Yet more Twelfth Cake

I’m back! I’ve been lecturing like a beast, living on oatcakes and cheese as I drive around the country in my increasingly crumb-filled car. It’s Christmas, again, which means time for my annual plea to bring back the Twelfth Cake.

Really. Seriously. What IS the point of Christmas Cake? I adore it, I could wallow in it and eat it every day (always with cheese), but for many people its sort of lost its place in the world… We make them (or buy them), save them ’til Christmas’, and…then what? Friends come over – we feed them mince pies. Pre-Christmas festivities – we don’t want to broach the cake. Christmas day – we’re too full to eat it. And after Christmas there’s a slow, increasingly guilty feeling as we fail to broach the bugger and feel we should perhaps wait for some undefined special occasion. And snacking is bad, and sugar is the devil etc etc. Sigh. There is, however, a solution! This year, get your cake, unwrap it (or before you ice it – this may be a tad too late), upend it, and stick a dried pea and a bean in each side.  Plonk it back on the plate and decorate as per usual. The kicker is that you then save it, to be eaten with lovely people and lots of booze on Twelfth Night (6th January) while you all have a have a proper party to send out the season. (Obviously I am assuming no-one reading this does anything terrible like ‘dry’ January, or, even worse, ‘Veganuary’. Please. January is a TERRIBLE month. You need bacon and wine.)

Srsly, argh.
Srsly, argh.

…Ok, realistically it may be that even the thought of Twelfth Night is making you feel a bit queasy, what with next year possibly lining up to be even worse, on a global politics/world meltdown scale than this year, and in fact you want to bury your head in the cake right now, and now come up for breath – but I still feel we need to address this cake situation. How about going some way toward it?  You could still to the bean and pea thing? Right? With a crown from a cracker or the finder of the bean, or a small token of your esteem. Makes cutting the cake way cooler….

This year, I am singing the praises of Twelfth Cake in public not once, but twice. First up is Victorian Bakers at Christmas (airs Christmas Day at 9.30pm and repeated Boxing Day), and next up is a special, 12th Night themed episode of The Kitchen Cabinet on January 7th at 10.30am, recorded at the Banqueting House in London. I am bound to be asked for the recipes, so here they are. Enjoy.

For Bakers, we were looking at an 1840s Christmas, when Twelfth Cake was really at its peak (see my previous post on the subject).The bakers were tasked with making cake for all, not just the fashionable bon ton who could afford the beautiful concoctions sometimes featured at heritage sites, but  the riff and the raff and everyone in between. Their cakes needed to be quick to make and decorate, and easy to sell – bright, fun, and funky. Inspired by the lurid descriptions of the time, the results were utterly joyous, and when the shop window was dressed it was so spot on that it made me very happy.

The shop.
The shop.

The cake recipe was from The Knight Family Cookbook, which is linked to Jane Austen through her brother, and was reprinted as a facsimile by Chawton House a few years ago.

To Make a Great Cake (a note in the margin reads ‘good cake’)

Take 5 quarts of fine flower, a pound of fine sugar beaten, half an ounce of mace, 3 nutmegs, a few cloves, a little cinnamon all well beaten, 8 pounds of currance, & a pound of raisons of the sun stoned and shred, mix all of these in the dry flower; then take 3 gills of cream, 3 pounds and a half of butter melted in it, almost a quart of new ale yeast, 20 eggs which beat with the yeast well together & strained in. Then put a jack of brandy [a jack is half a gill] into the cream & butter, so pour it to the rest blood warm, & mix it lightly with your hands. It must be about as stiff as a hasty pudding, so beat it with your hands a good while, & have ready half a pound of candied lemon & half a pound of citron cut into pieces. Then put your cake into your hoop with 3 or 4 papers at the bottom. If your hoop be half a yard over it will do – when you have put in some of your cake, show in some of the candied lemon and citron, then put in more of the cake, then the rest of the sucket, then the rest of the cake, then cut t over with a knife or it will crack, but don’t prick it at all. This cake is very subject to scorch, so when it colours lay a paper over it. It must stand in the oven full 2 hours, longer if it be thick when almost cold ice it.

I love the wording of this recipe, from the hoop half a yard across (we had to commission one), to the assumption that the cook knows the texture of a hasty pudding (thick batter). It speaks volumes that the writer assumes blood warm makes perfect sense – which it did to me, who spends half my life reading recipes like this, but it confused a couple of the bakers. And teh use of the term suckets for candied lemon and citron is a throwback to the 17th century and earlier, and, along with the use of yeast as the raising agent, hints at the longevity of this kind of recipe. Clearly if you decide to make it, scale it down.

For The Kitchen Cabinet, we were going all 17th century, in keeping with the glories of the Banqueting House venue (THAT CEILING!). Thus the recipe which I chose for the show was an earlier one (though the above would have been around then, easily). I also inserted tokens into the cake, whereas for Bakers, set 200 years later, we played with cut up Twelfth Night Character cards. The tokens were based on the list given in Bridget Henisch’s Cakes and Characters, where she quotes Henry Teonge, recounting a party at sea in 1676: ‘we had much mirth on board, for we had a Great Cake made, in which we put a bean for the king, a pea for the Queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold, and a rag for the slut’. (Pepys records similar shenanigans, but he rigged it so that a friend of his under investigation for fraud got the clove…)

Rubens celebrating James I as an actual god. Because the 17th century has done it ALL before.
Rubens celebrating James I as an actual god. Because the 17th century has done it ALL before.

Again, the cake is yeast-risen, and packed with fruit and booze. Neither recipe contains much sugar; a reflection of the high cost of sugar before the late 18th century. Both benefit from a little while to rise, this more than the former. This one is somewhat bread-ier, and keeps less well (hence the ground almonds, which improve keeping qualities), but it is also slightly lighter, and was eaten by the audience before any of the panellists got a look-in. It’s from John Nott’s Cook’s Dictionary (1726).

To make an extraordinary Plum Cake

Take five pound of flour, two pound of butter, put the butter into the flour, five pound of currants, a large nutmeg, three quarters of an ounce of mace, and a quarter of an ounce of cloves, finely grated and beat; take three quarters of a pound of sugar, twelve eggs, leaving out three whites, put in a pint of ale yeast; then warm as much cream as will wet it, and pour some sack to your cream, and make it as thick as batter; then pownd three quarters of a pound of almonds, with sack and orange flower water, beat them but grossly; add a pound of candy’d citron, orange and lemon-peel, mix’d all together; put a little paste at the bottom of your hoop, and put it in.

Again, the language is revealing, though less old-fashioned than the manuscript recipe: tidied up, perhaps, for a modern reading audience. The paste at the bottom of the hoop is a nifty idea to stop the bottom burning, and doubles as a cake board when the thing is served. It’s a trick I’ve found in Victorian books as well, and it’s an easy way round having to cut bits of wood to shape or find silver platters upon which to serve your cake if you are trying to be vaguely in keeping with periods before foil-covered cardboard cake boards. Agnes Marshall even has a recipe specifically for cake bottom pastry.

Oh! And to prove I put my money where my mouth is, I have made all of my Christmas Cakes into Twelfth Cakes this year, peas and beans in every one. Some have, however, already been consumed…

Yes, they were vaguely themed: this one is vaguely Tudor (and uses Tudor sugarplate)
C18th gum plate.
I made myself a Greedy Queen cake, AND?
More sugarplate, different recipe, new moulds.
From a book from 1904. STILL a TWELFTH CAKE, OK.
The early C18th version. M insisted we try one to check they were edible and it was gone in minutes.


Happy Christmas!


The recipes, side by side, for scaling purposes.

Knight Family Cookbook

10 pints of flour, 1lb caster sugar, 1/2oz mace, 3 nutmegs, few cloves, bit cinnamon, 8lb currants, 1lb raisins, 12 fl oz cream, 3 1/2 lb butter, 2pt ale yeast (or fresh yeast mixed into a blend of weak beer and water), 10 medium eggs (or 20 pullets’ eggs), 2 fl oz brandy, 8oz candied lemon peel, 8 oz candied citron peel,

I tend to do an eighth for a standard 12 inch cake tin. Note the liquid measurement for a dry foodstuff in the flour.


5lb flour, 2lb butter, 5lb currants, 1 nutmeg, 3/4oz mace, 1/4oz cloves, 12oz sugar, 6 medium eggs (12 pullets), leaving out 2 whites (3 whites), 1pt ale yeast (or weak beer and water mixed with fresh yeast – or dried), glug of sherry or brandy, orange flower water, 12oz ground almonds, 1lb candied mixed peel.

