Let them eat spoot

The cover of Traditional Foods of Britain

The cover of Traditional Foods of Britain

Most people have a bucket list of things they want to do before they kick the proverbial but I’m ticking off foods to eat, at least once. And they’ve got to be British.

I have yet to eat spoot, a sort of razor-shell clam, while softie, black butter, Norfolk knob, Devonshire split and medlar jelly are all on my wanted list. I really ought to have a red herring (if they still cure them) and a Caboc cheese – and talking of cheese nothing could be finer if I had some Carolina, moonlight or no.*

All these are uniquely British ingredients or dishes, among over 400 listed, described and tracked down in the most overlooked culinary book of the last 20 years, called Traditional Foods of Britain: A Regional Inventory. And it’s brought to us courtesy of the European Union.

This is no plug for Brussels. When it comes to a vote I will probably be ticking the box to quit but, forget straight bananas, this is one good thing the EU has done for us. Sad to say, few people know about it.

In brief, the EU, which loves lists, set about recording regional foods throughout Europe before they disappeared under the tide of globalisation sweeping across the planet. Italy and France are two nations which have held up well but Britain’s traditional foods such as Fat Rascals and pigs trotters, potted hough and polony have been scorned and forgotten in favour of chicken tikka masala and pizza.

This book has been achieved by the stalwart efforts of authors Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. What’s the point? Because we should take stock and value what makes up British taste “before we are smothered by the aromas, flavours and textures that may be delectable but tend to lack the emotional substance of our own back yard,” they say.

That’s a phrase which leaps off the page for me. Food isn’t just something to keep us alive, it’s part of our culture, of who we are. Fish and chips and steak and kidney pudding make up the emotional substance of our lives as much as work and family.

It’s a great book to dip into because it succinctly describes the history, look, taste and, albeit briefly, the cooking methods of everything from lily of the valley creams to paving stones. There are gaps. There is no mention of Henderson’s Relish or tomato dip but we’ll let that pass.

From what I can see the authors didn’t always get a great deal of help, either from officialdom or the manufacturers. And when they finished it no major publisher wanted to know so it was left to Prospect Books of Totnes, Devon, to perform what can only be described as a national service. It came out in 1999 and I have a copy of the 2004 reprint.

It has set me discovering new foods and others I had forgotten. It’s years since I had a whelk, at the old seafood stall on Castle Market which had a sign “Whelk spotted in North Sea” whenever they were available because the Japanese bought them all up.

And how long is it since I’ve seen a plate of winkles (also, sadly, missing from the book) although I used to eat them with a pin as a boy in our seaside caravan?

A knowledgeable reader of this blog recommended the book to me and I immediately bought it on Amazon. It was money well spent. There are still copies available. Get one. It’ll probably send you off in search of the Bedfordshire Clanger.

*A softie is a sweet Scottish bun, softer than a rowie. Black butter is an apple paste from the Channel Islands. Norfolk knob is a hollow rusk. Devonshire split is a rich bun for cream teas. Medlar jelly is made with a rarely found fruit. Red herring, a former West Indian favourite, is brined before smoked and not split like a kipper. Caboc is a Scots soft double cream cheese rolled in oats. Carolina is a pressed sheep’s milk cheese from Somerset.

Not just cheese in Wensleydale

Wensleydale Heifer's fish pie

Wensleydale Heifer’s fish pie

I’m feeling retro at the Wensleydale Heifer fish restaurant and grill so it’s ‘70s prawn cocktail,’ followed by fish pie and Baked Alaska. For a questing foodie, I know, this is a little shameful but I cannot ever recall eating the latter. So there’s a gap to fill.

You might ask why there’s a fish place in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales in a pub named after a cow but they just like their fish. Except they can’t do a prawn cocktail. Instead of the balloon glass (what else does ‘70s’ suggest?) it’s on a plate. Oh! I groan to the waitress. She says the chef couldn’t get it all into a glass but that’s nonsense.

I’m not saying it doesn’t taste fine with lots of prawns, a Marie Rose sauce spiked with Jack Daniels (although I needed the menu to tell me that) and paprika but this dish is really all about presentation and the fun of furtling at the bottom of the glass for the last prawn. So I thought I’d been had.

I know who to blame: Gordon Ramsay, who first ‘deconstructed’ this dish. At least, that was the defence of the last chef who served me something similar.

This blog is normally concerned with Sheffield, South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire while the Wensleydale Heifer, at West Witton, is in North Yorkshire. We are on holiday and this is our fourth visit down the years so we obviously like it.

