Tag Archives: Victorian Era

Spotted Dick

2013-12-31 23.36.48

It’s been a while since I wrote a post on a good old British steamed pudding, and this is one of my all-time favourites. Spotted Dick is a great pudding because it lies somewhere in between a suet pudding and a sponge pudding and is borne of that period of prolific pudding invention: the Victorian Era.

If British puddings are new to you, I’ve already written a couple of posts on the history of puddings (the first one here, and the second one here).

If you’ve never heard of Spotted Dick, it is a spongy steamed pudding that contains suet instead of butter. It is only slightly sweet and flavoured delicately with lemon. The spots on the Spotted Dick come from currants. You don’t want a pudding that is too sweet, the sweetness – I believe – should come from the currants and the custard that must be served with it (for a custard recipe, click here).

For some unknown and crazy reason, Spotted Dick doesn’t appear in my favourite cook book of all, English Food by Jane Grigson (to see why it’s my favourite, see my other blog).

Now for the big question: who the heck is Dick?

The pud is first mentioned in a book from the 1850s by the famous Chef Alexis Soyer called The Modern Housewife, or, Ménagère. Alexis Soyer was the first celebrity chef and he deserves a whole post just to himself! He mentions Spotted Dick in passing when listing a typical week’s meals during tougher times. This was Tuesday’s dinner:

Tuesday. – Broiled Beef and Bones, Vegetables, and Spotted Dick Pudding’

The ‘Dick’ in Spotted Dick seems to come from the shortened Old English names for pudding: puddog or puddick. In Scotland it is often called Spotted Dog Pudding.

Spotted Dick is a very simple pudding to make; it can be steamed in a basin or be rolled out like a sausage and covered in buttered foil and then steamed. Sometimes it takes the form of a roly-poly pudding with the currants and some brown sugar making the filling. Personally, I prefer to use a basin.

Anyways, here’s the recipe:

For a 2 pint pudding basin, that serves 6 to 8 people:

300g plain flour

10g baking powder

150g beef suet (fresh or packet)

75g caster sugar

100g currants

Zest 2 lemons

225-250ml milk

butter, for greasing

In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, suet, sugar, currants and lemons. Add the milk, mixing slowly until all is incorporated. You’re looking for a mixture of dropping consistency.

2013-12-31 18.22.08

Liberally butter a 2 pint pudding basin and spoon in the mixture. Cover with a lid. It’s easiest to buy a plastic basin with a fitted lid. If you’re using a glass or porcelain basin, make a lid from a double sheet of pleated foil and secure with string. It is worth making a foil or string handle for the pudding so that you can get the basin out of the steamer safely.

Place in a steamer and steam for 2 hours. Make sure there’s a good brisk boil for the first 20 minutes and then turn the heat down to medium-low. If you don’t have a steamer, simply place an upturned saucer in the base of a deep saucepan and pour over it boiling water straight from the kettle. Gingerly place in the pudding.

Turn out the pudding onto a serving plate and serve immediately with plenty of custard.

2014-01-01 21.35.39

5 Comments

Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Desserts, food, General, history, Nineteenth Century, Puddings, Recipes, The Victorians, Uncategorized

The Gentleman’s Relish

The Victorians and Edwardians had a real thing for what they called savouries, which were small dishes served alongside or after the dessert course at dinner. We don’t do this any more, all that survives is the cheese option one sometimes finds on the pudding menu at restaurants. I expect the gout is to blame. Savouries need a whole post to themselves so I won’t go into them here…

For me, Gentleman’s Relish is the savoury that really conjures up romantic images of that era, I think just for the name alone. I can just imagine the bank manager or maybe a member of the British Raj eating a slice of toast, relish melting and seeping into it, as he reminisces of home.

Gentleman’s Relish is essentially potted anchovies that are heavily spiced – it also goes by another name Patum Peperium which is Latin for ‘pepper paste’, and it should only be used “very sparingly”.

It was invented in 1828 by John Osborn an expatriate living in Paris which, when he unveiled it the Paris Food Show in 1849 and again in 1855, won a Citation Favorable. High praise indeed. It is still made now in Elsham, Hertfordshire, but what exactly goes in there is a closely-guarded secret.

FYI: the company have started making a salmon version called Poacher’s Relish. I’ve never tried it, but I am sure it is wonderful too.

