Iconic British Brands - Twinings Tea

Mr Stephen Twining
On a Tuesday morning which felt like midday after a visit to London's fish market, Stephen Twining made me my first cup of tea of the day.
The name of the tea maker really gives away the reason why I made a note of that first cup of tea in my diary. Stephen Twining is the tenth generation of the Twining tea family, a legacy that was started 308 years ago and helped shape this nation of tea drinkers.
Stepping back those 308 years in time, there were over 2000 coffee houses in London. To stand out in this saturated market, one had to do things slightly different. Thomas Twining opened up shop in a London that was going through vast changes after the Great Fire of 1660 destroyed most of the city. Looking at the shop which is still holding strong at The Strand, it looks like the building is squeezed in but it was actually one of the first to be there. The shop used to stand at a corner which made it easy for high class ladies - who weren't allowed into the coffee shops as they were considered masculine territory - to drive their carriages to the side and send their footmen in to buy the tea that had the reputation of being the finest of them all. Because of this increasing amount of interest in buying his teas, Thomas realised that he was actually more a blender of tea and started to market his business as such. Sadly there were no copyrights in the 17th century and so his blends, and those he created especially for lords and ladies, were being copied by others. Today there is only one personal blend left, which is the closely guarded secret of the Queens tea.

The Twining Family played an important part in Britain becoming a tea drinking - devouring - nation when Richard Twining, grandson of Thomas, and head of the tea trade, persuaded Prime Minister William Pitt to lower the then high levels of duty. He argued that, revenues would be greater if taxation would be lower. Tea at that moment in history was a privilege only available to the most well-to-do of society and so important that it was high on the political agenda. The Communication Act of 1784 lowered tea taxes and made it affordable to all those who wanted it in their cup. This made tea finally a part of everyday life.

Of Simon, Nell and Simnel cakes

 I haven't been a pious Christian since I was 6, Lent only means one thing to me, I will have a birthday soon. Easter wasn't something I particularly looked forward to and I was surprisingly unimpressed with the overly sweet milk chocolate eggs the easter bunny brought me nor did I enjoy the big family gatherings in our family as they always resulted into political debates, and dispute. It is most certainly the reason for my aversion to politics and politicians.

This year I'm celebrating the day of my birth, the day before mothering sunday, a day not connected to any other mothers day traditions in Europe or Amerika. Mothering sunday was the day that the girls working as domestic servants or apprentices were given the day off to visit their mother, bringing her gifts like perhaps a Simnel cake. Why it was a custom at mid-lent is not clear, maybe because at easter the servants couldn't be missed in the large manor houses who would most probably have large Downton Abbey style parties gathering to lunch. Another theory is that of coming home to visit the mother church, which appeared to be believed an important custom in pre-Reformation England. 
On Mothering Sunday, the fasting rules were put on hold for the day resulting in the day also being known as a Refreshment Sunday, the other one being celebrated during Advent.

The earliest of references to a Simnel cake I was able to find and verify was in a poem of Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

To Dianeme.  
A Ceremonie in Glocester.
I’le to thee a Simnell bring,
Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me. 

Here states the tradition that the cake was given when people went Mothering, what is now assumed as going to visit their mother for mothering sunday but what well could have been a reference to the pre-Reformation tradition of visiting the mother church.
At some time along the way of time the legend of Simon and Nell appeared. A story most people have heard from their grandparents.
This legend tells the tale of an old Shropshire couple Simon and Nell. Nell had some leftover unleavened dough for bread making during Lent. Simon reminded her of the last of the christmas plum pudding as the Lenten dough would make a tasteless treat. Nell as a frugal woman didn't want to waste a thing in the kitchen so it was decided to create a cake for when their children would return home for mothering.
Then a dispute arose about the method of baking the cake which Simon wanted to mould and bake while Nell was convinced it should be boiled. Though some versions tell the tale the other way around and claim that Simon wanted it to be boiled since it was a pudding, and puddings should be boiled.
To solve the disagreement which resulted in throwing a baking stool at Simon, it was decided that the cake should first be boiled, and then baked. And from then on the cake was named SimNell.
A beautiful piece of English Folk lore but it is not sure when the legend was first told.

Rye Bay Scallop Week - A day out in Britain

Every year the second weekend of february marks the Rye Bay Scallop Festival. A joyous occasion where the whole town's pubs and restaurants offer Scallop themed menus, demonstrations and evenings of fun and music.
Rye is one of the five medieval Cinq Ports and its catch of herring, mackerel, wiring, cod, plaice and sole used to be reserved for the king's table. King Charles I mentioned Rye in 1628:
“The cheapest sea-towne for provision of fish for our house.”