I love the warren of little eating areas, old beams and quirky design although not the naff nursery-style pictures which have appeared in the main dining room. Nor the ‘optional 10 per cent service charge’ as we like to judge our own tips. It’s also a little pricy but standards are high and if you stay off the carte, lobster and steaks it’s not that painful.

Service is usually good so perhaps the waitress just forgot to carry our half-drunk proseccos into the dining room, unlike those of the previous two guests she took through?

We’re having lunch off the three course £21.75 prix-fixe menu. My wife has the scallop pakoras, lemon lentil daal and cucumber raita with coriander, cashew and coconut salad, which is £4 extra, so the kitchen should really have remembered to include the salad. Despite my wife being a lover of cashews, she doesn’t realise this component was missing until we reread the menu before dessert and consult our photos. Too late!

That said, the pakoras, fragments of very fresh scallop in a crunchy coating, were excellent but how much more would they have been with their cashews, coconut and coriander? So ask to keep the menu with you to check the kitchen hasn’t gone ditzy.

Wensleydale Heifer: cow's name, serves fish

Wensleydale Heifer: cow’s name, serves fish

The menu modestly declares the fish pie is famous so I have it and am not disappointed. It comes in a pan at the temperature of a nuclear reactor so the dish is still cooking at your table. Note that, I’ll be coming back to it.

The USP is the gorgeously crisp topping of toasted cheesy mash spiked with nutmeg. The creamy white sauce contains fennel, chopped boiled egg, capers and spinach so that takes up quite a bit of space before we get to the fish. Fish was there (smoked, white and prawns) but the kitchen needs to cut the pieces larger because the contents were dangerously approaching a modge. A tasty modge but still a modge. Turn the temperature down, lads.

My wife’s double crusted hake (a herb crust topped with crispy shallots) sat on a fine parmesan and herb risotto, well judged all round.

As a Baked Alaska virgin I was satisfied. The vanilla ice cream perched on a sponge disc, coated with meringue and garnished with shreds of candied lemon. The enjoyment is the contrast between cold ice cream and warm meringue but this is, in the end, a dish that’s all ‘fur coat and no knickers’ gastronomically. Much more rewarding was a rich, oozing chocolate fondant with Kirsch cherries.

Equally rewarding was the bill, which had missed out our pre-lunch proseccos and the two glasses of Pinot Grigio with the meal. As we had greatly enjoyed ourselves I pointed it out and the bill was upped from £50 something to £80.19, with service charge. I was thanked for my honesty but not offered a discount for it. No matter, I had already given myself one by neglecting to mention the £4 supplement on my wife’s starter with the missing cashew, coriander and coconut salad.

A lovely afternoon despite the niggles.


Not what I'd call a prawn cocktail

Not what I’d call a prawn cocktail

Baked Alaska with some fine sugarwork

Baked Alaska with some fine sugarwork

Probably the worst picture we've seen in a dining room

Probably the worst picture we’ve seen in a dining room

Don’t laugh, it’s a Summer Pudding

Summer Pudding - I didn't overlap the slices of bread!

Summer Pudding – I didn’t overlap the slices of bread!

Now I could have cheated. You could have viewed above a picture of the most perfect summer pudding, a swelling red dome full of berry fruit, juice trickling out enticingly at the bottom. Instead, it looks like a mop that’s been dabbing up spilled beetroot juice.

But kitchen life isn’t all perfectly risen soufflés and cherries cleanly stoned the first time, is it? This blog gives it to you, spills, burns and all.

Believe me, it tasted better than it looks. It’s not much but it’s mine and one big plus in its favour is that it has HELD TOGTHER and not collapsed in a jumble of soggy bread and fruit when upended from its bowl.

This is my ‘piece de saison,’ the summer pudding I make every year to celebrate the cornucopia of berries bursting with ripeness on the trees and bushes. Get me! Note I didn’t say supermarket. Part of me is worried about food miles and an equally important part doesn’t want to pay. This year I’ve kgone out and foraged so it was full of blackcurrants and cherries, backed up by bought strawberries and raspberries (my bushes have been raided by the grandchildren).

Summer pudding is a Great British Tradition and every time a foodie writes about it there is usually some learned reference to its beginnings as a ‘hydropathic pudding’ served up to patrons taking the waters in Eighteen and Nineteenth Century spas. That turns out to be a load of b$ll$cks.

According to the Hospitality Info Centre (www.hospitalityinfocentre.co.uk) there is no mention of it before 1902, in a little book called Sweets No 6 by S. Beaty-Pownall of the Queen Newspaper. And the fruit was stewed rather than just simmered before being poured into the bread-lined bowl. Things have been freshened up.

