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.

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.

Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare


Today – the 23rd April 2016 – is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Recently, I went to see the amazing National Theatre Live performance of As You Like It (starring Rosalie Craig as Rosalind). The imaginative and daring staging of the forest did full justice to the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s vision of the Forest of Arden. The dim lighting, the sharp angles of the trees, and the ominous sounds of woodland animals evoked a strong sense of the anti-pastoral within which the characters celebrated their pastoral freedom from the court. Within this indeterminate space  – where the “winter wind” bites sharply – a group of lords fleeing the urban world gather for a meal of wild fruit. This meal is both a recognition of nature’s provision and of the difficulty of surviving only on what can be scavenged. This is one of the reasons why I love Shakespeare – he can never be pinned down within a neat web of interpretation. There is always something to debate and discover about his imaginative worlds.

There is no recipe this week. Instead, we have a quick quiz to test your knowledge of Shakespearean sustenance. Which of these foods actually appear in his plays?

1. Peacock and swan stew
2. An ill roasted egg
3. Cheese and garlic
4. Fish with chickpeas
5. Dormice
6. Pigeons, hens and mutton – in one meal!
7. Sea urchins
8. Dates and quince in pastry
9. Saffron pies
10. Ostrich, cumin and honey

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Answers: all these foods were eaten in the Renaissance period, but they don’t all appear in Shakespeare’s plays. The ones which do are: an ill roasted egg; cheese and garlic; pigeons, hens and mutton; dates and quince in pastry; and saffron pies.


The crème de la crème of afternoon tea: Chester cakes in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961)

I came to Muriel Spark by a rather odd route: through the poetry of Louis MacNeice. If you follow this blog regularly you will probably be slightly bored of the fact that I frequently mention my absolute passion for MacNeice’s writing. If you feel that thought brimming up inside your mind, just go and read MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and hopefully you will understand why my ideas circle back to him.

In the anxious days of 1944, Spark – stranded by a late train in the middle of blacked-out London and vulnerable to the flying doodlebug bombs – found shelter with MacNeice’s maid whilst the poet and his wife were away. Unaware of the identity of the house’s owner, Spark admired the ‘enterprising sort of library’ and pondered whether the eccentricity it displayed was the ‘expression of a new and living system of thought’. When she discovered that the house, in fact, belonged to one of the great poets of the time, Spark sought some transference of brilliance by touching his books and pens.

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Many of us have probably done that. I certainly did when reading writers’ manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Tolkien!) and later in the Irish Writer’s Museum in Dublin (Yeats!). But Spark’s reverent contact with MacNeice’s possessions generated more success for her writing career than my sighting of James Joyce’s suitcase in the Martello Tower at Sandycove.

So perhaps part (a very small part!) of the credit for Spark’s renowned serio-comic novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), can go to MacNeice. Like her visit to his house, the novel is shadowed by the tumultuous political upheavals of the 1930s and World War Two. Miss Brodie, a teacher at a girl’s school in Edinburgh, combines a ‘progressive’ educational philosophy with a lot of sympathy for Mussolini’s Italy. At one moment Miss Brodie states that ‘education is a drawing out, not a putting in’, whilst in almost the next breath she suggests that one of her students becomes involved in the Spanish Civil War. Thus, the humorous satire of Miss Brodie’s character is constantly held in tension with a more troubling sense of menace.

Like Mussolini, Miss Brodie seeks to control the world around her, hand-picking a group of pupils – who come to be known as the Brodie Set – at the girl’s grammar school where she teaches. The aim: to transform them into the crème de la crème. She also seeks to control the male teachers at the school, approaching one man in particular (the eligible bachelor Gordon Lowther) through his stomach.

She shops and cooks for him, force-feeding him Chester cake so that he does not lose weight:

And she made him eat a Chester cake, and spoke to him in a slightly more Edinburgh way than usual, so as to make up to him by both means for the love she was giving to Teddy Lloyd instead of to him.

‘You must be fattened up, Gordon,’ she said. ‘You must be two stone the better before I go my holidays.’

He smiled as best he could at everyone in turn, with his drooped head and slowly moving jaws.

When I first read this I assumed that Chester cake was either English, as the name suggests, or a Scottish recipe. I was surprised to find that it is actually based on a traditional Irish traybake. I also realised that I had unknowingly eaten this in Northern Ireland, or seen it sitting quietly amongst the more flamboyant fifteens and malteaser traybakes which are ubiquitous in Belfast’s coffee shops. In Dublin, Chester cake is known as ‘gur’ (gutter) cake because of its cheap ingredients, which comprise mainly of leftovers. Irish food blogger Catriona (of tells us that the Irish name originally came from an old Dublin word for a young, mischievous, working-class boy – a gurrier – who would scrounge cake and bread remnants from bakeries in order to make this treat.