Today Rye is situated two miles from the sea with the river Rother, Brede and the Tillingham connecting the port to the sea, in medieval times however Rye was almost entirely surrounded by sea before terrible storms destroyed neighbouring town Old Winchelsea and changed the course from the river Rotherin the 13th century. After these events the ships were only able to reach what is now the Strand in Rye.
Rye's economy as one of the most important of Cinq Port towns declined with the coming of larger ships that needed deepwater ports. Rye turned to fishing and smuggling where the Mermaid pub, which is still a buzzing pub in the town, played a key part. By the end of the 17th century the wool trade became important throughout Kent and Sussex and the Romney Marsh sheep are still favoured today for their juicy lamb and wool.

The last decades the scallops have become a main source of income in the winter for the 'Scallopers' of Rye harbour. I met up with retired fisherman John who now does the 'chucking' and sorting of the scallops his sons 'catch' on their overnight boats.

The Foodie Bugle Shop - the online store for British artisan food, homeware, art, vintage finds and other little lovely things.

Silvana de Soissons is the founder and the heart of The Foodie Bugle, an online journal dedicated to good food and creative people. She also accepts articles from other writers with the only condition that they are thoughtfully written, balanced and well researched. Due to the quality of her work for The Foodie Bugle she was honoured with an award by The Guild of Food Writers in the category 'New Media' for the year 2012. She had only been running The Foodie Bugle for a year at that time but it had grown rapidly into a solid brand that is based upon celebrating good British artisan products and creative people - writers, artists, photographers, producers - anyone with an inspiring vision and work ethic.

On the website you'll find a mix of recipes, book and food and drink reviews, stories about British producers, artisan businesses, writers, artists and photographers. And there is also information about food events, including her own The Foodie Bugle Lectures:
"The Foodie Bugle Lectures are an opportunity to bring together food and drink artisans,  growers,  entrepreneurs, writers, bloggers and food lovers, to share experience, knowledge and wisdom over speeches, conversation and a seasonal supper of regional and local produce with wine and ale." 
Hodmedod’s Dried Pulses
The online food journal on thefoodiebugle.com wasn't enough for Silvana, she listened to her readers who asked for a print edition of The Foodie Bugle and The Foodie Bugle Print Magazine was born. 
A magazine that is more a coffee table book to enjoy sitting in your favourite nook than something you take along with you on a train. It is beautifully published with quality paper and genuinely interesting content. Silvana has always been an inspiration to me, she is stylish, clever, witty and a tough nut to crack. A woman I would love to have as a mother to look up to, with her cocktail of Italian passion with British solidity and perseverance. I have learned a lot from her, especially when I sent her an article and she gave me her honest remarks on my writing, and again recently on how my writing has evolved. Needless to say I was honoured to be featured by her in the second issue of The Foodie Bugle Print Magazine. 

The beautiful magazine

Proud to have my pictures in the magazine

Passion fruit, Persimmon and Pepper Pavlova - I had a love/hate relationship with merengue

For a history geek like me it is interesting to see how the Valentine's traditions came to be. There are a lot of theories surrounding its origins but it seems that the first time Valentine's day was linked to love can be traced back to the 14th century.It was the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, mostly known for The Canterbury tales who mentioned Valentine's day in his The parlement of foules C 1381.
For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. 
In modern English: For this was Saint Valentine's day, when every bird of every kind comes to this place to choose his mate.

Cardamom and yoghurt spelt cake and the number 13

 My grandmother always wore a number 13 on a golden chain around her neck. She had a tough life, raising 4 children on her own after grandfather didn't come home from sea. She worked from dawn till dusk. Nanna died from old age many years ago because her body was just completely worn down. I remember her stern nature and I'm sure my father didn't have an easy childhood. I know he wanted to go to school to become a carpenter, dreaming to work with wood and create his own furniture, but he had to work instead.

My father is a man with ambition, a fighter, a daredevil and a great teacher in life. He worked hard to become a paramedic when I was born, and got the degrees needed to save lives. His precious weekends off he spent them as a volunteer with the Red Cross and the Flemish Cross, aiding people in need of care on events, disasters and accompanying disabled children and adults on trips.

I used to joke that the reason he always went to be on the Flemish Cross care unit on big Raves was that he knew I was safe at home but that other parents didn't have that luxury fearing their children were somewhere possibly doing drugs or drinking way to much. He had many teenagers on his gurney and I know he was secretly happy about me being a New Waver and a romantic rather than a raver wearing neon trainers.

