Funny how it can take somebody looking from the outside for you to realise how special something is. Britain is often accused of having a poor culinary culture. Somewhere between the Industrial Revolution, Spam and the Chorleywood bread process, we lost our way. But that doesn’t paint a full picture, and our baking heritage is a case in point.
Belgian food writer Regula Ysewijn has been fascinated by Britain since childhood. In this, her new cookbook (Murdoch Books, £25), she delves into this country’s rich history of cakes, rolls, pies and breads. What better time, providing you can find flour, to follow her journey?
The book covers the full range (or at least what’s possible in 260 pages) of British baking. There are cakes, of course, biscuits and buns, fritters and oatcakes, breads and pies. Its title reflects the historic significance of regional ingredients, and each recipe comes with a well-researched biography, making it essential reading for history buffs.
There are classics such as Victoria sponge and digestive biscuits, and regional bakes – think Staffordshire oatcakes, London pie and mash, Cornish saffron cake. The intro on ingredients and equipment will aid amateur bakers, while seasoned ones will find many obscure gems – I’d never heard of a Kentish huffkin.
I’m a keen bread baker, but less competent when it comes to cakes and pastry. I opted to test a range of recipes based on what ingredients I could find, new challenges and some things I’m fairly confident with.
Victoria sandwich cake
The simplest cake in the British canon, yet this was my first ever attempt. I would’ve liked a little more direction: for example, should the butter have been chopped into smaller pieces? Arguably yes, as it remained a little lumpy in the final batter. The resulting cake won top marks for flavour, but was, probably due to the butter confusion, a little stodgy.
Classic white tin loaf
If you want good toast, your bread needs fat, which prevents it drying out. So the addition of butter (diced) gave this most British of breads the optimal texture. Untoasted, it was soft without the insipid sponginess of a mass-produced loaf. It was nutty, sweet and, when toasted, sensational with butter and Marmite.
A Northern Irish and Scottish favourite, the tattie scone is a potato pancake that makes a wonderful accompaniment for any or all components of a fry-up. The recipe is simple, though I had to use intuition in places: should the potato be peeled before boiling? How long should it boil for? Nevertheless, the resulting fried scones, with sausages and eggs, were a hit.
In many ways it’s a wonderful book, filled with historic and contemporary British bakes that we should perhaps be more proud of than we are. The recipes aren’t foolproof – sometimes, they require prior knowledge. Yet the positives outweigh any pitfalls, and anyone who is interested in British baking history will thoroughly enjoy Oats in the North.