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The poor origins of the Chester cake seem far removed from Miss Brodie’s faux-upper-class airs and her fabricated Edinburgh accent. But, perhaps, her desire to fatten up Mr Lowther is tempered by a Scottish Presbyterian dislike for earthly indulgence and a horror of waste.

The delicate yet masterful pouring of tea and serving of cake seem to be the perfect setting for the exercise of power. Miss Brodie is not the only character who asserts herself through this simple ceremony: whoever has charge of the teapot and wields the cake-knife is in control of the tea-table (writer Gill Fyffe depicts a similar tea-time experience in another Scottish boarding house in her memoir LifeBlood). In her exquisite depiction of the tensions, allegiances and betrayals at each of these afternoon teas, Spark manages both to depict a segment of mid-century Edinburgh society and to gesture towards much more serious negotiations in the political realm.

So I advise caution when choosing who to invite round to share the recipe below! And make sure you are holding on to the teapot.

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Muriel Spark, ‘The Poet’s House’, in The Golden Fleece: Essays (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 2000).
Catriona, ‘Gur Cake’,


300g plain flour
150g unsalted butter
Some ice-cold water
2tbsp sugar
1 egg
400g mincemeat (see our mince pie recipe for how to make this at home)
Breadcrumbs (from 3 slices of bread)
1.      Rub the flour and butter together until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add in the egg and a little cold water. Bring together into a dough, adding more water if necessary. Try not to overwork the pastry.
2.      Wrap the pastry in clingfilm and put in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
3.      Mix the mincemeat with the breadcrumbs.
4.      Grease a 20cm square baking tray. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
5.      Remove the pastry from the fridge and separate into two portions. One portion should be 2/3 of the dough.
6.      Roll out the 2/3 portion and lay in the baking tray. Fill the pie with the mincemeat mixture.
7.      Roll out the 1/3 portion to make the lid for the pie. Put it on top, crimping the edges with a fork. Make a few holes in the lid to let the steam out.
8.      Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
9.      Cut into squares and serve cold.


The Flavour of Scotland: Haggis, neeps & tatties, and Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ (1786)


Edinburgh Castle

It is Monday, 25 January, and the weather is not the greatest in Edinburgh, Scotland: it is all one grey air, the colour of the houses running out to the sky, and becoming one with it. And yet, one can feel a vague excitement around town. Today, in Scotland (in fact, all around the U.K.) people are celebrating the 257th anniversary of a rather special poet—Robert Burns, the national Scottish bard. In a few hours’ time, these will be congregating around a wine- and whisky-infused meal of haggis, neeps & tatties (the latter Scottish terms for swede and potatoes), traditionally introduced by a music of bagpipes, and potentially followed by a cranachan (a Scottish pudding made of oats, raspberries, honey, whiskey and cream—there are some variants to this). According to the legend (or better the official Scotland website), the tradition of Burns Night (or Burns Supper) originated in 1801 when some of Burns’ acquaintances and appraisers of his poetry met to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his death, and decided to meet again to celebrate his birthday on 25 January. Suddenly, more and more started organizing Burns’ Suppers over the years (even Sir Walter Scott organized one in 1815), and Burns Night became a real social and cultural phenomenon, spreading well beyond the Scottish border.

So why do we eat precisely haggis to celebrate Burns Night? It is correct to suppose that in order to celebrate one’s birthday it is only fair that one should pick that person’s favourite dish, and we have reason to believe that Burns might have been partial to haggis—for its taste, but also because of its political, nationalistic connotations. In 1786, Burns wrote a poem, ‘Address to a Haggis’, in Scots, celebrating it as the ‘great chieftain of the sausage race!’. Haggis is (our vegetarian and vegan friends should stop reading here) a sort of sausage made with oatmeal, sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart, spices and beef fat, and is generally associated with Scotland, although variants of it were said to be found in Greece, France, and England. To celebrate the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth at the Literary Kitchen, not only have we prepared haggis, but we have also interviewed Dr Vivien Williams, from Glasgow University, where she works for the project ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ to produce a multi-volume edition of the Works of Robert Burns, on the significance of “haggis” for Burns.


