East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food Blog

Sowing new seeds…

There is an interesting three year project in the East Midlands aimed at enabling people to grown ‘exotic’ crops that are not traditionally grown in the UK. These include black-eye beans, chick peas, white maize and dudi, kodu and other gourds. Entitled ‘Sowing New Seeds’, part of the impetus for the project came from the fact that, over the past 40 years:

‘people from all over the world have settled here and grown their own vegetables in gardens and allotments throughout the Midlands. These growers are frequently isolated from traditional gardening networks. As they grow older they are less able to work in their gardens. There is a risk that they, and also the wider gardening community, are losing both the special non-traditional crop seeds and the specialist knowledge of how to grow them’.

The project thus aims to collect and make available seeds of exotic plant varieties, to safeguard them for future generations, to gather and publish information on how people are growing exotic plants, and establish an exotic crops garden at Ryton Gardens near Coventry. It will also hold ‘seed swaps’, demonstrations and community events around the Midlands. There is more information about the project at www.gardenorganic.org.uk.


Eating out…

You might expect to find oyster bars in coastal towns, but thanks to faster rail travel and refrigeration they were also quite common in inland towns such as Leicester by the later 19th century – as were fish and chip shops, the staple of the working class ‘fast food’ market. These are just two examples of the growing range of restaurants, cafes and ‘takeaway’ establishments that appeared in response to the rising real incomes enjoyed by many Victorians from the mid-19th century, leaving them with more money to spend once the essentials such as rent, fuel and household food were paid for. Here are a few other examples from Leicester, but all these establishments had their counterparts in towns across the East Midlands.

In 1891, for instance, the ‘Silver Grill’ at the Central Luncheon Bar in Granby Street pointed out its ‘great convenience’ for people who ‘object to lunching at an ordinary public house, and equally as much to patronising a place where neither a glass of wine of ale can be obtained… here a happy combination of the two is found’. The exterior of the Luncheon Bar boasted a large glass acquarium in which ‘among water plants of various kinds, an interesting collection of gold fish, carp etc., disport themselves’. Rather then being potential menu items, the fish were designed to ‘attract the attention of the passer-by’, and although ‘snacks’ of salmon and other fish were served, meat dishes such as chops and steak ‘for which this house if celebrated’ dominated the menu (Leicester – Illustrated, 1891). We are also told that:

The 'well-appointed grill' at the luncheon bar

‘According to the most modern ideas of cleanliness and perfection, these chops and steaks are cooked on a silver grill, by a competent chef, the cooking being performed at the further end of the private bar, on a well-appointed grill… This is, par excellence, the method of cooking chops and steaks and those who have enjoyed them pronounce them to be tender, juicy and very delicious’.

Oysters – a ‘succulent delicacy’ – were also available here, while at the bar patrons could also be provided with ‘fine Burton ales and stout, foreign wines or cigars of the best brands; and altogether the place is one that a hungry man may congratulate himself on having lit upon when seeking to satisfy the cravings of nature’. No doubt this was one of the places where the middle class males of the town talked business, though one does wonder how fit they might have been for an afternoon’s work after lunching in such substantial and convivial style. 

As this extract suggests, however, Victorian social conventions were reflected in who ate where. Ladies who lunched were catered for by cafes like Winn’s Oriental Cafe in the Market Place, serving cold luncheons and soup, and afternoon tea or coffee and cakes; but according to an advertisement in 1897, there were also separate ‘comfortable and commodious smoke rooms’ in the cafe for the men, along with new billiard and chess club rooms and two ‘splendid new Tables fitted with the patent pneumatic cushions’. The cafe stayed open from 10 am – 10. 30 pm, with men and women more likely to be found dining together in the evening.  

Even in the 20th century cafes such as Winn’s were more of an occasional treat for working class men and women rather than a daily resort. One woman recalled that:

Winn's Oriental Cafe in 1897

‘There were endless cafes where you could go in and have a coffee, or tea. It was a thing to go out and have the afternoon tea, and you’d have a nice pot of tea, a little carton of cream, a dish of cakes – and I mean a dish of cakes, it was piled high. You didn’t just have one brought round to you, and that was it. Scones and butter and perhaps cream and strawberries, and you met your friends in town, but of course nowadays I suppose that has gone, and the cafes have closed, because the majority of women went to work’ . (C. Brown, Leicester Voices, Tempus 2002, p35).

Open air cafes are now a common feature of city life, but as the Leicester Guardian noted on 30 July 1904; ‘our insular weather… does not always encourage enterprise in this direction, yet who would not have welcomed an al fresco ice, during the recent tropical spell?… now our bands give periodical performance on the parks, the open-air restaurant might become a part of this very excellent but insufficient institution’.

