East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food Blog

Pumpkin pie…

It was Thanksgiving on Thursday last week – which set me to thinking about pumpkins. Do we eat them in the UK? The shops are full of them before Halloween, but for carving into lanterns rather than eating. I carved one with my granddaughter this year, and it was harder work than we expected – though the finished result was suitably scary… When I was a child we used turnips to make the Halloween lanterns, more like the tradition of the Jack  O’Lantern that has its origins in Celtic legend and was taken to the USA in turn by Irish migrants, but pumpkin pie is one of the traditional dishes eaten there for Thanksgiving. 

The original Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony in December 1621 when: ‘Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors’. This ‘First Thanksgiving’ was also the last until 1863, when during the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving on 26 November. In 1941 the US Congress agreed an annual date for Thanksgiving of the fourth Thursday in November.

Other foods traditionally eaten at this time include turkey, cranberry sauce and sweetcorn; while the day after Thanksgiving was traditionally the start of the Christmas shopping season, with shops opening earlier than usual and offering large discounts on goods. If you’ve been taking advantage of the online sales this weekend, you will know that this is known as ‘Black Friday’, the name being said to originate in Philapelphia from the heavy streams of pedestrian and road traffic making their way to the sales. More sales mark the end of the traditional Christmas shopping season on Super Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas Day when spending is often at its highest. Only how many shopping days to go now…? In the meantime, you could still enjoy some pumpkin pie or soup. There’s a recipe for the pie at http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/pumpkinpie_70659, and lots more ideas about cooking pumpkins at http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/pumpkin, including Sausage, Pumpkin and Sage Casserole, and Pumpkin and Amaretti Ravioli with Sage Beurre Noisette.  Or if you fancy something different, how about the courgette cake at http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/aug/16/nigel-slater-courgette.


Morus nigra…

Among the many interesting features of the gardens at Belgrave Hall Museum are two black mulberry trees – Morus nigra – that are around 250 years old. Valerie Hartley, the Gardens Officer at Belgrave Hall and Gardens, tells me that these trees grow for around 80 years, then fall and continue to grow. Margaret Ellis, one of the daughters of the railway entrepreneur John Ellis, recalled that when her father bought the Hall in 1845,  the ‘old mulberry trees… were still in their pride of venerable vigour, and became at once objects of loving care’.

In 1872 she also recorded  the fall of one of the trees: ‘In the dead of the night, some of us were awaken by a most unwonted sound, but we could not tell what had occasioned it until the morning, when, to our consternation, we found that one of the old mulberry trees had fallen. Only a portion of the noble old tree that must have been growing there fully two hundred years remains; it lies – the curious, ragged, beautiful trunk – across the broad walk, and makes me sad when I look at it… It is a rather remarkable coincidence that it should have fallen so soon after our dear mother’s death. This afternoon we have been sitting under the shade of the remaining tree…’ (Letters & Memorials of Margaret Ellis 1885 - compiled by Eliza Ellis*). Isabel C. Ellis also referred to the trees in her memoirs, Records of Nineteenth Century Leicester (1935), recalling that: ‘Sometimes youth was invited to feast on the mulberries of the old trees, large kitchen aprons being provided as protection from the penetrating stains of the falling berries’.

There is another black mulberry in the gardens of Newarke House Museum in Leicester, along with one of the white variety – Morus alba – planted either side of the ornamental gates in the sundial gardern. As Valerie writes, it is ‘interesting to be able to compare the two. The berries of the white mulberry are sweet but rather bland, whereas the black mulberries are very rich, juicy and leave very incriminating stains on hands!’. 

Mulberry trees were first imported to Britain from China in the 17th century, and descendants remain of a tree named after James I that is said to have been planted in the early 17th Century in Swan Walk in London (now the Chelsea Physic Garden). Cuttings of this ‘King James I’ tree were taken during World War II when the tree was grubbed to make way for an air raid shelter, and the line was successfully continued. 

One of the mulberry trees now

Roman legend has it that the black mulberry owes its existence to Pyramus, who killed himself by falling upon his sword after he and his lover Thisbe were forbidden by their parents to marry, splashing blood on the white berries of  a mulberry tree. Moved by Thisbe’s grief, the gods changed the colour of the berries so that they were red when they grew in the future. This doesn’t account for the survival of the white mulberry – but it is the white rather than the black variety that provides food for silkworms.

The season for harvesting mulberries has long passed for this year, but in anticipation of next summer’s crop you can find some interesting recipes at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/howtogrow/fruitandvegetables/3349362/Mulberries-Juicy-fruits-with-gnarly-character.html, including one for Mulberry Gin or Vodka, said to be good mixed with champagne, and a mulberry version of Bakewell Tart.

