“What’s Cooking in the British Isles?” Ensign, Sept. 1971, 65
What’s Cooking in the British Isles?
The British Isles have been invaded many times in the past—by the Saxons, the Danes, the Romans, and the Normans. The Romans built great cities and roads and taught us many things, but they neither integrated with the local people nor added anything to our culinary arts. Other invaders conquered and stayed, intermarrying and bringing with them their own traditions, speech, habits, and recipes. They all settled down quite happily and soon counted themselves British also.
Now our invaders are peaceful visitors who flock to our shores continuously and marvel at what they see; the contrasts are extreme.
Poets romanticize about our beautiful green hills and dales, peaceful streams, and quiet countryside. Some visitors prefer our towns, and they gaze at the ancient castles and cathedrals, the Roman walls, and quaint village churches. They love the pageantry and tradition that they find, especially in London.
The forbidding Tower of London, with its dark and terrible history, now houses the magnificent Crown Jewels. The guards, called Beefeaters, are dressed in red, black, and gold uniforms that have not changed since Tudor times. And at Horseguards Parade, about half a mile from Buckingham Palace, thousands gather every morning to watch and photograph the Changing of the Guard, and to follow the band down the mall to the palace.
In sharp contrast to the old, in the Midlands are found new towns and rebuilt cities, such as Birmingham and Coventry. One cannot imagine that the modern glass and skyscraper designs will last as well as the old stone walls.
Wherever you go in the British Isles, each county—indeed, each town or village—has its own dialect and its own specialties in food. Many are national favourites, like Yorkshire pudding, Irish stew, bakewell tarts, Eccles cakes, to name but a few. Others are little known outside their own country. The Welsh mountains provide delicious lamb, with flavour distinctive from lamb found elsewhere, while Devon is famous for its cream. Cheese is a national favourite too, but here again each county produces a different flavour and colour, and all are delicious.
Being an island, we have had to rely on the foods that are around us, and we enjoy what we eat. British cooking has had a reputation among visitors for being unimaginative and repetitious, but that might be the fault of the visitors themselves, because they like our traditional dishes and ask for them over and over again. We have, however, added many new recipes in recent years, especially rice and curry dishes, as we have had many immigrants from India and Pakistan. Many of our national favourites, such as steak and kidney pie and beef stew and dumplings, can be bought in tins or quick-meal packets, but apart from that and our methods of cooking, we still follow recipes and traditions that are hundreds of years old.
From the banquet halls of the Normans has come the custom of laying a white cloth and setting individual places at table. The gift of a silver mug and spoon to a newborn baby had its origin here also. From the Normans also came the idea that a waiter should carry a napkin over his arm when serving at tables. The Norman groom made a loose bag by laying a cloth over his shoulder and under his arm; this bag was filled with bread. He then went around the long tables, laying the bread at the side of each platter. Sometimes he would take another cloth and wrap each individual serving of bread in special ways—lilies for the ladies, a mitre (hat) for a bishop, or a shoe for the traveller. These shapes are still used by hostesses for folding serviettes (napkins) at special luncheons.
We tend to think that pressure cooking is a modern discovery, but cooking with a cauldron in Medieval times was really no different. Most people think that everything was thrown into the cauldron to make one gigantic stew. Not so. Those Medieval cooks were smart; an entire dinner was cooked in the one iron pot. (The same pot also provided the hot water for a bath before dinner and the washing up afterwards!) Pieces of wooden board pierced with holes were placed across the bottom of the pot, and big earthenware jars with tight-fitting lids that made them airtight were placed on the wood. This is the same principle as the pressure cooker but on a much larger scale. In addition to the meat cooking in the jars and under the board, bags of beans, vegetables, and even puddings were hung from the handle into the pot, and there was always room for a little bit more.
We are still fond of stews or casseroles in the winter, and we feel we need this kind of food to combat the damp atmosphere, but our most famous specialty is roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Folklore has it that a Yorkshire shepherd once found a fairy half-frozen to death on the moors. He gently carried her home, warmed her, and brought her back to life. In gratitude she went over to some batter that the shepherd’s wife was mixing, beat it to a fairy lightness, and placed it in the oven, and the first Yorkshire pudding was created. Now don’t be misled by the word pudding, because we actually eat this with our roast beef and pour gravy over it. If you would like to try it, here is my recipe.
