If, like me, you are spending some of your lockdown time in the kitchen baking (and attempting to make sourdough bread!) you will be interested in a lovely new book that has come to my attention. Oats in the North, Wheat from the South is a meticulously researched and beautiful homage to the history, heritage and ingenuity of our British baking culture. It is written by Regula Ysewijn, in fact, a Belgian, who as a child taught herself English at just eight years of age by reading Jane Austen and watching historical documentaries and costume dramas on the BBC. With an insatiable interest in British food and drink, she’s already written an acclaimed tome about the history of British puddings. She consults for the National Trust and museums and is also one of the two judges of the Belgian version of The Great British Bake Off.
The book is a fascinating exploration of how the diverse climate of the British Isles influenced the growth of cereal crops and development of rich regional baking identities. It takes us on a guided tour of our cake lore, exploring our affection for tea and toast, as well as the one small Yorkshire town’s 200-year-old obsession with baking the world’s largest meat pie! Each recipe is accompanied by stories of the landscape, history, traditions and legends of the UK, from Saffron cake, Cornish pasties, Bakewell tart, Victoria sandwich cake, Lardy cake, Banbury apple pie, Welsh Bara brith, Clapcake to the many oatcakes, gingerbreads, buns and bread rolls such as Aberdeen buttery rowies, Kentish huffkins and traditional loaves. The photography is stunning – and that’s by Regula too!
Of course, quite a few recipes call for yeast, so knowing how difficult it is to obtain at the moment, I have chosen a couple of yeast-free examples from the book that I thought you might like. They use everyday ingredients which most of us probably have lurking somewhere in our kitchen cupboards!
The book is published by Murdoch Books at £25 and available now from amazon.co.uk (while our local bookshops are still closed).
Many English friends really love Flapjacks. You can buy them at almost any bakery, but they are so simple to make yourself that you will never buy them again. A Flapjack is actually a muesli bar made with oats, sugar, syrup and butter. A Flapjack is a blank canvas – often nuts, currants, other dried fruits and chocolate are added, but you can get creative and add whatever you like. I’ve given some suggestions below.
‘Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks; and thou shalt be welcome.’ From Pericles, Prince of Tyre, by William Shakespeare
For 8–10 bars
220 g (7¾ oz) rolled oats or spelt flakes
200 g (7 oz) butter
100 g (3½ oz) golden syrup, maple syrup or honey
50 g (1¾ oz) soft brown sugar
pinch of sea salt
butter, for greasing
flour, for dusting
chocolate chips (optional)
For a 20 cm (8 inch) square cake tin
Preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F) and prepare the cake tin (see page 21).
Put the oats in a blender and blitz for 3 seconds (skip this step if you are using fine rolled oats).
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat (make sure it does not bubble). Add the golden syrup, sugar and salt and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the oats or spelt flakes, plus any other optional ingredients, and stir well.
Firmly press the mixture into the tin so the top is even. Bake in the middle of the oven for 20–30 minutes.
For a chocolate topping, add the chocolate chips as soon as the flapjacks come out of the oven. Once they have melted, use a spatula to spread the chocolate.
Leave the flapjacks to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Using the baking paper, carefully lift the flapjack out of the tin and cut it into bars or squares.
Variations: add a handful of chocolate chips, chopped pecans, cranberries, dried blueberries, dried apricots or currants, or replace the oats or spelt flakes with your favourite muesli.
Fairings are sweet treats, usually gingerbread, that were sold at English fairs for centuries. During the Reformation, fairs and festivals, which were mostly held on holy days, were outlawed – even Christmas and its festivities were abolished by an Act of Parliament in 1647. For nearly two decades, the preparation of food for festivities was a punishable offence. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, people could return to their festivities. Gingerbread experienced a revival because the spices needed to make it became cheaper and, by then, sugar imports from Barbados brought
large amounts of sugar to the London sugar refineries. Fairings were known throughout the country, but became connected to Cornwall when Cornish baker, Furniss of Truro, started selling Cornish fairings in 1886. In The Cornishman of 3 December 1908, an advertisement for Ginger fairings appeared with the headline ‘A Genuine Cornish Delicacy for one & all of the Cornish Riviera’.
Today, Furniss Foods still sells Cornish fairings and holds the trademark for the name. In the early 19th century, newspapers describe how at village fairs stacks of gingerbread ‘husbands’ were sold to girls
looking for a sweetheart. But gingerbread people are much older. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets tells us the legend that Tudor Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed having gingerbread men made in the image of her potential husbands and other guests, and serving the biscuits at the table. This way everyone could ‘eat’ themselves, and The Virgin Queen could decapitate the men who wanted to tame her with her teeth (which eventually turned black from excessive sugar consumption). She never married and reigned alone, to the great annoyance of the powerful men surrounding her.
For 14 fairings
50 g (1¾ oz) butter, at room temperature
100 g (3½ oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
50 g (1¾ oz) soft brown sugar
pinch of mixed spice
1½ tsp ground ginger
55 g (2 oz) golden syrup or maple syrup
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of sea salt
Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a large baking tray with baking paper.
Rub the butter into the flour, sugar and spices by hand.
Heat the golden syrup in a saucepan, then add the remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Set aside to cool.
Knead the dough, then roll it into balls, using about 18 g (½ oz) of dough per biscuit, and place on the tray. Lightly press the balls down.
Bake for 8–10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool. The biscuits will flatten as they bake and form nice cracks on the surface. They are best eaten on the day they’re baked because they don’t stay crisp.