February 12, 2013

Feast, Fast, Frolics and Sixteenth Century Pancakes

A 16th century pancake - looks exactly the same as a modern one.

A 16th century pancake – looks exactly the same as a modern one.

Shrove Tuesday has always been a day of revelry and gluttony, the last day of feast and freedom before forty days of fasting. It was generally agreed throughout the pre-reformation period that such revelries should be allowed in order that a person might let of steam before a long period of religious contemplation, a tradition which continued until the Puritans put a stop to all forms of revelry and silliness. Of course, the tradition of feasting before a period of fasting had a practical purpose too, as rich foods such as butter, cream, eggs and milk would go to waste if they were not otherwise used up. Amongst a great many other delicious foodstuffs, pancakes would be mixed up to use up any remaining butter, cream and eggs, which were forbidden foods during lent. A seventeenth century account, penned in 1620 by the poet John Taylor, describes, with great distaste, the typical Shrove Tuesday revelries;

Always before Lent there comes waddling a fat gross bursten-gutted groom, called Shrove-Tuesday…he devours more flesh in fourteen hours, than this whole kingdom doth (or at the least should do) in six weeks after… there is a bell rung, called the pancake bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manner or humanity : Then there is a thing called wheaten flour, which the sulphery necromatic cooks do mingle with water, eggs, spice, and other tragical magical enchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying-pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal hissing like the Lernean snakes in the reeds of Acheron, Styx or Phlegethon) until at last by the skill of the cook, it is transformed into the form of a flap-jack, which in our translation is called a pancake.

Although the tradition of feasting to excess on Shrove Tuesday has pretty much died out, the pancake legacy lives on. In our household Shrove Tuesday has always been quite a day of celebration.  As a child my Nana’s pancakes were famed throughout school, and every Pancake Day a trail of my friends would wind their way to our house to feast on delicious pancakes, slathered with a whole variety of toppings. The stacks of pancakes would quickly disappear and hungry hands grabbed at them, while excited squeals rang through the air, cheering on the contestants of the pan-table pancake-eating competition, and laughing out when some unfortunate soul dropped their pancake when it was their turn to toss.

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My cousin Matt demonstrating how to perfectly flip pancakes.

Nowadays our Shrove Tuesday celebrations are not nearly as vibrant, but I always make the effort to cook up a stack of pancakes, ready to serve at tea time. Never one to miss an opportunity to experiment with historic recipes, this year I dug out the oldest pancake recipe I could find, this one dating back to 1585, and had a go.

 

To make Pancakes - From The Good Huswifes Jewel, Thomas Dawson (1585)

Take new thicke Creame a pine, foure or five yolks of egs, a good handful of flower and two or three spoonefuls of ale, strain them together into a faire platter, and season it with a good handfull of sugar, a spooneful of synamon, and a little Ginger: then take a friing pan, and put in a litle peece of Butter, as big as your thumbe, and when it is molten brown, cast it out of your pan, and with a ladle put to the further side of your pan some of your stuffe, and hold your pan …, so that your stuffe may run abroad over all the pan as thin as may be: then set it to the fire, and let the fyre be verie soft, and when the one side is baked, then turn the other, and bake them as dry as ye can without burning.

After adjusting the quantities a little (1pint of cream is far too much liquid for ‘a handful’ of flour, and equal quantities of flour and sugar is more than excessive for the modern palate!), the outcome was a velvety soft and extremely delicious  pancake, although they were such delicate little things that it was a real struggle to flip them and very few of them came out of the pan in one piece. I found that the pancakes flipped far more willingly when cooked over a low heat, as per the original recipe, but for a longer period of time than modern recipes suggest. Interestingly the beer adds a lovely depth of flavour and complements the spices perfectly, although I would imagine the original recpe used beer as it was safer than water at the time.

After a little more tweaking, adding a couple of egg whites to increase the pancakes structural integrity, I came up with this recipe. Perhaps they are more trouble than they’re worth, but they really are very nice! So why not try some sixteenth century pancakes for your Shrove Tuesday feast!