I quarter this and it’s pretty ample.



It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend. If you are not hanging up the bunting and getting in the booze, then you are missing out, in my view. Especially at the moment, watching all the mud-slinging of the Brexit/Bremain stuff, I sort of despair. I adore Eurovision. Always have. To me, it’s a chance to celebrate all the good things about Europe – cultural diversity, shared experiences, and, above all, a sense of massive fun. In the UK, we tend to look toward America for our foreign music, and I still remember the shock and mild horror when I realised that French radio played a lot of French music – and Spanish, and German, and whatever was popular in the European club scene at the time. Eventually I came to enjoy it, and I still listen to as much French music as I do English, I suspect. I shan’t rehearse all the reasons why Eurovision is BRILLIANT here, (though I shall direct you to this radio show with by the Swedish Ambassador, which is very good), but suffice to say that, while the top-rated songs are generally genuinely good (not always- I’m looking at YOU very bad Polish butter-makers in 2014 – terrible, terrible technique), it’s the mixture of great – average – dire and sheer WTF which makes the whole evening such a joy.

I am head down writing chapters of A Greedy Queen like a demon at the moment, so I shall make the rest of this post pithy. Here’re my favourite songs, and, as the point of this blog is to muse in a historically meaningful way, some suggestions of what to cook to celebrate them in a suitably ye olde way:

Austria: OK, I LIKE THIS SONG. How about Kaiser-Schmarn, from Countess Morphy’s Recipes of All Nations? It’s a pancake on LSD – 1/2lb of flour, 1/2 pint of cream, sugar, eggs, raisins, salt and butter. I ate a modern version last year while on the Great Austria Trip and it was immense. Countess Morphy is also immense, as she’s a fake Countess, and wrote what is, in my view, one of the best cookery books of the 20th century. In an amazing departure from every academic norm ever, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry, which has been edited by a crack team based around the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore is one of only about ten accurate food history articles on the web.

France: Inevitably. I am the only person I know who liked Twin Twin’s Moustache. For France we can delve into the 18th century, as high end cooking was all French influenced at that stage. I’d like to offer up wine chocolate, published in John Nutt’s Cook’s Dictionary of 1726. The French drank a lot of chocolate, and this one has booze in, which you tend to need about halfway through the first song. Anyway, take a pint of sherry, or a pint and a half of red port, four ounces and a half of chocolate, six ounces of fine sugar, and half an ounce of white starch, or fine flour; mix, dissolve, and boil all these as before. But, if your chocolate be with sugar, take double the quantity of chocolate, and half the quantity of sugar; and so in all. I use rice flour as the starch and it’s divine.

Belgium: She’s a sort of foil-clad Kylie. Fun. Go for Brussels Biscuits, which were Princess Victoria’s favourite snack when she was recovering from illness in 1835. Essentially they are a rusk made of brioche dough. Additive. If you seriously want to try them, ping me a comment and I can send the recipe. It’s going in the book…..

Australia: good on the Australians for taking it seriously enough to send a really good song, and being undecided enough to only send her with only half a dress. We’ll plump for an 1880s Beeton recipe, which I suspect no-one ever cooked: parrot pie. It’s the same as pigeon pie (steak, egg, bird), so clearly adapted for a hypothetical Antipodean audience (or possibly just friends and family at home) based on existing recipes, and decorated in the same way with feet sticking out of the lid except….feathers. Love it. It’s as flamboyant and unreal as the whole contest.

parrot pie beeton 88
Can also be made with parakeets.

I should probably admit that my actual menu for my own evening with friends is not exactly this. It’s entirely modern, unusually for me, and rather random. I’ve got recipes representing the UK (Kay Plunkett-Hogg’s Xinjang Lamb), Sweden (Swedes are involved in about half of the entries, so it’s kind of broad – Bronte Aurell’s Cinnamon Buns), France (Pierre Hermé’s excruciatingly complicated macarons),and Israel except also France (taboulé, which I learnt to cook in Paris). I have Austrian, Spanish and French wines though…and German, British and Belgian beers.

Music should be enjoyable, right? (NOT YOU, GEORGIA), and so should food. A winning combination. Here’s to Eurovision, 2016!




I’ve been asked for this recipe quite a lot. It’s not mine, and when we made it for TV I was suffering from mad altitude sickness and felt like I was drunk and wading through mud. I can’t entirely remember what we did, therefore, so forgive me. Anyway, the fabulous Norbert Santeler, whose recipe it is, has supplied it for the delectation of his adoring English speaking public. Here it is, with a few Annieisms to render it suitable for the average UK kitchen and shop, assuming you aren’t up at 3440 feet when you make it yourself.

Gletscherschneetorte (Glacier Snow Cake)

This is essentially a cheese cake which you assemble and chill overnight. It does, however, need a pastry and a cake base, which need to be made in advance.


Shortcrust pastry base. If bought, make sure it is all butter for otherwise it is truly vile as opposed to just not great. Roll it out, and cut it to fit the springform cake tin or, better still, cake ring in which you plan to make your final cake. You could make it in a deep dish, if you have neither cake tin nor cake ring. You just won’t be able to demould it.

Sponge cake base. Again, make this in the same tin that you are assembling your final cake in. That way it will all fit together and be the right size. Any sponge cake recipe will be fine.


Fills a 9 inch/23cm cake tin very generously. Can be done the day before you want to eat it.


500 g sour cream, 500 g whipping cream, whipped to soft peak, 100g icing sugar, 4 standard sheets of gelatine (Norbert recommends 8 small sheets – the UK standard ones each set 100ml of liquid so this should be fine, but by all means play around), 1 small tin of pineapple chunks in juice, 3 tablespoons of whole milk, 1 tablespoon of coconut syrup (essence would probably do at a push), Ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits, granulated sugar, apricot jam, grated coconut (desiccated, either sweetened or unsweetened as you prefer, is fine)


Beat the sour cream with the icing sugar, coconut syrup and milk until smooth. Make sure that your cream is whipped to soft peak and add sugar to taste. Meanwhile, soften the gelatine sheets in cold water until they are very floppy. Squeeze them out gently and add them to a little boiling water (a tbsp should suffice – you need to dissolve them completely. Microwave or heat on the hob if necessary). Stir your now liquid gelatine into the sour cream/coconut mixture. Leave to cool completely. Now add a little of the whipped cream into the mixture to loosen it, before folding in the remaining whipped cream.

Spread apricot jam onto the round shortcrust base. Then add the sponge cake on top of that and place a cake ring round it. Alternatively, put the pastry in the bottom of a deep dish or springform cake tin, add the jam then the cake – the idea is simply to build up the layers inside a support which will hold the cream mix together while it sets. If you do it in a cake ring or springform tin you can demould it, if in a dish, best to serve in the dish.

Spread a little bit of the sour cream/coconut/ gelatine/cream mixture onto the sponge cake bottom. Put a single layer of ladyfingers into the middle and distribute chunks of pineapple around it. Now repeat the process: spread the cream mixture on top, then add ladyfingers and pineapple. Distribute the remaining mixture evenly on top and add grated coconut as the finishing touch – the snow on your glacier snow cake, if you will. Leave to set in a fridge or, if you’ve made it on top of a glacier, move it somewhere where it won’t freeze – freezing destroys the gelatine and it won’t set properly.


Norbert says you can also add chocolate or nuts to the sponge cake mixture. (And I imagine you can use any jam you most desire – or possibly even some mincemeat!)


Lots and lots of cake.


Massive thanks to Norbert Santeler and his team at the café 3440 on the Pitztal Glacier.

James Martin Home Comforts….Christmas special

Once more into the fray… Normally for the JMHC programme I can be found poncing around various kitchens cooking up historic dishes and explaining the social history behind them. For the Xmas special, however, I have a somewhat different role. The historic food slots are still in the programme – the fab Ivan Day is thoroughly in his element – but I got sent (begged to be allowed to go) to Austria as a roving food reporter. Given how much I like eating hefty meaty stews, dumplings and how much I am a die-hard Sound of Music fan, this was pretty much THE BEST THING THIS YEAR. Turns out I really like schnapps as well. Winner.

I’m aware that the slots are quite short, and the food quite brilliant, so I’ve put full details of the various producers here to help anyone desperate to track down the delights featured in the programme for themselves. Enjoy.

