Over the summer I was involved in making a living history documentary on Victorian baking. I’m co-presenting (with Alex Langlands), and I was also a consultant on the programme. There are various things I could talk about in this blog, but I’ve decided to pick up on one aspect of each programme (possibly, I make no actual promises), and look at it in more detail. Today: episode one, day three, crammings. 
Episode one covers the 1830-40s. The early Victorian period was, in rural Britain, one of massive hardship. So was the mid-Victorian period, and indeed the late Victorian period, depending on where you lived and what you did. But the 1840s have become especially infamous, mainly because Edwardian and later reformers wanted to make political points about protectionism and the Corn Laws, and so wrote a lot about it, and coined the catchy phrase ‘hungry forties’. There’s even a book called ‘The Hungry Forties: Life Under the Bread Tax’ (Unwin, 1904). It’s heavily weighted to give credence to the view that the ’40s were particularly bad and to lay the blame squarely at the then government’s door. Fine. That said, the oral testimonies and letters included do tell a truth, even if the direct link between bread tax, starvation and that particular decade is less clear cut. People were starving all the time, and there’s little to suggest the 40s were any worse than most of the rest of the period when you look at Britain as a whole.

One practice which crops up in The Hungry Forties book, and which the programme makers wanted to explore in more detail, was the eating of animal food in times of desperation. With any documentary, the aim was to both entertain (or no-one will watch it) and educate (or it may as well be the brain rot which is X-Factor and the like). Asking ‘our’ bakers to make animal food and then try and work out how on earth it could be made edible by humans, was just one way in which to graphically engage viewers in the themes of the period. Crammings are referred to several times, and that was the product which you will see on screen.

Cramming refers to the practice of fattening fowls. It’s similar to gavage, as practiced on ducks and geese today to make foie gras, but most of the references suggest that they seem to have had the pellets forced down in their throats, without a funnel to help, as per factory gavage today. It has a very long history: the practice of cramming poultry for the luxury market continued until the Second World War, but also was known in the Roman period.

It was also pretty widespread and references can easily be found in some of the best-selling cookery books of the Georgian and Victorian period. Here’s Isabella Beeton on chickens in 1861: ‘the fattening process…is to give them a gruel made of pot-liquor and bruised oats, with which are mixed hog’s grease, sugar and milk. The fowls are kept very warm, and crammed morning and night. They are put into the coop, and kept there 2 or 3 days before the cramming begins, and then it is continued for a fortnight, and the birds are sent to market’. In an early critique of intensive farming practices, she goes on to suggest that this process, when done in London especially, is very cruel.

Representing the Georgians, how about Mary Eaton, in 1822: ‘The method of fattening poultry for the London market, is liable to great objection. They are put into a dark place and crammed with a paste made of barley meal, mutton suet, treacle or coarse sugar, mixed with milk…[it] frequently kills them.’ and, on Norfolk turkeys, ‘[they] are literally crammed with boluses of barley meal till their crops are full’. Incidentally, in the good old tradition of plagiarism, both of the above borrow freely from William Kitchener’s rather more original Cook’s Oracle (1818).

Crammings, therefore, were made of bran or other filler, liquid and fat. They could clearly vary from region to region, but were largely based on by-products of the milling industry. It’s not a massive stretch to suggest that rural bakers, especially when attached to a mill, as at Sacrewell, where we filmed, would have turned them out as an easy way to make a few extra pence. Farmers would have made their own, and in bulk. Henry Stephens, in his Book of the Farm (1852) refers to cramming as a paste made with hot liquor and barley or other meal. Meanwhile 200 years previously Robert May opted for wheatmeal and milk (May, 1660). He is one the few writers to give details on making them, and specifies that the crams should be small and ‘well wet’. He also gives the ideal shape as being ‘thickest in the middle, and small at both ends’.

No-one suggests cooking the crammings, I tried making some and just leaving them to dry, which I suspect was the usual way as they could then be kept indefinitely. They would then have been well wetted with milk or water before the feeding process. They would have been pretty inedible in that form though. It seems that when starving rural householders tried them, they processed the basic ingredients into a dumpling – ‘You ask what sort of food we had. Well, crammings was common. It was made with what was left after the flour and the bran was taken away, and what was left, mixed with a little bread flour, we called crammings, but more often we made a sort of pudding with it.’ (Hungry Forties, 22). This makes sense – they’d hold their shape when boiled. Here’s another oral history; ‘Often on a Saturday I’d see Jonathan Heath, what was the son of a wheelwright who lived in the Petersfield Road an’ had a large family, comin’ along with a penny bag of crammin’s – that’s what they give the pigs nowadays – to make the Sunday puddin’ with’. (Ibid.,28)

All in all, it gives a fairly brutal picture of rural life. It was the day that the bakers stopped enjoying the sunshine and birds, and the novelty of wearing hose and drinking endless amounts of beer, and started realising that the past was not always a very nice place. Hopefully that segment also has a certain resonance with current debates around food and nutrition and welfare. Mind you, if that sounds vaguely pertinent to the 21st century, just wait until episode two.

A trifling thing

Today’s The Kitchen Cabinet comes from Audley End in Essex. It’s a house I know well, having pretty much lived there during the second year of my PhD. I led a crack team of costumed interpreters working in the service wing for 5 years, during which time we gutted, plucked, pounded, strained, chopped, cut and boiled more food than I thought possible. The team is still going strong, and Audley remains, along with Hampton Court, one of the very few places you can see professional live cookery and interact with the cooks. It’s all set in 1881, and the team is fully in character, providing a way into the history of that period which is both engaging and accessible, while being underpinned by very rigorous research. I won’t go on about it, but I am quite proud of the whole thing.

Inevitably, as we were recording at Audley, the show had a rather Victorian feel. My contribution was a trifle. I loathe trifle. It’s a texture thing (soggy cake, the ear wax of beelzebub), and a taste thing (sherry, the spit of beelzebub). I have hideous childhood memories of trifles with tinned fruit.(The pears! The grit! The syrup! The ik!), custard powder and squirty cream. It’s like a Proustian nightmare. But trifle was asked for, and trifle I did.

