Frugal January: Victorian Gruel from Oliver Twist (1837)

Straight after the usual exuberance and abundance of the festive season one feels the urgency of going on some sort of detox diet, and my January has been particularly frugal. This month’s frugality has given new importance to breakfast in my daily routine and made me more creative in my re-thinking morning porridge: oats, rye flakes, quinoa, or buckwheat, are all the rage in my water-infused morning staple together with chia seeds, linseed, dried fruits, nuts and spices. And so, as I was re-reading Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, I was struck by the idea that gruel perhaps would not be so unappealing to contemporary porridge-eaters as it was to Oliver and his companions, and in fact to generations of readers afterwards.

Most of you will remember the scene in the 1960s musical Oliver!, where a multitude of kids sings ‘Food, Glorious Food’, craving for sausages whilst dreading their daily meal of gruel, which the kids are indeed about to receive: a grey, insipid-looking, disgusting broth. In the novel, the scene is not as fantastic of course, but indeed gruel makes up the main staple of the poor little orphans’ diet, hence connected with bad health and abominable taste. In Dickens’ own words:


So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative […] of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. (Chapter II, Part I)


The gruel offered to Oliver & co. is so watery and with so little flour or grain in it to be called ‘thin gruel’, indeed a soupy drink, rather than an actual meal! Later in the novel, Mr. Bumble remarks: “‘Come, Oliver! Wipe your eyes with the cuffs of your jacket, and don’t cry into your gruel; that’s a very foolish action, Oliver.’”, with the narrator’s sneering that ‘It certainly was, for there was quite enough water in [the gruel] already.’ (Chapter III, Part II) Crying into Oliver’s own gruel would add even more misery to the already poor meal in front of him: gruel is the life of these little fatherless children — bland and unpalatable.


But what was gruel like anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A light, liquid food (chiefly used as an article of diet for invalids) made by boiling oatmeal (or occas. some other farinaceous substance) in water or milk, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients, as butter, sugar, spices, onions, etc.’. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852) by Charles Elmé Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria, we find various recipes for gruel with different types of cereals. The first type suggested (plain gruel) is simply made with a mixture of various crushed grains (groats), mainly oats, but could have also included wheat, barley, and even maize:



Mix a table-spoonful of Robinson’s prepared groats or grits with a tea-cupful of cold water, pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, and stir it on the fire while it boils for ten minutes; strain the gruel through a sieve or colander into a basin, sweeten to taste, add a spoonful of any kind of spirits, or else season the gruel with salt and a bit of butter.’


Francatelli here makes direct reference to a popular brand of the time, as he does later on the same page, when he suggests using Brown & Polson’s Indian corn to prepare yet another kind of gruel (‘No. 184. Brown & Polson gruel’). He lists three more possibilities with oatmeal and pearl barley:


No. 185. Gruel made with oatmeal.

In the absence of groats, oatmeal furnishes the means of making excellent gruel. Mix two table-spoonfuls of oatmeal with a gill of cold water; pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, stir the gruel on the fire while it boils and a glass of wine; stir the arrow-root while it is boiling on the fire for a few minutes, and then give it to the patient.

Observe that it is essential to perfection in the preparation of arrow-root, and, indeed, of all farinaceous kinds of food, that the whole of the ingredients used in the preparation should be boiled together.


No. 189. How to make gruel with pearl barley.

Put four ounces of pearl barley in a saucepan with two quarts of cold water and a small stick of cinnamon, and set the whole to boil very gently by the side of the fire (partly covered with the lid) for two hours; then add the sugar and the wine, boil all together a few minutes longer, and then strain the gruel through a colander into a jug, to be kept in a cool place until required for use; when it can be warmed up in small quantities.

As this kind of gruel is a powerful cordial, it is to be borne in mind that it should never be administered unless ordered by a medical man.’


Francatelli also describes another gruel option, with rice, ‘for relaxed bowels’ (no. 187). Francatelli’s gruels are, however, generally intended as a remedy for the sick, something energizing and simultaneously easy on the stomach. The working class of which Francatelli is talking about twenty years later is also a slightly wealthier class than the destitute of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Barley gruel, as a powerful cordial, cooked in wine and with added sugar, would have been far from being handed out to Oliver Twist: the gruel meal he is offered every day is without any doubt a gruel made of the poorest oatmeal with more water than needed, and no sugar to give the kids energy and keep them quiet. Indeed, Dickens shows in the novel how the opposition meat/gruel is one of class management rather than one of mere taste (as it is for us today), as Mr Bumble reminds us:


‘Meat, ma’am, meat,’ replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. ‘You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a[n] artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am unbecoming a person of his condition […]. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.’ (Chapter VII, Part II)


Meat would elevate the poor well above their condition, both socially and morally. The prohibitive costs of meat in the Victorian times made it a food which was indeed longed for by everyone, yet only really consumed by the wealthier classes. By giving him more than just gruel, Mrs Sowerberry made Oliver believe he could aspire to more than what he has now: not only should he aspire to become a better-off individual, but also to become a truly moral being with a soul, like the rest. Funnily enough, for the early Victorians this condition seemed to be acquirable via meat rather than a vegetarian diet – indeed, quite the opposite of today’s dietary tendencies!


Cinnamon-scented gruel


This is an adaptation of Francatelli’s recipe for barley gruel. I love barley’s comforting texture and taste but it takes quite long to cook so it is not for rushed meals, although it can be cooked in advance. With the addition of wine, though, it makes more of a pudding or evening treat than anything consumable before 12 noon!



50g pearl barley

25ml water

1 cinnamon stick

½ glass of red wine

1 tsp of sugar



  • Rinse barley with cold water.
  • Place barley and cinnamon stick in a saucepan with 900ml water.
  • Bring to boil and then cook on a low heat for nearly two hours (or until water has been absorbed).
  • Add half a glass of red wine and a teaspoon of sugar to the barley and cook for ten more minutes.
  • Strain the barley and serve hot or leave aside to cool down and re-heat later.



Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Francatelli, Charles Elmé. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). Stroud: The History Press, 2010.

Enduring classic?: Sweetmeats in ‘Pamela’

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Although it’s December 21st, this isn’t exactly a Christmas post; but I do think that today’s recipe is a good one for the festive season! This post actually marks a first at the Literary Kitchen: I am writing about a novel I didn’t enjoy reading. In fact, I found that wading through Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson is not a good way to spend the long-awaited holidays.

I seem to have a real problem with novels written in the long eighteenth century. My first experience was of the repetitive meanderings of Robinson Crusoe (1719) (I much prefer the postmodernist, postcolonial recreation of Friday by Coetzee in Foe). Then I delved into Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth. But my distaste for this century seems to be limited only to its novels – for example, I love The Rape of the Lock (1712) by Pope and The Way of the World (1712) by Congreve (both featured in our Literary History of Chocolate). Perhaps one of you can recommend a really good novel written in this period which will transform my opinion.

If you haven’t read Pamela, the novel is written as a series of letters from the servant girl Pamela to her parents, telling them of the attempts her master makes to change their relationship into something rather more seedy. The huge claims made for the novel on its cover, in its introduction, and in a lecture I once went to made me think that I must be missing something.

So I persevered in reading it, all the time trying to work out why the slightly whining voice of this overly virtuous teenage girl could still capture the attention of readers today. I understand that – at the time of publication – the epistolary form, the educated female narrator, the scandalous content, the tale of social transgression – was hard-hitting and shocking. But what is there in the novel for the modern reader to enjoy? The description of the arrival of the master’s sister and the emotional turmoil which that event occasions is, in my opinion, the most engaging section of the novel. As a twenty-first century reader, I found the satire rather flat. However, the novel’s saving grace, for me, is that there is plenty of food to analyse.

The clear social divisions between servant and master – which both Pamela and Mr B. transgress – are marked primarily in the novel by what the characters wear and what they eat. Those living in poverty are relegated to rye-bread and water; servants have access to bread and cheese, and the possibility of meat; and the rich consume wine, meat, hot chocolate, and many other delicacies. For most of the novel, Pamela exists in limbo within this culinary class system. Being sent off by Mr B. in a coach, she is given a parcel of ‘plum-cake, and diet bread, made for me over-night, and some sweet-meats, and six bottles of Canary wine’. These foods reveal her elevation above the level of a servant, even whilst her position in a moving coach, rather than in the appropriate seat at a stationary dining table, points to the precariousness and danger of her situation.

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In particular, the sweetmeats Pamela is given are a very curious food for her to have eaten. The term sweetmeat covers a wide range of sugary foods, including candied or glacéd fruit. According to The Food History Almanac, although wealthy ladies did not get their hands dirty too often in the kitchen, making sweetmeats was often their responsibility (The Food History Almanac, p.178). Does the presentation of sweetmeats to the servant Pamela, therefore, suggest something about her relationship with the master of the house? According to another history of sweetmeats, the industrial revolution of the 19th century and the fall in the price of sugar, the consumption of sweetmeats was limited to the aristocratic classes. This narrative is very similar to that which Nico and I found when we explored the history of chocolate, which Pamela also drinks several times in the novel.

Perhaps, then, many of the details of Pamela which I dismissed as being rather mundane have value as they were actually carefully selected hints to the audience about the title-character’s transgressive social situation. I would love to hear from any of you who have read this novel and can help me to reassess my initial reaction to a book which has been hailed as a timeless classic!

The recipe below is adapted from a book which is indeed an enduring classic – Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. I am aware that this book was written a century too late for Pamela, but it is the best record of doable pre-1900s recipes I have found.

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Janet Clarkson, Food History Almanac: Over 1,300 Years of World Culinary History, Culture, and Social Influence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013)

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, available on Project Gutenberg.



Recipe: Ginger Sweetmeats

150g treacle
75g butter
150g muscovado  sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1 handful candied orange peel
1 handful candied lemon peel
Flour – I used about 14 heaped tablespoons
1 egg
1.       Put the treacle into a large mixing bowl and pour over the melted butter. Add the sugar remaining ingredients (except the flour) and mix.
2.       Add the flour a spoonful at a time and bring the dough together with your hands to make a rich, thick paste that you can work with.
3.       Mould the dough into individual sweets.
4.       Bake on a metal tray at 150 degrees C for 15 minutes.


‘Neither East nor West’: Chicken Tikka in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

As it often happens, it is not quite the best lines of poetry that are remembered in popular culture: rather, I sometimes think, the most awkward-sounding. Kipling’s phrases ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ (from ‘The Ballad of East and West’, 1899) have been heavily exploited over the years. Interestingly, the former phrase seems to have inspired a lot of restaurant owners across the globe, and both are also referred to in the tragicomic adventures of the Anglo-Pakistani Khan family in the film East is East and its sequel West is West. However, the ballad continues (and ends) on quite a different note: while ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ and they shall never meet (at least geographically), Kipling continues saying that when two equals meet, ‘there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’ (l. 3, l. 95). Differences are intriguing, valuable, and ultimately enrich us. This blog post, in fact, would not have been possible without an ‘East meets West’ kind of collaboration (or ‘West meets East’, if you like):

  • Long ago, Franzi, from Germany, indicated Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a book she would like to see us make recipes from.
  • Much later (sorry!) I, Nico, originally from Italy, read it and much much later (very sorry!) made a recipe from this book.
  • Natasha, originally from India, gave me a beautiful box full of REAL Indian spices and ingredients (as opposed to what you get in the UK, or in Europe, for that matter), which have made my adventuring into further culinary fields possible.
  • Anum, originally from Pakistan, shared with me the recipe for her chicken tikka (which is the recipe I selected from The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and is also a reader of Mohsin Hamid’s books (as well as a follower of our blog, like all the other characters of this story).


