With Covid-19 exiling us from our old lives, award-winning food writer Nicola Miller, from Bury St Edmunds, takes a trip down memory lane to the Peak District and delivers her take on a Bakewell pudding
In these days of Covid, adventures take place on a far smaller scale and the thought of a trip to the bakers or a walk through the woods can make one feel quite delirious with anticipation.
To a certain extent, we have all become exiled from our old lives. In my imagination I travel back to the slate-grey Welsh valley village of Trehafod where I once lived and the Yemeni cafés of Cardiff’s Butetown which fed me; the endless promise of London; the Midlands of my maternal family where everyone calls you “duck”; and the Devon and Somerset of my paternal ancestors. And that is before I even think about crossing the water to places far-flung. The muscles of my mind’s eye are getting a real workout these days.
Our daughter lives in Leeds with her husband and baby. Before Covid and en route to visit them, we would detour to Bakewell in the Peak District to stretch our legs and eat gulyas and strudel at the Tiroler Stuberl before buying Bakewell puddings, tomato sausage, and large bags of Derbyshire oatcakes. This is a part of the world beloved to me: the Dark Peak with its vertiginous gritstone edges and stark cloughs; the rolling valleys, dew ponds and dry stone walls of the White Peak; and the smattering of small towns and scattered Celtic outposts where they still garland wells with blossoms to this day.
Derbyshire was the childhood home of Alison Uttley, one of my favourite authors, although she went on to spend much of her adult life in exile from the county. Born in 1884 at Castle Top Farm in the Peak District, she was the daughter of tenant farmers and some of her books (The Country Child, The Farm on the Hill and High Meadows) feature a lightly-disguised portrait of the farm where she grew up: “. . . a long gabled grey stone house built of the rock upon which it stood, and became one with the steep crag at the back, as if it were a tower to resist invaders.” The casement windows of the farmhouse overlooked the beech woods and surrounding fields with their scattered rocky outcrops, the orchards and pig cotes, and the tracks and pack roads which led to villages far away. This was a landscape as familiar to Uttley as the back of her own hand, but the vividness of her memories still stun me every time I read The Country Child.
Alison Uttley was capable of weaving lore and science into prose of great beauty. She was a scientist and only the second woman to graduate from Manchester University with a degree in physics and chemistry, yet she believed in fairies, ghosts and folklore all her life. “I found echoes. I experimented and tested with shadows and light trying to find out the meanings of things in a primitive, childish way. I heard many an old tale and piece of forgotten lore as we sat around the fire at night and I never forgot a word,” she wrote.
Uttley was the product of a deeply Christian background but embedded within her were the Celtic beliefs of her Peak District ancestors. Both she and her father believed trees had spirits both benevolent and malevolent and her mother was terrified when flowering hawthorn, a harbinger of death, was brought into the house in great bunches by a daughter innocent of this superstition.
Uttley went to school in Bakewell and in her cookbook Recipes From and Old Farmhouse she recalls the clatter of cattle drives across its narrow medieval bridge. To this day, farmers gather at the café in Bakewell’s Agricultural Business Centre to eat fried breakfasts; when we went during the regular Farmers’ Market, it was a sea of Tattersall shirts and there was little evidence of the taciturnity farmers are supposed to be famous for. Living as I now do in a town that has divested itself of its own cattle market and – therefore – much of its raison d’être, the noise and buzz of Bakewell’s were deeply nostalgic.
She also writes about the eponymous Bakewell Pudding whose origin story is quite likely apocryphal, based as it is on that time-old tale of ‘baking gone wrong’ when a cook at The Rutland Arms did not follow her employers’ instructions and instead, ‘created’ the Bakewell Pudding. However, author and food historian Regula Ysewijn contends that there already existed a remarkably similar pudding that was cleverly renamed to attract customers to the business and, over time, the Peak District became famous as the ‘home’ of the pudding. This is before we even begin to address the Bakewell Pudding versus Bakewell Tart debate, which I am not going to get into here. Instead, I recommend you read Ysewijn’s books, Pride and Pudding or Oats in the North, Wheat From the South, both well-researched treasure troves of British baking history. Either way, this is a pudding made in a place where eggs were “plentiful and cheap” as Uttley notes but I have modified my version to taste a little less eggy than the version sold in the town’s Original Pudding Shop.
Actually, ‘modified’ is a bit of a leap because nobody in the Peak District would ever refer to my version as a ‘Bakewell Pudding’ by any stretch of the imagination, but having been inspired by Uttley’s own ability to hold two apparently opposing points of view, I am doing the same: it is your decision as to whether I have succeeded or not. Like Uttley, I like to write about a time or place from the point of view of no longer being in it and, like many writers, I find negotiating nostalgia can be a bit of a high wire act. I have kept the techniques behind this pudding and reached back to my own early teens which were punctuated by trips to the Midlands with my grandparents, and time away from a father who spent six months of the year abroad. One of the countries he worked in was Brazil and I have an abiding memory of watching old cine films of him dancing at carnivals surrounded by lamé-clad men and women of all ages (and I use the term ‘clad’ very loosely here). One kitchen cupboard in our old Suffolk kitchen was filled with sacks of coffee beans and ground coffee, jars of guava jam, and bottles of cachaça. I do not drink coffee myself, but its scent – and that of our cupboard as its door was opened – remains one of my favourites to this day.
‘My’ Bakewell Pudding uses guava jam for a richer, deeper flavour, alongside lime zest and flaked coconut. Avoid using English-style desiccated coconut because it is too dry and sawdusty. I buy bags of American or Caribbean-style flaked coconut (which is easily available online and from shops selling food from around the world) because it is damper and softer. The guava is exceedingly popular in Brazil where it was once used as a substitute for quince by the Portuguese colonisers when making marmelada (quince cheese) and Uttley herself includes a recipe for quince marmalade in her cookbook. This synchronicity pleases me greatly.
NOTE: Caipira Flavours has a stall at Ely Market on the weekends and their Brazilian guava-topped cake is a favourite of mine. Check them out. I buy my guava jam from Faraway Foods in Bury St Edmunds.
A COCONUT, GUAVA, AND LIME ‘BAKEWELL PUDDING’
400g puff pastry (I use shop-bought)
3 tablespoons guava jam
130g caster sugar
3 medium eggs, beaten
1 extra yolk added to the whole eggs, above
150g ground almonds
Grated zest 2 medium limes (save zest of ½ lime for decoration)
2 teaspoons natural coconut extract
Flaked coconut, a scattering
Reserved lime zest
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Grease a 25cm (or thereabouts) pie tin or skillet with butter. Now roll out the pastry and line the tin with it. Prick the base all over with a fork then chill it in the fridge while you make the filling.
Cream the butter and sugar together until they are pale and fluffy. Slowly add the beaten egg, a small amount at a time, until it is incorporated. Gently fold in the ground almonds, lime zest and coconut extract.
Remove the pastry-lined tin/skillet from the fridge, dollop the guava jam onto the pastry base and spread it evenly across in one layer. Scatter over the coconut flakes.
Pour the filling into the pastry case and smooth over until the surface is even. Bake for 40 minutes, then remove the pudding from the oven. (If you think the pastry edges are starting to catch, cover them with foil for the last 10 minutes). Keep an eye on it; ovens vary. The filling is supposed to retain a little bit of wiggle. Sprinkle with lime zest (and icing sugar if you wish) and serve with cream or custard. Do not worry if the pastry shrinks a bit (mine did!) because this is not meant to be an elegant or pretty pudding.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020