Sunday, November 20, 2005

Grasmere Gingerbread from Cumbria

Today is 'Stir-up Sunday', the traditional day for making your Christmas pudding to give it time to mature. I shall be in Portugal this Christmas, so will not be making a pudding this year (not that it is an annual event in this household). Instead I will be making something sweet and spicy, just the thing for a frosty day in London.

Grasmere is a small town within the very beautiful English Lake District, in the county of Cumbria. Cumbria was formed in 1974 from the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The food heritage of Cumbria is therefore also that of these older regions.

On the north-east coast not far from Grasmere are the ports of Whitehaven and Milnthorpe. From the 16th and 17th centuries both were involved in trade with the Caribbean. In the 18th century Whitehaven was the third largest port in Britain, only London and Bristol were larger. Spices, unrefined sugars and rum were brought to port, and these commodities became ingredients in the food of the region. Gingerbreads are made throughout the north of England, but what makes the gingerbread of Grasmere different is that it resembles a crumbly biscuit rather than a cake (or bread).

In 19th century Grasmere gingerbread was used as a payment to rush bearers (usually children) who furnished the local church of St. Oswald with rushes to cover the unpaved floor. When the floor was finally paved there was no longer a need for the rushes, but they were still brought into the church for decoration and for display at festivals. The gingerbread likewise became associated with special events in the church calendar, such as the feast of St. Oswald on August 5th.

The poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, lived in Grasmere during the first years of the 1800s. Dorothy Wordsworth records in her journal a trip to buy gingerbread (an old-style blog!). The gingerbread for sale locally was available in either thin or thick forms; the Wordsworths set off to buy thick, but could only find thin (just an excuse to eat twice as much by my reckoning).

In 1854 a Grasmere lady by the name of Sarah Nelson started making her own version of gingerbread based on Lancashire recipes. She needed to boost her family's income, and decided that baking was the way forward (how right). Her (top-secret) recipe was a run away success and is still baked today and sold in the shop that Sarah set up. Sarah Nelson's name has become a trademark, and her gingerbread is probably the biscuit which most people think of when they think of Grasmere gingerbread. Even Tom Cruise has eaten it.

The oldest recorded recipes for Grasmere gingerbread make use of oatmeal or ground oats (a locally grown cereal). I am going to bake two batches of gingerbread - the first will follow the older form of the recipe and include oatmeal and flour in equal measure. The dry ingredients are mixed with melted butter and it is sweetened with light brown soft sugar. I have decided to make this into a thin biscuit.

The second recipe uses flour only, into which butter is rubbed. This recipe includes a small amount of golden syrup, which means that the recipe can only date from the 1880s when golden syrup was first produced as a by-product of sugar refining. The gingerbread also uses a dark brown sugar so the biscuit will have a darker colour than the first. I am going to make this second gingerbread thicker than the first.

Both recipes are from Jane Grigson's 'English Food' book (pp340-341).


250g plain flour or fine oatmeal (or 125g of each - which is what I did)
125g pale soft brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
150g lightly salted butter

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
2. Line a oblong tin with baking parchment - mine was roughly 19.5cm by 29.5cm and was as deep as a swiss-roll tin.
3. Mix the dry ingredients together.
4. Melt the butter and add to the dry ingredients.
5. Spread the mixture over the tin in a thin layer, pressing it down lightly.
6. Bake until golden brown - about 30/35 minutes.
7. Mark into squares/rectangles as soon as you have taken the tin from the oven, but allow to fully cool in tin before removing gingerbread.


250g wholewheat flour
1/2 teaspoon each of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar
3 generous teaspoons of ground ginger
175g butter
150g soft dark brown sugar
1 dessertspoon of golden syrup

1. Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3.
2. Line a square cake tin - mine was approx. 21cm sq.
3. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and ground ginger into a bowl.
4. Rub in the butter, then add the sugar and the golden syrup.
5. Press the mixture into the tin (the mix is fairly dry and crumbly looking but don't panic!).
6. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden brown.
7. As above, mark out the biscuits as soon as the tin comes out of the oven, but then leave to cool. Both sets of biscuits harden as they cool.

The resulting biscuits were quite different. Recipe no.1 produced a biscuit (on the left in the image below) which was very buttery with a subtle ginger flavour. The biscuit was crisp and the texture was quite open and crumbly. I liked the inclusion of the oatmeal, and felt that this added to the consistency of the biscuit. Very nice.

The biscuit from recipe no.2 (on the right in the above image) was much denser, with a slightly chewy centre. The flavour was deeper, with the fireyness of the ginger coming through strongly. I found that this biscuit dried out too much around the edge of the tin, so the baking time could have been reduced slightly. I prefered the 'bite' of the first biscuit, and the simplicity of the recipe will certainly ensure that I bake it again! Both biscuits would be just the thing after a long day hiking around lakes or up a mountain or two, or tucked into a lunchbox to enjoy halfway through the journey. My journey today was from the kitchen to the sofa, but that didn't dent my appreciation!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

1916 Trench Cake - Remembrance Sunday

This posting is perhaps as good an example of 'baking for Britain' as you can get. The recipe is from Elizabeth Craig's book 'Economical Cookery', first published in 1948. Ms. Craig was a prolific writer of cook-books from the 1930s through to the 1960s. The necessary restrictions practiced during both World Wars meant that she was in a position to be quite an expert on economical cookery. The recipe entitled '1916 Trench Cake', is no doubt included in this volume as the enormity of both World Wars would still be fresh in the minds of most people, and of course rationing was still in place post-World War II. The cake contains no eggs, and has a modest amount of cocoa powder to add a touch of luxury (and extra calories) to a fruit cake which was destined for the boys on the front line during World War 1.

