As I sit in my kitchen waiting for my Little Fine Cakesto finish baking, I pour a coffee and imagine myself as a Fort York officer. It is a cold snowy night before Christmas and I have just overseen the changing of the soldiers in the guardhouse. I push open the heavy wooded door of the Officer’s Mess and am greeted by the aroma of my favourite, Little Fine Cakes. The cook has just pulled them from the bake oven beside the fire in the open hearth fireplace.
The officers of Fort York ate well, I learned from the book “Setting a Fine Table” edited by Elizabeth Baird and Bridget Wranich. A cooking course I took at Fort York also gave me a feel for cooking over the open hearth and the challenges faced by those who cooked for the officers in the early 1800’s.
The Little Fine Cakes is a recipe featured in Setting a Fine Table. Here is the original that dates back to 1796.
Here is the modern equivalent of the recipe given in the recipe book.
2 1/2 cups ( 625 ml) currants
2 cups (500 ml) unsalted butter, softened
4 medium eggs
2 medium egg yolks
4 cups(1 L) all purpose flour
Grease 24 muffin cups. Line the bottom of each with parchment paper cut to fit.
Soak the currants in hot water for 5 minutes. Drain and spread out to dry on a towel-lined tray, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the butter until very fluffy and cream- coloured and glossy, about 10 minutes. Beat them into the butter mixture in 2 additions.
Stir the currants, then the flour, I cup (250 ml) at a time, into the butter mixture. Spoon into the prepared muffin cups.
Bake in the centre of a 350 degree oven until the cakes are golden brown and firm on the top and a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the cakes with a blunt knife and turn them onto the rack to cool completely.
Fort York brings this period of history to life over the Christmas season each year.
In 2015, Fort York offered History Cooking Classes including:
Cooking Mince Pies in November
A Frost Fair in early December
The Holiday Season from Dec. 14 to Dec.31/15
Gingerbread Make and Bake ( for both children and adults) from December 14 – Dec.31/15
For more information:
Setting a Fine Table – edited by Elizabeth Baird and Bridget Wranich
This Christmas I decided to bake cookies with a history. That’s dining out with history, at home.
I found endless recipes from my historic cookbook collection and there are many Living History Sites to visit that celebrate the history of baking cookies from whatever ingredients our ancestors had available. Here is a touching story about a popular Christmas cookie.
Abraham Lincoln wrote this story about his mother’s gingerbread cookies.
“When we lived in Indiana,” Lincoln said, “once in a while my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and make some gingerbread. It wasn’t often and it was our biggest treat. One day I smelled the gingerbread and came into the house to get my share while it was it was still hot. My mother had baked me three gingerbread men. I took them out under a hickory tree to eat them.
There was a family neat us poorer than we were and their boy came along as I sat down. ‘Abe,’ he said, “gimme a man.’ I gave hime one. He crammed it into his mouth in two bits and looked at me while I was biting the legs off my first one. ‘Abe, gimme that other’n.’ I wanted it myself, but I gave it to him and as it followed the first, I said to him,’You seem to like gingerbread.’ ‘Abe,’ he said, ‘I don’t s’pose anybody on earth likes gingerbread better’n I do- and gets less’n I do ….” From “The Prairie Years” by Carl Sandburg
Here is an old Gingerbread Cookie recipe to try. I left my cookies unadorned as I supposed Abraham Lincoln’s mother would not have iced her cookies.
Orange Gingerbread from Cook Not Mad, Kingston,1831
Two pounds and a quarter fine flour, a pound and three quarters molasses, twelve ounces of sugar, three ouces un-dried orange peel chopped fine, one ounce each of ginger and allspice, melt twelve ounces of butter, mix the whole together, lay it by for twelve hours, roll it out with as little flour as possible, cut it in pieces three inches wide, mark them in the form of checkers, with the back of a knife, roll them over with a yelk of an egg, beat with a teacup of milk, when done wash them again with the egg.
November is the month that Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, chooses to celebrate harvest time with an annual fundraising event known as The 100 Mile Feast.
