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Oats in the North, Wheat in the South

April 5, 2020

cookery book and baking tins

“Can you remember all the cakes Mum used to make?” I asked my sister this week. There was always cake in our house and most of it was homemade. Occasionally an exotic ‘shop-bought’ McVities Jamaican ginger cake appeared and we peeled its sticky crumb from the crinkled paper casing.  Otherwise there was a rotation of staples: coffee walnut cake smeared with smooth, bittersweet buttercream; Victoria sandwich, both halves stuck together with strawberry jam and vanilla buttercream; spiced farmhouse fruit cake studded with raisins, sultanas and the odd bright glace cherry. We complained about caraway seed cake tasting of aniseed with a crunchy sugar roof (but ate it anyway) but fell over rock cakes as soon as they’d cooled from the oven, their magic fading overnight. There were ‘rib-sticking’ flapjacks (my mother’s description), a Bakewell tart or homemade ginger cake.  It was part of daily life to eat a slice with a cup of tea after lunch or later in the afternoon.

There were always biscuits in a tin too but these were never homemade. Always rich tea (for dunking) with a changing cast of digestives, custard creams, ginger snaps, Marie, bourbons or Garibaldi (aka squashed fly biscuits).

The baker’s van delivered floury white baps, brown tin loaves and sometimes a picturesque cottage loaf, two rounds stacked on top of each other like an upside down mushroom. We visited the baker to choose a ‘sticky bun’, often after a trip to the dentist (I wonder why) and would dither over a Chelsea bun, an iced bun or a honey bun (which I’m sure didn’t contain an ounce of honey but stood in a sticky puddle of lard). Toast was a staple and I remember using a toasting fork in front of the coal fire before we had central heating. We ate crumpets, for breakfast I think, and spread butter and golden syrup on top which trickled down through the holes onto the plate in a glistening pool to be wiped up with fingers at the end.

This is how baking was woven into my everyday life while growing up a few decades (ahem) ago. So how has every small detail of my personal memories of very, ordinary British family life found their way into a new book by an author from Belgium?

cookery book on a baking tray

Oats in the North, Wheat the South – The History of British Baking, Savoury and Sweet by Regula Ysewijn is that book. The cover embossed in gold and white on green would look at home in an old second hand book shop. Inside, the pictures of cakes and bakes against humble backdrops like bread boards or tin trays give a nod to the past; these are interspersed with images of rolling landscapes and cobbled streets. Regula herself appears in a few photographs, her dresses red with slender bodices and wide, stiff, calf-length skirts echoing fashions after the Second World War. However, this is not a pose put on for the book.

My path crossed with Regula’s, when blogging was in its infancy, at an annual event – Food Blogger Connect – in London. Everyone liked her friendliness and warmth; her focus, honesty and enthusiasm marked her out as someone to watch. I remember her attention to detail in the photography sessions and when she progressed from attendee to speaker, her audience were totally absorbed by the inspiring sessions. This rise was echoed in the food world and she soon became a respected member of a more famous group of culinary experts including Jamie Oliver.

Along with her photographer husband Bruno, she honed her visual craft and published her first book Pride and Pudding, a history of British food with recipes, followed by The National Trust book of puddings: 50 irresistibly nostalgic sweet treats and comforting classics. She became a household name in her home country as a judge on the Belgian version of Bake Off.

From the first Food Blogger Connect, while most of us were in comfortable jeans and casual wear, she looked like she was just off for a spot of old-fashioned ballroom dancing. Her long, red hair was always piled up in a twisted crescent pinned with red blooms, her voluminous dresses nipped in at the waist, spotted with red and white, a cropped cardigan over her shoulders and a slash of red lipstick across her pale complexion.

cookery book open on red and white tea towel

When opening Oats in the North, Wheat in the South, one of the first things you read is an acknowledgement that the sugar trade had a human cost, that of slavery. It sets the tone as the book is a pleasure to read and while expounding the joy of baking it is not frivolous.   A foreward written by renowned food historian Dr Annie Gray (who you may know from The Kitchen Cabinet podcast) describes the book as ‘a love letter to British baking and all that implies’.