Annie’s travels in Austria.
(in filming order, not necessarily in the order in which the films will be shown – I’ve put the air date for each at the end)

Day 1: Norbert Santeler, patissier for café 3440 on the Pitztal Glacier (airs 8th Dec)

We came off a stupidly early flight, landed, got in a van, and went straight up a mountain. The Swedish, German, Austrian and Slovakian ski teams were practicing on the slopes and the entire film crew got mad altitude sickness and spent the time drinking fat Coke and trying not to fall over. The views were so mind-numbingly beautiful that I don’t think it was really possible to take them in. And the challenges of cooking at high altitude were significant – Norbert is a weather forecast junkie, because high and low pressure affects how dough and pastry behave, and water boils at lower temperatures at altitude anyway. It is all sufficiently challenging that the café took a while to gear up to making and selling its own, rather lovely cake – despite the Austrians being utterly, madly, cake-obsessed. Cake is everywhere, and it is very, very good cake. We made a sort of cheesecake right up in the top of the glacier itself. It was -1°c and the gelatin was setting as we tried to use it. Insane.

Up a glacier. Stunning doesn’t even half cover it.

Day 2: Hans-Joerg Haag and Therese Fiegl, Schoko-Haag, for Tiroler Edle chocolate (airs 14th Dec)

The surreal sight of 20-odd grey cows peacefully grazing while every 2 minutes a ski lift passes over their heads isn’t really something easily communicated on camera. It was like a parallel universe James Bond film (one where the latest instalment wasn’t a chronic disappointment, maybe, but hey). The cows are a breed specially adapted for mountain regions, with wide hooves, strong legs and the ability to put on fat from low grade pasture. Therese is a sort of enabler, and has masterminded a range of chocolates based on the products of the immediate region. Yes, obviously, the cocoa mass isn’t from the Tyrol, for cocoa beans don’t grow in Europe. However, with this exception, the chocolates produced under the Tiroler Edle brand are pretty much made using stuff the chocolatier can see from his window. The milk (and cream for the ganaches) comes from the aforementioned cows, and the flavourings are all natural and all very, very local indeed. There are various filled bars – cranberry (which is universal in Austria, and I’m not a fan), mountain honey, hazelnuts, chestnuts etc etc, and a small range of filled chocolates. They are pretty lovely. Hans-Joerg has a shop, as does Therese, and they sell a lot on the web. The biggest internet seller is a bar which is technically almost illegal ish, as the EU food guidelines don’t have a category for it. It’s a 70% cocoa solids bar which contains no sugar at all – it relies on the milk for sweetness. My dad used to work for Rowntrees, now Nestlé, as a chocolate scientist, so I took him some for nerd value. It’s not great, was our verdict. Chocolate really needs a bit of sugar to bring out the flavours. Clearly, if you are diabetic, bring it on, and in the current silly ‘clean eating’ climate I’m sure it’ll do well. But my advice is to gorge on the filled bars, which are sublime. The Xmas specials, which include spiced apple, are among the best chocolate bars I have ever eaten.

Oh, we ate a lot of wild cranberries as part of this. Weird little beasties. I prefer barberries.

Cows. Ski lifts. Bells.
Cows. Ski lifts. Bells.

Day 3: Brennerai Josef Schimpfössel, Stanz (airs 15th Dec)

Day three started really well. I’d drunk 2 schnapps before 9am. They were only small servings – 2cl is the usual size –  and in Austria schnapps is THE drink for welcoming friends, strangers, children, passers-by….and it’s medicinal, and wakes you up, and helps you get going, and helps you digest, and helps you sleep, and is good for toasting stuff, and celebrating the end of things, and having in the morning, and the afternoon, and the evening….. Unlike the flavoured booze I make at home, this is the real deal. The fruit is fermented, then distilled with nothing added, then redistilled to yield a clear liquor of about 80% alcohol. It’s aged briefly, watered down to make it less lethal, and bottled. The Schimpfössels grow all their own fruit and operate the distillery as a cottage industry – everyone in the family has a ‘proper’ job, and Autumn is a sort of frenzy of fruit prep, during which everyone is enlisted to do their bit. The town itself has 50 official distilleries (out of 150 households), but my suspicion is that there were a lot more hidden behind closed doors. Unlike in the UK, where regulations brought in to curb the production of gin in the 18th century still affect would-be home distillers today, small scale distilling is pretty common in Austria. Wherever we went there were portable stills being hauled out of garages and set up ready to capture the fruits of the season. Apart from the fact that no one was vomiting in a gutter, and the resulting products were really high quality and probably wouldn’t kill you, I suspect it wasn’t a million miles away from London during the 17th and early 18th century gin craze.

The high point was properly discovering schnapps. The low point was me merrily abusing my German skills (I studied it at school and was determined to make a good showing, but I speak much, much better French), making up the word for ‘still’, and accidentally asking the lovely Josef how breastfeeding worked in the Tyrol. Note to self: stillen = breastfeeding. Brennerai = still. Um.

Three to go (schnapps, not days)
Three down….seven to go (schnapps, not days)

Day 4: Heinz Gstir and the family Bischofer, Senneri Hatzenstädt, Niederndorferberg (airs 7th Dec)

Up at 4am to go and nearly die as a giant milk float took off at great speed and with no warning from a half empty dairy in the dark. Heinz, who is a local dairy farmer, heads up a co-operative which took over the dairy a few years ago. At the time it was struggling, which meant that the livelihoods of the 25 or so high mountain farmers who depended on it as a market for their milk were at risk of going bust. The farms in question are too remote and too small to be able to supply big dairies and still make a profit. The solution for them, since the 1930s when the system was installed, was to zip wire their milk down the mountain, directly to the dairy, which then processed it into butter and cheese. When Heinz and the co-op took over, they quickly concluded that the only way to remain profitable in the modern big agri-business-led food world, was to go upmarket. The dairy now has full organic certification, but it remains totally independent and unfunded by outside support. This is a pretty big deal – a lot of the people we visited were affiliated to various organisations or umbrella brands, most often ‘Gnussregion’. This is a scheme set up by the government specifically to promote regional food and encourage food and drink tourism. It struck me as a jolly good idea, and had clearly benefited many of the small scale artisan producers we encountered. But Heinz and the farmers decided to do it on their own and set their own rules, so that the dairy would benefit exactly the people it most needed to, while preserving a culinary and farming heritage which was close to dying out. A true co-operative, indeed. Bravo. At the dairy, raw milk butter and amazing cheese is sold in a small shop, along with a few other products, and they have a roaring trade supplying walkers. It was the only shop in Austria not in a major tourist town that I saw open at a weekend, so no wonder.

Other things I did: milked cows, fed goats, ate oodles of kletzenbrot, made butter (not in costume for once, whoop – apart from the white coat and hat), drank more home-made schnapps.

Eating butter and fruit bread with THAT view.
Eating butter and fruit bread with THAT view.

Day 5: Theresia Bacher, the rauchkuchl at Stulfelden (airs 18th Dec)

This day was so crazy I can’t even think about it without reaching for the schnapps. Words fail me. The views were stunning though, and the food incredible.

The smoky kitchen itself.
The smoky kitchen itself. And yes, that’s a cat in the ash pit.

Day 6: day off…

During which I dragged the whole crew to Salzburg to pay homage to the Sound of Music. Dan, the lovely cameraman, bought socks. Florian, the equally lovely runner and driving maestro, bought shoes. Director Sophia and I ignored them both and hit the souvenir shops.

Julie Andrews may have walked on this VERY PATH.
Julie Andrews may have walked on this VERY PATH.

Day 7: Peter Paffrath, Peters Land, carp farm (and general smallholding) (airs 9th Dec)

Back when Britain was a Catholic country, the days of Advent leading up to Christmas were official fast days, upon which all animal products were to be avoided, and only fish and non-animal products eaten. Obviously, the same was true for the rest of Catholic Europe too, and, along with Rome, Austria was the heartland of Catholicism. The head of the country was the Holy Roman Emperor, after all. Anyway, reading recipe books of the seventeenth century and before makes it clear how big a part of British culinary life fish was (and remained, as fish was invariably present as the second course of large dinners up to and beyond the end of Victoria’s reign). In medieval and early Tudor England, fish or fast days formed over half of the calendar year for an observant Catholic though, and fish cookery reached heights later generations could really only dream of. The range of fish, like the range of meat, that we ate was far larger than that consumed today. Carp was a definite favourite. In Austria, it’s far more closely linked to Christmas than any meat, and it’s traditionally eaten at the end of the Advent fast (no longer kept today, obvs), as a feast dish fit for Christmas Eve. I’ve always been told it’s a muddy fish, not worth eating. In the UK today it’s associated with Eastern Europeans, who, like the Austrians, regard it as THE Christmas dish. I asked Peter about the muddy thing, and about my sneaking suspicion that denigrating a fish we clearly ate for centuries as ‘muddy’, and not even trying it may just feed in to a certain sense of superiority versus migrant workers. Nah, says he, Eastern European carp can indeed be muddy, and as such, that’s a taste many people who eat it have grown to like. His fish isn’t at all muddy, anyway. He and his wife, who breeds Sheltand ponies, are impassioned advocates for all things pure, and he feeds the fish only the good stuff, ensures that the water is lovely, and, most importantly, says that the cold mountain climate helps keep the taste fresh and fishy. We ate it fried in butter. It was lush.