The 2015 theme was – A Taste of Spain. The Chamber of Commerce hosts this event annually with a different theme each year.
The 2015 feast was a grand six-course meal with wine pairings. The feast was celebrated with a themed spread of food that offered too many ingredients to count, all from sources within 100 miles of Kitchener. This trend towards buying and eating locally celebrates the local farmers and food producers of this area. The variety was astounding and to be celebrated.
I peeked in the kitchen for a few moments to appreciate the work that really goes into creating a modern day feast. I saw Chef Lori Maidlow running the kitchen like a Culinary Queen, without wasting one movement or moment but performing with the grace of kitchen royalty.
The elegant table settings covered the table with china, glass and cutlery, to accommodate the many tastes we would experience.
The menu was extensive, but to give a nibble of just two of the six courses we experienced at this modern day feast:
Roasted Simcoe, Ontario tomato soup with crisp Pingue “Iberian Ham” and extra virgin pristine canola oil
Served with Faustino white (Viura grape)
Slow cooked Fearman’s Pork Belly; smoked paprika infused squash puree and fino sherry gastrique
Served with Lan Crianza red (Tempranillo grape)
At our table, among other guests was food commentator Andrew Coppelino. We discussed how we, (all of us) have little appreciation of how our food makes it to the table. The people involved in raising, growing, preparing, and serving food are the unsung heroes of what we eat each day.
Enjoying this sumptuous modern day feast was one way to celebrate those who work so hard to feed us each day.
A Very Grand Feast 1465
Five hundred and fifty years ago was a very grand feast. I could not resist digging back into history for a description of a feast that is difficult to imagine.
This elaborate feast of the past took place to celebrate The Enthronement of George Neville as the Archbishop of York in 1465, at Cawood Castle. Two thousand and five hundred guests were fed at each meal.
Here is a list of the animals used to provide meat for this feast. (Old spelling is used)
There is some speculation that the list may not be completely accurate, but it does tell us of the birds and animals consumed at that time in history. The complete list of food for the feast can be seen on the Yorkshire Archeological Society website. Here is the link. https://www.yas.org.uk/content/treasures/neville.html
Feasts continue from the past to present. Guests dress in finery, and enjoy food cooked by those who perform culinary magic.
We should celebrate the work of those who put the feasts on our tables everday.
As we rounded the corner there was a line up of people waiting for …. Hot dogs.
After watching a stunning symphony orchestra performance at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, we walked across the street to the famous hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Hot Dogs, and particularly those from this famous stand, are known to be a perfectly acceptable “after theatre dining out experience.”
Pylsur is Icelandic for hot dog and this popular street food is sold all over the country at gas stops and take out stands.
It is definitely the most affordable ($4) meal in Iceland.
It may not seem historic in the true sense of the word, but the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand has been proudly serving dogs since 1937. I was in Reykjavik in the winter of 1973 and remember buying a hot dog from what must have been that very same stand. Many famous people have dined there since my visit.
The wiener in these tasty hot dogs is made from lamb with some beef and pork added. Because of Iceland’s high standards, only grass fed, organic lamb is used to make the pylsur.
The pylsur are served in a bun, on a bed of crunions, (crunchy dehydrated fried onions.) Although they serve several types of hot dog toppings, the usual are ketchup, remoulade, a mayonnaise-based sauce that contains a sweet relish and sweet mustard. “With the works,” say most, or in Icelandic “eina med öllu”
Now, hot dogs may be considered to be at the bottom of the food chain, but this food definitely comes with a history.
National Day is celebrated each year on June 17, which is the day that Iceland declared itself to be a republic in 1944. Hot dogs and
Coca-Cola (kok) are popular fare on that day. Coca-Cola has a long history in Iceland and has higher per capita sales than any other country.
There are many Danish influences in Iceland’s food history and pylsur is similar to the Danish pölse. In the early 1900’s, vendors in Denmark sold sausage and often they became too old to be easily sold. Creative, poor, vendors tried dipping them in red dye and lowering the prices and the rest was Danish hot dog history.
Although hot dogs in Iceland are quite different from Danish Dogs, the idea likely travelled from Denmark.