My dad taught me - not by telling me this but by example that when I wanted something, I should just go out there and do it.

2013 has been anything but unlucky and it reminds me of my grandmothers golden number 13 which I inherited after her death and is one of the only things I have to remind her by. For her, and as for many other cultures, number 13 was a lucky number. 

I got to do fantastic stuff last year but most importantly, I found a way to live with an autoimmune condition. When I got diagnosed in the summer of 2012 I found myself on a roller coaster of emotions. I got worse before I got better in 2013. I know found that living a balanced life, especially with your food is the best way to stay stable and healthy. I am fortunate to be at a stage with my condition that it can stay stable if I rest enough and stay healthy. For someone who is used to running through life rather than walking, it hasn't been easy to slow down. But I did it.

Enjoy my round-up of favourite happenings of last year.

I went on a pig keeping course and it was one of the most splendid days of my life, I have a -not so- secret dream of having a little pig farm one day. You can read the full story here.

You see, I ain't afraid of getting down in the mud with a pig!

The intriguing Twelfth cake

 The Twelfth cake is to me one of the most intriguing of cakes in the British cuisine. The cake is traditionally baked for the feast of epiphany or as the name already reveals - the twelfth night of christmas. But baking a cake for epiphany isn't a custom in Britain alone, in other European countries and in my home country Belgium we have the '3 kings cake' (driekoningen taart) or the 'Galette du Rois' which is a frangipane tart with puff pastry concealing a much coveted bean which will make you king for the day. The 3 kings cake is sold with a paper crown so all is in order for the coronation of the lucky finder of the bean. At some time however it was the fashion of concealing tiny porcelain babies and nativity figures in the cake, a custom my mother in law tells me is still practiced by the bakery in my neighbourhood. I remember as a child, I've never had the pleasure of finding the bean which would make me king, this annoyed me very much as a little girl.
In Britain the tradition was to hide a bean and a pea in a plum cake, the bean would crown the king and the pea would crown the queen. The Twelfth cake would contain spices like cloves, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon along with dried fruits like raisins and candied orange or lemon peel. 

Antique 3 king cake figurines, imagine biting into one of those!
 The earliest printed recipe for a Twelfth cake dates from 1803 and can be found in John Mollard's the Art of Cookery. However, references to the custom of the Twelfth cake and the celebrations surrounding it can be found as far back in history as the 16th century and it is very possible that the tradition has been around for much longer. In a early Tudor manuscript which is kept at the Bodleian Library we find a passage about wassail cakes, which are believed to be heathen Twelfth cakes. Wassail comes from the Old English 'Waes hale' which most likely means 'be whole' or be healthy, like a kind of frase you say while making a toast. We can also find recipes for Wassail which is a type of mulled cider traditionally drunk while Wassailing, meaning a tradition of awakening the cider apple trees while singing and drinking.

From me to you

Thank you all for your lovely support the past year!
I wish you good food and love for the new year 

To make Ypocras

 And then it is suddenly christmas again… it seems only yesterday that it was september and now we are only moments away from januari. It will be march in the blink of an eye and when it's august you will be wondering where those months have gone to.
When you are a child, the days seem to drag on like weeks and the weeks like months but when you are all grown up… you wonder where that hour of free time went to and when you are finally able to start reading that book you've got to read in the summer.

To warm your spirits after the last busy weeks of the year 2013, a year that has brought me excitement, friendship and a new venture of which I will tell you all about very soon - I had mulled wine on my mind.
The sweet scent of the warm wine and spices always transport me back to the christmas markets in Aachen. My parents and I would drive to Germany especially for it each year. Even from a young age I would be allowed half a cup of mulled wine to warm my hands and to bring a rosy blush to my ice cold cheeks. It was one of the highlights of my year, to take in the different scents in the air, the aniseed of the artisan candy being made, the greasy smell of Reibekuchen, the aroma of spices blended with chocolate from the Aachener Printen biscuits and the mulled wine and rum.

Sometimes the very unlikely of foods and drink can be the ones that have been around for centuries and some recipes never changed very much.
Mulled wine or ypocras as its name was for centuries, has been around since the Middle Ages but mulled spirits pre-date Medieval times. I found a recipe for a fine spiced wine in a Roman cookery book that looks a lot like the recipe for ypocras. It is commonly thought that the drink is named after the Greek physician Hippocrates, however this is not so. It is more likely that ypocras has this name because the herbs and spices were strained through a conical filter bag known as a Manicum Hippocraticum - sleeve of Hippocrates. The Old French name for Hippocrates was ypocrate which explains the etymology of the Middle English name ypocras, hipocras, ipocras, ippocras, hvpocras, hvppocra, and many more variations.

