Sweet Onion Relish for Your Ploughman’s Lunch

The British love their pubs as they are not only a place to drink alcoholic beverages, they are very often the focus of community life in villages, towns and cities. Pubs have also a long tradition of serving food but lately, they are also going through a renaissance all over the country, with food of a higher standard and better appeal. And one of the most famous pub grubs is the Ploughman’s Lunch. I still remember the first time I tried it in a pub (I can’t recall the name, sorry) in Windermere, in the Lake District. From then on, I have ordered a Ploughman’s Lunch whenever I have had the chance.

The Porch House pub, in Stow On The Wold (Cotswolds).

A Ploughman’s Lunch is a lunch packed for a ploughman to take with him into the fields for his lunch. A basic Ploughman’s consists of crusty bread, a good lump of local cheese, pickled onions and chutney or relish. This combination may vary considerably and it may also be embellished with a selection of cold meats, ham, maybe a slice of pate and/or slice of pork pie, even a scotch egg. Sometimes, it also includes seasonal fruits such as apples or grapes. Traditionally, the bread, cheese and pickles were home-made by the ploughman’s wife. The drink that accompanies this lunch is, of course, a pint of the local beer or cider.

There is a little controversy on the origin of this traditional cold meal, as there are not any historical records. Ploughmen have been eating bread and cheese with beer for aeons, but the term “Ploughman’s Lunch” was not coined until the 1960’s, when the Milk Marketing Board were trying to sell cheese in British pubs.

We love to prepare this meal at home. There is always cheese in our pantry, and cheddar is a regular in our kitchen. Nowadays it is very easy to find a good quality cheddar in Spanish supermarkets. We have also tried Ploughman’s with other cheeses, as I think that what it is important is that it is good quality and that you choose the one you like.

Chutney is more difficult to find here and I believe that it is not optional as it boosts the meal and makes it something more than bread and cheese. In big supermarkets it is possible to find Branston Pickle for those who do not live in Britain.

As you can imagine, I prefer to make my own relish (please find below my recipe). But are you clear about the difference between pickles, chutneys and relishes? I have always been confused on this. Branston Pickle is actually a relish!

Pickles are preserved in vinegar and assorted spices. They do not need to be cooked for as long as chutneys, with the exception of fruit pickles, where the fruit is heated gently to allow it to absorb the spices and the vinegar. Pickles are usually based around one vegetable or one fruit only. Vegetables used for pickling are first soaked in brine (salt and water solution) for up to 48 hours. This procedure removes the excess moisture in the vegetables and helps them to stay crisp. It also prevents the development of bad bacteria. After the salting process, the vegetables must be rinsed clean in cold water and well drained before being coated in vinegar.

Relish is a very versatile preserve as it can be used with lots of dishes. Relishes use vinegar and spices, like chutney and pickles, although the finished texture is a lot different. Relishes are usually only made of chopped vegetables (not fruit) and they do not require to be cooked as long as chutneys. The ingredients keep their shape.

Chutneys are made from chopped fruits and/or vegetables which are mixed with spices, vinegar and other ingredients, and then reduced to a smooth pulp. They come from India and this is why many chutneys can be very spicy. The word chutney derives from the Indian word chatni, which means pickle. Chutneys require long and slow cooking as this is the only way to get their smooth texture. Ideally they should not be consumed inmediately as they improve over time and they should be left to mature for 3-6 months.

When making these preserves you should always use stainless steel pans rather than iron or brass pans, as the vinegar, which is very acidic, reacts with these and will give the pickles a metallic taste. If the ingredients need to be strained, use nylon sieves. On the other hand, you should use sterilised jars (kilner jars are highly recommended).