Sixteenth Century pancakes 2

January 22, 2013

Snowy Days and a Sweet Steamed Syrup Sponge

 

Happy Snow Day!

Happy Snow Day!

It is a wonderful feeling to come home after an invigorating walk in the cold to a snuggly sofa and a warm bowl of something sweet and comforting. And cold it certainly is right now! The whole country still looks resplendent swaddled in a thick blanket of glistening snow, and despite a few complaints here and there, everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying the snowy fun. Or at least I am!

Yesterday afternoon Oliver and I went for a wander (or play) around our beautiful local park, Waterlow Park, but before we set off I made sure we had something tasty to come back to. Steamed syrup sponge pudding is one of those fantastically cockle warming dishes that are simply perfect for a cold afternoon. After all, who wants a dainty afternoon tea in weather like this when you can have something warm and sticky!!

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Puddings are a great British institution, with a long and illustrious history. Everyone has fond memories of tucking into their favourite traditional pudding, and the thought, let alone the taste, is enough to put a smile on to anyones faces. Indeed, while our ancestors may not have been renowned for their vegetable cooking skills, their puddings were famed the world around, and many a foreign visitor to Britain sang the praises of the English pudding. – “Blessed be he that invented the pudding…what an excellent thing is an English pudding! To come in pudding time is as much to say to come in the most lucky moment in the world”, exclaimed the Frenchman, Monsieur Misson de Valbourg, during a visit to Britain in 1690. Their quality and great variety were second to non, as was the Englishman’s appetite for them, which was noted by a 17th century Italian visitor; “no-one who had not seen it with his own eyes could possibly believe what an incredible number of such pies and puddings the average Englishman is capable of eating!”

As with our other traditional puddings, boiled and steamed puddings have been a part of the British diet for centuries.  Rich puddings of breadcrumbs or ground rice, cream, milk, spices, dried fruit and eggs, stuffed into animal guts and boiled, were a a Tudor and Stuart favourite, although they resembled more of a pale sausage than the kind of puddings we are used to today. By the beginning of the 17th century, the fiddly and unhygenic animal gut pudding skins were being phased out, replaced by the revolutionary pudding cloth, and here the steamed pudding as a beacon of great British cooking was born. Puddings could now be made at any time, rather than just at slaughter time, and the ready availability of the pudding cloth meant that the boiled pudding became a mealtime staple for all walks of life. Unlike today the same puddings were often served at the beginning of the meal to stem the appetite before the meat was served, with the meat itself, and afterwards as a sweet – a thrifty way to feed a hungry throng.

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As the dessert course as a separate entity came into being in the eighteenth century, and manufacturing advances brought about an abundance of pudding bowls, fancy moulds and complex apparatus, the phenomenon of the pudding as a specifically sweet dish emerged and puddings started to take the shape as we know them. Advances in kitchen technology also meant that by the 19th century steaming was slowly replacing the boiling cooking technique, which created a lighter, spongier pudding, giving us the kind of puddings that we recognise today. The Victorian’s loved a stodgy steamed pudding, and non more than Prince Albert himself who was particularly partial to plum pudding, and when it came to steamed puddings variety was the spice of life. Jam, marmalade, syrup, fruit (fresh or dried), curd, peel, nuts and spices – dozens of variations on a theme can be found in Victorian cookbooks! In 1885 a new partner for the steamed sponge appeared when Mr Lyle realised that he could sell the by-product of his East London sugar refining factory as a new and exciting ingredient; Golden syrup. And so the Golden syrup steamed sponge was born, loved as much by the Victorians as it is by us today.