Kedgeree and... my first video!

I have something very exciting to share with you... my first ever video!!!
During the summer I was contacted by the guys from Grokker, a new online video network. They wanted me on board for a challenge with Loyd Grossman and because I had never really considered doing video, I thought this would be the perfect moment to get some experience in that area.
Although I was very tired after only 3 hours sleep and nervous of answering questions while trying to explain a recipe in a language other than my own without any form of rehearsal I must say I'm quite happy with how it turned out. The film crew really was a fabulous bunch of people. -Thanks guys- The video here is a trailer, the whole thing is on Grokker here > for which you have to create an account to see it - and if you do... don't forget to click on the heart below the video to let me know you liked what I did there! :) It's a bit of a challenge with a few other fabulous blogger involved, check them out while you are there too.

A small -delicate- detail though... my name isn't pronounced like you can hear in the video, so please don't all start calling me 'Regoela' it's more like 'regular' without the 'R' at the end and a more delicate 'G' like in Italian. It is Latin after all. :-)
Anyway back to the dish, we had to choose a typical main dish of our niche that was able to be cooked in 30 min, prep to finish. So I choose Kedgeree, a recent favourite in our house.

Kedgeree is believed to find its origin in the Indian dish called Khichri and we can say it is the the first Anglo-Indian fusion food. During the British Raj, the Brits in India were craving a dish that would remind them of home. 

Khichri is considered a sick person’s food in India, being less spicy and easier on the digestive system than other curries. It was perfect for the Britons who were still spice-shy back then and couldn’t take the heat of a curry like they do today.

Plum Pudding - Myth and Legend

According to tradition, plum pudding should be made on ‘Stir-up Sunday’.It is a custom that is believed to date back to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer where a reading states 'stir up, we beseech thee'. The words would be read in church on the last Sunday before Advent and so the good people knew it was time to start on their favourite Christmas treat.

It was family affair where everyone would gather to stir the pudding mixture from East to West, in honour of the Three Kings who came from the East. Sometimes coins would be hidden in the dough; finding them on Christmas day would bring luck and good fortune. I think we all know this tale. But is this story in fact a 16th century custom or a Victorian interpretation? 

There are a lot of legends and claims made about the origins of the plum pudding. Some say it was King George I in 1714 who requested plum pudding as a part of the first Christmas feast of his reign. And that it was because of him that Oliver Cromwell's ban on Christmas and its rich festive foods was lifted. George I was baptized 'the Pudding King' because of these myths but there are no written records prior to the 20th century to tell us that indeed this king deserves his regal pudding title. Nor is there truth in the claim that George I was responsible for lifting the ban on the festivities surrounding Christmas. However, this ban, along with other prohibitions, was abolished at the start of the Restoration of 1660, long before George I came along.

The first written record of a recipe for plum pudding as we know it today can be found in John Nott's 'The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary' from 1723; there is however no reference suggesting that it is associated with George I or to the practice of Stir-up Sunday. 

An earlier reference in the diary of a British naval chaplain during the reign of Charles II, speaks of a Christmas Day dinner on board a ship in the year 1675, consisting of a rib of beef, plum puddings, mince pies and plenty of good wines. This is the first time a plum pudding is associated with Christmas in a written record.

Hopping down in Kent - Hop brandy

While driving through the rolling Kentish countryside I can't help but shout out 'Oast house' when I spot the somewhat fairytale like conical rooftops of the hop kilns. I nurture my inner child with my endless enthusiasm for things other people might not even notice anymore.

These monuments of agricultural industrialisation were used for drying the freshly picked green hop flowers. They usually had two or three storeys, some with perforated floors on which the hops were spread out. On the ground flour was a charcoal-fired oven spreading warm air through the kiln which is permitted to pass through the perforated floors to dry the hops. The white wooden cowl on the roof rotates with the wind to allow air to circulate and moisture to escape to prevent mould. Although we are more used to seeing round Oast houses, the kilns started out square shaped. The earliest example dates back to the mid 1700's and can be found in Cranbrook.

