The local sugar beet campaign has started and there are days when its scent hangs heavily over our town. I have always been fond of this factory right from my sixth form days when, approaching town after an interminable school bus journey, a plume of water vapour would hover over the fields and the bus would fill with the scent of hot, woody, sugary roots as we approached the Southgate roundabout. And on the way home, we would look back and see the factory lit up against the waning light of an early winter afternoon. It seemed so mysterious. How many local children grew up believing they had a ‘cloud factory’ in their midst? I certainly told this story to my own children and I still think of it as a cloud factory. There is something Willy Wonka-ish about it; I have never been inside so it is easy to imagine it as a vast city peopled by tiny, scurrying workers who we never see enter or leave. And their labour transforms mud-clodded roots into gleaming crystals of sugar, beautiful sugar to sweeten candy, chocolate, cake, and our mood. And this delicious local sweetness starts to be made as winter approaches. What good timing.
Belching great gouts of steam into the sky and visible for miles around, the factory acts as a sentinel, telling locals that they are home and despite the appalled reaction of nature writer Roger Deakin, many of us are pretty tolerant of the factory, smells and all. Deakin was pretty hard on the sugar beet factory in part because back in the 80s, toxic effluent was leaked into the river Lark and sugar is a particularly malevolent contaminant, deoxygenating water by encouraging a massive overgrowth of bacteria. Interestingly this is one of the reasons why people with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control may also struggle with lingering bacterial infections, especially of the skin.
Anyway, Deakin reminds us that lorry drivers refer to Bury St Edmunds as “sugar city” on their CB radios (Like this is a bad thing?) and finds it easy to see the factory as a “giant conspiracy against the nation’s health…it looks at its most satanic at night, when clouds of evil-smelling smoke and steam billows like candyfloss out of a forest of steam chimneys and high-tech ducting, floodlit in lurid pink and orange.” He continues…“The place looks like a missile launching site…with a system of deodorising mist sprays…perfuming the evil-smelling air…a gleaming new spinney conceals vast lagoons full of rotting beet sludge” then ends by referring to “a potpourri of perfume and stench [which] assails the puzzled nostrils of the traveller.”
Roger, this is a bit harsh. The campaign scent is not always an unpleasant one: there’s sweet, burned sugar with a vegetal note, reminiscent of the smell of decaying old rhubarb leaves as you dig them back in, exposing fresh growth at the crown of the plant, or potato grown soft at the back of the vegetable bin. It is an agricultural smell and we live in an agricultural region. Although residents in Bury St Edmunds know not to open their windows when the wind blows in a certain direction, I haven’t encountered anyone who vehemently objects; indeed most people seem fairly pragmatic about their neighbour, recognising that this is a place that creates work and opportunities for a significant amount of people across our region and strives to develop a ‘circular approach’ to manufacturing, which reuses by-products, resulting in virtually zero waste.
It’s easy to find beauty in woodlands, the bright electric blue dart of a kingfisher in flight, or the seer, granite edge of a tor but one has to look a bit harder to see the grace and beauty in the work of an engineer, scientist or technician. But it is there. Humans designed and built this factory and we can see it as a blot on the landscape or a series of incredible scientific discoveries and technical refinements, which went on to reduce our dependence on sugar cane produced by enslaved people and colonial systems. As was said in the National Era, the options for refining sugar needed to “show that the sweet may be obtained without the bitter and that there is no necessary connection between bondage and Muscovadoes.” Sugar from beets has, in part, allowed us to do that.
As a teenager, I spent a bit of time in Hong Kong, where my father worked and I developed a habit of running off with the teenaged bellhops and chambermaids at the various hotels my father’s company put us up in. Much to my parents chagrin, I would disappear for days on end and it was during these away-days that I encountered the cha chaan teng canteens of Kowloon and Hong Kong island. Dining with the locals during their all too-short lunch and dinner breaks meant I had to use a super-swift form of nod, point and smile when choosing items off the menus or from the steam trays; I frequently did not know what I was eating expect the odd occasion when a slice of Spam bobbed on the surface of a soupy bowl of noodles. I liked its familiarity. I liked having something in common with my new friends.
Decades later, when I heard that Chef Jeremy Pang of School of Wok fame (and a Food Network regular) had a Hong Kong-style canteen restaurant called Cha Chaan Teng in London’s Holborn, serving Spam, I had to go and eat there. The Spam was sweet, salty and moreish, with a good crunch which mirrored the soft chew of the buns it was served in. I was hooked and needed to know more and Jeremy was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his culinary Spam inspiration.