Now, Patum Peperium is not to everyone’s taste – saying it is piquant would be doing it a gross injustice – it is very fishy, very salty and very spicy, so some may consider it totally foul. However, I love strongly tasting robust food like this. To show it off as its finest, it should be scraped thinly across hot toast. When you first try it, the first thing that hits you is the fishy odour, then you take a bite and find the fish taste is actually a perfect marriage between anchovy, salt and spice. You can’t have a marriage between three things can you? Make that a love triangle between anchovy, salt and spice. It is addictive stuff; if it is to your tasting, like Marmite, you either love it or hate it.

Gentleman’s Relish is a cooking ingredient in its own right: the fish, salt and spices all provide a great seasoning to stews, especially lamb, and is great stirred into scrambled eggs. It can be melted upon steaks, or used as a simple sauce with pasta. It is also used to make another amazing savoury called Scotch Woodcock.

After doing a bit of research I found that major players in the spice mix seemed to be nutmeg, mace, Cayenne pepper and black pepper – all classically Victorian, the amounts used vary from pinches to teaspoons, with the spices sometimes mixed equally, other times, one spice dominated.

Here is my recipe – the dominant spice here is Cayenne pepper, because it provides a good punch of chili heat and not that much other flavour, which the other – what are often called warmer – spices do magnificently. You can include less of the mix in the relish, or change the ratios or even the spices to suit your own taste.

Ingredients

For the spice mix:

1 tsp Cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground mace

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

For the relish:

2 oz (50g) can of anchovies, drained

4 oz softened butter

1 tsp spice mix

Start off by mixing together the spices. To get maximum flavour it is best to freshly grind your spices, but it is not essential. What is essential, however, is to cook your spices. Do do this, melt between 1/3  and 1/2 of the butter in a small saucepan. When hot and bubbling fry the spices for around 30 seconds; mind the butter doesn’t burn though. Now mix it with the anchovies and the remaining butter. The idea is to produce a paste – there are several ways to do this: blender, food processor, pestle & mortar or fork will do the job, it is a trade-off between how homogenous you like your relish and how much washing up you can be bothered doing. Spoon the mixture into a small pot, cover with a lid or some clingfilm, and allow to cool.

39 Comments

Filed under Britain, food, General, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, The Edwardians, The Victorians, Uncategorized

The Oriental Club’s Mid-19th Century “Mutton Curry”

The Duke of Wellington, the first (and only) President of the Oriental Club

In the mid-19th century, the British obsession with Indian curries and culture really started to take off (see this post for a brief history of Britain’s love of spice and India). It wasn’t just the spiciness, but the romance of the place. Queen Victoria loved the country and even had an Indian wing in the palace. Although she was the Empress of India, she never actually visited the country, leaving all that excitement to her sons.

Hanover Square in the 18th Century

Authentic – or very close approximations to authentic – curries were being made in one particular London gentleman’s club called the Oriental Club which could be found in Hanover Square. The club catered for high society – the Duke of Wellington was the President and all the chairmen seem to have been Sirs, Lords, Major-Generals or Vice-Admirals.  The Club was obviously a popular one; it opened in 1825 and in 1961 it moved from Hanover Square to Stratford House on Stratford Square, where it remains to this day. If you are a Londoner (and a man), you can still join, though it does cost between £240 and £850 per year to become a member.

Stretford House, the current home of the Oriental Club

In its hey-day, Chef Richard Terry was at the helm in the kitchen, who took full advantage of the first Asian grocery warehouses; Payne’s Oriental Warehouse on Regent Street and the Oriental Depot on Leicester Square. His recipes were ‘not only from [his] own knowledge of cookery, but from Native Cooks’ too. He published a book called Indian Cookery in 1861, where the recipe below is adapted from. The job of adaptation was not done by me, but Madhur Jaffrey, though I would like to get my hands on a copy.

To make the curry, you need to make a blend of curry powder and curry paste first.

Richard Terry’s 19th Century British Curry Powder

This makes 7 tablespoons of curry powder – enough for more than three curries using the recipe below. You can of course use it in any recipe that asks for ‘curry powder’ in its list of ingredients. All the spices required are ground, but don’t buy ground coriander, pepper, cumin, cardamom and cloves if you can avoid it. Instead, roast whole spices over a medium-high heat in a dry frying pan then grind using a coffee grinder after cooling. All you need to do is mix together the following:

2 tbs ground turmeric

5 tsp ground coriander seed

2 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp Cayenne pepper

1 ½ tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp ground cumin

½ tsp cardamom seeds

½ tsp ground cloves

Store in a cool, dry, dark place.