Hops have been grown in Britain since the the late 15th century and probably even earlier. They were introduced to Britain from Flanders where hopped beer had become the fashion. Hops don't only add bitterness to beer but also act as a natural preservative. In the early Victorian era hop growing became the most important industry in Kent as tastes changed from un-hopped ale to more bitter beer.
The need for hops was especially great due to the late Georgian law forbidding the use of any other ingredients than hops and malt in beer. A year after the law was approved, the drum roaster -used to roast malt- was invented by Daniel Wheeler. By roasting the malt the brewers could legally give extra flavouring and colouring to the beer by creating very dark, roasted malt for the use in Porters and Stouts. 

Of course those large amounts of hops needed to be picked and so each september the destitute families from London and sometimes even further away, came 'hopping down to Kent'. If they were not completely pennyless, they could afford the ticket for the 'Hop pickers Special' train which left from London Bridge. If they were too poor, they had to walk to Kent. For six weeks they would live on site in hop huts to help with the hop harvest. Although the work was rough, it was a time especially the children looked forward to all year. Hop picking in Kent was a welcome change from the slums is which most of these families lived. And although the hop huts were far from luxury, it was still a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the miserable fog in London.

Gunpowder, treason and bonfire parkin

The fifth of november, remember?

One of the most intriguing of English traditions to me is Bonfire night. Otherwise known as Guy Fawkes night it is a feast that commemorates the failing of a plot by Roman Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Parliament in London killing the Protestant King James in the process.

Although Guy Fawkes is mostly remembered on this occasion, it was Robert Catesby who was chief instigator of the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby turned against the government of Elizabeth I when his father along with so many others Catholics, was prosecuted for refusing to conform to the Church of England. When Elizabeth I died, James - son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots - came to the throne which gave the Roman Catholics new hope for greater religious freedom. When this hope turned pear shaped the English Catholics plotted to put Arbella Stuart on the throne, she was Catholic, James' cousin and a major claimant to the throne of England having both Tudor and Stuart bloodlines. Arbella always stayed close to the throne but never became queen, by blood she had a larger claim to succession and she became known as the 'Queen that never was'.

The seed to the Gunpowder plot however was planted nearly a century earlier by another Tudor, Henry VIII. When he issued the Act of Supremacy which declared him head of the Church of England to be able to divorce the first of his six wives, he started a century of violent religious turmoil. Henry's Church of England wasn't initially Protestant but his son Edward VI instituted more Protestant reforms. Mary I, being Henry's daughter with his Catholic wife whom he divorced to marry Elizabeth's mother Anne, was a Catholic and tried to restore the Catholic faith. She started her five year bloody reign by reviving the laws against heresy and was hated for it. The result was the persecution of Protestant rebels and the execution of some 300 heretics. Elizabeth's accession to the throne on Mary's death was greeted with enormous jubilation from the people. Yet again the Roman Catholics were facing persecution and the plotting to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots began.

This brings us back to Mary's son James and the infamous Gunpowder treason and plot.
On the 5th of november 1605 Guy Fawkes was apprehended while guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar under the house of Parliament. How they found out about the gunpowder in the cellar leads to speculation but it is presumed that someone from within the circle of conspirators of the plot warned someone to stay away from parliament on the 5ft. After his apprehension Fawkes was tortured to give up the names of his accomplices.

Damson cheese and sweetmeats - a memory in a jar

I keep the jars in the stairwell leading down to the cellar, it's quite dark there and I can look at them, neatly arranged on their shelves, every time I need a tin of tomatoes or a bunch of spuds.
They all have labels, some decorated with water-colour images I painted, some just with the date and words of what's in the jar. I will pick up a jar from time to time, asking myself if I should open it or leave it a little longer. Some of my cherry brandy dates back to 1999 and has become precious, if you get to try any or even receive a tiny jar with 2 or 3 cherries, you should know you're on the top shelve of my cupboard.

I love to buy fruit on my trips around England, most of the time I will end up preserving that fruit, to keep it for the colder months it is but also a memory of a lovely trip in a jar.
A year ago I stumbled upon tiny little plums, so small they could be mistaken with a large black olive. It was on an sunlit morning early in autumn, I walked passed the quaint greengrocers in the village I would dream to call home when I spotted the display of Damsons, Victoria plums and cobnuts. I wonder if the plums the greengrocer claimed to be native wild damsons are in fact sloes ...

