Strawberry Spelt Shortcake, the history of Shortcake in Britain

A Strawberry shortcake can take on many forms, it can be a scone-like cake, a sponge or a thin biscuit but two things remain the same throughout any recipe: fresh strawberries and lots of pretty whipped cream. Strawberries were first cultivated by the Romans in 200 BC but what about the origin of a Strawberry Shortcake?

In Medieval times newly-weds would be presented with a soup made of strawberries and sour cream topped with borage and sugar. They believed strawberries to be an aphrodisiac, yet no biscuit or cake of any kind accompanied the dish. 
Short meaning crumbly from the Old English 'cruma' is a term that came to be in the 15th century, adding a large amount of fat or 'shortening' to flour results in a crumbly or 'short' texture.

In the Elizabethan cookbook The good Huswifes Handmaide 
for the Kitchin. (1594 -1597) one can find the earliest record of the term 'short cake'. Unfortunately none of the manuscripts that survived of this book are complete.

The Prune Tarts at Tudor Court

In 1615 English poet Gervase Markham mentioned 'a prune tart' in his book "The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman".
In his beautiful way of writing he states:
"Take of the fairest damask prunes you can get, and put them in a clean pipkin with fair water, sugar, unbruised cinnamon, and a branch or two of rosemary; and if you have bread to bake, stew them in the oven with your bread..."

He goes on to explain in detail how to finish the prune puree and how to assemble the little tarts he likes to shape into little birds and flowers by first cutting out a pattern in paper to trace on the pastry. The tart cases or 'coffins' as they were called in times gone by, were raised by hand.
During Tudor times pastry had evolved from the Medieval inedible crust -that was there only to hold a filling- to sweet and savoury pastry to enjoy as a part of a dish. Eggs and butter or suet were beginning to be used making the pastry more refined and giving the cook the opportunity to be inventive with fillings as well as with decoration. If you look at Renaissance paintings especially by the Flemish and Dutch masters, you will notice the pies who are depicted on the tables as dramatic centerpieces, sometimes wildly decorated with stuffed swans or geese resting on top.

But it isn't the only change, the Tudor court wanted to show their worldliness employing Florentine sculptors and painters for great artistic commissions, decorating royal palaces and most likely even influencing the kitchen. I can't but help to see the striking recemblance between an Italian 'Crostata di marmellata'. In 1570 Bartolomeo Scappi, an Italian cook mentioned the different recipes for pastry in his book, it would take 30 years before a guide like that was published in Britain. 'Delightes for Ladies' was published in 1602 but Gervase Markham's book a decade later would provide a much easier to follow set of recipes.
It always pleases me to find links between Italian and British cookery, these are my two favourite cuisines and I feel there are a lot of things linking the two together, not only in dishes but also in philosophy. 

Prune tarts bring back memories of my childhood. Normally only eaten on Ash Wednesday in my home town Antwerp, prune tart would be on our sunday breakfast table quite regularly. Our local bakery used to have the best prune tarts in sizes big and small and my mother used to buy a small one for me because she knew it is one of the few sweet things I truly enjoy.

I Love Toscana - my friend Giulia's long awaited beautiful book

Chestnut pancakes with hazelnut spread
Four girls in a little white car, smiles on their faces gazing outside, taking in the views over the gliding landscape of Tuscany on a sunny october day…
One moment will always be in my mind, we drove through a valley and stopped the little white car to look at the miles and miles of vines that were withering under the october sun. My eye spotted little blue jewels, grapes left behind after the harvest on the nearly bear sleepy vines.
With a hesitation I picked a tiny bunch, feeling humble for this wonderful gift of sweetest little grapes bursting with flavour and filling my heart with joy.

That moment was captured and immortalized in a book …

My friends book, the girl with the little white car and the yellow brick house in the Tuscan countryside.


I am so proud of her, so proud to be a small part of the memories in the book.

It is a book to treasure, full of love for a region and her family. This is a book that came straight from the heart and it shows, it shows in every recipe that is beautifully presented in and around her beautiful Tuscan house and it shows in her words …

Watercress and Trout Pie - Fit for a Watercress Queen

Let me tell you a story about a strong independent woman, a working class woman who became one of the most iconic figures in British food history. Her name was Eliza James and she was called 'The Watercress Queen'.
In the late 1800, the little Eliza went from factory to factory in Birmingham with her bunches of wild watercress. As 'the poor man's bread' was so popular with the working class she soon started to sell larger and larger quantities. She worked her way up and moved her business to London where she soon became the favoured supplier of nearly all the London restaurants and hotels. She was able to acquire watercress farms in Hampshire and Surrey making her the biggest owner of watercress farms in Europe. But even when she became part of a well-to-do class, she remained to work at her Covent Garden stall for over 50 years.
Steve - who you might remember from last weeks post - explained that Eliza founded the James & Son company and trade marked the name Vitacress, the name Vitacress was then sold on to Malcolm Isaac who founded Vitacress Salads which is the name of the company today. Eliza's Hampshire farms are still producing watercress to this day and are still a part of Vitacress. The farm I visited was one of the original farms and made me think about Eliza James and her hard work. I think she deserved her title and isn't it just one of the most romantic stories of a working class woman trying to build an emporium out of watercress, to do well by herself and her family.

British watercress and the 'Poor Man's bread'

Steve in one of the watercress beds
'British weather is perfect for watercress' the words of Steve … my host at the watercress farm in Hampshire.
Britain is one of the few countries to grow watercress and has been for hundreds of years. As far back as the 1600's and most likely even earlier it was foraged in the wild where it grew in streams and rivers but as from 1808 it was first commercially cultivated by  William Bradbery, along the River Ebbsfleet in Kent.

The success of the watercress trade is very much entwined with the British railways. In 1865 the 'Mid-Hants Railway' or Watercress Line was opened, it connected Alresford to London giving Hampshire watercress growers the opportunity to get their crop fresh to the London markets. The delicate leaves would be picked by hand by the men and tied into bunches by the women to be placed in wicker baskets for the transport.
At London's Covent Garden watercress would be sold by street vendors who often were children. The bunches of watercress were said to have been formed into posies and eaten like that for breakfast straight away or if you were lucky to be able to afford a loaf, between two slices of bread. In Victorian Britain it was called 'the poor man's bread', it provided the working class with a good portion of nutrition for the day and became one of the first foods for on-the-go. 

The Watercress Line declined during the years of the first and second world wars and gave her final blow to watercress growers in the 1960's with the closure of the line.