Well happy. Well muddy. Well sore, despite 19th century cook's biceps (upon which I was congratulated).
Well happy. Well muddy. Well sore, despite 19th century cook’s biceps (upon which I was congratulated).

Day 8: Chris Mayer and Maria Scholz,  Zuckerlwerkstatt, Vienna (airs 10th Dec)

Chris is an ex-rock god, turned sweet maker. The showmanship suits him. This whole day was brilliant fun, and I can see why people flock to stare in awe as they watch sugar and glycerine being turned into mini bits of rock. I was aware of the principles, of course, but the bit where pulled sugar is handmade into tiny, intricate edible art miniatures was less clear. You will see the process on the telly, and there’s a video on their website as well. Essentially, it makes you realise that there is no need whatsoever for all the magical shenanigans inside Willy Wonka’s factory: the real thing is mind-boggling enough. It reminded me of glass-sculpting, with which Chris says there are, indeed, many similarities – working in intense heat, risk of major burns, the need to work rapidly, the translucent beauty of the material and the delicacy of the end product. Can’t eat glass though, so I reckon sweets win. One of the high points of the day was seeing a late 19th century catalogue of sweets and chocolates produced by the Heller company (and meeting Herr Heller himself). Well into the 20th century sweets of this type were made by hand because there was simply no way to mechanise such an intricate and time-consuming process. Indeed, to reach the heady heights of some of the stuff Chris, following in the footsteps of Heller at its peak, is producing, there’s no conceivable way machines could get involved. Of course, all this means that the sweets cost more than the average mass-produced roll of artificially flavoured nastiness. Fine. You aren’t really supposed to gorge on the buggers. But the demands of the public for cheap, sugary yuckiness, and lots of it, and a corresponding failure to appreciate artisan-led production, led to the demise of the hand-crafted sweets, and subsequent demise of Hellers, in the 60s. The factories were sold off, some to Rowntrees, now Nestlé. I think it’s fab that Chris and Maria are helping to bring back a long lived classic, but – and this is important – do it in a way which works with modern market conditions. It’s a premium product, and deservedly so. And I say that, and I don’t really have a sweet tooth…

Outside it may be raining but smells incredible.
Outside it may be raining but inside….it smells incredible.

Day 9: Bernhard Kaar, Wachauer Safran (airs 11th Dec)

Bernhard is half soft-spoken academic, half action man. He used to work for the Austrian equivalent of DEFRA, until a nagging desire to recultivate saffron in the Wachau got the better of him. He says he tried for years to find out about its cultivation and history in the Wachau, but, as with Saffron Walden in the UK, the time when it grew and was harvested regularly had passed out of living memory, and people didn’t quite believe him that the Wachau and saffron went together like beef and plum pudding (not his metaphor). Then, one day, while furkling in a monastic library, wherein the monks didn’t really know what they had, he came across a copy of a late 18th century printed guide to…cultivating saffron in the Wachau. Boom. I adored Bernhard. He was passionate about the product, the history, and the culture surrounding saffron, but also switched-on to making it work as a 21st century business. His dream is to see saffron brought back to all the areas of Europe which once grew rich on the saffron trade – Essex and Cornwall being the English growth centres in the 15th century and thereabouts. (There are a couple of English growers now, one of whom is based near Saffron Walden and tells tales of its heyday, when the streets were turned purple with discarded petals, and the scent of spice hung heavy in the air – etc – he’s on a Kitchen Cabinet episode on Boxing Day). We made a cake. The batter was beautiful, and for an instant I totally ‘got’ saffron. The scent is incredible, the colour rich…. As usual, though, I found that cooked it was nowhere near as lovely. Bernhard’s saffron is absolutely beautiful – but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’d rather eat cake and just breathe in the heady scent. Pleb.

Cake, train tracks and Bernhard and me.
Cake, train tracks and Bernhard and me.

Day 10: Wiesner family, Mangalitza pig supremos, Arche de Wiskentale (airs 16th Dec)

I won’t beat about the bush. I’m a big fan of all things pork, and I was massively looking forward to this day. Mangalitzas are a Hungarian breed, valued above all else for the quality and quantity of their fat. And, as we all know, fat means flavour. They are also real lookers. They are often known as sheep-pigs for their coat is not mere bristles in the way of most British pigs, but actual real life, proper curly, fluffy fur. There was once a British pig which closely resembled them, which I’ve had a soft spot for ever since I heard about it: the Lincolnshire curly coat. Now extinct, it was reputedly a very friendly and very tasty pig. There are early 20th century pictures of kids riding about on them, and they were a mass of white curly fluff. They were even exported to Austria-Hungary and cross bred with the Mangalitza to make a Lincolnitza, according the to ever-reliable Shire Guide to British Pigs. However, the Mangalitza is slightly different. The Lincs version, like most British pigs, was snub-snouted. The Mangalitza is far more like the wild boars from which pigs are eventually descended. It has a pointed face, and the males have decided tusks. The piglets are stripy, again like boars, though they come in red, white and black (and are adorable). Christoph and Isabell have farmed them since they received a breeding pair as a wedding present (I have friend envy), and are now world-renowned for their knowledge. They don’t, however, sell the meat they produce, due to some convoluted set of legalities which I only half understood. They mainly sell livestock, and their own extensive knowledge. Christoph also practices a particular type of butchery, which doesn’t really feature on the show, but which was magic to watch. Seam butchery involves cutting out each individual muscle, still wrapped in what he calls the ‘bone skin’. It’s very hygienic, very interesting, and frankly rather like watching a sculptor at work. And OH! the meat. I ate it 12 ways, including raw fat, lardo, rare skirt, long cook pocket, tripe stew, spleen on toast and lard pastries. All of it was gorgeous (especially the spleen toasts actually). All hail the Mangalitza for it is gooooood.

(NB: you can buy Mangalitza hams and the meat itself from various places in the UK – Google is your friend. I have just purchased a Xmas joint and sundry other items from Brynheulog Rare Breeds, and they were brilliant – even managing to fish out a spleen for me….).

Fluffy, stripy piglets. Yum.
Fluffy, stripy piglets. Yum.

Day 11: Ursula Kujal and Harald Thiesz, Bio Feigenhof Wien (airs 17th Dec)

The last day. We were all, unsurprisingly, knackered, and the figs were all that kept us going. That and, it must be said, the schnapps. Figs make excellent schnapps. And geist (an infused version of schnapps, I think). They also make excellent ice cream, jam, marmalade, vinegar, and the little ones are pretty stunning soaked in booze. Yes, yet more booze. The story behind the rather random sight of a Mediterranean fruit growing in sub-zero temperatures on the outskirts of Vienna is fairly simple. Ursula and Harald took over what amounts to a humongous allotment, or mini smallholding, on the outskirts of Vienna, so that they could grow fruit and veg. It came with a couple of industrial-sized greenhouses, so they thought they’d have a crack at growing figs. After all, who doesn’t like figs? Theirs are exceedingly luscious – better than anything I’ve eaten in the UK. As with the carp and plums, they suggest that the extremes of temperature are apparently a big help. The trees are sown directly in the ground, no need to bind the roots, and are very productive. They prune them when they threaten to break through the roof, but otherwise largely leave them to it – and they have loads of varieties, in every colour from white to red and yellow. I gorged on them, and through that experimental process can say honestly that 8 should probably be most people’s limit.

Hey ho, fig joy got me happily through Vienna airport, where the Sleazyjet gates are a sort of wasteland, inhabited only by Mozart chocolates, Toblerone and paprika crisps. Not a bacon sarnie in sight. Sigh.

Happy be thy digestive system.
Happy be thy digestive system.

The opening shots are of Innsbruck Christmas market, by the way.