I joined the after- theatre line for a pylsur, and then enjoyed a few more before leaving Iceland.
Every meat-eating visitor to Iceland should give it a try.
Vínarterta is a multilayered confection of Canadian Icelandic origin. It is made in a round shape and cut in wedges or in an oblong shape to be served in slices. The Vínarterta was traditionally served as a wedding cake or Christmas cake, and continues to be served for special occasions. It seems that everyone’s mother and grandmother had her own recipe and method for baking “the best” Vínarterta.
I explored this interesting piece of Canadian food history after a friend handed me a copy of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s food section featuring an article about a new Icelandic bakery in Toronto. I was interested in the history of the special cake-like confection called Vínarterta – originally from Iceland, but now more popular amongst the Canadian Icelandic community.
I hopped to subway to have a visit with Birgir at his newly opened Viking Bakery.
Birgir Robertsson has come to Toronto from Iceland, via Gimli, Manitoba, a Canadian town with a large Icelandic community. Icelanders have been moving to Gimli since 1870 and before 1915 more than 20,000 people emigrated from Iceland to Canada for the promise of free land- one quarter of the population of Iceland at that time. Considering that the population of Iceland is now 330,000, that seems a large number.
Birgir bakes artisanal bread and many specialties that you would find in a bakeshop in Iceland or Gimli. This adds new tastes to Toronto’s United Nations- like culinary reputation.
Making Vínarterta is an art. It can be made several ways, by stacking very thin cake or cookie-like layers and adding the more traditional filling of prune, or raspberry.
Thinner layers are more esteemed in the world of Vínarterta bakers. Birgir told me that in Gimli, Manitoba, the tortes are usually made with seven layers, to represent the days of the week. Birgir makes his with 5 layers. Modern versions of this torte are sometimes iced, a break from tradition.
After some research, I found limited information on the Icelandic origins of the Vínarterta cake. There are different speculations and I was pleased to learn that Birgir had his own theory. His eyes lit up with enthusiasm as we spoke of history of Vínarterta, as he had done some research of his own. He told me of how the first bakery in Iceland, Bernhöfts Bakari, in Reykjavik was Danish in origin, but had an Austrian baker. He thinks that the name Vínarterta is a combination of the Austrian capital, Vienna and Terta, (which means a fancier version of a cake in Icelandic.) He was careful to tell me that this is his theory and not based on any factual information.
Driving across the vast landscape of Iceland, I wondered of the culinary history of early Icelanders. There have never been many indigenous animals in Iceland to hunt, although oceans for fishing surround the country. It is hard to imagine a hulking Viking working in his vegetable garden.
As it turns out, you don’t have to dig deep to learn about Iceland’s food history. Icelanders still cook using age-old traditions, on a daily basis and on special occasions and festivals.
After hiking in a remote part of Iceland, we learned that we were surrounded by edible wilds in the wilderness, all of which were used in the past as part of the Icelandic diet. I referred to a well-researched and informative book to learn more about the history of food in Iceland. William R. Short wrote Icelanders in a Viking Age – The People of the Sagas. His informative chapter about the foods eaten in early Icelandic times included surprising information that helped me to link the past with what remains of these customs in a country with a varied and sophisticated culinary tradition. For example, you can find whale offered on modern menus, but Icelanders were not historically whalers. Historically, they made use of beached whales to provide part of their diet if the opportunity presented itself. Skyr, a no fat, fermented milk product is commonly eaten today, but has been eaten in Iceland for 1100 years. It is mentioned in Icelandic sagas of long ago.
Fjörukráin – Dining out Viking Style
While visiting Iceland, we visited a popular attraction Fjörukráin, a hotel and restaurant, located on the site of an old seaman’s village, that celebrates the Viking history of this country. The original building was a wooden house that dates back to 1840 and many buildings have been added since. A 15-minute drive south of Reykjavik, it is located on the waterfront of Hafnarfjördöur.
A maiden dressed in Viking like garb of the past, served us a dinner recommended by Jóhannes Viđar Bjarnason, the owner of the Viking Village.
