My love for barley began in two ways: a can of Heinz scotch broth which was packed with its chewy little nubbins in an otherwise forgettable soup, and Robinsons Barley Water which I personally believe to be the best way to soothe a fulminant UTI. No wonder tennis players, flinging themselves around on a hot court, drink gallons of the stuff.
I’ve found a better way of eating what is such a versatile little grain and this technique for fried barley will give you a fine carby foil for whatever fish, meat or vegetable you care to accompany it with. Barley is a wonderful carrier for flavour and accommodates reheating beautifully and I try to keep a cooked bowlful of the stuff in the fridge at all times to mix into salads, soups and stews or eat as is, with butter, black pepper and salt.
There are two forms of barley: hulled and pearl. Hulled barley has had the tough, inedible outermost hull removed and retains its bran and endosperm layer, resulting in a chewier grain when cooked. Pearl barley has been polished to remove the bran, leaving a pale and cream-coloured grain which cooks more swiftly. Hulled grain is the more nutritious of the two types because it has retained its fibre but pearl barley releases its starch into any liquid it is cooked within, making it a good thickener for soups and risottos.
The recipe that follows is more advice than prescriptive guide and serves around four or me, over several meals.
Make up 1½ litres of chicken (or vegetable) stock and bring to the boil in a large pan. Pour in 300g of pearl barley and cook at a simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the barley has doubled in size, becoming swollen and a little fluffy around the edges. Drain, place into a bowl and leave to cool.
Shred two large handfuls of wild garlic and mix into the barley. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice over the wild garlic and grains. Add some fresh thyme sprigs too.Taste and adjust the salt if necessary. In the photo above, I have chucked in some leftover salad leaves which wilt beautifully in the heat of the pan but this is by no means compulsory.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet and when it is hot, add the pearl barley and stir fry in two stages unless your skillet is REALLY big. You want it to develop a bit of a crust underneath so don’t toss it too much. Keep on frying until it is golden and a little caught around the edges. Serve whatever way you like; it keeps for three or four days too.
“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”
How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.
Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.
Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.
In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.
M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared.The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.
The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’
Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.
It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.
“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.
two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)
2 rashers streaky bacon
4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs
1 tbsp butter
16 fl oz full fat milk
8 fl oz single cream
pinch ground mace
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch black pepper
salt to taste
Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.
British school lunches in the seventies and eighties saw Spam frittered, rissoled and fried, then plopped onto plates where it left a damp shadow of grease in its wake. Liberally coated in salt and dipped into cheap ketchup, Spam provided a hit of salt and sweet that some of us found strangely addictive, and those who did could easily find a liberal supply of fritters from the many Spam-hating pupils keen to fool the vigilant dinner ladies who would make you sit until you cleared your plate. Introduced to the UK in the forties, this cheap and easy to store product was on the menu at least once a week in British school lunch-halls from the early sixties until the late eighties at least, and even graced the tables of upmarket restaurants where dishes with such exotic names as ‘ballotine de jambon valentinoise’ were created to disguise its humble nature.
Spam’s popularity has never died in in other parts of the world, especially so in Hawaii where the sales of Spam nudge into super-consumer levels with each person getting through around 5 cans per person per year on average. (Official figures indicate that 6 million cans of Spam are eaten each year in Hawaii.) Hormel, makers of Spam, celebrate their 126th birthday this year and business has never been better. Even more remarkably, all that Spam is still only produced in two American locations, Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, and three other countries, Denmark, South Korea and the Philippines.
According to the Hormel website, the roots of Spam adoration can be found in the Second World War when the luncheon meat was served to GIs because it required no refrigeration in a hot tropical climate and had a long shelf life. When Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act in 1941, Hormel ramped up wartime production to supply over 15 million cans to Allied troops, producing over one hundred million pounds of Spam which Kruschev once described as having saved his army from starvation although President Eisenhower was less complimentary about it, describing how he contributed his fair share of “unkind words about it-uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as a former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,” in a letter to Hormel in 1966. Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to it as a ‘a war-time delicacy’, remembering one Boxing Day 1943, when she ‘had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.’ As the daughter of a grocer, her family would no doubt have received shipments of Spam to sell in their shop.
Referred to as special army meat which is possibly a source of its name, some say Spam derives from the words spiced ham whilst other people believe its name is an acronym for shoulders of pork and ham. Hormel aren’t confirming or denying, understanding that the mystery is part of the publicity. “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus,” says the official Spam website.
Like many other army supplies, surplus cans made their way from the mess into the kitchens of locals such was the need for a black market to relieve the mundane nature of wartime diets and by the end of the war, Hawaiians had developed a lively appetite for it, creating meals such as Spam with fried rice, Spam musubi, (a sushi-style slice served with rice and seaweed), Spam fried rice and Spam with eggs. Margaret L, who lives on the Big Island grew up eating it:
“My love for Spam derives from my family, both Mom and Dad, who had hard times during the Depression and were both involved in World War II — my Dad in the Navy (and at Pearl Harbor on December 7) and my mom as a cadet nurse (a special unit). So SPAM and Vienna Sausages were frequent choices at our house growing up.
And as Margaret explains, the continuing popularity of Spam isn’t just to do with nostalgia and habit but about a foods ability to adapt to changes in the way we eat and what we can afford:
“Now that I am in my 60s, I seem to return to it as a comfort food reminding me of the past in some part of my memory bank, but also finding it very tasty and economical in today’s economy! When I first returned to it, I truly didn’t think I would like it as much as I do, and, as I said above, I haven’t even gotten around to adding pineapple yet.”
“As a child we would make Spam sandwiches straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise,” says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks where recipes for corned beef manapua with Spam, Depression dinner party mix, and eggplant and Spam tempura rub shoulders with more prosaic sandwiches. She talks of local grocery stores having to restrict shoppers to five cans per person when new stock comes in otherwise supplies would soon run dry. [Hormel itself says it manufactures about 395 cans a minute and has sold EIGHT BILLION CANS since its invention]. A recent CBS documentary about Hawaii’s love for the canned meat showed an entire supermarket shelf stocked with fourteen different flavours. There are rows and rows of tins in rainbow colours: pink tins of Spam with cheese; Spam with garlic; Spam with turkey breast meat and with Portuguese sausage; smoked with hickory; spiced with jalopeno, or containing whole macadamia nuts. It is mind-boggling and gloriously quirky to me, but not so much for those Hawaiians who have grown up eating the meat on a regular basis. And since I’ve written this feature, I’ve no doubt there’s even more flavours on the shelves.