It is not just serendipity that both East and West should be involved in the reviewing of the bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The story told by Mohsin Hamid is one of an Eastern man’s failed dream of the West, and perhaps can also be one of the Western reader’s failed expectations of the East, too. As the reader subconsciously becomes the ‘you’, who the protagonist Changez is constantly referring to (an ‘American sir’), we are lured to listen to the story of Changez’s life in the United States, much like Odysseus’ mermaids, or the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s ballad. Changez’s tale is as unavoidable as it is compelling, as charming as it is sinister, and as carefully crafter as it strives to appear casual. Changez takes us through the ups and downs of his life in America as a muslim at the dawn of 9/11: his prestigious education, his dangerous beard, his failed, sick American lover, and his morally ambiguous job. As dusk comes down on Lahore and on Changez and the reader having tea, a meal is ordered, which is seen to cause immediate suspicion in our Western self as the silent listener of Changez’s eloquent yet extravagant talking. As opposed to Americans perhaps, Changez says:


‘[W]e Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in our food. Here in Old Anarkali [a neighbourhood in Lahore] that pride is visible in the purity of the fare on offer; not one of these worthy restaurateurs would consider placing a western dish on his menu. No, we are surrounded instead by the kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat, the spiced brain of sheep! These, sir, are predatory delicacies, delicacies imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon. Not for us the vegetarian recipes one finds across the border to the east, nor the sanitized, sterilized, processed meats so common in your homeland! Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.’ (p. 115)


In another occasion in the novel, the narrator half-ironically warns his companion against the local food, as he thinks the Westerner will fear it as ‘poisonous’. According to Changez, the “predatory” and “non-squeamish” nature of Pakistani cuisine is what distinguishes it from that of bordering India and of the familiar United States; and to fit all stereotypes, I had to select ‘the tikka of chicken’ as the dish to prepare for this blog post, indeed perhaps the least adventurous of all these, and the most common to the Westerner!

Enjoy our chicken tikka, and no reason to be squeamish about it!


Recipe (from our blog friend Anum, tried by Nico)

Ingredients (for 2 people):

2 chicken pieces (I used chicken breast, but even better would be chicken leg or thigh)

4tbsp plain (or Greek-style) yogurt

1/2 tsp garlic paste

1/2 tsp ginger paste

3 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp crushed black pepper

2tbsp single cream

1 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp garam masala powder

1 tsp dried coriander leaves

1 tbsp sunflower/vegetable oil



  1. Place a few small cuts on the chicken.
  2. Whip the yogurt and cream together in a large bowl and add the chicken.
  3. Then add all the other ingredients together and marinate for up to 2 hours.
  4. Once the chicken is marinated, cook in the oven at a temperature of 200 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked (this may vary according to your oven). It may be that the chicken gives off water whilst cooking; if so, drain the water and continue baking in the oven.
  5. After the chicken is cooked, to give it the smoky flavour traditionally associated with chicken tikka, you can take a piece of charcoal and place it on the stove until it glows red. Then place it on the chicken and cover it with a lid or plate to infuse the smoke. I haven’t tried this as I didn’t have any charcoal, but it sounds exciting and it gives the chicken the smoky, barbecue flavour otherwise missed when using the oven to cook it.
  6. Anum recommends a mint or tamarind chutney to go with it if you like!



Mohsin Hamid. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

“Mellow fruitfulness”: An Ode to Autumn

In the past two years of the Literary Kitchen we have avoided the cliché of writing about Keats in the autumn. But it was MacNeice who – in the satiric poem ‘Homage to Clichés’ – wrote that the ‘automatic’, the ‘reflex’ or the ‘foreseen’ is strangely comforting. So here it is – a post on Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’.

Autumn fruit

‘Ode to Autumn’ is, in my opinion, the second finest of the six odes Keats wrote in 1819 (my favourite being ‘Ode to a Nightingale’). In it, Keats celebrates the season’s bountiful harvest and the rich, colourful beauty of the natural world which can ‘fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’. The skilful use of alliteration, consonance, assonance and rhyme encapsulate the harmony of man and nature, contributing to the musicality of the measured, unrushed iambic pentameter. In order to create stanzas sufficiently spacious to contain this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, Keats remakes the stanza form he had used in several of the other odes by increasing the number of lines from 10 to 11.

Of course, Keats’s paean to autumn is shot through with a number of other narratives and suggestions. As in another great poem – ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ – the fruit has sensual connotations:

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcan to cedar’d Lebanon.

                                                                                                                                (‘The Eve of St Agnes’)

Yet both poems contrast such plentiful harvests with the onset of winter – a pattern in Keats which many have linked with his awareness of impending death. In ‘The Eve St Agnes’ we note that the fruits are preserved rather than fresh; as is always a risk in Keats, their sweetness is on the verge of becoming cloying. Although in ‘Ode to Autumn’ the apples are preserved by being turned into cider, there is a sense that such preservation is insufficient. The poem ends with endings: birds gather to migrate, the night is coming, the fields are bare.

Crumble mix (2)

Many other perspectives are possible when reading this poem. When I studied this poem at school, my teacher pointed out that Keats’s representation of autumn belied the contextual situation in England. In the years leading up to 1819, England saw famine, the introduction of the Corn Laws, and the Peterloo Massacre. For many people in England, the September in which Keats wrote this great ode was a month of want and despair rather than of beauty and a bounteous harvest. Yet why didn’t Keats write about this? Was it because, for him, autumn is a symbol rather than a reality? Because he was sheltered from the upheaval around him (unlikely)? Is Keats elegising a natural order of things which is passing away even as he approaches his own death? I don’t know the answers to these questions but if anyone out there does, please get in touch!

