

Entitled “How to make Currey the Indian Way”, the recipe falls foul of my friend’s curry test because it contains a fair bit of turmeric and not much in the way of other spices. I’m happy to forgive Ms. Glasse, though, because what it lacks in authenticity it makes up for in the fact that unlike some of the other Georgian and Victorian recipes I’ve tried, (yes, Mrs Beeton I’m looking at you) it contains butter. Lots and lots of delicious, flavourful butter and, oh my goodness, cream too.

Blessed are the onions that are to be fried in butter and not just boiled in plain water

It did start off a bit worringly when I saw I had to boil chicken that had been cut “as for a fricassey”, but thankfully this was only for 5 minutes or long enough to make a sort of weak chicken stock, which was drained off and used later.

With the chicken parboiled (can you parboil chicken?) I added 3 large onions and 2 ounces of butter to the pan and fried it, with tears of joy (and a little bit onion related) streaming down my face as I realised that this was actually going to taste good.

Once the onions were soft, I added the chicken back to the pan and cooked it all together until it was just starting to brown. I had a lot of chicken to cook, so I had to add it in rounds which was a bit of a pain but also my fault for not having the foresight to scale the recipe back – in the recipe below I’ve scaled it back so it should be enough for 4.

While all this was cooking I set to work on the component that I thought was what qualified this dish, in Hannah’s mind, to be a curry: the spices. There were 3 – ginger, pepper and turmeric. I used fresh ginger because the recipe called for the ginger and pepper to be “beaten together” in a way that suggested it had to be broken down in a pestle and mortar. Unhelpfully, it wasn’t until the end of the instructions that she mentions that all the spices should be “beat very fine” such as one would find in ground ginger, so to make it easier for anyone wanting to recreate this curry I’ve changed it to ground ginger in the recipe below. To the chicken and onions I added the 3 spices of variously beaten and ground states and poured the pathetic excuse for chicken stock back over everything before leaving to simmer for 30 minutes.

To an 18th century cook, this must have been quite an exciting dish to prepare. Spices were already well known in Britain and had been used extensively since the middle ages, but the colour in this dish was amazing – vibrant yellow. I mean, it’s true that was the only colour – Hannah wasn’t one for garnishes in an ‘eat the rainbow’ sort of way, but if she had been, the yellow part of the rainbow was well and truly covered here.

When it was time I added the juice of 2 lemons and the most exciting addition of all – 1/4 pint of cream, stirred it and then served it for lunch. I informed my husband, who felt that he had been stung one too many times by my culinary experiments, that since it contained butter and cream it was bound to taste good, and tucked in.

No, I hadn’t experimented with medium-rare chicken – it’s just thigh meat which looks too pink in the light

This was, as expected, not what you think of when you think of curry. It wasn’t spicy at all, for a start. It also wasn’t a thick sauce – the chicken was just lumps of meat in a yellow broth. But do you know what – in some ways that’s more representative of what ‘curry’ means. In traditional Indian cuisine the sauce is supposed to mingle with the rice and add flavour, not sit on top being heavy and stodgy like so many curry sauces today do.

The chicken itself was a bit bland. Not unpleasant, but just not really saying anything important here. What was the stand out was the sauce. It was delicious. Slightly tangy because of the lemons, but with a richness that left a pleasant aftertaste because of the cream. You could taste the turmeric and the ginger, but they complemented each other very well with neither one being the dominant flavour. In fact, I went back after half an hour when it had all cooled in the pan a bit and just stood slurping the sauce from a spoon – if anything it tasted even better having had a bit more time for all the flavours to marinate into each other. Curry masochists who enjoy losing all sense of taste and smell may scoff at the lack of spiciness, and maybe my tastes are a bit boring, but I found this delightful.