Left to right: neeps, haggis, tatties

  1. Why does Burns decide to write a poem on haggis? What is the significance of haggis to him?

Haggis can be found easily and cheaply in pretty much all Scottish supermarkets and butchers’ shops today, but it was considered to be a luxury food in Robert Burns’ time. One wouldn’t have it every day: it was a dish for celebrations, and special events. It was very much a Scottish dish, but not everyone could afford it. It is therefore entirely possible that we should interpret Burns’ poem not so much as an ‘ode’ to this speciality of Scottish cuisine, but as an ironic take on those who would revere it!


  1. Why does Burns mention other cuisines in ‘Address to a Haggis’?

Robert Burns does sometimes use a critical contrast between Scottish and foreign traditions as a literary topos in his poems and songs. One occasion is that of the song ‘A Fiddler in the North’, also known as ‘Amang the Trees’. In this work Burns contrasts at the “foreign squeels”, “capon craws an’ queer ‘ha ha’s’” of Italian castrati, so popular on British stages at the time, with the true, authentic sounds of ‘Caledon’ who played ‘pibroch, sang, strathspey, or reels’. The same thing happens in Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’. The “French ragout”, “olio”, and “fricassee” in his poem symbolise refined food – and yet none who eat them would ever look down on haggis “wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view”.


  1. Can you tell us a little bit about the connection between haggis and the bagpipe for Burns/in Scotland?

As emerges from the two poems mentioned above, Robert Burns himself attributed national value to bagpipes and haggis alike – respectively the sound, and the flavour of Scotland.

Today Burns Suppers aren’t Burns Suppers without haggis and a bagpipe. And of course the ‘presence’ of Robert Burns! which is conveyed through the ‘Address to a Haggis’, and the Immortal Memory speech. Haggis, with its neeps and tatties, is the Scottish national dish; bagpipes are the Scottish national instrument: what better way to celebrate the Scottish national poet?


Recipe: How to Cook Haggis, and Make “Neeps & Tatties” plus a Whiskey Sauce


1 haggis (in Scotland, you can buy it at the butcher’s, in most supermarkets and tourist shops—for this blog post, I preferred getting it from a local Edinburgh butcher suggested by our lovely friend Natalie; this was about 500gr and enough for two people)

1 swede (neeps)

5 medium-sized potatoes



Salt & Pepper

100ml whiskey

100ml double cream



  1. Most haggis packages will tell you how to cook it, but I followed again Natalie and her husband’s recommendations to cook it in the oven in a water bath, and it turned out quite well! Prick the packaging with forks before putting it into the oven or it might explode (note, that happened to me…). Place haggis in a tray with about 2cm of water and cook in oven for 180°C for 50 minutes.
  2. Boil swede and potatoes in two separate pans, in salted water.
  3. Drain swede, add butter and make mash with masher – season with salt and pepper.
  4. Drain potatoes, add butter and repeat procedure as with swede, add a little milk too if you like your mashed potatoes to be super creamy.
  5. When haggis is ready, take out of its packaging and it is ready to serve!
  6. If you have a whiskey bottle flying around (it has to be Scottish of course!), then you can make a nice whiskey sauce to go with haggis: now, in order to make this you have to set the whiskey on fire, so I will report recipe as I have seen it being made by our friend Gašper, but I didn’t make this myself as I (Nico, as you’ll know) am one of the clumsiest people on the planet and was scared to death I would set my kitchen on fire.
  7. Place about 100ml whiskey in a small saucepan and set fire to it with a match. This will make sure the sauce is not too bitter (as the alcohol will burn out). Wait until the flames die out, or put the lid back on the saucepan after about 30 seconds to stop the burning process. Then add cream, salt and peper, and stir with a whisk until the sauce thickens, and is ready to go on your haggis, neeps and tatties


    Haggis with whiskey sauce


Feeling winter coming on? Time to read ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (1874) and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (1886)

Hardy Bread 1

I recently saw the 2015 film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd in the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast (a quick plug for what might be the world’s most comfortable cinema), and was struck by Hardy’s obsession with the relentless ferocity of the natural world. More accurately, perhaps, I was reminded of being struck by this theme when reading Hardy’s novels. (The film itself being considerably less gritty, rather more idyllic, and much less challenging than Hardy’s original.) Nature’s hostility to mankind is a theme which runs throughout Hardy’s fiction and poetry: cold, exposed, rural scenes, in which storms batter crops or people, are frequent in his novels.