When that first can rolled off the conveyor belt back in 1937 Hormel’s competitors were selling canned meat made from the lips, snouts and ears of the pig but Hormel refused to use these parts and nowadays the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer permits any non-meat fillers in lunch-meat and does not allow it to be made from pig snouts, lips, or ears. About 90% of Spam is pork from pigs shoulders and the remaining 10% comes from pig butt and thigh, which we would also know as ham. Today, pork shoulder is a very popular cut but when Spam first hit the shelves, this part of the pig was under-utilised.The original recipe remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began to add potato starch to mop up the layer of gelatin that naturally extrudes from bone and connective tissue when meat is cooked. Customers reported being put off by the look of the Spam with this gellified layer and so an aesthetic rather than gustatory choice resulted in this tweak to the original recipe. All things considered, if you eat hot dogs whose ingredient list is considerably lengthier (and spookier!), Spam should be rather less of a leap.
Despite this, and the fact that pork shoulder is used plus water, salt and nitrites to preserve that pink colour, Spam retains an unwarranted reputation as a can of ‘meaty floor sweepings’ as one anonymous food writer told me and there still remain Hawaiians who aren’t that enamoured of it, says Courtney Turner who blogs about life on Maui from a jungle bungalow:“I rarely eat it unless it’s in musubi and I don’t eat it that often but there is a Spam cookbook from Hawaii,” she says.
“People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they’ve never had it,” agrees Corum. “If you’ve only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that’s understandable.
“But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it’s really good,” Corum adds. “It’s the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy.”
Spam is seen as a trash product by many Americans and Brits who might have a few cans pushed to the back of their pantries along with marrow fat peas, miscellaneous canned soups and something untranslatable they bought on holiday because they liked the label. You might eat it when you have run out of everything else, the zombies have attacked or global war has destroyed the infrastructure and you’d expect to see rows of it stacked in the garages belonging to preppers. But in Hawaii, Spam is not seen in the same light and, although there is no longer the same need for an easily affordable substitute for ‘real’ meat, it remains part of their culinary heritage and consumption cuts across the social and cultural strata. As food writer and historian Rachel Laudan writes, in her book The Food of Paradise, ‘to take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawaii’ of which more later.
These little cans released millions of people from the monotony of dried, salted meats, the only other option where fresh meat spoiled all too easily and whilst it might once have been a godsend during times of privation nowadays, local people choose to eat it. In fact, Hawaiians know what the rest of us are slowly realising: Spam is a perfect ingredient for proprietors of food trucks, those ex-bankers who got out and sunk their savings into a silvered dream machine selling dirty burgers and poshed-up musubi.
Obama is no food snob, ordering Spam musubi during his last Hawaiian sojourn before becoming president and the product can be found on islander McDonald and Burger King menus, (ask for Hawaiian steak) or visit Tikiiniki, owned by former rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife Michelle where the Iniki hamburgers are made from beef and Spam ground together. According to Rundgren, the writing of his famous hit ‘Hello, it’s me’ was fuelled by copious platefuls of Spam about which he said, in an interview, “is better than a hotdog because it doesn’t have any snouts or anuses in it.” A taste for Spam musubi is apparently one of the things which separates the ‘real’ Hawaiians from the tourists and this mash-up of Asian and islander culture comes neatly wrapped up in nori and ready to eat on the go. Recently, Hormel even introduced a teriyaki-flavored Spam product to encourage consumers to eat more Musubi and if you want your baby to resemble the food on its parents plate, why not dress it up in a musubi baby costume? There’s a yearly festival in Waikiki known as Spam Jam Hawaii, too.
You can trace Spam’s journey from the army mess and store cupboards into the kitchens of Japanese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants to Hawaii too who, among many others, became enamoured of it- indeed if you visited the Philippines in the last six months, you may well have eaten Spam at a local restaurant, SpamJam. The tiny island of Guam (where there is a huge US naval base, built after the liberation of the island from the Japanese) boasts an astonishing rate of consumption of more than sixteen cans per person per year; more than any other nation per capita, and has hosted the annual Spam games. After the Second World War, the Chamorros of Guam had no homes to return to, malnutrition was rife and refugee camps had to be built where food rations, including spam and corned beef, were passed out by American forces. Spam has become part of the local cuisine and dishes such as Spam kelaguen where it is chopped then mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and local hot pepper have evolved. Colonised three times over the last 400 years, Guam and Spam exist in a relationship marked with mixed feelings as American forces continues to ‘militarily occupy’ what their leaders refer to as an unincorporated territory of the USA and in this context, some Chamorro people see Spam as a symbol of cultural oppression and one of the causes of rising heart disease and diabetes caused by high-fat, high-salt and sugar diets.
The popularity of SPAM with Koreans is an interesting circular process with roots in the Korean War: American soldiers introduced the meat to well-connected Koreans where it became a popular status food after a lengthy period of Japanese rule and a severe proxy war had left Korea with severe shortages. Displaced Koreans living in villages decimated by war also supplemented meagre food supplies with handouts of food from US Army bases. Upon immigration into Hawaii, those same Koreans continued to eat and cook with Spam whilst their relatives back in Korea consume it at such a rate,they are now the second largest market.Spam is so popular in South Korea, it is sold in special gift packs which have become a common hostess gift; I’ve spent several sojourns in South Korea and can recall market stalls selling Spam-branded t shirts and school bags, alongside those gift packs.
When offshore fishing was temporarily halted in the Hawaiian islands during the Second World War and restrictions places upon movement between the islands, the islanders were ever more dependent upon the charms of this canned meat. Some historians claim that Spam’s popularity has more to do with the restrictions placed upon Japanese-Hawaiian deep-sea fishing operations by the American government in the years leading up to the Second World War. The Hawaiian islands were home to so many people of Japanese descent that it was unfeasible to intern them all in camps as happened in the contiguous, states: internment had the potential to be ruinous to the island economy but the Japanese still had to feed themselves and their families, deprived as they were of the fish and seafood that had until recently augmented their diets.
As often happens during times of privation, members of the forces take advantage of local food shortages to make a buck or three and local people experimented with what food they did have, using SPAM to replace the pork or fish which also became hard to come by during the war. Spam soon appeared cubed and sliced in noodles, in sushi and stir-fry. Ever versatile, Spam was substituted for the beef in Korean bulgogi, a dietary love brought back by American soldiers stationed in South Korea and these tastes survive today. In LA, chef Roy Choi makes his version of “army stew” (budae jjigae) at POT, his restaurant inside the Line Hotel where a bubbling pot of anchovy broth, pork stock, noodles and Spam keeps the clientele happy. Other versions of Korean Army Stew include slashed hot dogs, ground meat and sweet potato noodles which grow fat and slippery in the gochujang and kimchi- infused broth. Also known as Johnson Tang soup it is an eclectic mix of army rations and centuries-old Korean foodstuffs and the city of Uijeongbu retains its fame for good budae jjigae because of its high concentration of U.S. military personnel.