The only tiny problem I found was when I went to clear the plates away. Some of the sauce must have splashed onto the table and left a neon yellow ring around the base of the bowl that wouldn’t come out no matter how much I tried. On cue, my daughter came barrelling into the room and stopped when she saw me scrubbing the surface. She looked from the stain, to me and then to the highlighters, a look of mad triumph flooding her face as it dawned on her that there was now no way I could refuse her request. She held out a palm, victorious and smugly demanded “draw.”

Draw is right, I thought, as I conceeded and handed her the highlighters.

E x

Curry ‘the Indian Way’

4 chicken breasts
500ml water
3 onions
5g turmeric
Teaspoon of ground ginger
Teaspoon of pepper
70ml of double cream
30g of butter
Juice of 1 lemon

  1. Simmer the chicken in the water for 5 minutes. Then remove the chicken and pour the water into a jug for later.
  2. Chop 3 onions finely and add them to the pan with the butter. Fry until soft.
  3. Add the chicken to the onions and fry all together until browned.
  4. When the chicken is browned, add the turmeric, ginger and pepper and pour the water back over. Mix all together.
  5. Cook for 30 minutes.
  6. Add the lemon juice and cream and serve with rice or naan bread.

Stewed Rabbit: 1861

Last week I began to question if I was still young.

Now, I’m not one of these people who fears getting old at all. Nothing makes me switch channels faster than when adverts come on showing beautiful women slathering greasy creams onto their faces while some voice over purrs that the cream contains acid and will make them look so young midwives will be wiping their wrinkle free bums and bundling them up in blankets before they can blink. Incidentally, why was acid a substance my chemistry teacher wouldn’t let us handle without twenty pairs of goggles and a hazmat suit, but as soon as you turn 50 is OK to smear on your eyelids?

First of all, I found a grey hair. No big deal; I work with kids and they’ll keep me young, I thought, and went to work.

Year 7 were working on developing their extended answers to essay questions. Who knew: sometimes history can be boring! As practice, I’d asked them to write a paragraph about their favorite subject at school or, if they didn’t have one (as so many of them loudly shouted), their favorite family member. It was all going really well until one of the little delights put their hand up to ask a question.

“Miss, is this alright: History is my favorite subject at school -“

“Certainly the best possible start, Sophie.”

“There are lots of reasons for this, mainly it’s because the topics we’re looking at are interesting, such as Battle of Hastings.”

Things were looking good. I willed my head of department to walk through the door.

“However, there are other reasons I enjoy it too, such as my teacher…”

As my ego drowned out the sound of the class collectively rolling their eyes, I imagined the headteacher joining my head of department in the doorway and giving me a thumbs up. Sophie was saying something else now, so I re-tuned in.

“…so therefore the reason I like her is she’s a bit like my nan, who I would say is also my favorite family member.”

“Er, what was that last bit?”

Even after we’d established that Sophie was just comparing my personality rather than my appearance to that of a 70 year old, I found it hard to shake the idea that maybe my youth (in a sort of true sense of the word) was coming to an end. Later, whilst I researched care homes and browsed Boots for hair dye, I thought about what I’d achieved in my 27 years and wondered: was it it enough?

All this background is just an incredibly long winded way to introduce Isabella Beeton, a woman who crammed so much into 28 years of life that she’s often mis-imagined as an elderly spinster, rather than a young woman under 30 (spot the difference now, Sophie?)

Born in 1836, Isabella Beeton is still an absolute stronghold of English kitchens throughout the land. Most people have heard of her Book of Household Management which was published in 1861, but what they might not be aware of is that the collection of recipes and household advice was actually published serially in a magazine owned by her husband before it was turned into a book. Not specifically a cookbook, but an instructional guide for the flourishing middle classes to help housewives with the everyday problems they might encounter as they ran their households. Her writing style was brisk and clipped which made her seem like a repressed middle aged woman, but did lend an air of authority and gained her many fans. Unfortunately, Mrs Beeton died at the age of just 28 from complications surrounding the birth of her fourth child. Her husband later sold the magazine they had worked on together and to keep a good income rolling in, the men who bought it continued to publish recipes under her name and in her writing style to give the impression she was still alive, such was her popularity and success.