Santa was VERY friendly. He gave me a gingerbread heart and showed me his stuffed chicken.
Santa was VERY friendly. He gave me a gingerbread heart and showed me his stuffed chicken.

James Martin – Christmas Home Comforts airs every weekday from from the 7th to the 17th December, on BBC1 at 3.40pm. It’s repeated on Saturdays as an 30mn special, straight after Saturday Kitchen. The un-Christmassy Home Comforts is back with a brand new series on January 4th, and runs for 3 weeks. I’m back for that in my more usual slot, cooking and commenting on food from the 1760s to the 1960s. The link to the BBC homepage is here.

p.s. my own personal moment of joy…..

The hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive.

BBQ tips from Georgian cooks

The new series of The Kitchen Cabinet is here – yay! In keeping with the bank holiday tradition of having a ridiculously late lunch of half cooked meat with a tang of firefighting fluid, we discussed barbecuing. I brought one of these with me.

A gridiron. (American, 1890)
A gridiron. (American, 1890)

I’ve been asked a few times about the history of barbecuing: where it originates, why it’s so inexplicably gendered, and why so much of the stuff turned out on BBQ’s in the UK is crap (ok, I made that last bit up, but I had a fairly traumatising occasion last year involving poultry, charcoal, and the clear need for a meat thermometer. It could have ended in A&E). It has a long, complicated, and increasingly disputed history. The OED suggests etymological origins from Portugal, with the word itself entering the English language by the seventeenth century. You can find early English recipes in most eighteenth century cookery books, such as this one, from Henderson (c.1800):

BBQ pig, Georgian style. It's quite nice.
BBQ pig, Georgian style. It’s quite nice.

Here, the specificity doesn’t lie in the technique – it’s just roasted meat – but in a mixture of the ingredients, the basting, and the use of the contents of the drip pan to make a sauce. We’d recognise the application of direct heat to a lump of meat and the dousing in a spicy sauce as being part of modern day barbecuing. Elsewhere, the term is used to indicate the grilling of meat over a fire on a platform or piece of apparatus constructed for the purpose. Again, something we’d sort of recognise today.

(Incidentally, grilling is in in the old English and modern American sense of heat from below, rather than modern English heat from above. Today we use grill for top heat, Americans use broil. We used to use broil for top heat too. Etc.).

Barbecue as a term continues to crop up throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century in English-authored cookery books, and it would be plausible to see a link between the fairly basic techniques of grilling and roasting on open fires with some form of sauce, and the development of modern BBQ, which is overwhelmingly associated with countries which were colonised and/or opened up by westerners in the same period. Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America, in particular the Deep South, also have the benefits of having a climate which makes the development of BBQ techniques and recipes not only feasible, but necessary – put simply, in a country like Britain, where you can reasonably only BBQ three or four times a year, BBQ can only ever remain a bit of a novelty. Elsewhere, it’s a quotidian cookery method. There’s a strong argument, however, that BBQ was (and is) a pretty low-tech way to cook, and that, for that reason, in America, it was the very poor, especially rural poor who really elaborated the techniques and flavours. And yes, very poor, and rural poor, in the Deep South, means slaves and their descendants. There were, of course African antecedents – but let’s face it, every culture armed with food and fire and a basic ability to construct a bit of kit has traditions involving open fire cookery. There’s an excellent article on this subject by Michael Twitty from The Guardian here, and a piece on the tension between modern, white BBQ  champions and the real heritors of many of the historic aspects of BBQ on the BBC here.

BBQ, then, historically, is just cooking. English recipes clearly show that, even if its origins may have been in outdoor, open-fire cookery, the term was quickly applied to kitchen-based cookery. In America, where it stayed outside, it was still everyday cookery. So how on earth did we get to a stage where, in the UK at least, it has become a weirdly gendered, and very specific style, of ruining your lunch?

I think part of it comes down to open fires disappearing from our homes. BBQ doesn’t have much of a presence in formal food writing, at least, in the twentieth century, until the 1960s. Of course, many homes still had open fires for heating at that point, but fires for cooking on were increasingly rare. Rare, mildly dangerous things, especially those involving physical labour and special gadgets aren’t naturally gendered – nothing is – but sadly they tend to be written about in gendered terms and marketed toward men. By the late 60s and 70s, when BBQ recipes and techniques were starting to appear in cookery books, the gender division was already clear, along with the cunning ploy of selling extra kit to naive cooks. Here’s Marguerite Patten’s Book of Savoury Cooking (1961), and The Good Housekeeping Camping Caravan Cookery Book (1978):

A man and his bird.
A man and his bird.
I'd be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.
I’d be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.

Pshaw, I say. It’s all a load of rubbish, I hear you cry! Well, of course. We have absolutely no need for heaps of special tools for cooking stuff in a way in which was the only way of cooking stuff for quite a lot of centuries. A modern day standard charcoal BBQ is just a chafing stove. Here’s one at Kew Palace.

Kew Palace chafing stoves, c.1730

Gosh! A grill with charcoal in, and stuff cooking on top! Hmm. Which brings me to my last point. I have had some really good food cooked on BBQs (I’m not even going never the idea of gas BBQs here, by the way – just, no). I’ve even had good food cooked on BBQs in the UK. But generally it’s still a heady mixture of raw and burnt, firelighter flavoured and served with poor quality bread baps and sodding iceberg lettuce. But how to better the British BBQ experience? Well, if you think of your BBQ as a chafing stove and basic roasting apparatus, it does rather help. Here are my top (historically influenced) tips:

1. BBQs enable most of us to get as close to proper roasting as we will ever come. If you’ve a kettle BBQ, you can use indirect heat to roast a joint. If you’ve a more basic beast, buy a spit mechanism (about a tenner in French supermarkets from April to September). Then you can do this:

Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.
Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.

2. It’s a grill. Grill stuff. Hence the gridiron I opened with. Use the same techniques you would use in a top heat grill attached to an oven. Presumably you don’t usually serve half raw chicken legs from the grill, right? (Sorry – honestly, it was a terrible evening and the memories just burn).

3. It’s a stove. You can make sauces. Like this:

2015-08-09 17.43.54
You can use a normal pan. Though clearly a 3-legged earthenware pot helps to ‘look the part’.

4. Buy a meat thermometer. Please.
For more BBQ fun, the podcast of The Kitchen Cabinet is available via iPlayer, iTunes and all the usual suspects. Or the dedicated webpage is here.

Lovely, lovely basil

About 5 years ago, M and I visited Lyon, the self-proclaimed gastronomic capital of France (along with a few other places). Altogether a grand place to sally around for a few days, for me one of the highlights was a restaurant which advertised that it specialised in la cuisine de nos ancêtres. Clearly, this was like a flame to my moth, so we booked – and in booking ended up in a conversation with the chef-patron, who was a medievalist (and I get going around 1650). Long ish story, brilliant outcome – when we rocked up a couple of evenings later, he’d done me my own menu, going as late as he felt happy with in terms of his experience of historic cookery. This wasn’t just ‘inspired by’ either – although the place offered a modern (well, standard French) menu, most of it was cooked on chafing stoves and over a wood fire, or spit-roasted. Pant-wettingly exciting to a food historian, anyway.

The point of that preamble is that as part of this rather unique meal (I can find no trace of the restaurant online now, and fear it has since disappeared, along with its scholarly and brilliant chef that night), included as an apéro, basil wine.

Basil wine may sound a bit odd. It probably is a bit odd, if you only ever drink kir or beer before a meal. But it was absolutely divine. I love basil anyway, and this was slightly honeyed (not too much – honey, ik), palette-cleansing and appetite whetting all at once. I drank, I loved, I asked where you could get it….and of course he’d made his own.

Cue about three years of obsessing. Eventually, perusing Maria Rundell, I found a recipe for clary wine. And this is where I and books diverge. Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as historic cookery, there’s just cookery. And there should be no surprise that some old recipes taste good, because some new recipes taste good. And some, old and new, don’t. And tastes change. And, a crucial point for the study of cookery in the past, recipe books don’t tell us everything. If I were to pick a load of recipes books off your shelf, would I truly get a picture of how you eat? Even if you’ve annotated the recipes you’ve done (and many people don’t), I’d never pick up all the recipes you cook and which aren’t in those books – the instinctive ones, the ones you don’t need to look up, and the ones which have moved so far from how they were originally written that no one would guess how they started. Recipe books are great! But they can only ever be a starting point and a way of generalising about experience, past and present. A recipe is a snapshot – kind of realistic, but always filtered through the viewer’s personal experience, by which I mean, in this instance, likes, dislikes, what’s in the cupboard…. There is quite simply no guarantee anyone, ever, actually cooked any recipe written in any cookery book unless you have cast iron proof to the contrary. And then they may have changed it next time they cooked it.