If anyone out there reaaaally likes trifle, there is an excellent book on the subject*, filled with more recipes than you could ever desire. It also covers the history of the dish, and the variants on the theme, such as tipsy cake. (Still cake. Still soggy). Essentially it’s an 18th thing, terribly British, and part of a general elaboration of British cuisine in that period – pies, puddings, cakes, roasts etc. The first few recipes which appeared in print were more along the lines of fools, and the name certainly relates to the other meaning of trifle, as in a trifling thing, a flitting moment etc etc. I’ve cooked come of the early trifles which we would recognise as proper forerunners of the ghastly thing we know today. One of Hannah Glasse’s recipes** (she’s widely credited as being the first author to put a modernish trifle into print), involves almost-set jelly (at that point a sort of citrusy, wine flavour), into which hard, probably almond flavour, biscuits are plunged. Then the usual custard and then cream. I can see the point of this one. The biscuits stay hard, the jelly is wine and not sherry, the custard is fine and, OK, whipped cream isn’t a favourite, but were I a Georgian, I’d put whipt syllabub on top and that is a delight. After that though, in recipe development terms, it all goes downhill. Did I mention the soggy cake?

In celebration of the low regard in which I hold trifle, and because I wanted something 1880s ish to fit with Audley, I eventually went for fabulously named The Queen of Trifles, from Garrett’s Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (c1890). The author was a trifle-obsessive, lauding them as being ‘exceptionally English dishes…held in very poor esteem by the foreign pastry cook, who probably attaches some greater importance to the name than is necessary’. He included 12 sweet trifle recipes and a savoury trifle which sounds much more my kind of thing. The savoury one involves cooked veal or poultry, reheated in a mushroom sauce, and served in hollowed out bread boats, fried in lard. It’s not really a trifle in any sense of the word, even I admit. Hey ho. Here’s his Queen of Trifles.

garrett trifle
People should use crystallised ginger more often.

It looked like trifle (I failed to take a picture). Apparently it tasted incredible, and caused Tim Hayward to threaten all sorts of things involving corsets. The audience loved it, and fell upon the bowl like ravening locusts. I tried it, and I liked all of the flavours and could entirely see why people were raving about it but still……soggy…..etc. But different people have differing tastes and that’s what makes food so much fun. If you do want to have a crack at it, and the whole reason for this post is that so many people have requested the recipe, here are my notes on it as done by me.
Reinterpreting The Queen of Trifles for the hurried modern cook:

I put ladyfingers (boudoir biscuits, sponge fingers, call them what you will, but they also tend to go into tiramisu) on the bottom, macaroons for the next layer – or at least, that was the plan. Clearly, had I looked at the recipe before the day I made it, I’d’ve made some Madeira cake, and some proper English macaroons. I didn’t, and so was reduced to chasing round every shop in Ely, trying to find macaroons, as opposed to macarons. Eventually Waitrose sold me some ladyfingers, and some outrageously overpriced and overpackaged almond amaretti (a special pack for Xmas, as opposed to the usual bag you can find at the bottom of the biscuit aisle, curse this time of the year). Whatever. They worked. Most things would. Don’t stress about it.

My jam was confit de cidre, and my crystallised fruit a heady mixture of ginger, pineapple and glacé cherries. I’m not a masochist, so I bought ready ground almonds. And used 2/3 of the eggs as et were a tad smaller back in the day.

Half of the amounts in the recipe here makes a pretty decent sized trifle, by the way….

*Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson, 2001, Trifle. Republished 2009 by Prospect Books. A must for trifle lovers.

**Hannah Glasse, 1760, The Complete Confectioner. The earliest printed version was in her The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 4th edition, 1751.

For more The Kitchen Cabinet action, the webpage is here. And to be in the audience for future episodes, click here.

Garden birds…as dinner.

I do love the birdies. Especially at this time of year, when they are the only thing with any life in it left in my garden. I’ve installed two feeding stations in the garden, plus nest boxes, bug houses, bird baths…you name it. My excuse for not clearing away the dead Jerusalem artichoke stems, tansy bushes and cardoon heads is that the birds might like them. I don’t garden with chemical fertilisers or weedkillers (laziness as much as principles I feel honour-bound to admit), and I will happily spend hours watching the goldfinches and the chaffinches flutter to the feeders, and the robins fight each other, and the blackbirds peck up the contents of my carefully filled pots. Nearly all of my feathered friends are protected by various Wildlife Protection Acts, and quite right too. They are a delight to watch, and are part of the reason for my ongoing cat hatred. Yet many of these small bundles of joy are, apparently, delicious. Obviously I’ve not tried them, referring back to the aforementioned Protection Acts, but for many centuries we ate pretty much anything that flew, walked or crawled (except carrion eaters – that seems to be the universal exception), and that included garden birds. So, looking out of the window and into my books, what would have been on the menu?

1. Pigeon (and dove)

One type of garden bird I have no objection to eating – indeed, I go out of my way to procure and scoff the little bastards, and that is pigeon. Here is why.

Bastard pigeon. I have since stopped this bad habit by a mixtue of string, wire and WD40.

They aren’t supposed to be able to do that. They also waddle around under the feeders, trampling the lawn and the plants, and generally acting like the flying dustbins they are. Oh, and whenever the windows have been cleaned, they crash into them, leaving massive white marks on them. I wouldn’t mind if they crashed and died, so I could eat them, but they invariably live. Only once have a retrieved one which hit the window at the wrong angle, and broke its neck. I put it out of its misery and had it as a starter the next day.

But pigeons are obvious. We still eat pigeons. They are a way to get gamey flavours and a hearty punch of dark meat when other game is forbidden by game laws (which came in in the 1830s, but I suspect gamekeepers observed an informal semi-embargo surfing breeding season even before that). They are delicious, and they are manageable – small, yes, but not so small that you can’t get a decent mouthful or two from them. Other birds are a tad more challenging.