In on such scene in Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy hammers home the point that the very lives of the novel’s characters depend on the successful safekeeping and sale of the harvest:

‘Apparently there was to be a thunderstorm, and afterwards a cold continuous rain. […] This complication of weathers being uncommon, was all the more to be feared. Oak returned to the stack-yard. All was silent here, and the conical tips of the ricks jutted darkly into the sky.’

It is the evening of the farm-owners’ (the aptly named Bathsheba and her new husband, Sergeant Troy) return from honeymoon, and Troy does not want to be bothered with prophecies of a storm. But Hardy’s audience – being familiar with the vagaries of food production, Malthusian predictions of shortages, and news of famines in Ireland and Scotland – would have seen all the warning signals. The uncovered ricks are extremely vulnerable to the weather and a whole years’ income could be lost in a few hours:

‘[The harvest ricks were worth] Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear – that of necessary food for man and beast: should the risk be run of deteriorating this bulk of corn to less than half its value, because of the instability of a woman?’

Here, Hardy reverses the usual Romantic equation; instead of seeing god in nature, Oak sees something divine in the connection he makes between money and corn. There is little hint of any appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of nature we might expect in a novel set in rural south-west England.

Hardy Bread 2

The rise and fall of the availability and the price of cereal products is central to a later novel by Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Although this might seem like a topic more suited to a financial or agricultural publication, Hardy illustrates how the social, economic, and gastric wellbeing of Casterbridge’s population depends entirely on the growing of corn. The first time the reader encounters this Wessex town, the people complain voraciously about the poor quality of the bread that season:

‘the dough ran all over the ovens like quicksilver; so that the loaves be flat as toads, and like suet pudden inside’.

I think it was the second time that I made bread (and forgot to add the key ingredient of salt) that it was as flat and inedible as a toad. Fortunately, it was only myself and my husband who had to suffer it. In the close-knit community of The Mayor of Casterbridge a failure in one part of the supply chain affects everybody, but particularly the poor. According to one character, the ‘poor volks’ insides [are] plim like blowed bladders this week’. At the tea-tables of the wealthy there is white bread and butter instead (see my recipe based on Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’).

Hardy does allow his characters some respite from their battle to eke out existence, and the inhabitants of Casterbridge do eat bread. One of the things I appreciate about reading Hardy is that I can never predict how a novel is going to end. I am always wondering whether he is going to let the lovers find some sort of happiness, or suddenly let his readers walk off an emotional cliff-edge. So I’m going to stop here before I spoil the plots, and leave you instead with a recipe for a delicious farmhouse loaf. Enjoy!

Hardy Bread 3


250g strong white bread flour
250g wholemeal bread flour
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp. oil
300-350ml warm water (not hot!)
1 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp sunflower seeds

Mix the dried ingredients together and then add the oil and water.
Using your hands, bring together into a rough dough.
Turn out onto the work-surface and knead for 10 minutes (or use a dough hook on a food mixer for 5 minutes!).
Return to the bowl and cover with clingfilm or a damp teatowel. Leave in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Knock the air out of the dough and knead for 5 minutes, then place in a 900g loaf tin and leave to prove in a warm place. It should be covered and double in size again. This takes about 1 hour.
In the meantime, heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Bake the break for 30 minutes and serve warm with butter!


Inject a bit of colour into your summer with “Changing Places” by David Lodge

Carrot and Coriander Soup

David Lodge’s Changing Places is absolutely my favourite comic novel. If you haven’t read it, you should do so immediately. From the startling, original, precise, intriguing first sentence, Lodge tells the story of two lecturers of English Literature who swap jobs, continents – and then houses and families – for six months. The novel’s scope takes in the ever-changing scene of academic and modern life in England and the USA, as the characters debate the topics of central heating, the Vietnam War, the value of Radio One, and abortion.

Philip Swallow, of the dank, conservative University of Rummidge in England and Morris Zapp, of the liberal but troubled Euphoric State University in the USA are polar opposites. Swallow has quietly failed to specialise in anything other than writing expertly-honed exam questions with which to terrorise unsuspecting undergraduates. Bogged down in the question of improving his cold family home, in concerns about the children’s ‘O’ Levels, and how to pay the next bill, Swallow distinguishes himself in deftly awarding elusive marks of ‘B+/B+?+’. Where Swallow fails, Zapp excels. His world-leading publications on Jane Austen have defined the field of English Literature, and he has just embarked upon the most exhaustive study of the topic to date. He is sought-after, successful, rich… at least, until he arrives in Rummidge.