According to John Ayton in The Diner’s Dictionary the name Summer Pudding did not appear until the 1930s. It certainly wasn’t included in Massey’s Comprehensive Pudding Book of 1874 which lists over 1,000 recipes.

Some people get pedantic about what fruit you put in. Some say only redcurrants and raspberries while Delia goes for raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants in the ration of 4:2:1. Nigel Slater more or less agrees. Some cooks insist strawberries are a no-no but I can’t see why.

Personally I prefer those recipes which begin ‘Take what you have . . . ‘ and I had an awful lot of cherries and blackcurrants so they went in.

If people agonise over the fruit (don’t) they also worry about the bread. Forget sourdough (too dense for the juices to seep through). Get a decent white sliced, not one that will go slimy. Having said that I paid 75p for a sliced white loaf on the Moor Market and it did the trick nicely although the slices were the thickness of paving stones and I had to horizontally cut each into two.

By the way, some people replace the bread with fingers of sponge but I don’t think that is in the spirit of the recipe.

I use a Pyrex bowl and a good tip is to butter bowl rather than the bread itself so it sticks on well. And OVERLAP the slices. I forget which is why it looks as it does. Gently cook your fruit depending on what they are so cherries and blackcurrants got about four minutes in the pan with the raspberries and strawberries finished in residual heat. I used a spoonful or two of elderflower cordial as liquid (that cordial is proving very useful).

Always have more fruit that will go in the pudding because you can sieve the remained for sauce to pour over. On reflection I could have made the fruit a little sweeter but I was happy. In the autumn I make an Autumn Pudding with blackberries, plums and apples.

After so much pud I’ll have to go to a health spa to sort myself out.

STOP PRESS: Here’s the summer pudding I made the following year, 2016.

Summer Pudding

It looked good and tasted good!

I popped my cherry in Attercliffe.

Cherries are associated with sex

Cherries are the sexiest of fruits

I pull into the free car park besides the Diplomat massage parlour and prepare to pop my cherry. It’s what I do in Attercliffe at this time of year.

For some this steamy Sheffield suburb spells saunas, sex clubs, massage parlours and curries but for me it means cherries. Big, ripe, juicy – and free – fruit just there for the taking. Right now in the cemetery, between the gravestones erected by long-expired families, the cherry trees are beginning to crop.

It looks to be a very good year. As I write the first of the fruit is ready. Bright and dark red berries hang temptingly from the branches, not yet broken and torn down by children and yobs without the patience to pick carefully.

I reach up and pop a cherry in my mouth. Its sharp juices with that hint of sweetness explode on my tongue. You can see why cherries suggest sex: their ripeness, flavour, colour and shape cry sensuality. In the past the girls who sold cherries with the cry of ‘Cherry ripe . . . who will buy?’ as in Robert Herrick’s poem, were not just selling fruit.

The cemetery runs down to the River Don and nearby is the site of the old Hecla steelworks. Pollution from it is said to have made the location poor for vegetation but the cherries are certainly thriving.

I am not the first here. Someone has picked ‘earring’ pairs of cherries and hung them on the branches of other trees, one a fir, so it looks like a Christmas bauble out of season. The long pointed leaves of the cherry remind me of African shields.

Cherries in Attercliffe cemetery. Their leaves look like African shields

Cherries in Attercliffe cemetery

These cherries are small and sharp in flavour and as I move through the cemetery my fingers become rapidly stained with juice. I have brought a small step ladder which enables me to pick the fruit otherwise just beyond reach. These trees are big, tall and most of the cherries will go unpicked although many have already fallen, studding the grass with little orbs of scarlet. I reach to pick some cherries and find they have already been half eaten by birds.

Then I find a tree with larger, sweeter fruit. And another. I’m not greedy but I fill three plastic icecream tubs with cherries, at least a pound in each.

I have the cemetery all to myself, except for a man asleep in a tent pitched behind some bushes. I can see him when the wind blows back the flap. Empty beer cans surround the tent.

We have the biggest and the best ‘dessert’ cherries for tea, with the first garden raspberries. I use a cherry stoner to remove the pips. It’s not a relaxing occupation like topping and tailing gooseberries. Cherries catch you unawares, squirting juice or the pips flying out like bullets. But they tasted all the sweeter for being free.

The smaller ones will be for jam but I’m not going to extract every stone. I have a plan. I will cook down the cherries then rub them through a sieve, reserving the pulp. It works to a point. I don’t want to overcook so they’re still a little hard and I end up picking out each pip with the point of a spoon.

