Recipes: from an Old Farmhouse by Alison Uttley

Cover of Recipes from an Old Farmhouse

An evocative image

I wanted to follow up on the last Landing post on foraging-related books with another foody feature. This book is part memoir of a Derbyshire country childhood and part recipe book by children’s writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976), who was best known for her Little Grey Rabbit series and also the Sam Pig books. The recipe book was first published by Faber and Faber in 1966 and I recently treated myself to the copy shown here, which is in very nice condition. Something to cheer me up during the spring Lockdown! It is a beautiful little hard back book decorated with black and white sketches by Pauline Baynes. The drawings complement the text beautifully. Recipes has been reprinted more recently, but I opted for a copy of the original edition and wasn’t disappointed.

Alison Uttley gives us recipes that her mother used in the farmhouse kitchen, including recipes given by friends and neighbours. These were named for the donor, for example ‘Mrs Lowe’s Parkin’. The book is divided into sections with anecdotes, reminiscences and recipes. If you wanted to try out any of the items, you would need to scale down and adapt the recipes as Uttley gives the quantities and methods as they would have been used by her mother at the end of the nineteenth century in the farmhouse oven. So, you would need to figure out the oven settings and alter the timings accordingly. The recipes aren’t laid out as recipes as we would find them in a cookery book nowadays, but they are easy enough to follow. I’m planning to try one or two of the cakes or puddings in smaller quantities.

I have found overlaps with my foraging post as in a few of the recipes given, Alison Uttley talks about foraged ingredients gathered by the family. I was particularly taken with her account of the annual cowslip gathering expedition with her mother. They took a clothes basket out with them to fill with blossoms. She describes it beautifully here,

Black and white illustration of the author's mother and the maid picking cowslips, with the children in the background

Picking cowslips

One morning in April my mother would announce that we would pick cowslips for cowslip wine. We would set off after breakfast, the servant girl, my brother, my mother and I, with a clothes-basket, and several smaller baskets. It was exciting to run down the first big field, deep down to the gate that led to the cowslip field. By the gate we left the clothes-basket, and we each took another basket and began to gather the flowers.

It sounds idyllic but it was also hard work for all of them, Uttley describing herself as ‘dazed with stooping to the ground’ after a few hours of picking. It sounds as though the children were allowed to go off and play though, while her mother and the maid carried on for the whole day. But of course, the work didn’t stop there. What Uttley refers to as ‘peeping’ was the next task: removing the flowers from the stalks and calyces. That task must have been mind-numbingly tedious as well as an instigator of repetitive strain syndrome. I find it bad enough picking stalks off fruit for a modest sized batch of jam, so I’m not sure how I would have coped with that mammoth preparation session.

Black and white title page illustration for the chapter on beverages, showing entwined branches with culinary equipment hanging off them.

Chapter title page

I’d actually love to be able to try making a small batch of cowslip wine, but cowslips are quite rare now in Britain and also in Ireland according to Zoe Devlin’s website, wildflowersofireland.net. However, she does go on to point out that the plant has made a comeback in Ireland in recent years, so perhaps it will continue to spread.  In his foraging guide Food for Free, Richard Mabey suggests that the huge quantities of petals used in making ‘one of the very best country wines’ has probably contributed to the flower’s scarcity in Britain. He comments on the ‘devastation that some of these recipes must have wreaked on flower populations’. Thankfully now, you can buy cowslip seeds as well as other wildflower seeds to grow in your own garden and even up the balance a little. I somehow doubt that I will be able to grow enough flowers to make wine, though cowslip growing is to be one of my projects for next year (I have the seeds ready!) As far as beverages are concerned, I think I will have to stick to making elderflower cordial, the only problem there being that the best blooms always grow too high to reach!

I hope to return to the book for another Landing post, when I have had a go at some of the recipes. Meanwhile, I will decide where to go for August’s Landing Tales post when I have scoured the book shelves again!

Are there any Alison Uttley fans out there? Does anyone remember her Traveller in Time, televised by the BBC in 1978? I loved the series then, but wonder how it would stand up now.

(Pauline Baynes illustrations scanned from my copy of Recipes) 

 

Two ‘Wild Food’ books: Food for Free and Wild and Free

Before we go any further I would just like to say that it’s a moot point whether these books a) really count as Landing Tales reads as they don’t live in that shelf region and b) would really be a better fit into our retired craft and garden blog Curiously Creatively. I say moot point, because whatever the arguments either way, these foraging books are what I have decided to feature in today’s blog post. And anyway, as you all already know, I can be somewhat flexible as to what constitutes a bona fide Landing Book Shelves title. As to the subject matter, I refer you to the Landing Excursions category and to the occasional garden or cookery feature that creeps in here. So that’s that out of the way then…

Front over of the 1992 edition of Food for Free showing a variety of plants.