Can you tell me about the start of your love of spam and where and when you developed a taste for it?
My mum and dad used to live in and out of Hong Kong (HK) when I was younger, so when I grew up, I would travel to Hong Kong twice a year in between school terms. It was the best of both worlds – being in HK for holiday, but at the same time, knowing where all the locals go to eat… I just loved the atmosphere of the HK cafes and diners, and everyone seemed to be eating the same thing: Macaroni or vermicelli soup with spam and a fried egg on top… maybe with some chilli oil on the side… so when the waiters came around for my order – the easiest thing was to ‘copy that’ and dig into the spam! (My spoken Chinese isn’t brilliant you see – so at that stage, it was very much a point and smile type of ordering.) I guess spam has that sense of nostalgia on my palate.
You mentioned that people in HK seem fond of eating spam. Do you have any theories about why this might be so?
I believe Spam would likely to have been introduced to HK via the British after World War II. The British took a liking to Spam after the war and would have also eaten it on their long journeys whilst travelling through the world.You will find spam in all the local cha chaan tengs’ (tea house lounges) or breakfast cafes. They are essentially greasy spoons, where they will serve spam as an option for many different types of breakfast, whether it’s in a soup, with eggs and toast or in a baked bun. The saltiness tastes great and if fried, the crispy texture accentuates the softness of it the ‘meat’ inside. Hong Kong people love that ‘soft’ meat texture, which is probably why it’s still so popular out there.
macaroni and spam broth
Can you tell me how you use spam in your restaurant cooking? And do you eat it in your downtime- and how? (I have been talking to Hawaiian chefs who congregate around the spam musubi trucks after service!)
Haha… well that’s maybe something I don’t share with the Hawaiians! In the restaurant Cha Chaan Teng, in Holborn, we serve a slightly ‘posher’ version of the macaroni soup with spam and egg, where we make the bone broth from scratch, and then make some fresh pork and prawn wontons, and top it all off with the fried spam and fried egg. We also serve it with a selection fresh greens, veg and pickled carrots to get a good balance of flavour, texture and colour into the dish. My favourite way of eating it at the restaurant however, is the spam crusty roll (Spam, covered in panko and a coconut shallot crumb, deep fried and topped with a fried quail egg, and some sriracha mayo). At home – I must admit, once in a while, I might have a bowl of instant noodles with a slice of Spam here or there, but only really after a night out….
If you wanted to persuade someone to eat spam, maybe someone who ate it at school and has disliked it ever since, what would you cook for them to best showcase it?
That crispy roll with spam…
Can you tell me about your Holborn restaurant and the thinking behind its menus and philosophy? Were there a few eye-blinks when you mentioned cooking with spam?
There were many “eye blinks” at the beginning, but over time, the customers have grown to understand that the food I have created at Cha Chaan Teng is playful, but most of all, very tasty. The idea behind the menu was that we would take the ‘essence’ of a classic Cha Chaan Teng and, as the owners (Splendid Restaurant Group) of CCT like to say, “flip it on it’s head”, with dishes that have influence from both the Western and Eastern world. This is exactly what the biggest and best CCT’s in Hong Kong have become – a miss match of more-ish foods from around the world- that Hong Kong Chinese have somehow found a craving for at some point in time.
How do customers react to your spam dishes? Are they pleasantly surprised or are you catering to spam lovers already?
Yes, once they have gotten over the word ‘SPAM’ I think most are indeed, pleasantly surprised :).
How versatile is spam as an ingredient?
For the meat eaters out there, it’s pretty versatile, it’s soft and salty, yet can be crisped up easily and balanced out with other flavours. A little bit of spam in you life here or there wont hurt. Apparently, there is much more meat in Spam than the average burger in the UK. (It was mentioned in the BBC news a few years back, that the average economy burger in the UK only has to have 47% meat in it!) Spam is essentially much like the inside of a frankfurter, but again, it’s likely to have a lot more meat in it than the average hot dog… That said, it’s not something that should necessarily be part of your daily diet (there’s quite a lot of salt content in Spam!) So…eat it once in a while, as a guilty pleasure or treat, like a hot dog or a burger and if you have a balanced diet on most days, why not let yourself have a little taste?
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!
In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.
I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.
It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.
So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.
These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook as a post-graduate student.
The same need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.
| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.
Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.
So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.
Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples. Its author, Judith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.
