Category Archives: Food

A Greengage Summer

Old friends moved from big detached house in Lee to smaller detached house in… Lee.  After living for so many years in a big familiar house it must be a big wrench to move somewhere so different, even if it is just around the corner, and across the road and around another corner. Moral support was suggested, so we went along and lent a hand or two, and the sun shone. I like the new house, it’s very sure of itself, four-square and solid, and the road is quiet but close to the shops at Lee Green. The chunky Victorian pillar-box sets the tone of the road, “You won’t find a better box than me,” it seems to say. The garden was a pleasant surprise, tidy and mature. At the bottom of the garden was a tall old straggly greengage tree full of fruit, some of it oozing juice which glistened in the sun,  and the ground around was covered with windfalls.

The fruit tasted of my childhood, strange how some tastes and smells can transport you back to a distant moment almost a lifetime away. Mum always bought greengage jam in the cheap jars from Poland which were full of real fruit, more a compote than a jam but in those days no one had heard of a ‘compote’.  I think we were the only house in the neighbourhood with green jam and I can still imagine the thick slices of white bread coated with butter and then piled with jam, always with a piece of the fruit in the middle.

There are a few stories about the origin greengages in Britain, the best known is the story of Sir William Gage arranging for some fruit trees to be sent from France to his home in Suffolk in 1724. When they arrived the labels had been lost and the green fruit became known as the green Gage’s plum. Green plums were already here of course but they weren’t called greengages. When Henry VIII’s Mary Rose sank in the Solent in 1545 she was carrying five different varieties of plums including the green Reine Claude.

We are the only country to distinguish between gages and plums, but then most people have only heard of the Victoria plum, probably the least satisfying plum and vastly inferior to the greengage for flavour, ‘dangerously bland’ and ‘only good for canning’ said Jane Grigson.   Not all greengages are green, some are purple and some are gold! Greengages were well-known in France where they are called Reine Claude after Queen Claude wife of Francis I. Married in 1514 aged 15 and dying at 24 after giving birth to seven children, Claude was also known as ‘Good Queen Claude’. The green plum from Italy arrived in France at Chateau de Blois, where Claude’s parents had constructed an Italianate garden filled with fruit trees. Queen Claude gave her trees to anyone that was interested, and to this day the area around Blois is crammed with greengage trees.

While I was having my own personal reverie under the greengage tree the others were carrying boxes to and fro and pulling up the swirly carpet in the new house. Every so often I heard Clarissa telling anyone who stopped still long enough that “swirly carpet is very trendy at the moment…you should frame it and hang like a picture.”  They seemed to be coping so I picked all the greengages I could reach, a bowl full, and showed them to my friends. “Yes, greengages aren’t they fantastic,” said the husband.  “The man who sold us the house told me they were Victorias, but there must be something wrong with the tree because they never ripened just fell off still green and the foxes ate them.” He’d lived there 40 years.  I took the greengages home promising to return the next day with a tart for the new house.

            Greengage Tart

This is a recipe from Jane Grigson’s ‘Fruit Book’, and she copied the recipe from a pastry cook in Montoire about 25 miles from the Chateau at Blois. The recipe is easily adaptable to other fruit such as peaches, or several fruits mixed together. The pastry cook’s skill is to have the circles of fruit glisten and shine but at the same time prevent the pastry base becoming soggy. The trick is to use a plain shortcrust pastry and either save some of the crumb-like pastry before its rolled-out, or, when you’ve prepared the tart case take the bits of pastry you’ve trimmed off and chop them into even crumb-sized bits and then scatter them across the pastry base. I had about 1.5 kg (approx. 3 lb) of greengages, which made 3 tarts of differing sizes.


225g (8 oz) best plain flour

110g (4 oz) butter, cut into small pieces

1 tbs icing sugaar

Pinch of salt

Ice cold water


Into a big mixing bowl sift the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the chopped butter then gently rub them together with your fingers till the mixture resembles crumbs. Save a little of this for your tart base, perhaps 2 tablespoons.

Now add a little ice-cold water and stir it into the crumbs with a knife drawing the mixture together. Keep adding water little by little and stirring till you have a ball of smooth pastry dough. Very lightly dust this with flour and then wrap in clingfilm or greaseproof and chill for 30 minutes or even overnight.  Grease and dust your tart or flan tins, loose-ringed tins are best. I’ve used 3 different sizes because that’s what I have, the smallest about 12 cm diameter, then one about 17 cm and the biggest about 20 cm.

On a cold floured surface roll out the pastry, try to keep it as even as possible, and turn it to roll it in a different direction. Don’t over work it. Lay it in your tin and gently press down from the centre then out to the sides where it’ll flop over the edge. Run the roller across the tin to trim the excess, and chill again for 30 minutes. Now scatter the reserved pastry crumbs, or the chopped trimmings across the base of the pastry. Any dough leftover can be frozen for future use.