Regula introduces the book and sheds some light on her motivation and qualification to write it. As a child she became obsessed with all things British. Her parents watched BBC programmes, historical dramas and documentaries which gave her a rather idealised view of a land of rolling hills, castles, quaint rituals and royalty. In later years she read Jane Austen and watched Eastenders avidly.  When she was nine, her parents gave in to her pleas to visit and spent their holidays exploring villages and towns from coast to coast. Their journeys were at a time before gastropubs and fusion food. The bakeries, high streets, cafes and inns of each town revealed unique, regional favourites and were a world away from the delicate pastries of the continent.

These years of discovery, through a fervour for collecting personal anecdotes and family recipes, and her growing collection of historical cookery books, are the foundation of this book.

The divided climate of the British Isles with its impact on food and agriculture is behind the title.  In the North conditions are too wet and cold to grow wheat so oats are a common ingredient for much of the cooking.  Griddled recipes rather than oven-baked dominate, some drawn from the influence of the Vikings. In the South, bread bakery is more prevalent with greater access to wheat.

There’s a summary of the common ingredients and equipment required for British baking before you dive into the main sections of the book. The recipes are broadly divided into cakes, biscuits, buns, griddle cakes, bread, pies and tarts plus a special section dedicated to gingerbread.

cookery book showing gingerbread recipe

Stories about the origin of each type of bake, the history, the variations, the name, the traditional ingredients, its earliest documentation, rituals behind it and how Regula found the recipes are woven into the book. It’s a good read even if you don’t make a single recipe; however that’s not my approach and torn scraps of paper stick out of my copy marking a sheaf of recipes I want to try .

Among the smooth, heavy-weight pages are things that I’ve never considered baking from scratch until now – custard creams or rich tea biscuits for instance. There are familiar old favourites like sticky flapjacks, hot cross buns, lemon drizzle cake and recipes for nearly everything mentioned in my childhood reminiscences above.

As I lived in the city of Bath for a while I feel duty-bound to try all three of the recipes for Bath buns. I test every recipe for Cornish pasties that I come across as I’m still looking for the perfect one, and keeping in the South-West, saffron buns and Devonshire splits are marked too.  A rather embarrassing early post on this blog documents making digestive biscuits in 2010, so I think it’s time for a refresher.

I’m fascinated by a compendium of traditional bakes that, as a Southerner, I have no knowledge of, like bannocks, Fat Rascals or Goosnargh cakes. Beef pies cast a light on London’s ‘pie and mash shop’ culture. It shows how, as the world becomes homogenised through international foods, cookery shows and multinational companies, our regional heritage remains alive and varied.

Or does it? Regula recounts her encounter with a ‘guess the weight of the cake’ competition at a village fete. These traditions are utterly familiar, part of my upbringing but also seem so distant (perhaps that’s also due to living out of the UK for a while); will these bucolic customs endure? Change is sometimes alluded to – she mentions that my favourite wobbly, vanilla-flavoured custard tarts are being nudged aside by the sweeter, caramelised, flaky Portuguese ones. She describes afternoon tea as I remember it, with an array of dainty sandwiches, followed by scones, then a slice of cake. These days most are dominated by sweet confections such as coloured, French-style macarons, with barely a savoury in sight.  And most revolutionary of all, the dramatic rise of coffee drinking in the UK threatens to overtake consumption of the British cuppa.

cookery book on baking trays

Apart from the excellent recipes, the meticulous research and beautiful quality of this book, it’s a record of Britain’s heritage and geography through high streets, home kitchens and a way of life which continues to evolve.

Regula has said, “Every book I write is about preserving a heritage, because in the present day far too much importance is given to new and exciting things while the past holds a treasure of beauty that is often forgotten.”

One could argue that a return to baking cakes and biscuits is out of kilter with the modern diet. However, in the early 1960’s the Chorley Wood baking method was developed in Britain and exported around the world meaning that most bread is ‘ultra-processed’. A recent article ‘How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket’ by Bee Wilson documents the findings of Brazilian nutrition researchers led by scientist Carlos Monteiro tracking the changes in the diet and health of the nation since UPFs arrived. To Monteiro, the bag of sugar on the kitchen counter is a healthy sign, not because sugar itself has any goodness in it, but because it belongs to a person who cooks (including healthier homemade traditional dishes).  Another reason to look back to the past?