The Viking Starter plate was served on a rustic wooden tray, as was the custom of the past. Small samples of tasty delicacies were served. These would turn the stomach of my vegetarian friends, but remember, the Vikings survived on what they could find and used preservation methods that did not include refrigeration for the summers.
We tasted bits of sheep’s testicles, fermented shark, dried haddock, pickled herring, rye bread, whey, and Thorri food, (a type of pickled food.) We washed it down with a taste of the famous Black Death, a nickname for the signature Icelandic drink Brennivin, a clear, unsweetened distilled liquor made from fermented grain or potato mash. Brennivin translates to “burning wine.” The Black Death nickname is said to have been given at the period of the Icelandic prohibition.
Fermented shark is made using a time old method using meat that would be toxic if eaten unfermented. It is preserved by burying the meat in sand for 612 weeks. The pressure of the sand removes the uric acid from the meat and it becomes edible. It is best eaten by recklessly tossing it into your mouth and chasing it with a swig of Black Death.
Our main dish was lamb shank, pureed potato and glazed vegetables. We had a fish soup and a dessert of skyr with blueberries
The structures of the Viking Village Fjörukráin are reminiscent of the dark wooden longhouses that once housed the Vikings of the past. The décor inside the restaurant is rustic and furniture is built of old logs. Artwork and reproductions of historic Icelandic writings decorate the walls, giving the eatery the feeling of a museum.
Although the food is a modern version of what was eaten, some of the food served is based on recipes that have been served in Iceland since the Vikings walked the land.
Viking feasts are served to large groups at the restaurant, using a buffet of food reminiscent of tastes of that period. Costumed wait staff provide music and enact Viking behavior, including diners in the drama. A Viking Festival held each year in June at Fjörukráin includes days of food, sport, and reliving of Viking traditions.
In Iceland, the tastes are as special as the country.Watch for future articles about the historic cuisine of Iceland, as I head back in June.
You may also be interested in a past article about cooking with Icelandic Moss https://diningoutwithhistory.com/2014/02/28/cooking-with-icelandic-moss/
For more information:
Fjörukráin – fjorukrain.is/en/
Icelanders in a Viking Age – People of the Sagas by William R. Short
“Let’s toast to the successful journey of Ian Evans, “we said, and after the clinks we sipped our MacKinlay’s Shackleton Whiskey. We were celebrating the bravery of our 58 year- old Canadian friend who had completed a journey of forty- four days and 950 kilometers. He and three others skied from the Ronne Ice Shelf to the South Pole in December and January of 2014/15 pulling heavy sleds of supplies.
Ian carefully removed the whiskey bottle from it’s elaborate cardboard case and pulled it from a straw wrapping, making it look indeed, like it dated from the early 1900’s.
The taste was heavenly and is described on the whiskey’s website:
It reads: “delicate aromas of crushed apple, pear, fresh pineapple with notes of oak shavings, smoke, hints of buttery vanilla, creamy caramel and nutmeg.” A talented nose would recognize all of those flavours, but it tasted very fine to us.
His good friend Rick had earlier learned of this perfect gift for Ian’s return while listening to a CBC radio broadcast about the distillery Whyte & MacKay bringing back to life the taste of the whiskey that Shackleton had taken on his journey to the South Pole in 1907.
I went in search of the story from the Shackleton Whiskey website and here is what learned:
On July 30,1907, Ernest Shackleton gathered the crew he had recruited through a newspaper add and headed out on the ship Nimrod, from the East India Docks in London, England. The ship arrived in New Zealand in November of that year. On January 16, 1908, they left for Antarctica and entered McMurdo Sound on the 29th of that month. From February 6 – 24th, they built a hut to act as a base camp at Cape Royds. That hut still stands to be visited and is preserved by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.
Shackleton headed off with his party of five to reach the South Pole in October of 1908. For Christmas celebrations they enjoyed plum pudding, brandy cigars, and a spoonful of crème de menthe. When they were 97 miles from the Pole, Shackleton made the difficult decision that they must turn back or die of starvation. They planted a flag and headed back, arriving on February 28, 1908. He returned to England a hero for his efforts. His subsequent explorations continued.
