Sunday 1 March 2020

Friday 25 January 2019

Review: Anglo-Saxon Treasures at the British Library

I have been to see the Anglo-Saxons exhibition at the British Library which is full of thousand-year-old books. The first thing I would like to say is that the standard of handwriting has collapsed dreadfully in a millennia, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Right, having got that out of the way, onwards. Now I am partial to a bit of Anglo-Saxon bling and very much enjoyed the exhibition of Staffordshire treasures which came to Bristol in 2017. It’s an under-explored bit of our history, and a fascinating one. Because the Anglo-Saxons tended to build a lot in wood rather than stone, there isn’t a huge amount of their remains in existance, and we have to deduce their civilisation from other stuff they left behind, like their metalwork and books, both of which were made to an enormously high standard of art and craftsmanship. Both of these are on display in the collection of precious books displayed at the British Library.

To start with, the books on display are mostly bibles, some as old as the 7th Century. But it’s as Anglo-Saxon society starts to cohere into something that roughly resembles England that the stuff on show becomes more interesting, varied and abundant, producing history books, biographies, translations of popular European bestsellers, legal treaties and even fiction. Some of which were allegedly or reputedly the work of King Alfred the Great, or his grandson, Athelstan, a prolific gifter or books. And it’s here that the exhibition is both potentially most interesting and also somehow fails to live up to that potential. It offers the books ordered by the era and area of predominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and includes very briefly, the process of how these separate realms became formed into one: the Kingdom of England. And I couldn’t help feeling that the curators, or whoever had written the explanatory panels, had shied away from telling this fascinating, important and relevant story, for fear of coming over a little bit Ukip. Instead it was all about links to Europe and how it was a multicultural society, yes, blah blah. I know there’s no such thing as an apolitical take on history but I felt like this excesive squeamishness took away from some of the marvels on show – as well as the marvels which weren’t on show – which is the story of how the territories that became England emerged from the post-Roman chaos of the dark ages and formed themselves into a functioning, prosperous society with an intelligentsia and centres of learning.

It was also obvious how much at that time Christianity was a monastic religion, about great houses of the church, and arcane debates about Easter. The later kind of Chrsitianity which we associate with the middle ages, with its enormous Cathedrals and glittering, popular saints and miracles was a later, populist invention. Anyway, one of the jobs of these early monasteries was to produce books, and by God they were good at it. The artwork on display is stunning in its skill and luxury, and makes you realise that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in coveting a book as an item of art, rather than just to be read: it’s been going on for centuries. It’s also interesting to see how very good much of the art in the books is, with tiny fine line drawings that have none of the lack of realism of later medieval art, but show awfully real-looking people, sketched niftily in pen-and-ink, doing awfully normal things.

The exhibition also left me wondering about the technology of the book. Roman society ran on scrolls and tablets, but by the end of the dark ages the rectangular, bound manuscripts that we use today seemed normal. A letter, dating from the 9th Century, contains the remains of folds. I wondered how, and why, this technological shift had happened.

The star of the show was undoubtedly the only existing copy of Beowulf, and there was certainly some fascinating items on display and some amazing artwork to see. What it lacked was an easily understandable flow of the history behind the exhibition, that fascinating emergence of the state of England, a political edifice which still stands twelve hundred years after it was first dragged from the marshes and wrested from the hands of competing warlords. I could practically hear a roomful of curators screaming ‘Nobody mention Brexit!’ in a planning meeting, which seemed to slightly put a pall over things, since the fact that we’re still wrestling with some of the same issues around the boundaries and duties of the state, more than a millennia later, make the nation-forming struggles of the Anglo-saxons more relevant, not less.

A final note: it really was very busy. If you want to spend hours leering at the rare manuscripts, maybe try an early morning slot.

Sunday 23 April 2017

This week I will be Eating Mostly... Interwar Cookery


A little round-up, and general thoughts about what turned out to be a fortnight of cooking: I used three cookbooks for this project and I was expecting to use Complete Illustrated Cookery most as I'd used it previously. In the end I used it least as many of the recipes in it are for larger households (6-8 people). However it did contribute several good recipes including the vegeburgers. I used the Odhams book, which turned out to be written by a Lydia Chatterton (credit where it's due!) a lot more than expected. I generally found its instructions excellent although there were one or two misfires, like the dodgy quantities for the lemon cake. (Odhams Press books are mid-century gems of popular knowledge and although they look unspectacular on the outside are often filled with fascinating stuff, so if you spot one in a charity shop, do investigate.) I hadn't cooked from the Bestway cookbook before and I found it generally good but a bit vague about cooking times and temperatures.

Both the Odhams and the Complete Illustrated Cookery book were great because of the sheer volume of recipes inside, which meant that instead of choosing a recipe and buying ingredients, in most cases I was able to look at what ingredients I had and find recipes to suit. I did get in some ingredients I wouldn't normally use, mostly tinned things: pineapple, lobster, peas, as well as dried fruit and nuts. One thing both cookbooks were good on was how to re-use things so that they weren't wasted, but also aren't the same as the previous meal. I feel like this has been good for my food re-use skills. As well as putting less into the bin than usual, I was surprised to put less into the compost.