Today I am excited to announce a new type of article. In collaboration with Millie Slavidou of Glossologic, we have a glorious new mix of etymology, history and food and plant properties. Millie Slavidou is a British writer and translator resident in Greece. A polyglot, she has a lifelong interest in etymology – ever since she questioned the relation between helio and Welsh haul as a child. In addition to her linguistic blog Glossologics, Ms Slavidou also writes children’s literature which can be purchased here.
‘To see a world in a grain of sand’ goes the line from Blakes Augaries of Innocence, a sentiment particularly apropos to the world of etymology. In the first of a new series of food related posts, garlic takes the spotlight as Millie and I explore the origins of the word then trace its journey across time and continents.
The modern English form has not changed a great deal over the course of history. Taking a step back to Middle English, we can find it variously spelled as garlec, garleek and garlek, among others. Let’s take a look at an example from 1399, from the Forme of Cury:
Take Colyandre Powdour of Peper and garlec ygrounde in rede wyne.
This work translates as “forms of cooking” – the ‘cury’ is in fact from French cuire. It is a collection of recipes claimed to have been written by the Master Cooks of King Richard II.
Just a few years previously, Chaucer wrote in his Canterbury Tales:
Wel loued he gā̆r-lē̆k, oynons, and eek lekes.
Here, you can see that it has been written as two parts put together, and you might wonder why. The reason is, of course, simple. Garlic is indeed formed of two parts. It comes from Old Englishgarleac or garlec in some dialects, which consists of gar and leac. We will start with the first element: gar. This meant ‘spear’. You have only to look at the shape of the cloves to see why it might be called a spear – they do indeed look similar to the shape of a spear-head. This term, gar, has of course become obsolete, but we can see a well-known example of it in Beowulf, from around the 10th century:
Hwæt! We Gár-Dena, in geárdagum, þeódcyninga þrym gefrunon
Lo! We have heard renowned the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days of yore
Let’s take a look at the second element: leac. There is nothing strange about this at all. Quite simply, it means ‘leek’, another word that remains little changed!
Ðæt greáta cráuleác; nim ðes leáces heáfda
That makes crow-garlic; take the leeks on the rise
From Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of Old English source texts.
The Old English word is thought to derive from Proto-Germanic*lauka. There are cognates to be found in other Germanic languages; Swedishlök and Danish løg both meaning ‘onion’,Dutchlook and GermanLauch, meaning ‘leek’.
The Plant Throughout History
Allium Sativum, or Garlic as it is more usually known has a long and noble history as food stuff and an even longer one as a herbal medicine and tonic. Indeed, for a long period of our history, the eating of garlic for pleasure alone was eschewed by many different cultures although we can find much documented evidence in the form of almanacs, treatises and records for its use in medicine by herbalists, medicine men and other men (and women) who took responsibility for the health and welfare of their community.
The ancient Egyptians possessed a medical papyri, Codex Elsers, dating back to circa 1500 BCE recorded 22 formulas for medicinal remedies with garlic at their heart. This plant polymath offered up a cure for heart disease, worms, and tumors and has been cultivated for over 6,000 years and grown in Egypt since 3200 BCE.
The Ancient Egyptians have been described as being much enamoured of garlic and legend says that slaves put to work to construct the pyramids were fed large amounts of it to strengthen their bodies and prevent infection after they were injured (and one imagines this was a frequent occurrence). Surprisingly enough, when Moses led the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (around 1200BCE), garlic was one of the ‘finer things’ they complained of missing along with cucumbers, fish, leeks, onions and melons.
Centuries later and during the First World War, British physicians mixed garlic juice with water to create a topical antiseptic for wounds with Russian doctors following in their footsteps in the Second World War. The doctors took it a step further though in supplementing their soldiers diet with both onion and garlic, giving it its nickname of ‘Russian Penicillin.’ This more recent use of the bulb as a treatment for war wounds is strongly reminiscent of the faith placed in its talismanic protection against wounds inflicted by spears and Greek battalions were presented with it to give them courage and promise of victory too.