This takes an hour and I am in no mood to make jam now so leave the cherry pulp in the fridge. The following day I weigh the pulp, a little over a pound. My recipe advises 14oz sugar to every pound of fruit and a tablespoon of lemon juice. I get a couple of jars for my efforts, set on the third testing.

The left over cherries are still in the fridge. They will make a jelly so there is no need to stone them, thank goodness.

I may make a return trip to the cemetery but there are cherry trees all over Sheffield. I’m keeping quiet about some of the others!

Robert Herrick wrote: “Cherry ripe, cherry ripe/ Ripe I cry/ Full and fair ones/ Come and buy.” You can pay to pop your cherry in Attercliffe but these come free.

A bowlful of cherries

A bowlful of cherries

The Odd Couple

Cary Brown and Marcus Lane at the Royal Oak

Cary Brown and Marcus Lane at the Royal Oak

Do you ever wonder ‘What happened next?’ when a chapter in the life of a restaurant ends? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin.

When Cary Brown, former enfant terrible of the Sheffield restaurant scene, closed the doors of his ill-fated steak and fish London Club in Surrey Street for the last time in 2012 it was the latest in a series of eateries he had either owned or run: the Charnwood Hotel, Carriages, Browns, The Limes, the Mini Bar, Slammers, the Supper Club (and I may have missed out a few).

Then, strangely for a man who was never out of the newspapers and who inspired a generation of young chefs, silence.

Rib and chicken but where do we start?

Rib and chicken but where do we start?

A year and a bit later, beset by ill health, Marcus Lane decided to sell Rafters on Oakbrook Road, his culinary home for more than a decade. Quiet, modest, he was the man who told Michelin not to bother awarding him any more Bib Gourmands because he wanted to concentrate on the food, not the fripperies which ensure an entry. He’s the chef’s chef and got a gong from his peers for just that in the Eat Sheffield awards. But now he was taking it easy.

So it’s a lovely sunny Sunday in the Derbyshire village of Millthorpe, down the road from Owler Bar, and here’s Cary, pulling a pint of Seafarers Ale behind the bar of the Royal Oak, the little pub saved by villagers when there were plans to turn it into a house.

And who’s that in the kitchen, peeling the carrots and checking that the rib of beef in the poky little oven is progressing nicely? Why, it’s Marcus. He’s helping out his old mate, the pub’s landlord.

I think of two brilliant chefs in one tiny kitchen and wonder about the dynamics. Who’s in charge? “No one. We do whatever’s needed. Marcus doesn’t work for me, he works with me. The only time we fall out is over who’s going to have the ‘oyster’ of the chicken,” says Cary.

They make an odd couple but food in the pub is only part of the story. They do outside catering. The snug, which can seat 14 at a pinch, had been hired by a christening party. They are planning afternoon teas on the lawn.

“This is a community pub still used by drinkers so food will not take over,” says landlord Cary.

The Royal Oak only does food on Saturday and Sundays. On Saturday it’s whatever they feel like cooking – a Scotch egg, pizzette, pork scratchings – but it’s unlikely you’d get a three course meal out of it.

Sundays are traditional. “We cook the stuff we’d want to eat, a proper roast. You won’t find a water bath on these premises,” says Cary darkly. There is no starter, unless you count Marcus’s beautifully soft bread rolls, served in an upturned flowerpot, or choice of main. At £16.50 a head you share a big wooden platter piled with thick, pink slices of rib and hunks of chicken. Honestly, it was so good I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

The meats were very tasty and tender and the flavours were first class. Massive roast potatoes were golden and crunchy, soft inside. A pair of Yorkshire puddings towered upwards. There were little cubes of exquisite stuffing. Cary’s partner Shelley brought dishes of greens and cauliflower cheese. And there was a big jug of rich gravy.

It was the sort of meal you have dreams about on Saturday night but then are so often disappointed with the next day’s reality. This is probably the best traditional roast you’re ever going to eat. We followed it with very probably the best Bakewell tart, so light it could almost have floated in the air, and lemon posset (£5 each).

I ate as much as I could and took the rest home in a doggy bag. But I was ruined for the rest of the day.


Royal Oak, Cordwell Lane, Millthorpe, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 289 0870. https://www.facebook.com/royaloakmillthorpe/

(This meal was paid for)

I've got a plateful!

I’ve got a plateful!

My Bakewell tart was so light it could have floated away

My Bakewell tart was so light it could have floated away

The Royal Oak at Millthorpe

The Royal Oak at Millthorpe