Sir Ranald Martin’s British Curry Paste

Many old (and new!) recipes ask for curry paste, but don’t always give receipts for the paste itself.  This recipe from Ranald Martin, a Victorian doctor and foodie who lived in India during the 1840s provides us with this one below. He was told it was an old Madras concoction. According to Madhur Jaffrey, the ingredients are very common in Madras, but the combination is ‘totally alien’. Aside from being used in curries, it was also used in sandwiches. The recipe below makes around 12 fluid ounces of paste.

4 tbs whole coriander seeds

2 tbs lentils such as yellow split peas or chana dal

1 tbs whole black peppercorns

1 ½ tsp whole cumin seeds

1 tbs whole brown mustard seeds

1 tbs ground turmeric

1 tbs Cayenne pepper

1 ½ tsp ground ginger

2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

3 cloves of garlic, minced

4 fl oz cider vinegar

6 tbs flavourless cooking oil such as sunflower or peanut oil

Dry-roast the whole spices and lentils in a frying pan until they turn a shade darker and emanate a delicious roasted aroma.

Remove from the heat, cool and grind in a spice or coffee grinder. Add the remaining ingredients except for the oil and stir well. Heat the oil in a frying pan and when hot, add the spice mixture and fry for around five minutes until the paste turns darker. Cool and empty into a jar. Store in the refrigerator.

The Oriental Club’s 19th Century Mutton Curry

Okay, you have made the paste and blended your spices, now you can get on with the curry. You can use either lamb or mutton, but bear in mind, the mutton – although more flavourful – will take longer to cook. If lamb is tricky to get hold of, goat or kid could be used as an alternative. The curry is pretty pungent, but good, dark and rich; I added a couple of peeled, chopped potatoes to add much needed-blandness. This curry serves 4 people and goes very well with plain rice, yoghurt and mango chutney. Would you believe, I forgot to take a photograph!?

4 tbs flavourless cooking oil

1 medium-sized onion, thinly sliced

2 tbs 19th Century British Curry Powder

1 tbs 19th Century British Curry Paste

1 ½ lb cubed lamb meat, shoulder is a good cut for this

8 – 12 oz (i.e. a couple of medium-sized) potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

¾ – 1 tsp salt

Heat the oil in one of those wide, deep frying pans that come with a lid. Add the onions and fry until the onions have browned and become crisp. Add the paste and powder, stirring well for a few seconds. Now add the meat and half of the salt, stir, cover and turn the heat right down. Gently fry for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a pint of water (that’s a British pint – 20 fluid ounces) and the potatoes, turn up the heat and when the curry comes to a boil, turn the heat back down, cover and simmer very gently until the meat is tender, around 60 to 90 minutes if using lamb, longer if using mutton. Taste and add more salt if needed.

8 Comments

Filed under food, history, Indian food, Meat, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, The Royals, The Victorians, Uncategorized

Pea Soupers

 

London, Parliament: Sun Through the Fog by Claude Monet 1903

London in the mid-to-late nineteenth century must have been an amazing place. There’s nothing I like more than walking around London Bridge and its environs; it is just like walking around a Dickens novel, with the romantic remains of the Marshalsea prison and roads named after his characters such as Clennam and Copperfield Street. There was however, one rather unromantic aspect to London life and that was the intense and deadly pollution created from the huge amount of coal being burnt at the time.

We talk of the smog that lie over the big cities of the modern world, Houston certainly had one, but they all pale in comparison to London smog; it had a very strong sulphurous smell and a green-brown colour to it. The Sun didn’t burn it off, but actually intensified it. Hung-out washing would be visibly dirtier once it had dried. Thousands died from heart and lung problems – it was said that a 30 second walk was the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes – and rickets was widespread due the lack of sunlight. A miserable place indeed:

The fog was so thick that the shops in Bond Street had lights at noon. I could not see people in the street from my windows. I am tempted to ask, how the English became great with so little daylight? It seems not to come fully out until nine in the morning, and immediately after four it is gone…On the 22nd of the month, accidents occurred all over London, from a remarkable fog. Carriages ran against each other, and persons were knocked down by them at the crossings. The whole gang of thieves seemed to be let loose. After perpetrating their deeds, they eluded detection by darting into the fog. It was of an opake, dingy yellow. Torches were used as guides to carriages at mid-day, but gave scarcely any light through the fog. I went out for a few minutes. It was dismal.

