Saturday, 13 October 2012

A Yorkshire Cookbook by Mary Hanson Moore: The English Terroir

Where not to eat in the UK

The English provinces are a depressing place to eat.

While London's cuisine has moved forward by leaps and bounds (in fact I believe we finally have as many three star restaurants as Brussels), food outside of the capital (aka "the provinces") remains sadly lacking. Apart from a bunch of country-house hotels and a handful of avant-garde establishments (Sat Bains, L'Enclume and Le Champignon Sauvage), it is hard to recommend anywhere good to eat beyond the Bray Gap.

More damning is that once you get beyond the thin crust of posh restaurants, there is little in the way of regional food. Few of the restaurants named above draws on historic culinary traditions, because there are none. Up and down the country people now shop identikit pap from their nearest Tescos under the perverted maxim that cheap is good. For the majority of Britons, dinner remains an inconvenient refuelling stop between Neighbours and Coronation Street.

At least that's the theory.

Whether its true or not I'm not be qualified to say (after all I never really get out of London much, apart from to go to Bray). But one thing I'm sure of - it didn't used to be like this.

And the reason I know that is because of Mary Hanson Moore.

A very Yorkshire Cookbook

I don't know much about Ms Moore. I know she grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I know her mother was a country woman (and skilled cook), her father a soldier (who lost a leg in the Great War). And I do know that at some point in the late 1970s she put pen to paper and wrote a cookbook.

Mary Hanson Moore is the author of a slim but extraordinary volume called A Yorkshire Cookbook, published by David & Charles in 1980. Like many of the books I like to highlight on this blog, it doesn't look like much. It looks like the sort of tatty old volume which haunts the cookery section in your local library (in fact it is - mine is a second hand copy flogged courtesy of City of Westminster Public Libraries surplus).

It's not a long book, barely over 120 pages. But its overturns any preconceptions you may have about provincial English food.

It's a sort of memoir with recipes, beautifully written with an unmistakably Yorkshire voice. The eight chapters are broadly based around type of dish, but headings like "Puddings, Possets and Flummery", "Brown Trout and Yorkshire Rabbits" or "Feast Days And Squirrel Days" tell you this is more than just a manual. Hanson Moore focuses on the food of her childhood, especially her mothers cooking, skillfully tales and reminisces around the edges of recipes. The overall effect is like sitting with her round a crackling fire as she pours out her wisdom, Gandalf-like, onto the page.

But its more than that. What this book does is single-handedly make the case for a proud, regional English food that can take on the best of France.

A proud food

We get Heinz baked beans.
The French get cassoulet
with confit duck and
Toulouse sausage.  >-(
You see, I've always thought we have a sort of cultural cringe about the local food in this country, particularly compared to our neighbours across The Channel. Whilst the French wax lyrical about their terroir (that mythical combination of landscape, history and place), and engage in tedious debates about who makes the best cassoulet (Castelnaudary for me - I'm a sucker for confit duck), we Brits tend to retreat into our shell. Partly this is because local culinary traditions genuinely were scythed away by postwar homogenisation. But partly its because we assume "well its a French bean / mutton / dead pig stew, therefore it must be special". As I said - cultural cringe.

A great example of the genre is Pierre Koffmann's recently reissued Memories of Gascony. Although Koffmann was a three star chef, the focus is on the hearty peasant food of his childhood. In particular his formidable grandmother Camille, and the magic she worked on the stove.

Well I'm sorry, but Mary Hanson Moore's mum could have Nanna Koffmann any day.

You see Yorkshire, Britain's largest county, has always been a fiercely proud land. Its denizens often refer to is as "God's own county". This bravado was most recently displayed at the Olympics where - for a time - it sat ahead of Australia and Japan on the Olympic medals table. If there was any part of Britain which is immune from cultural cringe, then this is it.

Yorkshire: Hill and Dale
This pride is what shines through when Hanson Moore writes about her mother's cooking, and it is what defines it. It is why it will never conform to the British stereotype of food defined by cheats, convenience or speed. To cut corners would be self-defeating. No-one might ever tell. But she would know.

It is vividly etched when she writes about Thursday Baking Day. The cast iron range was thoroughly scrubbed, then stoked at the crack of dawn. For the rest of the day her mother would be on her feet all day keeping it roaring hot (even through the hottest of summer) and baking all manner  of cakes, breads and tarts. So when Hanson Moore came home at four:
Each Thursday,on the big table, would be spread large, golden-crisp loaves of bread, enough for a week’s eating, for no Yorkshire housewife then would dream of buying her bread, unless in a dire emergency. There would be one large fruit-cake, redolent of cinnamon and mixed spice; trays of small buns, spotted with currants (there for my brother and his rugby-playing friends); shortcrust almond tarts, crisp and golden, with a delicious splodge of jam hidden beneath the almond mixture; saucer-sized Yorkshire curd tarts, spicy and faintly cheesy; and the large slab of parkin, brown and sticky on top, adding its ginger scent to the rest. (p9)
This is both food, and food writing, of the highest calibre.

