1. A quest.
Embedded in the text of a recipe from British Cookery lies a tantalizing reference. The recipe is for “Veal and Ham Mould,” the reference to ham cake, which sounds more intriguing than the recipe. We are told that this “much earlier” preparation may be the antecedent to the mould and that it is traditional to Ongar in Essex. The description of the cake is succinct if not satisfactory as instruction: “This consisted of minced ham thickened with bread soaked in ale, the seasoned mixture being bound with egg.” (Boyd 342)
Ham cake looks like an offshoot of potted foods. The meat in most but not all of them is cooked and ground then mixed with a generous amount of butter, seasoned and pressed into ceramic pots under a protective blanket of clarified butter. In the case of ham cake, the meat, some sodden bread and seasonings held together with the lighter egg instead of butter must have been baked, like the mould, in a water bath. It seems a safe conjecture that the unnamed seasonings for ham cake include the usual suspects of pepper and mace that flavor the mould, and possibly cayenne and dry mustard, found in English potted foods.
The mention of ham cake appears within the chapter of British Cookery devoted to brawns and jellies which themselves are “extensions of the potted meat concept” but look nothing like them. (Boyd 342) Aside from this single source, however, the trail turns chill.
The great Eliza Acton did not know the dish. Elisabeth Ayrton does not note ham cake in The Cookery of England; it makes no appearance in Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, Theodora FitzGibbon omits it from The Food of the Western World; nothing from Jane Grigson, not even in The Observer Guide to British Cookery even though it highlights regional specialties; and of course not a note from Elizabeth David. The cake gets no entry in Mason and Brown’s landmark Traditional Foods of Britain and inspires no discussion by Dorothy Hartley from Food in England. No mention even appears in the bloated late editions of Mrs. Beeton.
Your Granny’s Cook Book, from 1971 by Sheila Hutchins, includes no mention of ham cake in the chapter on East Anglia. There is, however, a false lead in the “London and the Home Counties.”
Hutchins, then a food columnist at the Daily Express, worried that a culinary folk culture was fast disappearing from Britain. Her concern was not without cause; Elizabeth David, Claudia Rhoden and others were doing their sometimes inadvertent best to obliterate British foodways in favor of recipes from the Mediterranean basin.
Hutchins writes that she therefore asked her readers to send “recipes just like your granny cooked. It had to be granny, I thought, for it is she who remembers the really good cooking.” Thousands of responses arrived,
“from retired cooks, from former kitchen maids at great country houses, from farmers’ wives, from aunts, great-aunts and grandmothers, some in spidery copperplate handwriting. From men as well as women, sailors, Chelsea pensioners, eel jelliers, and salmon smokers. They speak in many different voices with many different accents and most of the recipes have their own regional flavour.” (Hutchins i)
Those of us interested in the preservation of traditional British foodways owe Hutchins and her readers a substantial debt.
The recipe for ‘ham cake’ from Mrs. F. E. Norris of London, a good one, in fact boasts both bottom and topcrusts of pastry. She prepared a simple filling of minced ham and onion, dug four shallow wells to hold an egg apiece and baked the pie to eat hot or cold. (Hutchins 172) It could not be more of a pie or less of a cake.
Nor can the sleuth find much solace from the internet. Searches on bing, google and yahoo yield no recipe for Ongar ham cake, English ham cake or any other ham cake resembling the description in British Cookery. Three apparently intriguing titles, however, did emerge from the ether.
The first promises the most, at least in a superficial way. It is A Taste of Essex: Food and Recipes of Essex through the Ages by Lynn Pewsey, more a pamphlet than a book at 87 pages and hard to find. The online description indicates that it includes a recipe for ham cake.
The second title also offers a recipe for ham cake and comports with our origin myth; it also ascribes a ham cake to Ongar. The book in question is A Taste of East Anglia ‘compiled,’ rather than written, ‘by Julia Skinner’ so it casts a broader regional net than the title devoted to Essex alone.
Third up, Traditional Recipes of East Anglia by Geoffrey Dixon; its online summaries do not reveal any recipes but hope trumped experience again and we ordered it anyway.