Of course we now know that this tacit knowledge has an evidence base. The essence of what Culpeper, the renowned herbalist and apothecary said in The English Physitian back in 1653, has been backed up by empirical research: “In choleric men it will add fuel to the fire; in men oppressed in melancholy, it will attentuate [weaken] the [melancholic] humour, and send up strong fancies, and as many strange visions to the head; therefore let it be taken inwardly in great moderation; outwardly you may make more bald with it”
The adding fuel to the fire is Culpeper associating choleric humour with an elevated temperature (fever) and in humoral physiology, encouraging a sick person to run a ‘good’ fever was seen as therapeutic, encouraging the flushing of impurities from the body. We know that garlic reduces cholesterol, the viscosity of blood and its lipids and we also know that a melancholic disposition (according to Culpeper) can be linked to an increased risk of blood viscosity. Or to be more specific, a person prone to low mood or depressive disorder which causes them to reduce their activity is at increased risk of fatty build up in their circulatory system and disorders of circulation. Clever old Culpeper.
The spear shape of garlic shoots, from the above ground foliage to the tiny spear at the centre of the bulb which slowly greens up and becomes bitter after harvesting inspires its Old English name- garleac or garlec with ‘gar’ meaning ‘spear’ as Millie explains above. Culpeper ascribes a celestial ruler to all living plants and garlics ruler is the warlike, passionate and dominant Mars. This kingship may be inspired by the warrior like (and phallic) spear of those etiolated and pointed leaves which are analogous to the glyph for Mars. Additionally let’s look at where garlic originates from: the arid and scorching lands of the Middle East and West Central Asia, migrating east toward China and west into Southern Europe, Garlic thrives in soil which is sandy, thin and allows the bulb to push its spears straight and true, unhindered by clay sod which might cause it to deviate from its path to the sun. It is not a great leap of the imagination to see why its botanical requirements caused Culpeper to ally it to Mars, the hot, red planet- depicted as sere and superheated in its atmosphere and garlic also pushes its scape (a false flower stalk), towards the light in the northern hemispheres springtime which falls in the astrological house of Aries (ruled by Mars).
The tombs of Egypt probably contain the oldest records of the existence of what the French call the ‘Stinking Rose’ with clay sculptures of its bulbs dating back to 3700BCE and paintings depicting the plant in another tomb which have been dated to 3200BCE. The Greeks and Romans did not initially share in Egypts passion though, much less ascribing the bulb a place in its high culture. Initially the citizenry of Greece, and especially its aristocracy, refused to consume garlic, finding its aroma and after effects repugnant and vulgar and banning those smelling of it from entering temples. Aristotle flew in the face of this though and included garlic in his lists of foodstuffs he deemed to have aphrodisiac effects and Hippocrates prescribed it as a panacea albeit with reservations and contra-indications: “[it] causes flatulence, a feeling of warmth on the chest and a heavy sensation in the head; it excites anxiety and increases any pain which may be present.”
The Romans, like the Egyptians, fed garlic to their slaves and labourers hoping that they would be invigorated enough to do their (no doubt) arduous work. To smell of it was a sign of low status and class and Pliny the Elder stated, “Garlic has such powerful properties that the very smell of it drives away serpents and scorpions” although he then went on to list a humongous amount of conditions cured by it. This stimulating reputation is a familiar one across many different world religions: garlic was deemed to upset the spiritual balance of Buddhist practitioners, was rejected by Zen masters and both Hindu and Brahmin observants avoid it for similar reasons. Intriguingly the reproductive nature of the bulb is the reason why Jains do not eat it or similar vegetables such as onions. Garlic reproduces itself by producing a multiplicity of cloves in each bulb which detach and fatten up to form a new ‘head’. Jains believe that each one of these is a potential new life and feel that the destruction of a head of garlic is to destroy multiple lives.
Amusingly enough, the ever pragmatic faith of Judaism recommends the eating of garlic on Fridays, the day before the holy Sabbath in its Talmud (the book of rabbinical teachings) because of those same stimulating properties. Sex on a Sabbath is considered an act of both faith and good deed, especially garlic fuelled passion! Chaucers Sommour who was ‘lecherous as a sparwe’ agreed, as in the quote from above; “Well love he garleek, onions and eek lekes” and across Central Europe, the dog, gander, bull and cockerel would be kept fierce, strong and fit on a diet of fat garlic bulbs. Its fecund ability to produce many offspring from one tiny fingernail sized clove led to the most obvious of conclusions with regards to the potency of breeding animals but it was also administered to livestock as protection against the evil eye. For their human owners, to dream of garlic was said to be a sign of hidden treasure and a clear reference to its secret life underground, swelling, growing and dividing which must have been pretty mindblowing to those yet to discover the botanical science behind its reproduction.
