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…

img_1583
Yes, they were vaguely themed: this one is vaguely Tudor (and uses Tudor sugarplate)
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C18th gum plate.
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I made myself a Greedy Queen cake, AND?
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More sugarplate, different recipe, new moulds.
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From a book from 1904. STILL a TWELFTH CAKE, OK.
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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.

Nott

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.

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Old sheep are the best sheep

pie!
pie!

The Kitchen Cabinet is back! YAY. One of the things I most love about doing the show (and there are lots and lots of things to choose from) is the opportunity it gives me to cook things I probably wouldn’t get round to otherwise. (It’s sort of provocation and ‘I dare you’ more than opportunity, actually). For those unfamiliar with the programme (HOW? WHAT? WHY?), the format is a sort of Gardener’s Question Time on LSD, with a series of enthusiastic and up-for-it audiences asking questions to a panel of culinary experts which differs each week. In every episode we cover different topics, linked to the place where we are recording, what’s in season at the time the programme will air, and burning food questions of the day. The questions we answer are submitted by audience members on the night, so we have no idea what we will be responding to until about 2 minutes before we step on stage, but we do get a heads-up on the main subject areas. For me, that means a day or so of intensive research, to find interesting facts, recipes and to create a historical narrative which will act as context to the more immediate questions around how to cook it, build it, eat it or think about it. We also have invited guests from the area in which we record, who usually bring things we can eat (it goes without saying that we are all enthusiastic eaters).

The latest run started last Saturday (the 24th September), with a show from Derry (you can catch up via iPlayer Radio, by downloading the podcast, or by going to the show’s very own website, here). This Saturday we are coming at you from Windsor, and we are talking about Queen Victoria (clearly a fabulous topic upon which it is possibly to wax lyrical for about 5 days), Ragus sugar syrups and mutton. You’ll have to listen to the show to hear its glories, but I promised several audience members that I would post the two recipes I cooked, hence this post.

For those of you who are raising an eyebrow at the thought of mutton, DO NOT DARE. Mutton, in my view, is far superior to its fatty, flaccid offspring, lamb, and has both a better taste and texture. I am not alone in thinking this, and there is a website, fronted by Prince Charles, devoted to its charms. The 19th century definition was that it was meat from a sheep of over 3 years, and the meat of those of 6 years plus was deemed the best. Generally now, sheep meat is lamb until it about a year and a half old, and hogget until it is three ish, and mutton after that. Some butchers only admit to having hogget if you ask them, as they label it as lamb, for lamb sells better. Very few sell mutton and you generally have to order it, or buy it online. It seems silly to me that, since the 1960s, we’ve largely lost the habit of eating baby cow (though veal remains easier to obtain than mutton), but embraced the habit of eating baby sheep (yes, yes, not actual babies: both veal and lamb is usually a year old unless stated otherwise). Lamb is baby food, really, as sweet and tender and juicy as is veal, although it is not quite as different to mutton as veal is to beef. Lamb is delightful to cook with if you need a hefty amount of fat, and don’t mind a bit of insipidity. Lamb chops are delightful, and delicate, and lamb roast is like putting spring in your mouth. If you actually like the flavour of it though, and want something with a tad more texture and bit more life to it, mutton is where it’s at. It’s also, in my view, more versatile than lamb: you can very very slow cook it until it falls apart, you can flash fry the chops (and the kidneys are divine), you can stick it in pies and sausages, and stews and – well. you get the picture.

These recipes are both from books by Charles Elmé Francatelli, who was – briefly – Chief Cook to Queen Victoria before he departed after some murky business involving fisticuffs and the police (also, everyone who worked from him seemed to dislike him). One, The Modern Cook, was aimed at high end chefs working in large establishments, like him. The other, The Cook’s Guide, was more middling sort. Both are good, though the Modern Cook is tediously attached to garnishes of pureed veg and a zillion annoying cross-references. Still, that’s what sold in 1842…

Mutton Pies à la Windsor (Cook’s Guide): 1lb lean loin of mutton, finely minced with a knife; finely chopped mushrooms, parsley, a small amount of shallot, lots and lots of pepper and salt; a little gravy or thick stock. Mix everything together, and put it in small pies (a fairy cake tray is ideal). Pierce the top of each pie and bake for 45mn-1hr in an over at about 160-180. Apparently they are idea for ‘the sportsman’s bag of prog’. (I used a pastry from a Larousse of 1938 – 500g flour, 125g butter, 1 whole small egg, 15g salt).

Mutton cutlets with chestnut purée (Modern Cook): season the cutlets, egg them with a pastry brush dipped in the yolk, dip in breadcrumbs, then in melted butter, then in breadcrumbs again. Fry in very hot clarified butter. Serve with a chestnut purée made by simmering (previously cooked, peeled and probably in a tin chestnuts) in a bit of very good chicken or beef stock for 15-20mn, then adding a scant tsp of sugar, nutmeg and 1/2 pt of cream. Reduce this little lot on the stove and blitz or mash. Add a knob of butter just before serving.