And this is finally my recipe, Sweet Onion Relish.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 kg sweet onions, finely chopped
  • 700g red onions, finely chopped
  • 2 red bell peppers, washed, seeds and stems removed, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup / 65g sea salt
  • 1 cup / 200g granulated sugar
  • 1 cup / 220g light brown sugar
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 cups / 450ml cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp mixed pickling spices
  • glass preserving jars, sterilized

Method:

  1. Combine the chopped onions and bell peppers with the salt. Stir and let stand for 30 minutes.
  2. Then, drain the vegetables in a sieve, squeezing gently.
  3. In a large stainless steel pot, combine the sugars, turmeric and vinegar.
  4. Put pickling spices in a muslin bag and add to the vinegar and sugar mixture.
  5. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
  6. Add the well drained vegetable mixture, increase heat to medium.
  7. Bring to a boil and lower heat to medium low. Then simmer for 30-50 minutes.
  8. Fill the sterilized jars and close the lids firmly.

This is the final result. The picture is not very good, sorry, but I promise I will learn how to take better shots in the future. But I will tell you that even though you cannot appreaciate it from the picture, this relish is absolutely delicious.

Recipe adapted from Jams, Chutneys, Pickles Preserves. Pr Books Limited.

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The Imitation Game

Last Sunday the Oscars 2015 were awarded, so this week I had no other choice than to write about a film, precisely the film awarded with the Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. You should not miss The Imitation Game, a British film set Britain during World War II. The film tells a real story that catches you from the beginning until the end, and mainly if you like everything British as much as I do.

I will try to write about this outstanding film without telling you too many things about the plot. Let me see if I can manage it. The Imitation Game is Alan Turing’s story. He was a prestigious mathematician, logician and cryptanalist who was also considered as the father of the modern computing science. The film portrays brilliantly Turing’s character and tells us three important moments of his life. It begins in 1952, when Turing is arrested on charges of “gross indecency”, as he was a homosexual, putting an end to his career. It also moves through Turing’s adolescence when he was studying at Sherborne School, Dorset, when he developed a close relationship with an older fellow student, Christopher Morcom, Turing’s first love. But The Imitation Game mainly focuses during the time of World War II, when Alan Turing lead a motley group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers whose objective was to crack the secret codes of Germany’s Enigma machine, which was crucial to winning the war.

This is the sort of film in which the British are the finest. Its extraordinary attention to period detail is deeply moving. The well cared setting carries us to Bletchley Park, once Britain’s best kept secret, Churchill’s Secret Intelligence and Computers Headquarters, where Alan Turing and his team worked in cracking the German Enigma code.

Bletchley Park

The film was shot over a period of eight weeks. In addition to Bletchley Park, The Imitation Game was also filmed in London, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Dorset, including a Victorian house which came to be Ian Fleming’s house, a RAF base no longer in use, King’s Cross station, and Sherborne School, where young Turing studied, with some interiors filmed in some studios located in Middlesex.

The cast is also magnificent. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing, is the star and soul of the film. He is an actor who is particularly good at giving the impression of thinking, as it is also the case with Sherlock Holmes, a role that made Cumberbatch very popular. His performance in The Imitation Game has been universally praised. Although he did not win the Oscar, his performance was still brilliant. He shared the cast with Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke, Mathew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Allen Leech. The director is the Norwegian Morten Tyldum.

The Imitation Game is a moving film that does not leave you indifferent. Turing, as Cumberbatch himself says, should be on banknotes, as he was a hero and one of the best scientists. However, Alan Turing is far from being a celebrity and his story is practically unknown. This film serves as a fair tribute to his memory.

If you liked this story and you want to go into more detail about it, you can read either Alan Turing’s biography by Andrew Hodges, on whose book The Imitation Game is based, or Enigma by Robert Harris.

Jamie Oliver’s Cheesecake

Today, I have decided to make this cheesecake recipe, which is not British but from New York. But it is Jamie Oliver’s version of this classic dessert, and as he is my favourite English chef, I believe that this counts, don’t you think? I love Jamie’s recipes and I love Jamie’s style as he makes everything look so easy. Each of Jamie’s recipes I have tried has worked, but that has not always been the case for me as I am not an experienced cook (please, don’t tell anyone), just a bit cheeky when sharing my cooking adventures with you.