As a child I often drove past the roadside marker commemorating the execution of a witch near Hadleigh in Suffolk, causing me to develop a horrified fascination with this unpalatable aspect of East Anglian history. If I had known aged ten that the largest single witch trial in England took place in Bury St Edmunds in 1645 when 18 people were executed by hanging, I’d have flatly refused to travel there with my grandparents on market days.
Many people remain unaware of how Bury St Edmunds in particular influenced witch hunting and trials all over Europe and particularly in the United States. The presence of Matthew Hopkins, the self styled ‘Witchfinder’ led to East Anglia becoming synonymous with witch hunts and his continued activity was guaranteed by the fiscal benefits it offered- he made a small fortune because local parishes paid him a fee for his investigations. Suffolk and Norfolk had been made prosperous through the wool and other trades – the villages of Long Melford and Lavenham are testimony to this with their astonishingly dramatic churches built from wealth, and locals had money to spend in pursuit of proof of Puritanical compliance and religious devotion. It has been estimated that over 100 executions happened across East Anglia that can be attributed to the work of Hopkins. The 1603 Witchcraft Act brought an end to this in an era that had till then provided a ‘perfect storm’ of factors- a civil war, politics, religion and a belief in the supernatural underpinned by a collective external locus of control, which made Hopkins and his ilk so persuasive and successful.
This frenzy that gripped the Bury area in the 17th century served as template and encouragement for the Salem witch trials in the States resulting in around 200 witch trials in the area in the mid-17th century- another more grotesque link to add to the already strong connections between New England and East Anglia.
Says James Sharpe, professor of early modern history at the University of York and author of the books Instruments Of Darkness and The Bewitching Of Anne Gunter on the BBC Radio Suffolk website-
“It’s a very important part of the history of Bury St Edmunds. I think there’s a recognition that the trials were important for the development of law and the price paid by innocent people because others had accused them of witchcraft.”
Thingoe Hill in the town was the usual gathering place for crowds to watch the public hangings and burnings of witches- in 1662 two elderly widows from Lowestoft were put to death after being accused of casting spells upon the daughters of a local fish merchant, Samuel Pacey. Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were stripped naked and Cullender was seen to possess a growth on her body that was believed to be a teat used to suckle her Devil’s familiar (a pig, a cat or a toad, usually) which, added to other ‘evidence’ – misfortune suffered by neighbours, the deaths of horses, pigs and cattle, and a man being infested with lice, sealed their fates. The eminent men who sat in judgement on the women, a respected doctor and an esteemed local judge meant the trial and its proceedings acquired the status of ‘case law’ and in Salem, the presiding American magistrates studied the report of the Bury trial and modelled their system of inquiry and judgement upon it.
As a result, East Anglia has a plethora of visitor attractions and events that seek to remember this interesting period of history from museums to special attractions at local stately homes and parks. In Bury St Edmunds, the local museum on Market Hill called Moyse’s Hall has well curated exhibits of witch bottles and accoutrements, dead cats and shoes, either donated or recovered from houses where they were bricked up behind walls to ward off witches/evil spirits. Usually single shoes and not pairs were entombed near doors, windows and chimneys. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes- coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones.
Standing on one corner of the market place for over 900 years, Moyses Hall dates from the 12th century and can boast a rich and varied past as the town gaol, workhouse and police station. Serving as a town museum since 1899, it recounts the creation of the early town from the building and dissolution of the Abbey, to prison paraphernalia and artifacts of witchcraft and superstitions.
The numerous house cats that were buried alive in the 17th century in the hope that they would repel witches still turn up in East Anglia as old buildings are reclaimed and restored. The Mill Hotel in Sudbury, overlooking the Millpond and famous water meadows immortalised by Gainsborough and Constable, has on display its own mummified cat, walled up behind protective glass at the rear of the main reception. Remains of a cat were also found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011. Elizabethan House on Great Yarmouth’s South Quay has, in its attic, a perfectly preserved skeleton of a cat underneath the floorboards (The attic is not open to the public but they generously sent us a photo which is below). This ‘little palace’ as Daniel Defoe described it is located in the heart of the heritage quarter and showcases life in Tudor times through hands on displays.
Cats weren’t the only anti witchcraft technique used by domestic home owners. At the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum near Norwich, staff will tell you about how old pairs of trousers were found stuffed up a chimney, possibly to stop witches from flying into the house. When you consider the cost of fabric, the time it took to make and repair clothing by hand and the income levels of many working class families, their talismanic status is better understood. Giving up a pair of trousers was no easy decision.
