Ten recipes to go!

I have reached a milestone in my unexpectedly long-running quest of attempting to cook every recipe in Jane Grigson’s magnificent book English Food; the last recipe was my 440th, and that means there are only ten recipes left! I hope that I can work through them fairly regularly, but they are getting fairly tricky to do now: the ingredients are either impossibly hard to get hold of, or are extremely expensive, though there are a couple of recipes that I think I can get done without a huge amount of trouble.

BUT the other issue is that a lot of the remaining recipes are quite large, too large for just myself and we are still social distancing – but hopefully someday soon I can cook the roast saddle of lamb that serves 12! Anyone who reads my food history blog will have noticed that I am cooking fairly simple and easy things on there at the moment. I don’t have that luxury on here, so the posts may dry up a little bit.

In the meantime, you guys might be able to help me out. Here’s a list of things that are causing me real bother. If you know of anyone who might be able to help me let me know:

  • Freshwater fish. Anyone know any fishermen who actually catch and taken their catch home to eat? I need to get my hands on some freshwater roach. They are a very common fish, but my goodness, they are hard to track down. I also need to find a responsible and sustainable elver fishermen who wouldn’t mind selling my some of his catch.
  • Cold smokers. I had always planned to build on in my back yard, but then I moved to an apartment. I need one so I can cold-smoke some chickens. No where sells them as far as I can see (there are lots of hot smoked chicken sold cold, but they are a different thing altogether!). Does anyone have one at home or know of a commercial one who might let me hang up a couple of them?
  • Ptarmigans.There’s a single bothersome recipe in the Game chapter I can’t tick off and it is roast ptarmigan. Though still technically legal game, but they are quite rare in the UK now, so I wouldn’t want to kill one. HOWEVER they do get shot by accident in grouse shoots, so they do turn up now and again. ALSO Canada is positively teeming with them, so if anyone fancies paying to send me over there, that would be simply marvellous.

So if you think you might be able to help me with any of these issues, please contact me on the blog, or email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com

I’ll be back with a real post soon, I hope!

4.3: Shellfish – Completed!

I have now completed the Shellfish section of the Fish chapter of English Food. I should have completed it ages ago but I really dragged out the last two recipes: I was too lazy to make the choux pastry and hollandaise sauce required, both being kitchen nemeses of mine. As it turned out, they were both pretty straight-forward and there were no real disasters.

#437 Michael Ryan’s Warm Scallop Salad

The section contained thirteen recipes and contained recipes for oysters, mussels, crabs, lobsters, prawns, brown shrimp and scallops, there was also a recipe that explained how to boil live shellfish. This may not seem very comprehensive, but there are many other recipes in the book that use shellfish, #200 Steak, Kidney & Oyster Pudding and #235 Lisanne’s Chicken with Mussels being just two examples. That said, I do notice some very English shellfish have been overlooked altogether: not a single recipe using cockles, whelks, winkles or razor shells (“spoots”). I suspect she didn’t like them.

A freshly-boiled lobster

The potential issue for me was getting hold of oysters in abundance as they crop up a lot in the book. They are expensive so they really hit you in the wallet, plus they always come in the shell so they are also a potential hit to your fingers and hands when trying to shuck them. Luckily for me, I lived in the USA for a couple of years (2010-2012) where it was fairly standard to be able to buy tubs of pre-shucked oysters at a fraction of the UK price. Where you found oysters, you usually found live lobsters too, meaning I could try my hand at boiling them live – a stressful experience.

#392 Stewed Scallops with Orange Sauce

I also learned a few new skills: shucking and boiling I’ve already mentioned, but I also had to extract the brown and white meat from crabs, something that takes a little practise, but I reckon I’m pretty good at it now.

Jane loved fish and wrote a very big book of fish recipes and it seems she is a fan of almost everything fishy. She describes mussels as ‘a luxurious bargain’ and particularly liked scallops (four of the thirteen recipes are scallop based), complaining about how many of them went straight to Spain. In fact, she was depressed with the apathy we hold as a country towards shellfish in general. Remember though, that English Food came out in the 1970s, with revisions in the 1980s and 1990s, and I believe a lot had changed since then. There are some great fishmongers near to me, and whilst they may not have big tanks of live lobster, they certainly have a great selection. That said, they are unfortunately not the norm on every high street.

The chapter scored well with a mean score of 7.54/10 making it the third most popular so far. There was only one recipe that scored top marks – #378 Elizabeth David’s Potted Crab, which ended up as the fish course in my first pop-up restaurant back in the day. The sublime #281 Scallops with White Wine & Jerusalem Artichokes narrowly missed out, scoring 9.5/10.