The Victoria in 1863

Coffee and cocoa houses were popular with both middle and working class patrons in the 19th century. Originally intended for the latter, as a cheap but comfortable and sociable alternative to the pub, they were often established by Quaker businessmen who, as well as advocating and practising temperance, were also importers of the beverages sold in these ‘houses’. There were 12 of them in Leicester by 1901, including the Eastgates near the Clock Tower, the Victoria in Granby Street, and the Highcross on the corner of High Street and Highcross Street, near the Great Central Railway Station. In that year a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, a glass of milk, a plate of potatoes, hot sausages, a ‘Scotch Scone’ or a cheesecake could all be bought for just one penny each, and soup for 2d a basin. Dinners were also served daily, including steaks and chops ‘on the shortest notice’, and at the Victoria a refreshment room had recently been opened in the ‘first’class department… for the exclusive use of ladies’.


Milling, malting and brewing…

Talking about grain and beer  - as I did briefly in my previous blog - there are a lot of windmills in the East Midlands open to the public, several of them still working and producing stoneground flours for sale. As the Autumn/Winter 2010 newsletter of the Northamptonshire Record Office notes, however, the working conditions of millers and their employees could be both unpleasant and hazardous. It includes this extract from the Northampton Mercury on 10 March 1883 reporting a serious accident:

‘Mr. William Valentine, in the employ of Mr. J.F. Stops, was in the act of placing a strap on a large flywheel, when his clothes became entangles in the machinery, and he was taken round with the spindle several times and eventually thrown with great violence to the floor. A man named Cockerill, of Whittlebury, was in the mill at the time, but could not stop the machinery. Valentine was picked up in an unconscious state, and it was found that his face and left side were cut very much’.

There are several leaflets available – like the one illustrated here – with information about windmills in the East Midlands and further afield. Grain is also an  essential ingredient of beer, so if you happen to be in Newark at some point why not pick up a copy of the Newark Malting and Brewing Trail leaflet and take a look at some of the sites associated with this important part of the local economy. The trail covers 2.2 km and takes around an hour and 15 minutes at an easy pace. You can also download the trail from http://www.newarkcivictrust.org.uk/downloads/MaltingBrewingTrail.pdf.


Bananas and art…

After so many other eccentric examples, it will come as no surprise that there is a museum devoted to bananas – not in the East Midlands but in Auburn, Washington in the USA. This features around 4,000 items, along with a very distracting dancing banana on its website home page at http://www.bananamuseum.com/.

Ayscoughee Hall Museum & Gardens

You can take a virtual tour of the museum from here, but I wanted to mention bananas in a different connection. Geest Line Limited (formerly Geest Bananas Limited) which employs a large number of people in Spalding, has sponsored an art gallery at Ayscoughee Hall Museum in the town. The gallery can be hired free of charge by local artists, and exhibitions change every month. The museum, with five acres of gardens, also features displays on Fenland life, and an audio guide is available – so it’s well worth a visit for all these reasons. Download an information leaflet at www.tourismleafletsonline.com/pdfs/Ayscoughfee-Hall-Leaflet.pdf, and visit the website at www.sholland.gov.uk/leisure/ayscoughfee/ for news of exhibitions and events.


A MuBu miscellany…

I still have a couple of more weightly blogs in mind before the MuBu food project ends later this month – but in the meantime here’s a final selection of smaller items from my MuBu research.

The colour of carrots

Further to my blog on ‘strange museums’, did you know that there’s also a World Carrot Museum? This is a ‘virtual museum’ rather than a physical entity, so having paid it a visit I can tell you (if you didn’t already know) that the carrot hasn’t always been the orange colour that we now take for granted. No one really knows when the wild carrot was ‘domesticated’ from a tough and spindly root to a fleshy edible variety, but documentary evidence from around the world suggests that the cultivated carrot originated in the Afghanistan region and was purple in colour. 

The modern orange carrot was developed in the Netherlands in the 16th – 17th centuries. Some versions of its history suggest that it was cultivated in the 17th century to honour William of Orange, but it seems more likely that its colour was simply the result of a mutation. More fascinating facts about carrots at www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/, along with lots of recipes and a link to a list of collectors of carrot-related items including plates, bags and a hand-made carrot-shaped electric guitar.