Proper puddings seem to be a rare thing in our busy society, which really is a tragedy. They are the epitome of morale boosting foods, and deserve all the love they can get. Nothing will warm your soul as much as a fresh out of the pot steamed pudding. Yes, they take a while to cook… but think of it this way, the cooking time is just about the same length as a film. They are incredibly quick to prepare and once they are steaming away they can be left to their own devices. Perfect food for a snow day! So with yet more snow possibly on the way, have a go with my recipe for a very traditional steamed syrup pudding:

Steamed syrup pudding

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November 9, 2012

Remember Remember the 5th of November…


 

As usual, our bonfire night was spent commemorating the anniversary of the failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament doing what we do best; eating, drinking and playing with fire. I adore bonfire night, and find it absolutely tragic that so many public bonfire night celebrations are being forced to close because of the insurance. When I was young there used to be 4 huge firework displays in North London, and now there isn’t a single one! Bah. As it is, we tend to spend our bonfire nights down in Devon, and West Country folk really know how to celebrate the occasion!

The tradition of lighting bonfires at this time of years goes back centuries, reaching far further than the events of the 5th of November 1605 with which we now associate this day with.  Most people are familiar with the story of the gunpowder plot from which our bonfire night celebrations grew – of Guy Fawkes and his scheming comrades attempting, and thankfully failing, to bring down the centre of British government and with it the protestant monarchy by way of no less than 36 barrels of gunpowder concealed in the vaults of the House of Lords – but few realise that our tradition of lighting bonfires on and around this date go back much further.

As with halloween (as discussed in my last blog post), many of the rituals and traditions of bonfire night have grown from the ancient celtic festival of Samhain. Traditionally celebrated at the end of October, Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest, and after a communal feast great bonfires would be lit and torchlit processions would wind their way through the towns and villages, supposedly ‘cleansing’ the streets as they proceeded (both spiritually and, it has been argued, to some extent literally – almost a ritual fumigation of the buildings). Although these rituals continued to be practiced in Christian Britain, the events of the 5th of November 1605 gave these old traditions a new lease of life.  As news of King James’s brush with death spread round the country bonfires were lit and revelers lined the streets with flaming torches in a show of loyalty to the King and solidarity against Catholic troublemakers. In January the following year the Observance of the Fifth of November Act was passed, calling for a public holiday of thanksgiving every year on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Sermons commemorating the events became mandatory on that day, after which followed a day of celebration and remembrance with processions of blazing torches and effigies, bonfires, and even in it’s early days, fireworks (and by all accounts much eating, drinking and making merry). Being a proudly protestant part of Britain, the West Country went all out to commemorate this victory over the Catholic church, and out of this one day of revelry, an entire carnival season was born, with spectacular torch lit processions taking place in a different town every weekend over the Autumn.

The carnival season has of course evolved over time – effigies of Guy Fawkes, the pope or other hated people have been replaced with smiling Carnival Queens and the torch lit procession has become spectacle of brightly lit floats towed by tractors and blaring lively pop music,  interspersed with brass bands, dancers, acrobats and more, but the atmosphere of celebration and revelry still remains, with everyone from the surrounding area getting involved.

By far the most exciting, and most curious, tradition of the Devon carnival season is the Ottery St Mary “Tar Barrels”, which take place annually on the 5th of November. This strange tradition has remained more or less unchanged for centuries, going back to those days when, along with the torchlit procession, flaming barrels were rolled along the streets too. I say more or less unchanged, however, the main change that has been instated is quite a major one – Somewhere along the line, someone decided that simply rolling the barrels wasn’t exciting enough, and so, if you care to venture into the town on bonfire night, instead you’ll see the people of Ottery running up and down the crowded streets carrying the flaming barrels on their backs.

Over the course of the evening, 17 barrels are lit, starting with small ones for the children (yes, children join in too, and love it), growing in size until the midnight barrel is lit, a huge beast of a barrel, difficult to lift even when it’s not on fire I presume. In the months leading up to November 5th, each barrel is coated on the inside with coal tar and on the night each one is stuffed with straw, making them nice and flammable. But don’t worry, fire wardens are on hand to help revive those dying flames if the barrel has lost the will to live, armed with cans of petrol.

Anyway, pictures say a thousand words, so I shall leave you with a couple of my photos from Monday night’s revelries. It really is the strangest and most exciting event you could ever wish to experience, so if you’re ever in Devon on the 5th of November, I highly recommend it! And if bonfires and fireworks are what you’re after, there is a spectacular display which can be viewed from the colossal bonfire at the bottom of town as well.

