I’ve been looking at one of Philip Harben’s books – he was the first TV chef, and it’s a shame he’s not better remembered. He wrote several books, including one about how to manage when food was rationed, and during the difficulties of producing meals during wartime. However the book I have beside me was published in 1953 and celebrated British food in twenty-nine recipes. Cornish pasties, Richmond maids of honour, Hindle Wakes, the buns of Britain,syllabub, dumplings, jellied eels… and many more.
This is part of his introduction:
Our repertoire of national dishes – by which I mean dishes that are particularly British and which are currently cooked by British housewives, not just in hotels and restaurants – is the largest in the world. And our cooks – by which I mean not hotel and restaurant cooks but housewives who fit cooking in among a host of other household chores – for sheer technical skill are unmatched.
At the time it was quite true that most of the cooking was done by women at home, and although a lot of women did work outside the home, there were many who had given up work on their marriage or when children arrived.
Since I have been thinking about Welsh bakestones, or welsh cakes recently, I had a little look at what Mr Harben had to say about them. He starts with a little history, that these cakes go back in time as far back as people had flour and cooked it in various forms by the heat of the fire.
People do not eat them because of their ancient origin or historical association but because of their excellence – and the fact that they are extremely simple to make, requiring no oven.
He tells the old story of King Alfred, defeated by the Danes, hiding out in the Somerset levels… actually Philip doesn’t mention the Somerset connection, but this is where the defeated king evaded his enemy. The folk tale is that he was hiding in a local person’s hit and the woman of the household told him to mind the cakes… which he forgot to do, pondering on his strategy for fighting back against his enemy. She was mighty furious and whacked him about the head ‘hell hath no fury like a woman whose cooking has been spoilt.’
Philip goes on to explain:
The significance of the story is this: Alfred was not watching cakes in an oven; they were bakestone cakes. In those days , and for many centuries before that, the method of baking cakes was this: they would get a large slab of stone with a smooth flat surface and they would heat this stone in the log or peat fire.. Then they would make their wheaten cake mixture, shape it into flat cakes, withdraw the stone from the fire and lay the cakes on its surface where they would cook by contact with the heat of the stone.
Although I guess these days people would use a griddle or girdle pan, I know from reading up about it recently that many people have inherited mothers’ or granny’s or aunty’s actual stone bakestones. Philip ends up:
When you make and eat them you will be enjoying the direct descendants of the Cakes King Alfred Burned.
…actually of course, you’re eating what people have been eating since they first something made from ground grain, cooked with fire!