Old Country Customs

The chief delicacy at these [harvest] teas was “baker’s cake”, a rich, fruity, spicy dough cake, obtained in the following manner. The housewife provided all the ingredients excepting the dough, putting raisins and currants, lard, sugar and spice in a basin which she gave to the baker, who added the dough, made and baked the cake, and returned it, beautifully browned in his big oven. The charge was the same as that for a loaf of bread the same size, and the result was delicious.                                            (Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford)

One of the things I’ve found most interesting through writing this blog is finding out about food customs from the past. Whether it be the rout cakes made for large gatherings in Jane Austen’s Emma, the cook shops of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or the superstitions about butter-making in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, literature often provides a fascinating insight into the culinary and food traditions of the time.  

Flora Thompson’s autobiographical novel Lark Rise to Candleford (1945) provides a window into rural foods and customs in late 19th century Oxfordshire. The book – which was originally written as three separate novels – is narrated from the perspective of Laura – a figure of Thompson – as she looks back on her childhood and young adulthood, and considers how the world has changed.

Laura is brought up in a close-knit community in the hamlet of Lark Rise where most people earn a living through agricultural work. However, Laura’s father is a stonemason and both parents have aspirations for their children. Having given up on the idea that Laura could be a schoolteacher or nursemaid, since she is so uninterested in her younger siblings, Laura’s mother jumps at the opportunity of Laura getting a training in post office work in the nearby town Candleford Green, courtesy of an old friend Dorcas Lane.

From the outset though, Laura’s interest lies with books, both the reading and the writing of them. And the detailed recall of not just her childhood but the customs and practices of the society in which she grew up highlights the writer’s eye for observation.

Many of Laura’s memories are about food, both what was eaten and how it was made. In the first chapter alone we read of the rituals and superstitions around the annual killing of the family pig; the three part meals that were cooked simultaneously in the same utensil over an open fire – bacon, vegetables from the garden, and jam roly-poly – ; and the arrival of a new foodstuff, butterine (now known as margarine), which most people rejected in favour of lard.

In the quotation at the beginning of this post, Laura is remembering the food traditions around the annual harvest in September. She describes the traditional ‘baker’s cake’ that was made – a spicy fruity bread enriched with sugar, butter, milk and egg. What struck me here was the description of the actual making of the cake: a two-stage process involving in effect two cooks, with the housewife providing the additional ingredients – presumably ones that had to be bought from the town – and the baker incorporating them into his standard dough and then baking the cake for the housewife. In the novel’s first chapter, Laura notes that not every house in the hamlet had an oven and that people who owned a ‘bread-baking oven in their wash-house‘ would loan it out to their less fortunate neighbours.

Laura notes how popular the baker’s cake was: ‘There’s only one fault wi’ these ‘ere baker’s cakes,’ the women used to say; ‘they won’t keep!’ And they would not; they were too good and there were too many children about.

Having made my own version I can attest to the women’s comments. A number of variations on the fruity, spicy enriched dough theme are provided by Elizabeth David in her classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) in the chapter on ‘Regional and Festival Yeast Cakes and Fruit Breads’ where she also cites the same passage from Lark Rise to Candleford. The recipe below was the one that I felt most matched Laura’s description, though lacking a friendly baker to help me out I had to make the whole cake myself!

340g strong white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, mace, allspice and nutmeg
7g fast action yeast
150ml milk, warmed
60g butter, softened
30g soft, brown sugar
120g currants or mixture of currants and raisins
1 large egg

For the glaze
2 tablespoons warmed milk mixed with 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar

Place the flour in a large bowl. Mix the salt, sugar and spices into the flour.
Sprinkle the yeast over the flour mixture.
Make a well in the flour mixture. Break in the egg and then add the warm milk and softened butter. Mix together into a dough and then knead for 5 minutes (if using a mixer) or 10 minutes (by hand) to get a smooth, elastic dough.
Finally add the dried fruit and knead into the mixture so it is evenly distributed throughout the dough.
Place the dough in a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 – 1 1/2 hours.
When the dough has risen, empty it out of the bowl, knead it lightly for a few seconds and then place in a greased loaf tin. Cover it and place in a warm place to rise for another 30-45 minutes. In the meantime preheat the oven to 220C / Fan oven 200C / Gas mark 7.
When the dough has risen to the top of the tin, bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 190C / Fan oven 170C / Gas mark 5 and bake the loaf for a further 15 minutes until it is golden brown on top and sounds hollow when you knock it on the underside.
Whilst the loaf is finishing baking, prepare the milk and sugar for the glaze. As soon as you take the tin out of the oven, brush the top of the loaf with the milk and sugar mixture. Leave for a few minutes before turning it out of the tin to cool on a wire rack.
Cut into thick slices and spread lavishly with butter.

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