Halloween saw Gressenhall Museum celebrating all things spooky with their ‘Witches in the Workhouse’ over two days a few years ago and this year they have ‘Ghostly Gressenhall. Discover objects of superstition from the museum collections and spot the bats hiding in the collections gallery then take a witch-rich tour and hear chilling tales in the dark corridors of the workhouse. Among the museum’s artefacts collected from all over the region to illustrate life in Norfolk down the ages is a witch bottle from the 17th century. Found near the Tumble Down Dick public house at Woodton, these bottles served as talismanic protection against actual or threatened illness. They were usually filled with urine or nail clippings, sometimes from the sick person, with nails, pins, or threads added in too, tightly corked and either set to heat by the hearth or buried it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in Astrological Practice of Physick (1671), ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’
Great Yarmouth’s Tollhouse Museum, a 12th Century medieval former merchant’s house has been transformed into one of the town’s most important civic buildings with a vibrant timetable of family friendly activities and many exhibits commemorating the towns past history of crime and punishment, often with a maritime flair. Built about 800 years ago, grand home of a rich merchant with its sturdy stone walls, finely carved doorway and arched windows, it was acquired by civic officials whereupon it served as courtroom for various different types of courts, the town gaol with the notorious dungeon known as ‘the hold’, and a police station. Over the years it has been home to pirates, robbers and murderers as well as countless common crooks. It has been attacked by rebels and rioters and gutted by enemy bombs. Staff here can tell you the story of Marcus Prynne, a local gardener accused of witchcraft in 1645; not all witches were female, a commonly held misapprehension, and the gaol cells are the site for spooky Halloween story telling as visitors ‘meet’ the witches on trial and find out their grisly fate in atmospheric evenings of costume drama.
Drive up to the North Norfolk coast to Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham and visit the largest collection of magic and allied arts memorabilia in Europe- a time-travel tour through the history of British magical entertainment and the place of one unique family in that story. Admission cost includes the ‘Witches to Wonder’ exhibition, a 30-minute live magic show, live Headless Lady sideshow and a visit to the re-creation of Davenport’s 1915 shop with its very own magician demonstrating magic tricks from the period.
‘Witches to Wonder’ artefacts on display include a first edition of ‘Discoverie of Witchcraf’t, written in 1584 and now recognized as the first published material on conjuring, and the full-size reproduction of Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Tank, built for the film Death Defying Acts starring Catherine Zeta Jones.
The oldest known bridge in Norwich is at Fye Bridge, down the road from ancient Tombland leading to Magdalen Street. A 13th century structure, it was rebuilt in 1829 and later widened and was once the site of a medieval ducking stool that was used for witches and if they survived they were burned to death. The Norwich author, George Borrow, writing in the 19th century commits to paper, some of the horror of Lollards Pit in Norwich where people were burned to death for their religious beliefs. Walking through the thronged crowds from the Guildhall Jail over the Bishopsgate Bridge they would spy the faggots of wood piled high on their pyre and be handed over by the church to the authorities and executed. The location married both symbolism and practicality. The pits were formed after the excavations for the nearby cathedral and so proved handy, avoiding the need for the removal of bodies at a time when disease could easily be spread and their location was just outside the city walls, symbolising the casting out of the condemned from the church and decent society.
Today the Bridge House pub (built over the holding cells) stands where once the pits and execution place stood and a plaque commemorating those who died so awfully is fixed to its wall. On the other side of the road, on the riverbank, is another plaque, hailing the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died all those centuries ago. It is said the screams of the people are still heard and witches can be seen crossing the bridge.
Moot Hall in Aldeburgh archives the life of this famous Suffolk seaside town which, around 1662, did not enjoy the relative prosperity and regard that it boasts today. Outbreaks of smallpox, loss of livelihood to marauding pirates, the three Dutch trade Wars (1652-74) which culminated in the terrible Battle of Sole Bay fought off Southwold in 1672 and the influx of sailors requiring help all caused hardship. Add to this a declining population less able to work and imbue the town with wealth and it is not surprising that the town was caught up in a wave of hysteria against so-called ‘witches’ which swept through East Anglia. Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to flush out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were imprisoned in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they may well have confessedand were all hanged in February 1646.