In these turbulent times, I’ve certainly found comfort by escaping into the pages of this beautiful book, either curling up on the sofa or at my flour-dusted kitchen table.

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British baking, savoury and sweet by Regula Ysewijn (Murdoch Books, £25). Photography by Regula Ysewijn. Thanks to Murdock Books for sending me a copy to review. The pages will soon have thumbprints of butter and jam – the tell-tale sign of a well-used cookery book.

Just for fun – A few old pictures from the Food Blogger Connect days…

 

21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2020 12:43 pm

    Sounds a brilliant book 🙂 I remember toasting crumpets in front of a coal fire at my grandmother’s. They always tasted so much nicer than under the grill! Perhaps a prelude to barbecue cooking with the family?

    • April 8, 2020 3:45 pm

      I don’t think we ever had a barbecue! Potatoes baked in the embers of the fire on Bonfire night though – I remember the smoky taste well.

      • April 8, 2020 4:29 pm

        Yes I remember those potatoes too! They tasted so good.I was meaning a prelude to much later years when families barbecued … as a kid we only ever got coal fires – and only in winter!

  2. crasterkipper permalink
    April 5, 2020 1:01 pm

    Of course, I forgot about scones! It goes without saying, my favourite, with fruit or cheese. Do you remember cheese straws too?

    • April 8, 2020 3:45 pm

      Cheese straws – of course. Scones with loads of butter. Bring back afternoon tea on a daily basis.

  3. April 5, 2020 6:15 pm

    This looks and sounds like a wonderful book!

  4. April 10, 2020 2:26 am

    What a great bit of nostalgia . I remember meeting you and Regula at the Food Blogger Connect!

    • June 27, 2020 6:52 pm

      It was such good fun wasn’t it – and so many friendships formed

  5. April 19, 2020 4:37 pm

    Dear Sally, I can’t thank you enough for the time and effort you put into creating this wonderful review post of my book. I’ve read it four times now and am still so taken by how you completely understand the sentiment of this book. You lived the live I chased during my holidays to Britain. This is truly evocative. Thank you x

    • June 27, 2020 6:53 pm

      It’s a book to be treasured with a special place among my cookbooks.

  6. kavitafavelle permalink
    April 22, 2020 7:15 pm

    Like you I first came across Regular through the world of blogging and have loved seeing her success both in that arena, then in cookbook publishing and now also as a TV presenter. All so well deserved. I also love how this Belgian has a British soul when it comes to baking and food! I adored her previous book and my copy of this one is on it’s way, can’t wait!

  7. gingeybiteseats permalink
    April 22, 2020 11:14 pm

    What a wonderful review, if I didn’t already own the book, I would go out and buy it from reading this. Beautifully written, I can imagine you and your sister eating the Jamaican ginger cake! I love Regula too.

    • June 27, 2020 6:50 pm

      I haven’t listened to that episode recorded with Regula yet. Must find a quiet time…

  8. May 9, 2020 9:52 pm

    It was perfect the first time. I learn so much from you as well! Keep it up great post.

  9. June 26, 2020 7:13 am

    I’ve just bought this book here in New Zealand. I’m an expat Pom. The thing that initially attracted me was the quality of the book, old fashioned binding, beautifully done front and back covers and end-papers, and quality semi-glossed paper. For this 73 year old it’s an exercise in reminiscence as well as a challenge to get baking. Tomorrow it’s the chicken and mushroom pie. The only problem is that it’s too nice a book to get sticky fingers over – it almost belongs in the library and not the kitchen, which is obviously not going to happen!!.

    • June 27, 2020 6:49 pm

      You’ve summed it up perfectly. It’s nostalgic for me too. It’s one of those books that you will have as bedtime reading as well as in the kitchen. Thanks for your comment from down under.

  10. Rheorenz Jocson permalink
    July 8, 2020 12:25 pm

    I learn so much from you as well! Thankyou

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