A local food

This book is also resolutely local. The French like to bang on about their terroir, how closely food is tied to the land (except of course when they bang on about their posh restaurants, and it suddenly becomes truffles-with-everything).

Well this book also has an overwhelming sense of place. This is particularly clear in her use of ingredients. Dock pudding is made from snakeweed from the Calder Valley. Grouse is brought down from the moors, rook pie from the dales. Rabbit comes from Wakefield and rhubarb from Morley and Leeds.

The language too is distinctly, and differently northern - a reminder of Yorkshire's Viking heritage.  Fackle (p21) is a bake of cabbage and mutton. Clouted cream (p57) is a positively medieval dish of scalded milk and cream, spiked with mace and rose water. Moggy (p66) we are told comes from the Norse mugi for corn (its a baked cake with golden syrup, butter and lard), Mell Cakes (from Icelandish mjol for meal) are flatcakes studded with sugar and grated nutmeg.

Her recipes also weave together history and lore. Wilfra Week Pie and Wilfra Cheesecakes mark the feast of St Wilfred (patron of Ripon cathedral). Stamford Bridge Spear Pie commemorates the second most famous battle fought in 1066. Mince pies are traditionally made in an oval shape, to commemorate the manger of the baby Jesus. If she was ever asked why, I think she would say “because it was always so”.

History and place – that is the essence of terroir.

A delicious food

But terroir is not enough.

You can have the history in the world. But if food is not delicious it is only fuel.

At first sight this book does not look promising. Recipes are straightforward, but simple. On the whole Manson Moore paints with a relatively limited palette of ingredients. Beef, mutton and lamb dominate the meats, although there are plenty of ideas for offal, such as Yorkshire Goose (made with ox heart), Haslet (made with pluck – the lungs and liver of a pig) and inventive ways with tripe.

But don't let that fool you. After all plain ingredients don't necessarily need plain food - just look at Lyon.

After all Lyon, renowned as the gastronomic stomach of France, is a similarly industrial, down-at-heel place (go for a walk around the Gare de la Part-Dieu if you don't believe me). And like Yorkshire, its food is symbolised not by truffles or foie gras, but by something simple - the humble onion. Like Yorkshire the food you find in the neighbourhood bouchons isn't grand cuisine, but humbly tripe (tablieur de sapeur) and cream cheese (cervelle de canut).

Its interesting flicking open my translation of Cuisine du Terroir (helpfully organised by region and a good counterweight to Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, which lists dishes by type) to the section on the Lyonnais, and comparing it to a page in A Yorkshire Cookbook. I think you'll agree, the similarities are striking:

So in the pages of A Yorkshire Cookbook you find a recipe for a black pudding, studded with pork fat and onions to match the finest boudin blanc (p15). Yorkshire pudding is lovingly described in all its glory (beat like a maniac until the mixture is like smooth runny cream, and the top is full of air bubbles - p27). Bacon custard is layered into freshly baked shortcrust cases (as she notes, is this that much different to quiche), and sorrel (the weed  which made the reputation of the three-star Maison Troisgros near Lyon) is turned into a zingy springtime soup.

Like many English works, puddings pies and cakes are the honour and glory. And while the ingredients feature the same endless of flour, sugar, fruit, butter and/or lard but there are infinite variations. The chapter on puddings is notably replete. Yorkshire Sack Pudding, West Riding Pudding, Syllabub, Flummery all feature, but pride of place must belong to the  and the wonderfully named York Velvet (a sort of crumble made with apples, milk and apricot jam).

Her chapter on pies opens with a glorious Christmas Pie (p60) which begins Take a goose, chicken, partrige, turkey and pigeon, and open each down the back... Curd Tarts and Custard Tarts receive full billing, before she proceeds through Rhubarb Pie, Bilberry Pie and Apple Tartlets. And of course there are the famous Fat Rascals, scraps of shortcrust rolled with sugar, currants and spread hot with butter.

The cakes I find workmanlike rather than inspiring. As she herself says - these are "Climb-a-Mountain-Cakes", not the delicate clouds you find in a modern tea room. Interestingly lard is the principal lubricant, rather than butter (something I also notice in Chinese sweetmeats - that's why Chinese egg tarts are so much flakier than Portugese Pastel de nata).

The chapter on fish and eggs is less inspiring (handling delicate fish is one area where the Yorkshire magic does not reach), and the egg dishes are workday. I do like the endearing name for "Pretty Dish" though, a recipe for shirred eggs (p107). It's also worth mentioning Yorkshire Wife's Sod, a baked pottage of oatcakes and eggs which sounds more like "Yorkshire Wife's Revenge" to me!