One thing I realised was that some English vegetables are massively under-rated and have unjustly acquired a bad name for various reasons. Celery, for example. I associate celery with those unpleasant, dried up sticks you get to dip into hummus. Joyless, stringy, chewy, and part of a low-calorie diet. In fact, celery is useful for all sorts of things, cooked or raw, and delicious. Ditto turnips, which are tasty and crunchy. I also realised it's ok to use glace cherries as an ingredient. I've always loved glace cherries but as a kid used to be told off for eating them from the pot as they were reserved for cake decorating purposes. In fact, there's a few things I've been put off eating by my parents insistence that they had to be eaten unadorned and unenjoyably, for some sort of moral reason.

Anyway, compared to the Edwardian cookbook I cooked from, I felt like this food was quite pleasure-oriented, more frivolous and adventurous. It was much lighter and fresher, and had a wider range of ingredients. But it wasn't just the wider range of things that made it different, it was also an attitude, a sort of embracing of experimentation that was about those decades. Speaking of experimentation, I haven't yet worked my way through the cocktail section of either of these books, a shocking omission on my part.

One thing I wanted to add a note about was breakfast. I didn't make a point of using the cookbooks for breakfast, but I usually have porridge or toast or else leftovers, so I pretty much stayed within the general spirit of the thing. I did think, looking at the breakfast menus in the cookbooks, that we have got really conservative about what constitutes a breakfast dish, as the variety suggested is much wider than what we would expect these days. In a wider sense, it was quite apparent that not only have we added things to our diet since that era, we've dropped a lot as well, and not all of them were unpleasant. I wanted to cook sorrel soup, but no idea where to get the ingredients for that.

As previously noted, one of the reasons I kept going after the planned ten-day mark was how disgustingly healthy I felt. I definitely lost a pound or two of weight, despite making 1 cake, 1 pie, 1 batch each of shortbread, scones, sausage rolls and biscuits, 1 chocolate pudding, and a large sugary fruit salad - a selection not likely to show up in many diet books. I am a bit baffled by this, but wonder if the fact I ate more protein and veg and less carbs than usual may have been behind it. Or it may have been that I expended more calories cooking and shopping, or that eating home-cooked goodies instead of bought ones made me in general feel less hungry, so I ate fewer snacks between meals. Or a combination of all three. Incidentally, as I was curious about this, I looked up the 'official' advice about what you're supposed to eat for a healthy diet. I have never seen a more jumbled and confusing set of instructions, ever.

Anyway, overall I found this little cooking odyssey a positive experience, with highlights including the haddock and lobster pie, the celery soup, the lardy chips, and the winter fruit salad. Even the vegeburgers, to my surprise. Low point was definitely the stinky kidneys, although I do have a hankering to try steak and kidney pudding, now. One of the reasons I decided to give this a go was because I learned so many new cooking skills doing the Edwardian week, and this has definitely been good both for that, and also for breaking a few bad habits! I am aware now that if I carry on in chronological order and do another one of these, the next era I land up on is WW2 cooking, which is a bit daunting and scary. I might have to gird my loins for a fight, before that.

Last Day!

Yesterday was my last day of 1930s cooking. I'm looking forward to a couple of days without cooking and/or mounds of washing up! That said, I carried on for several days longer than I originally intended to, partly because I was enjoying it, and partly because I felt much healthier than usual - less tired/hungry and more energy. I will try and post a little roundup tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

Saturday was another farmers market trip, this time to Axbridge in Somerset. I was happy to see the season for Cheddar strawberries had started. I bought a free-range chicken, as well as salad stuff, scones, and half doz duck eggs for a quid - bargain! It's a substantial bike ride so I wanted something to cook that evening that would use the freshly bought produce, and wasn't too complicated. I also fancied something more summery to eat.

When I got home I had a scone with homemade jam and cream, and a strawberry on top. The jam, although made before this particular cooking binge, is from one of these books so I thought I'd post the recipe here. You can't beat homemade strawberry jam. Ironically, it occurred to me that although we all obsess about 'old-fashioned' afternoon teas, absolutely none of the suggested menus in any of these books include afternoon tea, just breakfast lunch and dinner.

Anyway I decided to roast the chicken and have it with some potatoes and salad. I wasn't sure what to do with the potatoes but spotted this recipe for 'potato straws' or frites, as you probably know them. I was surprised as I associate old-fashioned British cooking with old-fashioned British chips. I never normally deep-fry anything, so was nervous about the pan of hot lard, convinced that I was going to set either myself or the kitchen on fire. Consequently, they took much longer to cook than I think they should have done, as I kept turning the heat down instead of up, and the chips didn't come out a nice brown colour. I was also squeamish about dropping most of a block of lard into a pan and melting it.

I also made these two salads, including the dressing. I didn't have tarragon vinegar so used balsamic, which tasted fine but made it brown. Quite a few recipes in these books include tarragon vinegar: I think I am going to make/get some. I was pretty cynical about the orange recipe while I was making it, as it just seemed to turn into an orange skin full of dressing, but I thought it would look nice on the plate. There are lots of recipes involving stuffing things in all these books, it must have been fashionable at the time.