2. Very very dodgy but occasionally you meet people who have eaten them: rooks

It is illegal to shoot rooks to eat. There’s some allowance, under licence, for farmers who need to cull for crop management purposes, though usually this somewhat grey area seems to apply more to crows and magpies. However, a quick web trawl suggests that there are a few people out there who use the cull to obtain a few rooks for the pot. I’ve come across older people who clearly recall parents or relatives going out after rooks, especially in the rationing era. Pie seems to have been the usual way to eat rooks, and is certainly a recipe with a long tradition. The birds need taking young, after they fledge, but before they fly the nest completely. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1883) says, ‘the rook affords a dry and coarse meat. A pie made of young rooks is tolerable; at least, it is the best form for using these birds for food.’ As with other written instructions for preparing them, it is firm that the cook should remove the bitter-tasting spine, and really, that only the breasts are worth eating. That said, I met a lady recently who said that rook pie was divine. Maybe some of the sniffiness was due to its association with foraging – and hence poverty.

3. Illegal fodder: ‘small byrdes

The main bird I always think of in this category is larks, which are ubiquitous in recipe books and in lists of banquet food from the Romans onwards. The Romans are most known for having larks’ tongues, which in their very fiddliness and (arguably) pointlessness were a clear indicator of wealth. I’ve eaten ducks’ tongues, which are about a zillion times bigger and was entirely underwhelmed. Small birds in general were widely consumed until around the 17th century in Britain. If you look at the records of medieval banquets, ‘small byrdes’, appear fairly frequently. Finches, wagtails, warblers, thrushes, starlings, blackbirds – all featured on the menu. Pierre Blot, in A Handbook of Practical Cookery (1867) gives a list of birds eaten in the French repertoire which includes robins, blackbirds, fig-pecker, lapwing, meadow lark, plover, thrush, ‘and other small birds’. It’s a fairly good indication of birds worth eating. The French still eat (illegally) a number of small birds – most notoriously ortolan. Martins, wheatears and sparrows are also mentioned in earlier recipe books.

By the 18th century, published recipe references to eating small birds become less frequent. Some, like starlings, are extremely infrequent anyway. Of course, not having a published recipe doesn’t mean people weren’t still eating them, but it seems that their consumption became less common, especially for the rich, whose cuisine is largely represented in published cookery books. Reasons for this are varied. Improved farming practices, the perceived patriotism of beef, and, I suspect the growing association of eating small garden birds with the poor. By the 18th century, draconian laws were in place to stop the poor eating larger game – hare, deer, pheasant, partridge etc – so they become the prestige choice. The rich did stick to their larks – did they just taste SO GOOD? but other birds disappear from the printed record. One, late reference to garden birds comes from Francatelli’s Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1861). He recommended ‘A Pudding made of Small Birds’, and went on to suggest that, ‘industrious and intelligent boys who live in the country, are mostly well up in the cunning art of catching small birds at dd times during the winter months’. This shallot-and-sparrow- laden pie was something rather different to the kind of thing being envisaged up the social scale. Here’s a lark croustade from one of Francatelli’s other books, The Modern Cook.

The croustade is a hollowed out bread chalice.....of course!
The croustade is a hollowed out bread chalice…..of course!

Further reading

BASC website on seasons and licences.

Sham ham and other stories

I accidentally acquired a new mould at the weekend. I say, ‘accidental’,, but clearly I walked into a shop, ogled, lusted after and paid money for, said mould, so it didn’t exactly fall into my sticky mitts or anything. However, on Friday I had no idea I needed a new mould, and by Saturday evening I was convinced I couldn’t have lived without it. Here it is:

Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it's lethal for food historians)
Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it’s lethal for food historians)

Isn’t it lovely?! Somewhat co-incidentally, I’d recently rediscovered this picture, of a surprise sweet entremets, from Garrett’s Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, c.1895.

IMG_-4z6lgdA sweet entremets came about 3/4 way through an à la Russe meal, of the kind Garrett would have had in mind. As a diner, you’d already have ploughed through hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a savoury entrée, a roast, a remove, some vegetables or such like and you might be be a tad jaded. Enter….a ham. ‘Not more meat!’ you cry, weeping tears of mutton fat from your buttery brow. But no, for it is ‘en surprise’…. Garrett describes it as a sponge cake, hollowed out from the bottom and filled with sweetmeats or cream, glazed with chocolate for the colour, and garlanded with candied flowers. The corks are yet more cake, (and could also be filled with cream), while the champagne bottles are real. Quite obviously, this could be called a bold and clarion challenge.

Anyway, it was obsess over that or the small fortress made of fried bread, with carrot cannons and truffle cannon balls from Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator, and I know my limits.

This picture was, I think it can be said, directly responsible for the mould purchase. For what came next I can only really blame myself.

Cake in oven
Cake in oven
Cake out of oven
Cake out of oven
Cake filled with sweetmeats
Cake filled with sweetmeats

The cake was a standard fatless savoy recipe, the sweetmeats lemon and cinnamon (essentially they are flavoured marzipan), and the flowers are clary sage (uncandied – it was 10pm by this point). I had a lot of fun.

Hams seem to be pretty popular for this kind of treatment. Garrett also has a swan ‘en surprise’, and this kind of fantasy fun food has a very long history. There are, of course, the mock foods born of necessity – the infamous wartime ‘mock goose’, various mock bacons, and the various vegetarian foods which are made to look like meat (why?). But there is also a lengthy tradition of making one thing look like another. From medieval manuscripts come things like fake guts – actually sweet, but look like something spilled its stomach on the table. Then there’s the  cockentrice, which is somewhat different, given it doesn’t actually look like anything real, but it’s pretty cool anyway (there’s a brilliant explanation, with pictures and commentary, from the inestimable Richard Fitch here). I’ve previously done a meat mellon from Eliza Moxon. And then there is a whole range of cakes or pastes sculpted to look savoury – and ham is right up there for your base item.