From a modern point of view, one might engage in an eco-critical reading of the poem. In the ode, man and nature appear to exist in complete harmony. Many elements of the ecosystem which are now in considerable peril (the bees which visit the ‘later flowers’, for example) thrive within the poem. Is this a vision of nature flourishing within a healthy relationship with man which can be applied to the twenty-first century, an era in which we seem to have lost respect and wonder for nature?

I seem to have finished this blogpost with more questions than answers so I may have to visit a library sometime soon. Hopefully the recipe below will be more satisfying! Although there is no fruit crumble in ‘Ode to Autumn’, I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss out on this simple, seasonal recipe. I don’t normally follow any kind of recipe for crumble – I just put in what we have growing in the garden or sitting in the cupboard. The fun is in seeing how it turns out differently each time. So alter the recipe depending on what you have in.


4 apples
A handful of gooseberries
A handful of raspberries
A handful of wild strawberries
4 sticks of rhubarb
4 tablespoonfuls of sugar
1 tablespoonful of water
Cinnamon/ginger/nutmeg/mixed spice to taste
200g plain flour
150g butter
3 tablespoons sugar
A handful of oats
1.       Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.
2.       Prepare the fruit – wash and cut and place in the bottom of a ceramic oven dish. Mix in the sugar and the spices. Add a tablespoon of water. Put in the oven.
3.       Mix the dry ingredients for the topping and then rub in the butter.
4.       Remove the fruit from the oven and scatter the topping mixture over it.
5.       Bake for about 30 minutes, until the fruit is cooked and bubbling round the sides of the dish and the topping is golden brown.
6.       Serve hot with custard, cream, or crème fraiche.


A Tin of Biscuits: Petit Beurres in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929)


England has been swept by a real heat wave in the last couple of weeks; today, it seems like autumn is finally settling in – the sky has taken grey tinges, the trees are putting up their best colours, and one feels the need of putting an extra layer of clothes on, and using the oven. Today’s recipe comes from France, but is somehow linked to an Irish novel and an Irish author who has recently re-gained her popularity after a period of neglection: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973).

Over the summer, I (Nico) have been re-thinking my Irish culinary experiences as one of my students asked for my advice on how to best render ‘Kimberley biscuits’ mentioned in an Irish short story for an Italian audience. We soon started discussing the context where the reference to the biscuits was to be found. Were those biscuits essential to the story? In other words, would a non-Irish audience need to realize what kind of biscuits they are, or they could be effectively any kind of biscuits and the story would work anyway? When it comes to food and translating literature, I am always somehow reticent to let the reference go in the target text; especially as, after a quick Google search, it turns out that Kimberley biscuits are a typically Irish biscuit, produced by Jacob’s, comprising two variants, one with two gingery layers enclosing a marshmallow centre and a chocolate-covered one. I was surprised to hear that, as having lived in Ireland (and being a huge biscuit lover – I may say no to chocolate cake but I would never say no to a good biscuit) I had never come across those before, and so I have never tried them. Inevitably, we decided that the reference to those biscuits had to stay, as it appeared to pertain specifically to Irish culture and cooking.

Going back nearly a hundred years, I was intrigued to find a reference to French biscuits in Bowen’s The Last September (1929). As if using a magnifying lens, the novel looks in detail at the decline of a “big house” in early 1920s South of Ireland, something which Bowen would have known herself as she belonged to an upper-class Anglo-Irish family from co. Cork: the idiosyncrasies of the English visiting Ireland for the Irish themselves; the uncertain times before Irish independence; the social pretences and snobberies of the Irish upper class; finally, the story of Lois, a young Irish woman coming of age and making (or, in fact, letting other make) important decisions regarding her future and her love life. Lois, half-engaged with Gerald, a union which is strongly opposed by her family, ultimately turns him down under her aunt’s pressure, with surprisingly (at least, for me) little resentment. The expectation of her family is that she should educate herself, rather than marry so early (and someone of an inferior social class), go to an art school, and learn foreign languages. She is all affectation and confusion: Gerald, throughout the novel, is unable to really understand her feelings for him, something which often stirs Lois’ irritation.

Towards the end of the novel, just before we learn of Gerald’s death, two lady friends of his pay a visit to Lois and her family after their “break-up”. Lois seems not to want to engage with these ladies, and so finds excuses not to let them into the house. Ultimately, though, so as not to result too inhospitable, she goes in and fetches a tin of biscuits:


‘It’s locked and I’ve lost the key. I feel quite an outcast. That’s what has been the matter the whole morning. Do have something to eat – have some biscuits?’

‘Unless we just come into the drawing-room for one moment?’

‘I always think drawing-rooms in the morning are so depressing.’

Denise said she did not see how the same room could be much different, but it was no good; Lois seemed determined to keep them out. From the way she shifted her feet and stared round, you would have said she was expecting bad news momentarily: she talked so much that they hadn’t a chance to express themselves. She went in for a tin of petit beurres and offered it with an odd air, rather propitiatory. Lady Naylor called from an upstairs window that this was too bad, that she was so much distressed, she would be down immediately. ‘She spends whole mornings with the cook,’ said Lois. ‘I cannot think what they do. I believe they fence verbally. More biscuits?’