Spam’s texture lends itself well to the carving knife making it useful for sushi making and it absorbs and holds onto other stronger flavours. Chefs from Hawaii, such as Jovi Magdual, are fascinated by the challenge of blending different foods- Island, Asian and American- into a brand new and eclectic cuisine. “It’s not gimmick food, we’re adding different flavours from different cultures. Pineapple is tropical in a tropical climate and, if ham, then why not SPAM?” he says and other chefs in Hawaii are coming up with new spam concoctions all the time. At Da Kitchen even dessert has become an excuse for serving more spam in the form of pineapple spam upside-down cake.
Hawaiian-raised chef-owner Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco has been hailed as one of the new breed of chefs who use Spam in interesting ways, refusing to turn their backs on what was, and is, an important part of island culinary history. Kapur makes his own SPAM, grinding a mix of high-quality pork shoulder, ham and seasonings, and then steaming it in a rectangular pan to ensure the finished item has that characteristic Hormel shape. Added to rice alongside shrimp, furikake, uni and abalone mushrooms, the result is a high-low fried rice. For customers in the know, the restaurant also serves Spam over rice with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers, off-menu.
Across the Atlantic in London, Chef Jeremy Pang who runs School of Wok, opened Cha Chaan Teng in Holborn last year and serves up coconut-encrusted spam with fried egg and wanton in a noodle broth and a crispy spam & fried quail egg crusty roll accompanied by sriracha and pickles, which he says are “a deliberately inauthentic and playful interpretation of the hugely popular Hong Kong cha chaan teng diners that took the region by storm in the 1950s.” (Read a more expansive interview with Jeremy Pang, here)
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi was born and raised in Mānoa Valley and is co-founder of The Pili Group, LUNCHBOX, and the former Mission Social Hall & Cafe. He agreed to chat with me about Spam and whether it still has cultural relevance for him and his customers. Whilst he says that it is only prepared for sale at Lunchbox, a cafe for Hawaiian Airlines employees, and not sold at his other businesses, he admits customers there are ‘stoked’ when they discover that Spam is on the cafe menu. And like most chefs, his own professional creed of cooking local, responsibly-made food means that while he feels there is an important need to “make smart choices about what we consume”, he admits that “when you get out of a kitchen at 1am your choices are limiting. Many of us congregate at a favourite watering hole, and SPAM… is plentiful. Usually in a musubi or fried rice or fried noodle form.”
Chef Noguchi has used Spam professionally though. “At my first restaurant, He`eia Kea Pier, we made our musubi by simmering Spam in a teriyake tare until it caramelized and coated the Spam. Then we would make our musubi with it, and that’s still my favourite,” he says.
“Shirokiya at Ala Moana makes an awesom Spam musubi and MW Restaurant has an off-menu item they save for their VIP’s. It’s a house-made Spam (basically a country-style pork terrine.) Out of all the people trying to make Spam, they come the closest. Spam gets its unique flavor and texture because of the specific way they package it in the can and then pressure steam/cook it.”
“So although Spam may have a bad rap as a processed, high sodium food, I think it’s important to understand how food came to Hawaii,” Chef Noguchi explains, firmly rejecting food snobbery. “Spam became ubiquitous in our home because of World War Two, it’s part of our culture. Hawai`i’s demographic’s have changed, and so has our palates; however I still believe in celebrating our foods of the past (including Spam,) and understanding why it’s a part of our heritage.”
The myriad of ways in which Spam is consumed provides us with a fascinating and fruitful example of culinary derring-do as cooks and chefs take their national histories, marked by culinary privation caused by colonialism, migration and war, and blend them with a new and creative use of ingredients. The chefs I spoke to who use it seem to come from a sincere place; their use of Spam borne from nostalgia, personal history and a desire to forge new gustatory connections, rather than a place of daring or punk attitude. They aren’t using Spam to shock and awe, or garner click-bait headlines via the ‘othering’ of an ingredient which we should remember, may have helped save those lives rendered precarious, during and after the Second World War. However, if you’ve bought a tin, tried it and still don’t like the taste or texture, you can always follow the frugal example of American soldiers during the Second World War who inked slices of Spam to use as playing cards. They were able to play poker with them for several months before the ‘cards’ expired. That may or may not dismay you.
It’s time for a roots revival after a summer of lightly-prepared frilly green things and fruit which can be eaten straight from the tree or bush. Some root veg such as carrots, celeriac and daikon can be consumed all year round but as the nights draw in and the frosts nip faces and the newly dug-over clods of the vegetable patch, the thicker and less delicate roots come to our attention as their starches are converted to sugar by the cold, making them perfect for roasting and slow braising. Winter carrots, parsnips, swede, celeriac and scorzonera stand up well to such treatments when their summer cousins might not.
This is an easy way to cook parsnips, either on their own or with the hasselback potatoes shown in the photograph which used up the last of our late-summer potatoes from the allotment. They’re par-boiled then sliced and basted with a marinade made up of chile-honey, maple syrup, salt and olive oil. A quick roast in the oven until golden and you’re good to go. The hasselback technique originated in Sweden and is named after Hasselbacken, a Stockholm restaurant which first served these potatoes in the 17th century. By slicing potatoes and root vegetables like parsnips only part of the way through along their length, you end up with a soft creamy centre with lots of caught, crunchy edges and a super-luxe roasted root vegetable which tends not to dry out even hours after cooking.
So to make them….
Wash as many parsnips as you need and peel them if the skins seem super-tough, leaving them in one whole piece. I’ve left the skin on here as I like the extra goodness. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and then place the parsnips in a pan of salted boiling water and par-boil until the tip of a knife just pierces their skin. Drain them well and place in a shallow roasting pan which has been coated with olive oil. Using a sharp knife, make shallow cuts widthways across each parsnip down its length, taking care to not cut them all the way through. Baste them with more olive oil and roast for fifteen minutes then remove them from the oven.
For every kilo of parsnips you will need to mix one tablespoon of honey, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup and a small pinch of chile powder and sea salt in a bowl. Once this is mixed, brush it over the entire surface of each parsnip and then place them back in the oven. Keep an eye on them because you don’t want them to burn and roast for another 25-30 mins or so until darkly golden and caught in places. Don’t worry if they catch a bit, it adds to their flavour.
If you want to make the hasselback potatoes, it is basically the same process without the honey-chile and maple syrup baste. Par boil your potatoes in salted water and drain then after they are cool to the touch, slice them widthways part of the way through. Baste with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and black pepper, then roast in the oven at 180C until they are golden. You may need to baste them with more oil as they cook.