An immense supply of broccoli

Still on a vegetable theme, this item from the Leicester Chronicle of 23 May 1863 is a reminder of the days when some fresh foodstuffs were ‘imported’ from other parts of the country – and of the benefits of faster railways travel in terms of moving food supplies from one ‘distant’ part of England to another:

‘BROCCOLI. – Amongst other advantages which quick railway transit yields to the public is that of supplying distant markets with various sorts of produce in a fresh state. Who that has visited our Saturday market lately has not been struck with the immense supply of fine broccoli, but whoever supposed that this article of consumption was grown in the county of Norfolk, and sent here during Friday night for sale? but such, we are informed, is the factor, at least that the greater part of the supply has been weekly forwarded from that distant part of the country’.   

Shopping and the weather

The snow and ice we experienced this winter certainly cause some temporary disruption in food supplies, but as the leaflet Shopping and Weather Superstitions by the Flintham Society (2007) notes, wet weather in the past ‘meant that people were less likely to go out shopping’, with potentially serious implications for shopkeepers with stocks of perishable food in the days before fridges and freezers. It was little wonder, then, that Fred White and his daughter Muriel, the village shopkeepers in Flintham from 1911, kept a daily note of the weather; or that – in the absence of weather forecasts on radio or television – the natural world was closely studied for portents of good weather or rain. The latter included a ring around the moon, a donkey braying, a pig carrying straw in its mouth, and (an all too familiar one) leaving your umbrella at home… My thanks to Sue Clayton at Flintham Museum for permission to quote from this leaflet.

Beer made from treacle

Beer was a staple of the diet of the poor in the past, often safer to drink than water which carried diseases such as cholera, and usually made at home by the women of the house. Supplies could be seriously affected by shortages of grain, which were very common in the event of a bad harvest. According to Ian Andrews’ book Traditional Northamptonshire Recipes (W.D. Wharton, 2000), p88: ‘In 1757 there was a severe shortage of wheat to the extent that on the Eighth of November that year Dr. James Stonehouse of Northampton felt it necessary to write an article in the Northamptonshire Mercury suggesting recipes designed to help the poor. One of these recipes was for beer made from treacle’. In the same book there is a recipe for Hundred-to-One Pudding from Malton Malsor, using 100 pieces of potato to one of meat. Contrast this meagre fare with ‘Egges in Moonshine’ from Kirby Hall, consisting of egg yolks cooked in rosewater and sugar and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

Distinguished support from the Nobility

At the upper end of the food market, this announcement of the retirement of James Kirby, tea dealer, grocer and biscuit maker of Market Place, Leicester in 1863 gives a glimpse of some genteel advertising. Mr Kirby desired ‘most respectfully… to tender his best thanks for the distinguished support he has received from the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, and Public in general during the last fifty years; and in disposing of the same [shop] to Messrs. Joseph Simpkin and Son, whose business habits are well known, he has great confidence in introducing them to his numerous patrons; at the same time assuring them he will ever remember those tokens of their esteem and confidence with feelings of the most lively gratitude’.

Simpkin & James in Leicester in 1891

Mr Simpkin and son promised to continue the business ‘the same as hereforeto, with the exception of such improvements as the present age requires. The latter included the introduction of ‘all kinds of crystallised foreign fruits’, Italian goods, candles, and ‘all other articles connected with a First-Class Family Grocery Business’. Their business later became the well-known Leicester firm of Simpkin and James. There is an audio extract from the BBC Radio Leicester archive on its closure in 1971 on the My Leicestershire website at www.myleicestershire.org.uk/. Enter ‘Simpkin and James’ in the search engine and click on item no. 49!



Pig and cow clubs…

In my previous blog about food-related occupations I mentioned some that were to do with pigs – which reminded me about pig clubs… These were common during World War II, when the government encouraged people to club together to buy and rear a few pigs to supplement the basic meat ration. The pigs could be fed on household scraps or virtually anything edible from other sources, and once killed the meat was shared between the club members. See the BBC People’s War site for some memories of pig clubs in the North East -  www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/89/a4464489.shtml.  

Pig clubs were also a feature of 19th century village life, where families commonly kept a pig in a stye at the bottom of the garden. This was a major source of their food supply, and the main purpose of these clubs was to insure the owners against the illness or death of the pig before it was ready to be slaughtered. One was formed in Gretton in Northamptonshire in 1875, for instance. Members paid an entrance fee of 4 shillings and an annual subscription of 6d, and the club also bought food in bulk and provided a butcher at the appropriate time. As a publication by the Gretton Local History Society notes:

‘The pigs were generally bought in as store animals early in the year and fed on scraps. They were killed before Christmas and six weeks prior to this would be fattened up with pig potatoes and barley meal. They were usually about 20 stone by the time they were killed. It was a difficult time when the butcher came as people became fond of their pigs. All parts of the pig were used… Meat was often shared with friends and relatives who had given scraps to feed it’ . 