A demolished #378 Elizabeth David’s Potted Crab

The good average was helped by the fact that there were no bad recipes, just a couple of mediocre ones: there was the bizarre #189 Mussel & Leek Rolypoly (one I should revisit as I don’t think I had the skills or the palate to appreciate it properly at the time) and #392 Stewed Scallops with Orange Sauce, an odd dish I don’t think I interpreted very well.

As usual when I sum up  a section scroll down to find links to all of the recipes in the Shellfish section of the book with their scores. As mentioned, there were thirteen recipes and the section scored a mean of 7.54/10. For those who like their data, the median and mode were 7.5/10. If you cooked one of the recipes in the past, or have cooked one in the past, please let me know in the comments section below.

#271 How to Boil Crabs, Lobsters, Prawns and Shrimps 8.5/10

#268 Potted Shrimps 7.5/10

#378 Elizabeth David’s Potted Crab 10/10

#140 Crab Tart 7/10

#192 Elizabeth David’s Prawn Paste 7.5/10

#91 Spicy Prawns 7/10

#435 Shellfish Puffs 8.5/10

#189 Mussel and Leek Rolypoly 4.5/10

#132 Oyster Loaves 7.5/10

#437 Michael Ryan’s Warm Scallop Salad 7.5/10

#392 Stewed Scallops with Orange Sauce 4.5/10

#281 Scallops with White Wine and Jerusalem Artichokes 9.5/10

#421 Scallops with Cheese Sauce 8/10

The Layout of the Book

For those of you unfamiliar with the book English Food by Jane Grigson, I thought I’d put up a little post about the layout of the book.

My copy is a third edition published in 1992. Jane passed away during the edit of this final version, leaving her daughter Sophie – an acclaimed food writer in her own right – to complete it. The first edition was published in 1974.

The book has a total of 450 recipes and as I write this, the last recipe to be cooked was #436 Worcestershire Pear Soufflé, which means that I have only 14 recipes to go. Scroll down and you’ll find a breakdown of the book.

The 450 recipes are split into eight chapters and some of those are split further into sub-chapters, sometimes by me, sometimes by Jane. As you’llsee, most of the chapters have been completed now. Click on the hyperlinks to see all the recipes and chapter reviews for different sections of the book. There is a phenomenal amount of ground covered, so please have a good nosey. You’ll notice how my writing gets worse as you scroll down the lists and travel backwards in time!

Jane and Sophie Grigson (photo Martyn Goddard/REX)

There are very few low-hanging fruits left with most of the remaining recipes either too expensive or morally dubious to cook. There are recipes for endangered elvers and at-risk ptarmigan for example, as well as a massive pie filled with a mortgage’s worth of game meat. Some have ingredients are simply too hard to get hold of because no one eats them anymore such as cold-smoked chickens and freshwater roach.

If you don’t own the book, I have written versions of the recipes along with little introductions about the history of the dishes, or the ingredients. What I haven’t done is simply copy out sections of the book, I have written most things in my own words, so if you don’t know about Jane and her beautiful writing, please purchase a copy – it is still in print and published by Penguin Books.

Hopefully the blog will inspire you to cook some of the classic and often unusual recipes contained within, but most of all I hope it will inspire you to find out more about Jane.

Chapter 1: Soups – 24 recipes – completed!

Chapter 2: Egg & Cheese Dishes – 24 recipes – completed!

Chapter 3: Vegetables – 39 recipes – completed!

Chapter 4: Fish – 61 recipes
4.1: Saltwater Fish – 16 recipes
4.2: Freshwater Fish – 13 recipes
4.3: Shellfish – 13 recipes
4.4: Cured Fish – 19 recipes

Chapter 5: Meat, Poultry & Game – 119 recipes
5.1: Beef & Veal – 16 recipes – completed!
5.2: Lamb & Mutton – 16 recipes
5.3: Pork – 8 recipes – completed!
5.4: Cured Meat – 17 recipes
5.5: Poultry – 18 recipes
5.6: Game – 23 recipes
5.7: Meat Pies & Puddings – 21 recipes

Chapter 6: Puddings – 66 recipes – completed!

Chapter 7: Teatime – 72 recipes – completed!
7.1: Bread – 15 recipes – completed!
7.2: Cakes & Tarts – 35 recipe s– completed!
7.3: Griddle Cakes & Pancakes – 13 recipes – completed!
7.4: Biscuits – 9 recipes – completed!

Chapter 8: Stuffings, Sauces and Preserves – 45 recipes – completed!
8.1 Stuffings – 5 recipes – completed!
8.2 Sauces – 19 recipes – completed!
8.3 Preserves & Random Things – 21 recipes – completed!