Richard Rush, 1883

On several occasions, people fell in the Thames and drowned because they could not see the river right in front of them.

Victorian link boys guide people home

through the London smog

And so, for obvious reasons, the thick London smog became known as a ‘pea souper’. Dried pea based soups and puddings were very popular at this time, especially in the winter when there were no few fresh vegetables around. The soup became known as London particular because of a line from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House: “This is a London particular…A fog, miss”, said the young gentleman.

The phrase London particular had actually been around for at least a century – it was used to describe food and drink particular to London, for example London Particular Madeira.

London Particular

This soup is really more of a potage and is very simple and cheap to make. The best thing about it is the wonderful stock made from the addition of a nice ham hock. You can use smoked or unsmoked, or you could go for a couple of pig’s trotters. Either way, it shouldn’t cost you more than 50 pence at the butcher. He might even give you them for free if you bat your eye-lashes at him. The recipe also asks for two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, this might seem like a lot, but it really can take it.

Ingredients

1 lb dried split peas

2 oz butter

3 rashers of smoky bacon, chopped

1 onion, sliced

1 ham knuckle, ham hock or 2 pig’s trotters

pepper

salt

2 tbs Worcestershire sauce

Have a look at the packet of peas; see if they need soaking overnight. If they are non-soak but are particularly old, you might want to soak them.

Melt the butter in a stockpot or large saucepan, add the bacon and fry on a medium heat for five minutes. Add the onion and fry until softened. Drain the peas and stir them in, making sure they get a good covering of bacon fat and butter. In amongst the peas, place the hock, knuckle or trotters and cover with water. Add some pepper, but do not add salt at this stage. Bring to a boil and skim off any grey scum, then cover and simmer gently until the peas are all mushy; around 1 ½ to 2 hours. Give the potage a stir every now and then as the peas do tend to stick, particularly towards the end of cooking.

Take out the meat joint and place to one side. Liquidise or mill the soup and return it to the pan. Pick any meat from the joints and add to the soup. Season with salt (if needed), pepper and the Worcestershire sauce.

6 Comments

Filed under food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, Soups, The Victorians, Uncategorized

Angels and Devils on Horseback

A Victorian hors d’œuvre that has died a death in recent decades; an angel on horseback is simply an oyster wrapped in bacon and grilled; a devil is a tea-soaked prune treated the same way. The main reason for this is that oysters were then poor man’s food and now they are a delicacy; it is odd to think of the working-class tucking into these at dinner rather than the upper middle classes. Of course, the tables were turned by the time we hit the 20th Century. If you have never tried oysters before, this is a good way to introduce yourself to them, I reckon. They should have a comeback as they are delicious, and if you can’t afford – or stomach – oysters, then at least have a go at making the devils, though they are best made together.

The best oysters for the angels are the large Pacific ones – especially if you can get them pre-shucked. The best prunes are the squidgy ‘giant’ ones; if you can’t find them, just substitute two normal prunes for each giant one. There are many elaborate recipes, especially for the angels; the oysters in one are  breaded and fried, in another they are chopped up to make a stuffing. These things are best kept simple – the raw ingredients should speak for themselves.

You can make these delightful and delicious bite-size nibbles as some decadent finger-food on rounds of bread fried in butter or alongside some roast poultry instead of pigs in blankets.

Angels on Horseback

12 large shucked oysters

Cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce (optional)

6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut in half

First, soak 12 wooden toothpicks in some water and get your grill nice and hot. Season your oysters with a little Cayenne or Tabasco sauce if using and roll each in a piece of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Place them on a baking sheet and grill until the bacon is crisp and the oysters are plump. Serve immediately.

Devils on Horseback

12 large prunes or 24 small ones

Freshly brewed, strong tea

12 roasted, salted almonds

6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut in half

Soak your prunes in the hot tea until plump – this will take 30 minutes if no-soak prunes, or overnight if they require soaking.* Remove the stones if the prunes are pitted then fills the gap it has left with a roasted almond. If you are using small prunes, sandwich an almond between two of them. Spear with a cocktail stick and grill as described above.

*Don’t throw away the tea for it tastes delicious!

1 Comment

Filed under food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, The Victorians, Uncategorized

To Make a Coburg Loaf

Here’s another recipe toad to the series of posts on bread and bread-making (see main post here).

