East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food Blog


The National Achives has recently released journals and diaries compiled by Royal Navy surgeons and assistant surgeons between1793 - 1880. Amongst other things – including lightning strikes, shark attacks and shipwrecks – these refer to the effects of scurvy, the condition caused by deficiency of Vitamin C that can cause anaemia, gum disease with bleeding, and pains in the muscles and joints.

A safeguard against scurvy

A safeguard against scurvy

This was not a problem on board ships during short journeys, but on one voyage to the Pacific in the 1740s to raid Spanish shipping, all but one of six ships and two thirds of the crews were lost, most of the latter to the effects of severe scurvy. As well as its physical effects, this was said to have heightened the senses to the extent that ‘the sound of a gunshot was enough to kill a man in the last stages of scurvy, while the smell of blossoms from the shore could cause him to cry out in agony. This susceptibility of the senses was accompanied by a disposition to cry at the slightest disappointment, and to yearn hopelessly and passionately for home’ (BBC History in-depth, Captain Cook and the scourge of scurvy’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/captaincook_scurvy_01.shtml). There was much disagreement about how to prevent scurvy, but after the losses on this particular voyage came to public attention ships were issued with a variety of foodstuffs thought to be effective in one way or another. These included ‘portable soup’ (a preparation of dried vegetables), malt, concentrated fruit juice, vinegar, mustard, sauerkraut, molasses and beans, and did appear to reduce its incidence to some extent. 

The journals can be accessed at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/surgeonsatsea/, and there is also a podcast at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/surgeonsatsea/podcasts.htm in which National Archives staff explain something of the significance of the records.


The Ministry of Food…

Many of the museums in the East Midlands have exhibitions relating to food in the Second World War – rationing and waging ‘War on Waste’ to protect against shortages; ‘Digging for Victory’ on gardens or allotments to reduce the need for imports and ensure fresh fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy diet; and ‘economy’ recipes using dried eggs instead of fresh, or potatoes instead of flour. I have a Good Housekeeping cookery book entitled Unusual Vegetables that has advice on growing and cooking vegetables that may sound perfectly usual to us – like salsify, celeriac, water melon, Swiss chard and kohl rabi – but were not commonly grown or eaten at the time, or were normally imported.

I’ll include a recipe below – but the Imperial War Museum in London currently has an exhibition The Ministry of Food that marks the 70th anniversary of food rationing in Britain and explores many of these topics. It also includes a wartime greenhouse and a 1940s grocer’s shop, and runs until 3 January 2011. For more details, see http://london.iwm.org.uk/server/show/conEvent.3167. The National Archives also has a podcast, The Kitchen Front: domestic life in the Second World War, at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/podcasts/kitchen-front.htm giving an overview of the documents it holds on this subject.

This year is also the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – so why not visit the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Visitor Centre at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire (http://www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf/visitorscentre/). In the meantime here’s a recipe from the Unusual Vegetables book for Celeriac Pie:

Celeriac Pie

1lb celeriac

8 oz potatoes


4 oz tomatoes


Nutmeg, mace

Grated onion

Peel the celeriac, cut in pieces, and cook in boiling salted water until tender, then drain. Cook the potatoes and mash, or pass them and the celeriac through a sieve. Melt the margarine in a saucepan, add the puree and beat over the heat until light and dry. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and mace, and add a little hot milk to moisten the puree, Slice the tomatoes into a greased fireproof dish and sprinkle with pepper, salt and a little grated onion. Pile the puree on top , brush with egg or milk, and bake in a quick oven for 30 minutes, to cook the tomatoes and to brown the pie.

For some more wartime recipes, including sausage and sultana casserole and carrot fudge, see  http://www.allthatwomenwant.com/wartimerecipes.htm.


School dinners…

Jamie Oliver’s Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005 caused quite a stir in revealing the extent of the ‘junk food’ served in schools – and recent research has suggested that healthier school meals have helped not only to improve pupils academic performance but to reduce the number of days they are absent from school (The Guardian, 29 March 2010). 