Before the expedition began in 1907, the Glen Mohr distillery received an order from Ernest Shackleton for forty- six cases of MacKinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whiskey to be included in the provisions of the expedition.
Jumping forward 100 years, in February of 2007, 3 crates of the whiskey were found encased in ice under the hut at Cape Royds by a team from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust while working on a conservation expedition. They could not, however be removed, unless used for conservation or scientific reasons.
In early 2010, permission was received to remove one crate and it was flown to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, for thawing and stabilization. This process took over 2 weeks and it was slowly taken from -20degrees Celsius to 0 degrees. It was then returned to Antarctica as part of the 14,000 artifacts the New Zealand Antarctic Trust watches over.
In January 2011, some of the whiskey was flown by private jet back to Scotland to W&M’s Invergordon Spirit Laboratory for analysis. A team led by Dr. James Pryde spent weeks nosing, tasting and deconstructing the whiskey to “reveal it’s true heritage.”
Now produced by the Whyte & MacKay Company (owners of the MacKinlay brand) for all to taste history, it is marketed in a way that reminds us of the brave accomplishments of the men who travelled to the ends of the earth to learn about Antarctica? The whiskey is bottled in glass created with the look of old. Reproductions of photos from the expedition, maps, copies of letters and the story come in an envelope with the straw encased bottle, to tell the story of Shackleton’s expedition. And brave men, and women, are still setting out to experience the same inhospitable landscape – men like Ian Evans and the three men in their expedition. He deserved a toast with such an exquisite whiskey after the difficult two- month trip.
I felt privileged to share a drink of a taste so close to what Shackleton and his men sipped to celebrate special occasions and keep their spirits high in this hostile environment.
Only one question remains to me, a mystery.
Why did Shackleton’s men leave three cases of whiskey behind?
Only Shackleton knows that answer.
To learn more about Shackleton Whiskey, please view the entertaining website at:
On a chilling stormy winter night, what better pastime than to watch season five of the British television series, Downton Abbey. This show gives the viewer a taste of the life of the fictional Crawleys, a family of privilege and wealth who lived in Edwardian times and into the roaring 20’s. Filmed at Highclere Castle in England, the setting is elegant and formal. What better place to peek in on the culinary traditions of the past.
Each time the “downstairs” kitchen appears on television, my vision sharpens for any hint of what meals Mrs. Patmore, the cook, has planned for the family. A shelf of highly polished copper pots gleam behind the kitchen staff in many scenes, showing the high standards in the kitchens of the privileged. It is interesting to watch how the kitchen staff work, and the different levels of servants.
They perform many tasks to put together the elaborate meals of numerous courses, served in the very formal dining room for the Crawleys and their guests.
Mrs. Patmore is the queen of the kitchen and young servant Daisy is given more cooking responsibilities as she learns the culinary skills needed to cook for an upper class family. The stiffly dressed male servants who bring the food to the dining room, serve each dish French style, onto the plates of the diners. To watch a meal served upstairs in the grand dining room is to visit a time and place when manners, decorum and tradition were prized values. Now, they are rare values to most people, as meals are eaten “on the run,” or in front of the television, watching Downton Abbey.
I travelled behind the culinary scenes of the production by reading an interview with Lisa Heathcote, who cooks the food used on the production sets. Although most of the food is real, at times she has to place her emphasis on keeping the look of the food fresh during hours of filming under hot lights. She is very knowledgable about cooking during the historic periods covered in this show.
Many culinary historians are placing the traditions of this period under a spot light because of the popularity of the show.
Downton Abbey Cooks, http://www.downabbeycooks.com is a highly successful blog developed by Pamela Foster who celebrates the food traditions of this time.
Many of the food traditions of the British continue to be celebrated to this day. The Christmas pudding continues to light many British Christmas tables with a blue brandy flame. Cheese souffle, watercress sandwiches and many of the other traditions from the show will hopefully be served into the future.
