Tag Archives: Gervase Markham

A Slice Of Victoria Sponge

A nation of cake lovers, the British spend over £1.3 billion on them a year and, in 2018/19, consumed on average 151 grams of cakes, buns, and pastries per person per week. The enforced changes to our daily routines over the last two years are likely to have seen these figures rise. Such is our obsession with the soft, sweet foodstuff that it has spawned an unlikely televisual hit in The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), now in its twelfth season, after initially airing August 17, 2010.

Firmly established amongst the nation’s favourites is the Victoria sponge, or the Victoria sandwich cake, a two-layer, sponge-like, airy cake with a layer of jam and, for the indulgent, cream in the middle and a dusting of icing sugar on the top. The lodestone of the recipe is the weight of the eggs in their shells which determines the proportions of the butter, sugar, and flour to be used.

Deceptively simple as the recipe may be, it is a real art to make the perfect Victoria sponge, so much so that it is seen as the yardstick for judging a baker’s acumen. The Women’s Institute have elevated it to an art form, where marks can be gained or lost depending upon the texture of the cake and the type of jam. Following suit, the GBBO has made one of its supreme challenges the production of the perfect Victoria sponge, where contestants seek to avoid such faux pas as a soggy bottom.

The origins of the sponge cake, so called because its texture is akin to that of the sea-dwelling sponge, can be traced back to at least the 15th century. At the court of the Duchy of Savoy, a confection like a sponge finger, a low-density, dry, egg-based, sweet sponge cake biscuit shaped like a large digit, known as a Savoiardi, was produced to mark the visit of the French king. So tasty was it that it was adopted as the court’s official biscuit.

The earliest British recipe appeared in Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615), although he called it biscuit bread. The ingredients included a pound of fine flour, a pound of sugar, eight eggs, four yolks, as well as half an ounce of aniseeds and a similar quantity of coriander seeds. Making it was not for the faint-hearted as Markham warned that “will take very near an hour’s beating”, to perfect the mixture.

There is some controversy as to what the result looked like when it had been baked. Some commentators suggested that it would be very dense in texture, while others thought it would be more akin to a biscuit. One enterprising blogger went to the trouble of following the recipe and found that in texture it was slightly denser than a pound cake but with a similar sort of flavour. Perhaps that settles the argument.

Custard has a long culinary history, popular in the Middle Ages when baked in pastry, although, according to the 14th century collection of English recipes, The Forme of Cury, it was also used as a binding for meat and fish. Elizabeth Bird was very partial to it, but one of its principal ingredients, eggs, upset her delicate digestive system. Fortunately, she was married to Alfred, a chemist who in 1837 had set up a shop underneath the old Market Hall in Birmingham’s Bull Street.

A dutiful husband, Alfred challenged himself to develop an egg-free custard, so that his wife could indulge her passion. He found, after many failed attempts, that adding cornflour to the milky mixture when warmed would thicken it sufficiently to give it a custard-like texture. This new form of custard was tried out at a dinner party and pronounced a success. Delighted with the feedback, Alfred set up a company in 1843, Alfred Bird and Sons, to produce his custard powder on a commercial basis. To this day his name is synonymous the world over with custard.

Next time we will look at how another of Elizabeth’s allergies gave rise to the Victoria sponge. If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.

Turkey Eggs

Frank Buckland was a pre-eminent Victorian zoophagist, who ate his way through the animal kingdom with gusto. In 1862 he hosted a dinner at which the intrepid guests were treated to the delights of Japanese sea slugs, kangaroo, guan, curassow, and Honduras turkey. He turned his London home at 37, Albany Street into a mini menagerie, ensuring a ready supply of exotic foodstuffs, and his table groaned with such delicacies as boiled elephant trunk, rhinoceros pie, porpoise head, and stewed mole.

Buckland’s mission was to ginger up the rather staid and monotonous fare consumed by the Victorian well-to-do by introducing new sources of food, taking as his inspiration the ready adoption by the English of such exotica as pheasant and turkey two or three centuries earlier. Sadly, he spectacularly overestimated the public’s willingness to embrace new tastes and textures, his plans coming to naught. Instead of becoming the man who transformed the food we ate he languishes in a lengthy list of 19th century eccentrics. However, there are occasions when a touch of Bucklandism would not come amiss.

A whole turkey tests the ingenuity of all but the most accomplished cook. After being served roasted, then as a cold meat, curried and boiled up to make a soup, it is hard to resist the onset of turkey ennui well before the dawn of the Twelfth Night. Curiously, though, one by-product of the bird that is rarely on the menu is the most obvious, its egg. Why is that?

White or creamy in colour with light or dark-brown speckles, the turkey eggs are around fifty per cent larger than that of a hen and has a harder shell and thicker membrane. With firmer whites, larger yolks velvety in texture, they contain on average 135 calories, nine grams of fat, and almost 740 milligrams of cholesterol, significantly more than a chicken’s egg. It is this which gives them their richer, tastier flavour.

Man has a long history of eating the eggs of turkeys. Wild turkey eggs certainly tickled the tastebuds of pre-Columbian Native Americans, judging by the quantities of eggshells found in excavated sites. The Hopi Indians considered them to be an especial delicacy.