I think one reason is its colour – hams are bright, striped, and have yellow and red and brown and the potential for some breadcrumb action. Another is that they were often served cold, at ball suppers and the like, so the lack of steam or cover wouldn’t give the game away too early on. And another may well be that serving a whole ham wasn’t that common – hams were used for cooking with, or in sandwiches, or as luncheons or suppers, and wouldn’t often have appeared at the kind of very expensive dinner at which these sweet fakes would have made an appearance. Basically, if you can afford to have a cook spend all afternoon making marzipan look like bacon, you can afford to serve your guests something more upmarket than ham. So, double surprise – ‘good lord! a ham, how plebeian. but – OMG – it’s CAKE!’. etc.

Incidentally, I’m not convinced the illusion really worked. In the case of the cake, diners would have been expecting a sweet course, so they would’ve guessed within seconds. In the case of the one below – well, that’s more interesting. I cooked it at an event at Kew Palace, and in dim light, a lot of people did mistake it for a lump of pig….

Here’s the final ham cake. And here’s a Georgian/early Victorian sham ham made of almond paste, just to ring the changes.

The final cake.
The final cake.
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).

Carrot jam (several ways)

Another James Martin: Home Comforts-related post, this time about carrot jam, the recipe for which I have had several requests. I first cooked carrot jam for a laugh. A friend emailed me the recipe for it as published in an 1858 copy of the English Domestic Woman’s Magazine. The EDWM was one of Samuel Beeton’s titles, and Isabella Beeton, of The Book of Household Management fame, cut her culinary writing teeth within its pages. She compiled a column called ‘Cookery, Pickling and Preserving’, out of which would eventually come the idea of the Book of Household Management. It’s still the best known historic recipe book in Britain, and had never been out of print, despite its many, many flaws. One thing is does have going for it is that it does tend to have a recipe for everything, including carrot jam. Beeton’s version, which will either have been plagiarised, as per most of ‘her’ recipes or, possibly, given it appeared first in the EDWM, sent in by a reader, is a rare thing when it comes to her recipes – it’s brilliant. Plus, the instructions are spot on. She tells you straight that it won’t last without brandy: it doesn’t. Blue mould, folks! Here’s her recipe.

This one is from an c.1888 edition of the BoHM, but the text is the same as that in the English Domestic Woman's Magazine in 1858
This one is from an c.1888 edition of the BoHM, but the text is the same as that in the English Domestic Woman’s Magazine in 1858

This is classic mock cookery, and it works, If you don’t tell people it’s carrot jam, they will ponder, purse their lips, and eventually guess at apricot, mainly because it looks orange (and the almonds and brandy are confusing). It’s also indicative of a strong tradition of lower class cookery which isn’t always talked about as much as middle and upper class cuisine now. We tend to rely on books as sources for recipes. Cookery books are usually aspirational and/or didactic, and they rarely reflect the everyday – just think about whether any one, or indeed, several, cookery books on your own shelves, taken out of context and without you saying things like ‘I’ve never cooked that’, or ‘I don’t use that recipe because I’ve got one in my head that’s better’, would give an accurate view of what you eat over the course of a week. Plus, the stuff that’s fancy is more interesting for people to watch on TV.

Carrot jam is a very practical recipe. No need for expensive fruit – sugar is pretty cheap by the end of the 19th century – and carrots glut and don’t keep that well. And it’s tasty, so everyone’s a winner. The recipe knocks about for a while, but disappears from the 1930s editions of Beeton and, we can only presume, the wider culinary repertoire (if it was ever part of most people’s repertoire, which is impossible to tell. The fact a recipe is in a book is no guarantee it was ever cooked). Then comes the Second World War and, with it, rationing, the Dig for Victory campaign and a massive carrot glut. Cue carrot madness. The Ministry of Food wanted people to eat the glut, so promoted carrot recipes through the various channels at their command – The Kitchen Front on the BBC, the official pamphlets, and by spreading the rumour that carrots help you see in the dark. They encouraged the idea that that was how Allied bomber pilots were so accurate in night flying, which also helped muddy the waters of exactly how far advanced experiments with radar were. Meanwhile, to help with gluts of fruit, extra sugar rations were available for jam making…the stage was set for a carrot jam comeback!

Whenever I cook carrot jam, I’m greeted with nostalgia and cries of ‘that’s a wartime recipe’. And so it is – but the wartime version was a adaptation of a somewhat earlier recipe. (The same is true of many rationing recipes – poverty cooking has always made use of grown or foraged ingredients, and ever lacked fat, sugar and meat). The wartime version omitted the brandy and the almonds, and just contained sugar and carrots. There’s slightly less sugar to carrot pulp, and the lemon flavour was provided by lemon essence, or boiling apple peel in a bag.

The version I made for James Martin: Home Comforts, was the wartime one, which can be found here, on the website of the endlessly fascinating World Carrot Museum. If you really want to make it at home though, I’d recommend the Beeton one above, substituting a few drops of almond essence (check the label and try and get bitter almond essence) for the bitter almonds, (which can be challenging to obtain due to the bit where they contain cyanide). I’d also suggest using jam sugar (the stuff with added pectin), so that you get a decent set – it’s quite sloppy otherwise – and taking the whole lot a couple of degrees above the standard set point of 104.5c. I never bother with the wrinkle test – a decent digital thermometer is every cook’s friend. Have fun.

Jam pan in action. TKMaxx sometimes has them, if you really really want one of your own.
Looks like apricot preserve….

Here is the full clip, which is now up permanently on the James Martin: Home Comforts website, thanks to the lovely BBC listening to all your comments about wanting the recipes and deciding it would be a good idea. Stuffed Lettuces and Kedgeree are also up.


Stuffed Lettuces

Avid admirers of James Martin, or anyone half-watching TV on Saturday mornings while trying to remember what a weekend is all about, will probably have noticed the second series of his eponymous Home Comforts on BBC2. I was on six episodes, cooking up various historic dishes, from kangaroo tail soup through to mayonnaise-laden 1930s salads. The slots were intended to give people an insight into British cuisine in the past, and how it related to each episode’s theme (not always an easy task, for the themes were resolutely modern). However, I’ve had several requests for certain of the recipes (not, amazingly, the brain fritters), so I’ve decided to post them up here rather than continually cut ‘n’ paste into emails. I’ve been told by several publishers that there isn’t a market for historic food in a modern culinary context, so do let me know what you think of them….I’m plotting a sort of ‘EP’ book, with the aim of proving or disproving this hypothetical lack of market. Watch this space (etc).