Framlingham Castle moat formed the backdrop to the ‘swimming’ of another suspected male witch named John Lowes, the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642. After being ‘swum’ in the moat, and found guilty after floating to the surface, Witchfinder Hopkins (Yes, him again) “kept Lowes awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645. A plaque dedicated to Lowes can be seen in Brandeston’s All Saints Church and an image of his hanging is on the village sign. The castle itself makes a dramatic day out for families with its majestic turreted buildings set at the edge of the small market town, surrounded by grassed park, a small pond and numerous places to eat and drink. The end of each October sees the castle putting on Halloween events based on witch hunting with children invited to participate in an interactive adventure.
The Millers Tale has gathered together some of the region’s best Halloween events in a guide here. From ghostly walks around Norwich to Scaresville at Kentwell Hall, there’s something for every age group.
‘I Had a Black Dog’ is a comic, fun and heart wrenching story about one man called Joe and his own struggle with the multifaceted entity known as depressive disorder. Originally written by Matthew Johnstone, an artist, writer and photographer, the book is a radical and humane departure from the traditional self help format of many books about mental health and illness. Sometimes we need to NOT be advised in an overt manner; rather we need to walk alongside somebody who just ‘knows’ and this book (alongside the theatrical version in development) is just that. Acknowledging that depression can mess with a persons ability to ingest and digest information-although intellect is left intact- the book offers non patronising and intelligent pictorial depictions of the ways in which thought, affect and feeling can all be warped by the illness. This is as important for carers, friends and relatives to understand as it is for the ill person to know he has been understood.
Small Nose Productions is developing The Black Dog Project via a series of research and development sessions (a total of 3) held at local theatres and arts centres in front of small audiences. The New Wolsey hosted one of them under its #Scratch banner at their High St Gallery venue in Ipswich, a beautiful multi -use art gallery. Mark Curtis from Small Nose, in a previous interview, told Stage Review: “The project is about trying to raise awareness about Mental Health issues – and begins with this first 30 mins (a scratch production) of the best selling book. The company hope to take it to a full length version later this year”.
Watching the project in its rough format followed by a Talk Out/question & answer session provided us and the cast with a valuable opportunity to pool knowledge both lived and learned, offer feedback and share our experiences about an illness that has no definitive truth or any one narrative. Mirroring the book, the Scratch production clearly values that lived experience and the intra-personal above others and gains emotional resonance with its audience as a result. Spending time talking with audiences helps them manage powerful feelings brought back into now by what they have seen; shows such as this can be cathartic but only if one is given the space to make sense of what has been felt and thought.
Developing a theatrical production from such a simple book contains its own challenges – reflecting the evidence base, keeping the simplicity of the concept which was consistently cited as one of THE main points of success whilst layering in subjective and individual experiences. Building in humour was vital too. Outreach work conducted by Small Nose Productions told them that their initial audiences needed their experiences acknowledged; they had to see themselves in the main character but how to avoid building a composite that ended up reflecting nobody? Audiences do not want a’ Greatest Hits of Depression’. The work of Doctor Stuart Brown into the neuro-psychological effects of laughter was another important building block. Alongside the plain old enjoyment of a good laugh, the humour here has a more vital role- there needs to be a leavening too without making the laughed with, laughed AT. Our own experiences of a former career in mental health alongside living with PTSD shows us that the dark humour of staff and service users needs to be celebrated; it is dry, observational, political and astute.
Said Johnstone of Small Nose: “Their chaotic approach, constant search for the correct balance between laughter and something more poignant and their audacity for things that are silly and at the heart of us all, makes this company the perfect eclectic mix for dealing with the dark world of the Black Dog.”
The uses of comedy in the early production was multi-faceted. It lightened, it played with our feelings of inclusion and exclusion and it played with the characters inclusion and isolation. At times the humour tangibly pushed Joe aside and at other times it united us. Should the literal depiction of the metaphorical ‘Black Dog’ be less comedic? Some feedback suggested the dog lacked the overtly oppressive nature of depression, that it was too approachable or not ‘nasty’ enough or that it needed to be approachable and comforting because the heavy blanket of depression can in itself be a comfort. Hard for non sufferers to sometimes grasp, people speak of depression as an identity with gains at times; provision of a ‘get out’ clause for everything they find too difficult or taxing, hence the feelings of apprehension and even fear at thoughts of recovery and all that this entails. At least Depression is known. There is a difficult kind of solace in that and so we have a furry, cuddly playful dog leaping into the lap of Joe, throwing its arms around him and draped all over him, limbs splayed and not quite under its control, a playful clown mitigating the oppressiveness of the illness. Think Boxer or Spaniel rather than lupine and dark.