This is also my husband’s favourite dessert so I had to give it a chance, instead of trying with a more traditional Bristish cake. On the other hand, I had my suspicions on the origins of the cheesecake as there are many different kinds of cheesecakes all over Europe and I am sure that the British must have contributed to the recipe. I have made my little research on the history of the cheesecake and I will tell you what I have discovered.

It seems that the first “cheese cake” may have been created by the Greeks. Anthropologists have excavated cheese molds on the Greek island of Samos which were dated circa 2,000 B.C. It was considered to be a good source of energy and it was also used as a wedding cake by Greek brides and grooms. Flour, honey and cheese were formed into a cake and then baked. When the Romans conquered Greece, they took the cheesecake recipe and, as they expanded their empire, they brought the cheesecake recipe all over Europe. The recipe took many different forms depending on the country where it was baked.

Great Britain also experimented with the cheesecake recipe. Even Henry VIII’s chef did his part when he cut up cheese into very small pieces and soaked them in milk for three hours. Then, he strained the mixture and added eggs, butter and sugar. In the 18th century beaten eggs started to be used instead of yeast to make the cakes rise. It was this recipe the one that Europeans brought to America. Cream cheese was the American contribution to the cake.

There are many cheesecake recipes. I chose this one as it is Jamie Oliver’s… Sorry, I had already said that before, hadn’t I ? Besides, it does not require the use of double cream, which sometimes is a bit difficult to find in the Spanish supermarkets. I’ll let you have a look to the original recipe, as I didn’t change many things. I only reduced the amount of digestive biscuits to 250 g instead of  350 g and used granulated sugar for the cheesecake and icing sugar for the meringue topping, instead of caster sugar (caster sugar is not common here either). I also did not use the proper cake tin (mine was 26cm intead of 24cm) which is something that it should not be done when baking. But it turned out fine.

This is the result. It looks nice but it tastes much better. Absolutely delicious !!!

St. Valentine’s Day

Once the beginning of February arrives, Saint Valentine is everywhere, and shopping centres encourage us to buy compulsively, and although normally I don’t indulge, this year I have decided to join the celebrations. After all, any excuse is good, don’t you think? Especially when you talk about LOVE! Do you want to come with me for a little while?

St. Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in the UK for many centuries. Finding out that it is actually a British tradition has been a total surprise for me. It was from the UK that these customs spread to the rest of the world: first to the Anglosphere in the 19th century and then to many other countries in the later part of the 20th century. This feast originated from the merger of pagan and Christian rites. The legend and mystery surrounding the celebrations of this day, have brought controversy and doubt around St. Valentine’s, as the motives behind the day’s creation and even St. Valentine himself are not very clear.

There was a Roman festival called Lupercalia on February 15th to mark the start of spring. It consisted of fertility and marriage rites concerning all young people of marriageable age.

As Christianity spread accross the Roman Empire, including much of the UK, this festival became a day of remembrance for St. Valentine. Thus, pagan and Christian celebrations merged into one: Lupercalia was put back a day and celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th.

Did you know that there were three St. Valentines? I will just tell you about the most famous one, a Christian priest named Valentine from the 3rd century who lived under the rule of Claudius II and was known for defending love in the Empire. He secretly married couples despite the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor had cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome as he believed that Roman men would not want to go to war if they had to leave their women and children behind. When Claudius II learned about these secret ceremonies, Valentine was sent to prison where he remained until his death, on February 14th. He was tortured to make him renounce his faith and clubbed to death, then beheaded. It is said that before his execution he performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer (according to a later version, he is said to have fallen in love with her). He would have written the first “valentine” card himself, addressed to Julia, who was no longer blind, signing as “Your Valentine”.

St. Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century, which is the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules (1382) wrote For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. [For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.]

Chaucer wrote this poem to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. Readers wrongly assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14th as Valentine’s Day; however, mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be pairing up in England as it is still too cold. Chaucer was in fact referring to Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day was on May 2nd (the treaty providing for the royal marriage had been signed on May 2nd, 1381).

The first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved was written by the Duke of Orleans, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In the poem the Duke talks of his love for his wife and refers to her as “my very sweet Valentine”. It is still kept at the British Museum.