There’s so much more to the food of the American south than barbecue, cornbread and bourbon and this tart, topped with luscious persimmons which are one of the signature fruits of the region, deserves its time in the [autumnal] sun, and to be more widely eaten in the UK.
In the USA, persimmons are usually left to fall from the tree and if you travel around the south in the autumn, it’s not unusual to see mattresses and tarpaulins scattered around the base of each trunk , ready to catch these readily-bruised fruits. They split easily, spilling out soft flesh which attracts all kinds of critters so you have to be swift.
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) can give you a nasty, mouth-puckering shock if you eat it before the first frost because the fruits needs that cold snap to convert their tart soluble tannins into a sweet jelly-like mass. Because of this, there’s a Japanese variety of persimmon called ‘Fuyu’ whose fruits are sweet from the start which stores in Britain are starting to stock around now. It’s pretty hard to find American persimmons over here because they do not travel easily.
Fuyu doesn’t have much of a core and its skin is edible making it easy to prep and even easier to eat on the go. And the flavour? There’s some papaya notes, a lot of floral and a little tomato, a honeyed sweetness and something unique that defies description. It’s a fruit with flavour that deepens after cooking, becoming more than the sum of its parts and possessed of tender flesh easily incorporated into cakes, breads and puddings, made from recipes that are centuries old. Southerners still make a persimmon bread pudding with a burnt sugar syrup which is the descendant of a recipe learned from the Delaware and Cree tribes of Native Americans who showed the pioneers who crossed the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley how to use the fruit.
For this tart, I’ve added a sliced layer of persimmon to a base I use often, made from a soft pressed-in dough, flavoured with spices. The persimmon cooks down into a soft and wobbly jelly, each slice collapsing as you spoon it up. It’s this quality that makes persimmon so useful as a filling because it creates its own juicy setting and all you need to do is add a little spice, some crunchy sweetness in the form of brown sugar and you’ll soon have autumn on your plate.
It’s vital to let the tart cool before slicing to allow the cooked persimmons to meld with the sugar and ginger syrup to produce that semi-set jelly (or jam to us Brits). So don’t worry if there seems to be a lot of liquid sloshing around the fruits as it cooks.
*Caveat* I usually test recipes at least six times. This one has only been made twice but it turned out well each time.
Spiced Persimmon Tart
8 oz plain flour (all-purpose in the USA)
2 tablespoons of soft brown sugar and a further 6 tablespoons of demerara sugar
3 oz cold butter, cut into little chunks
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
3 ripe small to medium Fuyu persimmons
tbsp ginger syrup from stem ginger jar
Switch oven to 180C .
Make the pastry base using a processor or by hand: combine the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, the mixed spice and the butter until fine crumbs form or pulse in a processor until you have that fine crumb. Add the egg yolk and whirl or stir by hand until the dough comes together in a soft ball. Press the dough over the bottom and the sides of a 4- by 14-inch tart pan with a removable base (or use a 9-inch round tart pan).
Combine the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, the lemon juice and brandy in a wide bowl.
Slice persimmons into slim rounds and check for seeds, removing if they are there. Slice the rounds in half and muddle them into the brandied sugar mixture, ensuring they are thoroughly coated then arrange fruit in 2 overlapping rows on top of the dough (or arrange in circles if using a round pan). Plaster any leftover sugar mixture from bowl over the fruit then ladle over the ginger syrup, ensuring it coats the slices.
Bake the tart until the crust is golden which will take around 25-30 minutes. Check the persimmon slices for doneness and if they are still a little hard, cover the tart loosely with foil and bake until they are tender when pierced. (Another 10- 15 minutes but this really does depend upon the ripeness of your persimmons.)
Remove tart from oven and allow to cool completely. Don’t worry if it seems to have some liquid sloshing around the persimmon slices. As it cools, this will set to a light jelly (jammy) consistency. When it has thickened and set, its time to slice the tart. Serve with creme fraiche, mascarpone or ice-cream if you like it even sweeter!
Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.
Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’
Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.
“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’. She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.
Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’ we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.
Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.
Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.
Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.
Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.
At the sharp edge,
no longer crowded
with past and future,
fruits ripen on the lemon tree in the silence rising from the morning air. – Ok-Koo Kand Grosjean, Garden
That sunlit space is where all citrus fruits reside, a place of sharp, bright awakening and the way we use them in cooking is a tale of cultural derring-do: even the simplest of recipes can possess multiple cultural references, reflecting the complex culinary genealogy of these fruits. Although I use them frequently in savoury meals, today I want to gather together some of my favourite citrus recipes. And if a pudding course redolent with lemon and its citrus cousins is not enough, then precede it with chicken, spaghetti and circles of calamarata pasta dressed with lemon, garlic, parsley and clams, turnip tops and roasted cauliflower .
One of my favourites is a recipe for a grapefruit yoghurt cake which possesses a convoluted culinary genealogy by way of Ina Garten and Deb Perelman and it is Deb who tinkers with Ina’s original lemon pound cake — and tries to lighten it up. Butter and buttermilk are replaced by oil -and the aforementioned yoghurt – in a nod to the sainted lighter living and not something I usually subscribe to, being of the school of eat a little of whatever the hell you fancy. Anyway, butter is not bad for you. This is not substitution in order to reduce calories or fat but to adjust texture: the yoghurt adds flavour whilst the oil ensures the crumb retains dampness even when the cake is a few days old.
When we bake with citrus fruits, their sharp, grassy, rimey and clear flavours cut through the melding tendencies of eggs, butter and other oils like Flashman. Grapefruit lends a more rounded, burnished flavour than the lemon and is further rounded-out by the yoghurt which produces a springy, moist crumb with a lactic tang. A grapefruit’s flavour is warm amber compared to the clear jewel-like citrine taste of a lemon.
Adding the zest to the cake mix results in a drizzle cake in all but name: the grapefruit juices are poured over the cooling cake and then used in an icing sugar-based glaze and this method clearly lends itself to all kinds of free-styling. The Southern Girls Kitchen has a newly published recipe for grapefruit pound cake which would make a great starting-block for experimentation using different glazes and adding in fruit to the batter: the cream cheese in the mixture and the filling also adds moistness and flavour. I have baked madeleines flavoured with bergamot and lime accompanied by a coconut dipping sauce and sharp lemon and lime loaf cakes where a sprinkle of sumach adds a rounded tangy flavour: Nigella’s lemon and polenta cake would also work well with sumach. I like the idea of friands scented with mandorla and Earl Grey tea or made with a blend of pomelo and Lady Grey. There’s other tea blends which sound intriguing too: try Adagio teas who sell a blend called crema di mandorle di albicocca (described as marzipan meets apricot in black tea with a splash of cream) which I think would be amazing in a cake on its own as well.