So, stuffed lettuces, as seen on the Veg Patch Dinners episode, which was somewhere in week 2. The past is full of recipes for ingredients, like salad, which we wouldn’t dream of cooking today. Not all of them are great, but generally I’m all up for a bit of lettuce soup, or cucumber ice cream. Worth keeping an open mind, anyway. Herewith original recipe:

lettuce stuffed fairclough
M.A. Fairclough (1911) The Ideal Cookery Book. Full text available online at

I used baby gem lettuces, but you can use anything with a reasonably tight leaf structure and a bit of flavour. Trim the bottoms off, and simmer for about 5mn. You want the leaves to soften enough that you can manipulate them and they won’t just snap. Remove from the water and drain (tongs are your friend here), and when they are cool enough to handle, you need to gently peel back enough leaves to form a decent layer around your stuffing, but not so many you don’t have any room for said stuffing. Gently remove the middle of the lettuce (good nails help here).

Parboiling lettuces
Parboiling lettuces

You need to have a bowl of sausage meat ready – I made my own with minced veal, a bit of suet, chopped herbs (mainly parsley and sage) and spices (mainly pepper and mace), a handful of breadcrumbs and some salt. You can easily use decent quality sausage meat (you’ll struggle to get decent stuff in a supermarket though, so I’d try a butcher). Chopped bacon is also always a good addition. Shape the sausage meat into cones, to replace the middles of the lettuces. Plonk the cone in the lettuce and carefully replace the leaves you peeled back around the meaty cone so that you have a nicely stuffed lettuce.

Forming sausagemeat into cones with lettuce leaves open ready to receive it.
Cone of sausagemeat being inserted into lettuce leaves. GENTLY!

You now need to tie the lettuces up. I tend to string them as I would a joint. Then you simply bake the lettuces in the oven, in a pan with a load of roughly chopped vegetables in the bottom (onion, celery, carrot are standard, along with a bouquet garni, i.e. bunch of herbs tied in a bundle), plus some gammon steaks or bacon offcuts. If you’ve added bacon to your sausagemeat you may decide you’ve got enough bacon (though, generally, I don’t think you can ever really have enough bacon). Lay the lettuces on the veg, and pour over some stock. Veal stock was generally regarded as the best stock, but chicken is fine. or chicken and beef stock mixed – whatever you have. Stick a lid on the pan and bung it in the oven at 180c for about 15mn. If in doubt as to whether they’re done, use a meat thermometer.

Strung lettuces, nestling gently on a bed of veg.
Strung lettuces, nestling gently on a bed of veg.

Remove the string, keep the lettuces warm, strain the stock, thicken it with cornflour or arrowroot, or whatever your preferred method, taste it and beef it up if it needs it, and pour over the lettuces. The brown sauce referred to in the original recipe isn’t the bottled goo we associate with a full English breakfast, but is broadly similar, in that it’s dark, rich and umami-rich. Good substitutes are things like miso (but watch the saltiness in the seasoning), mushroom ketchup, tomato puree and even marmite.

Incidentally, some versions of this involve deep-frying the lettuces. Up to you. I found the heady combination of open-pan deep-frying being a massive cause of house fires, my own proven ability to injure myself significantly with hot oil, and the fact we were filming in the grade 1 listed Audley End House to be persuasive in the matter of sticking to baking them. Even without the added element of danger, I found them delicious, but I suspect a great deal depends on the quality of your gravy and your meat filling. Let me know how you get on.

Also result - by now rather cold and mildly congealed due to lengthy filming. Still tasty, though. I suspect they'd be quite good lunchbox fodder.
Also result – by now rather cold and mildly congealed due to lengthy filming. Still tasty, though. I suspect they’d be quite good lunchbox fodder.

Here’s the full clip, which is available on the James Martin: Home Comforts site now, due to popular request! Woo, etc.



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.

Babette’s Feast

Back in November, probably around the time I last had a chance to post anything here, I was asked to go and introduce a screening of Babette’s Feast as part of Exeter Phoenix’s Scandiland Festival. I’d last watched the film in about 2004, and remember it mainly being about getting drunk. Having watched it four times more, as part of nailing my introductory speech, I still hunk it’s mainly about getting drunk. If you haven’t seen it – rush out! Buy it! Rent it! Blag a copy! If you have seen it, well watch it again! Here’s the text (ish) of what I (sort of) said in Exeter. I waved my hands around and ad-libbed quite a lot as well.

If you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast, I’m aware there could be some spoilers here….but it must be said, that this is a film wherein the plot is flimsy at best. It’s not a criticism: plot flimsiness is part of the delight – you know what is going on, and can guess the not very twisty twists, which leaves you free to revel in the joys of the cinematography, the music and, of course, the food.

So, that very basic plot: we have two sisters, surrounded by and deeply devoted to, the dying remnants of a protestant sect, so puritan as to be laughable in the modern day. It was founded by their father, who also manipulated the sisters into never marrying, despite both having exactly one chance each. These chances form part of the precise nature of the setup, as each rejected suitor has a part to play in the eventual unfolding of the feast of the title. The film, and feast, are set in 1885, but the narrative first digresses into explaining how the sisters come to have a French maid-of-all-work, Babette. Babette fled France in 1871, at the height of the Paris commune, carried to Denmark by a nephew who served on a ship, and was taken in by the sisters on the plea of Achille Papin, rejected suitor no.1. That’s him done. She works for free, glad to have been taken in after her husband and son were killed, bringing light – literally – into the sister’s lives, and manifestly improving the monotonous and plain food they are used to both eating themselves, and preparing as their charitable duty for their ever dwindling parishioners. Her only link to the France she left behind is a lottery ticket, renewed every year by a friend in Paris. Of course, the inevitable happens, and she wins, and for the first time makes a request: to prepare a proper French Meal (note the capital letters) for the upcoming centenary of the sisters’ now dead father. They agree, and further agree, when pushed, that a) she will pay and b) she gets carte blanche to do as she will.