Food for Free, 1992

Food for Free by Richard Mabey (Harper Collins 1972, 1992) was given to me about a year ago and is a former library book, so it had already performed much service by the time it passed into my hands. I think there has been a more recent reprint, which I may try to buy. Wild and Free by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín, (O’Brien Press 1978; Wolf Hill Publishing 2013) actually belongs to The Bookworm, though I confess that I have rather commandeered it lately. This is what happens when you buy people books that you really want for yourself! Both books were originally published around the same period, looking at British and Irish wild food respectively. There is of course much overlap between the two books as far as flora and the uses to which they were/are put. Each book has its own approach, Food for Free being more of a field or gatherers guide to edible plants. It gives notes on habitat, season and details on how many of the plants have been used in the past, sometimes with basic cooking instructions. For some plants, the text merely notes that the plant is edible (eg the White and Red varieties of Dead-Nettle) without any further detail. In contrast, Wild and Free presents a collection of methods for a range of dishes, cordials, wines, jellies etc based on a seasonal foraging calendar and tried and tested family recipes. The Ó Céiríns write in detail of about twenty-four sources of food, giving plenty of instructions for making such tasty items as elderberry syrup, nettle soup, crab apple wine and a whole host of blackberry treats. There also seems to be a lot of beer and wine recipes!

As the Bookworm and I have a penchant for foraging, they are both handy books to dip into now and again as we like to extend our foraged food range now and again. Up until this year, I’d say that we have arrived at a fairly regular pattern of free range goods, focussing mainly on berries. Usually we end up with a good supply of blackberries, haws, rosehips, rowan berries and elderberries in the freezer for jelly making. We have used various recipes for preserves, but most frequently the Thane Prince book mentioned over on Curiously Creatively. The exception to all of the berry harvest is elderflowers, which we have picked for a lovely refreshing cordial in the last few summers (one batch already made so far this year, we hope to do another). Wild and Free gives a recipe for Elderflower pancakes that I would like to try for a change – I imagine they’d be great for a weekend breakfast.

Cover of Wild and Free showing blackberry jam & fresh berries.

Wild and Free, 2013

But in this particularly strange spring and summer, with the help of our two foraging guides, we have branched out slightly and explored some new foraged food. For quite a while we have been thinking of turning towards having a go at collecting some young ‘greens’ from the wild plants on offer to see if we could make a meal out of wild vegetables. As Richard Mabey points out, ‘It is easy to forget, as one stands before the modern supermarket shelf, that every single one of the world’s vegetable foods was once a wild plant’. This is obvious if you think about it, though as The Bookworm pointed out, you can quite see why nobody ever thought that cultivating and selling nettles was a great idea. Though maybe, a cultivated nettle would have no sting?

As you might have guessed, nettles were one of our target greens, having been meaning to make nettle soup for years. Funnily enough, we were rather wary about the idea of picking something so stingy to eat! Tip: stout gloves are required. It is also worth poiting out that venturing near a nettle patch with ripped jeans means that you get your knees stung at the very least. In the end, our foraging and cooking went very well thanks to the handy recipe in the Ó Céirín book. In the chapter on nettles, the authors retell a story about St Columcille and his Lenten instructions that his soup of nettles, water and salt should have nothing else ‘except what comes out of the pot stick’. The enterprising cook apparently hollowed out the pot stick and poured milk and oats into the broth. A much more substantial meal. Inspired by a note in Mabey’s book, we have also tried Goosegrass or Sticky Weed, which he tells us was recommended in spring soups and puddings by the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706). We did ours in a pasta dish, which seems to be a much more twenty-first century twist on things.

Moving on to something that we still haven’t tried yet, I was tentatively considering looking for mushrooms and fungus. Mabey’s book has a section on fungus, which I found fascinating reading. I would love to try foraging for edible fungus, but I am aware that I need to do much more research first. At some point I hope to attend a workshop as a starting point, though I’m not sure if I will ever feel confident enough to try it for myself. In the meantime, I am happy to try to merely spot a few examples. The authors of Wild and Free describe a lovely foraging session, when they once gathered bags full of field mushrooms on a walk, which sounded fantastic. Sadly, we don’t live within easy reach of green fields, despite our lifting of distance restrictions now. That’s one for the future. Meanwhile, I will settle for our usual delicious berry harvesting.

I would love to hear from anyone who forages or who has any good book recommendations to pass on to us.