225g plain flour
110g margarine
75g currants
2 teaspoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
75g brown sugar
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint milk
Suggested extra flavourings - nutmeg, ginger, grated lemon rind (I used a pinch of ground nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger)

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease and line your cake tin (don't use anything too large as the above quantity of ingredients makes up a fairly scant volume of mix - my tin was 18cm diameter and this was a bit too big).
2. Rub the margarine into the flour. Add the other dry ingredients and mix well.
3. Add the soda to the vinegar and milk, and then quickly add to the dry ingredients. Beat well and then turn into the tin.
4. I found my cake was baked in about an hour, but the recipe suggests up to 2 hours.

All parcels sent from home to the trenches in France must have been much appreciated for the contact they gave soldiers with loved ones, but one can imagine how much a young man must also have enjoyed a chance to vary his rations with something as modest, but otherwise unobtainable, as a slice of home-made cake. Food served to soldiers in the trenches generally consisted of bread (stale by the time it reached the front line), hard biscuits (inedible unless soaked), bully beef (similar to corned beef), tinned butter, tinned jam, tinned pork with beans (beans with a piece of pork fat on top). Soldiers may have been able to buy food locally to add to these rations. Those who could afford it had hampers sent out to them from Harrods or Fortnum & Mason(!), but such luxury was beyond the means of the average Tommy.

The army recognised the importance of postal deliveries to troop morale and packages sent from home could expect to reach soldiers in France or Belgium within two or three days, and a week to ten days reach the front line. A fruit cake, well wrapped, would travel well and stay fresh. Such was the comradeship between the men, that the contents of any parcel would be shared out. Cigarettes were handed round, new socks passed onto a man whose own had fallen to pieces, and a cake like this would have been divided up and shared.

To test the keeping power of this recipe I baked the cake last Sunday, and stored in wrapped in foil within a plastic cake box. Unfortunately when I came to taste it I did find it a little dry, but this may well be the nature of the cake. The margarine rubbed into the flour didn't combine too well with the other ingredients, so the sponge was speckled with paler flecks. The small amount of cocoa powder helped the colouring, and the dash of spice lifted the flavour. However, my real reason for baking the cake was not to test the recipe, but as a modest act of remembrance.

In memory of my great-grandparents who served in the 1914-1918 war:

My maternal great-grandad Frederick William Smith (father to my grandma), served with the Royal Norfolk Regiment in the First World War in France and was taken prisoner. He died on 18 October 1926.

My other great-grandad on my mother's side was William Holway Pitts. He joined the Territorial Army pre-war and served in the Royal Devon Regiment. As he worked in the Post Office before the war he served behind scenes doing postal duties for the Army. He became a Sergeant.

On my father's side, great-grandad James John Graham Coggin, born 1870, served and survived without injury. When the war started he would have been 44. He was by occupation a baker and confectioner, so was in a civilian job that had to continue. At some point in the conflict he volunteered for the army, and we believe he was sent to the Dardenelles / Gallipoli region.

Herbert Sydney Salmon, my father's grandfather on his mother's side, had been in the army and served in South Africa in the Boer Wars. He was born in 1876 so would have been of a suitable age, and taking into account his military experience is likely to have served again.

Fortunately all four men returned home safely.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Remember, remember the 5th of November...

...For my first meeting with other UK food bloggers. A rendezvous set up by Sam of Becks Posh Nosh (Sam is a Brit abroad, but she was in the UK over the last few days along with boyfriend Fred), so a big THANK-YOU is due to her! Nine of us (ten including Fred) met in Gordon's Wine Bar, just off the Strand in central London. We all enjoyed a glass or two of wine together, and a chat. I was delighted to meet Andrew of Spittoon (thank-you for your nice comments about my fledgling site), Celia of English Patis, Christina of The Thorngrove Table, Jeanne of Cook Sister, Johanna of Passionate Cook, Keiko of Nordljus, Nick (Monkey Gland) of Jam Faced, and of course Sam and Fred.

Sam very kindly bought us all a gift all the way from San Francisco. A sampling of two exquisite chocolates from chocolatier Michael Recchiuti. This was such a nice thing to do that I thought the chocolates deserved some blog space to themselves.

First, there was the cute little box (the best things come in these...):

Then the box opened to reveal its delectable contents:

Burnt Caramel, Michael Recchiuti's signature flavour. His initials decorate this chocolate:

So I made myself an espresso - a suitably dark and bitter flavoured companion to this chocolate:

Then one thing led to another - the second chocolate is Lemon Verbena infused ganache, enrobed in a delicate shell of bittersweet chocolate:

Dammit, where did they go?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Trifle, or Madeira Cake recycled

Taking my inspiration from the title of the cookbook 'Economical Cookery' (Elizabeth Craig, 1950), I turned some of my less than perfect Madeira cake into four small trifles. Being the thrifty housewife I made use of ingredients from my storecupboard for this exercise in economy: tinned raspberries (in juice), blackcurrant jelly, Bird's custard (in a carton), double cream (fresh). The tinned raspberries I usually stick on my porridge, for which they are fine. In the trifle they looked anemic and they didn't have the same consistency as fresh fruit (OK they were a bit mushy, but set into the jelly I don't think they were too awful). The cubes of Madeira cake stayed pretty firm even after a good soaking with raspberry juice, so was a pretty good choice of sponge for trifle making. Anything topped with custard AND cream is usually fairly edible, and so these trifles proved to be. I shall return to Ms. Craig's book for a posting in the near future.