Originally, Mrs Beeton didn’t focus on recipes but on translating work, having been educated in England and Germany. In fact, she had been given quite an extensive education and training and by 19 was proficient in multiple languages, piano, dressmaking and had even trained in pastry making at a German finishing school. All this worldly experience would later be used in her book; in between the recipes that made Mrs Beeton famous there are chapters on fashion, how to hire servants and how to raise children to be polite and respectful.

As well as being a celebrated cook, Mrs Beeton appears to have been a massive occultist too

Whilst flicking through the book I was delighted to learn that the correct term of address for me was Mistress of the Household and that “as with the commander of an army, or the the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house.” I read on, bristling with importance. “She [is] who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue…” Finally, some recognition!

To help me command my household without going bankrupt, Mrs Beeton also included a breakdown of how much to pay each type of servant, from the lowliest maid and “occasional girl” (£150 – £200 a year) to an entourage of a cook, a couple of housemaids, a nursemaid and a manservant (about £1000 a year). My husband enquired hopefully whether we could get an “occasional girl” of our own. I told him that since it was my job to save him from vice we could not, but that I’d look into getting us a manservant.

Stewed Rabbit is a recipe that sits in chapter 18 of Household Management in-between a chapter about the natural habitat and behaviour of birds and some “General Observations on Game”. Having never cooked rabbit before I was a bit alarmed when the butcher whacked a carcass down on the counter rather than some pre-cut packaged meat, but I think I hid it well and only squeaked a little bit. Victorian cooks were used to seeing meat in its original state and I counted myself lucky that at least I hadn’t had to behead, skin and gut it.

Although the stewed rabbit part of the recipe was straightforward, there were many sneaky additions that weren’t immediately clear would need lots of prep. For example, when going through the ingredient list I saw that I’d need to add ‘a few forcemeat balls’ and something called ‘mushroom ketchup’. Knowing that cooks throughout history hated waste of any kind, I was suddenly very wary of what the forcemeat balls might be.

Turns out they’re sort of like stuffing, but smaller and smoother in texture. Mrs Beetons says that there should be no one flavour that overpowers them and they should melt in the mouth and not be dry, nor heavy. This made me rather question the bloody point of them, but I obliged and made 15. Mrs Beeton also suggested using the liver of the rabbit but said I could pick ham if the liver was not available. Though a queasy glance at the pile of bones, skin and meat told me the liver was very much available, guess which one I picked.

I’ve helpfully distorted the size of these by putting them into a novelty skillet, which makes them look massive. In reality they’re about the size of walnuts

The mushroom ketchup was something I had to adapt, as Mrs Beeton’s recipe takes about a week to make properly and I only had an afternoon. It involved salting a lot of mushrooms and leaving them for 3 days to draw the water out (or 15 minutes over a low heat with a lot of mashing if you have no time), and then boiling them for hours until all the neighbours had evacuated their houses to escape the stench. With the street empty, the mushroom/water potion was strained through a sieve and bottled.

My sneaky additions prepared, I set about making the stew. First I cut off the liver and kidneys from the rabbit, spraying blood everywhere as my knife wasn’t sharp and in my blunt carvings I accidentally tipped the blood drenched dish the rabbit had been sitting in upside down. Then I placed the joints into a large pan to which I added 2 chopped onions, cloves and lemon peel. I covered with water and let it cook for half an hour while I scrubbed myself and the kitchen clean a la serial killer style.