2. An experiment
After a few quick clicks and the expenditure of funds our leads are on the way to the Editor. In the interim between desire and delivery, however, she decided to take the following flyer on ham cake. To pot a ramekin 4½ inches in diameter she took an admittedly ad hoc, spur of the moment impulse to combine the stuff she happened to have on hand.
That was a small can (2¼ oz) of Underwood Devilled Ham, a like amount of spectacular Benton’s mountain country ham from Madisonville, Tennessee, cut to the thinnest ribbons for a contrast of texture and tint, a slice of Pepperidge Farms sourdough ripped apart and soaked in a shot or two of Cottrell’s Old Yankee Ale, pinches of mace and Colman’s mustard powder, a big grind of pepper and final jolt of Worcestershire.
The Editor married the cake (combining its ingredients, not hitting the altar with a baked good) by folding all together with a fork. Then she dropped the ramekin into a water bath preheated in a 350˚ F oven. After 45 minutes the cake emerged to cool. You could eat the cake hot from the oven but an overnight chill created a firm cake roughly the consistency of cornbread.
It was salty--Benton’s is a particularly salty ham--but quite good. It probably could have countenanced half again as much bread with a splash more ale, but that is to quibble. Paired with the sharp and vinegared foil of some Mt. Olive banana peppers it could not have been better.
3. On the (metaphorical) road again.
The Dixon title has turned out to be a false lead; the bookseller just confessed that he mislaid it. Pewsey’s Taste of Essex, however, did arrive today and she has compiled a lovely little cookbook (as in short rather than ‘insignificant’) with a clear and friendly voice.
We learn that Essex was so famed for its beef during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that people from the county once were known as ‘Essex calves;’ the cattle themselves were ‘Essex lions.’ The quality of Essex beef explains, paradoxically enough, why its inhabitants consumed so little of it.
“This was no doubt because of the high price it has always commanded, putting it out of the reach of most yeomen and villagers of yore, and the fact that most beef used to be bred for the London market…. ” (Pewsey 25)
As a result “there are few traditional recipes for Essex beef” and the one that Pewsey does include makes good use of a cheaper cut. It is a ‘frico,’ which sounds and looks like an Acadian ‘fricot,’ a tantalizing historical anomaly arising from the Essex flatlands. Acadian sources do not mention Essex: Are the two simple stews related by anything more than coincidence? The frico layers big chunks of beef with slices of onion and potato in a glass jar with stock to simmer for hours, like a fricot, but also adds claret. The last addition to the process creates an intoxicating essence of all the above.
Pork, not beef, was the mainstay meat of the local diet, as we may have guessed from that ham in those cakes. Epping sausages are particularly good, bound with suet seasoned not only with salt, pepper and nutmeg but also lemon zest, marjoram, sage, savory and thyme. It has an enjoyable tang and an added bonus. An Epping sausage is skinless like its Oxford cousin and therefore easy to make.
Pewsey tells us more. Sausages from Epping supposedly tasted of venison, a luxury formerly reserved to the rich or the poacher; “some said that venison was secretly mixed in with the pork to give the Epping sausage its distinctive flavor.” (Pewsey 28)
4. Getting to the point.
On to the reason why we searched out A Taste of Essex: Pewsey duly describes a recipe for ‘Ongar Ham Cake,’ as the Editor hoped. It is simpler even than the bfia experiment, consisting only of ham, bread, ale and egg. The authentic technique differs a little too. It uses a lot more ale--half an imperial pint--and boils the sole slice of bread, which, however, would have been thicker, in it before mixing the slurry with the single egg but a bigger amount of minced ham (a pound and a half). Then the cake goes into “a wetted mould” for baking an hour “in a very hot oven.”
The book on East Anglian food arrived a few days after A Taste of Essex. Even though it covers considerably more geographic scope than A Taste of Essex it is slighter still; forty-eight pages, thirty recipes. Nonetheless it did not disappoint: As advertised, it does includes a recipe for ‘Ongar Ham Cake.’