Surprisingly the book contains only one recipe for potatoes (and no, that isn't chipped).

A rare book. A rare pride.

Of course it could be that Yorkshire is the exception, and all the other regions are just a culinary wasteland (I'm sure many proud Yorkshiremen believe that). I'm not claiming for one moment that the British terroir has anything like the depth or breadth you find in France, with its two hundred and forty six types of cheese. In provincial France it seems you can't go ten miles without finding some sparkling patisserie. In Britain you can't go ten yards without finding a Tescos.

But what I am claiming that in at least one place, at one time it did. And A Yorkshire Cookbook is the proof of the pudding.

And the reason why is a rare pride, as Ms More summons up at the close:
For expatriate Yorkshire folk there can never be a place quite like it. We curse its cold sweeping winds whistling down the long valleys; the long winters before the first crocus; the rattling windows; and the struggle to keep the sheep alive on the fells. But when the sun shines over those fells, lightening the limestone crags, making subtle patterns on the darker gritstone, and we watch the clear becks and rivers splashing over brown pebbles, we know that we would not be elsewhere. The first purple saxifrage glows on the crags of Penyghent, the boots come out, and we are off to the hills of home. (p123) 

Afterword - Where can you buy the book? As I said earlier, this isn't a book you are likely to find in your local bookstore. My second-hand copy is one mum used to have even when we were in the old house, which takes it back fifteen years or so. Thankfully, as ever, Amazon comes to the rescue. The UK site lists at least one copy available for the princely sum of £8, but the US site comes up trumps with over ten editions up for grabs, mostly in the $10-25 range (although there is one silly $300 listing). Abebooks also lists copies (which don't seem to overlap with any of the Amazon vendors) for between £3 and £16. I think is is a bargain at any of those prices. There is no e-book version as yet. :-(

Note also that of the three avant-garde provincial restaurants I mentioned at the beginning, both Sat Bains and Le Champignon Sauvage have new or imminent cookbooks which are worth looking out for.


  1. This anything other than an argument from ignorance?

    Le Champignon Sauvage 3rd book has slipped because of photo issues, according to Helen, I was there on Saturday.


  2. Hullo Adey!

    Ignorance - about the "provinces" shtick you mean? Probably lol. There is a serious point underlying it though.

    Beyond Essence - shame about that I noticed on Amazon it didn't seem to be due til well into next year. The first book was great and is definitely one I will be writing about. The Dessert book I was less impressed by for reasons I can't recall.

    One Q - now did you get a tasting menu there (and if so how easy was it to arrange?). When people tell me about getting DEM to cook for them it sounds amazing - but asking Helen about it always sounds a bit scary! J

  3. But Brother Tseng, your argument has the lung capacity of Graham Norton’s asthmatic Chiwawa.

    It applies more-so inside your own venerated city state than without.

    You might be forgoing Greggs for patisseries (‘let them eat Pithiviers?’) but your cohabitees aren’t.


    After a 2 week break struggling for quality nourishment in Cornwall, called in LCS on Saturday night on the way to Birmingham (another food wasteland).

    The longer option is available before 8pm. And was perhaps in the top 3 meals not just of this year, but of my entire 39yrs of inauthentic life wasted not living in Landan.

    Helen was vivacious (you read that here first) though the criticisms of her do seem to emanate from people who want a fawning & wet-nosed, handhold of a Service. She has always been the suma of professionalism when I’ve been before. The food was meteoric, in a dinosaur cleansing kind of a way.

    Keep up the good work. But if you ever write in praise of Tom Parker Bowles am coming after you like the Baader-Meinhoff!

    (if you do requests your thoughts on the in put of Antipodean in the anglosphere would be welcome).


  4. Nonsense I love a Greggs pasty. When I was growing up in Uxbridge a highlight of my Saturday afternoon was sneaking off into the bakers in the Pavilions shopping centre and indulging myself with a frankfurter swaddled in puff pastry. lol

    Good to know I don't need to call in too many favours to get a tasting at the champagne sausage.

    Funny you mention the Antipodean side. Am writing up a piece on Tetsuya's ocean trout at the moment...

  5. The sumptuous combination of trout & blackpudding goes back probably beyond 1750 in Lancashire.

    But you knew that right?
    I bet you would if it was called Truite a la Boudin Noir

  6. Excellent! Trout and black pudding... Tell me more. Where does this one come from?

    BTW I forgot to mention on the post, another good book for background on English regional food is The Taste of Britain by Mason & Brown

    Black pudding of course features in their section on Lancs (its a Bury thing presumably). No mention of trout though!