The rules of the society required any member ‘having a pig bad’ to send for the club stewards (three members of its committee) ‘and they shall decide what shall be done’. If a pig died or had to be killed, the club would then compensate the member for the loss, but ‘he shall not receive any more than what he gave for it’. The Pig Club in Gretton continued until 1977 when is was dissolved. None of the members any longer kept a pig – and the balance of the funds was used for donations to the local church and Baptist chapel – the latter being ‘particularly pleased as they were at the time considering renovating the kitchen’.*

Cow clubs served a very similar purpose, helping to pay for a replacement if a cow died. There are several memories of these from Lincolnshire in a book produced by the Lincolnshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, Within Living Memory (Countryside Books, 1995), not least of the hard work involved in ‘getting the pig out of the way’ once it had been killed – that is, dealing with the meat, fat and offal before it ‘went off’ and became inedible. In the absence of fridges and freezers, it was usual to pass on parts of the pig to friends and neighbours, in the expectation that they would return the favour at some point, hence this traditional rhyme from Rushden in Northamptonshire:

Health to the man who kills a pig,

And sends his neighbours fry;

And after that a leg of pork;

And then a big pork pie.**

If you’d like to know more about the history of pig-keeping, then have a look at R. Malcolmson & S. Mastoris, The English Pig: a history (Hambledon & London, 2001).

*Gretton Local History Society, Taking Stock: Gretton’s Archives (No. 15, Summer 2006, p28-9

** Ian Andrews, Traditional Northamptonshire Recipes (W.D. Wharton, 2000), p12


Annatto, aerated flour and artificial foods…

Agricultural machinery, Museum of Lincolnshire Life

A week or two ago I did a blog on the working conditions of bakers in the 19th and early 20th century. This set me thinking of other occupations related to food – some of them obvious, others perhaps less so. Looking through an 1896 Kelly’s Directory of Lincolnshire, there are lots of bacon and ham curers and sellers, corn and flour dealers, cheese factors, fruit growers and preservers, dairymen and cow keepers, as you might expect. Several other occupations were related directly to agriculture, including owners of machinery such as threshing machines, drills and steam cultivators. Fish merchants, fishmongers and fried fish dealers also feature prominently, along with mineral water and fruit syrup manufacturers, and tea and coffee merchants. 

An ‘artificial foods dealer’ and a maker of ‘aerated flour’ – more familiar to us as self-raising flour – are also listed, along with a sausage skin dealer, a manufacturer of potted meats and a ‘butter colour manufacturer’. The latter suggests a consumer preference for yellow butter, the colour of which (I now know after looking it up) varies according to the breed of cow and the time of year. The natural yellow colour is produced by carotene from the green foods that they eat, and is thus stronger during the summer period – see http://www.internet-grocer.net/butrcolr.htm for an interesting discussion of this.

There was also a manufacturer of annatto, another food colourant commonly used (now as well as in the 19th century) to give cheese a deep yellow or orange appearance, and derived from the achiote tree found in tropical regions of North and South America. Like the Compagnie Francaise listed in Kelly’s Lincolnshire directory in 1896 as chocolate and cocoa manufacturers, and two vinegar manufacturers, the annatto makers were based in London, suggesting insufficient local demand to justify the necessary investment in production in Lincolnshire itself. Pig dealers and killers were likely to have a much more localised market – which reminds me that I must do a blog on pig clubs before the end of this East Midlands Food project…


Potting, preserving and pyes…

When I was at the Good Food Fair at Belgrave Hall Museum last summer I watched a fascinating demonstration by Jeannie Bilton of ways of preserving meat before the days of fridges and freezers. As Jeannie says in the notes she gave out on the day: ‘Preserving meat by encasing it in fat is an age-old technique found across the globe. Potting is the traditional British version. Originally, meats were potted by being cooked in large jars, sealed with suet, then strewn with herbs to deter insects. The modern method is simpler and done on a smaller scale… Modern potted meats are not really preserves, but will keep in the fridge for several days… Once the contents are sealed in with a layer of clarified butter or fat, and a lid, they’ll keep for a week or two in the fridge’.