Despite my reservations this was a great meal. The chips looked pale and interesting but tasted amazing. There was no taste of oil like you get in chip-shop chips, they tasted light and crisp and potato-ey. The fat ran off quickly and was absorbed by the paper, so they didn't seem fatty or greasy. (I've got through loads of greaseproof paper in the last fortnight - never previously realised just how useful it was) They were a hassle to cook but so delicious I think I would make chips like this again. Yup, when it comes to chips I am converted to the way of the lard. (Is lard actually bad for you, anyway?)

The chips went really well with the chicken (roast chicken is always good) and salad. The orange was actually a great combo with the chicken, the vinegary/citrusy dressing inside counteracted any oiliness that might have come from the rest of the meal. The salad was fresh and light; the cream dressing, despite its funny colour, was like a lighter sort of mayonnaise, and tasted good on the chicken and chips as well. I enjoyed this meal: I imagined it might turn up in some new and slightly art-deco seaside hotel, and be seen as fresh and continental and sophisticated in 1934, only to still be on the menu 30 years later, except without all the freshness and homemadeness that made it nice, and be sad and tired.

One of the interesting things about cooking from these books is you can see two strains of cooking going on: one is the inherited kind, the stews and suet puddings and so on, the other a newer, friskier, more inventive kind, that likes colours and unexpected flavours. I really like this as a style, and a set of ingredients: it's more diverse than the ingredients and styles in the Edwardian cookbook I cooked from last year, but not yet affected by the over-finickyness and chemical horrors that invaded post-war food.

For pudding I had rhubarb jelly I'd prepared the night before. This was basically stewed rhubarb with added gelatine. I think there's a difference between the gelatine sachets I had and the kind in the recipe, because it set so flippin' hard in the mould that I could only get it out by excavating it in lumps, with a spoon. It didn't look pretty at all. That said, it tasted alright - like solid, stewed rhubard. I ate it with cream. If I'd had to serve it to guests, I'd have been embarrassed.

Speaking of embarrassments, the shepherds pie made with the kidneys was actually nice and smelt hardly at all, so I don't know quite what went on there. I ate it for Thursday dinner/friday lunch, without any ill effects whatsoever.

Also on Friday, I wanted something fairly easy for dinner, so I made cheese and leeks, which is basically like cauliflower cheese except with leeks. It was fine, but not as good as the cauliflower version.

Day Ten/Eleven

Wednesday I'd promised to take cake into the office, so was going to have another go at treacle scones, but instead spotted this recipe for walnut gingerbread and decided to try that. It was an unusual combination of ingredients, and rose dead flat, rather than in the middle like a cake. I had the first piece hot with cream and it was awesome. Very popular in the office. Easy to make, portable, tasty: will make this again.

For dinner I'd planned this recipe with lamb kidneys, which I bought in the farmers market for a quid. Organic, too. However, when I got them out of the packet the smell of sheep piss hit like getting out of a landrover in a farmyard. As they started cooking the reek was something else. I felt queasy and left them to cook with the back door open and the door to the rest of the house closed. They looked disgusting too, and after having tossed them in seasoned flour as per the recipe, resembled something out of a zombie horror movie.

I'd also planned this chocolate pudding, which needed to go in the oven, but was scared to put it in with the kidneys in case the smell infected it.

I made mashed potatoes as well, partly to reassure myself that if the kidneys were inedible, I'd have something to eat. I checked the kidneys, and have to admit the appearance did improve as it cooked. However, when I stirred it there was still this terrible stench, so I googled 'kidneys smelly when cooking,' which at least reassured me that it was probably not an indicator of imminent ecoli. Nothing if not nervous, I sat down with my dinner.

I can honestly say this is one of the oddest eating experiences I've had in long time. When I sniffed the stew, it still smelt horrid, and made me feel a bit ill. When I actually ate it, it tasted nice: the kidneys had a good texture, sort of sweet and chewy; the sauce was mushroomy and thick. Afterwards, though, the unpleasant smell seemed to hang around in my mouth for ages, like a faint coating of sheepiness in the back of my throat. I thought I might be sick, but was fine, except that next morning, in between eating other things, the faint scent of sheep-piss would invade my tastebuds, like the ghost of some past atrocity.

Apart from this, it did seem like a pie filling in search of a pie. I am minded to exonerate the recipe, which wasn't difficult and turned out exactly like the picture. I wasn't ill, so don't think the meat was off, but I am a suspicious of the kidneys, and wonder if maybe a small organic producer doesn't know how to clean or prepare them properly. Or else they just expect people to feed them to their dogs.

Anyway because I am a masochist, and hate wasting things, and needed a night off cooking, I made the leftover kidney stew and mash into a sort of shepherds pie to eat tonight. Look, if my ancestors survived the industrial revolution I can survive two nights of stinkney stew.

The chocolate pudding was more successful, thankfully. I was expecting a cold pudding that'd come out like a mould, but it actually was more like a chocolate custard, with a little top layer of meringue on top. It was perfectly pleasant, if nothing special to look at, nicely chocolatey, and would have gone well with something like a chopped banana. Quite nice, but not convinced it was worth it on the faff to result ratio.