I’m currently testing a cake-riff on a breakfast grapefruit where we can take the grapefruit halves usual sprinkling of grilled brown sugar and transform this into a brown-sugar and butter icing for a brown-butter and grapefruit loaf cake, perfect for the colder months ahead. In winter, try incorporating rosy quinces into a damp-crumbed fruity cake spiced with star anise; drench griddled brioche or madeira cake with blood-orange curd for breakfast; or tuck poached kumquats and lychees inside a friand so each bite of cake is enlivened by a heart of fruit. Keep an eye on this site and on my newspaper food column for the recipes.
Rachel Roddy has written about her own baking template- the yoghurt pot cake- which can be adapted as the seasons change and, as she finds, is terribly good-tempered about this. Here, she flavours it with lemon and persimmon which we sometimes refer to as Sharon fruit in the UK. The hachiya variety rewards the wait for ripeness as Rousseau explains: ‘patience is bitter but fruit is sweet,’ maturing to a sweet-jellied voluptuousness. Sponges made with it are beautifully damp. Add in a few slivers of stem ginger to deepen its sweetness into something more dustily mysterious and don’t be too fussy about shaking off the beads of syrup which cling to the little balls of ginger when you spoon them out of their jar and stir them into the batter.
Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms MarmiteLover) has published a recipe for a boiled-orange upside-down cake which also happens to be gluten-free. Made for one of her secret tea parties, the original idea came via Diana Henry on Saturday Kitchen and the recipe caught my attention because I remember my mother saying that the worst thing she ever had to eat as a child was boiled oranges in post-war Britain. After years of citrus fruit shortages, all she wanted to do was eat one fresh and as un-mucked about with as possible. I don’t think that boiled oranges are disagreeable at all, especially when the caramelised orange juices from Kerstin’s cake (which are fortified by Triple Sec or Cointreau) seep into the base of the almond-enriched crumb. Use Seville Oranges and after you’ve poured the orangey juices over the cake, dust it with more brown sugar and give it a blast under the grill: I think a Seville orange-flavoured cake needs this extra sugar, you, however, may not.
I’m partial to Diana Henry’s pomegranate and blood-orange cake which is, she says, ‘for those lunatics who don’t like Christmas pudding’ although I am not one of them. The photo alone sold it to me before I even looked at the recipe as it’s the loveliest thing; basically John Masefield’s Box of Delights in cake form. Pomegranates are such a Christmassy fruit and a heap of fruits on the table and windowsills allows their ruby peel to absorb and reflect back winter light. They glow softly in the corner of the room keeping company with piles of nuts and those long cardboard boxes stuffed with glistening gooey dates. Mead always seems Christmassy to me and I have been testing cakes flavoured with it, either as a soak for the sponge layers, combined with a light hit of orange or lemon in the cake mix or added to the whipped cream, mascarpone or creme fraiche served with each slice. There’s also a quince honey and mead stack cake in the style of the Appalachian apple stack which I made for a friend’s birthday. Watch this space.
Then there’s pies. I have eaten raspberry pies and used the leaves to flavour the cream which is poured over each slice. (Disclaimer: don’t give raspberry leaf cream to women who are pregnant and not at full-term just in case it does what it is reputed to do and primes their uteri for labour by triggering small contractions.) The North American Shakers created a lemon pie made from whole lemons, rind and all, and it is topped with bright wheels of sliced lemon. For all its summer sunniness, it is also the perfect pie for a cold winters day. Claire Ptak from Violet Bakery recently discovered this pie and published her recipe on Guardian Cook . It is pretty much the same recipe as the classic Shaker one.
Tommi Myers uses Tarocco blood-oranges in her pie, here. These oranges are the result of a random mutation of the common sweet orange (citrus sinensis) in a fifteenth century Sicilian orange orchard grove although there is evidence that one blood orange variety arose independently in China. The levels of anthocyanin, a water-soluble pigment commonly found in many types of red, purple and blue plants are elevated in the blood-orange and will only develop if the fruit is exposed to cold conditions during its development or post-harvest.Whilst we’re talking orange pigments, did you know that some oranges grown in some African countries might not develop the characteristic orange-hued peel, remaining green?
Clementines, tangerines and satsumas are a good alternative in the winter or the loose-skinned minneola (a tangerine crossed with a grapefruit), tangelo (bred by crossing the tangerine, grapefruit and orange and also known as the ugli fruit) in the warmer months: these all have aromatic peel and are incredibly juicy. If you have frozen raspberries left over from the previous summer or one of those bags of frozen berries, tip them in too because they add a lovely floral depth and give a pie the shade of a Turner sunset. I have eaten (and want to recreate) a cranberry-tangerine tart with a walnut crust whilst away at Christmas-time on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Nancy Capelloni’s Cranberry Cooking for All Seasons has a lovely-sounding recipe for a cranberry-orange loaf cake which again, is Christmas and Thanksgiving appropriate. I’d probably knock up a sugar-syrup flavoured with quatre-epices to pour over the finished cake to mitigate any overly-tart tendencies these fruits might possess.
I’ll finish on a high note in the form of Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake recipe, taken from her book Bread & Chocolate. Gage once owned and baked in a well-known San Francisco patisserie and is equally as talented at writing in this, her first book, and its sequel, A Sweet Quartet. Each chapter begins with a brief essay linked to a recipe and in the chapter devoted to citrus she tells us of the elderly woman who strode into her bakery one day with a brown paper bag full of citrons which became marmalade and of her own Meyer lemon tree. After patiently waiting for it to mature and bear fruit, Gage’s pleasure in her precious harvest of floral-scented fruit which comes via its lemon and mandarin-orange parents is palpable. This cake is my absolute favourite. Gage recommends we soak the lemon zest overnight in sugar-syrup (Neruda reminds us that the freshness of a lemon lives on in the sweet-smelling house of the rind) and, alongside the couple of ounces of lemon juice which goes into the batter, this produces a cake of such tender dampness that it melts in the mouth. This is a cake to eat whilst you sit outside on a sunny day and read Helena Attlee’s book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, which journeys through Italian history in order to trace the story of the lemons which were brought there by Arabs and now grow so prolifically in Italy.
Meyer Lemon Pound Cake
lemon soaking syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Zest the lemons and put in small pot with the sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the zested lemons to make 1/3 cup juice, and reserve for the cake.
To make the cake:
1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
10 TB (5 oz) butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup lemon juice
prepared lemon zest, drained (syrup reserved)
Preheat oven to 350F / 180C. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with the sugar until fluffy then add the eggs a little at a time. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the lemon juice then stir in the zest. Pour the batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour. While the cake is still warm, poke holes all over its surface with a skewer and drizzle it with the reserved lemon syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.