By 1601 St. Valentine’s Day was already an established part of English tradition, as William Shakespeare makes mention of it in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.

The passing of love-notes between sweethearts had become standard practice, as in 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was first published. This contained sentimental rhymes and ditties for those young gentlemen who were not able to think clearly enough to compose their own verse.

The custom of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts originated in the UK, and, therefore, Valentine’s Day still remains connected with various regional customs in England. In Norfolk, for example, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocks on the door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children.

The reduction of the postal rates in the 19th century opened the path to the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. It made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously (Valentine notes are, by tradition, anonymous). Valentine cards became so popular that they started to be mass-produced. In Victorian times, the Valentine card took on a much more delicate form as it was often made out of lace paper, velvet and satin ribbons, embossed with the best quality material. These cards often had trick or secret panels in them, hiding secret messages to the girls concerned. This was because Victorian fathers were very strict and would not allow their daughters to receive any correspondence unless they had first read it and decided whether or not it was suitable. By 1872 the Post Office declared that parcels not exceeding 12 ounces in weight could be sent by letter post, so small gifts also started to be sent through the post.

Halfway through the 19th century, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, following the English tradition, started to produce cards in the United States, using the newly available and much cheaper paper lace. It was from the United States that Valentine’s Day celebration spread to the rest of the world.

Do you already know how do you want to celebrate St. Valentine’s? You can spend a British evening watching some British movies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, Shakespeare in Love, Atonement or Sense and Sensibility, the later based in the homonymous novel by Jane Austen, a true romantic.

Maybe you want to make a special gift but you don’t want to shop for anything and make it yourself. I suggest this Dark Chocolate Truffles recipe. It is from one of my favourite blogs, Pemberley Cup & Cakes, where you will find many British baking recipes.

And last but not least, if you are lucky enough to be in the UK for St. Valentine’s celebrations, would you like to visit… Bath? Oxford? Canterbury? The Lake District? The Cotswolds? York? Or maybe taking a romantic tour around London and enjoy the views from The Shard while having dinner?

 

Burns Night

Burns Night is an institution in Scotland, a celebration of the life and poetry of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Robert Burns’ acquaintances held the first Burns suppers on July 21, the anniversary of his death, as a tribute to his memory, but the date was later changed to January 25, which marks his birthday. Eventually, Burns Suppers became part of Scottish culture, and they are now held all over the world, by people and organizations with Scottish origins. Burns is one of Scotland’s important cultural icons. He is also known as “Rabbie Burns”, the “Bard of Ayrshire”, “Scotland’s favourite son”, and in Scotland “The Bard”.

Robert Burns, portrait by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Scotland, on January 25, 1759 and died in Dumfries, Scotland, on July 21, 1796, when he was only 37 years old. He was the eldest of seven children and he spent his youth working his father’s farm. In spite of his poverty he was extremely well read and he started writing in an attempt to find “some kind of counterpoise for his circumstances.” He had already written his first love poems when he was fifteen. He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and he soon gained regional notoriety when he published his first collection of poems, known as the Kilmarnock Edition, as that was where it was printed. In a matter of weeks he was transformed from local hero to a national celebrity, praised by the Edinburgh literati of the day. Burns found his true voice in the Scots language, using words from everyday speech. His poems dealt with themes of injustice, hypocrisy, the hard life of the country man, republicanism and radicalism, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. One of his most famous poems is “Auld Lang Syne”, which is sung on New Year’s Eve all over Scotland.

Burns Suppers can range from an informal gathering of friends to a huge, formal dinner full of pomp and circumstance. They may be only for men, only for women, or for both genders. Formal events include toasts and readings of poems written by Burns. These ceremonies will vary according to the group organizing the event and the location. At Burns Night events, many men wear kilts and women may wear shawls, skirts or dresses made from their family tartan. A tartan, which is also Scotland’s most famous textile, was originally a woven cloth with colourful threads in traditional patterns. These patterns consist of interwoven vertical and horizontal lines, known as sett. Typically, tartan designs represent certain Scottish clans and families, though it is not always so, as they can also represent towns, corporations, events…

The ritual of Burns Supper is traditionally very well structured, in spite of all the whisky. Formal dinners would follow most of the standard format, but there’s no need to tick all the boxes. These days, hosts often pick what elements they wish to keep, especially at more informal gatherings. It usually starts with the host’s welcoming speech followed by the Selkirk Grace, which is a thanksgiving said before meals in the Scots language. The supper starts with the soup course, which is normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth or Cock-a-Leekie soup (leeks and chicken stock soup).