#431 Murrumbidgee Cake

I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for Jane Grigson – and therefore this blog – I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. Cooking and writing for a living was not what I had in mind when I started it; I just needed a way to practise writing for my PhD! I didn’t really know who Jane Grigson was, but I could see by the book English Food sat on my shelf, which someone else had bought me, that it was comprehensive and would be a challenge.

Jane Grigson died in 1992, but her voice and ethos certainly spoke to me loud and clear. Since her death, her influence is still strong for those in the know. But how do you get people not in the know to discover her? It’s certainly not by walking into a bookshop. I make a point of going into one and heading straight to the cookery section; only very rarely is there a Jane Grigson book to be found, yet there is often several by her contemporary Elizabeth David.
Jane and Sophie Grigson (Rex Features)

Her death shocked and saddened people, and her family felt it the strongest, yet after her death her daughter Sophie discovered something in Jane’s kitchen. “We were sitting around shell-shocked, but then I found a Murrumbidgee cake in her larder. A beautiful thing, rich, dense, a favourite of hers. I cut slices of it, and we ate them, and it was wonderful. Her last gift to us.”

Jane would buy these cakes in Oxford, eventually getting hold of a recipe after several years of searching and put it in English Food. It’s a fruit cake so full of dried fruit and nuts that there’s barely any cake batter, rather like American fruit cakes, she says. The cake takes its name from the Murrumbidgee river in Australia, so how it ended up in Oxford I don’t know.

First of all, line a 2 pound loaf tin with greaseproof paper and set the oven to 150°C. Next, mix together the fruit and nuts in a large bowl: 7 ounces of whole Brazil nuts, 5 ounces of whole walnut halves, 8 ounces of halved stoned dates, 3 ½ ounces of candied citrus peel, 6 ounces of glacécherries, 3 ½ ounces of raisinsand the grated zest of a lemon. Phew!

Now mix 3 ½ ounces of plain flour with ½ teaspoon each of baking powder and salt and five ounces of caster sugar. Sift these over the fruit and nuts, getting your hands in there to make sure they all get coated.

In a jug, beat 3large eggs with a teaspoon of vanilla extract, pour into the fruit and flour and mix well until you have a stiff batter.
Pile in the mixture into the tin, pressing down the fruit and nuts and smoothing as well you can; I found this very tricky as there is so little cake batter but it all turned out okay in the end.

Bake for two hours, testing the mixture with a skewer to see if it’s baked, if during the bake, the cake looks as though it’s getting too brown, cover with brown paper.
Cool the cake for 10 minutes and turn out onto a clean tea towel and make several holes in the cake with a skewer. Feed it with some alcohol; Jane suggests brandy or rum, but you can use any spirit or liqueur you like, I went with rum. Wrap the cake in the towel, cover with cling film and pop in the fridge. Every week, for one to two months, feed with a little more alcohol.

#431 Murrumbidgee Cake. This was a wonderful cake! I know fruit cakes like this are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have to say it beats a Christmas cake hands-down, and as just as Jane says, there’s a good richness to the cake but without the sweet icing that usually adorns a fruit cake. The fruit was soft and the cake mixture deliciously moist. It’s quite an expensive cake to make, unless you eat a variety of dried fruit and nuts anyway and have them in your larder, but it is definitely worth it. It may not have become a British classic, but it is a Grigson family classic, and that’ll certainly do for me. 9/10

Neil Cooks Grigson is 10!

Blimey! What a milestone to reach with the blog – I can barely believe that I am still writing entries for it. I know they are rather infrequent now, and I am really trying to spend more time writing, but starting this blog a decade ago unwittingly made me a bit of a busy bee today.

Four-hundred and twenty-four recipes in means I only have 26 more to cook so there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I started the blog back in 2007 because I had just began my PhD in evolutionary biology at The University of Manchester; I knew I’d have to do a lot of writing, so a blog seemed like a good idea. Having never heard of Julie & Julia, I thought cooking a whole cookbook was a pretty original idea.

Those first few posts are rather badly written as I had never done any of this sort of thing before, but I soon settled into a style and found I really enjoyed the history side of things, hence starting the second blog British Food: A History.

So much has happened from the blog it is startling! If I had known the potential of writing a blog I might have chickened out.

I’ve started a food business, The Buttery, from market stall via a pop-up restaurant in my own house  to a restaurant with my business husband Brian Shields, founded a community market in Levenshulme, Manchester, come second in a Telegraph cookery competition for bloggers and Radio 4’s The Food Programme and been nominated for a Manchester Food & Drink Award. More recently I’ve been working on an episode of a history programme with Channel 4 as well as my first paid writing jobs. The restaurant is also going to be expanding in the next year: wait til you hear about that!!