The provisions start arriving, carried by the oh-so-convenient naval nephew. They are fairly epic. One of the sisters has a graphic nightmare, featuring angry turtles and spilt wine splashing like blood, and she persuades the troops that they will allow Babette her moment, but that, in the spirit of Augustinian rejection of earthy pleasures, they won’t talk about the food. Fine. Obviously we, the audience, need a narrator, and we gain two: one is rejected suitor #2, a general in the Danish Army, and a man of the world, well-travelled, including to pre-Commune Paris. The other is his coachman, a pleb, who expresses less elevated views, as he samples every course in the kitchen with Babette.

The bit of the film we are interested in takes up about a third of the whole- the preparation, consumption and a bit of disposal of, a meal so French as to be almost a parody. Indeed, it’s been argued that the whole thing is less a celebration of pre-1870 French cuisine, and more a desperate yearning after an ideal of French food. Let’s face it, the concept permeates the modern world even now – how may top restaurants can you think of which don’t adhere, more or less to the tenets of les classiques? No-one would be talking about the film if Babette announced she was going to cook ‘a proper American meal….’ Anyway, everyone eats, and drinks, and drinks some more, and all the petty arguments and divisions between the various members of the sect are banished by the material pleasures of the world. They sing, embrace, snog and pontificate a bit before going off into the night reborn.. They’ve rediscovered their faith, their love of each other, and their joy in life – for now.

Critical context
The film – and its source material, a short story by Karen Blixen, which is subtly but significantly different from the film, mainly in being far less foodie – has been widely commented upon. It was written in 1952, specifically to break American market, and filmed in 1987, launching, in America at least, to recreations and adaptations of (bits of, anyway) the menu in the film. You can buy a guide to recreating the meal in your own home (don’t buy it). It’s widely seen as a religious film, and the religious undertones can’t be denied – 12 to dinner, the iconography of the wine, the fire, Babette as temptress in the nightmare scene, and the way in which everyone comes together, united and preaching. It’s also a cult film for the food. The web throws up zillions of people’s interpretations of the feast dishes, mainly redacted and revised to be less expensive and more doable for the home cook. The best discussion I’ve found is here.

I acknowledge the religious aspects, and I can also see the argument that the narrative is about people learning to communicate – up to the Feast the story is a depressing litany of individuals failing to talk to each other, even down to the sisters knowing absolutely nothing about Babette other than the very basics – whereas immediately after it everyone starts apologising and explaining, and even Babette explains a little of who she was – and is. But for me the film really is about more earthly matters. For me, the central theme is one of contrast, and not just concerning the food. There’s the General, looking like a peacock in his uniform vs the others, all drab and unconcerned. There’re his table manners vs theirs (yuk). The food and the surroundings. And, throughout the film, the contracts between production and consumption. I’d go further and say the film plays with perception at every stage. The diners see cailles en sarcophage. Babette and Erik, her hired kitchen boy for the night, see an orgy of plucking and gutting. We see both. Ultimately, the participants at the feast are uplifted, yes, but how much of that is spiritual awakening, and how much of it is because they are frankly trollied? Who hasn’t snogged an ex in a moment of wine-induced madness? Or made a long and incomprehensible speech to someone which you can barely remember the next day? There is a sly, and dark, sense of humour at work here, playing with our perceptions, and poking fun at anyone who takes it all a tad too seriously.

The setting
When the procession of Stuff arrives, specially ordered from Paris, it’s not just food. She also receives candelabra, tablecloths, fine glassware, cutlery and, trust me, a great deal of cooking equipment. In the opening two-thirds of the film we get a glimpse at Babette’s world, which seems to consist of a scullery, or at least a scullery area, and a very underequipped – yet surprisingly modern in some ways – kitchen. She has a small coal fired range. (I’d assume this was installed after the father’s time – you wouldn’t expect it in the 1830s in an isolated village, and frankly not necessarily in the 1880s, given the context, but hey.) She has no running water, smallish pans, but copper rather than cast iron, which again may be a level of artistic licence. We see her cooking ale bread and dried fish, the staple diet of the sisters, and then improving upon it, to the point that when she’s absent planning for the feast, one man throws down his spoon in disgust. She forages for herbs, and barters for the best produce. But we can straight away see that she must be importing EVERYTHING for the feast!

The camera rather lovingly dwells on the ingredients – heaps of fruit and veg, live quails, the terrifying turtle, and a calf’s head which appears with a rather alarming frequency in many different guises, and is presumably intended for stock, though I suspect may be more intended for shock. We think we are seeing every stage of the banquet – but we’re not. Instructions for turtle soup in contemporary cookbooks make it quite clear that the thing needs its throat slitting, the blood draining, the shell hacking off….this isn’t the work of one day, despite the impression given in the film.

The food
The menu is classic French – sort of. We start with Turtle Soup, the corporate dish of the nineteenth century. It was expensive, time consuming to prepare, took oodles of space and physical effort, and came to serve as a metaphor for posher than posh (and new money). Just flick through the Punch archive to see what I mean. Babette seems to prepare the soup in a day. I’m dubious.

The entree is Blinis Demidoff. They don’t exist in the classic French repertoire, though the terms do exist separately. Babette uses a blini pan, so yet more specialist equipment (I can only assume she ordered a while battery of DIY equipment to tackle the turtle). The raw onions are more 1952 than 1871, and usually fish was served in the second course, but it enables us to see the connections Babette has with the wider world; connections the sisters totally lack.