Coburg loaves are a common sight in traditional bakeries, but are rarely spotted outside of them these days. A Coburg is a round loaf that is not baked in a tin like your basic loaf (see recipe here), but as a round plump crusty loaf on a tray. On the top there are cuts in a cross shape that open up when it bakes. It can be made with pretty much any flour you like – white, whole-wheat, rye, oat, or whatever takes your fancy. I class it as one of the basic loaves because it contains just flour, yeast, salt and water.

Technically, a Coburg is a kind of cob, the only difference being that a cob does not get cut before going in the oven. There are variations on the Coburg cuts though; sometimes several cuts are made in a chess board fashion which expands to make a porcupine loaf, which is also known as a college loaf. Alternatively, the top of the dough gets quickly stabbed with a piece of wood spiked with lots of nails. A bit hardcore that one.

The Coburg loaf became popular in the Victorian era, and I assumed the loaf was named after Queen Victoria’s hubby Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as many things were in those days. The British public were fascinated by the royal couple, and really took to many German traditions (especially a Christmastime). However, it may not be the case. There was such a thing as Coburg material; cheap and coarse and used for making mourning clothes that predated Albert so the word is older. The most likely explanation is that a German baker living in London, as many did, gave it his family name, though no baker actually knows who this was. The loaves themselves were certainly around before the Victorian era, centuries earlier in fact. They were made from courser grains than today and went by the name of a Brunswick loaf. So it seems all that occurred was a name change.

The good thing about baking these loaves is that you need no tin and consequently you achieve a good crust all over the surface. The recipe below is based on one from Elizabeth David and I haven’t provided massive detail on the making of the dough as I have already done that in the recipe for baking a basic loaf, so if you are new to bread-making, it might be worth having a little of that post first (you’ll find it here).

 

Ingredients

14 oz strong white flour (or a mix of up to 50% other flour(s) if you like)

2 tsp salt

¼ oz fresh yeast or 1 tsp of dried yeast

8 fl oz blood-heat water

 

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl and place in a cool oven to warm a little. In the meantime cream the yeast in a little of the warm water, adding a pinch of sugar if using dried yeast. After about 10 or 15 minutes, it should be alive and foaming, so make a well in the middle of the flour and tip the yeast in along with the remainder of the water. Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. If it is very sticky, add a bit more flour, cover and allow it to double in volume in a warm place. Knock the dough back well and give it a knead for 5 or 6 minutes. If you want, give it another rising. On a baking tray, shape the dough into a nice plump bun by moulding the dough and pulling it under itself. If it feels that it is too moist to rise without spreading, add some more flour. Cover with an upturned bowl and allow to prove until it doubles in size once more.

Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp knife to make a cross shape and bake in the oven at 230⁰C (450⁰F) for 15 minutes, then at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for a further 15 minutes then turn the loaf upside down on its tray with the oven switched off for a final 10 minutes. Cool on a rack or over some tins.

15 Comments

Filed under baking, bread, food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, Teatime, The Victorians, Uncategorized

“Out of the strong came forth sweetness…”

Can there be anything else that sums up British baking as much as Lyle’s Golden Syrup? If you are not British then you might not have heard of it and it is rather difficult to compare it to anything else. It looks like honey, but is viscous like a syrup such as corn syrup and yet it tastes like neither. The taste is more like butterscotch or caramel. It is also commonly called treacle. I absolutely love the stuff and manage to get hold of it here in Missouri to go on my porridge or pancakes of a morning. Oddly, it was never intended to be a commercial product, but thank goodness it became one. I remember as a child, my Dad always used to make us a treacle sandwich after our Sunday baths whilst we dried in front of the fire, soggy towels wrapped around us.

The story of golden syrup starts in 1881when the Scottish businessman Abram Lyle set up a sugar-refinery in London on the Thames with his five sons, processing sugar cane into sugar loaves. In those days, sugar was bought in large tapering mounds that had to be pounded or grated by hand at home. One byproduct of the process was a thick, gloopy syrup that with a little more refining through charcoal was very delicious. So he sold it to his workers from large barrels (Lyle was originally a cooper) and the syrup quickly was anointed with the nickname “Goldy”. Soon, Goldy became popular outside of his workforce and everyone wanted some. Just two years later, in 1883, Lyle’s Golden Syrup was born.