(East Midlands Oral History Archive)

The history of school meals is interesting in itself. Some were provided by charities in the 19th century, but generally speaking they originated in the early 20th century when welfare reforms were introduced to improve the health of mothers and children. These were much influenced by the South African (Boer) War of 1899 – 1902, when two thirds of the adult males who volunteered for service in the military were found to be medically unfit. Many of them had diseases related to inadequate nutrition, and the reasons for their poor condition were investigated after the war by a Committee on Physical Deterioration which reported in 1904.

Its main recommendations were taken up by the Liberal government elected in 1906. These included the notification of all births to midwives, so they could check on the physical condition of the babies and ensure that mothers had appropriate advice about childcare; free medical inspections of schoolchildren, introduced in 1907, to identify and treat any problems at an early stage; and powers for local authorities to provide school meals for the children of poor families. This was not compulsory until the Education Act of 1944, but many local authorities in urban areas did take advantage of it. The meals were either free or – more usually - at a cost based on that of the ingredients. Nationally, 1.6 million meals were being provided in 1945, but only 14% of them were free. 

When I was at the Good Food Fair at Belgrave Hall Museum last month I asked some of the people there about their own school dinners. As you might imagine, some loved them while others had vivid memories of the things they detested, including lemon curd sandwiches (‘ugh!), watery mince and cabbage, soggy carrots, and tinned spaghetti (‘vile’). Milk puddings were also unpopular with some: ’hated them – still do!, and ‘the frog spawn tapioca was abominable!’. Another remembered the fatty roast lamb – ‘but you had to eat everything on your plate, however long it took’.

On the other hand, someone ‘loved the mutton and onion sauce’, another liked the hot cooked beetroot, one ‘used to eat everybody else’s cabbage’, and another just ‘ate up all the seconds’! Also among the favourites were curried eggs, bread pudding (‘wonderful!’), ’a super chocolate tart – I loved it’, and Gipsy Tart, made with a filling of condensed milk and dark brown sugar in a pastry case. There is a recipe for this at http://www.traditionalenglishpuddings.co.uk/g2gypsytart.html - but the same person also remembered having chips and burgers once a term only as a special treat! Other favourite puddings were butterscotch blancmange (‘we never had that at home’), ’big biscuits’, and chocolate pudding with chocolate custard (‘heavenly. Everyone got to choose what we ate on their birthday, so we had this quite often!’   

If you’d like to know more about the history of school dinners, see ‘Food for thought: child nutrition, the school dinner and the food industry’ (2003) by Derek Gillard at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/articles/22food.html. You can also catch up with Jamie’s School Dinners at http://www.jamieoliver.com/school-dinners, including ideas for healthy packed lunches.


October in the garden and hen house…

Back to the Tit-Bits Yearbook of 1930 to see what it says about October in the garden and the hen house.  Now is the time to start the winter digging and manuring as beds become available after picking the summer crops. Cauliflowers, endive and lettuce can be planted on a warm sheltered border, and indoor mushrooms beds made up. Cut down the asparagus foliage as soon as it is well ripened and clear the beds of weeds before putting on a top dressing of good soil and well-rotted manure. French beans, radishes and mustard and cress can also be sown in pots or boxes in a heated greenhouse. Earth up celery to prevent rain getting down into the centres, and continue to plant cabbages for spring.

Time to prune the fruit bushes

In the fruit garden, leave late varieties on the trees as long as possible, and start pruning back blackcurrants, red and white currants and raspberries, in that order. Apply greasebands to fruit trees (greasy or sticky bands that go around the trunk to prevent the females of some wingless moths from climbing up the fruit trees and laying eggs – which will later hatch into caterpillars that eat the fruit and leaves). Examine fruits in storage and remove any that are showing signs of decay or disease.

In the hen house, your new pullets should have started laying by now and need feeding generously. Winter rations should be introduced to all stock gradually (grain and wet-mash) but maize and maize products should only be included on cold days. Check the fowls selected as breeders and remove ‘any birds now not looking so promising, replacing them with other and more promising fowls’. Collect leaves and bracken to use as litter for the hen houses and store in a dry place. Now is the time to begin artificial lighting in the laying-houses, leaving the lights on for an hour in the evening, then giving a half-ration of grain.