Today I nipped to the supermarket. I've been running out of 'staple' things all week: eggs, flour, milk, sugar, potatoes and veg. Despite the queasy kidney stew, I really do feel healthy after ten days of this, and also, to my surprise, think I may have lost a pound or two in weight. I can't work out why. It is possible I simply worked it off standing in front of the sink scrubbing at endless heaps of washing up, swearing fulsomely, but I've also noticed I've eaten less carbs like bread and pasta, and more protein and vegetables, than normal. I find it hard to believe my sugar consumption has dropped.

Anyway, partly as a result of feeling disgustingly healthy, and not having got through all the recipes I wanted to try, and also not wanting to go out on a low point, I've decided to carry on until Saturday, which'll make it a round fortnight.

Day Nine Update

Back at work today. Last week I spotted a recipe for what is basically a 1930s vegeburger, so flippantly offered/threatened to cook it for my colleague, who is vegan. She seemed unexpectedly keen, so that's what we both had for lunch today. (I live near enough the office to come home for lunch - I know, it's actually like the 1930s or something). I didn't exactly follow the recipe but tweaked it a bit. I had no peas, and substituted purple sprouting for cauliflower. To start with, I cubed vegetables and cooked them with a stock cube, then added cornflour and a teaspoon of olive oil, and let the mixture cook down with the lid off.

I cooked the veg in the morning, intending to strain off excess liquid later, but when I came back at lunchtime, what liquid there was had formed into a sort of paste around the vegetables. I smushed them up a bit with a potato masher, then tried to form the veg into a burger shape by using a cake cutter. It was no use at all, so I had to use my hands instead. It was pretty sticky - I've been noticing all week, how much sticky, visceral, tactile contact I've been having with the food I'm making - then dropped the burger shapes into a pile of breadcrumbs and grated more on top. (Tip: if you have stale bread, bung it in the freezer, it is easy to grate into breadcrumbs) Finally, I cooked them in olive oil, not deep fried but maybe a bit more oil than usual for a shallow fry, on quite a decent heat.

While I was cooking the second one, I bunged the first in the oven to keep warm as per the instructions. Another thing I've been noticing, using these recipes, is how often it says 'cook, and set aside' or 'keep warm' or 'reheat such-and-such'. Did they not know about food-poisoning, and how it develops, I wonder? Or are we just paranoid these days? I don't recall the 1930s being associated with mass outbreaks of salmonella.

Anyway I was really surprised at how good the vegeburger, sorry cutlet, turned out to be. We had it in white rolls with lettuce and chutney and it was excellent. I was worried the breadcrumbs would burn but actually they just got nicely crunchy. Vegan colleague was favourably impressed. A very pleasant healthy lunch, far better than a tasteless, soy-based burger. Also, a good way to use up leftover vegetables. Only word of warning: I wouldn't try and grill these, they don't hold together well until the frying starts to get going, and would definately not keep their shape.

Day Eight Update

Monday was a bank holiday (sorry, US readers) and also a friend's birthday do, so I offered to cook some things for it. The birthday was originally supposed to be in the garden, but a torrential thunderstorm caused a last minute relocation to the pub. Fortunately the pub in question doesn't do food so didn't mind us sitting there munching.

I decided to use the rest of the puff pastry making sausage rolls, and if I had enough, vol-au-vents, as well as Macedoine Salad and a Lemon Layer Cake. I used pork sausages and baked them for about 20-25 minutes. Each full-sized sausage chopped up nicely into 3 party-sized sausage rolls. I baked the vol-au-vent cases at the same time. These were not actually difficult: you cut one whole round of pastry, followed by another, a smaller round out of that, then paste the two together with a bit of egg. They came out well though if I had wanted to stuff them more substantially I would have used thicker pastry for the upper layer. I was going to stuff them with chicken but didn't have time, and instead filled them with stilton and thin slices of celery. Both these and the sausage rolls were great and went down pretty quick once they got to the pub.

I also made a Macedoine Salad which is in both cookbooks in slightly different variations. It's basically cold cubed potatoes, turnip and carrot in mayonnaise, plus any other vegetables you have to use up. I added leftover cooked purple sprouting, spring onions, and chopped radishes, and put it all on a bed of lettuce with leftover asparagus on top. The radishes were great, and one thing that one book said about radishes is that you can eat the leaves, which I never heard before. So I washed a few radish leaves, got rid of any grotty ones, and put them in with the lettuce. I thought they were eminently edible, and would do this again instead of chucking them in the compost. I liked this salad, and birthday girl loved it, but some people turned their noses up - whether because they don't like salad, or at it's specific appearance, I don't know. Anyway it was the only thing that half of it came home again.

I also made lemon layer cake. The cake bit of this was totally straightforward. The filling on the other hand gave me a bit of hassle. It's basically lemon curd, and I couldn't get it to set properly. This may have been because I was nervous after the lemon-scrambled-egg incident. It did thicken, but it definitely wasn't as thick as it should be. When I came to 'spread' (ie pour) it on the middle of the cake, a lot just ran down and pooled around the sides, and I had to scoop a load up and back into the bowl. On the plus side, I now have a quantity of (runny) lemon curd to do something else with. The icing instructions said 12oz of icing sugar and I thought that seemed loads, so I used 6oz. The icing was just lemon juice and icing sugar. I usually make butter icing but this was very easy and simple and tasted nice. In the end, the cake was a success, but I felt annoyed with the cookbook: the quantities were clearly way off.