Cheese and fruit can also be potted. Here’s Jeannie’s recipe for Potted Raspberries:

Jeannie Bilton demonstrating preserves at Belgrave Hall

Potted Raspberries

4 lbs raspberries

1oz unsalted butter

4lbs caster sugar

Pick over the fruit and remove any stems. Rub a preserving pan with the unsalted butter and put in the fruit. Put the sugar in a bowl and leave to warm in a low oven. Heat the berries over a low heat until they start to bubble. Add the sugar to the fruit and beat with a wooden spoon over a very low heat for 15 minutes and put into small hot pots. Cover and store in a cool place for up to six months.

Many thanks to Jeannie Bilton for permission to quote the above, and to publish the photograph.


Lincolnshire life…

Museum of Lincolnshire Life

Those of you who read the blogs by my colleage Rod Duncan, the MuBu Digital Writer, will know that we recently paid a visit to the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln. It was rich in displays relating to food, from agricultural tools and machinery to shop scenes and domestic  implements, and is well worth a visit to see the range of what is on display. Several things struck a chord from my childhood, not least an array of hand-operated mincing machines! I used to enjoy mincing the left-over meat from the Sunday joint for dinner on Mondays, made into rissoles with a beaten egg or two, fried and eaten with some chips. Not so healthy, but – Monday being washday with all the hard work that involved before automatic washing machines – quick to make, economical and very tasty.

As the museum points out to visitors, Lincolnshire is much more than an agricultural county – see the display of the World War I tank made in Lincoln, for instance – but this is perhaps how it is best known to people living elsewhere. Here’s a very evocative description of the north-east of the county from 1891:

Museum of Lincolnshire Life - agricultural display

‘…among the wolds especially, there are snug little hamlets, nestling under the shadow of the chalk hills, sheltered by magnificent trees, fringed by meadow and cornland, and possessing a beauty peculiarly their own. There are isolated villages, approached by winding lanes, with their flower-covered banks, and hedges of hawthorn… grand old-fashioned farm houses, with their yards crowded at times with noble-sized stacks of straw, teams of well-fed and well-groomed horses slowly moving here and there, on farms which can boast a thousand acres of tilled land, streams or “dikes”, teeming with pike and eels, pastures dotted over with sheep and cattle, or well-tilled fields rich with waving corn’ (W. Andrews, Bygone Lincolnshire, A. Brown & Sons, Hull, 1891).

In the fenland and coastal areas fishing had long been a major part of the local economy, both to feed the family and for sale to wider markets. There is a very informative display about Fenland life at Ayscoughee Hall in Spalding – so if you’re planning a day out in Lincolnshire sometime, why not include a visit to one or another of these museums.


Strange museums…

A suitable exhibit for the Jell-O Museum?

A few weeks ago I found a book entitled Strangest Museums in Britain – and the best worldwide (Strangest Books, 2006) in a discount bookshop in London, and had a quick look to see if it included any food-related examples. There weren’t any in Britain that were remotely ‘strange’ – but there were lots of examples from elsewhere. For instance, in Columbus, Georgia, in the USA there is a Lunchbox Museum where over 1000 lunchboxes are on display, along with items such as tobacco tins used as lunchboxes… Its founder Allen Woodall was inspired to collect lunchboxes because ‘they’re just so neat’; but they do give an interesting insight into changes in materials over time – from metal to plastic, for instance – and the extent to which the designs reflect the culture of the day in terms of decoration, often featuring pop stars and cartoon and film characters. The range of materials and designs is even more extensive in the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, as you might imagine, including shakers made from shells and eggs among more conventional materials. 

There is also a museum in New York devoted to Jell-O - jelly to us – which tells the history of Jell-O from its first commercial sales in 1900. According to this entry, a bowl of Jell-O tested with an EEG machine in 1993 displayed ‘brain waves’ identical to those of adult humans - so if you ever have the feeling that your own brain has turned to jelly there’s probably no cause for concern.

Maybe you would prefer the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, South Dakota, the National Museum of Pasta Foods in Rome, or the European Asparagus Museum in Schrobenhausen in Germany; or if you think these really are a little strange, how about some non-food examples such as the Museum of Family Camping in Richmond, Virginia; the Paper Airplane Museum in Maui, Hawaii; the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in St Paul, Minnesota; and the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas? Apparently an alternative name for barbed wire is Devil’s Rope – and in the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, the exhibits actually include a hat made of the stuff. If you happen to be a collector of barbed wire yourself, the museum apparently offers ‘an appraisal service to collectors for insurance purposes’.

The serious point to be made here is that almost anything is collectable, and many of the museums that we would never regard as remotely ‘strange’ had their own origins in a similar passion for collecting and sharing their collections – albeit in the form of fossils and stuffed birds and animals rather than lunchboxes or barbed wire.   

(The image is from Cannon Hall in Barnsley).


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.