Cheerio for now!

 

 

 

 

October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween – Or a tale of pumpkins past

Happy Hallowe’en, to one and all!

Pretty as a pumpkin – My Halloween display in our living room. Create a display like this by using as wide a variety of pumpkins as possible to create different layers, interspersed with candles in jars.

 

While Saturday may have been the night for wild hallowe’en revelry and fantastical fancy dress, I always like to mark the day itself with somewhat of a quieter, more traditional gathering, with a hearty, seasonal meal, a spot of pumpkin carving and perhaps a game or two of apple bobbing. Throughout history food and feasting has played an important role in hallowe’en festivities, going back to it’s pagan roots as a celebration to mark the end of the harvest. Nowadays there are few foods as readily associated with halloween as pumpkins, you can’t move for them in the supermarkets at the moment, although more often than not they are used purely as hallowe’en decorations and the soft, sweet flesh is discarded without a moments thought.  Pumpkins are not only delicious, seasonal and cheap, but they are also incredibly versatile; they make fantastic dishes, sweet or savoury. So what better excuse than to create a halloween feast based on that most magical of foods, the humble pumpkin.

 

Our obsession with pumpkins at halloween may seem like a rather severe case of the Americanisation of hallowe’en, but Britain has a long and surprising history with all things pumpkin related. Tonight, as we watch gratuitously gory horror films, in a room glowing in the gentle light of gruesome carved jack-o-lanterns, my friends and I will feast upon warming spiced pumpkin soup and good old traditional pumpkin pie… just as our ancestors might have (well, without the films)!

A pumpkin shopping spree was needed to cook up a delicious batch of halloween pumpkin pies!

Halloween is, and always has been, a time shrouded in mysticism, magic and superstition. The festival, as it is celebrated now has it’s roots in the pagan festival of Samhain, which took place on the 31st of October. Communities would see off the summer and celebrate a good harvest with communal feasts, while at the same time preparing themselves for the cold, dark winter months ahead. It was believed that on this date the walls between this world and the ‘otherworld’ were at their thinnest, allowing otherworldly spirits through, free to roam the land. As darkness fell bonfires would be lit on hillsides, to ward off evil spirits, and lanterns carved out of hollowed out vegetables, usually turnips or beets, would be lit, and set outside doors, some say to guide the souls of the dead back home, some say to protect the home from evil spirits.

 

With the Christianisation of Britain existing pagan festivals were superimposed with christian values and merged with religious holidays on the christian calendar. All Souls day, the 1st of November, was believed to be the day that souls of those that had died in the last year departed the earth forever, and as such it was a day set aside for prayer in order that wondering souls might be given a safe passage to the after life. As the 31st of October was the last day in which these spirits roamed the earth, it was also believed that this was the day that spirits would take revenge on anyone who had wronged them in life or generally cause trouble, and precautions were taken to protect people against this, such as the use of hollowed out vegetable lanterns.

 

The common term ‘jack-o-lanterns’ for these hollowed out vegetable lights, comes from Irish folklore. The story goes that there was once a man so mean and so crafty that he managed to trick the devil out of his death. There are many variations on the tale, but one of them tells how Jack managed to persuade the devil to climb a tree, thence trapping him up there by drawing a crucifix on the trunk, thus blocking the devils descent. After a few days Jack agreed to let him go, on the promise that when he died he wouldn’t go to hell. Some time late, on a cold late October eve, Jack did die. Naturally, due to his bad behavior he was rejected from heaven, and when he was sent down to hell the devil wouldn’t let him in there either, so he was left to roam the earth forever more, guided only by the light of a hollowed out turnip which the devil presented him with.

More halloween decorations about the house. Halloween is just as much about celebrating a good harvest as it is about ghosties and ghoulies.