When the delights of the turkey were discovered by Europeans, opinions on the merits of their eggs were divided. The 17th century cookery writer, Gervase Markham, declared that they were “exceeding wholesome to eate, and restore nature decayed wonderfully”. However, the sixteenth century French writer, Charles Estienne, advised housewives to steer clear of them, suggesting that they “cause to breed the leprosie”.

It was not until 1873 that the Norwegian physician, Gerhard Armeur Hansen, discovered the bacterium that causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, which, needless to say, had no association with turkey eggs. However, in the intervening centuries the damage had been done and many writers repeated Estienne’s canard. English cookery writers, though, were made of sterner stuff and followed Markham’s lead by lauding the wholesomeness of the turkey egg. 

The 19th century was the heyday of the egg, British and American cooks particularly using them to make thick and tasty sauces. Mrs J C Croly went as far as to opine in her Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (1866) that “turkey’s eggs are superior to others for sauce”.  Her recipe involved boiling three eggs for twenty minutes, dicing the whites and stirring them into a pint of white sauce and then served hot.

In the 1880s Juliet Corson, who founded the New York Cooking School, offered some advice on boiling turkey eggs, which involved putting them in a covered container of boiling water for five minutes, then pouring off the water, refilling the container with boiling water and leaving them to stand for a further five minutes. This, she assured her readers, would cook the eggs medium hard.  

We are used to celebrity chefs, but the man who could rightly claim to be their forerunner was Alexis Soyer, who wowed diners in early Victorian London with his culinary masterpieces. He too was a fan of the turkey egg, judging them “good boiled, and preferred to those of hens for pastry; mixing them with common eggs makes an omelette more delicate”. Charles Ranhofer, chef at Delmonico’s, New York’s first à la carte restaurant, believed that turkey eggs were “much liked either boiled or cooked in an omelette”, the turkey egg omelette remaining a fixture on its menu until the late 1800s.

We will find out why we rarely eat them now next time.

A Slice Of Turkey

The wild turkey was indigenous to the Americas and was first domesticated around two thousand years ago in central Mesoamerica. All the modern varieties of turkey originate from the turkeys found in Mexico.

The man credited with introducing the turkey to England is William Strickland. On an early voyage to America in 1526 he acquired six birds from Native Americans and upon his arrival at Bristol promptly sold them at tuppence each. Quickly realising that there was a ready market for this exotic delicacy, he began importing turkeys in earnest, earning enough money to build himself a stately home in Boynton, near Bridlington.

Whether he was really the first is far from clear, but Strickland certainly made a big thing about his association with the bird. In 1550 he incorporated the turkey into his coat-of-arms, the drawing of which, held at the College of Arms in London, may be the earliest depiction of the bird in Europe. The village church at which he is buried is a homage to the turkey, the bird appearing in stone sculptures on the walls, stained glass windows and even replacing the traditional eagle on the lectern.

Thanks in no small part to the Tudor equivalent of Bernard Matthews, the English developed a taste for the turkey. While the Venetian patricians passed sumptuary laws in 1557 restricting consumption of turkey flesh to the nobility, it was cash rather than class that defined who could eat turkey meat in England, their price set by law in London’s markets from 1555. So widespread were turkeys that in 1560 a law was passed banning birds bred for slaughter from roaming the streets of London.

By 1573 the turkey had found its place on the festive menu, Thomas Tusser noting that the perfect host at Christmas would offer “good bread and good drinke…brawn pudding and souse and good mustarde withal. Biefe, mutton and porke, shred pyes of the best, pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey well drest”. Farming manuals of the time included instructions on rearing turkeys, which were smaller than the wild indigenous birds of the Americas, a point noted by William Wood in his New England’s Prospect (1634).

Cookery books from the late 16th century began to include recipes for turkeys. A Booke of Cookrye from 1584 instructed its readers to “cleve your Turkye foule on the back, and bruse al the bones. Season it with pepper groce beaten and salt, and put into good store of Butter, he must have five houres baking”. Gervase Markham, writing in 1623, recommended roasting with the pinions still attached.

Two major problems inhibited the universal adoption of the turkey as festive fare: cost and transportation. While, by 1720, 250,000 turkeys were being reared in Norfolk, getting them to consumers involved walking them from the farms to the markets, journeys that could take weeks and involved the farmers setting up impromptu camps each night by the side of the roads. Mrs Beeton wrote of turkeys being driven all the way from Norfolk to London, with their feet dipped in tar to prevent them getting sore.

The cost of transportation meant that turkeys were out of the reach of all but the well-to-do, a meat to aspire to, while ordinary folk made do with beef, a strong favourite in the North, capons, or goose. The arrival of the railways, improvements in refrigeration, and the sentimentalisation of Christmas saw a rise in the turkey’s stock in the mid-19th century.

Scrooge’s gift of a turkey to Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), Queen Victoria sitting down to her first roast turkey on Christmas Day 1851, and the realisation that the fowl provided more meat for the large families seated around the dining table may have cooked the goose, but it took another century for the turkey to become truly affordable.

Even in the 1930s, a turkey cost the equivalent of a week’s wages, and the thriftier amongst the population would subscribe to savings clubs to ensure that when the time came, they had enough to pay for their festive bird. It was not until after the Second World War that improvements in farming efficiency brought the price down to a level that was affordable to most. Since then, the turkey has not looked back.

If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.