All of this is because of Jane Grigson; none of this would have happened had I not forced myself to cook dishes containing ingredients such as brains, eels, sweetbreads, quince and the like. Jane opened me up to exciting and scholarly food writing and a whole unknown world of exciting British food. She is also an excellent teacher.

I’m going to try my best to work through the remaining recipes, some of which I have no excuse for not trying yet. I promise to pull my finger out. A bit, at least.

Finally, of course, I wouldn’t be writing blog entries if you good people didn’t read them and send such great comments.

So many thanks to all of you and to Jane herself, because without you I wouldn’t be on this unexpected journey!

Neil Cooks Grigson is on the radio!

Hello there everyone, just a very quick post to let you know that Yours Truly will be on Radio 4’s legendary Food Programme.

A 2-part tribute to Jane Grigson has been recorded in front of a live audience down in Bristol. Sheila Dillon hosts and on the panel are Diana Henry, Shaun Hill and Geraldine Holt. I was invited down to take part in it because Jane Grigson has changed my life, so I get to chat with them about how the blog has led me from PhD student, to starting my own food business.

It’s a two-parter and the first episode goes out today at 12.20, and the second episode is broadcast tomorrow at 3.30.
All very exciting and I am so glad that producers Rich Ward and Dan Saladino contacted me about it.

The Layout of the Book

Hello there lads and lasses! I thought it was about time I got round to doing this entry on the book itself. I either keep forgetting to do it or putting it off. The plan is that I will add the chapters and subchapters to the tags so that everything appears in the index down the right-hand side of the blog, so that you can see the recipes in their appropriate chapters as I cook them and it won’t seem like I’m just doing random recipes. That’s the plan anyway. It’ll take me a while to sort it all so do not expect promptness.

Jane provides an extremely comprehensive coverage of all things English and foody over eight chapters. I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to the Fish and Meat chapters being just a third of the way through them (though there are lots of recipes), and I have done more than three-quarters of the Cakes and Soup sections. I’m trying my best to address this. There are many omissions though, and I am compiling a list so that eventually there may be an English Food 2.1.

Anyways, because I am a total geek, I have counted up the number of recipes in each chapter and subchapter. I did this when I had far too much time on my hands. Here’s the list with links to the chapters. It is funny how my writing gets worse as you scroll down the entries and go further back in time…

Chapter 1: Soups – 24 recipes

Chapter 2: Egg & Cheese Dishes – 24 recipes

Chapter 3: Vegetables – 39 recipes

Chapter 4: Fish – 61 recipes
4.1: Saltwater Fish – 16 recipes
4.2: Freshwater Fish – 13 recipes
4.3: Shellfish – 13 recipes
4.4: Cured Fish – 19 recipes

Chapter 5: Meat, Poultry & Game – 119 recipes
5.1: Beef & Veal – 16 recipes
5.2: Lamb & Mutton – 16 recipes
5.3: Pork – 8 recipes
5.4: Cured Meat – 17 recipes
5.5: Poultry – 18 recipes
5.6: Game – 23 recipes
5.7: Meat Pies & Puddings – 21 recipes

Chapter 6: Puddings – 66 recipes

Chapter 7: Teatime – 72 recipes
7.1: Bread – 15 recipes
7.2: Cakes & Tarts – 35 recipes
7.3: Griddle Cakes & Pancakes – 13 recipes
7.4: Biscuits – 9 recipes

Chapter 8: Stuffings, Sauces and Preserves – 45 recipes
8.1 Stuffings – 5 recipes
8.2 Sauces – 19 recipes
8.3 Preserves & Random Things – 21 recipes

Whew! That means that if you do the sums, I have 450 recipes to do. But I’m not that far from half way. I think I need to pull my finger out!

The time has come…

This morning I am off for my wisdom teeth out. I haven’t quite managed to make the shed-load of ice-cream that I’d planned to. I am trying to be healthy though, so it’s probably not a bad thing. I have, however, made a shed-load of soup. I’ve done three Grigson ones, and I’ve picked ones that are liquidised, so that I can drink them out of a mug or with a straw. I’ve made tomato and carrot, watercress and green pea. Yumbo! I shall write up the recipes throughout the week.