The King of Cheeses…

Stilton cheese hat at Melton Carnegie Museum

British Cheese Week has just ended, but you will still be able to get lots of information about cheese and recipes at www.recipes4us.co.uk/British%20Cheese%20Week.htm. And what  better time to remind you that there is a display about Stilton cheese at Melton Carnegie Museum. This includes a hat in the style of a Stilton cheese, commissioned to promote the cheese at Ascot Races and donated by the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association, founded in 1936 to represent their interests and raise standards of manufacture.

There were lots of different varieties of regional cheese in Britain from the 16th century, but they really flourished in the 19th century as improved transport networks made it possible for them to be sold commercially over a wider area. Stilton is named after the village of that name in Huntingdonshire (now in Cambridgeshire), which was a staging post in the 18th century for coaches travelling between York and London. It is said that the landlord of the Bell Inn, Cooper Thornhill, served the cheese to travellers, having bought it from Mrs Frances Pawlett, a farmer’s wife living near Melton Mowbray, and thus – although it was never made in Stilton itself – it became known as ‘Stilton cheese’.

In the 19th century Stilton was still made on farms in the area rather than purpose-built dairies. Kelly’s Directory of 1881, for instance, notes that Stilton was made by ‘almost all the occupiers of land’ in Ashby Folville, a few miles from Melton Mowbray, and also ‘extensively made’ nearby in Barsby. This was part of the normal work of farmers’ wives and daughters at that time, which explains why you will rarely find anyone in the Census returns actually listed as a Stilton cheesemaker.

Here are some other facts about Stilton from the Stilton Cheese Makers Association (SCMA):

Part of the Stilton display at Melton Carnegie Museum

1.  In 1999 the SCMA secured ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ status for Blue Stilton from the European Commission, protecting it from imitation across the EU.

2.  The cheese can only be made by law in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

3. There are only seven dairies in the world licensed to make Stilton cheese.

4. Over one million Stilton cheeses are made each year, around 10% of total output being exported to some 40 countries around the world.

5. The blue vein of a Stilton cheese is created by the addition of blue mould spores (penicillium roqueforti). 6. The cheese is ready to be sold at about nine weeks of age, but has a more mellow flavour if matured for another five or six weeks.

7. Before going on sale it has to be graded by checking the taste and appearance to ensure that it reaches the required standard for Stilton – otherwise it will be sold as ‘blue cheese’.

8. White Stilton, also a ‘protected name’ cheese, is made by leaving out the blue mould spores, and is ready for sale after three or four weeks.  It has a crumbly texture, and is often blended with ginger, apricot, cranberries, mango or lemon to make dessert cheeses.

9. The village of Stilton has an annual Cheese Rolling competition in the High Street on May Day, using wooden ‘cheeses’ rather than the real thing. Spectators are advised that this is a ‘hazardous sport’ and are warned to stay behind the safety barriers.

10. Stilton can be used as an ingredient in many dishes. Here is a recipe for Rustic Stilton & Potato Cake from the Stilton Cheese Maker’s Association – see http://www.stiltoncheese.com/recipes/starters/1/ for lots more:

Rustic Stilton & Potato Cakes

2 sliced onions

1 tbsp vegetable oil

2 large cooked potatoes – cooled and cubed

6 medium eggs

30ml single or double cream

100g crumbled Blue Stilton

1 tsp chopped chives

Fry the sliced onions in the oil until caramelised. Add the cubed cooked potatoes. Mix together the eggs, cream, crumbled Stilton, chopped chives and season with black pepper. Pour cheese mixture over the potatoes and onions and cook over a low heat until nearly set, finishing under a hot grill. Sprinkle extra cheese over if required. Serve with red cabbage or a rocket salad and crusty bread.

The East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA) has a number of recorded interviews with people who worked in the Stilton cheese industry. For example:

Andrew Caldwell – 1487, TA/04/254

John Crosher – 1117, LO/464/414

Jean Morris – 1123, LO/470/420

John Stockdale – 1118, LO/465/415

These are available for listening at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland (ROLLR). See http://www.le.ac.uk/emoha/catalogue/recordofficerequest.html for information on how to access them.


About this Sponsor

A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.