Why the Clanger isn’t claggy any more


The Bedfordshire Clanger is a two course meal in a pastry pocket

I’ve dropped many a clanger in my time but never eaten one – until now. If you’ve never heard of the Bedfordshire Clanger think of a Cornish pasty shaped more like a sausage roll with a bit of fruit or jam at one end for dessert. That’s the clanger, not to be confused with a similar speciality from the neighbouring county, the Buckinghamshire Bacon Badger.

I came across it in the café at Wrest Park, in Beds, run by English Heritage, which charged £4.95 for something not that much bigger than a sausage roll and twice the price it is available at Gunns’ the bakers of Sandy who made it.

My version was a suet crust filled mostly with minced lamb and potatoes and, at one end, a spoonful of plum jam. There didn’t appear to be a pastry ‘bulkhead’ between meat and fruit although the pudding end was marked by two or three striations on the pastry. It was fun to eat although a little bland.

That great recorder of English regional food, Dorothy Hartley, had nothing to say on the clanger but there is quite a bit in Traditional Foods of Britain (Prospect Books 2004). It seems the clanger has had a culinary journey. It was originally boiled, not baked, and was rather like a meat roly poly with no separate compartment containing fruit. Instead dried fruit would be studded in the pastry. A clanger meant wives could concentrate on work, particularly straw hat making, while supper was bubbling away throughout the day. There were similar dishes like the Buckinghamshire bacon badger or Leicester Quorn bacon roll.

The meat which went into the clanger depended on how poor you were and what you could get. I have seen references to the leftovers of the Sunday roast and to bits of bacon as well as beef skirt or steak. At some point it became a two course meal.

I suspect the clanger I ate at Wrest Park was pretty effete compared to the original. A source from Maulden in Bedfordshire talks of a photograph “of four farm labourers sitting outside the Half Moon pub in Pepperstock sitting on a bench holding clangers over their shoulders like rifles.”

Gunns’ has been largely responsible for reviving the clanger, now available in a medley of flavours, after taking the decision to switch from boiling to baking. Bakery boss David Gunns says the boiled version was sticky and this might be a clue to the origin of the name clanger. It could possibly derive from the dialect word ‘claggy,’ the perfect description of the texture of any roly poly or plum duff.

Bedfordshire clanger before eating

Bedfordshire clanger before eatin

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.