I’m not particularly nervous about getting them taken out – but I am worried about how sore it’s going to be afterwards. I had a choice, you see, of having all four out at once, but with a general anaesthetic or have pairs out in two sessions with a local. I chose the former; best to get all over and done with, I reckon. It’s going to be sore though. At least I get to laze about for a couple of days – I’ve been busy working on the PhD, and the data collection is so very BORING, so I’ll be nice just to watch crap telly.

Speaking of telly, I watched Market Kitchen on UKTV Food the other day. If you haven’t seen it, it is actually very good. It’s filmed in Borough Market in London and lots of good chefs and food writers go on it. It also has the lovely Matt Tebutt presenting. Anyways, Jane Grigson’s daughter, Sophie was on it cooking Singin Hinnies – a favourite of hers and her Mums. She was saying that, had Jane not died, she would be 80 this year. She spoke of Jane’s upbringing in Sunderland, where people were so poor that the kids didn’t have shoes even in the wintertime. Everyone ate Singin Hinnies, though, from Rich, Middle Class (like Jane) to The Poor. I’ve never had them. I shall endeavour to cook them soon. Most importantly, Sophie said that English Food is her favourite of her mother’s books.

Can’t Cook…Won’t Cook…

There are several ingredients in English Food that I have assumed that I won’t be able to cook, at least not in England. But watching television last night, it seems I can.

The Supersizers Go… Is a series showing off the eating habits of the English through the ages and last night they went Victorian. The presenters are a bit self-indulgent but it’s good mindless TV. Giles Coren and Sue Perkins tucked into giant game pies, calf’s ears, jellies, plum duffs, bad curries, croquettes, offal, offal and offal. It seems that English really food comes into its own here – many of Jane Grigson’s recipes are very similar to the dishes cooked then; in fact it was her daughter, Sophie that did the cooking. The main ingredients were butter and brandy, it seems, but it was all very restrained and frugal. Unless your very rich, or it was Christmas.

FYI: The Christmas as we know it now was invented in the Victorian era, courtesy of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens

One of things that really surprised me was the amount of game that our presenters were allowed to eat. One of the dishes contained snipe – I assumed that there are too rare to shoot these days, but obviously not. Searching on the web, I find that all the game birds that Jane Grigson lists in the game section of the tome are still legal game, including ptarmigan and wigeon. The other big surprise was that one meal’s centrepiece was a boiled calf’s head with the brain served in a garlic butter sauce. I thought that due to the BSE crisis, bovine brains couldn’t be eaten any more. It seems that I am wrong. It also seems that they taste vile. It also seems that I will be able to do the calf brain recipes. Damn.

On Channel 4 later that evening was Gordon Ramsay’s effort, The F-Word. I’m never sure whether I like the programme, yet I seem to watch it every week. This week he was fishing for elvers – baby eels – in Somerset. There is one recipe that uses elves in English Food, and I thought, as I have studied eels and elvers in the past that because elves numbers had dropped by 98 percent it would no longer be legal to fish for them, that they would be protected or something. Well, you have to have a special licence, but you can fish for them. If you want to buy them, they’ll set you back up to £525 a kilo. It took him 4 hours to collect enough for three measly portions. I know that the reason for the drop in numbers is not known, but surely fishing the remaining few is not going to help. I know I won’t be a part of it.

So it seems that there isn’t anything I can’t cook, but some things I won’t.

The Premise

The whole idea of my blog came from a conversation I had with my boyf about a woman who decided to cook every recipe in a cook book she found. I’m quite an enthusiastic cook and thought it would be a great idea to give it a try too.

I’ve chosen to use Jane Grigson’s English Food for a variety of reasons. First, I enjoy cooking all sorts of world dishes but have never really concentrated on English/British cuisine apart from the odd dish here and there; second Grigson is a great writer; and third, although it was published in 1974, it very much concentrates on traditional dishes and many ingredients are no longer widely used (or perhaps not at all!).

That’s the serious bit done – the main reason I’m doing the whole thing is to become a better cook by concentrating on it as my hobby and to have some fun – although I don’t know where on Earth I’m going to get some of the ingredients from, i.e. brains!!

So this is it. I have to cook every dish in the book as written by Jane – even if it contains something I don’t like, e.g. whiskey and salmon. I’m sure I can find someone who’ll eat it! I may need help with finding some ingredients. If I can’t get hold of something, I’ll use the best alternative as a last resort. Many of the recipes contain foods that I’ve never tried myself so I’ll be giving feedback on everything as I go along!

I’d also like help from you too – hints and tips, good suppliers, whatever – all help will be greatly recieved! Also if you’d like to suggest the next recipe or even try cooking the recipes along with me to start discussions about the best way to devil a kidney or whatever we might be attempting!

All I need to decide on is what I’m going to cook first…