‘No, we shall spoil our din-dins. Denise, we must come. […] Any messages in Clonmore, Lois? Any message to Gerald?’  (p. 197)



For some reason, I find this scene rather odd: the two ladies visiting unexpectedly (a very bad manner typical of the English in Ireland, apparently), Lois refusing to even let them into the drawing room as it is too “depressing”, the general sense of the end of summer (they are not sure when they’ll play tennis anymore, and English tourists and visitors are returning to England), and the tin of biscuits – which have to be petit beurres – and not butter biscuits or shortbread. Petit beurres are French butter biscuits still produced today and with a long baking history, as they were first produced by Jean-Romain Lefèvre and his wife Pauline-Isabelle Utile in their patisserie called “biscuit factory” (“La fabrique de biscuits”) in Nantes in 1846, which would later become the famous French industry LU (from the two initials of their surnames). The biscuits were supposed to represent, with their rectangular yet curvy shape, the 4 seasons (with their 4 sides), the 52 weeks of the year (with their 52 dents), and the 24 hours in a day (with their 24 holes). The petit beurres then gained steady popularity by the end of the nineteenth century and are still very popular today. In 1897, famous actress of the time Sarah Bernhardt is said to have declared: “What is better than one Petit Beurre LU? Two Petit Beurres LU”. These words sounded already almost as a modern advertisement for the biscuits, and somehow testify their incredible popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, up to today. Their appearance in the Irish big house of the Naylors should perhaps be no wonder, as French biscuits would have been considered as the heights of sophistication (unlike current Kimberley biscuits today perhaps). The big house may be in decline in its failed hospitality and reception of guests, but the standard of the biscuits provided is far from crumbling.



Elizabeth Bowen. The Last September. London: Vintage Books, 2008.

‘LU: la grande histoire du petit beurre’, Le Parisien .





80gr unsalted butter

200gr plain, white flour (or a mixture of plain and strong white flour)

80gr white sugar

2gr baking powder

50ml whole milk



  1. Place the butter, milk, and sugar in a saucepan and melt slowly on a low heat stirring with a wooden spoon until all melted and smooth.
  2. Let the melted butter, milk, and sugar cool.
  3. Sieve flour and baking powder in a bowl, and add the melted batter to the dry ingredients. Stir until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough.
  4. Take the dough out of your bowl and place on a surface dusted with flour. Knead quickly and shape into a ball.
  5. Cover your dough with cling film and place it in the fridge to set for at least four hours. Because the dough is (as you’ll see) is rather soft, it needs some time to set in the fridge.
  6. Take the dough out of the fridge, knead and lay out on a dusted surface and roll it out so that it is roughly 3-4 millimetres high. Ideally, you would have a typical petit beurre rectangular cutter to cut your biscuits with, but any other shape is also fine. (I didn’t have that either, so I went for an oval-shaped cutter)
  7. Move your cut-out dough onto a baking tray previously lined with paper and put them again back in the fridge – this time for one hour only.
  8. The biscuits are now ready to go in the oven, at 160°C for 12 minutes (or fan 140°C for 6-8 minutes). Be careful they don’t get too brown on the outside – only the borders should become golden.
  9. Once baked, let the biscuits cool down and they are ready to eat! You can keep them in a tin for up to 5 days.

Michael Longley: Lost For Words

As our Northern Irish readers will know, stoically eating ice cream in the drizzle is something of a local tradition. If drizzle is not available, then usually a heavy downpour means that ice cream can be consumed in the car. I am privileged that my parents now live within 10 minutes’ drive of a fabled ice cream shop – The Cabin in Donaghadee. It’s a wonderful place to go for a poke (Norn Irish for an ice cream cone) and you should visit it if you’re in the area.

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Whilst being true to my roots by eating ice cream in a car at North Tyneside, England, the convergence of thoughts led me to think of Michael Longley’s great elegy, ‘The Ice Cream Man’, published in 1992 and set in Belfast. I recommend that you look this poem up online to experience the beauty and simplicity which is the hallmark of Longley’s poetry.

Perhaps it would be better not to call this poem a great elegy, but rather a great apology for an elegy. Longley begins by offering the reader a list of ice cream flavours which, as Naomi Marklew has pointed out, are inspired by traditional Christmas ingredients. This compounds the feeling that – as Marklew tells us – we are reading of an ‘idealised past’. We are reminded of childhood flavours and idyllic Christmas mornings unwrapping presents by an open fire.  

The poem has other connotations too. Surely the title alludes to Wallace Stevens’ better known elegy: ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’. The repetition of the title phrase in Stevens’s masterpiece conveys an overriding sense that nothing is stable or certain: everything melts like ice cream on a hot day. The echo of Stevens at the beginning of Longley’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ should prepare the reader (although in my case, it does not) for the contrast between the gentle lilt of Longley’s list of flavours and the stark statement that the ice cream seller has been murdered during the Northern Irish Troubles. In response to this, the speaker cannot find the words either to communicate the information about the event, nor to assuage the grief of those who lost a friend and family member. In place of an elegy, then, the speaker gives his readers a list of healing herbs and plants which echo in the silence of the uncompromising white space surrounding the poem.


The debate surrounding this poem is whether or not the list of plants is sufficient to signal the regeneration and hope which is a traditional ingredient of the conclusion of an elegy. Is Longley admitting the failure of words to provide comfort? Or does he remake the elegiac genre to fit the demands of a new conflict and communicate hope in new beginnings? I would like to think the latter. 

There is no recipe today because I haven’t been successful in remaking an ice cream cone at home! I don’t think anything would taste the same as an ice cream bought from  a van.


Naomi Marklew, Northern Irish Elegy, PhD Thesis (University of Durham, 2011), p. 71.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Cape, 1992).


Yogurt’s Ancestor: Mezzorado, or Soured Milk in Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (1963)


Kislo mleko on Šmarna gora

As I (Nico) was hiking in the mountains of beautiful Slovenia this summer, I came across one interesting dish: soured milk, or kislo mleko as they call it on the sunny side of the Alps. Made with one main simple ingredient (milk), it is nevertheless complex to make as it can easily go wrong – on one occasion, a farmer had to regretfully deny us soured milk, since that morning it just did not come out right.

