Thursday, 11 December 2014

The eating of "umbles"



One of the delights of the summer is eating samphire the sea weed that grows in the salt marshes of the coastal regions. You can usually get it in June or July. I  first became acquainted with it in East Anglia. It is very tasty boiled and served with lemon and butter. A French lad who was in a group I was camping with thought it was one of the tastiest things he had tried whilst on holiday, a rare acknowledgement indeed .

Samphire appears in the “Whole Art of Cookery” published in the early 19th century by a local publisher in Bemersley near Knypersley. What makes the book unique was that it was published by Primitive Methodists. It was produced in Hugh Bourne’s, the founder of Primitive Methodism, own publishing house. The printer was more used to producing prayer books and religious tracts rather than such works of domesticity. However early Methodists were very keen on personal development and the book had a strong ethic of self improvement which would have fitted with the ethos of advancement. It would have achieved the Primitive Methodist seal of approval. Although one aspect of a puritanical religious movement they would have baulked at was the copious amounts of wine that many of the recipes required. The cynic in me thinks that knocking back a few bottles of Sack may have been one way to cope with some of the servings.

The unknown author of the work  drew on  earlier writings. In the 18th century cookery writers such as Hannah Glasse and Susannah Carter dominated the scene and some of their recipes  appear in the “Whole Art of Cookery”. One example was a dismal sea  farers dish called Portable Soup which even then was thought to resemble glue. It was a mistake that one of the characters in “Swiss Family Robinson” also makes It might be useful to speculate whether the poor diet of the sailors indicated by the existence of portable soup might be a reason why there were so many naval mutinies in the late 18th century. Another strand that is evident in the “Whole Art of Cookery” is the drawing  from earlier culinary traditions of  the medieval period as the book includes heavy use of spices and dried fruit in such dishes as sweet chicken pie 
or lamb with currants. One item that appears in a number of meals is the oyster. In the early 19th century oysters were the dish of the poor until later in the Victorian Age when pollution destroyed the oyster beds driving the price beyond the reach of working people. They appear in such dishes as “Oysters and pistachio nuts” and “oyster ragout”. Verjuice is also mentioned made from crab apples as an alternative to vinegar. In the Middle Ages it was widely used and more recently has made something of a comeback.

Tastes change especially in regard to the use of “umbles” or offal which many turn their nose up at. It was not always the case. As a child I have eaten tripe, chitterlings and pigs trotters. Many would be appalled at the prospect. In the “Whole Art” there are instructions to make Calf Head Pie which includes sliced palates and coxcombs. Battalia Pie requires two lamb’s  testicles or stones.. An essential ingredients of hashed calf’s head are “brain cakes”. The recipe for dressing “Calves Chitterlings curiously” calls for the meal to be “closely covered with fire”

 The book includes directions for making wine, elder, cherry and gooseberry wines indicating the range of flowers and fruits that could be turned into semi palatable alcohol. Home brewing of beer was always a commonplace activity in the 18th century home. Instructions are given for “strong October” as well as “small beer” and “strong ale”.


There are some omissions: no bread or scone recipes are included and, given that it is a North Staffordshire cookbook, no oatcakes