The evening centres on the entrance of the main course, the haggis, a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs), minced and mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, stock and spices, and encased in the animal’s stomach. It is usually served on a large platter to the sound of Scottish bagpipes. When the haggis is on the table, the host reads “Address to a Haggis”, an ode that Robert Burns wrote to the Scottish dish. At the end of the reading the haggis is ceremonially cut into two pieces. The recital ends when the audience, promoted by the speaker, joins in the toast to the haggis. The haggis is served with its traditional companions, neeps and tatties. A dessert course may also be part of the meal. Typical desserts are Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth), Cranachan or Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle) followed by a cheeseboard with bannocks (oatcakes) and tea or coffee.

Haggis, neeps and tatties

When the meal reaches the coffee stage various speeches and toasts are given. The order is usually as follows. First of all, one of the guests gives a speech commemorating Burns and a toast to the great man, known as the “Inmortal Memory”. Then, this speech is followed by a more light-hearted one, addressed to the women in the audience. The tone should be witty and humorous, but never offensive. It ends on a positive note with the speaker asking the men to raise their glasses in a toast “to the lassies”. Then, female speakers get their chance to reply to the previous speech. Like the previous toast, it usually includes some good-natured jokes. After the speeches, there may be singing of songs by Burns and more poetry. Burns Suppers traditionally end with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”. Everyone joins hands in a large circle and sing the words together.

To celebrate Burns Night I decided to prepare one of the typical desserts, Tipsy Laird. If you want to try with haggis, I would recommend this original recipe, or Jamie Oliver’s easy haggis sheperd’s pie style.

Tipsy Laird is the Scottish version of the English trifle, where sherry is replaced by whisky and strawberries by raspberries. Jelly may not always be used but custard is customary. If you buy ready-made custard it will be easier and quicker to prepare. I used a recipe by Elaine Lemm.

Ingredients (serves 6):

  • 300 gms sponge or pound cake, cut into thick slices
  • 300 gms fresh raspberries
  • 6 tbsp whisky or, if you can find it, Drambuie (liqueur made from malt whisky, honey, herbs and spices)
  • 500 ml / 2 cups thick custard sauce (it can be ready made)
  • 500 ml / 2 cups double whipped cream
  • Handful of toasted, flaked almonds

Preparation (30 minutes aprox.):

  • I used individual glasses, but the trifle can be also made in a large glass dish.
  • Line the bottom of the glasses with the cake slices.
  • Reserve a few raspberries for decoration and layer the remaining ones evenly over the cake. Sprinkle with the whisky (omit the whisky if serving to children).
  • Spoon over the custard, again in a thick layer.
  • Finish with a thick layer of whipped cream either spooned or piped using a piping bag.
  • Decorate with raspberries and a few toasted, flaked almonds.

What do you think of the result?

Castle Combe, a fairy-tale town

After Christmas, it has always been quite hard for me to come back to reality. My remedy is thinking about my next holiday and where could I travel to. I’m sure you also fancy a break, don’t you? My proposal for today is… Castle Combe!

Castle Combe is a small village in Wiltshire with only a population of around three hundred and fifty. We decided to go there and savour the peaceful atmosphere of the town, but mainly because we had read that it is considered as the “Prettiest Village in England”. When we arrived there we knew why. Travelling to Castle Combe means travelling to the past as little has changed since the 15th century. The properties in Castle Combe are many hundreds of years old and they are actually listed as ancient monuments. Strict rules apply to preserve the beauty and character of the village: can you see any street lights or TV aerials?