Like the French, I am not ashamed to buy and use ready-made puff pastry. The quality is generally good and it can save precious time when tiredness stands between you and a freshly baked tart. I’m a big fan of open tarts because they can exert powers of resurrection over the tired stuff at the bottom of the fridge if you need to use it up. As always though, this will taste and look even better if your tomatoes are taut, herbs fresh and the cheese is the best you can afford. The fennel, herbs and cheese are whipped into a soft creamy bed for the tomatoes and smoothed over the uncooked pastry. If you don’t have access to fennel leaves (fronds) from a garden then many of the bagged salads in supermarkets contain it. Or look for an entire fennel root with a decent amount of fronds attached. The rest of the bulb can be sliced and added to salads, cooked down into summery tomato-based pasta sauces or roasted in its entirety so it won’t go to waste.
This tart takes minutes to prepare and they are good minutes too: by the time you slide the tart into the oven, the air will be scented with the aniseed notes of the fennel and the sharp grass and fruit of tomatoes at the height of their season.
320g ready-made puff pastry
2 very large tomatoes (around 750g)
150g Le Roule soft herbed cheese (or similar brand: Rosary garlic and herb goats cheese is good, too)
2 cloves garlic
sea salt and pepper
sprigs of thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram (chopped, about 3 level tsp), keep a few more sprigs whole for garnishing
2 spring onions, cut into thin slices along their length
Shaved parmiggiano to finish (a handful)
Heat oven to 190c / 375f and grease a flat baking tray with oil. Put tray in oven to get good and hot. This gives a good baked finish to the pastry base- no soggy bottoms.
Unwrap the pastry and place it on the baking tray then, using a sharp knife, score a line on the pastry, about ½ in (1 cm) in from the edge, all the way around without cutting all the way through. This will ensure that when the pastry bakes, a natural lip will form around the topping.
Crush the garlic with a flat blade and finely chop it. Then chop the fennel and herbs finely too, keeping a few stems of thyme and marjoram intact for the garnish.
Place the soft cheese into a bowl, add the crushed garlic, fennel (fronds or seeds), chopped herbs and a goodly amount of salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Whip it together with a fork until it is creamy and well combined then using a small palette or other round-bladed knife, spread the cheese mixture evenly all over the surface of the pastry, right up to the line you scored earlier.
Now, thinly slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the cheese in whatever pattern pleases you. Sometimes I overlap, sometimes (as in the photo above) I just dot them about. Arrange the spring onions over them. Brush the edges of the pastry with olive oil, and drizzle some of the oil over the tomatoes and onions then season them with a little more salt. Scatter the herb sprigs on top.
Bake in the pre-heated oven on the middle shelf for 40-50 minutes or until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft, slightly charred at the edges and perfectly roasted. Keep an eye on it during the last ten minutes because seconds can lie between a perfect charred edge and black smoking ruin. I always throw on some shaved parmesan to serve, too.
“We found a roadside motel in Algoma. The innkeeper had a funny accent I could not place….The next morning, she came to find us as we loaded up the car. “You are going to try some Belgian pie, aren’t you?” she asked. (From American Pie by Pascale Le Draoulec, Harper-Collins)
Traversing the United States in search of pie, writer Pascale Le Draoulec was struck by the vastness of a country where entire sub-cultures can set up home and continue the traditions brought with them from the Old Country, yet remain relatively unknown outside of their immediate region. When she arrived in Algoma in Wisconsin after an evening spent at a fish boil on the banks of Lake Michigan, Le Draoulec encountered one of Door County’s most popular-and mysterious to outsiders- food traditions, the Belgian pie. Described as truly unique, when I posted a query for more information about the pie and its Belgian-descended bakers on a private Facebook group where food writers and industry insiders gather to chew the fat, only five of them had heard of it. They were intrigued. “Go find out more,” they said.
Travel back in time to the early nineteenth-century and the story of Belgian pie in the USA begins with a small group of Belgians who originally migrated to the USA from Belgium and made their home in what is known as Door County in the state of Wisconsin. Thousands of miles away from their motherland, they re-built their community and to this day continue to bake pies filled with fruit or cooked rice inside small outdoor ovens, celebrating a yearly harvest whose failure all those years ago in Belgium caused their ancestors to make a long Atlantic crossing in search of a better future.
Door Country lies on a peninsula of land some 50 miles long and twenty miles wide, surrounded by the dark waters of Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. The county name originates from the Potawatomi tribe whose members perished trying to cross the lake-passage in canoes, causing them to dub the waters the “Door of Death.” Translated into French, it’s also known as “Ports des Morts” and in English, “Death’s Door.”
The Belgian communities of Namur, Brussels, Rosiere and Little Sturgeon in Door County and 11 other villages located in Kewaunee and Brown counties have retained much of what first made them special, more than a century and a half ago. Indeed, William Laatch, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay maintains that, after the Amish communities and Native-American reservations, the settlement of Belgians in north-east Wisconsin is the most enduring ethnic island in the United States. It is unsurprising that Belgian prune pie has also remained geographically distinct.
Back in 19th century Europe, a harsh winter led to crop loss and a rural crisis and not only did their ruler, King Leopolde not restrict migration, he supported it, although in the 19th century, only 29,000 Belgians left the country for the USA. In the years before the First World War, another 50,000 Belgians arrived in the USA. (Travel to the little Belgian town of Grez-Doiceau and on its town hall, there can be found a plaque which commemorates the first ten Walloon families who left the town to found a Belgian Community in Wisconsin, in 1853.)
The Grez-Doiceau group boarded the Quinnebaug, an old, American three-masted ship and set sail on May 17th. The crossing was beset by storms, taking fifty days, a week longer than normal and in the last days of the voyage passengers were starving and two children died.
Once arrived in their first American settlement, the Aux Premiers Belges had to adjust to the harsher climate and a sense of isolation in this vast land. Native Americans were the only human contact they had living as they were on land that was once the ancestral home of the Menominee, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi, among many. The Native-Americans taught the Belgians how to trap wild animals and smoke their meat; to tap trees and make maple syrup and to ice-fish in the winter on Lake Michigan and, as time passed, they began adapt their Belgian foodways to this strange new place.
The Emigrants (1896) by the Belgian artist Eugène Laermans
Today, many Belgian descendents still live the 35 square mile area settled by their ancestors and, in many cases, their farms have been in the same family for over a century. The prune pie remains a regional speciality of Door County whose population retains strong ties with Antwerp in Belgium where the prune pie has its roots although in other parts of Belgium, this pie is not baked at all, according to Regula Ysewijn, a Belgian national and author of the recently published Pride and Pudding. Prune tarts have always been her favourite, Antwerp being her home city where they are traditionally served on Ash Wednesday albeit not in the same form as their American-Belgian cousin. Regula also suggested that Belgians from Antwerp immigrated to the United States via the Red Star Line whose ships sailed from Antwerp directly and the line was supported via grants from the Belgian government. This might explain why the prune pie has a particularly strong presence in Door Country.