Now you’re ready to prepare the greengages: I used a sharp filleting knife to score all the way around each fruit from top to bottom, then gently separate the two halves with a twisting motion. Remove the stone and slice each half into 4 slices. Make tight concentric circles of fruit, skin side down, starting from the centre and out to the edge. When the case is full, place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven heated to 200C (400F) for about 25 minutes till the pastry is crisp and the tips of the fruit are just a little burnt. If the pastry looks as if it is burning protect it with strips of foil. Then remove and cool on a rack still in the tin. I think they should be glazed while they are still warm with a little melted apricot jam, or 2 tbs of sugar dissolved in a little warm water to make a thick syrup.

When they’ve cooled remove from the tins and serve!

©2011 David Porter.

Feeling Lickerish?!

Two events last week prove the theory of coincidence. Catherine came round with a packet of liquorice seeds, and a magazine asked me to go to Portsmouth for a story they were planning.

Catherine grows all sorts of vegetables and fruit in her garden just off the South Circular. She gives the larger vegetables names; Boris and Bertie were two pumpkins treasured for months and spoken of as if they were cranky relatives till one day she rang with the news: “I ate Boris last night. It was his time.” Bertie found his way to us, but he didn’t last long.

Last year she gave us a huge marrow she’d grown on the stable’s muck heap. Clarissa carved a face onto it and sat it on a chair in the kitchen. She called it ‘Madonna of the Marrows’. We had another marrow from Catherine named Rodney. He’s been eaten too, lightly steamed with some lamb chops, Rodney didn’t last long.

I know a bit about liquorish, it’s one of those peculiarly English slightly bonkers things where an entire town seems to revolve around one industry, and the good-times look as if they’ll never end, but they do. Pontefract in South Yorkshire is steeped in liquorish lore, fact and fiction. The legend is that Cluniac monks from Spain brought liquorice plants to the Pontefract area around 1090, this is perhaps why  even today you’ll hear liquorice called ‘Spanish’ in Yorkshire.

Pontefract Cakes, the small round black sweets stamped with an image of Pontefract castle, date from 1614 and were sold as a cure for stomach problems.

Famously liquorice is a laxative, but it also contains a range of B vitamins and zinc and manganese. It is a natural antibiotic, good for sore throats, coughs, arthritis, excema and shingles. If you suffer from high blood pressure then avoid liquorice, it might be the death of you!

Pontefract was the centre of the world’s liquorice trade, a town built on liquorice you might say. In 1760 one local grower began adding sugar to his liquorice and manufacturing sweets.

                              Liquorice wood and a stick of pure culinary liquorice

Liquorice is harvested by cutting the roots, which are processed into the liquorice we know and love. You can buy unprocessed sticks of liquorice wood in some chemists, it looks exactly like a piece of wood or a twig. Nigel Slater remembers it was the really cool kids that chewed liquorice wood, the rest of us sucked on sherbert fountains.  Today 90% of the world crop is used by the American tobacco industry, but liquorice is found in beer, food products, and some womens’ cosmetics. You might eat or drink some liquorice every day without realising it.

At first liquorice was a real cottage industry. People grew liquorice in their gardens or smallholdings, they took in the harvested roots and soaked them before winding them through a mangle to extract the juice.  Liquorice water, made with nearly pure black liquorice from the chemist’s was thought to be a cure-all,  Napoleon was dosed with liquorice water as he lay dying.  With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the liquorice industry of Pontefract became concentrated in factories. Seventeen factories mostly employing women were producing Pontefract cakes, in 1900 . At the start of World War II Pontrefract was producing 400 tons of liquorice a week. The War was the beginning of the end for Pontefract liquorice as workers were moved to producing armaments, and the only liquorice produced was for medicinal purposes. After the war cheap imports forced the decline of the home-grown product. I spoke to Tom Dixon, nearly 80 now who worked for Wilkinson’s, one of the biggest factories. Tom’s family were one of the big five liquorice-growing families, so Tom is a living link to the past. He lives in a house built by his great-grandfather overlooking some of the disused liquorice fields.  Liquorice roots were stored in the big cellars till the market price was right for selling. Tom still grows a few liquorice plants in his garden, and three years ago chef Glynn Purnell visited with a film crew to record an episode of  the “Great British Menu“. Tom gives talks about Pontefract’s past at the annual Liquorice Festival and is a fund of interesting facts. He told me about the liquorice found in the pyramids, how  the Chinese have used it for 3,000 years, and that archaeologists found Roman liquorice along Hadrians Wall. Hannibal gave his elephants liquorice to chew as they crossed the Alps, says Tom, and Bedouin give their camels liquorice to quench their thirst.