Earlier this year, I re-read Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings in English) in preparation for a class. In this fascinating depiction of a Jewish-Italian family during the interwar and World War II periods, Natalia Ginzburg invites us to experience the everyday life of her family members, the Levis. Reading it now, I could not help spotting the various foods that are mentioned throughout the novel. A middle-class family, the Levis even in their liveliest and wealthiest moments always eat what we would find today as incredibly simple food: a clear soup (made with Liebig beef stock), an omelette, and of course soured milk or, as she calls it, mezzorado.

‘My father always got up at four in the morning. His first thought on waking was to go and see if the mezzorado had turned out well. Mezzorado was a kind of sour milk which he had learned how to make from some shepherds in Sardinia. It was in fact just yoghurt. In those days yoghurt was not yet the fashion. It was not sold as it is nowadays, in dairies and bars. In eating yoghurt, as in many other things, my father was a pioneer.’ (p. 31)

Mezzorado is, in Natalia Ginzburg’s memory, closely associated with her father. Giuseppe Levi, an Italian Jew, a professor of Human Anatomy at the University of Sassari, then Palermo, and finally of Turin, was obsessed with two things: mountains and soured milk. As Ginzburg describes it in the novel, he was truly a pioneer of yogurt as we know it today: often in the morning, with oats and dried fruits. Ginzburg remembers the difficulty of making the mezzorado through genuine descriptions of the interactions between Professor Levi and his wife, Natalia Ginzburg’s parents:

‘[…] the mezzorado was never as it should be, and always seemed to be to watery or too thick.

“Lydia! The mezzorado has not set,” my father bellowed down the passage. The mezzorado was in the kitchen, inside a soup-tureen, covered by a plate, and wrapped in a salmon-pink shawl that had belonged at one time to my mother. Sometimes in fact there was only a greenish watery mess with some lumps of marbly white stuff which had to be thrown away. The mezzorado was very tricky, and the smallest thing was enough to spoil it. It was enough if the shawl was a bit out of position and allowed a little air to seep in. “It has not set again today. It is all your Natalina’s fault,” my father bellowed from the passage to my mother who was still half-asleep, and answered rather incoherently from her bed. When we went away for our holiday, we had to remember to take with us the “mother” of the mezzorado which was a small cupful, wrapped in paper and tied with string.

“Where is the mother? Have you brought the mother?” my father would ask on the train, rummaging in the rucksack. “It’s not here, it’s not here,” he would cry, and sometimes it had actually been forgotten, and it was necessary to start again from scratch, with beer yeast.

My father had a cold shower in the morning. Under the lash of the water he let out a shout like a long roar, then he dressed and swallowed large cupfuls of freezing cold mezzorado with several spoonfuls of sugar.’

Natalia Ginzburg often records this type of exchanges between her family members in a way which is peculiar to her style of writing: she is a silent listener, reporting everything, yet hardly ever making judgements about her family; she is simply recreating a lost scene of former family warmth and affection. In the idiosyncrasies of Ginzburg’s family, we sense the daughter’s unconditional affection for her family: even the simplest dishes and the barest dialogues retain a deeper significance within the framework of her family world.

The mezzorado, as the author’s father correctly remarks, cannot be made without the “mother”: a bit like sour dough bread cannot be made without a starter (in Italian “madre”, mother), similarly milk should be soured with a starter (I have used yogurt, but you could use yeast, or leftover mezzorado). The mezzorado’s starter thus becomes almost a living component of the Levi family, with its “mother” status; it contains a bit of all the previous mezzorados and so we could extend the metaphor further, also containing a bit of all the members of this incredible family. After all, Professor Levi learnt this yogurt-making techinque in Sardinia, and brought it with him to Sicily and then Turin. Ginzburg’s family resembles mezzorado, where each and every one of its members become active parts of this unifying, yet lumpy texture that is soured milk.



  • 500 ml full fat (whole) milk
  • 125 ml full fat yogurt


  1. If milk is cold, you will need to warm it up in a saucepan for a couple of minutes and then let it cool down so that it reaches room temperature (or slightly above room temperature).
  2. Place yogurt in a large bowl and mix with half of the lukewarm milk. Then add the rest of the milk and keep stirring until it looks quite smooth.
  3. Wrap bowl with a towel (it is hot in Italy now – you’ll need a woollen shawl in the UK, or in the winter) so that bowl surface is completely covered.
  4. Leave to rest for 12 hours at least, then uncover and you should have your primordial yogurt, your soured milk or Ginzburg’s mezzorado!
  5. Keep a bit of mezzorado and put it aside to start mezzorado without using fresh yogurt. We are sure you’ll love it and want to make it over and over again!


Natalia Ginzburg. Family Sayings. Trans. D. M. Low. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1989.

Updating Miss Havisham

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Summer is the time when my (Amy’s) social media feeds fill up with pictures of weddings and everyone seems to be talking about the bride & groom’s choice of venue, colours, food, music… This summer the theme seems to be DIY weddings involving hand-crafted invitations, favours, decorations and – of course – cakes. I can now write that I have made my first cake for a wedding celebration, and that there are only a few crumbs of it left. Fortunately, this particular celebration was much happier than the aborted wedding I am writing about today: that is, Miss Havisham’s unsuccessful engagement to Mr Compeyson in Dickens’s Great Expectations.

As a beautifully decorated cake is at the centre of any wedding feast, it is to this that Dickens immediately draws the reader’s attention when they enter the gothic decay of Miss Havisham’s banqueting-chamber.

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.


