Stay Calm with Elizabeth David


Elizabeth David.  Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

Elizabeth David. Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

“If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.”   From Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003) edited by Jill Norman, p.11.

Hooray for Elizabeth David (1913-1992).  I love her for wanting to go against the grain and, in the current frenzy of Christmas preparations, the quote above is a refreshing reminder that the simple pleasures are often the best.

Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) is often cited as the book that began to transform British cookery after the Second World War.  My Mum had a copy and I am sure we ate better because of it.   If that was the only book she wrote, it would be enough for her to qualify as a food heroine but she produced many other beautifully research books that are written in a way that makes you want to taste the food she describes.  My favourites are Summer Cooking (1955), English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) and The Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices (1994).

She knew her own mind and, although I know that she often spent Christmas with her sister’s family, I suspect that sometimes she did get her wish and retired to bed with a glass of champagne.  To find out more about her character and her rather adventurous life read Lisa Chaney’s biography Elizabeth David or the one by Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table.

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Foriegn Food


In this week’s class we looked at foreign influences on British food.  My aim was to show that today’s British food is a result of our wider history.

If you deconstruct “traditional British” foods the foreign influence becomes evident.  Today a mug of builders’ tea seems a very British thing but neither the tea nor the sugar is originally from Britain.  Similarly ginger cake can hardly be considered foreign although McVitie’s recognise its origins by labelling their version “Jamaican Ginger Cake”.  These examples illustrate how we have incorporated foreign ingredients and adapted food traditions from abroad.

In the class we touched, briefly, on the history of the East India Company and the spice trade.  The East India Company was incredibly influential in establishing the British Empire.  It also had an impact on British Food.  To find out more about the history of the East India Company listen to this episode of In Our Time.

If you want to go further back in history and understand about what happened before Britain was British then I would recommend the book A Taste of History.   This will tell you how the Romans introduced plums, cabbages, onions and much more, that citrus fruits were first imported during the late 13th century and tomatoes during the 16th century.

Red Herrings, Bloaters and Kippers


Red herrings, bloaters and kippers all begin life as herrings but are transformed by being cured in different ways.  Before electrical refrigeration curing fish by salting and smoking was an important method of preservation.

Of the three red herrings have the strongest taste.  They are made by soaking whole herrings in brine for up to three weeks and then smoking them for another two or three weeks.   This turns the flesh red.   Red herrings have been made for centuries.  In 1567 Thomas Nash wrote Lenten Stuffe, or the Praise of the Red Herring, in which he praises their keeping qualities and their ubiquity,

“… it is most precious fish-merchandise, because it can be carried through all Europe.  No where are they so well cured as at Yarmouth.  The poorer sort make it three parts of their sustenance.  It is every man’s money from the king to the peasant.”

These strongly flavoured fish have fallen out of favour but they live on in the phrase “red herring”, i.e. a misleading and irrelevant distraction.

Bloaters are a lot like red herrings in that they are not gutted or split before being cured, but bloaters are only lightly salted and lightly smoked.  The cure for bloaters is considerably quicker than for red herrings.  This produces a mild tasting soft fish which does not keep for very long.  Bloater paste, a Victorian tea time treat, was a way of extending the shelf life of bloaters.

Kipper workers in Craster, Northumberland. Photo from http://wecanmindthetime.org.uk.

John Woodger is credited with inventing the kipper in Northumberland during the 1840s.  His innovation was to split the herring along its back (not along the belly) and remove the guts.  Once this is done the herring is soaked in brine for 20-30 minutes and then smoked for 12-20 hours.  Regional variations mean that there are lots of different types of kipper.To summarise,

  • Red herrings – an old cure for whole herring that produces salty and highly smoked fish.  A good keeper.
  • Boaters – lightly salted and lightly smoked whole herrings.  Mild tasting.
  • Kippers – a 19th century innovation.  The fish are split, gutted and smoked.

Booking onto a WEA course


I started writing this blog because I will be teaching a WEA course this autumn about food history in Britain.  It will be running on Thursday mornings in Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire.  And, while blogging is fine, it is more fun to learn with other people.

The WEA in the Eastern Region is moving towards doing things on-line, for example they have recently launched themselves on Facebook and Twitter but, to book a place you still need to contact the local organiser directly.  You can do this by using committee@brookmansparkwea.org.uk .  A bit more information about the course can be found on page 10 of this PDF which is a booklet listing all the courses in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire for 2012/13.   The course I will be running is called Food Heroes and costs £60 for 10 sessions starting on 25th September 2012.   I’d love to see you there.

Electrical Trailblazer


Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Why the world needs this blog


This blog will be about some of the people who have influenced how and what we eat today.  It will focus on the last 300 years and on Britain, with the odd skirmish into other eras and geographical areas.

I am writing it because after years of rather haphazard research I am going to be teaching a course in food history from September 2012.  My plan is to use the blog to make sure that I whip my notes into some kind of order and to share the stories as I go.

I like history that connects to my life and, since we all eat, I am hoping that blogs about farming, preservation methods, the rise of food processing, changes in shops, the technology of cooking and patterns of eating out will have a wider appeal.   We shall see!