At times the laughs of the audience at the boisterous expressiveness of the Black Dog and its total unawareness and lack of control of its own corporeal body was unbearably poignant in that it highlighted the essential disconnect that lies at the centre of the world of the person with depression. On stage all was busy and social (in the restaurant) as life and the world moved and morphed around Joe. The audience seemed to be in collusion with the Dog against him and he was at a still point outwardly whilst his mind was clearly in turmoil. Disconnected from the world, from his own body (he did not inhabit it comfortably), from other people, his only consistency to be found was in his own intrapersonal relationship- the one with himself and his depression. We found it very hard to look at Joe as he sat there because he inspired feelings of guilt in us that we had laughed in the face of such inner turmoil.
We saw the beautiful subtlety of a facial expression that was really a non expression, a terrifying combination of both blankness and inner confusion. No confusion on his face but we knew it was there. Exacerbating this even more was the dogs vital engagement with us, playing to the crowd, prancing, clowning and making us feel uncomfortably disregarding and dismissive of Joe’s alienation. The dog was like a black hole, drawing all attention and life towards it. We were in the moment and Joe was not. He was scarcely in the play. The dog became less a reflection of his feelings, more a case of reflecting all that he was not and no longer acting as metaphor for his illness. We wondered then ‘should the dog be just a dog and if so, should it be more dog like?’ Using a more lifelike mask (with a better budget maybe?) might help us manage the conflicting feelings about what the dog is but on the other hand, this uncertainty accurately mirrors the larger questions about what depression actually is and what it is not. Indeed is that something we should even need to delineate? Managing dissonance in an audience is tricky and we will be interested to see how this plays out as the project develops.
The use of space and props has huge potential and already encapsulates some of the Depressive imagery and metaphor. Kicking off with Joe having a restless night, we see the lights go up on a sparsely inhabited set; bed, a set of drawers, a wardrobe, a bathroom, a desk for work, a kitchen table / restaurant table….Illuminating the different room spaces and activities sparely and sparsely draws us into Joe’s inner life and the subsequent terrifying lack of. Having Joe and his Dog move the set around is part reflection of budgetary constraints and a deliberate feature. The actor playing the dog morphs into the waiter, the secretary and Joe’s girlfriend with his/her costume changes contributing to the comedy and Joe’s disconnect from it and our reactions. We laugh at the ill fitting wig, the crooked moustache, and throughout this Joe remains painfully and terrifyingly removed from it all. It is not that depression = feeling miserable. In fact depression can mean = feeling nothing at all. What on earth must it be like feeling nothing at all?
One problem we could see with the idea of Joe and the Dog having to do the set changes themselves is that we lose some of the chronology of his illness. One of the ways in which depression affects a person is by changing the way they move, speak, think and act. The biological signs of a depressive disorder can include changes in sleep, appetite, sex drive and how we move- do we slow down (retarded movements) or do we speed up and become more agitated? Joe wound down like an old clock; he became less purposeful, less methodical despite trying to cling to routines and to us, this appeared commensurate with what we know to be the symptoms of some types of depression. Seeing Joe move the set around to reconfigure the furniture in a fast, strong and purposeful way (because of time constraints) interrupted this progression and we suggested that the company employ theatre students as interns dressed in the customary black to act as stagehands. Having Joe lost and still in the midst of a set change might enhance our sense of his life unfolding and renegotiating apparently without his consent or understanding. Or Joe could be more ineffectual at set changes which would reflect the unravelling of his life- the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, the changes in his job that he found so hard having previously arranged work to best suit his nature. He is not managing these well so he should not manage the set changes well either.
As the play approached its conclusion we were apprehensive that Joe’s final wresting with his illness, the all at sea analogy was actually leading towards suicide and this was compounded by our obscured view of the scene- a problem of the venue, not the play. Unsure as to whether anybody else in the audience interpreted it in this way, we felt anxiety at how on earth the play could come back from this story development despite the fact that this is sadly not that far removed from reality for some people with mental health problems. The actual ending, Joe developing ways to live with his depression reflected the book but the lack of explanations as to how Joe achieved this left us feeling a little adrift. It risks being seen as a hasty ‘wrap up’ rather then the truth of the book that inspired this play. Finding ways to bridge this gap we feel, is important whether via play content, talk out or within the programme notes.
We are greatly looking forward to seeing the finished version of The Black Dog Project and are grateful for the opportunity to both see and contribute to the development of the show. Thanks to the New Wolsey Theatre and Small Nose Productions.