 

In the nineteenth century, when large celtic communities emigrated to America, their halloween customs and traditions, including their love of jack-o-lanterns were taken with them. Up until this point halloween was completely unheard of in America, and was only celebrated at first in the Irish and Scottish areas, but by the early 20th century it had become an America-wide festival. Of course, on arrival in America it was discovered that pumpkins made much better jack-o-lanterns than turnips on account of both their shape and size, and their already hollow inside, so turnip jack-o-lanterns were all but forgotten.

 

Although not indigenous to Britain, according to a medieval treatise on horteculture, De Naturis Rerum, some types of pumpkin have been grown on a small scale in kitchen gardens since the Norman invasion in 1066. With the discovery of the America’s in the 1500s, along with other novel foods, the pumpkin as we know it today, became a highly prized ingredient and recipes from this time for pumpkin can be found in abundance, especially popular as a sweet pie filling! When the pilgrims left for America in 1620 the popular pumpkin pie travelled with them, where, up until this point, the recipe has remained virtually unchanged, steadily growing in popularity to the extent that it is now considered an American national dish. In Britain, on the other hand, the pumpkin more or less fell out of fashion, although recipes can still be found in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century recipe books. It was seen as a staple, seasonal autumn dish, popular, but not surrounded by the hype that surrounds the pumpkin pie in America. My favourite recipe for pumpkin pie at the moment is one (out of five different recipes) found in Mrs Beetons Book of Household Management. Interestingly, in the chapter on American traditional food, there is not a single pumpkin recipe to be found. I was particularly drawn to this recipe because it includes brandy, always a good thing in my opinion! It really is most delicious, with its light and creamy texture and oh-so-autumnal flavour. The combination of sweet pumpkin and nutmeg is just perfect.

 

So, wherever you are, why not give a very traditional autumn dish a go this halloween. You’re sure to love it!

Oh and finally, as I do so love dressing up at Halloween, here’s a picture of me and Oliver at the Vintage Mafia’s Halloween Party on Saturday. Our costumes went down very well and a great time was had by all.

Photo by the incredibly talented Hanson Leatherby

 

Have a spooktacular Halloween, and as always, wishing you a fun and food filled eve!

 

Ella x

October 27, 2012

‘Wartime Farm’ – Book Review

Well hasn’t it turned cold all of a sudden?! I find that there’s nothing better on a freezing cold winters eve than to hunker down on the sofa, cup of tea in one hand and a good book in the other. Last night I spent a lovely evening doing just that, snuggled up with a particularly handsome specimen that had turned up on my doorstep a week or so earlier – Wartime Farm, the accompanying book to the BBC 2 series that has just finished.

The television series saw three historians, Alex Langlands, Peter Ginn and Ruth Goodman, step back to the 1940s to live life as it would have been on a farm during World War II – the kind of program that’s right up my street, given my social history interests, and my passion for accessible, hands on learning. Well, I was thrilled when Octopus publishing said that the Wartime Farm book was winging it’s way to me for me to have a nosey at.

I wasn’t lying when I said it was a handsome specimen; quite a looker laid out on the coffee table, with it’s thick, matt, antique looking pages stuffed full of beautiful original photographs illustrations, posters and diagrams from WWII, as well as stills from the series, but as they say, you should’t judge a book by it’s cover… thankfully, what was inside fully lived up to expectations too.

Like the series, the book covers the whole scope of life on a farm during the war, from agricultural techniques, to changes in food production in the UK, to domestic life. Rather than giving a long winded and detailed history of the farm at war, the book focuses on covering a wide area, giving brief but succinct historical overviews of the different aspects of farm life all in one place. There really is something for everyone here. One of the major elements of the book that particularly impressed me was the emphasis on experiential learning; each chapter was stuffed full of recipes, tutorials and how-to’s, and packed with practical advice for bringing elements of the ‘make do and mend’ wartime spirit in to the modern home. Sound advice for life now, just as much as then.