It is the tin the golden syrup that comes in that is the icon of both British cookery and Victorian entrepreneurship. Famously, on the front is a drawing of a dead lion peppered with swarming bees. Abram Lyle was a very pious man, and used the story of Samson in the book of Judges in Old Testament as the inspiration for the design. Quite a while before his fateful haircut, Samson got attacked by a lion which, through His power, Samson was able to rip open, killing it. Later he sees that bees have built a hive within its carcass and he takes some honey to his family and friends and they have a feast. He didn’t tell them about the lion and had them guess how he came about all the honey, presenting them with the poser:

And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle.

Judges 14:14

Tins were first produced in 1884 and unbelievably have not changed at all in their design since. In fact, the recipe for the syrup has never changed either – making Lyle’s Golden Syrup the oldest brand in the world. “You’d be mad to mess with Goldie.” The only slight change is to the weights written on the tin: gone are the “1 lb” and “2 lb” marks, their replacement being the “454 g” and “907 g” marks, to keep in line with EU rulings. Another change occurred during the Second World War when, because of tin shortages, Lyle had to make the ‘tins’ from cardboard instead.

For over 125 years, it has been indispensable – it was even taken on Captain Scott’s fateful trek to the Antarctic. He wrote a letter to the Lyle family:

“Your Golden Syrup has been in daily use in this hut throughout the winter, and has been much appreciated by all members of the expedition.”

In 1950, the Lyle Company brought out a second iconic product: Lyle’s Black Treacle. It is very similar to molasses, though it is considerably thicker and stronger tasting. For any recipes that ask for black treacle, you can substitute molasses instead with no problems.

In the American classic The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, there is a recipe for Cornish Treacle Tart (which is actually made from Golden Syrup). In that recipe it asks for three-quarters of a cup of dark corn syrup. Do not on no account ever, ever, substitute golden syrup for corn syrup. The two are incomparable. So, I urge the American public: if you use a recipe that asks for Golden Syrup and you cannot get hold of any, don’t bother making it. Do you hear me? Good, then we understand each other. Amazon’s grocery section stocks it, so you can always get it online.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Black Treacle are part of so many wonderful recipes, I would be crazy listing them all, but here are what I reckon are the important or interesting ones. As I add recipes, I’ll add links. If you know of any that I have missed off, please let me know. Here goes:

Treacle tart

Flapjacks

Pancakes

Treacle sponge pudding

Mrs Beeton’s rolled treacle pudding

Golden syrup cake

Aunt Nelly’s pudding

Malt loaf

Jamaican ginger cake

Parkin

Ma Buttery’s crunch

Bonfire toffee

Christmas cake

16 Comments

Filed under General, history, Nineteenth Century, Puddings, The Victorians

Eel, Pie and Mash

Eel, pie and mash houses are bits of living history and are very much a London invention. The houses were a Victorian creation, though sellers had had stalls since the eighteenth century. Eels were very cheap and just swimming about in the River Thames. Strangley, they took off during a time when the heavily-polluted Thames did not have any eels swimming in its waters. The eels did arrive on the Thames though; brought up on barges from Holland. These days they come from Ireland.

There are three elements to the classic meal: pie, mash and eel liquor. The pies began life as eel pies, but over time the pies were made with minced beef and onion; mashed potatoes speak for themselves; and the liquor is the special part. It is made from an eel gravy and is heavily flavoured parsley sauce. You must put on liberal amounts of salt, vinegar and pepper or chili on there too. They also sell stewed eels as well as the other London classic, jellied eels. You can also buy live eels to take home and cook for yourself, if you are so inclined.

They are impressive inside, they’re not ostentatious or anything like that, but being Victorian buildings they have the beautifully-tiled walls that we associate with the Victorians’ eating establishments, public houses and urinals!

I was in London over Christmas so I decided, upon my visit, I would find one and try its wares. There are three families that own the best shops: the Cookes, Manzes and the Kellys I went to F. Cooke’s in Hackney, the first to have a pie and mash house. Frederick Cooke opened his first shop in Clerkenwell in 1862 selling the “poor-man’s delicacy”.

One of his daughters married a Manze, who were an Italian family selling ice cream, and they opened some pie and mash houses too. Their own grandson now runs their first shop on Tower Bridge. The Kellys were an Irish family that arrived relatively late to the trade but are considered the best. At the peak of business, two tons of live eels were consumed per shop! Now there are around 25, so I wanted to go to one before they disappeared.