(Syrian traders with a pile of liquorice roots, about 1920, from the U.S. Library of Congress)

Tom met his future wife at Wilkinson’s. One day Molly accidentally packed her engagement ring into a box of Liquorice Allsorts, so someone had a nice surprise! If you’d like to know more about Pontefract liquorice I’d recommend ‘Liquorice‘ by Briony Hudson and Richard Van Riel published by the City of Wakefield.

                                                                       Tom and Molly Dixon

As I said, two things happened last week.  Catherine and her liquorice seeds reminded me I had some sticks of culinary liquorice. We’d tried cooking with liquorice after reading about Heston’s salmon poached with liquorice gel.  But you can’t cook with Liquorice Allsorts, you need pure culinary liquorice and luckily on a previous visit to Portsmouth I’d come across  ‘Liquorice With A Twist‘.

                                                Chris and Helen with bundles of liquorice wood

Here was an opportunity to catch-up with Helen and Chris, who have more than their fair share of get-up-and-go. They launched their liquorice business after a spell selling wooden toys at the Ideal Home Show. Every day during the show Helen passed a stall selling liquorice. “It was always surrounded by customers,” says Helen, “I stood and watched and the salesman offered me a sample.” But Helen shrugged and said she didn’t like liquorice. “Trust me,” said the salesman, “you’ll like this, it’s from Italy, no additives or chemicals.” It was a revelation for Helen and seeing an opportunity they began selling liquorice mail-order and at shows and festivals. “In a way it connects us with our childhoods, there’s a definite feel-good factor, it brings back happy memories and emotions.”

There was a romance about the Pontefract liquorice fields, it is magical isn’t it just imagining fields of liquorice. John Betjeman thought so and wrote a poem celebrating love, lust, liquorice, and longing.

In the liquorice fields at Pontefract

My love and I did meet…

Red hair she had and golden skin,

Her sulky lips were shaped for sin…

He knew that ‘lickerish’ means both liquorice and lecherous. There is an old saying “a sheep’s eye and a liquorice tooth,” which means a shy loving glance hiding the fire of lust.

“Did you know,” said Tom Dixon, “that Queen Victoria loved liquorice?” He chuckled and I wondered what was coming next. “My great great grandfather used to send liquorice to Osborne House. She had high blood pressure…” He paused for dramatic effect, “t’old lass died of Pontefract liquorice!”

Coincidence or serendipity?

Here’s a recipe for liquorice ice cream we’ve served with roast peaches, you could serve it before it sets as a sweet custard.

            Liquorice Ice Cream with Roast Peaches

Ingredients (serves 3 – 4):

6 sticks of pure liquorice broken into small pieces

600 ml (1 pt) whole milk

120g  (4 1/2 oz) caster sugar

10 coffee beans (optional, they add a subtle sharp taste to the sweet liquorish)

50g (2 oz) skimmed milk powder

6 egg yolks, beaten

Seeds from 1 vanilla pod

6 fresh peaches

Little sugar

Little butter

4 – 6 fresh bay leaves


Pour the milk into a large pan and stir in 1 tablespoon of the sugar, add the liquorice and the coffee beans, then bring to the boil. The liquorice will melt, simmer for 5 minutes, then allow to cool for 20 minutes to half an hour. This will let the flavours mingle.

While it is cooling, beat the yolks till they are creamy and thick. This might take 10 minutes! Add the vanilla seeds, the powdered milk, and the remaining sugar to the beaten yolks and give it a good stir.

When the milk and liquorice mixture has stood for about 20 minutes, and is cool, add the egg mixture to the milk, and stir them together. Return the saucepan to the stove and gently heat, stirring till the mixture thickens. Now prepare a bowl of ice or iced water, large enough for you to fit the saucepan into, have it next to the hob ready. When the milk mixture has thickened, you’ll know when that is don’t rush, take the saucepan from the heat and still stirring plunge it into the bowl of ice. Continue stirring for a few minutes then strain the mixture through a sieve and pour into a dampened plastic container. An old ice cream tub would be fine, but it should have a lid. Put the container into your freezer. From time to time remove from the freezer and give it a good stir to prevent crystals forming. If you’ve an ice cream maker then use that. After a few periodic stirrings leave to freeze completely. I left mine overnight.

When you’re ready to serve halve the peaches and remove the stones, dust them with a little sugar and dot with butter and tuck in a few fresh bay leaves. Roast them on a baking sheet in your oven heated to 200C (400F) for about 25 minutes. Serve the peaches drizzled with the juices, and warm, along with a scoop of the ice cream and decorate with a bay leaf.

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