Links…

The Kitchen Cabinet, Be in the Audience
Francatelli’s Modern Cook
Francatelli’s Cook’s Guide
Graig Farm Mutton (amazing)
The Smiling Sheep (wherein I have just obtained 10yo mutton and am very very excited)

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….
References:

*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.

A very vegan xmas

Fear not. I’m not referring to mine. I have quite a few deep-seated objections to veganism, on a number of levels. However, I am always up for a challenge, and The Kitchen Cabinet from Stonehenge presented a very vegan one. We covered alternatives to meaty meals, specifically entirely animal-product free alternatives. It’s not easy being veggie at this time of year, and TKC is nothing if not inclusive and relevant to everyone. (Expect kale lovers, to be fair, but we have tried to be nice about kale several times). Anyway. Christmas is a time for feasting, and feasting usually means meat. It goes back a very long way. Meat was expensive (and good meat from well-cared for animals still is, rightly). Meat showed prestige, hospitality in action and, if it was beef, which was the main Christmas dish from the 17th century to the 19th century, it showed British patriotism. Voluntary vegetarians were regarded as weird, vegans even more so. They existed, certainly, often called Pythagoreans after the 1st century BC mathematician and philosopher. But they were usually religious cranks, who believed that meat eating made us warlike and bloody, and whose suggested alternatives were decidedly horrid. It made no sense in a time before cheap meat protein was readily available to all, to decide to eat like the poor. After all, the vast majority of people ate little or no meat because they simply couldn’t afford it. It’s only when meat became plentiful and, eventually, intensively raised, cheap and in some cases pretty nasty, that first the mainstream vegetarian movement and, in the 1960s, the vegan movement, really took off. It only looks like a protest if you don’t do what everyone else does, right?

For The Kitchen Cabinet, we wanted to come up with viable alternatives to the overwhelming focus on meat at Christmas. Frankly I’d far rather eat good vegetarian food than the usual horrendous turkey on offer anyway (and usually do, at the unending mass-catered Christmas lunch scenarios which are the lot of a public speaker from time to time). Just….no eggs? no cheese? No. But I will do anything for that show.

My pick? World War II, when meat was scarce and eked out inventively, and when nutrition and its application to a population at war was a genuine preoccupation of the government. My source? Ambrose Heath’s New Dishes For Old (1942). Here is the original:

heath 1942

heath 1942 2

heath 1942 3

Basically, vegetable roll wins on nutrition and is delicious and hearty. Um.

I’ve tried quite a few WWII recipes. Most of them are vile. Limited fat, sugar, dried eggs….And I’m totally unconvinced that the exotic ‘meat substitutes’ like mock goose and mock turkey were really ever cooked. Too much hassle, not enough time, and let’s face it, it is never going to look or feel like goose. When cooking this for TKC, I wanted it to taste nice. Really taste nice. And by and large the verdict was good (I’m still trying to live down the Anglo-Saxon poverty pottage, which we don’t ever talk about). If you do want to have a crack at it – or, indeed use any wartime recipe as a basis for something you’d actively want to eat – here’s what I recommend.

  1. Forget there’s a war on. There isn’t anymore, or at least, not one involving rationing. So don’t scrimp on the fat, and for god’s sake don’t scrimp on the spice.
  2. Seasonings are VITAL.
  3. I used butter beans, boiled, blended with raw garlic, salt, pepper, cayenne, and tonnes of parsley and thyme and olive oil to make a sort of aioli for the base. It was very spicy by the time I’d finished.
  4. For veg, texture is key. Boil some, fry some, bake some. Err on the side of hefty flavours – celeriac, Jerusalem fartichoke, actual celery, carrot, cabbage. Nothing too watery. Heath boils stuff in stock. I used water and then added my usual standby of mushroom castup. I also used shedloads of marmite, but in all honesty, I can’t remember whether I added it to the veg, the beans or everything.
  5. The sage and onion/leek stuffing down the middle is a very important thing.
  6. I did it in a loaf tin through fear of crackage. If I hadn’t been going all out vegan, I’d’ve added some eggs for binding purposes.
  7. Nuts would be nice as well as rolled oats on the outside.

That’s about it. It certainly isn’t roast beef and yorkshire puddings. But it was nicer than bad, over-cooked, brown beef with freezer burn roast beef and flaccid yorkies, which I have to admit I’ve experienced more than I’d like to have done. All in all – credible. And good cold for lunches (especially fried in dripping with a bit o bacon on the side…)

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Savoury Vegetable Roll. These ones were done for a talk on rationing food at Wakefield Museum and got a mixed reception. They were quite spicy…

 

Further reading:

-Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast – an excellent history of vegetarianism
-Lizzie Collingham, A Taste of War – harrowing and detailed account of wartime food policy and its impact on the various nations involved in WW2
-The You Are What You Ate project (Leeds Uni, Bradford Uni, Wakefield Council and The Wellcome Trust – a brilliant project linking past foodways to modern eating habits)

 

 

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
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.