An aerial view reveals Rummidge to be a ‘dark smudge’ on the horizon, a place where it is perpetually raining, has rained, or is just about to rain. Everything exists in monochrome. Everything is disintegrating. Everything is ugly. And Morris Zapp is largely ignored by the staff of the English Department. (Lodge gives the most wonderful description of the peculiar English social etiquette for meeting – or, rather, not meeting – new people.) In his distress, he desperately visits his counterpart’s wife – Mrs Hilary Swallow.

Both Zapp and Swallow are unfailingly sexist in their attitude to women. It is therefore unsurprising that the main attraction Hilary holds for Zapp is that she (he decides) must be able to cook. Uninterested in her conversational ability, Zapp cultivates the acquaintance because he is tired of ‘TV dinners and Asian restaurants’. Luckily enough for Zapp, Hilary’s idea of a joint is a Sunday roast (compare her husband’s quite different experience of that word in Euphoria State!) and she is an expert at whipping up a bowl or two of soup in a jiffy.

Mrs Swallow Serving Soup

Whilst Zapp longs for some ‘authentic’ food, Swallow finds that he rather enjoys the uniform, sanitised, commercialised products of America’s food industry. He tucks into take-away pizza, chomps on a bacon sandwich (with ‘uniform’ strips of bacon), and makes peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for Zapp’s kids. This may be the only respect in which England wins over American in the novel: Hilary’s cooking far outstrips the meals the characters consume in Euphoria State.

If you are living in the UK, the soup recipe below will hopefully inject a bit of colour into our otherwise damp and cloudy summer.

1 onion
400g carrots
3 medium potatoes
1 large handful fresh coriander
1 vegetable stock cube
Salt and pepper
A little oil
1. Dice the onion and fry gently in a large saucepan while you roughly peel and chop the other vegetables.
2. Add the vegetables to the pan.
3. Make and add the stock, and then the salt and pepper to taste.
4. Simmer for 30 minutes (or put in a slow cooker for as long as you like).
5. Roughly chop the coriander and add to the pan (save a little for step 6), then transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until smooth.
6. Serve with a garnish of fresh coriander.

At an Early Modern Banquet: Marchpane in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595)

By Gašper Jakovac

Early Modern marchpane

Early Modern marchpane

Both Petrarch and Romeo enter the labyrinth of love fiercely, suddenly, and in a very particular place and point in time. The juxtaposition of their encounters is, however, characterized by stark discrepancies. Whereas the former meets his beloved for the first time in the Church of St. Claire in Avignon, on ‘the day the sun’s ray had turned pale / with pity for the suffering of his Maker’ (The Canzoniere, 3.1–2), the later beholds his object of affection in a rather more secular, worldly milieu, during a masked ball in the Capulet household. Place and time, or rather distinct spaces and social occasions, shape the expectations of our lovers. Petrarch is tricked: he is visiting a church on Good Friday, a period of solemnity and mourning, when one does not anticipate the need for keeping ‘guard against / Love’s blows’ (3.5–6). On the other hand, the feast at the Capulets is designed precisely to encourage sociability and courtship. It is a chance for ‘lusty young men’ (1.2.27) to delight in company of ‘fresh female buds’ (1.2.30), an opportunity for Paris to woo Juliet, and for Romeo to either get a glimpse of Rosalind or distract himself by other beauties of Verona.

There is something distinctly Dionysian about the ball and, when reading Lord Capulet’s warm-hearted welcomes and his brief exchange with his older cousin about their long-gone dancing days, I am always reminded of the grey-headed Cadmus and Tiresias, dancing, fawn-skinned, in Euripides’ The Bacchae. However, the unforeseen and unexpected workings of love are common to both scenarios. If Petrarch’s mind is bent on the suffering of our Lord, and thus seemingly indisposed for love, Romeo considers himself already pricked by Amor’s arrow and is therefore equally baffled by what he is experiencing when meeting Juliet: ‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’ (1.5.50–1).

Shakespeare, however, continues in Petrarchan mode, or, at least, the language he uses immediately evokes unmistakably Petrarchan idealisation and sanctification of the beloved. But although Juliet imagines herself to be a stone image of a saint that does not move and should, therefore, remain physically unresponsive to Romeo-pilgrim’s pursuits and, as Laura, unattainable and distant from her lover, she does not participate in the game of wooing only ‘literally’, by ‘co-writing’ with Romeo the sonnet on pilgrims and saints, but also physically, by offering him a kiss. Shakespeare thus employs Petrarchan discourse only to subvert it – Romeo is not a poet sanctifying his unattainable lady, but rather a real-life suitor at a party devised to facilitate romantic relationships amongst the youths of Verona. Shakespeare positions the elevated encounter between Romeo and Juliet into a realistic, although skilfully ironized, representation of early modern household sociability.