The Kewaunee and Brown counties are where older Belgian houses can be found and many of them have been built with outdoor summer cooking areas where the fierce heat can dissipate. These ovens are not the more commonly-found summer kitchens and are actually accessed via the latter. The baking was done via radiant heat and therefore the oven dimensions had to be precise although the ovens are generally not free-standing as was the custom in Belgium where the same ovens tended to be used communally. The wilds of Wisconsin where communities and individual houses are often many many miles apart renders the communal oven less practicable than it did in compact little Belgium.
Many of these bake-off ovens could cope with forty pies although most of them have since fallen into disrepair or have been demolished. Those left are made of masonry and fieldstone, with walls two feet thick and equipped with chimneys and oven interiors constructed from red-brick. These whitewashed structures were often trimmed in green and provided much-needed shade during the dog days of summer.
There’s some debate locally as to whether prunes, rice or raisins are the traditional filling and these pies can be challenging to make. With a circular base of raised sweet dough made with mashed potatoes and a layered filling of cooked, sweetened rice or a pureé of prunes or raisins (according to which the makes considers traditional), their preparation is multi-stage as local bakers combine their talents to make the hundreds of pies required to feed everyone.
Topped with a sweetened cottage cheese-type mixture when made with fruit, the pie both tastes like, and resembles, a filled Danish or kolache. (The latter is often made with mashed potato too.)
I spoke to Sue Marchant from the bakery where they make the pies year round, ramping up production around Belgian Day (the second week in July) to 1000 pies and over 1200 during Kermiss. “We started making Belgian Pies about 50 years ago at the store. My husbands great- grandmother came from Meeuwen in Flanders Belgium during the 1800’s and she was taught how to make the pies and which recipe to use, ” Sue said. “I learned from her and since then have been making them although I’m not actually of Belgian descent.” Their store receives many visitors from Belgium including the guests from foreign exchange programmes; over 21 different students have stayed with the Marchant family. When I asked Sue about how their pies are received she told me that they liked it despite its differences: “We have visited Belgium and their pie is different, much larger in size and no cheese on the top and the fruit is not sweetened, so they are quite tart,” Sue added.
Meeuwen is a town in the province of Limburg where there also exists a custom of making fruit pies, says Regula Ysewijn. Referred to as Limburgse Vlaai ( Vlaai= tart or pie) these are open-topped pies, sometimes with a lattice pastry top and traditionally filled with cooked fruits such as cherries (called kriekenvlaai), apple or apricot and, more significantly, with rice or prune puree-the cooked rice and custard porridge is called a rijstevlaai . These pies are popular all over Flanders but are specific to the town of Limburg where they are served at funerals, kermis and other important family occasions but the dough is different. It does not use potato and has only a small amount of butter, is yeasted and must go through two risings whereas the Antwerp version uses a short pastry. There’s no curd cheese topping either. To be a genuine Limburgse vlaii, the whole pie must be baked and not just the pastry shell.
In his book, The History of the Belgian Settlements, Math S. Tlachac writes of the Kermiss preparations which overtook the community:
“Then came the baking, which in the early days could only be done in outdoor ovens. As many as three dozen Belgian pies could be baked at one time. The Belgian pie! What would the Kermiss be without the famous delicacy, the crust of which was made of dough, spread over with prunes or apples and topped with homemade cottage cheese. So tasty it was that one bite invited another.”
A hundred or so years later, The Post Crescent Newspaper from Wisconsin wrote about the October 1969 Kermiss celebrations and it is clear that pie-baking remained a herculean task. There is an understandable reluctance to part with secret family recipes as a result although one local baker was less secretive when interviewed by the newspaper:
“Mrs. Jean Guth baked 120 pies to be served in her husband’s tavern for the Ker- miss in Brussels the first week in September. Mrs. Mamie Chaudi’ous and her daughter made them by the dozens. And the women are still mixing and rolling the dough in their kitchens in these Belgian settlements. Though cooks are rather cagey about their special recipes, Mrs. Guth was gracious enough to part with hers….”
Gina Wautier is her daughter and now runs Belgian pie-making classes in Door County. She can remember what happened after her mother shared her recipe with the local newspaper: “When mom was interviewed by news reporters in 1960 she caused quite a stir among the local women for sharing her recipe and allowing it to be published.” Mrs Guth was descended from some of the first settlers in the county and the recipes she used were handed down from her own mother and grandmother, then used to perfect the thousands of pies she served to hungry travellers at the Brussels (Wisconsin) tavern she ran alongside her husband, Ray. There were thirteen other taverns in the immediate area but none baked and sold as many pies as Mrs Guth did.
Pie-baking days in the Guth household were rigorously organised and it is obvious why: “It was not uncommon for her to make 200 pies that would be given away and/or sold in my dad’s tavern at Kermiss time, ” Gina says. “For days our home was covered with pies set out to cool; on the beds, extra tables, ironing boards, and on wooden planks. Cold storage was not an issue as the bar’s beer cooler was a great asset for the old peach crates converted into pie carriers.”
She recalls a childhood spent helping her mother in the kitchen on pie baking days: “Belgian Pie making as a young girl in my mother’s kitchen was more a lesson in observation rather than participation’ she told me. “My jobs were important; dishwashing, peeling apples, pitting prunes, grinding cheese, and greasing the pie tins. My mom, Jean Guth was very particular in mixing the dough, filling and baking the pies to perfection.” In fact, Mrs Guth made it clear that the method of handling the dough and its mixing are of even more importance than the ingredients.
Every Autumn, Belgian locals gather together to celebrate Kermiss which follows the bringing in of the harvest and kicks off with a thanksgiving mass. The word Kermiss was originally Middle-Dutch and comes from Kirk-Messe (the German kirchmësse), which means ‘church mass’, and it originated in medieval times as an annual celebration commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of the church before it morphed into the later festival. In Europe, it has various spellings: kermis, kermes, kercmisse, kircmisse, keermisse, carmisse, kirmisse and kercmisse but none of them end with the double ‘s’ which seems to be the most common spelling in Door County and therefore the one I use here. Belgians have been described to me as a community-minded and extremely social people and they historically valued the social side of church attendance to such a degree that it became a fundamental part of their collective worship. Amusingly, and as befits their practical side too, the Belgian immigrants made sure that they built saloons close to their places of worship- often right next to the church so they could keep what they deemed as the less spiritual chatter and gossip away from the house of God.