All that is simply justification for my total bastardisation of Rundell’s recipe in the name of wanting basil wine. Mainly, purists will doubtless point out, that fact that pretty much all herbal wines use flowers, not leaves. Yeah, well, I had leaves, ok. And I had to scale it down. A lot. So, Annie’s mash up of what is probably a very nice recipe is as follows:

4pt water – 1.5lb sugar – 2fl oz yeast – 12fl oz  basil leaves. Later – 4fl oz brandy. I take a pint to be the old pint, I.e. 16fl oz, and yes, that is a liquid measurement for dry leaves. Don’t pack them in too tightly. And yes, I use about a third of a tsp, maybe half as I’m a bit crap at measuring, of powdered yeast, with a little lukewarm water.

All you do is simmer the water and sugar together to make a weak syrup and leave to cool completely. Stick this in a demi-john and add the yeast and basil leaves, no need to tear or chop. Put one of those plastic corks with a thing with water in it on top to keep out nasties and allow bubbles to escape as it ferments (I’m sure there’s a technical term). Leave for a bit – I did 2 weeks the first time, two months the second and I can’t remember the last batch. Eventually it will stop bubbling. Strain the liquid off into a big bowl/bucket and discard the basil (see – if you’d’ve chopped it, it would be a total arse to get out of your demi-john now). Add the brandy. Bottle – kilner style bottles are safest as two of my batches underwent secondary fermentation and became basil champagne. Leave for 4 months.

I have no idea how alcoholic it is, but I get fairly happy after two glasses…..

Here, for reference, is the original.

Maria Rundell, 1818 edition

10 dishes for incompetent cooks

Following my post on the BBC Dish Up campaign, I was having one of those idle discussions you (well, I) have in the car when I’m mainly thinking about driving, but need an easy topic to chat about so I don’t fall asleep with the sheer boredom of a lengthy motorway. My other half was a non-cook when I met him. He was 20, a vegetarian who wasn’t very keen on vegetables, and loved all things involving highly processed carb more than anything in the world. As you might imagine, most of that is not longer the case (put him near unattended pasta or roast potatoes and you can forget leftovers), so, as the other person in the car, he was quite a good person to be having that discussion with. To be fair, despite my current culinary habits, I lived on microwave meals as a teenager, only really discovering the joys of food and cooking when my Dad and I moved to France for 3 years when I was 16. Up to that point, I’d enjoyed the cooking I did, but it was certainly not the overarching interest (obsession?) it is now. The aforementioned car discussion wasn’t, therefore, completely uninformed.

Our major preoccupation, apart from me steering, not speeding and going in the right general direction, was to come up with a list of basic recipes which would be a) useful, b) easy, c) reasonably cheap, and d) versatile, for anyone coming to cooking from scratch for the first time. I argued my case based on firm historic principles and a love of eggs. M came at it from having to fathom out my scrawled instructions when left alone after I’d vaguely taught him something and then waved my hands about airily and told him it was well easy. Anyway. This is the list we eventually came up with.

1. Omelette: eating what became my version, which involves a LOT of butter, was the moment I realised food was more than just fuel. It was 1996, and it had been thrown together by a Frenchwoman with whom I was boarding. Seriously. You are never alone with a (good) omelette.

2. Batter pudding: the batter mix can also be used for pancakes, and pancakes piled up with jam and cream to make an impressive and stupidly easy dessert. Plus, batter puddings can have absolutely anything put in them. Sausages, obviously, as toad-in-the-hole, but I like leftover roast beef, pork etc. And if you stick apples in them and sprinkle with sugar, you’ve got a cheap and filling sweet. Oh, and stoned fruit and sugar makes clafoutis.

3. Suet crust pudding: because a pudding basin and a cloth are easier to store than a slow cooker, and suet crust is divine. Basin-cooked steak and kidney, or pork and apple, or pigeon and parsnip are all dead easy, and you can then branch out into sausage or bacon and onion or jam roly poly. Getting the hang of using a pudding cloth only appears daunting, and any leftovers can be baked the next day, at which point the pastry crisps up and it’s a whole new dish.

4. French meat: it’s always called that in our house, but it’s the age old principle of take meat, fry it in butter with a bit of flour, add booze (cider, wine, beer, whatever), turn right down and simmer til tender, remove meat, pimp sauce with thick cream. These days I often chuck in a tin of beans or something as well.

5. Maître d’hôtel sauce: lemon juice, parsley, butter or olive oil, plus seasonings. Can add garlic, can add cayenne pepper. This is my go-to sauce for everything. It’s amazing in haricot beans (and butter beans etc), fabulous on thinly sliced kidneys fried in the butter (in which case, add lots of salt too), zings up green veg, and actually, root veg like artichokes and potatoes (can also add olives), and it’s pretty good as a dressing for chicken and veal and – well, you get the picture.

6. Soup: historic recipe books are full of soups, though it’s clear that they are regarded as a fundamental precursor to dinner by the upper classes, optional by the middle classes, and foisted upon the working classes (to somewhat paraphrase Charles Herman Senn in 1901 – New Century Cookbook). Soup is great. You can have light lunchtime soup based on delicate stocks, clarified to the point of beauty, or a thick, sustaining winter soup in which the spoon stands up. Essentially though, they are mainly based on the principle of fry stuff – add stock or water – simmer for ages – purée, taste, season, and thicken if required. Stock pretty much falls into the same category.

7. Fried fish: this is M’s big one. We do fish skin on, very crispy, mainly with the aforementioned maître d’hôtel sauce and veg or other stuff. Cracking fish cooking was a big thing in our house.

8. Roast meat: I can take it or leave it (unless it’s been properly roasted, i.e. on a spit), but it is a thing for many people. In a modern kitchen, the key is a meat thermometer and resting time. This category could and probably should be extended to include decent roast potatoes (parboiled, at least double roasted, ensure there are leftovers to refry to go with marmite the next day), and gravy.

9. Stuff to do with leftover bread: this isn’t a recipe, it’s a category. According to various reports (there’s a short BBC article here), we waste about a third of the bread we buy. Now, ok, white sliced makes dreadful breadcrumbs, stinks when you try and bake off the moisture in the oven, and is generally fit for nothing, but it still appalls me that we waste so much, when there are so many things which can be done with stale bread. Bread and butter pudding, breadcrumbs for thickening, breadcrumbs and fruit purée baked pudding, crumble, topping for gratin…argh! Etc.

10. Bread dough: why? Because you can roll it out thinly and top with tomato purée and cheese etc and it’s a pizza (and the etc means literally anything you like), and you can smear it with lard and dried fruit and fold it and roll it and it’s a lardy cake, and you can shape it into rolls and fill them with sausagemeat and it’s a perfect picnic. M says having learnt to make pizza as one of the first things he did, when it came to wanting to make bread later on, he was never scared (and now he has a sourdough starter with a name – and offspring, and is bread making fiend). Plus, cold pizza for lunch, mmmmm. And most of the above take less than 90mn start to finish, with very little actual contact time.

Anyway, that was the fruit of an hour or so on the road. What about you? Top easy recipes for the novice cook?

BBC Dish Up (notes from a small kitchen, part 2)

I’ve been involved in promoting a new BBC campaign, Dish Up, aimed at breaking down barriers to cooking, and getting the inconfident and self-proclaimed incompetent into the kitchen. The campaign is based around a website, which contains recipes, all very simple and easy on the kit and the ingredients, along with articles, tips and tricks which link to the various reasons people gave for wanting to learn to cook. The Beeb did a survey to inform the website content, and show the scope of the problem. 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women said they’d never been taught to cook.  So what?, I hear you cry. Teach yourself (which is what I did in my teenage years). It’s not that simple. 19% of the population say they don’t think they can cook at all – higher for the under 24 year old age group. And around 50% of the population say they’d not feel confident in cooking relatively simple things like toad in the hole and macaroni cheese. We’re spending less time cooking, and are more likely to eat ready meals and entirely no-cook meals more and more of the time. And, as has been repeatedly shown by various studies, that’s not a good thing. There are potential health dangers in high consumption of heavily industrialised foods, including the simple fact that portions are on the large side. Even if you genuinely don’t care about the taste of your food, and can happily ignore the various issues around sustainability, in both food and environment terms, there are still loads of reasons to cook. 