I am not responsible for the goat: my friend keeps goats so that was one of her birthday presents.

Day Six/Seven Update

Yesterday I went to Stroud, which gave me a chance to go to the farmers' market. Although British asparagus hadn't appeared in the supermarket in Bristol, there were stalls selling heaps of it, as well as other vegetable delicacies like British rhubarb and purple sprouting. Also lots of other veg that met the criteria of what you should look for in a vegetable, according to these old books, (break with a snap instead of bending, come with the green tops on and not wilted, not be dry or withered, in case you were wondering). It all looked mouthwatering and enticing in the way that supermarket veg just don't. I think it's a shame that we've lost all the local supply chains that could supply fresh, seasonal produce, and the fact that vegetables look horrible instead of appetising encourages people to eat other, less healthy things, instead.

Speaking of less healthy things, I also went to Walkers Bakery, which is totally old-school, and - do not snigger - bought a cream horn. Partly because I had been reading the recipe for pastry horns in the Odhams cookbook, and it occurred to me I'd never had one. Nor had I ever cooked one. I assumed you needed special implements, but apparently you can make one by wrapping the pastry around a carrot and then removing the carrot afterwards. Don't tell me you don't learn things you'll never need to know, reading this blog. Anyway it was yummy, although I felt a bit filthy eating it in the street.

Over lunch, I told my mum that I was thinking of trying to make puff pastry and asked if she had ever made it. Her response was that she had learned to cook in the early 50s and there wasn't a lot of butter around, which surprised me. It's easy to forget how long rationing went on after the war. I can remember my grandmother, who must've learned to cook in the 20s, making things with lots of butter and lard. Incidentally, I saw yesterday that Unilever are about to sell their margarine brands as people aren't buying margarine so much any more, which is excellent news as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, I really wanted something nice for saturday dinner and I'd set my heart on this recipe: haddock and lobster pie, which is basically fish pie with a puff pastry lid. I'd never made puff pastry before, although I can make normal pastry. When I read the recipe as text it made no sense, but then I spotted this helpful set of photo instructions. The recipe was 12oz plain flour, 8 oz butter, but I halved that as I didn't want all that wasted if I messed it up. It feels weird rolling out butter with a rolling pin and you have to make it really floury to work. Neither the butter nor the pastry sheets came out in neat squares like in the picture, but I just tried to cover the layers in a way that made sense. It certainly took more time than regular pastry but I found these an excellent set of instructions, and it wasn't actually difficult. The resulting pastry was malleable and easy to handle. I cut the pastry lid and put the rest in the fridge in a piece of greaseproof paper.

To make the fish pie I poached the haddock (a fancy way of saying put it in a pan and covered it in milk to cook) then used the milk to make white sauce. Then I separated the haddock into chunks. Ironically this was way more hassle than the pastry: there were lots of tiny bones I had to pick out with my fingers, which took ages. The recipe basically just stated haddock, tinned lobster, white sauce and puff pastry, but I added a few extra things: parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and a smidgen of cheddar cheese. I then layered the fish and the tinned lobster and the sauce and stuck the pastry on top. It didn't specify a time or heat setting but I put it on gas mark 5.

I was nervous while it was cooking but I have to say the result was bloody amazing. Everything about this was fantastic: the puff pastry was snappy and crispy on top, melting in the middle, and soaked up the sauce at the lower layers. It was quite different from the puff pastry you get on a pre-cooked thing, more like what you'd get on a good strudel or baklava. The haddock and lobster combo was rich and tasty and fishy and peppery. I wasn't sure if a small tin of lobster would hold its own against a large piece of smoked haddock, but it did, and made a much pinker, sweeter taste than a normal fish pie. Despite being disparaging about the tiny tin for £1.10, I would buy this again. Its flavouring capacity outweighed its bulk, and gave the whole thing a definite tinge of luxury. I ate the pie with plain boiled purple sprouting and a glass of white wine and can honestly say it was the best meal I've had in months. As a dish it did somehow have a very 30s feel to it, a sort of hedonistic yet simple luxury, so I imagined eating it on a lovely wooden yacht, drinking champagne while watching the coast go by.

For what it's worth this is an unusual recipe: a quick google on haddock and lobster pie revealed no results whatsoever. I absolutely would make this again: it was 'special occassion' cookery, but very much worth the effort involved, and guaranteed to impress anyone you cooked it for. I was also very pleased with how the pastry turned out. I also attempted a pudding, but it hadn't set in time so I decided to leave it until Sunday to sort that out.

Day Four/Five Update

Tuesday night I made Treacle Scones, from the Bestway book. I fancied this recipe because it struck me as unusual. This was quick and easy up to the point when I had to roll out the dough and realised that the maths involved just didn't work. Three-eighths of an inch is very thin, and given the quantity of dough, was either going to make a massive flat piece of dough, or loads more than 6-8 scones. So I tried one batch at the 3/8 thinness, with about half the dough cut into six. The other half I cut in four, rolled much thicker. There was no specific cooking time or heat, so I bunged them in at gas mark 5.