The recipe very unhelpfully told me that the rabbit stew would take ‘rather more than 1/2 an hour’ to cook. Nothing else, cheers Mrs B. I went back after half an hour and saw that the meat appeared cooked, but since 1/2 an hour didn’t feel like very long at all I left it a further 1/2 hour, hoping to emulate some of the slow cooking style of modern rabbit stew recipes. I had also by now had a chance to look at some modern day recipes and was dismayed to see the addition of wine, butter, olive oil, garlic and all other sorts of things that would make this dish a lot more appetising. The thriftiness World War One enforced on the British public was still decades away from this recipe, but boy was Mrs Beeton practicing hard for it. It was now that I discovered decadence and frivolity were not traits that Isabella Beeton was known for; she espoused frugality and moderation (sometimes bordering on what we might call minimalism today) in everything she did, even when writing meals for people who could afford servants.

After some further boiling from the rabbit, and some silent seething resentment from me, I drained some of the water off and added the forcemeat balls. To make a gravy, Mrs Beeton advised added flour and butter and then a ladle of the mushroom ketchup. I boiled it all together and then it was done.

Honestly, I did nearly give up on this. There was a moment while I was stirring that I looked at the grey slush before me and then caught sight of the BBC recipe which was open on my phone brazenly looking so much better and just thought ‘sod it’. But I rallied, in true Beeton style, and admonished myself for setting such a negative example to my impressionable child and imaginary servants. I plated up, ignored the fact that even though I’m pretty imaginative I couldn’t think of a way it could look more unappetising, and ate.

Charles Darwin, the great evolutionary scientist of the Victorians themselves has shown that evolution takes a long time, longer than 150 or so years anyway, to make significant change to a species. Therefore, the Victorians must have had tastebuds. I can only imagine, then, that they must also have had a deep seated self loathing. The rabbit was bland and chewy, thanks to the fact the recipe didn’t do anything to it other than boil it in water for only half an hour. The sauce might have been thick, but like the rabbit, lacked any sort of meaningful flavour apart from a hint of cloves which was just a bit unpleasant with nothing to offset it. There was an earthiness from the mushroom ketchup (which incidentally was actually quite useful in other dishes that needed something salty) but it was a subtle flavour against the already bland backdrop, and didn’t really enhance anything. It was immediately obvious, therefore, why the forcemeat balls were there: taste. Unfortunately, the taste was not unlike lemon scented sink cleaner with an added bitter kick to the back of the throat. Of my tiny portion, I ate two forkfuls; it was worse than Lord Woolton’s Pie.

Even with a side plate size serving I managed to scratch my throat on a tiny fragment of bone

I felt slightly betrayed by Mrs B. I mean, it may have been down to my cooking ability but as you’ll see, the instructions are not exactly hard to follow so if I went wrong I’m not sure where it was. People who still want to try rabbit stew and don’t hate themselves would be far better off making the one from the BBC recipe instead of this. I’m not done with Household Management yet, but we’re definitely taking some time away from each other for a bit following this dish. On the plus side though it has taught me that I if I do ever commit a murder, no forensic lab will ever be able to prove it happened in my kitchen.

At the start of this Mrs Beeton may have compared me to a commander of an army, but it was an army that had suffered a heavy defeat and was now limply retreating to the direction of the nearest kebab shop. My husband, guinea pig that he has become, had been very excited to try stewed rabbit. When he texted to tell me he was heading home I texted him back: “getting a takeaway, what do you want?”

E x

Stewed Rabbit

1 rabbit
2 large onions
6 cloves
Lemon peel of 1 lemon
Forcemeat balls
Table spoon of butter
2 or 3 tablespoons of plain flour
Mushroom ketchup

  1. Put the rabbit, cut into joints, into a large pan with the chopped onions, cloves and lemon peel.
  2. Cover with water and boil for 1 hour or so.
  3. After the meat is cooked, thicken the sauce with flour and butter – take out two ladles of water from the pan and put in a bowl. To this, add the flour and butter and whisk together until thick. Then tip this back into the main pan and stir until fully mixed in.
  4. Add a ladle of mushroom ketchup, or more or less depending on taste, and stir.
  5. Add the forcemeat balls and bring to a boil.