Naturally, when I sat down with the book I turned straight to the chapter on wartime food, devouring the recipes given therein, and lapping up the stories of cooking and eating during the war, and it didn’t take me long to give some of the dishes a go. I’m always on the look out for great vintage recipes to try out – only this time last week I was feeding a hungry crowd with an authentic wartime dinner at my WWII home front themed pop- up – and this book didn’t disappoint. Saying that, I really did find something of interest in every chapter, from start – beginning with a very informative timeline covering both the military and the agricultural/ home front side of things – to finish – ending with the legacy of wartime farming and what we can learn from this period of history.

‘Spring Soup’ made from lettuce, spring onions, and milk. A surprisingly delicious and warming soup!

‘Mock sausage rolls’ – filled with beans and a little bacon. Tasty and flavoursome, but rather dry.

The Wartime Farm book is out now, and comes highly recommended from me, so get it on your christmas list now! Find it on Amazon here.

September 15, 2012

Review: The Russian Revels ‘Soviet Chic’ Supperclub

On a list of things not to wear on a hot summers day, a mink hat and wrap would probably be pretty high up. However, when faced with the question of what to wear to a ‘Soviet Chic’ themed dinner, fur instantly comes to mind. And so it was that on a sweltering evening at the height of summer that I left my house ensconced in the warm clutches of an outfit rather better suited to colder climes.

My destination for the evening was the Gothe Institute in South Kensington, where for the duration of August a ‘festival of private and underground dining’ was being held, known as Supperclub Summit. The idea here was to showcase the best of the London supperclub scene, in a big foodie festival. Tonight it was the turn of the Russian Revels to show us how Soviet food should be done!

 

 

After a veritable sauna of a tube ride across London I arrived hot and flustered, not to mention rather nervous about attending my first supper club alone. I needn’t have worried. My nerves were quickly calmed with a friendly greeting and introduction by one of the hosts, Karina, and my body temperature restored to it’s normal state of affairs with a mouthwateringly refreshing vodka and watermelon ice-lolly, served in place of the traditional pre-dinner aperitif. As we mingled, taking in our surroundings and getting to know each other, tasty little pre-zakuski of tender stuffed prunes and blinis topped with aubergine caviar were offered up on trays brought round by (not so) Young Pioneers kitted out in red neckerchiefs and hats.

When dinner was called I nestled myself in to an empty seat at one of the long communal tables between a friendly Italian man and a couple of chatty Russian girls. A Young Pioneer came round to take our drinks order, and as we all decided on a couple of bottles to share between us, it felt like having dinner with old friends.

As the first course arrived – a selection of zakuski, or Russian tapas – our glamourous hosts gave an introduction to the meal. They explained that the dinner was very much influenced by family recipes that had been passed down, and inspired by their memories of Russian food, updated and adapted by them to give a chic contemporary feel. The whole point of the Russian Revels supper clubs was to show that Russian food didn’t have to be bland and boring as many people think, and prove that it could in fact be fun, delicious and sexy. And so it was! With the talk over, we chomped down on plump little Russian pickles in a basket of bread, shimmering with gold luster, unctuous slivers of salo (lard) on rye bread, deliciously salty cods liver pate, borscht inspired tartlets – all washed down with ice cold vodka. The numerous little dishes complementing each other perfectly,  giving a real feel for the variety of Russian flavours.

As we talked, more and more animatedly as the wine went down, the first course was cleared away and replaced by the second. Baked potatoes snuggled in beds of hay were passed round and we all helped ourselves to steaming platters of rare roast beef. So far, not so Russian – roast beef and baked potatoes, although delicious, could have been from anywhere, but the curd cheese and Georgian lobio (a spicy bean dish) gave it a distinctive Russian feel. Finally we tucked into ‘pick your own berries’, and ‘Russian Bear Cake’… which I could describe better had I not had so much to drink by this point!

At the end of the evening, despite feeling rather like a roly-poly pudding, I felt like it was time for a dance. The Russian music was blaring and energy was high… but sadly it was not to be. Instead we all said our goodbyes and wobbled off into the night, full of tasty Russian food, and wonderful memories of a warm summers eve in London.

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The Russian Revels next event, which they describe as a ‘mingling club’ is happening very soon. 19th September in fact. Take a look at their website for more info


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