The June day spread itself round Maythorpe Hall, endless, amorphous, ominous. It had no shape – not even a dinner hour, for Elsie was baking and had given Midge ham cake and apples to eat whenever she felt like it, and those had disappeared hours and hours ago. (Winifred Holtby, South Riding)
One thing I hadn’t expected when I started this blog was how many new foods and dishes I would come across in my survey of English literature over time.
From rout cakes in Jane Austen’s Emma, havercakes in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, damson cheese in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, furmity in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and the milk fadge, veal a la russe and sole veronique of Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, writing this blog has truly been a culinary adventure.
And Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding gave me a new challenge with the ham cake that appears in the opening lines of the book’s first chapter.
Holtby’s novel, published posthumously in 1936, one year after the author’s premature death at the age of 37, was for me – like the ham cake consumed by the character Midge – a delightful discovery. I picked up a second-hand copy a few years ago and found it to be the most fantastic, compelling read.
Set in a small fictional Yorkshire town in the 1930s, South Riding ranges across the interweaving lives of a number of characters. At the heart of the narrative is the relationship between Sarah Burton, the new idealistic headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls, and Robert Carne, a farmer and local councillor whose wife has mental health issues and is in an asylum. Midge Carne, for whom the ham cake has been made, is his daughter.
So to ham cake. I had never heard of this foodstuff, and the online searches I did for it suggested very few other people had too. And when I did find references – and recipes – they were varied: one recipe suggested baking ham in pastry, another was a meat version of a fish cake and then there were French savoury cakes with ham and other Gallic ingredients.
I have no idea what recipe Elsie, Carne’s maid, used for her ham cake, but I most liked the sound of the French savoury cakes. And since the philosophy behind the blog is to create dishes in the spirit of the original – rather than slavishly follow it – I feel I can justify my choice. But since I strongly doubt that olives, gruyere and pistachios – which feature in some of the French savoury cake recipes I came across – would have been common ingredients in 1930s Yorkshire kitchens, I have put a very English twist on the recipe, substituting them with onions, grated Cheddar and tomatoes instead. The resulting ‘cake’ is moist and packed with flavour. It is also very portable – later on in the novel the Holly children, who have recently lost their mother, are sent out for the day with a picnic by their prospective new stepmother, Mrs Brimsley. The antagonism they feel for this woman melts away as they survey the wonderful picnic she has made for them: ‘They unpacked the basket and saw that Mrs Brimsley had done them proud. Nothing that Mrs Holly had provided had ever equalled this. Hard-boiled eggs, ham cake, cheese cakes and buns and oranges…’
250g plain flour
15g baking powder
150g thickly cut ham, diced
1 onion sliced and fried in olive oil until soft and golden brown
80g grated cheddar cheese
150ml olive oil
50g natural yoghurt
a handful of cherry tomatoes sliced in half
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C / 160C fan / Gas mark 4.
Grease and line a 500g loaf tin.
In one bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, ham, onion and cheese.
In another bowl whisk the eggs until thick and pale in colour. Gradually whisk in the milk, oil and yoghurt. Add salt and pepper to season. Then fold in the flour mixture until it is just mixed in – do not overbeat.
Pour the batter into the loaf tin. Arrange the tomato halves on the top of the cake mixture.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 30-45 minutes until a skewer or cake tester inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool in the tin before turning out.