In one episode, Mrs. Patmore tells Daisy to get “back to the Spotted Dick.” “Dick” was a common expression at that time that meant, pudding. The first reference to this popular English pudding came from French chef Alexis Soyer’s book entitled “The Modern Housewife,” published in 1848.
Here is the recipe as it appears on the website http://www.celtnet.org.uk ; This website reproduces parts of some of the aged culinary books that tell Britain’s food history.
Original Recipe for Spotted Dick from The Modern Housewife by Alexis Soyer
Put three quarters of a pound of flour int a basin, half a pound of beef suet, half ditto of currants, two ounces of sugar, a little cinnamon, mix with 2 eggs and 2 gills of milk; boil in either mould or cloth for one hour and a half. Serve with melted butter and a little sugar over.
One lone bagpipe filled the quiet winter night with Christmas songs. The village from the past was lit by lanterns and candles inviting us to enter a time when the holiday season was celebrated in a gentler and more modest way.
We were visiting Westfield Heritage Village to celebrate “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Located outside of the town of Rockton, in Ontario Westfield Village consists of a collection of thirty-five heritage buildings that were preserved by moving them to the site. Although the village officially opened in 1963, it was closed for a long period of time. It was used as a set for some of the scenes in the Anne of Green Gables television series in the 1990’s. Westfield reopened again as a heritage village in 2010 and demonstrates life in the past from as early as the late 1700’s. A school, churches, farms, stores, businesses and houses give visitors a peek at all aspects of life.
Walking along the dark path, I could see the Lockhart house dimly lit by a lantern. Opening the door of the one room log home dating from the 1840’s, I was greeted by the warmth of an open-hearth fire and the smells of food cooking. Kathy Johnston, a volunteer interpreter was teaching her granddaughters’ Sage and Grace to cook as they would have done in the 1830’s. They were making Venison Stew and an English Style Christmas pudding. Kathy explained that the venison would have been fresh at this time of year because this was just past the killing season. They would have had pork hanging in the smokehouse for the winter as well as a supply of beef. They might have killed some deer in the fall to provide meat for the venison stew. She used no recipe, (or receipt, as recipes were called in those times,) to make her Venison Stew, but used whatever she might have on hand. Kathy pointed out that no part of the animals were wasted. Early settlers would make English blood pudding and sausage from other parts of the meat. There was not enough food to waste any in those times. Here is Kathy’s description of how to make her stew:
She dredged the pieces of venison in flour, and browned it in fat in her cast iron pan or kettle over the open-hearth fire. After it was brown, she added herbs, and added liquid while it cooked in the pot for about one hour. While it was cooking, she and the girls cut up carrots, squash and onion which they added to the pot. Remember, this was before the time that potatoes were eaten. They were considered to be poisonous. While the stew simmered, the girls began making an English Style Christmas pudding. It was hard to leave the warmth of the cabin, but I was curious to see what was cooking in other homes.
We walked past the Hardware store where a new fangled popcorn machine was popping buttery corn for the children. Inside we could see Father Christmas visiting the children.
In another home, we visited Kate Gardener, also a volunteer at the village. She was making Chicken Vegetable Stew as it would have been made in the 1860’s. Time had moved on and she was using a two level cast iron stove to cook her meal. She was using a combination of chicken, parsnips, turnips, thyme, bay leaf and broth to make the stew. She added dumplings made simply from flour, butter and milk. It looked and smelled delicious. She was also trying a new recipe for a gingerbread cake, made in a pot over the stove. “Would it work?” she asked. “It is worth a try.”
A simply decorated pine tree decorated the home for the Christmas season.
Walking past the town square, we watched fire works light up the sky. In the dim light, visitors from modern times all looked like settlers from the past. Time to head out to the church to hear some Christmas music. The Mountsberg Church was built in 1854 and was moved to the village. We were treated to old Christmas music played on a variety of heritage instruments.
There was not enough time to visit all of the buildings that welcomed us in, that winter night, but we left with a feeling of what it was like to dine and celebrate “The Night Before Christmas” in times gone bye when life was simpler, but the joy of Christmas just as meaningful.
