I can clearly remember the first time my brain registered the juiciness of a nectarine and its heavenly scent. It was summer and unusually hot. I was about 3 or 4 years old and me and my mother, the lady next door and her son Sam who had the same age, had walked quite a distance to a park where we could play. After we had played a while, Sam and I were each given an unusually large nectarine – mostly because our hands were very small. They came out of a brown paper bag, and I can still recall the sound of the bag, and the scent that came next when it was presented to me to pick my fruit. I remember that I smelled the skin of the fruit, looked at it, turned it around and was then handed a piece of white kitchen paper to catch the juice that was about to drip from my chin and hands. I investigated the skin between my fingers, the texture of the fruit. I recall the bitterness of the magenta red stone as I was trying to get the last of the flesh from it….
It is not a coincidence that I chose to write about Queen cakes today. If you’ve read the papers and watched the news, or if you are a royalist, then you know today the Queen of England celebrates her 90th birthday. This makes her the world’s oldest-reigning monarch and the longest reigning monarch in English history. Queen Victoria was the previous record holder with her 63 years and seven months. So Queenie has every reason to be smug and have a big party – which is a giant street picnic on the Mall (the strap of wide street in front of Buckingham palace) in june. Getting a ticket for it was near impossible to my regret, because this was a celebration I would have been happy to buy a new hat for, bunting I already have aplenty. So if you’re reading this Your Majesty… is there room for one more? I’ll throw in a book!
But let’s talk about these Queen cakes. They are little cakes, and they started popping up in English cookery books in the 18th century. When reading the several recipes from the 18th to the 20th century I have in original cookery books, they remind me of a little cake I grew up with in Belgium. However, the recipe was slightly different as the Belgian cakes were flavoured with a little vanilla or almond essence, while Queen cakes are flavoured with mace, orange flower water, rose water and lemon depending on the date of the recipe. The Belgian cakes also look more like Madeleines, but they both have currants in them and the use of vanilla or almond essence is of course a slightly more ‘modern’ way to flavour bakes.
As with many English dishes, the Queen cakes come with their own dedicated cake pans. These were produced in the 19th century and depictions of them can be found in at least two books that I know of, one I own. 18th century recipes remain silent about the tins they should be baked in, but it is very possible that the then fashionable mince pie tins would have been used, leaving them without a need to create new tins….
A little personal post from me, but then again, it is a personal blog so it is alright.
Five years ago to this day, Bruno and I got married in our home away from home in Sussex, UK. When thinking about how we wanted to get married, it was important for us that we did it our way, or not at all. We are not religious, so we are not bound to a mother church. We are not emotionally bound to the country or town that we live in, so that was not an option either. So this little quintessentially English town that had been our favourite place in the world for years, and for me in my teens, was the only place we really could see us getting married.
The day came and so did the rain, it felt like it was march, the time when we had our fixed date in the calendar to visit this little town. The week before on our visit to sort the last paperwork kerfuffle it had been a heat wave here, but on our wedding day it was windy and cold. Although my dress was made for summer, the cold didn’t bother me that day, the wind did mess up my hair, but the torrential rain waited until we had to go for our dinner at the towns oldest and most haunted Inn.
We got married in town hall, where I arrived late making everyone there nervous as hell. The town crier was there to be a witness to the occasion and to loudly accompany us to the nearby historic public house for a toast. The whole town came out to see us and followed us to the pub, over the cobbles and in the light drizzle of rain. When we arrived at the pub, the blessed town crier threw open the heavy 17th century door and cried that the bride and groom had arrived. The unsuspecting punters at the bar nearly choked in their pints. We toasted with Stout and Cider and after my fresh husband and I got two hours to be together and walk around our beloved town while our friends Sassy and Frank took photo’s for our album and a little video….
Let me share with you a recipe from Pride and Pudding, my debut book that was festively launched in London’s Borough Market two weeks ago. There is also good news if you haven’t ordered the book yet! The Amazon editorial team has not only included Pride and Pudding in their ‘Books of the Month’ – this week it is also part of their ‘Deal of the Week’ which comes with a 50% discount only this week. (Get it here >) Meaning it will only set you back a tenner! It looks like sales are going splendid as I haven’t seemed to have lost my spot in the first 10 of the top 100 Bestsellers. As an author you do fear no one will buy your book. As do you fear bad reviews and negativity. So if you have a moment and you like the book, Amazon reviews do make a difference.
Now back to the actual order of the day. Cabinet pudding was a favourite on Victorian tables, the first recipes for it appeared in the early 19th century, though similar puddings had been made long before then. It is also sometimes called Newcastle pudding, diplomat pudding or Chancellor’s pudding, though the connection with politics isn’t clear. Recipes also vary. There are theories about the name but none seemed to hold much truth to them….
Two weeks ago was the day I have been waiting for, for a very very long time.
The publication day and book launch of the English Pride and Pudding, my original work. My baby. You might find it quite odd that the Dutch translation came out before the original but the whole editing process of the two books was completely different. I’m thinking of writing a post about the two different ways this book was brought to life, it is quite interesting and could come with some advise for any of you are thinking of publishing a book….