Next up, the releve. This one has been widely discussed and philosophised over. It’s Cailles en sarcophage, clearly a death metaphor, and indication of that sly sense of humour I mentioned, given the average age of the diners. Here today, in a coffin tomorrow. Incidentally, the table manners here are hilarious: just watch as the parishioners’ resistance to the food crumbles, as they sneak peaks at the General sucking the brains out the quail skulls…’s served with Clos Vougeot 1845, and this is the point where we start to see the walls fall apart. They are now THREE GLASSES IN! This is also the course at which the General declares it can only be the cook at the Café Anglaise who made these as it was her signature dish – but he seeks no more info. In some ways this is the culmination of the feast – you get visceral eating, dark flavours, and death on the table.

After this, everything else is decoration. There’s imported cheese and fruit, served before the dessert, as was the norm. At some point they consume more booze, in the shape of a rhum baba, in an imported mould. The whole thing gets a tad mixed up around now. Dessert is hothoused fruit, a pineapple – still a symbol of hospitality in the nineteenth century, and masculine coffee with yet MORE booze, in the form of cognac.

The film ends with another contrast – Babette, exhausted, sitting amidst piles of washing up and leftovers, finally tasting her feast and savouring the wine in a way in which very few of the diners did – even the General seemed determined to get pissed.

Babette could never have existed. The French simply did not have women cooking in restaurants at that level. The Café Anglaise existed, but it has a male chef. The film wouldn’t work if she were a man though – you can’t really see Monsieur Le Chef being welcomed into the home of two spinsters in a rural Danish village. In the film, the fact that she is a woman is remarked upon. Her cooking is made more resplendent by the fact she’s not a man. It’s a facet of the film (and book) still resonant today. Say chef, and I bet you think of a man in starched whites. Say cook, and you’ll probably have an image of a cheery woman in a floral apron at home.

The final contrast is in the sisters’ own perceptions – and through that, ours. What seems to be the ultimate sacrifice is turned on its head. When the sisters suggest they can’t believe Babette did all of that for them, her reply is that she did it for herself. Babette sees herself as the ultimate artist, and, reveals herself to be just as blinkered and unmoving as any of the religiously-minded characters. However, like any of us who practice art through cooking, we know that it is both a tremendous act of giving, but, at its best, (and sometime secretly in case anyone guesses what we’re up to), a tremendous act of fun.

Further reading
-Priscilla Parkhurst-Fergusson (2004) Accounting for Taste (And online here)

-Michael Shapiro (1991) Political economy and mimetic desire: A postmodernist reading of ‘Babette’s feast’, History of European Ideas Vol.13(3), pp.239-251

-Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1953) Babette’s Feast (various editions, inc Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, 2004)

Notes from a small kitchen

I’ve just come back from holiday. Two weeks in a French gîte, reliant on the as usual slightly random batterie de cuisine. Having gîted before, I am in the habit of taking a fair sized box of extra equipment with me, but this time sleasyjet was involved, so taking anything extra was Not On. All I could manage to fit in was a couple of knives, a digital thermometer and a not completely grim chopping board. Also, for once, there was no food at all in the gîte, not even the split bag of pasta, half a veal stock cube, and five different types of salt, which I thought were obligatory. So it was back to basics: cooking with strictly limited ingredients, buying in as little as possible unless we were guaranteed to be able to eat it before we went home, and relying on someone else’s version of necessary cooking equipment. All screaming out to me to make like a Victorian, and channel my inner thrifty historic cook. Except…

Requirements for a cottage kitchen, from Warne's Model Cookery, 1890s. (authored by Mary Jewry).
Requirements for a cottage kitchen, from Warne’s Model Cookery, 1890s. (authored by Mary Jewry)

This is Mary Jewry’s suggested list of vital equipment for a cottage kitchen in the 1890s. My cottage kitchen didn’t exactly have the full list. I had 4 frying pans, 6 stew pans of different sizes (2 lids), 2 mixing bowls, a whisk, a wooden spoon, two ladles, a slotted spoon, a nutcracker, a bloody awful corkscrew, and even worse tin opener, 3 fluted flan tins, 2 Pyrex dishes, a lemon juicer, a food processor and the inevitable elderly pressure cooker. There were two blunt knives, which I sharpened and then ignored, and a bread knife. Kit-wise, an oven, 3 gas hobs and an electric hob, a kettle, a coffee percolator, a microwave and a toaster….at least we had a dishwasher, or I’d’ve gone home.

It makes. I think, for an interesting comparison. It also highlights graphically the difference in what constitutes a meal now and then. Patent digester? That’s the pressure cooker which I ignored, as I usually do – but it would have been useful for stock. Bread grater? food processor. (I suspect many people would just buy breadcrumbs, but I actually saved all the bread and zapped it). After that it’s not so much substitutions as just not needing things. Skewers? Useful, but I bought my meat ready cut, and didn’t need to truss whole beasts. Fish kettle? Impressive, but I tend to fry fish and crunch on the skin. Actually, I fry a LOT more than my hypothetical inner cottage-dwelling Victorian would have done. Modern hobs and ovens are a wonderful thing. Much of this list is roasting kit, and that was all covered by the oven (and I didn’t roast a thing, though I did bake veg). Then we’ve got all those saucepans – I think I used about 4, which was all I could fit on the aforementioned hobs – less wonderful when you want to cook 5 things and you only have 4 hobs. At that point solid fuel ranges win. I didn’t make pastry, either, so all the pastry kit was unnecessary.

Of course, it’s not a fair comparison. Had I been there for longer than two weeks, I’d’ve been clamouring for full pastry kit, including the marble board. But it made me wonder what things we’d deem vital in a small kitchen today. Today’s version probably wouldn’t be a cottage kitchen, but student digs, or a cramped studio flat. I managed 3 years of increasingly stupidly ambitious cooking at uni with 1 saucepan, a frying pan, an electric wok, a toastie maker which doubled as a full English breakfast making machine, and a Pyrex dish and some decent knives. I accidentally acquired a massive stockpot in my final year, and I stole all of M’s unused pans when we got together around the same time. Still, compared to the stuff I have now, it was pretty limited.