I took home my brown paper bag of Sussex native wild damsons - at least I believe them to be damsons - and got busy at home making damson cheese on a rainy sunday morning. Damson cheese is an old country recipe, I can just picture the ladies using the leftover embers of the fire to stew fruit or dry flour for pastry.
In my vintage cookery books, the writers suggest to leave the cheese for a few months, or even up to two years. One shouldn't be surprised if it would dry out a bit, it is supposed to add to the flavour.
In her book Dorothy Hartley describes the original native damson as small with black bloomy skin and green flesh. The description sounds similar to how a sloe looks but if anyone out there can shed some light on what the native damson looks like, I would love to hear it.

Workshop food photography and styling in Antwerp for Flanders and Brussels food week 'Week van de Smaak'

I was asked to come and teach a food styling and photography workshop for Flanders' food week, 'Week Van de Smaak'. I'm very excited to share this with you, especially my Belgian and Dutch readers who would be able to attend. 
There are two dates: 17 and 23 november and there are only 3 places left!
Gosh that went fast! So if you would like to attend, send and email to margot@beeldexpressie.be and do it quickly so you don't miss out!

We will also be cooking some tasty food to shoot. On november 17 cookery teacher Daphne from Food for Foodies will be cooking up Asian cuisine and on the 23th we will be exploring the rich Middle Eastern dishes, all in the spirit of the festival's theme 'water and fire'. 

Location of the workshop is Antwerp, Belgium.
All you need is something to take a basic picture with, so even your camera phone.
Note that the workshop will be in Dutch.

*Update* The two workshops are now sold out!

Kentish cherry batter pudding - and one more thing, I just launched my beer blog 'The Queen Beer'!

Batter puddings have been around for centuries. Originally they were named 'dripping puddings' because they were placed in trays underneath large spit-roasts to catch the dripping of the meat. In the 1747 book The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse renamed the dripping pudding to the now more generally known Yorkshire pudding.
'Yorkies' were provided to stretch the meat a little longer, soaked in gravy they are very child's favourite and traditionally served as a filling dish before the main meat dish came to the table rather than accompanying it.

But batter puddings haven't always been the perfect partner in crime to a good sunday roast, they have also been savored as a sweet treats as well. Mostly the rich puddings were just drizzled with a dusting of fine sugar but in the summer season and early autumn when there was a glut of fruit to use up, a sauce of cherries or plums would have been made to accompany the batter pudding.

Although there is no proof of age for the recipe of the Kentish cherry batter pudding, before the second world war there were about 40 000 acres of cherry orchards in Britain and most of them were situated in Kent. This does tell us that there were a lot of cherries about and not all of those cherries would have been exported to other parts of the country. Sadly only 90 percent of these orchards remain today but luckily the last few years Kentish cherries have seen a revival with new orchards being planted.
Cherry trees are kept much shorter now, making it easier to harvest. In the old days, mostly women would pick the cherries standing on high ladders with wicker baskets tied to their waists.

Jolly Jelly, you know what? I'm writing a book!

One would think the dark ages were a dark time... Reading books like Umberto Eco's 'In the name of the Rose' certainly leads us to believe that it was.
But the fact is that there was a love for bright colors that can be witnessed in the illuminated manuscripts from that time. On the table brightly colored layered jellies were made by boiling pig's or cow's feet into gelatin. It must have taken the cook hours to prepare, deriving the colors from blood, berries, vegetables and Essex saffron, the jellies were decorated and scented as magnificent displays of the cooks talent.
Jellies weren't the desserts as we know them now, they would be savoury rather than sweet most of the time, sometimes even encasing whole fish for a dramatic effect. 
Gelee of fleshe -meat jelly- was a traditional Medieval dish and made by cooking pigs trotters and ears, calf's feet and chicken in white wine. The jus and fat would then be reduced until it formed a jelly and the meat served with it.
We still have meat jellies today in the form of 'aspics', covering pieces of meat, vegetables and sometimes eggs with gelatine made from beef bones.
In culinary school, where we are taught the classic French cuisine we had to prepare a seafood jelly which was a terrible waste of perfect seafood and we also used jelly to decorate meat and fish with delicately sliced vegetables to then lightly cover it in gelatine to protect it from the air. Perfect for when you are preparing a buffet but a little old fashioned if you ask me.
But it is very fascinating to think of it, that a medieval practice of encasing foods in jelly is still widely used today, centuries later. Now the sweet jellies are most popular, in bold colors and fun flavours and shapes, it is still a showstopper on your table as much as it was in the Middle ages.