Castle Combe is situated on the southern-most edge of the Cotswolds valley, an area which is also one of the most beautiful in the UK and one of England’s favourite destinations. Castle Combe is famous for its honey-colour limestone buildings: the village houses are all of typical Cotswold type as they are constructed in stone with thick walls and roofs made from natural stone tiles.

Castle Combe is nestled in a valley, hidden behind a wooded hill. All this, turns this village into a place of fairy tales and fantasies. Thus, I’m not surprised Castle Combe has become a location for many filming activities, the most famous of these being “Doctor Doolittle” filmed in and around the village in 1966. More recently the village has had a major role in “War Horse” (2011), “The Wolf Man” (2010) and “Stardust” (2007).

The Market Cross, situated where three main streets converge, is the centre-piece of the village. It is believed to date from the 14th century when the privilege of holding a weekly market was first granted. Another village landmark is St. Andrew’s Church, a medieval church where you can find Sir Walter Dunstanville’s tomb, a 13th century lord who fought in the crusades and was killed in 1270. Of particular interest inside St. Andrew’s is the 15th-century clock which is still used to ring the hours from the tower.

The land above Castle Combe was originally home to a Roman Villa which was vacated in the 5th Century AD. Romans occupied this area because of its proximity to the Fosse Way, an important Roman road linking Exeter and Lincoln. Here, they established a fort which was known as “Castle Hill”. After the Romans, came the Saxons, who took over Castle Hill fort. A peaceful period of 300 years followed until the Norman Conquest. During this time Saxon farmers created the village of “Cumbe” or Combe meaning valley.

After the Norman Invasion of 1066, William the Conqueror bestowed the “Manor of Combe” to his follower Humphrey de L’Isle and the village of Combe was later recorded for the first time in the Domesday book in 1086. In the early 12th century the Manor of Combe passed to Reginald de Dusntaville, who later built the Norman Castle on Castle Hill with the village becoming known as Castle Combe from then on.

By the 14th century the Norman castle had fallen into a state beyond repair and a new Manor House was built instead. This house is still on the same site today though little of the original structure remains. Nowadays it is a luxury hotel.

The Middle Ages were a very prosperous time for Castle Combe when much of the village as we see today was built. The reason for this prosperity was the growth of the sheep and wool industry. The weavers lived in the cottages by the river, still known as Bybrook, which provided the power to run the mills. The bridge was originally made of wood, but updated in the 18th century, and it came to hold up to 20 water mills.

Can you see in this picture the flowers by the house on the right? In this house there was a small stall selling cakes and flapjacks. I couldn’t resist the temptation to try the flapjacks and they were absolutely delicious. I loved the way all these products were being sold: it depended on trust. I am not used to this way of selling and I would love to see it more often.

When we were planning our trip around the Cotswolds we decided to stay for a few days in Castle Combe as we needed lots of peace and tranquillity. It is also very handy as it is approximately 12 miles from Bath, and also relatively close to Bradford-on-Avon, Malmesbury, Cirencester or Chippenham. Nearby there are also many sites of historical interest such as Avebury, Stonehenge and the Wiltshire White horses.

There are many places to stay in Castle Combe but we decided to go to the White Hart Inn, in Ford, 2 miles away. When it doesn’t rain the walk up to Castle Combe is lovely. We really enjoyed our stay here and this is why:

Castle Combe 28 Castle Combe 31

Castle Combe 32 Castle Combe 37

I found this 19th century poem that suits perfectly to conclude my article on Castle Combe:

And Castle Combe presents this charming scene,

of hill, woods and meadows cloth’d in Green.

Here grand terrestrial scenes, almost celestial nice,

makes Castle Combe, sweet vale, an earthy Paradise.

                                                                                         Edward Dowling

Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding is the traditional end to a British Christmas dinner. But how did this cannon-ball shaped pudding came to be one of the symbols of Christmas?

Christmas Pudding originated during the 14th century and at that time it consisted of a porridge called frumenty that was made to preserve meat, poultry or fish. Dried fruits were commonly used to preserve foods, thanks to their high sugar content. Butter, spices and wine were also added. These preserves were a practical made-ahead dish.

