Huffkins. Heavy cake. Buttery rowies. Maids of Honour. Yum-yums. The names of the cakes, biscuits and bread packing the pages of Oats in the North, Wheat from the South are as captivating as they are delicious.
“British baking is cosiness and warmth,” Regula Ysewijn writes in her new book, a love letter from the Belgian food writer to the baking of the country that captured her heart from the age of five when she heard a lullaby about England.
Anyone who loves baking, or food history, or just a mighty fine biscuit, will be enthralled by the edible history Ysewijn has captured (she’s enviably talented – the food and travel images in the book are her work, too). Fairings, we discover, are sweet treats, usually gingerbread, sold at English fairs and festivals for centuries; the first known recipe for Sally Lunns, a light brioche-like bun, appeared not in a recipe book, but in a poem, in 1796; Shrewsbury cakes are not a cake at all, but a brittle spiced biscuit.
“The English have a knack for coming up with catchy names and also stories,” Ysewijn says when SBS Food chats to her about the names and stories attached to many of the recipes in the book.
Even the simplest of recipes can have a name that makes you smile. Take huffkins, a simple bread roll with a dimple on the top.
“Kentish huffkins were conceived when a Kentish baker’s wife who was in a ‘huff’ about something - probably something her husband did - pressed her thumb into each and every little bun her husband baker had just shaped. The baker decided not to waste the dough and bake them anyway and the customers came back the next day asking for these dimpled buns,” she says. A lot of it is legend, but the thing is that in a lot of cases there is some truth in the story.”
Others have a clearer tie to a real place or event. Tottenham cake, a sponge cake decorated with bright pink icing. In 1901, the book explains, pieces of Tottenham cake were given away to children from the London neighbourhood of Tottenham to celebrate the victory of the Tottenham Hotspurs in the FA Cup, the English national football competition.
Some are so loved there are businesses based on them: “Maids of honour tarts are small cheesecakes that, according to one of the beloved legends, were named after one of the maids of honour of one of the wives of Henry VIII. The king had tasted the tarts and was so besotted with them that he locked up the maid of honour so she could bake these tarts for him. … In Richmond near London, where Henry VIII lived, Newens The Original Maids of Honour shop has existed since 1850. Here you can still buy these delicious tarts and the recipe is a closely guarded secret,” she writes in the book. Luckily, she’s shared her version, based on a recipe from a 1792 cookbook.
Some names retain an element of mystery. Take the Aberdeen buttery rowie. Honestly, we’d love to – take a rowie in hand that is, after reading Ysewijn’s glorious description in the book of this flaky, buttery portable breakfast, still sold in the Northern Scottish city.
“At first glance, a rowie looks a bit like an unfortunate croissant that you find in the bottom of your bag, crushed by a bag of apples or a stack of books. But it is when you taste a rowie that you learn about its appeal because it has the richness of a croissant with a bonus of extra heartiness through the addition of lard. The rowie is a pillar of working-class cuisine and was traditionally eaten for breakfast by workers and fishermen.” In 1917, bakeries were briefly banned from baking them, due to wartime bread and price controls, but the rowie was so loved that even the unions protested the ban.
Delighted by the idea of this ‘squashed croissant’, we threw a slew of questions at Ysewijn. Are they eaten filled or plain? Are they always made with lard? And where does the “rowie” part of the name come from?
“There is no clue into why it’s called an Aberdeen buttery ‘rowie’, but the buttery does make a lot of sense - it’s very buttery, like a croissant. There is only a small portion of lard in the pastry, but I do find it essential to obtain the savoury note only lard can give. You could, of course, use all butter; the recipe would work just as well.
“You generally don’t see buttery rowies being sold filled, it really is a one-man show, especially because it is so very rich. But also, because it had to be portable for workmen to take with them. I have heard from a few Scotsmen who like to spread a buttery rowie with butter, though others firmly disagree with the practice!”
With so many wonderful stories behind these traditional recipes, does she have a favourite, we asked?
“There’s one that is definitely made up but that doesn’t make it any less romantic. The Bakewell pudding is said to be invented in a pub kitchen in the quaint Derbyshire town of Bakewell around 1850. A kitchen maid was tasked with making the puddings that day and didn’t read the recipe from her mistress with great attention making a mistake with the filling and thus creating a whole new pudding. The pudding was named the Bakewell pudding and it became an enormous success that can still be witnessed in the many Bakewell bakeries in Bakewell today.”
While this is a book rich with love for the whimsy of British baking, it does not ignore the fact that some of the ingredients used came to Britain with a high human cost attached. At the very front of the book, Ysewijn includes an acknowledgement that “most of the cakes, gingerbreads and biscuits in this book would not have existed if not for sugar imports that were made possible due to slavery.”
It’s a thought that is always with her, she explains when we talk about the book.
“The Cumbrian ports were the hotspot for the triangular trade. Ships left for West Africa with goods from Britain, they then unloaded and sold their goods and loaded the ships full of enslaved Africans who were then sold in the West Indies to work on the plantations. Ships were then loaded with sugar, rum, spices and other commodities and sailed back to Britain and other parts of Europe, where sugar would flavour their tea and the cakes. There isn’t a moment when I bake than I don’t recognise the immense sacrifice of African people made - were made to make - so we could have sweetness in our lives.”
It’s an important observation, and another reason why this is a very special baking book.
And there’s another one on the way – this time closer to home.
“I’ve been test baking for a new book I’m working on about my own baking culture from the Low Countries. Because the thing is, I adore everything about British food culture and researching its history has been my life for a decade but I’m actually Belgian! The book has been on my mind for a few years, but we have a complicated history in the Low Countries, so I had to feel ready to undertake this research, and that has taken me ten years.”
In the meantime, you can tuck into sample of recipes from Oats in the North, Wheat from the South (out now, Murdoch Books, $49.99): Tottenham cake, buttery rowies, Maids of Honour and Cornish fairings, a crisp gingerbread biscuit. You can also find more of Ysewijn’s recipes and writing at her website.