Capulet’s ‘old accustomed feast’ (1.2.20) is not just a gathering of friends, but has a noticeable tinge of that traditional all-inclusive hospitality, which Shakespeare would have experienced when entertaining the court or touring provincial England with his company and performing at noble households. All, even those not invited, are welcome to enjoy Capulet’s generosity. The Montagues’ intrusion is therefore not really an intrusion, but rather a permissible transgression – commonly recognized strifes and social distinctions are during Capulet’s ball temporarily suspended. It is therefore not surprising that the master of the house should reproach Tybalt when he seeks quarrel with Romeo and firmly reiterates the rules of hospitality: ‘I would not for the wealth of all the town / Here in my house do him [Romeo] disparagement’ (1.5.67–8). However, effects of Capulet’s generosity in relation to individuals occupying different positions within the social hierarchy are rather less discernible. The actions of the social elite are penetrated from below only at the very beginning of the scene, in a short exchange between servants where the only item of food eaten during supper is mentioned: marchpane. ‘Away with the joint-stools, remove the / court-cupboard, look to the plate,’ orders the first servant to his sluggish underlings, and then, ‘Good thou, save / me a piece of marchpane’ (1.5.4–6), he adds, being afraid that all banquet leftovers will disappear too quickly.

An almond pastry called marchpane, which is not unlike marzipan and practically identical to pasticcini di mandorle native to Sicily, was a paramount Elizabethan banquet sweet of the well-off. Recently I have come across a list of expenses for Elizabeth Neville and Roger Rockley’s wedding banquet in 1536, where guests were entertained with a play and a masque, followed by a feast of 110 meat dishes. After a long list of various fish, fowl, and venison, a tart, gingerbread, marchpane, and another rather elaborate dessert of apples and cheese strewed with sugar and sage are mentioned. Household handbooks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries routinely provide recipes for marchpane paste and how to cut and mould it into various animal shapes to impress ones guests at the dinner table. One such manual, Delightes for Ladies (1602) by Sir Hugh Plat, begins with a prefatory poem, which parodies classical epic by singing of sweets and preserved food instead of arms and man. In any case, a good number of verses are dedicated to marchpane, which clearly indicate its importance:

I teach […]
To make both marchpaine paste, and sugred plate,
And cast the same in forms of sweetest grace.
Each bird and foule so moulded from the life,
And after cast in sweet compounds of arte,
As if the flesh and forme which nature gaue,
Did still remaine in euerie lim and part.

If Capulet’s hospitality enables Romeo to meet Juliet, it also permits his servants to enjoy the culinary delights of their master’s table. Furthermore, first servant’s order to let ‘the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell’ (1.5.7) may even suggest that servants have their own party planned and that uninvited Montagues are hardly an exception. It seems that the brightly coloured and perfectly formed marchpane ending up in the unwashed hands of the pantry servants hovers emblematically above the scene. It is a premonition of a much more fatal trespass, a kiss that sealed a ‘death-mark’d love’ (Prologue, 9).

Nico's marchpane

Nico’s marchpane

Marchpane (makes about a dozen)

Ingredients :
125gr ground almonds (or whole almonds, to grind)
125gr granulated sugar
4 tbsp rosewater
A few sliced almonds

1. Grind the almonds with a pestle and mortar, or a blender,  unless already ground.
2. Mix the almonds with the sugar.
3. Add the tablespoons of rose water, gradually, and stir with a wooden spoon until the whole mixture becomes of a darker tinge.
4. Shape the dough in little round balls with a sliced almond on top of each, and place on a baking tray, previously lined with baking parchment.
5. Bake in the oven at 180° for 10 to 15 minutes.  They are ready when they are a bit golden on the surface and they have hardened a little!
6. Our Renaissance marchpane was baked, probably to make it easier for banquet guests to pick it up with their hands and eat it, as that would make it firmer. Baking it would also make it last longer. If you want to make marchpane from the Southern Italian tradition instead, you can stop at step 3 and then put the marchpane to rest in the fridge.  You can then use it to cover sweets and cakes, or just eat it as it is!

Petrarca, Francesco, Selections From the Canzoniere and Other Works, ed. by Mark Musa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Plat, Hugh, Delightes for ladies to adorne their persons, tables, closets, and distilatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters (London, 1602).
Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (London, 1623).