The Kermiss kept lonely Belgians in touch with their homeland and they would travel great distances across this most northerly of states to meet and celebrate together. In fact, some locals made round trips of 160 miles in order to buy the ingredients for their pies. The first Kermiss in the region was held in 1858 in Rosiere at the same time as Kermiss in its Belgian namesake. A Father Daems came from the Bay Settlement to say Mass and afterwards, local Belgians processed to a hall, serenaded by a band. The procession was briefly halted for a traditional ‘dance in the dust’ on a dirt road before resuming its route.Three days of feasting, dancing and socialising would follow.
Today, the Namur Belgian Heritage Foundation maintains the Kermiss tradition and hundreds of local families flock to the little brick-built former church of St. Mary of the Snows to eat pies, trippe, jutt, and booyah. Amusingly, their ice-cream is churned by a John Deere tractor.
Even though Gina Wautier helped her mother prepare the pies, she grew up with gaps in her knowledge and, concerned that the custom might be at risk of dying out, she set about the task of learning the process from start to finish, using her mothers recipes and her own memories to draw upon. Aged just 25 and having lost her mother, trial and error and the assistance of her then mother-in- law proved successful (tradition also says that Belgian pies can help new brides break the ice with their in-laws!) and the task itself was made less time-consuming because Gina had access to food processors instead of a hand grinder and swifter ways of cooking such large quantities of apples. However, her mothers recipe did not cut corners when it came to the quality of its ingredients, she told me: ” It contains real butter, cream, eggs, active cake yeast and vanilla. No substitutes or imitations. The crust is thin, fillings thick, and the toppings goes all the way to the crust leaving just enough filling so you can tell what kind of pie it is.”
Like all local foodways, each Belgian pie will be the sum total of their maker and, as Gina says, they are as unique as the people who make them. There are similarities in the technique but its execution can vary: some bakers prefer a thick crust to a thinner one; some will bake a crust using baking soda, whilst others raise their dough slowly, over time. As another Door County resident called Emily Guilette points out in Le Draoulec’s chapter about her Belgian pie (which is made with a raised mashed potato and egg crust by the way), ” who sells frozen Belgian pie crusts?” As things stand, these pies simply must be made by hand although sensible locals do pop a few of them in the freezer for when company arrives.
The toppings vary too although one thing is made absolutely clear: a true Belgian pie must have the cheese spread out towards its edge. I was told most firmly that ‘those that claim they are Belgian pies and then put a small dab of cheese in the middle are so wrong in their claims’ by an impassioned local. According to Gina Wautier, when making the cheese topping, some people will use cream cheese and others cottage cheese sweetened with egg-yolks, butter and sugar. The filling underneath the crust of cheese can be prune (sweetened with applesauce) or apple and raisin with a cottage cheese topping or the pie can be filled with cooked rice topped with whipping cream. Generally, rice-filled pies do not have the cheese topping and the popularity of apple is down to the preponderance of apple orchards in Door County although during my own research I encountered a recipe for Grandpa Boyen’s Famous Belgian Rice Custard Pie. This version has a regular pie crust base and a rice filling poured over a layer of sweetened, cooked prune left au naturel, with no topping of any kind. Apparently the Grandpa Boyen of the recipe was a boulanger-patissier in Belgium before he moved to Montanta of all places, where he opened a bakery and popularised his pie.
Yet another version was tracked down to a bakery in West Tarentum, Pennsylvania where the pies had a crust base resembling bread dough in texture and were filled with prune, rice, apricot and raisin. Certainly that bread-like crust sounds similar to the pies made and sold in Kewaunee County which had the typical ‘Danish pastry’ type appearance. At Marchants Bakery, they still use the traditional recipe, do not describe it as having ‘a typical pie crust’ and offer a variety of fillings: rice, prune, apple, cherry, raisin and poppyseed, Sue Marchant told me, adding, “prune and rice are the best sellers at Kermiss but for the store and Belgian Days the best seller is cherry.” Door County is also home to thousands of acres of cherry orchards and both sour and sweet cherries are popular in all kinds of baked goods- not just Belgian pies- although the fruits inclusion is an interesting example of local foodways melding with those European food traditions brought to the USA by the migrants.
The fillings listed by Gina Wautier were all made by her own mother although “other varieties (cherry, blueberry, apricot, poppy seed) were discovered by accident in our house.” As she points out, when you make batches of 30 – 60 pies it is hard to be exact on ingredients, remembering “when mom would have extra dough and cottage cheese left she would send one of us kids to the store to get a can of Wilderness pie filling to “use up” the extras to save on waste. It really was a great combination.”
Wautier started teaching pie-making classes in 2009 and is now based at Saint Norbert College Language Services Program alongside Karen Stillman who assist in the three hours each class runs for. Each participant is asked about their Belgian heritage (if they have one). ” A common theme in these stories is that they remember their moms and grandmas making the pies but were not allowed in the kitchen to learn how.” It seems that such a labour-intensive process, where bulk-baking is involved, might be less conducive to parent and child baking, I wonder. The classes offer an insight into the way these pies are baked too, in several batches of ten pies per batch. “I have played with my mom’s recipe in order to bring it down to a manageable amount, she says. “Following my directions it is easy enough to make 5 pies at a time of one kind in a 2 hour time frame. The rising of the dough is what takes the time. One 2 oz. cake of yeast will make 10 pies.” Wautier demonstrates how to make the dough and uses the slow rising time to teach participants how to make the filling and toppings before dividing the class into two groups for their hands-on part of the lesson. Everyone gets to take home a couple of pies. They all have great fun.
What would your mother think if she could see you now. I asked Gina.
“I think my mom would be very pleased to know that since I started teaching nearly 150 people (young and old) have learned from us. Also my skills are used to bake pies for various non- profits and benefits. Over $1,500 combined has been profited for charities,” she replies. “Yes, I have a passion for pies. However I have yet to teach my own children the art. Maybe I should make that another goal!”
The Marchant Bakery is also concerned about the future of Belgian cuisine and are taking steps to ensure the skills required to bake these pies are handed down: “We need to keep our bakers passing the recipe on to the new staff if we want it to continue,” Sue Marchant told me.”We make and have in the store many old recipes of different products from the mother country and yes, I would say we are very proud of our heritage here in Brussels and Namur.”
Huge thanks to Regula Ysewijn for her informative emails and help with research.
Laatsch, W. G., and C. F. Calkins. “Belgians in Wisconsin,” in A. G. Noble (ed.), To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. 195–210.
Martin, Xavier. “The Belgians of Northeast Wisconsin” in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1895, pp. 375–396.