Yesterday, 11 april, I was asked to come on the BBC One Breakfast television program to talk about the history of rice pudding in light of the sudden craze for rice pudding – and that I have just written Pride and Pudding, a whole book about pudding. So how has rice pudding got itself back on our menu’s and in our hearts?
Rice pudding now as its own restaurant in Manhattan, New York dedicated to rice pudding – called ‘Rice to Riches’. The BBC journalist contacting me told me that Waitrose executive chef, Jonathan Moore, said that after visiting Manhattan’s rice pudding-only shop recently, Jason Atherton’s Michelan star restaurant, Pollen Street Social, and Berner’s Tavern in London have both re-invented the classic dessert. He also said sweet, savoury and embellished versions are becoming more ‘extreme’, with options at The Rice Cream Shoppe in Greenwich Village including gluten free and vegan versions. Waitrose also reported that sales of rice pudding have risen by 8% year on year.
I’m sure that in this modern day and age with dishes that look like works of art, we are all craving for something real and honest. Something which just isn’t pretending to be more than it is. Something so humble it conjures up memories of your nan, your mum or the auntie who made it especially when you were visiting. I have faint memories of my mum making rice pudding and I can remember the impatience for it to cool off and develop that glorious yellow skin which was really, the best part of the pud….
If you have visited the city of Bath, nestled in a green valley with its Roman baths, elegant Georgian townhouses and impressive circus, you might have noticed that there are two famous buns in town. Both are competing to be the oldest, most authentic, and most valuable to the city’s heritage. The Sally Lunn and the Bath Bun – they both even have their own tea room in town. Of course the notion that one of these buns is more important than the other is bollocks. At the end of the day, it’s just something to spread your butter on. I’m far more interested in both of these buns history than I am in their importance.
One bun maker claimed that the Bath bun was just simply a Sally Lunn which was slightly changed and then given the name Bath Bun for the tourists. A rather simplistic way of looking at it, but it has happened to other foods in the past. Of course in this case we are talking about two entirely different buns.
What a difference a bun makes
We know that during the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, set up by Prince Albert, 934.691 Bath buns were sold to the public. This shows they were either popular, or they were the best option! According to bun legend people remarked that the Bath bun sold in London was not exactly like the one sold in Bath and soon Bath buns in London were renamed London buns. However, mentions for London buns can be found 20 years before the Great Exhibition. So I’m fairly sure we are again talking about two different buns. To confuse things even more is that in Australia a Chelsea bun is known as a London bun.
The Sally Lunn which I will get to in another posting, is a light bun with a nice dome shaped top, it looks like a brioche but is less rich and not sweet at all. It is known since 1776. The Bath bun used to be a Bath cake in the 18th century. But although it was called cake, it was definitely treated as a bun, which according to Elizabeth Raffald The Experienced English Housekeeper, 1769 should be the size of a French roll and sent in hot for breakfast. Bath resident and cookery author Martha Bradley, gave a recipe in her book in 1756 entitled ‘Bath seed Cake’. Over the course of the 18th century eggs were added to the batter making the buns richer. In Andre Simon’s ‘Cereals: A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy’ from 1807 the recipe instructs the cook to:
Rub 1 lb. of butter into 2 lb. of fine flour; mix in it 1 lb. of caraway comfits, beat well 12 eggs, leaving out six whites, with 6 spoonfuls of new yeast, and the same quantity of cream made warm; mix all together, and set it by the fire to rise; when made up, strew comfits over them.
Jane Austen was a fan of Bath buns and promised to stuff her face with them if her sister Cassandra would not be joining her for a visit to Paragon that May….
When Florentine arrived on my doorstep, I decided not to read bits here and there and save it for a moment when I could really tuck in with greed. When I did, on a spring-like winter morning with the cats warming my feet and purring silently out of utter bliss, I read it cover to cover.
Other than the fact that Florentine is a good book, it was also written by a close friend. Emiko Davies was born in Australia but grew up in China, and after her studies in Amerika she ended up in Florence where she lost her heart to a city and a Florentine man.
Quickly she fell in love with the food on offer in la pasticceria (pastry shops), la trattoria (small eatery), il forno (bakery) and food vans in the street selling Lampredotto (tripe) for which Florence is famous. Therefore it is not surprising that the recipes of her book are divided into these chapters, adding il mercato (the market) and il maccellaio (the butcher).
It is refreshing to see a cookbook divided up differently. Too long have chapters been divided into starters, sides, mains and desserts. Florentine’s chapters tell part of the story as do Emiko’s beautiful photo’s of the city that transport you to the streets yourself and make you long for a coffee and a Sfogliatine or Bonboloncini on a white paper napkin in an old fashioned bar….
I arrived at the mansion that is the home of The Pig near Bath after a long november day. It was dark, rainy and my feet were stiff and cold from being in my red wellies for over 8 hours.
Stepping through the door at this house full of history and historical artefacts you will be slightly overwhelmed by the grandness which feels slightly out of place in this modern throw-away society. But modern it is, none the less. Although the manor looks like it has been frozen in time since the Georgean era, it was not long ago a derelict and forgotten place. The kitchen garden was no more than a gardeners nightmare but the house and its garden had been in the back of someone’s head for a long while: the current owner who opened it up once again as a hotel, naming it after my most cherished animal: the pig.