Walking into F. Cookes really  felt like walking into the past. The place hasn’t changed at all for decades and is now a listed building. I ordered hot stewed eels with mash and liquor and a cup of tea. I sat down to eat them with a liberal seasoning with salt, pepper and vinegar. I like eels, so I knew I would like the food.

Eels have quite a delicate flavour, so they went very well with the bland potatoes and liquor; a great winter-warmer. I also ordered some jellied eels – cooked eels set in an aspic jelly made from eel bones. They are an acquired taste, apparently. The eels themselves were good but eating them cold with the jelly was not the gastronomic treat I was expecting. Hey-ho, you win some, you lose some.

The eel, pie and mash shops are under threat today, and it is not just because of the changing tastes of we Britons, it is because the European eel is becoming threatened. Long gone are the days when people set eel traps on the mudflats of the Thames, or anywhere else, because since 1980, the numbers of eel dropped by 95 per cent. No one really knows why the eel population has crashed by this huge amount, but overfishing, pollution and changes in the ocean current brought on by climate change are the most cited potential causes. I imagine that the latter reason is the most important; eels are catadromous fish, which means that they live in freshwater, but swim to the ocean to spawn (the opposite being anadromous fish, like salmon). The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) swims all the way to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. The eel fry – called leptocephali – take three years to swim across the ocean, until they reach an estuary.

They look nothing like an eel, and for a long time considered totally different species. At the estuary, they metamorphose into elvers, or glass eels, miniature transparent versions of the adult. You can set your clock by the elvers’ migration up the rivers, and people used to collect huge amounts of them, usually in pillowcases, to feed their families.

This no longer happens; places where they used to swarm no contain hardly any. There are only a few people that fish for them, and they hold their fishing spots shrouded in secrecy because they now go for over £500 per pound! I have a soft-spot for elvers and eels – my very first scientific publication was on elvers in Mull, Scotland.

It might not be over for the eel though: a huge amount of migrating elvers were spotted swimming up the River Severn in 2010, say the BBC (see here). Hopefully this isn’t just a freak occurrence.

24 Comments

Filed under food, history, Nineteenth Century, The Victorians

Traditional Mincemeat

To kick off the Christmas theme for December, I thought I would give you a couple of mincemeat recipes – one sixteenth and one nineteenth century. They cenrtainly different from the Robinson’s jarred stuff my Mum used when I was a child. Robinson’s were a strange brand of preserves with a ‘Golly’ mascot that was still being used in the 2000s. It’s a long story of how this was allowed that requires a whole entry to itself I think…

Modern day mincemeat is a preserve of sugar, dried fruits, nuts and suet used to fill mince pies. It is certainly in no way meaty. In fact, I think vegetarian suet used these days. The further back you travel in time however, the more meaty the recipes become. Originally, the idea was to make a pie filled with minced meat, heavily flavoured with spices and dried fruits. There were two main reasons for this; first it allowed one to show off about how much spice one could afford; and second, the sweet aromatics could overpower any meat that was past its prime. To show you what I mean, here’s how ‘to bake the humbles of a deer’ from The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson from 1598 (the humbles are the innards by the way):

Mince them very small and season them with salt and pepper, cinnamon and ginger, and sugar if you will, and cloves, mace, dates, and currants and, if you will, mince almonds, and put unto them. When it is baked you must put in fine fat, and sugar, cinnamon and ginger and let it boil. When it is minced put them together.

The last sentence is puzzling, but it seems to be a recipe that is possible to do these days, though in sixteenth century cook books there are never quantities mentioned.

The same cannot be said for the next recipe from Mrs Isabella Beeton. Mrs Beeton was the first recipe writer to have the great idea of listing the ingredients and the quantities before the recipe. In her magnum opus of 1888, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she included  recipes for a regular one, an American one and an ‘excellent’ one. I have never tried the latter two recipes, but the regular one makes the best mince pies I have ever eaten in my life, so if you are thing of making your own mincemeat I urge you to give this one a go. It does contain beef which shouldn’t put you off as you can’t taste it, but it does give it amazing delicious qualities. The quanitities Mrs Beeton gives are huge, so it is best to half or even quarter them. Here they are:

2 lbs raisins

3 lbs currants

1 1/2 lbs of lean beeef such as rump

3 lbs of suet – fresh is best, put the packet stuff is also good

2 pounds of soft dark brown sugar

6 oz mixed candied citrus peel (cintron, lemon, orange &c)

1 nutmeg, grated

2 lbs of tart apples such as Cox’s Orange pippins, peeled, cored and grated

the zest of 2 lemons and the juice of one

1/2 pint of brandy

Mince the beef and suet (or get your butcher to do it).