Forcemeat Balls

3 slices of ham
180g of breadcrumbs
1 large egg
10g of beef suet
rind of 1/2 a lemon
1 teaspoon of finely chopped basil, sage, mint and thyme
1/2 teaspoon of ground mace

  1. Chop the ham into as small pieces as you can. Add the grated rind of 1/2 a lemon.
  2. Add the breadcrumbs, beef suet, herbs and mace. Stir until well combined.
  3. Beat an egg and once it’s well beaten add it to the mix to combine. It should now be the consistency of sausage meat. If too dry, add water. If too wet, add more breadcrumbs.
  4. Roll out balls the size of a small walnut and place on a baking tray.
  5. Bake for 25 minutes at 160 degrees.

Mushroom Ketchup

1 pack of portobello mushroom
120g salt
brandy

  1. Place the mushrooms in a pan and cover with salt. Mash the mushrooms and salt together over a gentle heat.
  2. Once mashed, cover the mushrooms in 1.5 litres of water and bring to the boil. Let them cook for 3 hours, by which time the water should have reduced by half.
  3. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a jug so that only the liquid remains.
  4. Add a teaspoon of brandy and store in the fridge, covered, for 3 days.

Cabinet Pudding: 1895

If you’ve bumped into any good history teachers today they may have bored you with the information that Queen Victoria died on this day 1901. As any BBC docudrama will tell you: she reigned from 1837, becoming queen at the age of just 18, until her death 64 years later which at the time made her the longest reigning monarch in British history. At the time of her death it was said that Britain had an empire “on which the sun never set”. Which all sounds very impressive if you imagine David Starkey animatedly frothing about it with something by Elgar playing in the background, but doesn’t really mean anything on its own; are we supposed to praise her for being fortunate enough to afford decent medical care and comfort to aid her long reign when at the same time approximately 25% of the population in lived in poverty? Or is it that if you’re the sort of person who believes the positives of the empire outweigh the negatives, we should laud her for personally hitching up her skirts and striding across India to plant the flag and introduce the ever so grateful natives to civilisation because apparently those 1000 year old languages and temples don’t count?

That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her status as Golden Girl of the Royal Family. She patronised many new inventions and supported rapid industrialisation which made Britain wealthy beyond measure. Likewise, her decision to open Buckingham Palace up for public events whilst still being used as a family home in an attempt to connect with her people (as long as they weren’t too smelly and dirty), was nothing short of revolutionary and her modifications are still used today to help bring the nation together. She may have been known for being a bit dour and hard to amuse in public, but her wit and warm nature (spoken of by those who knew her well) helped form strong international links with countries in Europe, even through times of great political uncertainty. It’s telling that she appears to have had some kind of influence in creating an uneasy peace between her two grandsons Wilhelm II of Germany and George V, as Wilhelm lamented after the outbreak of WW1 that if she’d still been alive she would never have allowed George and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (also one of her relations through marriage) to form an alliance which would help lead to war. He did keep quiet about what she might have thought about Germany’s own alliance system and its contribution to the war, though.

It’s therefore a bit frustrating when you Google Queen Vic and, other than a dodgy pub in London, the first things that come up are clinical facts dressed up as personal hard-won achievements. With this in mind, then, I present to you Cabinet Pudding – a dish I can find no account of Queen Victoria particularly enjoying, nor one that takes its name from her. But it happened to be created in her era and so by Google standards that’s close enough.

Also known as Chancellor’s Pudding, Cabinet Pudding is something that some people might have heard of but aren’t quite sure what it is. This recipe is from Mary Beale’s Wholesome Cookery which was published in 1895 and which I found in this book. Apparently it was on the menu along with another Victorian fave, Charlotte Russe, at a dinner at Erddig in December 1914. By all accounts the whole evening was a delight, “notwithstanding poor Philip’s gout”, as one guest wrote, but I heard he was putting it on for attention.

