A glorious day at Osborne House

This year’s series of James Martin: Home Comforts has started on BBC1. It’s on every afternoon, and repeated on Saturdays. There are 15 episodes, each of which has a food history slot, which either feature myself or Ivan Day. I’ve had a few requests for the recipes from episode 2, so as usual I’m putting them here. The clip is on the BBC website, so if you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, and all will become clear.

For episode 2 I was at Swiss Cottage, part of the Osborne House estate on the Isle of Wight (it’s now run by English Heritage). It was built in 1853-4 as a playhouse for Victoria and Albert’s growing brood of children. Modelled on the idea of a Swiss chalet, it had a kitchen and a scullery, and, upstairs, a sitting room, museum room and dressing room. The children also had a garden, with individual plots where they were taught to grow fruit and veg, which were then bought from them at market rates by the Prince Consort. Later the museum room was expanded, to fill a separate building, and there was also a potting shed and various buildings housing animals. It was tenanted by a housekeeper, Mrs Warne, and her husband, who looked after the garden when they children weren’t there. Mrs Warne is the most likely candidate for the children’s cookery teacher, and they had a great deal of affection for her.

The kitchen at Swiss is, apparently, 2/3 size, and therefore suitable for small children. I mildly dispute this, as for me it’s pretty much the perfect height, but I will admit that when average-sized people are in there, it does look a bit reduced. There’s a range, manufactured under Royal Warrant in Belgium, and probably a gift from Victoria’s Uncle Leopold. He was one of the few relatives she had who wasn’t utterly hideous, though he had his moments. There’s a set of chafing stoves, and there’s a fairly fully equipped set of cupboards and a dresser. Most of the prep work would have been done, as is characteristic of Victorian kitchens, on a central table, and there is also a separate scullery.

The children regularly cooked at Swiss, as did some of their children in their turn. However, after Albert’s death in 1861, the Queen increasingly seems to have used Swiss as a convenient place to take tea (reasonable, given all the facilities for preparing it would have been in place), and as an office. It seems to have drifted out of use as a children’s playhouse by the 1890s, and was eventually cleared out and opened to the public in the twentieth century. Along the way, annoyingly for anyone researching it (!) a manuscript book of recipes disappeared from the drawers under the window. It was still there in the early 1930s…..anyone out there got it?

I’ve done a lot of work on Swiss Cottage, and was lucky enough to be a small part of the team behind its recent restoration and reinterpretation. It’s now the focus of an exhibition exploring childhood at Queen Victoria’s Court, and looking in depth at the lives of her nine children. It’s rather brilliant, and certainly adds an extra element to what’s on offer at Osborne. From my perspective, filming this segment felt very fitting. I was probably the first person to cook in the kitchen for about 150 years, and I was cooking dishes (though probably not the specific recipes) which were definitely cooked by the children. It was very special indeed.

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Me having a moment of joy

The recipes

The primary references to pancakes and schneemilch don’t contain any clues as to which particular versions of them the children cooked. However, I had to make choices for TV, and I plumped for these. I’ve transcribed, modernised and translated them. Massive thanks to Sophia Wollschlager at the BBC and Georgian cooking guru Marc Hawtree for helping with the German.

Schneemilch
Neues auf vieljährige Erfahrung gegründetes Kochbuch, Sophie Armster, 1840

Princess Louise to Prince Albert, 1858, ‘On Saturday we cooked in our kitchen and made some wafers and Schneemilch’.

Ingredients: 10-16 egg whites, 1pt milk, 1pt double cream, 1/4lb white sugar, lemon rind, 3tsp orange flower water, pinch salt.

Method: Whisk 10-16 egg whites (depending on size) to soft peak in a copper bowl. If you don’t have a copper bowl, then all the other possible methods are also entirely fine. Add the other ingredients apart from the cream, and fold them all into the cream. Make thick custard of this mixture. I plonk my copper bowl on pan of water and use it as a Bain Marie, but however you do it, I’m sure it’ll be lovely. Allow to cool, spread on a baking sheet, and cut into lumps to use to make a mountain (the lumps won’t properly set unless they are left overnight, so if you are doing it, as I was, in a few hours, it may be a low mountain). Top with egg yolk custard if you fancy (not least as it uses up all those egg yolks!). Sprinkle with cinnamon and decorate with soft fruit and, for a true Victorian touch, a maidenhair fern.

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Schneemilch

Pancakes à la Celestine
The Modern Cook, Charles Elmé Francatelli, 1845

Princess Helena to Prince Albert, 1858: ‘Alice made a pancake yesterday afternoon at the Swiss Cottage. I had none of it as I was out driving with Mama. Arthur told me that after she had finished it she touched it with the dirty charcoal pincers’.

Ingredients: 4oz flour, 4oz caster sugar, 2oz ratifia or amaretti biscuits, orange flower water, 4 egg yolks, 2 whole eggs, 1 pt cream, fine grain salt, butter for frying, apricot or other jam for filling

Method: Crush the ratifias to dust in a bowl with a masher, add the rest of the ingredients, and then the whisked eggs. Fry each pancake in about 2oz of butter. They burn like crazy, split, and are generally an absolute sod, by the way. Extract from pan, spread each pancake with jam, roll up and serve piled in a pyramid.

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Pancakes à la Celestine

Crammings

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….
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)

 

 

Gletzerschneetorte…

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

Gletscherschneetorte (Glacier Snow Cake)

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

MAKE IN ADVANCE:

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

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

TO ASSEMBLE:

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

Ingredients:

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

Preparation:

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

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

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

NOTE:

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

 

Lots and lots of cake.

 

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

James Martin Home Comforts….Christmas special

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 6: day off…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p.s. my own personal moment of joy…..

gen2
The hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive.

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.