“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again point with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

As Great Expectations progresses, the “rotted bride-cake” comes to represent Miss Havisham’s rotted, ruined heart. Although inanimate, the cake is brought into a dreadful, fungoid life, whilst its owner, although still alive, approaches the condition of a corpse. The hint of Dickensian humour (‘greatest public importance’) does little to alleviate the horror Pip describes as he witnesses this ghoulish object. Miss Havisham’s wedding cake is a travesty of the many other cakes which we find at the centre of Dickensian festivities (such as the Twelfth cake in A Christmas Carol), whilst the jilted bride is a tortured echo of the happy couples at the conclusions of David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House (to name just a few).

In a blog post on cakes in fiction, the Guardian’s John Dugdale takes the symbolism of the “rotted bride-cake” one step further: “the way Dickens dwells on the grotesque details of decay implies that it depicts more than just Havisham herself, conceivably encompassing a Victorian Britain paralysed and made rotten by its sexual taboos”.  To these taboos can be added the rusted machinery of the social hierarchy Miss Havisham is trapped within. It is the same social, patriarchal structure which condemns Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock to face a similar fate of death-in-life.

I’m sure many parallels can be made between Dickens’s England and our current post-referendum UK – but I’ve had enough of politics in the last week to clearly formulate or articulate such links. Instead, I want to celebrate the many marriages of my friends which have taken or are going to take place in 2016. And for that reason, the recipe below is for decorating an updated, modern wedding-cake which will replace any memories of Miss Havisham’s decaying feast. Marriage, of course, is Dickens’s ultimate symbol for the resolution of social tensions, the eradication of past mistakes, and a positive outlook on the future.


Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

John Dugdale, ‘Books best bakes: cakes in fiction from Dickens to George RR Martin’, The Guardian, 8 October 2015,



Below I am only going to give instructions for icing a 20cm diameter wedding cake. This is an extremely easy method and does not require any specialist equipment beyond a few cutters. If you want to see a recipe for the fruitcake itself, visit this blogpost.

500g marzipan
2 tbsp apricot jam
800g shop-bought fondant icing
A range of food colourings, preferably gel rather than liquid
Icing sugar for dusting
1.       Turn the fruitcake upside down to give a flat surface for icing. I prefer to ice in-situ – so I put my cake on the cake stand.
2.       Heat the apricot jam in a pan with a teaspoon of water. Use a pastry brush to brush onto the outside of the cake – this is the glue that will hold on the marzipan.
3.       Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead the marzipan to soften, then roll it out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the marzipan round your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Press the marzipan into place, using a knife to smooth any ripples, and cut to size. (Eat the spare marzipan 😉 .)
4.       If possible, leave the cake to sit for a day so that the jam has cooled and the marzipan dried out.
5.       Lightly moisten the surface of the marzipan with water.
6.       Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead 600g of the fondant icing until soft, then roll out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the icing onto your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Smooth into place and cut off the excess.
7.       Divide the remaining fondant icing into 4 blocks of about 50g each. Knead your selected food colourings into each block until even colours are reached. You should have 4 different coloured blocks.
8.       Lightly dust the work surface with icing sugar and roll out your 4 colours. Using the cutters, cut your desired shapes (I used the cutters in the pictures above).
9.       I cut my icing into different sizes of flowers. I then layered the flowers, using a bit of water mixed with icing sugar as glue to hold them together. Let these dry for about 10 minutes.
10.   To attach the flowers around the base of the cake, mix a little water and icing sugar to act as glue. Put some of this mixture on the back of each flower and stick onto the cake.
11.   Add more flowers to the top of the cake to complete the decoration.





Not Quite Scones, Not Quite Biscuits: Welsh Cakes! From Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1954)

Welsh cakes 1

I (Nico) have never been to Wales. So far, my only points of “contact” with Wales have been:

  • Dylan Thomas
  • a few Welsh people met in England (mainly students)
  • the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (which may or may not have been popular in Italy during my childhood because of a very young and very charming Hugh Grant!)

Now, I understand this cannot mean I know a lot about Wales – I also have to admit, I have never eaten welsh cakes made by a Welsh person, whether in Wales or outside Wales. So, I am really not the best person to talk about Dylan Thomas or welsh cakes, and so I hope you’ll forgive me. But Wales has always summoned idyllic images in my head, and not because of Hugh Grant (who is not from Wales anyway), but because of the Welsh accent: it is softer, even softer than the English spoken on the Atlantic coast of Ireland or in certain parts of the south of England; much, much softer, lulling the listener to a land of dreams.

Dylan Thomas knew well how to make the most of the subtle powers of the English language, and, even though he never uses the Welsh language itself, he makes use of Welsh English, and elements of “Welsh-ness” abound in his works. It was first when reading Under Milk Wood that I came across the notorious welsh cakes; and only much later I would find them in their actual physical form in a Marks & Spencer’s, or Tesco’s, in the UK. The addition of the sweet-sounding adjective “Welsh” itself already lures us into a world of sugar and butter, softness and caresses. Welsh cakes do not have the same solid structure and the hidden texture of English scones, but their thinness (they are way “slimmer” than scones, or American biscuits) is indeed deceitful, as they are packed with even more flavour, and comforting butter, than their English counterparts. After all, Wales is the land of “cwtches”: a cwtch is for the Welsh a cupboard (!), but also (and most commonly) a hug, or a cuddle. The word was voted in 2007 the nation’s favourite word, and we can hardly wonder why: the sounds of the word itself summons up closeness, proximity, embrace, with its near-impossible combination of consonants and the hushed sound of the Welsh “w”. And, according to one Welsh person that I know, a cwtch is “more” than an English “hug”.