It quickly became apparent that it was lucky I had the day off. Now I understood why cooks in period dramas always seemed so angry and fraught – I swear at one point I was meant to be simultaneously straining custard whilst stirring something else, chopping fruit, juggling rolling pins and fending off the advances of the footman*.

My first job was to butter an oven proof bowl and “ornament the bottom and sides with pieces of preserved fruit”. That was it. Let me tell you: I’m still angry at how such a monumentally difficult task was disguised as being so simple in one short sentence. I don’t know what kind of butter they must have been using 100 years ago but I’m certain Pritt Stick would be interested in the recipe.

I picked glace cherries, sultanas, tinned apricots and tinned peaches as my fruits because thanks to the invention of canning in 1810, they were all used in the Victorian era and I thought would work well together.

Since starting this blog it’s become a theme that my expectations don’t match reality: I had imagined the inside of the bowl becoming a stained glass window of jewels glistening with ruby and amber hues. In actuality, every piece of the damn fruit peeled itself from the side and slumped to the bottom in a heap of brown.

This was about the time I began to question whether superglue would really cause that much internal damage

Once I’d built the fruit back up to about 1/3 of the way of the bowl and decided to quit while I was ahead, I found I had to add some stale slices of cake and alternate with crushed ratafia biscuits. If the fruit shenanigans hadn’t immediately proven it for me, it was now apparent that Mary Beale was a woman who had lost her grip on reality if she thought ordinary people were letting their cakes sit around long enough for them to get stale. I made a basic sponge cake in 15 minutes (humble brag, don’t care) and left it in the oven for a bit longer to dry out so it would mimic the dryness of these imaginary uneaten treats Mary wrote about. Having no idea how to throw together a ratafia biscuit I consulted the Victorian powerhouse that was Mrs Beeton.

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton talks about these being small, round almond biscuits but what’s more important is that she also says cooks should just as well buy these from a good shop as make them themselves. Guilt free, I bought a packet of the first Amaretti biscuits I could find.

I made layers in the bowl of alternating cake and ratafia biscuits, separated with spoons of apricot jam, (the original recipe also says cooks could use “lumps of guava jelly” – thanks, empire!) and then turned to the custard.

No idea why the idea of making a custard from scratch scared me because it was quite simple, (apart from the twenty hands needed bit at the end), but I had visions of scrambled egg, so was put off. I heated 450ml of whole milk with the rind of 1 lemon very slowly until it was almost but not quite boiling. In the meantime, I whisked 4 eggs together with 1 tablespoon of caster sugar. When the milk was hot enough, I strained it over the eggs, whisking continuously. It sounds easier than it was, so don’t look like that. The recipe also calls for a wine glass of brandy to be added to this at this point, which I forgot to do, but which would have been a good addition.

Once it was all mixed it had to be very carefully poured over the bowl of cake and fruit. The quantities were perfect and even once my fake-stale cake had absorbed it there was still liquid on top. Then it was wrapped in buttered greaseproof paper and foil and steamed in a pan for 1 hour.

“Why have you made a fruity brain?” my husband cowered as I held it triumphantly above my head

Ok. Let’s just cut to the chase: it looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in a neurosurgeon’s lecture room as an example of rare and unusual brain diseases. But! It didn’t taste like that. (I think. Who knows – maybe brain is delicious?!)

Because of the mish mash of ingredients in this, every bite was different. One moment I was mostly getting almond and then the next cherry. The whole thing was very soft and melt in the mouth, even the dry cake and drier ratafia biscuits just dissolved. Because of the tiny amount of sugar in it, the custard wasn’t particularly sweet but just sort of mild and creamy – more of an eggy background to the nuttiness of the cakes and syrupiness of the fruit. The recipe advised to serve with custard that had been topped up with yet another glass of brandy, but I found it rich enough on its own.

E x

*Not really. But I can dream.