After a few minutes I opened the oven and whipped out one of the thin scones. It was fantastic: dark, crumbly, soft and treacly and not oversweet. At this point I made a mistake: I wasn't sure if it was done enough and decided to leave the scones another five minutes. When I got them out, the thin ones were definitely overdone, and the thick ones were heading towards it. The thin ones were ok hot, and I ate two with jam and cream dobbed on top, as they were too thin to cut up and were more like sconey biscuits. In the morning, the remaining thin scones were too hard to eat and I had to chuck the other three. The thick ones were OK, but I wish I'd just taken the whole lot out of the oven on the first look. I'd mentioned to work colleagues that I might bring scones in but as they were a bit substandard, I didn't bother. There were complaints about non-provision of scones, so I promised to make another batch next week, when hopefully I will get it right. I have to say these would be perfect for Hallowe'en/Bonfire night, and apart from my overcooking them, were quick to make. Also, they made the kitchen smell great.

Thursday is my end-of-office week, so I wanted to cook something nice. I hadn't planned to follow any of the set menus, but this one kept catching my eye as it was next to the index page in the Odhams Book. It sounded achievable, and involved several things I like, so I decided to give it a go. When I looked up the recipes I realised the index was a bit sketchy: there was no recipe for lemon blancmange listed, and I couldn't find the stuffed potatoes there either, though I did locate them in the section on vegetables. I couldn't find a recipe for lemon blancmange anywhere, so I wasn't sure if they expect you to make it from a packet. I did find a recipe for lemon sauce, and decided on that instead.

Anyway, the stuffed potato is basically a baked, restuffed potato so I put that in to bake first, then set about the celery soup. This was amazingly easy, involving only celery, onion, water, milk, butter and a stock cube. It starts with basically steaming the vegetables in a pan with butter, which is a technique used in the Edwardian cookbook I used last time as well. I don't understand why this isn't in modern cookbooks, unless it's because people are scared of butter. Maybe because it feels counter-intuitive; you keep expecting the contents to burn, which they don't as long as you keep the lid on. They just get all steamed and buttery, which must be a really good way of keeping the nutrients (and taste) in. You then add water, cream it and add milk. I used a handheld food processor, which is great, but I also had a look at the instructions in the cookbook of how to achieve the same result without a processor, which is to sieve it. It looks a horrific amount of hassle, not to mention washing up.

While this was on I stewed a pear and I found ingredients for the lemon sauce. I also decided to clear the dining table, which was covered in the general detritus of the week. At that point I remembered the book contained instructions on how to lay the table, and decided to go for it, because if you're going to cook a nice meal it seems a shame to eat in the middle of mess.

The book did have instructions on laying a place for one. As I was attempting this, I wondered who would go to all this hassle just to lay a single place. I supposed it would be a wife getting dinner for a husband late home, or a son come back from somewhere, and I thought about what a lot of effort it was, and how loved and welcomed you'd feel if somebody did that for you, assuming you weren't the sort of boor who never noticed nice things at all.

One of the effects of doing all this cooking is that you start thinking about food and its significance in the way that you don't, usually. Earlier that evening I'd gone to the supermarket and while in the queue was entertaining myself by working out what you can work out about other shoppers by the contents of their baskets. A great deal, in fact: it's actually a weirdly intimate thing to do in public, like exhibiting your laundry basket. You can pretty much tell whether people are single or coupled (miserably or happily) part of a family, how much disposable income they enjoy, where they sit on a sort of hedonism to hairshirtism continuum, and whether they even use a kitchen, or just a microwave. You can tell whether they take care of themselves and those about them.

Anyway I was pondering this as I was laying the table and thinking about the interminable sieving of celery soup that I wasn't having to do, and how much effort and skill it took to cook from scratch every day (even most days) and all of the hassle of washing up and how no way would I do this every week even though unquestionably I feel healthier and have eaten more healthily than I normally do. And how it really did take one person running the home to keep this up week in week out, and how women (and everyone) got to considering that a crappy deal because its boring and low status. But I go out to work, and that's boring and low status as well, and I wondered if we'd made a terrible mistake, getting rid of the low-status work of doing the caring and effort ourselves, in-house, and whether we shouldn't have just got rid of the low-status instead of getting of getting rid of the work, because in reality it's difficult and high-skill and requires organisation and patience and a variety of technical abilities that nobody bothers with any more. And I thought about how loved you'd feel to come home to a table all laid with flowers and a home-cooked three-course meal and I wondered if when we buy treats from the supermarket it's not really the food we're trying to buy, it's that feeling of being cared for that you get when somebody takes the time and effort to make sure you're fed and warm and welcomed. And of course you don't get it, because everyone knows that buying your loved one a chocolate cake from the supermarket, while not unwelcome, is in no way equivalent to the emotional hit you'd get if they actually made it themselves. But of course mostly people don't have time for that, because time is what people don't have, and I wondered where the time had gone, instead, and how we let it get taken away from us.

And I wondered if it was because somewhere along the line society had got re-ordered by those who had never had to sieve soup or make pastry, and so consequently they thought this was a dumb job that could be replaced by a machine. And because they held all these soup-and-pastry-makers in low esteem they thought they could be got rid of and set to something more useful instead. And whether that wasn't a horrid mistake that actually removed something utterly necessary from society, so that we're all trying to get our self-esteem and sense of belonging from a chilled packet from the supermarket, instead. Anyway, I don't have answers to these questions, so the moral of this story is it's weird how making soup can send you off into a three-hour train of thought about patriarchy, feminism, technology, and emotional well-being, and if only they'd had another teller on the checkout in Lidl, or if the guy in front me hadn't been conspicuously buying food to go with his alcohol, none of this would've happened.