The Dish Up survey suggested that the main motivators for wanting to cook are health and saving money, but there are also factors around sociability, family dynamics, and enjoyment. There are so many barriers to cooking, but the main ones seem to be perceived cost (presumably the people who cited cost as a motivator for learning to cook are either different respondents or maybe, I hope, aware of the reasons for very cheap processed foods) hassle factor (cleaning a microwave is hell vs a hob and a knife, I’d say, but hey), and time. Keen cooks will be aware that all of these barriers are rubbish, if you pick the right recipe. More pernicious, I suspect is the fear of failure, unrealistic expectations based on the incredible stuff produced by the ‘amateurs’ on Masterchef and GBBO, and a lack of motivation to just get in there and have a go. Anyway, there’s loads of stuff on the website to tackle these misconceptions, and I had a crack at challenging and encouraging wannabe cooks over 3 hours of radio interviews on Friday 22nd, when the campaign was in full launch mode.

I also thought I’d see how well I practise what I preach, and since we’re once more in a French gîte, with its random range of equipment and limited scope for ingredients (very little here, don’t want to spend a fortune stocking up on my full range of stuff from back home), the time seems perfect. The gîte, by the way, is stunning, but the owners admitted they never cook, and gave us a comprehensive list of local restaurants. As a result, the kitchen is one of the most poorly equipped I’ve ever seen. 3 saucepans, a frying pan, some flexi-mats (one of which is split) as chopping boards, and oven proof dish, a lemon squeezer and some tableware. The only knife is a bread knife (I have brought a 10 inch cooks knife and a paring knife). No mixing bowls (though it does have a lettuce washer). I made mayonnaise on day 1 in a mock flowerpot which was being used to keep the dishcloth in. And I did buy a couple of cheap 70s mixing bowls at a car boot sale on day 2. Clearly, I’m no scared, inexperienced cook, and I have a tendancy to buy fresh, as-near-to-unprocessed-as-possible produce. And I’m not on a scarily tight budget (but neither, necessarily, are the uncooks that the Dish Up campaign is aiming at – this isn’t about food poverty, but people not cooking in general). Otherwise….here goes.

Day 1: olives, cheese. It’s Eurovision, so finger food is important to allow all attention to be on the screen. Fried sand smelts, battered in a fizzy water, flour and egg batter and shallow fried. Boiled artichokes with tartare sauce (home made, we’ll never use a whole jar of mayo). Massive box of strawberries and unpasteurised cream (there are some large advantages to being in France). 

Day 2: yoghurt and jam for breakfast, picnic lunch, dinner of tuna marinated in olive oil and garlic, briefly blanched globe artichoke and cheese salad, more strawberries. There are now no more strawberries.

Day 3: breakfast poached egg and asparagus. Put slotted spoon on list of things we need to buy.  Lunch, local brasserie. Dinner, endlessly cooked white beans (can get them tinned, but we have the time, and they are way cheaper with more variety in a plastic net), with tinned chestnuts and mushrooms and cream sauce, with boudin blanc, fried and sliced and chucked on the beans with some lettuce as a sort of hot salad beast. Oodles of watermelon. 

Day 4: Lait fermenté pancakes (essentially buttermilk ish pancakes) with cheese and butter for breakfast, lunch ham and cheese in a baguette. Apples, more watermelon (now all gone). Dinner, veal chop, cooked over wood on the gîte BBQ (long story, but there was no charcoal, and Monsieur gave me a load of kindling and assumed I could light a fire), with more artichoke salad and black pudding.

Day 5: more pancakes, decided to buy some muesli as by now groaning. Lunch an ice cream (cider sorbet, ahem), as breakfast was so large and so late (I’m on holiday!). Dinner fried floured mackerel fillets, tomato salad, melon. 

Day 6: muesli. Epic lunch at a recommended resto, followed by a cheese crawl round Camembert and other cheesy villages. Dinner, as a result, was cheese, saucisson, pickles and baguette. And strawberries, now happily replaced.

I could go on, but it will get repetitive. As an experient in whether I can do as I say, not just say it and ignore my own advice, it was a success. I suppose the outcome wasn’t necessarily in doubt – after all, I managed 3 years as an undergraduate with one frying pan, one saucepan, an electric wok and a toastie machine. (You can do an entire fry up in a toastie machine as long as you get the right model). I once made fresh pasta by dint of crouching on the floor, which I’d stuck greaseproof paper to, rolling out the pasta with a wine bottle. But time moves on, and I’ve got very used to a well-stocked kitchen and zillions of things lacking here, like mixing bowls, graters, and cake tins. Conclusions? I don’t feel like a hypocrite, promoting the fact that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or kit-heavy – unless, of course, you want it be, and that’s fine too.

Further reading 

BBC Dish Up is here.

For processed foods and health, Joanna Blythman, Swallow This (occasionally a bit Daily Maily, but a good and interesting read)

For a more general debate on food and sustainability, anything by Michael Pollen and also Jay Rayner, Hungry Man in Greedy World. (Includes must-read chapters on supermarkets and farmers markets)

Brilliant broccoli

My broccoli is about to come to an end. For over two months now it’s kept me in lunches and dinners at least twice a week. I’ve also turned up to friends’ houses armed with a generous bag on at least four occasions. I’ve loved every minute of it but, as usual when things are glutting, I’m not that sad to see it start to flower and to realise that its time is nigh….time to stick the squash seedlings in the veg patch instead.

Given that it’s nearly the end of the season, this isn’t the most timely of posts, but hey. If your brocs are still going (or if you’re buying them from the market, supermarket, grocer etc, when the season is a bit longer than that allowed by the vagaries of my veg patch), and you’re starting to rather desperately seek ideas for it other than boil/steam and slather with butter, what’s the historical angle? Well……er……mainly its boil and slather with butter actually, but there are a few alternatives around. 

Broccoli is a relative newcomer to the UK, with the first mentions of it in print at the beginning of the 17th century. There are so many new introductions in the 17th century that, in culinary terms, it’s a dead exciting period to study. I wonder whether the tumult of the mid-century, with the interregnum, and the lapse of censorship, the spread of new and often radical ideas, and the total reshaping of British society, helped hasten the adoption of new foodstuffs. A country in which anything can be said, and anything discussed, is surely a country at its most receptive. Culinary conservatism tends to be deeply embedded, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that so many new foods and techniques are embraced in the 17th century (that and, obviously, new world foods finally creeping up from Spain and across France to leap the channel, and the winning of the right to trade with Spanish America at the end of the century). Broccoli isn’t a new world ingredient, however, it’s firmly old world, probably a byproduct of attempts to breed better, white, juicier cauliflower.

Once introduced, broccoli gained a following fairly quickly, though right up to the 20th century it remained associated with cauliflower. Most recipe books suggest that you boil it and serve it with butter, or treat it as per cauliflower which, increasingly, means covering it with decent cheese and sticking it in the oven. That works a treat with the big headed broccoli which I associate with my childhood (and which were invariably cooked to mush and served with a hideously bland white sauce). Growing up, all broccoli was the huge, stringy stuff, with nary a sprouting broccoli to be seen. Now it’s everywhere, and has a tendency to command occasionally shocking prices. Surprisingly, though, the sprouting stuff predates the other stuff, and, indeed, was all you could get when it was first introduced. Inevitably, the Victorians threw themselves enthusiastically into breeding it, and by the mid 19th century, you could choose from green, purple, red and brown sprouting broccoli. The purple sprouting sprigs we devour today are, once more, but a pale shadow of the glories of past veg patches. The modern reinvention of sprouting types seems to be relatively recent – the last 30 years or so. Maybe we’ll slowly get back to the Victorian broccoli heyday. (I’m going to help the process this year by planting both sprouting brocs and walking stick broccoli, which I’ve been dying to grow for years – it can reach 3m high and is a classic example of the 19th century being both brilliant and random at the same time).

We talked broccoli on The Kitchen Cabinet recently*, and I struggled to find an interesting recipe with which to regale our audience, both in the theatre and in the wider radio-listening world. Best I could do was this one, from Errol Sherson’s Book of Vegetable Cookery (1931). Maybe I’ll use the last of this year’s produce to try it. I’ll probably just griddle it or steam it and slather it with olive oil, or butter, lemon juice, parsley and a bit of chilli though, Sometimes, really, unimaginative though they are, the old ways are the best.