What do people think of as must-have in their own kitchens? We cook, it can seem, a wider variety of cuisines now, but most surveys suggest people don’t actually cook that many dishes on a regular basis. I suspect the range of equipment we use regularly is pretty limited – a favourite frying pan, a couple of saucepans, a baking sheet…the microwave. How many of you have a tagine gathering dust on top of a cupboard? Jewry’s list suggests a cuisine heavy on roasting and boiling with a bit of grilling thrown in. Pies and puddings can be done without special equipment, so I’d assume they were also included – but there’re no moulds or cake tins. The bread grater shows the importance of not wasting anything – the statistics on the amount of bread we throw away today are truly scary when there are so many used for breadcrumbs and leftover white sliced. I could certainly cook most of my day-to-day repertoire with the list here. But – longer than two weeks, and I’d start to hanker after a pudding basin, and my massive Le Creuset pan. But times, and cooking preferences, change. Some people probably couldn’t imagine life without a cupcake pan.

Dressing (down) for dinner

With the Waitrose Good Food Guide out last week, the PR machine behind it has been seeking hooks for newspapers. The main story I’ve seen centres around the apparent rise in informality in fine dining establishments. The staff at the two-starred Hibiscus are doing away with their ties, and various chefs are quoted as endorsing a move away from leather-clad menus and toward a recognition that jeans are acceptable eating-wear. Elizabeth Carter, the editor of the GFG, suggests it indicates the rise of fine dining as an activity for ‘ordinary’ people, enjoyed by those who partake much as others would enjoy a football match, or a visit to the theatre. She points out that (some) high-end restaurants have become a destination, with a meal to be saved up for, anticipated, savoured at the time and afterwards. Tied, for some at least, to the habit of taking photographs of every dish, and live-tweeting the entire experience. Restaurateurs who don’t relax the rules for this new, more free-wheeling set of eaters, risk alienating potential customers. But, as the brief furore over photography in restaurants last year shows, while there are those who want eating out to be an extension of walking down the street, there are others who still want dining, at least at the upper end, to be something special, marked out by a degree of reverence, of privacy. The kind of experience you get somewhere like Le Gavroche: you feel cocooned and cosseted, wrapt up in a room full of food and from which you emerge, blinking, and a little bit poorer. Done well, as at Le Gavroche, I love a bit of formality. I like dressing to go out for dinner: the rituals of posh frock, make up, and maybe even heels, add a certain mystique to my dinner and make the experience into far more than just stuffing my face. Done badly, and I have undergone achingly pretentious levels of formality, mainly, it must be said, in France, and I want to throw my cutlery at the waiter and start dancing on the tables.

I think there’s room for a lot of different levels of formality. There always have been. Our current notions of what constitutes ‘formal dining’ haven’t really changed since the 19th century. Then, they made perfect sense. A restaurant meant something specific, as opposed to a chophouse, an inn, a hotel, a café, or a tea rooms. The restaurant was something intrinsically French, upper class and elegant. The term emerged from 18th century France, and it’s generally agreed that the first establishments to call themselves restaurants did so because the set out to ‘restaurer’, to restore, in this case both health and palates, jaded by the rather brilliant, but at times excessive, delights of upper class French cuisine. The French were probably influenced by the existence of a long English tradition of eating out for pleasure: nearly all 17th and 18th century diarists depict eating out, both in public eating houses or in clubs, as a regular activity. Try Dr Johnson, Pepys, or Thomas Trussler – and then there’re the number of cookery book authors who proudly declare that they are the cook at [insert inn name here]. Either way, the restaurant quickly became established, and eventually they started to open under that name in the UK. They were always distinct from other types of dining out of the home. The cuisine was ‘recherché’ – fashionable, modern, above all else, French, which was rapidly being established as the aspirational ideal for the ever-rising middle class. The dining style was also markedly different from dining at home. Restaurants were known for being places which favoured the lone diner, allowing, as they did, a free choice of dish from a range on offer. That range could be very long indeed, and the diner needed neither to carve, nor to help serve out, as was often still the case in a domestic environment throughout the 19th century.

Dining in a restaurant, therefore, was akin to dining in an idealised home, without the hassle of negotiating with one’s cook, and was deliberately removed from the informal environment of an inn or chophouse. Eating at home was beset with social pitfalls. The late Victorians had codified dinner to a degree where table manners could be neatly packaged, written down, and sold to wannabe socialites as their ‘in’ to polite society. Of course, it was largely rot. One commentator, ‘fin bec’ commented narkily that ‘an etiquette book in the possession of a diner is virtually a pièce de conviction’. In other words, if you need a guide to doing it, you aren’t the right type of person to be invited in the first place. In late Victorian society, the almost infinitesimal divisions between social groups could be negotiated through manners, and dinner was a crucial area for their observance.

The so-called traditional rules of restaurant dining, therefore, reflects a society obsessed with social acceptance, and determined to invent ever more ways of testing it through etiquette. Do we need to sit down to a place setting hemmed in by ranks of silver cutlery? No. Do we have to worry over cutting or tearing the bread? No. Does it actually make a blind bit of difference which glass we drink the wine out of? Hell no (though jam jars are a different matter and anyone serving me a beverage in a jam jar deserves to go straight to culinary hell). But it did matter; really, it did. And to some people it matters still. Are they old fashioned? Perhaps. Should we push their views to one side and rush to embrace a more informal approach? I don’t think so. If you chose to dine in jeans, and pick your menu using marbles, good on you – as you masticate, you will be in the company of like-minded people. But if you choose to wear a tie, and expect a menu which feels reassuringly heavy*, good on you too. Just like a good Victorian, how you dine reflects who you perceive yourself to be, and that, surely, is always ok.

*That said, it is never ok to have a menu which doesn’t have prices on for the lady, and does for the chap. Just saying.

Late Victorian domestic dining, from The Graphic, 1890. I once saw it labelled as 'short sighted lady looks for her place'. HUH?!
Late Victorian domestic dining, from The Graphic, 1890. I once saw it labelled as ‘short sighted lady looks for her place’. No comment.

Further reading:

John Burnett (2004) England Eats Out, 1830-present
Rebecca Spang (2000) The Invention of the Restaurant
Michael Symons (2001) A History of Cooks & Cooking