Then, mix all the remaining ingredients together well and pot into sterilised jars, making sure you push it down well to exclude any trapped air bubbles. Leave for at least 2 weeks before you use it. In a couple of weeks, I’ll give you recipe to make the perfect mince pie

9 Comments

Filed under food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, Sixteenth Century, Teatime, The Victorians

Christmas is coming…

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent, and so the real run-up to Christmas begins. Around this time I usually begin making the Christmas food: baking and feeding the cake and jarring the mincemeat ready for a little nearer the time. Unfortunately, I haven’t done this for a couple of years; living in America and then going to the UK for Christmas means I am not around to make the stuff. So this year, I thought I would give you some of the traditional recipes tried-and-tested by Yours Truely.

Christmas really is the time where people like to go really traditional – even those that don’t like turkey seem to feel it necessary for the big day. If you don’t like them, don’t have them – there are others to choose from. Turkeys have regularly been eaten in Britain on the big day since the sixteenth century, they only became really popular in the Victorian era; before that, the goose was the popular choice. This changes from region to region however, for example in the North of England, beef was  most popular. Our family usually has beef as well as turkey even now.

The Victorians essentially invented the Christmas we know today: Queen Victoria loved the Christmas Tree that Prince Albert got for her – the craze caught on and we all started doing it. During this time the Christmas card and the Christmas cracker was invented too.

The very first Christmas card by John Callcott Horsely, 1843

I’m here for the food of course, and I’ll save the history of the Christmas fayre for their separate posts. However, for any non-Brits out there I’ll go through the basics:

The Meat: sorry vegetarians, but Christmas dinner is all about the meat. A nut roast or a tofurkey will simply not do. To be traditionally British you can go for a surprising selection of species: turkey, goose, ham, beef, pheasant, even peacock and wild boar if you go as far back as Medieval times. Along with the main roast, you need to have stuffing and pigs in blankets. Do not forget the gravy.

The Veg: the ultimate Christmas vegetable is the brussels sprout whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em. I love them – especially when tossed in bacon and prunes. Other attendees should always be mashed potatoes as well as roast potatoes. In fact plenty of roast vegetables: in my opinion there has to be roast parsnip and sweet potato (which was much more than regular spuds for quite a while), but celeriac and beetroot are also good. Also you need some typical boiled vegetables: carrots, or swede and carrot mash, cabbage or kale. One big error I think people make is that they think every item has to be extra-rich; I remember seeing glazed carrots with vanilla one time. With all the rich meat and roasted veg, you need some good old basic boiled vegetables.

The Sauces: this all depends on the meat you are cooking, redcurrant or cranberry jelly and bread sauce with goose, turkey or game, horseradish with beef, &c.

Afters: for some people the most important bit – the more pudding the better. The obvious one is the Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding or figgy pudding. I love it, but many people don’t and I can understand why: pure dried fruit and stodge. I have never found a good recipe for one though. Along with the pudding, you also need to add the brandy butter and custard. Just as important is the trifle, it can be boozy or it can e fruity, either way can be excellent as long as it is done well. The third necessary dessert is the Yule-log; a very long history has this one.

The Extras: naturally one doesn’t want to spend a single minute not eating for the entire Christmas period so there are many additional extras, and they are not optional, no siree. The Christmas cake, well-fed with brandy, mince pies -made with a good mincemeat – and a good pâté with a selection of good cheeses. Raised pies are very popular from the simple like a Melton Mowbray pork pie to the unbelievably crazy Yorkshire Christmas Pie, that contained at least eight game species. Plus, people will be thirsty, so don’t forget the mulled wine, cider or ale. Don’t forget some simple roasted chesnuts to eat before the fire. I could go on with the optional extras, but I will not.

Of course not everyone cooks everything from scratch on the day, I certainly don’t. However, it is best to make as many things as possible because they will be much better than the equivalent bought at the supermarket. I have never looked back after making Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat and Jane Grigson’s Christmas cake. The only way you are going to get top-quality foods like these without making them yourself is if you go to the high-end of the market and that can set you back some.

For me, the absolute must-makes are: mince pies, Christmas cake, stuffing and trifle. Oh, and the meat of course!

8 Comments

Filed under Christmas, food, history, The Victorians