Anyway the celery soup was delicious. Really exceptionally good, like something you'd get in a posh French restaurant, and I am cross that no-one told me how to make it before given how ludicrously easy it was. It was also very cheap, and is certainly going on my staple recipes list. The stuffed potato (I used cheese and mushrooms, with butter and some mushroom ketchup) was also good, the mushrooms kind of steamed inside the potato. It also got round one of the technical problems of baked potatoes (look, I eat a lot of baked potatoes) which is when all the butter melts and runs out and pools in the dish instead of the potato, because the butter was contained in the skin. It was quite contained in a way that a normal baked potato isn't, so could be a good dish for parties, or if people were wandering round eating. Also, will cook again. I'm not going to post the recipe as it's a no-brainer.

The stewed pear was perfectly nice. The lemon sauce took loads of faffing, wouldn't set, and when I turned the heat up, turned into lemon-flavoured scrambled egg. Lemon flavoured scrambled egg is surprisingly edible, and I was really hungry by then, but that will not be reappearing on my cooking list. Non, no, nyet.

I haven't eaten the 43g tin of lobster, yet.

Day Two/Three Update
Slight miscalculation yesterday as I'd planned to make oxtail soup. However I got home from work at 7pm and merrily gathered the ingredients before spotting the instructions 'boil for three hours'. Having swiftly taken stock I realised I didn't have a backup dinner plan and it was plough on or... well not much really, so I decided to carry on in the hope that the three hour thing was optional. Anyway, the ingredients looked very wholesome and peasanty. (I added the barley, which wasn't in the recipe, as I had loads I wanted to use up). It wasn't a lot of hassle to cook - apart from the time taken stewing.

By 8.30 I was ravenous so I went through the cookbooks looking for something to make in the meantime. I came upon this: I didn't have cream cheese, but I did have stilton, as well as the other ingredients, so I knocked together a salad. It was delicious, and staved off starvation until the soup was done.

After about half the recommended time, I sat down to a bowl of soup. It was nice, but also not like I expected, so I wasn't sure if I'd somehow got the recipe 'wrong'. It was light and fragrant, and didn't have the strong 'beefy' taste I remembered from when I'd previously had oxtail soup. It tasted of cloves and herbs and of vegetables as much as of meat. Anyway I ate it quite happily (also for wednesday lunch and dinner) but feel like I'd have another go at cooking it at some point, and see if turns out the same. I ate it with what the book called 'sippets' from the section entitled 'Things To Do With Stale Bread'. I'd run out of bread, but had some white sliced in the freezer, which I fried in quarters. It was tasty and crunchy, a great way to despatch some past-it slices.

I was also going to make some treacle scones but due to the problems with the oxtail soup, decided to bump that forward a day.

Started this on Sunday, and is now the end of Wednesday. Can report that I feel:
a) Disgustingly healthy, with more energy than I usually would at this point of the week and
b) Really hacked off with doing loads of washing up.

Day One/Two Update

Today I've been on the leftovers, so nothing to report, yet. Yesterday I wanted to go for a bike ride and take packed lunch, so thought I'd do this dubious sounding concoction, Egg, Cheese and Banana Salad. Now I'll freely admit I picked this for ewwww value, but it also piqued my curiosity. I halved the quantities and made it straight in a box, so what I ended up with was basically a little lettuce basket with the ingredients in the middle. Reader, it was delicious. The cheddary taste went well with the sweetness of the banana and the eggs; the lemon juice just added enough freshness to stop it being too gloopy, and the crispy lettuce was a great contrast. It also occurred to me that if you didn't do bread but still wanted some carbs as well as protein and veg, this is actually a great lunch to take to the office/on the train. 10/10, an unexpected win, and very easy to make.

For dinner I made this, and was quite looking forward to it. What I hadn't reckoned on was not having a mincer. I chopped up the meat fine, but then came to mincing the aubergines. Raw aubergine, I now realise, has a weird rubbery texture and when I tried to chop it up with a handheld blender-thingy it just compressed weirdly and refused to give in. I had to chop it up small with a knife. Anyway I baked the results, and ate them along with rice. It wasn't a disaster but it also wasn't anything special, quite bland, and looked dry, although as a matter of fact, underneath the breadcrumbs, it wasn't especially. Verdict: way too much aubergine wrangling for an edible, if entirely undistinguished, result.

For dessert, I did better, with this unusual fruit salad which intrigued me. It was very pretty, a nice cheery yellow, interspersed with bright red grapes and cherries. I put the walnuts on whole. It was quite sugary due to the sauce, which was the only bit I had doubts about. First, there was more sugar than needed, second there was too much sauce, and third I couldn't understand the point of the 'boil then boil again' instructions. However I wouldn't leave out sugar or sauce entirely, as it made the sharper elements like orange and pineapple nice and tasty. All in all, an excellent combination of crunchy things like cherries and apples, with softer, blander fruits. With the cherries, sherry, orange and walnuts it tasted kind of Chrismassy: I would definitely make this at Christmas if I had guests, and maybe serve with ice-cream. Full disclosure: my hand might have slipped a bit when I added the sherry. Yesh. No regretsh.