* Available at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland (ref. 920 ELL). Many thanks to Valerie Hartley for information about the Belgrave Hall and Newarke Houses trees, and the old photographs.


Nottingham pudding…

Remember the Mansfield gooseberry pie with the pork pie crust? Here’s another recipe that Jody Henshaw has sent me from Mansfield Museum, this time for Notttingham pudding. Sounds like just the thing now that winter is approaching…

Nottingham Pudding

6 even sized bramley apples

3 oz butter

3 oz caster sugar

6 tablespoons plain flour

3 eggs



Nutmeg or cinnamon

Peel and core the apples. Cream butter and sugar, add nutmeg or cinnamon. Fill the centre of each apple with this mixture. Place in a well buttered ovenproof dish. Blend the flour with the eggs and milk, beat to a creamy batter. Pour over the apples and bake at 350F, 180C, or Gas 4 for one and a half hours.



Harley Gallery, Welbeck

An unusual food event is coming up at the Harley Gallery in Welbeck on Saturday 4 December. A ‘taste-o-rama’ showing of the film Indiana Jones promises some ‘spectacular food experiences’ by Bompas and Parr, and includes a trip through the underground rooms at Welbeck.

Showings are at 1pm and 6pm. Tickets £7.50 each, plus online booking fee – see http://www.harleygallery.co.uk/event.php?pg_id=56 for details.


Pea flour, soup and Symington…

A couple of weeks ago I visited the museum in Market Harborough where – amongst many other things, including an exhibition on the Iron Age Hallaton Treasure – there is a display about the local firm of W. Symington & Co. Not to be confused with R. & W.H. Symington, which made corsets and the famous Liberty Bodice, William Symington started in business selling tea and groceries in Harborough around 1827 after moving from Scotland.

Harborough Museum

The company is perhaps best known for its blancmange powder, tables creams, jellies and other desserts, and its soups. These were all on sale by the early 20th century and you will see some of the packages in the museum. William Symington had earlier patented a process for making pea flour, which could be used in cooking or reconstituted with water. In the 1850s this was provided in large quantities to British troops during the Crimean War, and the company also supplied pea flour for Captain Scott’s first Antarctic Expedition in 1901-04. It was among the items found in a store of food and other items fifty years later, and found to be still useable.

Pea soup was the first of several soups to be marketed by Symington’s by the end of the 19th century. Other family members had joined the firm in the meantime, and it continued to operate from its factory in Market Harborough until 1969, when it was acquired by the Lyons catering company. For more information, see the factsheet ‘Industrial Harborough’ at http://www.leics.gov.uk/harborough_museum_factsheet_5.pdf - and if you’d like to know more about the other Symington business, there is another factsheet, ‘Symingtons & the Liberty Bodice’, at http://www.leicestershire.gov.uk/harborough_museum_factsheet_2.pdf.

Harborough Museum is located in part of the former Symington corset factory in Adam and Eve Street. Admission is free, and it is open from Monday - Saturday from 10.30 am – 4. 15 pm. See http://www.leics.gov.uk/museums for a link to this and other Leicestershire County Council museums.

My thanks to Zara Matthews, Keeper of Harborough Museum, for permission to use the photograph above.


Just like my mother used to make…

Here’s another recipe from the Ayscoughee Hall Museum project in 2008 to collect memories of food from people who were born in the UK or who moved to Spalding from Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. This one is from Apple Crumb Cake, from Lithuania:

Apple Crumb Cake 

200 g butter, softened

500 g flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon or lemon juice

100 g sugar

3 eggs

8-10 apples

125 g sugar to sweeten the apples

235 ml milk

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C/350 degrees F/Gas Mark 4.

1. Mix butter, eggs, flour and baking powder into crumbs. Divide in half and add the milk to the half to be used on the top.

2. Sprinkle half of the crumbs in the bottom of a 30 x 45 cm cookie sheet pan (baking tray).

3. Shred the apples and toss with the sugar and lemon juice or spice.

4. Put the apples on the dough, then spread the rest of the mixture on the top.

5. Bake for 50 – 60 minutes until brown.

(Reproduced by permission of Ayscoughee Hall Museum).


November in the garden and the hen house…

Time to store the scarecrow away?

It’s still as busy as ever in the garden according to the Tit-Bits Yearbook of 1931. As well as continuing with the digging and manuring of vacant land, you should be picking off the side-shoots from late tomatoes and lifting a supply of Jerusalem articholes and parsnips to store in sand before the ground gets too difficult to dig them from the bed. Cover frames every night now ‘whether frost threatens or not’, and plant potatoes in a cold frame for a very early crop. Plant parsley roots in pots and put them in a greenhouse or frame for a winter supply. Broad beans and early peas can be sown in borders, along with carrots and French beans in a heated frame or in a heated greenhouse.