Towards the end of the 16th century, this porridge was slowly changing into a plum pudding which was thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. By the end of the 17th century Christmas Pudding had become the customary Christmas dessert.

By the 18th century, improved stock-feeding and cheaper sugar made meat preserving less necessary. Cheap sugar also lessened the dependence on spices, and also made possible the division between savoury and sweet dishes. Therefore, these puddings and sweeter “minced” pies gradually lost the meat filling. It is still very common to use suet (raw beef or mutton fat). Vegetarian suet can also be used for a lighter taste. This use of suet made me realise that it might be that the real Christmas food is animal fat! In Spain we use lard (pork fat) to make our traditional Christmas sweets, polvorones and mantecados.

By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had evolved into something similar to the ones that are eaten today, not only because of the ingredients used, but also for their cannon-ball shape topped with holly. In 1836 Dickens described it as the centrepiece of the Christmas feast.

This heavy pudding is steamed for hours. The spirits and alcohols that saturate this pudding, plus the dark brown sugar used, give it its characteristic dark colour. It has to be made in advance, from a month up to a year. After the pudding has been steamed it is kept in a cool dry place. It will need to be steamed again for a few more hours on the day it is served.

Over the years many superstitions have surrounded Christmas Puddings. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and his disciples. It is also believed that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding, at the time of mixing, with a wooden spoon from East to West, in honour of the Wise Men. On top of that, each member of the family giving the pudding a stir has to make a wish. This “stirring” meeting is traditionally made five weeks before Christmas, on or after the Sunday before Advent. That day is known as “Stir-up Sunday”.

Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. In the UK the coin traditionally used was a silver ‘six pence’. The closest coin to that now is a five pence piece!

Christmas Puddings may be served in different ways. It is quite typical to decorate it with holly as it is believed to bring good luck. It is also very common to pour brandy or some other alcoholic drink and light the pudding at the table to make a spectacular display. Christmas Pudding is usually eaten with brandy butter/sauce, rum butter, thick cream, custard…

Below find the recipe I used. As you will see I replaced suet with butter. I know Christmas are already gone (setting up a blog was harder and more time consuming than I thought), but you can always cook it for next Christmas as it will definitely last until then.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup prunes
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • 1 cup brandy
  • 3/4 flour
  • 2 cups soft fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter, plus 1 more tbsp to grease the bowls
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp allspice (if you can’t find it just mix ground cinnamon and ground cloves).
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 cup chopped or laminated almonds
  • 1 peeled and grated apple
  • 2 lemons (zest and juice)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup of Guinness or apple juice

Preparation method:

  1. Mix the raisins, prunes (cut into small pieces) and dried cherries in a glass bowl. Pour the brandy over and leave it aside for 12 hours.
  2. Mix the flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, butter, salt, nutmeg, allspice and ginger in a bowl. Then, add the almonds, the grated apple and the dried fruits soaked in brandy. Then add the zest and the juice of the lemon. Mix well.
  3. Get a different bowl to beat the eggs. Add the Guinness or apple juice (I had to use Guinness) and mix these with the previous mixture. Stir thoroughly. The mixture is ready when it subsides slightly after each stir. This is the time when you can ask the family to stir too, and get everyone to make a wish.
  4. Generously butter two 15 cms bowls. Pour in the pudding mixture until 2/3rds are filled. Then cover the bowls with a double layer of greaseproof paper or baking parchment, pleating it to alow for expansion. Then tie the paper with string and trim off any excess paper.
  5. Boil or oven steam the puddings for 5 or 6 hours, topping up with water as necessary.
  6. Remove from the pans and leave to cool overnight. When cold, discard the wrappings and re-wrap in new greaseproof or baking parchment, foil and string. Store in a cool, dry place until Christmas.
  7. On Christmas day, steam the pudding again for 3-4 hours. Unwrap and turn out. To flame, warm 3-4 tbsp of brandy in a small pan, pour it over the pudding and set light to it.

This is my Christmas Pudding. It’s so delicious it’s worth the effort.