Ever since I spent a week living out a Victorian cookbook last year, I've been wanting to do the same thing with another decade, and this week being otherwise a particularly boring one, seemed a good time to try. Having resisted the blandishments of the 1970s I opted for the 20s/30s. I have three cookbooks from that era so decided to use a combination of the three, and also to spread the enterprise over ten days, partly because last time I found it knackering having to blog every day. This will allow me to basically cook for two days, which is normally what I do anyway.

Out of the three cookbooks, there's only one I'd cooked from before, the Complete Illustrated Cookery Book (1934). As a matter of fact this book is my go-to tome if I want a classic British recipe, but it is definitely aimed at a professional cook rather than a housewife. Despite being called 'illustrated', it mostly isn't. The second is Modern Cookery Illustrated (Odhams Press) which isn't dated but I'd guess is immediately pre-war. Modern Cookery Illustrated is aimed at the solidly prosperous middle-class family, and is the only one of the three to include gas and electric cooking temperatures. I'd never used it before, partly because of the dismal quality of the photographic illustrations, which make food look entirely unappetising. However, once I started looking at the recipes, I realised there was actually a lot of nice stuff in there I'd like to try. It also has lots of useful info like seasons for vegetables and which vitamins each contain. It also has menu suggestions and a useful thing I've never seen before: a list of what shopping you'd need to do each day to follow them, which would take the brainwork out of food planning. There's also a list of common 'fails' with specific dishes and what causes them. These are both brilliant ideas that modern cookbook writers should emulate.

The third is The Bestway Gift Book, which is obviously aimed at a younger woman who has just got married and set up house, and has lots of attractive pictures. It's the only one clearly intended as present, and as such is quite focused on sweets/treats rather than daily standards.

Anyway I decided to be less 'planned' than last time, partly because I had three books to play with, and partly to follow the advice in the Odhams Press book to buy what looked fresh and wholesome. I went to the greengrocer, where it was immediately obvious that much of the vegetation completely failed to meet the standards laid out in the book. Ditto the vegetables in the supermarket. I bought bacon from the butcher and some oxtail to make oxtail soup, and went to Sainsbury's, emerging at the till looking like I was doing the shopping for my great-aunt who's been dead since 1963.

One thing I did notice in all the cookbooks is that seafood I can't afford appears as a common staple: oysters, sea-bream, lobster. At this point I got cross that I had never in my life eaten lobster, so I bought a 43g tiny tin for £1.10. I'm puzzled as to how on an island all these things got impenetrably expensive, when they clearly didn't use to be. Answers on a haddock skin, please.

Anyway, I thought I'd want something to snack on during the week, so I kicked off by making these biscuits from the Bestway book. They were easy to cook, look classy and taste very pleasant, although I think they would have benefited from a pinch of salt. Would be ideal to take to a party or suchlike as a break from the endless cupcakes. But be careful, they cook really quickly.

Friday 17 February 2017

Review: Lace in Fashion, Bath Fashion Museum

If you are going to the Fashion museum in Bath any time in 2017 you have an extra treat in store as they have an exhibition on all about Lace in Fashion. As well as modern designer pieces there are some going back to the 16th Century, when lace was rare, expensive and handmade. It then moves forward to the modern day, when lace is made by machine.

There's a couple of lovely Jane Austen-esque dresses, which as well as being beautiful are also simple and elegant, and look comfy to wear. Alas, this is soon subsumed in the high Victorian era of too much everything, swiftly followed by these ultra-fashionable late Victorian pieces which are just ouch. Fortunately World War one comes along and women are soon able to breathe again, in a variety of elegant and comfy drop-waisters which are also wonderfully tasteful.

Sadly the whole 'less is more' ethos of the inter-war years goes missing again in the 1950s, and while there's a couple of lovely 1950's lace frocks (including one owned by Princess Margaret, designed by Norman Hartnell) there's also a couple of horrors. Layers of tangerine lace do not for elegance make. The modern items in the exhibit are probably the least interesting, though I did swoon over a lovely, lovely pink and green dress by Alberta Ferretti.

If there's one thing I'd have liked some more of it's the background information about the lace and how it's made. I was curious about the huge handmade lace efforts of the Victorian era – it's easy to know about the kind of women that wore them, but what about the women that made them? Were they skilled, well-paid artisans, or slaving away in a factory? The dresses are amazing but I felt they were slightly bereft of stories – like this beautiful dress, knitted by a lady's grandmother in the 1930s as a wedding dress, eventually used for the wedding in 1946. What happened? Was the 1946 wedding to the man she was planning to marry in the 1930s, or someone else entirely? And what happened in between? And there's the lovely flapper dress, made in France, worn by an Indian Rani – who was she, and what happened to her? Clothes are an intimate part of women's lives, and as such if you're interested in women's history then any history of fashion is always fascinating. But I'd have appreciated a little more about the lives behind the fashion, as well. 

Admission to Lace in Fashion is included in the museum entry price.