Now is the time to plant outdoor bulbs and new rose trees. Give the rose beds a mulch of manure, and cut away any suckers springing from the roots of existing rose trees. Plant your new fruit trees as soon as they arrive, in the following order: gooseberries first, followed by peaches, currants, plums, cherries, pears, and apples. Finish pruning all your fruit and store the latest fruits. Plant English and Spanish irises; and look out for ‘opportunities to mow the lawn, but do not roll when turf is sodden’. 

That’s not all of it – but life is a little easier in the hen house. Here you should be encouraging ‘backward’ hens (not pullets) with a small quantity of a proprietary spice. Serve the evening mash hot but ‘not too sloppy’, and start to incubate eggs for producing table chickens ready for killing in early March. Newly moulted hens should be fed on a mixture of equal parts of wheat, oats and kibbled maize. (Yes, I had to look that one up… It means coarsely ground, usually with some kind of machine).

On the same page of the Yearbook there are some proverbs and quotations – nothing to do with food or gardening so far as I can see, and most of them are not particularly original: but what do you make of ‘A living dog is better than a dead lion’ or ‘A heavy heart bears not a nimble tongue’? Well ‘Honesty is the best policy’ - and I haven’t a clue…


More about Mr Straw…

In an earlier blog I mentioned the fascinating archives at Mr Straw’s House in Worksop and promised to say more about them at some point. They include the index that William Straw made of the recipe book that his mother had compiled since she was in her teens, which included  recipes for ginger beer, furniture polish, and remedies for rheumatism and other ailments as well as cakes, bread and other food. There are also lots of suppliers leaflets and price lists, customer’s order books giving an insight into how their tastes changed over the years, and a table of Railway Rates & Charges from 1882 that his father no doubt used to calculate the cost of sending different food products from his shop in the Market Place at Worksop to various destinations. From 1917, when food rationing was introduced during the First World War, there are registers of customers supplied with sugar and butter.

William also experimented with growing liquorice, which had been grown in the grounds of the Priory church in Worksop in the past for medicinal purposes (as a mild laxative, and as an expectorant to help clear a chesty cough) and was a significant local industry until the mid-18th century. It is not known how successful he was, but to judge from the notes and newspapers cutting that he accumulated he had obviously done some thorough research into the topic. 

Advertisement from 1931

There are also various items related to Walter Straw’s studies for a qualification from the Institute of Certificated Grocers. Walter, William’s brother, had joined his father in the family grocery business, and holding such a qualification would no doubt have strengthened its reputation as a ‘high class’ supplier. Some of the question papers that Walter was required to answer during his studies make fascinating reading in themselves. For instance: ‘Describe the tea plant and state what you know of its growth and cultivation. Draw from memory a map of India showing the tea-producing districts’; and ‘Why is it that French packers are able to obtain a better price for their sardines than the Spanish or Portuguese packers? The answer to this - one of the few that Walter did not get right – was that French sardines, unlike their Spanish or Portuguese counterparts, were well-matured before packing…   

As a footnote, the Institute of Certificated Grocers was formed in 1909 by a group of grocers to establish professional standards for training and education, and held its first examinations in 1910. The grocery trade was a predominantly male occupation at that time, which may help to explain why the banquet to celebrate its inauguration was interrupted by suffragettes when it reached the point of the toast to ‘The Houses of Parliament’. More women entered the trade during the First World War, to replace men serving in the armed forces, and in 1915 the Institute discussed admitting them as ’Lady Members’.  In 1920 1,640 candidates took the examinations, and during the Second World War the Institute introduced courses that enabled Prisoners of War in Germany to study for qualifications by post. In 1972 it merged with the Institute of Food Distribution to form the Institute of Grocery Distribution. There is more about its history at www.igd.com.

Mr Straw’s House itself is now closed until 12 March 2011. See http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-mrstrawshouse for full details of  opening times.


Food and festivals…

It’s difficult to think of any festival that is celebrated without food playing an important part – whether eating traditional foods on particular occasions, sharing a meal to celebrate or after a period of fasting, or giving food as a gift. Lots of sweets or mithai will be given as presents for Divali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, which falls on 5 November this year, including:

  • barfi – made from thickened milk and sugar mixed with pistachio nuts or grated coconut
  • besan ladoo – gram flour (made from chickpeas), sugar and cardamom, rolled into balls
  • ghigra – crescent-shaped pastry filled with a mixture of semolina, flour, nuts, raisins, coconut and spices
  • gulab jaman – balls of thickened milk, butter and flour, flavoured with rose water and cardamom seeds, deep fried and soaked in syrup

You will find lots of recipes for these and other sweets on the Internet – have a look at the blog at http://www.top-indian-recipes.com/blog/celebrate-with-diwali-sweet-recipes/ for instance, and forget about the calories for once.


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.