The full title turns out to be a mouthful, Francis Frith: A Taste of East Anglia: Regional Recipes from Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Other than soaking rather than boiling the bread in the ale, its recipe does not differ much from Pewsey’s. If, however, a statistically insignificant consensus (too small a sample) confirms the suspected contours of our cake, Skinner does not address its origin.
Pewsey does offer anecdotal information about a number of her recipes but unfortunately nothing for either this recipe or its companion, an ‘Essex Ham Cake,’ that is a teetotal variation on our Ongar; simply substitute a like amount of milk for the ale. This last also makes a nice cake but of course not as nice a cake as the one using the malted barley product.
5. A riot of herbs.
It should be no surprise that before the factories blossomed to sully the seacoast, the Essex waterland sheltered all manner of greens. Pewsey points to the usual suspects--dill, fennel, horseradish, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, sage, watercress--but also to borage (“cultivated in Essex gardens since the 15th century”), nasturtium and yarrow. (Pewsey 45-49) We no longer associate coriander with the English but they have grown the citrusy greens for centuries, and after all the seeds remain a primary flavor note for gin.
Dandelion for salads, ‘coffee’ (like chicory, alone or as adjunct) and wine was considered a strong diuretic and known in the Essex countryside as “piss-the-beds.” Both root and leaf of elcampane were “once quite common” in the county; the root candied for treats, the leaf for medicinal infusions to treat weariness or the common cold.
As for thyme, used in English kitchens for centuries, it also “was grown where it would be trodden underfoot, so that its sweet scent would be a constant pleasure” during the Elizabethan era; a custom worth reviving. (Pewsey 47-48)
Finally, at least for now regarding herbs, to saffron, “perhaps the most famous of all Essex herbs.” (Pewsey 44) It did not flavor Latin dishes like bouillabaisse or paella but rather buns and cakes. Saffron like the other herbs grew in Wessex for ages, but “by the beginning of the 19th century the cost of production had become so high that the industry collapsed,” an awful portent of the county’s equally stark industrial demise during the second half of the twentieth century.
6. Schools of fish.
Pewsey does not neglect fish, and her simple recipes for them reflect the commonsense cast of a purist. The recipes for pickled mackerel and salmon adjust their seasonings for each oily fish, and the traditional techniques ring true. If not quite true, it is a reasonable exaggeration to declare that “[t]here is only one way to eat oysters, and that is freshly opened and swallowed whole, or with a squeeze of lemon juice for savour.” (Pewsey 22)
She likes whitebait and so do we, deepfried twice for the crispest bronze crunch. During the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, whitebait swarmed in the Thames estuary and became synonymous not just with Essex (Pewsey tells her reader that the first whitebait feast, a charity benefit, was held at Dagenham in 1766) but also upriver with Blackwall and Greenwich, where MPs would gather in summertime to devour mounds of the tiny fried fish. You can still do so today, at the riverside Trafalgar Tavern hard by the Royal Naval Hospital, one of the greatest architectural ensembles in Europe.
7. Riots at the car plant and a pimp in the hall.
Dagenham has become known for things less salubrious than whitebait feasts and good works, things like violent strikes and virulent slums. Essex itself has become a British punchline: Denizens once known as reliable and honest “right-forward folk” (Pewsey 69) now are derided as crass ‘Essex girls,’ ‘Shirleys’ and ‘chavs.’ But anyplace that gave us the ham cake and once sheltered an estate called ‘Pimp Hall’ cannot be all bad.
Recipes from Essex, including ham cake, appear in the practical. Recipes for potted foods also appear the practical, in our archive at Number 25 and in our recipes. Recipes for Acadian fricot appear in the lyrical in our archive at Number 21.
Lizzie Boyd (ed.), British Cookery: A complete guide to culinary practice in the British Isles (Woodstock NY 1982)
Sheila Hutchins, Your Granny’s Cook Book (London 1971)
Lynn Pewsey, A Taste of Essex: Food and Recipes of Essex through the Ages (Lavenham, Suffolk 1994)
Julia Skinner, Francis Frith; A Taste of East Anglia: Regional Recipes from Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk compiled by Julia Skinner (Salisbury, Wiltshire 2009)