Cherry and almond cake and a walk on Gold Hill in Dorset

As the weather suddenly changed from gloriously sunny to dreadfully grey again, I ventured out to beautiful yet misty Dorset to be a judge on the Great Taste Awards.
After seven hours on several trains I finally arrived in Shaftesbury, one of the highest and oldest towns in England. Shaftesbury, also known as Scaepterbyrg in the Domesday book was either built or rebuilt by Alfred the Great in the 9th century when he also founded the abbey where his daughter Ethelgiva would be the abbess. Although a Saxon settlement, there is reason to believe that a much older Celtic village named Caer Palladur used to exist on this hilltop. 

I walked up and down Gold Hill three times and sat on the cobbled street at the top of the hill to watch the evening spread it's cloak over the valley. After a walk I ended my day with a much needed pint of Chocolate Stout at a local pub and a plate of excellent Devon crab - with Hovis bread of course, as you do when in Shaftesbury. The town and especially Gold Hill has become famous for the evocative Hovis advertisement film in the seventies. The film was directed by Riddley Scott, whom you might know from films like Gladiator and featured a small lad pushing a bike with a basket laden with a loaves of bread up the steep cobbled street of Gold Hill on the tunes of Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony. The advert has been voted Britain's most popular advertisement of all time and shows the power of a good advertising campaign. It's a deceiving plot to convince the consumer that Hovis bread is something more artisan than just a factory made bread. It feeds on nostalgia, showing images of times gone by, suggesting the bread is still being made by the traditional method. It is not. It is made by the fast 'no-time dough' Chorleywood method using not only wheat flour but also a larger amount of yeast, emulsifier, stabiliser and Soya flour. Things that are hardly traditional.

This brings me back to the Great Taste awards and how important the Guild of Fine Food is in supporting artisan and 'real food' producers. We're turning back towards foods that are once more traditionally made with the best possible ingredients out there. Pasture fed beef is now a regular term as well as rare breed pork and raw milk yoghurt. We want quality for our pennies again, and we want to make a difference when we do our food shopping.

Food Blogger Connect London 2013 - My talk on Breathing life into your brand identity

Just over a week ago I did a talk on 'Breathing life into your brand identity' at this years Food Blogger Connect Conference in London. 
Like last year, it were fun food filled days and even the sun came out to play.  A few people who were there and a lot who missed the conference emailed or tweeted me to ask me to write about my talk, apparently branding your blog is a thing a lot of you think about these days. And I get it, us blogger have to be writers, photographers, stylists, web developers and why not also graphic designers.
I had the advantage of being a graphic designer myself, my husband is an art director/ illustrator and we have our own company specialized in unique branding and graphic design called The Tiny Red factory. Although I enjoy photography and writing more than graphic design these days, it will always be a big part of who I am.
So here are my views on branding your blog.

Branding is about asking questions and getting the right answers 
to build your strategy on.
First ask yourself this question:

Why do I blog?
Is it to build a business, to get some kind of income out of it or out of pure fun?
This will determine what kind of blog and branding you are building. Asking yourself questions and thinking about the answers will make for a more solid brand.

The Jewelled Kitchen

Middle Eastern food has always intrigued me, it seems like the meals always come with cozy little candle lights, luxuriously embroidered table cloths and boldly colored serving dishes. The culinary traditions revolve around sharing and giving generously. Spiced meats and sweets remind me of late Medieval British cooking when ginger, caraway, cumin, cinnamon and currants were used in stews and pudding much alike the Middle Eastern ones. 
The aromatics give the kitchens a mysterious scent, almost as if the beautiful women coming out of them carrying trays of oozing food to present to you are bewitching their guests with their culinary arts. 

With anticipation I awaited my friend Beth's book, if there were to be one book about Middle Eastern food I would buy, it would be hers. She who lures people with the tales of perfect Hummus and tasty lamb stews. Drop dead gorgeous and a former miss Lebanon she is a woman who fights every day to change the worlds negative preconceptions about the Middle East.

Summertime at Jamie Oliver's Food Tube party

I was invited to join in on the fun for Jamie Oliver's latest live Food Tube show on monday. After the first taxi stood me up I arrived at location fashionably late.
The back alley of the newly launched Fifteen restaurant - which is amazing, give it a try - was dressed up like a street fair with bales of hay, colorful bunting and artwork on the walls by Barnaby Purdy
Donal Skehan was there to cook up some tasty food along with the totally crazy smokin DJ BBQ, the lovely Chiappa sisters, the sweet Jemma from Crumbs & Doilies and the charming Gennaro Contaldo. There were the two boys of JacksGap who had a chilli tasting challenge with Mr chilli lover himself: Jamie Oliver. Plenty of Yoghurt was at hand to ease the burning flame of the little green devils. I wouldn't have wanted to be in their place, it looked painfully fiery.
It was chaotic, it was exciting and still it was relaxed and layed back at the same time.
And if you are wondering, there was no real rehearsal before, it's just a bunch of people doing what they do best, play with food - or if you're Camden Brewery - with beer!