And effectively Under Milk Wood is a play of affections. A hymn of love for Wales, and replete with all things Welsh, from laverbread to Welsh wool and beer, this radio drama revolves around a small, imaginary yet very realistic, community in a long-gone Wales, and the (at times, arrested) developments of their inhabitants. In the Welsh village of Llaregub, frozen in time as recreated by Thomas’ imagination, the villagers dream of their dead beloved, and welsh cakes make their appearance when Evans “the Death” (what other name for an undertaker?) remembers his mother preparing these simple, delicious sweets in the snow:




Evans the Death, the undertaker,




laughs high and aloud in his sleep and curls up his toes as he sees, upon waking fifty years ago, snow lie deep on the goosefield behind the sleeping house; and he runs out into the field where his mother is making welsh-cakes in the snow, and steals a fistful of snowflakes and currants and climbs back to bed to eat them cold and sweet under the warm, white clothes while his mother dances in the snow kitchen crying out for her lost currants.


We can hardly imagine undertakers to have been young once, let alone small children, and so the picture of a cheeky child stealing snowflakes and currants from his mother is particularly moving. Like welsh cakes would have to be eaten with icing sugar on top, indeed perhaps the snowflakes of Wales or Snowdonia, cover and preserve everything and everyone for ever in Dylan Thomas’ memory. Since I have learnt how to make welsh cakes this year, I have completely fallen in love with them: smooth on the palate, buttery in their texture, and just that tad spicy. Try and make them for breakfast and surprise your loved ones! But remember: they are best enjoyed with a “cwtch”.




  • 225g plain flour
  • 100g butter
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 50g raisins (the original recipe would say currants, but I think it is really up to you!)
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp allspice (or mixed spice if you prefer a more spiced flavour)
  • 1 egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • A little milk



  1. Place flour, baking powder and the spices in one bowl.
  2. Cut the butter (room temperature) in small pieces and rub it into the dry ingredients. It has to have a sand-like texture.
  3. Stir in the sugar and dried fruit.
  4. Add the egg and then mix to form a dough.
  5. Add a little milk to make the texture less dry.
  6. Roll the dough out on a floured surface so that it is a couple of centimetres thick.
  7. Use a pastry cutter (or a glass!) to cut out round welsh cakes.
  8. Cook the welsh cakes on a lightly greased frying pan (or a bake stone if you have one!) until golden. (You may need to flip the welsh cakes so that both sides become golden, and also make sure the heat is not too high or the cakes will not cook inside)
  9. Serve hot with butter and sprinkled with sugar – the Welsh way. Equally delicious with jam or any other sweet spread you like!




Recipe adapted from website


Celebrating Summer?: William Atkins’s ‘The Moor’

Now that spring has arrived (despite the rain and cold in Durham over the past week or so I am defiantly eating ice-cream and refusing to wear my coat), your thoughts, like mine, may be turning to the outdoors. Of course, my plans to undertake an expedition to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall will probably remain just that – plans – for quite a while. Although the romanticism of such a journey – free from the shackles of modern life and at one with nature – is attractive, the reality of lugging a trangea stove and tent around the damp muddiness of the north of England is enough to make one pull the duvet over one’s head. Writer and editor William Atkins clearly has more stoicism than I, as he both planned and succeeded in walking across England’s moorlands. He recorded his journey in the exquisitely written book, The Moor: Lives, Landscapes, Literature (2014). This is a skilful interweaving of travelogue, natural history, political commentary, and literary meditation. in it, Atkins presents England’s moors as inhospitable, hauntingly beautiful, and absolutely vital to our society. Progressing northwards from Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, Atkins stops at the location of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and the famed Yorkshire ‘setting’ for Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. He is an observer during grouse shooting season and a visitor to Dartmoor Prison, which maintains an eerie background presence in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Atkins’ walking boots must have been well worn from wading through waterlogged, acidic soil by the time he reaches his final destination, Spaunton Moor. From the beginning, the story of Britain’s moorland is one of human exploitation, intensifying with increased wealth and technology. Atkins is committed not just to literary pilgrimage but to elegising this declining landscape. Refusing to see the moors through the monochrome glasses most of us wear, he finds surprising flashes of colour in the flowering heather and the glimpse of red grouse. DSC_0148 (2) It may be ironic, then, that Atkins when Atkins tucks into a humble Cornish pasty it is one produced for a national supermarket chain rather than made from scratch in a local kitchen. Unlike the moors, the Cornish pasty is far from being threatened. The pasty has been a central part of British food culture since the thirteenth century; justifiably so, since the rich buttery flavour of the slightly flaky pastry is absolutely delicious. Skilfully made pastry transforms the humble swede, onion and potato into a delectable feast. Originally baked without meat, the pastry is cheap to make and robust enough to transport. It was therefore the ideal food of Cornish miners, who ate the shell barehanded and threw away the grimy thick braid along the spine of the D-shaped pie. For those Cornish pasty purists among you, my recipe is hardly authentic. However, I have found that it produces more reliable results in my kitchen than a 100% traditional recipe. It’s easier than it looks, so give it a go. Recipe

400g plain flour
200g butter
175ml very cold water
150g potatoes
150g beef
1 onion
100g swede
Beaten egg
1.       Mixed the flour and salt in a large bowl. Grate the butter into the bowl. Mix roughly.
2.       Add the water and bring together to a rough ball. Do not overknead as this may make the butter melt. By keeping the pastry cold you will ensure that it produces a flaky case for the filling.
3.       Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for around 30 minutes.
4.       Slice the vegetables into small cubes.
5.       Divide the pastry into about 5 portions, depending on the size you want. Shape each portion into a ball and then roll out into circles. I find using a cereal bowl as a template helps here.
6.       Place the filling on each circle, working from one side to the other so that the ingredients are in rows.
7.       Brush a little beaten egg around the circumference of the circles, and then fold them over like a calzone pizza. Crimp the edges to make sure the pastries remain shut.
8.       Place each pastry on a greased baking tray. Brush with more beaten egg.
9.       Bake for 40 minutes at 180 degrees centigrade.