FOOD - Part Four

The last of this series on Food is devoted to preserving, but not in the bottled fruit or jam-making context; this week "The Way We Were" recalls some old, traditional dishes and recipes, and preserves them to memory.

Westmorland and the Lakeland fells have never been favourable wheat-growing areas;the climate generally was more suited to growing oats, and local people commonly ate porridge and oatcake, or haver bread:

"For breakfast there was always porridge, and it was made in a pan with milk in, and there would always be a drop of water - you're supposed to put water in with everything, really. Then when it was boiling, you'd have a meal box,as we used to call it, oatmeal really, and it was always called haver meal. It was a wooden box with a hoop over it just in the shape of a basket, and you'd bring this and when the milk was just boiling, you'd put in so many handfuls, you'd know exactly how many. You had to do this with your left hand because you had a straight stick, thicker than my finger, which was called a thivel, and while you were sprinkling in the oats, you'd be stirring it up, and you knew how many handfuls you wanted. You didn't make it thick, and it was over the fire, and as you were putting it in, the milk was just coming - and when it once came over, you must take it off the fire and then the porridge was ready."

That was how an old lady of 101 recalled making porridge when she was a little girl on a farm near Staveley in the 1880s. She would also have recalled making haver bread, probably much as it was made in the Langdale Valley, using bracken to fire the stove:

"There was a great flat iron stove, an iron slab, and you pushed the bracken in to heat it, and they just mixed the oats with water until it was a bit soft and put it on the top, then they stoked the fire with bracken. We used to call that the backstone, or bakestone, I would say. They always called it the backstone, and they used to make batches."

Later on, haver bread was made in the oven, in a pasty tin, rolled out quite thin to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch, and then cut into squares."

Spring time meant it was time to dose everybody with brimstone treacle, to clear the blood, and time also to send the children out to gather Easter leaves, or Easterledges, to make Easterledge pudding. The leaves, rather like a small, fine dock leaf, were picked along with young nettles and dandelions, to make a vegetable pudding:

"Its more like a mould than anything,... you boil it in a dish, or in a cloth or rag, or a steamer. You mix it with eggs, beaten eggs, and it all forms together and its nice. You pepper and salt it, and its used as a vegetable. You always have it when the leaves are young and new, and it will go with anything, a course with potatoes."

Elderly people in Langdale still enjoy making and eating Easterledge pudding, though perhaps few people remember how to make Sweet Pie, which was served as an alternative to Plum pudding at Christmas.

"There's not many people do have them but we always have one because I like them. It has fat mutton to start with, all cut up in little bits, and put in the bottom of a dish, and then pile on plenty of currants and sultanas, peel and brown sugar, fill it up to the top and put some more mutton fat in if you like, and then a pat of butter on top of it, some mixed spice, put a pastry crust on and bake it. But it has to be done very slowly because of the fruit, its the animal fat, it takes a long time for it to get through. You'd make it possibly a week before, and then when you're having your Christmas dinner, warm it up in the oven and put some rum on it. I like it cold, its nice cold as well. But not many people make it - the butcher would say, there's only three people come in here for Sweet Pie mutton."

"A lot of these old fashioned recipes, I'm afraid they'll be lost in years to come, won't they. Another one, Grandfather always used to have currant pasty on Christmas morning, and he would have a square put in the frying pan to warm it up. It had to be warm."

Before fridges and freezers arrived to change our eating habits, certain methods were used to preserve food, particularly salting meat:

"We salted mutton, and called it 'macon'. In those days, of course, if you killed a sheep, and it wasn't good keeping weather, it was going bad before it was all used...and so you salted possibly the legs and you called it 'macon', like instead of bacon it was mutton, made with bacon. And it was a sort of red, quite nice I used to think."

Sweet Pie, Macon and Easterledge Pudding may never rival lasagne or pizza to future generations of eaters. But the current trend towards whole foods, wholemeal flour, oats and bran is living proof that our great-grandparents knew a thing or two about healthy eating.Perhaps history will come full circle and haver bread will find its place on the shelves next to Rye bread and Pitta bread.

"We kept a pig, we had sheep, we had hens, milk, butter; we had everything we wanted, and a little plot ploughed in the field for potatoes, cabbage and things like that. We had everything."