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…)

2015-11-18 17.37.18
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)



Brilliant broccoli

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

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

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

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

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

Sherson, Veg Cookery, on broccoli

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

Gardening for food historians

Growing up, my father had a rhyme he used to quote at the first sniffs of spring:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris; I wonder where the birdies is.

I can’t get it out of my head now, whenever the first signs of spring occur – and then at the second, third, fourth etc. it’s been going round in circles since the first bulbs started to sprout. And come April, I tend to go into a gardening frenzy. It’s usually a month with work gaps in for me, so I can go and enthusiastically plant seeds and revel in having permanently muddy fingernails. I’m aware, by the way, that much of what I plant will fail miserably, and I’ll end up buying plug plants anyway, but the joy lies partly in the work and partly in the hope. And now I have a bigger garden, I might eventually become a better gardener. I fear my problem is that I garden as I cook, with only the slightest regard for the recipe (planting guidelines), and a sort of gung ho attitude to little things like amounts (e.g. of watering) and conditions (ovens, room temperatures, soil types, amount of sun….). This year I have bought two brilliant and complementary books; Mark Diacono’s The New Kitchen Garden, and James Wong’s Growing for Flavour, and am trying to consult them before I plant stuff, and not after it’s dead and buried in the compost heap. We shall see…

So, if you want to garden with an eye to historic cooking, what kind of things do you plant? My criteria were simple: useful, especially for public demos and/or TV (producers always want unobtainable things out of season); pretty, as the garden isn’t very big; tasty, because life is too short to eat risotto; unobtainable through normal sources (market, supermarket, friends, the web). Oh, and preferably easy to grow and requires little maintenance. I tend to favour perennials as well, not least as they often have a longer period reach and are therefore more versatile.

My eventual list (and it may well yet grow, and will certainly change next year):

Trees: quince, medlar, Norfolk Biffin apple, Pitmarston Pineapple apple. (The latter two are to be trained as espaliers. I now have a hankering after a fruit arch with a pear and another apple, for which I hold the below illustration directly responsible).

Pear arch for a cottage garden, from The New Century Book of Gardening

Soft fruit: entirely unhistorical but practical thornless blackberry. There’s a hedge down the road for the evil attacking type. Red, black and white currant. Gooseberry, barberry, grape and strawberries (these last failing to do anything at the time of writing).

Herbs and green stuff: cardoon, erigno, sea kale, mallow, angelica, English mace, hyssop, clary sage, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lots of types of mint, comfrey, salad burnett, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, parsley, basil, sage, licorice, hop (still apparently dead), rocket, purslane, chard, rose of edible petal and hip type, good king Henry, tansy, sorrel, wild garlic (boat out on survival), borage, rue, skirret, globe artichoke, and does rhubarb count here?

Veg: Jerusalem and Chinese artichoke, tomatoes (yes, I know they are fruit), squashes of various kinds, aubergine, peas, turnips, salsify, broccoli including the epic looking walking stick broccoli (couldn’t resist), Brussels sprouts (post 1830, but hey, I still like them), runner beans, chilli.

It looks like loads (and I want to put a morello cherry on the front of the house as well, not to mention a damson up a fence), but I only have one of each, or a small patch of each, in some cases. And I’m hoping it’ll fuel many a happy historic cooking bender later in the year. Oh, and there’s not a lot in the whole space which is not edible. With any luck, most or even all of it will grow, and I can report back. Treat this, therefore, as a taster of what’s to come…and if you’ve any suggestions of your own, bring them on!

Sea Kale, before I ate it


Cardoon, in all its sculptural glory – and YES, it grows under leylandii

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 archive.org

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.




A sad day in the tomato patch

My tomatoes have blight. Two weeks ago, it was merely the odd brown leaf, and I looked proudly at them and considered them rustic and French potager-like. But in the last few days I have had to face facts: they are blighted, benighted and frankly buggered.

Happily, I am not the only sufferer. It’s the first year I’ve grown them in the ground, since up to last August my garden was roughly the size of the average sofa, and everything was in pots and growbags. I feared it was a novice gardener thing, but apparently our passive aggressive allotment-owning neighbour has lost all of his tomatoes too, so all is well with the world. I’ve ripped out the vines, lamented over the vast, squishy, brown ex-crop and, in a spirit of blight defiance, stripped off all the green tomatoes which remain unaffected. I really hate waste. I had vaguely planned a green tomato chutney, but it seemed far too obvious. Plus, I have only just finished the divine, but incredibly rich 1870s chutney from three years ago, and I have three jars of various homemade chutneys people have given me. All lovely, I’m sure, but how much chutney does a girl need? Obligatory with a cayenne-laden Victorian kedgeree, good with a meat chop or a cold pie, but after that… Mouldy chutney beckons once again. So, given a recent mild obsession with a particular type of Scandinavian pickle, it seemed obvious that pickled tomatoes was the way to go.

Pickled veg seems peculiarly un-British in 2014. Branston, yes, pickled things, yes (onions, eggs, gherkins, beetroot – bring it on), but beyond that, the habitual use of pickled veg (and fruit) seems a bit Scandinavian, or maybe Japanese. Fermenting, salting, brining, pickling, all techniques which we’re turning it enthusiastically, if the food press is to be believed, but when it comes to using the results, are a little but harder to place. I’ve gone back to the 18th century, when pickling the various gluts from the garden (and hedgerow) was a normal part of the culinary year, and I’ve started using pickled bits of stuff as a general accompaniment to pretty much everything. A typical lunch at the moment would be a poached egg, some beans or rye bread, chopped parsley and oodles of pickles. For the tomatoes, I dug out a recipe from 1924, from Warne’s Model Cookery. No point in looking much further back than the mid 19th century, for tomatoes weren’t widely grown until the Victorian period, and early recipes tend to revolve around ‘tomata sauce’, or catsup.

All you do is slice and salt, then cook the tomatoes up with pickling vinegar, sugar, garlic, chilli, mustard and cloves. They retain a certain amount of texture, and they take on flavour from the spices. The tartness of the green tomatoes cuts through the sugar, and the spices pack a fairly hefty punch, compared to some of the anaemic shop-bought pickles around today. They are much better than a chutney would have been, and I confidently predict that they won’t be around for long. I’d have loved to keep my lovely tomato plants cropping and bursting with health, but it was not to be. I feel this is a suitable elegy to the heap of sorry brown badness now in the council’s green bin. RIP, tomato plants.

Poor bastard tomato bushes.             Salting, resting overnight.            2014-09-07 11.29.19