4 ounces (about 3/4 cup) flour
Pinch of salt
1/2 pint (1 cup) milk
Mix flour and salt into a bowl, make a hollow in the center, and break in the egg. Stir with a wooden spoon and add the milk gradually until all the flour is worked in. Beat well and leave to stand for half an hour. Melt two tablespoons of drippings from the beef into a roasting tin, or divide it between small individual tins. Pour in the batter and bake in a hot oven (425–450°F.) about 10 to 15 minutes for small puddings or 20 to 30 minutes for one large pudding. They should rise to about three times their size and be light, crisp, and golden-brown. Serve immediately.
Our mealtimes are unique, inasmuch as we have a light meal called teatime between four and five in the afternoons, as well as lunch at midday and dinner or supper in the evenings. Usually teatime consists of some kind of sandwich, fruit and cream or trifle, and cakes.
Trifle is always an outstanding success with our visitors. It originated as a way to use up stale cakes! We can now buy special trifle sponges. We merely take a trifle of this and that, whatever we have handy. You may not be able to buy the ingredients mentioned, but continental shops should stock them. Any fruit or flavor can be used; this recipe calls for strawberries and pineapple.
1 small tin (can) strawberries
1 small tin pineapple pieces
4 trifle sponges, or enough sponge cake
to cover the bottom of a large glass serving dish
1 package strawberry jelly (similar to packaged gelatin in the U.S.)
1 package custard mix
Chocolate and nuts for decoration
Split the sponge cakes across the center and place them in the bottom of a large glass dish. Over the cakes pour the fruits and juices. Make jelly, following instructions on the packet but with slightly less water than stated to allow for the fruit juices. Pour jelly over the fruit. Leave to set. Make the custard, following instructions on the packet. Allow to cool, and then pour over the set jelly. Cover with whipped cream and decorate with grated chocolate and nuts.
If you cannot get jelly and custard, you could try this alternate recipe for a cherry trifle:
Pour cherry pie filling over sponge cakes that are covered with a cherry gelatin. When set, cover with whipped cream or evaporated milk.
Light sponge cakes are favourites at teatime, but for special occasions, such as Christmas, weddings, or birthdays, we always make a really rich, dark fruit cake, so rich that we only serve it in very small portions. Dundee cake is one of these.
10 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups) flour
4 ounces (3/4 cup) currants
4 ounces (3/4 cup) raisins
4 ounces (3/4 cup) sultana raisins
4 ounces (3/4 cup) candied orange and lemon peel
2 ounces (1 1/3 cup) whole almonds Rind of
8 ounces (1 cup) butter or margarine
8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
3 ounces (3 tablespoons) ground almonds
Pinch of salt
Sift the flour. Prepare the fruit, chop the peel, blanch and split the almonds, and grate the orange rind. Beat the eggs. Cream the butter and sugar and add the eggs and flour alternately, beating well. Add the fruit, ground almonds, grated rind, and salt, but not the split almonds. Turn the mixture into a tin that has been greased and lined with greased paper. Cover the surface with the split almonds, and bake in a slow oven for 3 hours. Remove and cool on a wire tray. Dundee cake will keep well, particularly if wrapped in greaseproof paper and stored in an airtight tin. Note: Rich fruit cakes improve with keeping. If possible make them about 6 weeks before required.
A specialty from the Midlands that is popular with all our visitors is pork pie. We eat pork pie on picnics, at cold buffets, or anytime during the year, but at Christmas especially they are always bigger and better. They take a little time and effort to prepare, but the result is delicious and worth a try. Here is a recipe that we hope you will enjoy.
Melton Mowbray Pork Pie
3 pounds pork
Salt and Pepper
3/4 pound (1 1/2 cups) lard
1/2 pint (1 1/3 cups) milk and water
2 pounds (7 cups) flour
Pinch of salt
Egg yolk and milk for glaze
Remove the skin, the bone, and gristly parts from the meat; cover them with cold water and stew gently for about 1 hour. When cold the stock will form a stiff jelly. Season and strain. Keep the stock.
Boil the lard in the milk and water; pour into the flour and salt, and mix to a soft dough, using a wooden spoon. Allow to cool slightly. Set aside about a quarter of the dough in a warm place; then knead the rest well. Grease a 7-inch tin with a loose bottom, and line it with the pastry up to 1/2 inch above the top of the tin.
Cut up the meat finely, season, and press it firmly into the pastry case. Use the rest of the pastry to make a lid and a rose and leaves for decoration. Seal the edges well, and make a small hole in the centre. Place the decoration in position over the hole. Brush over with a mixture of egg yolk and milk, and bake in a slow oven for about 3 hours. When golden-brown all over, remove from the oven and take off the rose. Using a funnel, pour in hot stock until the pie is filled; when quite cold and beginning to set, replace the rose. Serve cold.