Sherson, Veg Cookery, on broccoli

* The Kitchen Cabinet, series 10, episode 2, from Bury St Edmunds. Air date on BBC Radio 4, 10.30am 23rd May 2015, repeated 26th May. On BBC iPlayer radio for 30 days after broadcast date, or as a podcast. Podcast links here

The Glorious Twelfth (Cake)

Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp’ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance. (William Hone, 1825)

The Queen's 12th Cake, 1849 from the Illustrated London News.
The Queen’s 12th Cake, 1849 from the Illustrated London News.

At the start of this year I went on holiday to Nice (very nice). It meant I was there for Twelfth Night, which fact had occurred to me about three weeks earlier, mid-lecture, and caused me to lose my train of thought entirely and splutter a bit. I lived in France for a few years as a teenager, and hadn’t been back there at that time of year since, and, as I failed to find my lecture words, what was really going on inside my head was a sort of massive yippeeeeeee. I’d only just clocked that me in France + Twelfth Night = galette des rois. And so it was, that every boulangerie and pâtisserie that we passed (ogled), for the days preceding the 6th January was bursting with seasonal, pastry-based goodness. The queues on the 5th were out of the door. Everyone seemed to have their special galette bag, advertising that year’s new design of ceramic fève, hidden inside to choke the unwary. It made me very happy. But it also made me muse, for we used to be the same in Britain. We’ve lost many many traditions, but that of the Twelfth Cake seems to have gone so entirely, it doesn’t even live on as a vague idea. Most people have never even heard of Twelfth Cake here, yet it thrives in France. What’s going on?!

So, as we speed fast away from another Christmas, it seems apt to post an entirely untimely post on a lost British tradition. It’s not that untimely – I’ve only just polished off the last of the mince pies, which I swear were breeding in their cosy tin. Still, for most people Christmas is a distant memory. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Christmas in the 21st century starts around September, and ends promptly, just after dinner on the 25th December. How different to the medieval and early Tudor festival, which started in early December with the advent fast, and really got going on the 24th or 25th December (it depended whether you counted the start of the day from the evening of the night before). You then had 12 glorious days of feasting until Twelfth Night, on the 5th or 6th January (see previous explanation – there doesn’t seem to be a hard or fast rule, and it’s time and culture dependant. In some countries the 24th December is still the key day for the Christmas feast). Each day was associated with a different saint, and could include different customs and foods. There’s an excellent blog post about it all here.

Twelfth Night, therefore was rather more than just a day when people were all back at work, starting diets, going ‘dry’ in the most depressing month of the year, and generally rubbing salt into their Christmas-induced wounds. It signalled the end of the feast season, and the start in earnest of the new year. The early Christian Church harnessed all the various pre-Christian shenanigans to religious festivals, in this case to the Feast of the Epiphany, when according to the Christian mythology, kings from afar brought gifts and knelt before the new-born Jesus. For that reason, it’s also known as the feast of the Kings, and for many centuries we ate King or Twelfth cake as part of what was really quite a small list of date-specific foods. Today, for example, we think of Christmas pudding and mince pies as specific to Christmas Day, but in the past, they were more ‘seasonal with a Christmas bent’ – eaten throughout the winter, not just on Christmas Day itself.

Anyway, back to Twelfth Cake. The concept goes back to the medieval period, when the cake would have been a yeast-risen rich fruit concoction. Each side concealed, respectively, a dried pea and a dried bean, with men and women taking slices from each side until a Twelfth Night King (He of the Bean) and Queen (she of the Pea) were revealed. They’d lead the dancing, or be forfeit, or whatever was customary at that gathering. By the 18th century, when the first printed recipes start to appear, the pea/bean selection process had been replaced by a set of cards with characters on. The various cake-eaters would select a card at random and play that character for the evening. The cake would be cut later. Surviving pictures often depict the cake, which could reach epic proportions, with one or two crowns on top. But that’s easy….They seem to have been a popular choice of baked goods not to cook in-house, and I suspect that they may have been one of the reliable best-sellers for pastry-cooks and confectioners at the time. One advert shows a Twelfth Cake decorated with figures, presumably those commonly depicted in the Twelfth Night cards, and probably made from sugarpaste pressed into moulds. But late Georgian Britain was a place of epicurean and sensory delight – why stop at people and crowns?

The Regency 12th Cake - complete with Prince of Wales feathers
The Regency 12th Cake – complete with Prince of Wales feathers

Here’s Hone again, as per the opening ditty: ‘In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices,” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers and peals of laughters, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates’. Tongue-in-cheek? Yes, but still, what joy!

The recipe for Twelfth Cake remained an old-fashioned one, well into the 19th century when yeast-risen cakes were on the decline. To be honest, I’ve never found much difference between a rich fruit cake with yeast in, and a rich fruit cake with well-whisked eggs in. The sheer amount of fruit just outweighs everything else. By the middle of the 19th century, both the recipe and, increasingly the concept, was starting to look a bit anachronistic. The combined forces of Dickens, publicity around the Royal Christmases (think: tree), and mid-19th century soul-searching was changing the nature of Christmas. It had already moved from an uproarious popular and religious festival, to something fashionable folks seemed a little ashamed of. Many aspects were outlawed during the interregnum, and there’s no doubt that when it re-emerged, blinking, into the light in the Restoration, it had lost something. Celebrated, yes, but often behind closed doors, by the end of the Georgian period Charles Lamb was lamenting Father Christmas’s ‘shrunken girth’, while declaring, with a ring more of hope than certainty, that he was still a ‘lusty fellow’. (Father Christmas was, at this time, a sort of Father Time figure, and not a jolly quasi-Cardinal with a habit of slipping down chimneys and furkling in people’s stockings).

The Twelfth Cake, therefore, was in danger. More than that, it was in mortal decline. Increasing emphasis on Christmas Day, and not Christmastide, meant that Twelfth Night celebrations seemed a little outmoded. People were back at work, now living a much more urbanised and less agrarian society than that in which Twelfth Cake had been born. The fruit cake itself remained popular, but was increasingly rebranded, stripped of its fun and potential for disruption, as a Christmas Cake. Bleuch.

So what remains today? The sixpence in the pudding – obviously derived from the pea/bean/token custom, only made its appearance after the final demise of the Twelfth Cake. Crowns in crackers, reminiscent of the paper crowns sometimes used to show who’d found the bean. It’s not a lot. Yes, we still have Christmas Cake, but it makes no sense when you really stop and think. Surveys suggest it’s not always liked. Too much, after all that Christmas food (because now we seem to cram 12 days of feasting into one). Pointless, when we have similar flavours in the pudding. Etc etc. And quite so.

I’d like to make a plea to bring back the Twelfth Cake. Start planting the seeds now. Get your friends and families used to the idea. Then – go for it. As garnish and outlandish as you can make it. Pea, bean, the whole works. Paper crowns, saved from Christmas.

We were all ILL, ok.
We were all ILL, ok.

As a spur, here’s my cake from this year – well into the spirit of garishness detailed above. And, just to show how far I go in the name of research, because I sought out and ate both of these (actually, more than one in the case of the first one), here are two modern variations on the theme, from France, where a version of Twelfth Cake still thrives. Both the galette des rois (puff pastry, almond and booze custard) and the gateau des rois (orange flower water flavoured mildly disappointing brioche) have ceramic tokens in. Both are available only in January (mainly). Both come with crowns. Both have their culinary origins in the early 19th century, based on the recipes, so they’re a positively modern twist on the theme. You can do it too.

Galette des rois
Galette des rois
Gateau des rois
Gateau des rois

Further reading
-*William Hone, The Everyday Book, London 1825 and later editions: full text at here
-Bridget Henisch (1984) Cakes and Characters
-JAR Pimlott (1978) The Englishman’s Christmas

-Recipe for modern galette des rois from Raymond Blanc (heavenly) here
-And another one, with lovely descriptions of the modern tradition from Trish Deseine here
-Food historian Ivan Day still uses original wooden moulds to make a suitably joyful Twelfth Cake every year, which you can see here along with a selection of recipes. (He also runs cookery courses including one on Christmas food – not running 2015 but back in 2016, he assures me).

While researching this entry, I kept coming up against what seems to be a fairly new and exciting food myth, which suggests Queen Victoria banned Twelfth Cake in 1870. Never a proper reference given. I’ve searched the statue books, and can find no trace of any such thing. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t some legislation which affected the demise of the cake, but I am somewhat cynical. Is this another case of The Simnel Cake Rubbish, or The Great Afternoon Tea Invention Myth? Or does anyone out there have firm evidence (i.e. and pretty much limited to, a copy of the act)? I might have to have a rant about food myths in a future post.