The home of The Pig is Hunstrete House and has been a hotel for many years. At one time it was managed by a husband and wife team, he did the cooking and she was the front of house. But after that it went from one owner to the next eventually falling in disrepair.
It took some love and effort to turn the house around, and the head gardner told me the kitchen garden it took 5 months of weeding before it was even possible to sow. But in march 2013 they were ready to open, and surprisingly it looks like it has been here like this for hundreds of years without having changed at all. The Pig’s philosophy evolves around the kitchen garden and a 25 mile menu. This means that all the food is either home grown, or sourced in a radius of 25 miles. The beer and cider as well, presenting a nice selection to have fun with pairing with your food. For me personally this is important as I do prefer a decent beer or cider with my food. I like to play with the flavours and it also feels so much less formal and heavy than wine. But I’m Belgian so I might be a bit biaised when it comes to beer!
I’m checked in and taken back outside along the corridor which is filled with colourful wellies, around the stately home to my room. It is pitch black, and I’m tired because I have been travelling from North Devon and had an early start that morning. The door to my room is opened and I realise I have my own little log cabin, complete with log burner, comfy chairs and a large bed with a lot of pillows. I throw myself onto the bed, legs and arms spread, it feels as if I’m being caught in the air by a fluffy cloud. Ah bliss…
Every once and a while you need that weekend away, a few days of hanging around reading books, gazing out of the window in the morning when the fog is still embracing the landscape and knowing that you are not going to do anything of much worldly importance that day. An indulging slow breakfast with more views over countryside, to see it awake and change color. Everything that bothers you in daily life becomes muted and trivial, relax mode takes over. I did a lot of writing for my book in this cosy log cabin too.
I could stay in there for a week, waking up early, having walks before breakfast on the estate watching the deer, the pigs, the chickens and then books, reading plenty of books….
A year ago, while on my never-ending quest for rare books, I stumbled upon a selection that once belonged to one great man.
Upon his death over a decade ago, his impressive library was split up and sold to the highest bidder. It was a collection of great value, which showed how this man did his research, and the thoroughness of it.
Alan Davidson was the owner of these books, and although the lot I bought was small compared to his enormous library, it already shows an insight to his train of thoughts.
Various seemingly unimportant books all decorated with his fish bookplate, on wild fruits, on citrus, on cider making and even books in Dutch and French. It is no surprise to me after spending 2 years researching pudding for my book, that Davidson spent 20 years to write that bible; the Oxford Companion to Food. Today that food bible is the first resource I grab when I am in need of an explanation. If it weren’t such a large and heavy tome, it would be my bedside reading. And it is so well respected and loved by many that facts from Davidson’s Oxford companion to food are even used in the program IQ, presented by Stephen Fry.
Although I never met him, I think I would have liked Alan Davidson for his down to earth manner. He loathed food fads and said in a radio interview in 1993:
“Haute cuisine, as they call it, is something I avoid, I am far more interested in what ordinary people eat.
And I am far more interested in producing information about say cookery in latin America, Afrika or South East Asia than adding to the already enormous pile of material about say cookery in France. I’m keen to add to the cell of human knowledge rather than just repeat.”
Davidson wrote his first book on food for his wife when they were living in Tunis – a handbook giving the names of 144 species in 5 languages with some recipes of people he met there. This was upon her request so shopping for food on the market would be slightly easier not speaking the language and not recognising most of the fish on offer.
The result was ‘Seafish Of Tunisia And The Central Mediterranean’ illustrated by art students in Laos which he published himself. Elizabeth David reviewed it in her column for the Spectator and passed it on to Penguin who published it as ‘Mediterranean Seafood’ in 1972. Tom Jayne writes in Davidson’s Obituary that Elizabeth David, ever watchful of professional values, had advised the diplomat to avoid self-publication.
In 1979 Davidson started his own publishing house called ‘Prospect Books’ and a journal of food studies Petits Propos Culinaires or PPC which was taken over by Tom Jayne in 1993. The publishing house has published some of my favourite books on food history and culture and their facsimile editions of old cookery texts have been valuable to me and many others. We can only be thankful that the team behind Prospect Books then and now have saved so many ancient and more recent books from being entirely forgotten, and that they managed to give life to new and slightly quirky books on food subjects. Titles range from ‘Noshe Djan’ (1987) a book on Afghan cookery to ‘Persia in Peckham’ (2007) and ‘Cooking & Dining in Tudor & Early Stuart England’ (2015). Prospect also publishes the proceedings of The Oxford Symposium of Food and Leeds Symposium. The Oxford Symposium was originally founded and co-chaired by Alan Davidson and Dr Theodore Zeldin. The Oxford Symposium website notes that: ‘The first Symposiasts included Elizabeth David, her editor and publisher Jill Norman, Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky of the La Varenne Cookery School in Paris, Paul Levy, Richard Olney and Professor Nicholas Kurti’.