I had a great chat with Donal who is as lovely in real life as his online persona - because as Jamie pointed out as well, we all feel we know each other from our Instagram feeds and so meeting the first time never feels like a first encounter at all.
I won't lie, meeting Jamie and having a chat with him was a special moment. I would be playing it cool if I didn't admit to it. But not because of his fame, but because of the amount of respect I have for him. Like so many others from my generation and beyond I took my first steps in the kitchen with the scribbles and notes I made while watching The Naked Chef.

My mom wasn't interested in cooking at all but I had a weird need to cook. My first creation were rice waffles smeared with Nutella and butter, layered into a cake. It was a sunday morning in the spring of my sixt year and had woken up before the crack of dawn to surprise my mom and dad with this "delicious" treat - they kindly refused to eat it though :) The kitchen was a mess, the rice waffle cake mysteriously disappeared during the day and I forgot about cooking until the next time I made the kitchen explode with burnt baked beans.

Strawberry Spelt Shortcake, the history of Shortcake in Britain

A Strawberry shortcake can take on many forms, it can be a scone-like cake, a sponge or a thin biscuit but two things remain the same throughout any recipe: fresh strawberries and lots of pretty whipped cream. Strawberries were first cultivated by the Romans in 200 BC but what about the origin of a Strawberry Shortcake?

In Medieval times newly-weds would be presented with a soup made of strawberries and sour cream topped with borage and sugar. They believed strawberries to be an aphrodisiac, yet no biscuit or cake of any kind accompanied the dish. 
Short meaning crumbly from the Old English 'cruma' is a term that came to be in the 15th century, adding a large amount of fat or 'shortening' to flour results in a crumbly or 'short' texture.

In the Elizabethan cookbook The good Huswifes Handmaide 
for the Kitchin. (1594 -1597) one can find the earliest record of the term 'short cake'. Unfortunately none of the manuscripts that survived of this book are complete.

The Prune Tarts at Tudor Court

In 1615 English poet Gervase Markham mentioned 'a prune tart' in his book "The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman".
In his beautiful way of writing he states:
"Take of the fairest damask prunes you can get, and put them in a clean pipkin with fair water, sugar, unbruised cinnamon, and a branch or two of rosemary; and if you have bread to bake, stew them in the oven with your bread..."

He goes on to explain in detail how to finish the prune puree and how to assemble the little tarts he likes to shape into little birds and flowers by first cutting out a pattern in paper to trace on the pastry. The tart cases or 'coffins' as they were called in times gone by, were raised by hand.
During Tudor times pastry had evolved from the Medieval inedible crust -that was there only to hold a filling- to sweet and savoury pastry to enjoy as a part of a dish. Eggs and butter or suet were beginning to be used making the pastry more refined and giving the cook the opportunity to be inventive with fillings as well as with decoration. If you look at Renaissance paintings especially by the Flemish and Dutch masters, you will notice the pies who are depicted on the tables as dramatic centerpieces, sometimes wildly decorated with stuffed swans or geese resting on top.

But it isn't the only change, the Tudor court wanted to show their worldliness employing Florentine sculptors and painters for great artistic commissions, decorating royal palaces and most likely even influencing the kitchen. Fruit pies called Florentines filled with thick fruit purees or marmalades and decorated with pastry strap-work were served as a final course, the very first time in history a sweet course concluded a meal. I can't but help to see the striking recemblance between an Italian 'Crostata di marmellata' and the Florentines at the Tudor court. In 1570 Bartolomeo Scappi, an Italian cook mentioned the different recipes for pastry in his book, it would take 30 years before a guide like that was published in Britain. 'Delightes for Ladies' was published in 1602 but Gervase Markham's book a decade later would provide a much easier to follow set of recipes.
It always pleases me to find links between Italian and British cookery, these are my two favourite cuisines and I feel there are a lot of things linking the two together, not only in dishes but also in philosophy. 

Prune tarts bring back memories of my childhood. Normally only eaten on Ash Wednesday in my home town Antwerp, prune tart would be on our sunday breakfast table quite regularly. Our local bakery used to have the best prune tarts in sizes big and small and my mother used to buy a small one for me because she knew it is one of the few sweet things I truly enjoy.