If you Go…
Westfield Heritage Village is located close to Rockton, Ontario at 1049 Kirkwall Rd. ( also known as Regional Road 552.) For hours, admission and events: http://www.westfieldheritage.ca
Special Holiday Events.
Twas the Night Before Christmas is held three Saturday’s in December. Still remaining in 2014 is December 20th – 6-9pm.
A Christmas Table is held December 21/14, but is SOLD OUT for this year. Remember to get tickets early for 2015. A heritage Christmas meal is served with entertainment.
“If you are going to do a cake, just do a cake,” instructed Chef Catherine Metcalfe.
She was telling us to go ahead and put in all the high fat, real ingredients that the cake recipe has always used, and don’t try to take (low fat,) shortcuts.
I learned a new ingredient language that day, and even though I had tasted all of these Christmas specialities before, they tasted better. Much better !
My group was participating in the Caffi Florence Cookery Workshops given in the Café at the Loggerheads Country Park. They have a long schuedule of courses, several a week, and many teach cooking traditions of the past in Wales.
We were watching a demonstration called: Getting Ahead for Christmas, and would learn to cook Mincemeat Pie, Christmas pudding and Marianna’s Christmas Cake – all without opening one can.
It was easy to tell that our young but experienced chef was passionate about food – especially Christmas desserts. Her eyes twinkled when she talked and although it was the end of October, she was already preparing at home for her own Christmas meals.
We started with Marianna’s Christmas Cake. She told us that we must soak the fruits overnight in brandy. Then she added an ingredient unknown to me – Treacle. Although treacle looks like molasses, it is made from the syrup that results during the sugar refining process. It was originally used as an antidote against poisons.
After a finger tip tasting, I had to admit it did have a different taste. Marianna mixed all the ingredients for her cake together and put it in a pan lined with greaseproof paper.
Then on to the Marzipan Icing. I could never have guessed the ingredients and hers are different, but with some ground almonds, castor sugar, icing sugar, lemon juice and egg white, she mixed a ball and rolled out a delicious icing.
This cake tasted like no Christmas cake I had ever tasted, as I had stopped eating the thick, gooey packaged cake as a child. This will be part of my Christmas tradition, I promised myself.
On to the Christmas Pudding, a strong tradition as you see them for sale in every shop.
The dried fruits must sleep overnight in stout, (beer,) we learned.
“Even if you don’t like the Christmas pudding, you have to eat Christmas pudding,” Catherine emphasized. Setting it aflame and bringing it to the table is just part of the tradition in Wales.
After Catherine mixed all the ingredients in a bowl, she scooped it into a porcelain bowl and put a layer of paper on top, then wrapped it all carefully in foil, ready to be steamed in the oven. Catherine likes to “feed” her cakes with brandy, both before she cooks it, and even after while it waits for Christmas.
A sauce completes the tradition after it is flamed at the table. I can’t wait to try that recipe this Christmas.
We moved on to Mincemeat Pie. Now I am a person who opens a can of mincemeat and plops it in to a pie shell. No longer. Catherine cut a large cooking apple and mixed it with dried fruits, some candied peel, chopped almonds and then an ingredient new to me. Vegetable suet. When it was all mixed, she put it into rounded tart shells that were made with a sweet crust of French origin. She placed a delicately cut star on top. This was, without a doubt the tastiest Mincemeat pie ever.
I learned much from my cooking lesson with Catherine that day. I noticed that she strictly measured ingredients and followed the recipes closely, no substitutions. That is much different from my “slap happy” style of throwing ingredients together. She told us that this was out of respect for the person who wrote the recipe. I gained a new respect for recipes that day and felt honoured to taste the old recipes of Wales that have lived on through the ages.
I can’t wait to enjoy a mincemeat tart while re-reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” in front of the fire this Christmas. See recipes for Caffi Florence’s special Christmas recipes.
If You Go.
Caffi Florence is located is a restaurant and cookery school located in Loggerheads Country Park on the Ruthin Road in North Wales.
Cooking courses are all price reasonably at 15£.
Some are cooking demonstrations and some are hands on courses. Courses range from Pastries and sweets to Cooking Fish and Seafood.