Category Archives: London

The Devil at Work in Deptford

Tuesday October 11th was Old Michaelmas Day, the day when Satan, one of God’s angels, was banished from Heaven for being bad. He fell to earth fast, ‘like lightning from heaven’, and landed in a blackberry bush. Understandably he was a bit miffed at landing in a tangle of thorns, so he cursed the blackberry and pee’d on the fruit. If you don’t believe me go and look at a blackberry bush, after the 11th the berries are shrivelled, hard and bitter, inedible in fact. Last weekend the few berries left on my bush were fine and I picked what was left, less than a cupful, but wonderfully sweet.

The last blackberries of 2011

Andy from Old Deptford History emailed and asked if I knew about Deptford’s connection with cheesecake. I didn’t, but along with that other ancient dish the custard pie, cheesecake has a very long history.  We’ve tried a few historical cheesecake recipes in the past, they are subtle and ‘grown-up’, not the sweet, cream-cheese and fruit New York cheesecakes on offer in every hotel restaurant and supermarket chiller in the world. Real cheesecakes don’t even contain cheese, and are they really ‘cakes’?  They can be tarts perhaps, or even pies.

The Greeks served them to athletes at the first Olympic Games in 776BC, and celebrated their weddings with cheesecakes baked with honey and herbs. The Romans recorded their recipes, Cato writing about his Sweet Libum, a cheese-based bread used as an offering to the gods.

When I say ‘cheese’ I mean curd, which isn’t cheese,  OK, it’s similar and it’s directly related to cheese, but it’s not cheese.  Curd is the original cheesecake ingredient. The emails between me and Andy were at cross-purposes.  Andy was thinking of ‘London Cheesecake’, a sweet, flaky pastry topped with icing and dessicated coconut, but no cheese. There’s a blog describing Gregg’s London Cheesecake and in the interests of research and accuracy I tried to buy one from Deptford’s Greggs, but they weren’t on sale. Nigella has a recipe handed down through her father’s family, she says, but though she’s called it a London cheesecake, it’s the New York version.  “Go figure”, as they’d say in the Big Apple.

Andy has a much more interesting cheesecake tale about Ann Arthur, a Deptford woman, which he featured in his Old Deptford History blog.

John Evelyn of Sayes Court, Deptford

In 1685 Deptford was renowned for its cheesecakes, people baked cheesecakes and traveled to London to sell them.  No specific recipe survives, but luckily Deptford’s most famous resident was keeping a hand-written recipe book.  John Evelyn collected 353 recipes,  including some from his friend Sir Christopher Wren, now they’re published in a book entitled simply ‘John Evelyn, Cook’.  Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake is perhaps the closest we’ll get to an authentic 17thC Deptford cheesecake, and I’ve tried to follow it. The only difference is he baked his pastry ‘blind’, and I didn’t.

154. An Excellent receipt for Cheesecakes, which wee make

Take 3 quarts of New Milk ren it pretty cold and when it is tender come drayn it from the whay in a strainer then hang it up till all the whay be drained from it, then change it into dry cloaths till it wett the Cloth no longer then straine it through a course haire sive, mingle it with 3 qrs of a pound of fresh Butter, with yr hands, take halfe a pound of Almonds beaten with rose water as fine as Curd, then mingle them with the yolks of tenne Eggs and neere a Pint of creame. A nutmeg grated sugar and a little salt when yr Coffins [pie crusts] are ready and going to sett into the Oven, then mingle them together, the Oven must be as hot for a pigeon pye lett the scorching be over halfe an houre will be them well, the Coffins must be hardned by setting into oven full of branne, prick them with a bodkin [sharp instrument], which brush out with a wing, then put in the cheesecake stuff, you may leave 2 whites in the eggs if you like it best so.

Charles II had just died, and James II was the new King, plots were hatching, and rebellions were breaking-out across England. On 3rd March 1685 Ann Arthur, well-liked by her neighbours and respected as a hard-working woman, left her home in Flagon Row and set off as normal for the City with her cheesecakes.  This particular day she stayed later than usual in London before starting her walk back to Deptford.

Flagon Row, Deptford. Picture courtesy www.

In 1685 if you took the well-worn path from London Bridge to Deptford, you’d be walking through fields and orchards till you reached Rogues Lane (present day Plough Road) near to where it joined Deptford Lower Road. Near what is now Surrey Quays was an inn, the Halfway House. Samuel Pepys often walked this way from his home in the City to the King’s Yard where he was Secretary to the Admiralty, and in this year he became Master of Trinity House at Deptford Strand. Pepys usually stopped at the Halfway House for drinks and cheesecakes, sometimes he read a book as he walked, which shows it must have been a pleasant and uneventful journey.

Samuel Pepys in 1689, by Geoffery Kneller

Pepys was very fond of cheesecakes. He wrote in his diary about visits to the King’s Head in Islington to eat cheesecakes just as he had done with his father when he was a boy. On another occasion he travelled to the Red Lion in Barnet and had “some of the best cheese-cakes I have ever had in my life…”  His passion for cheesecakes must have been a reflection of their general acclaim, something we’d have trouble imagining today. It is a mystery that after centuries of popularity, they suddenly fell out of favour. Why? What was once a national dish disappeared and now just about clings on in a few regions of Britain, Yorkshire and Northamptonshire for instance. Towcester cheesecakes were individual cheesecakes sold at Towcester Races, and because they are made with curd not cheese the local Trading Standards are trying to stop them being called ‘cheesecakes’. By the mid 19th Century our ‘real’ cheesecakes had disappeared from cookbooks.

John Cary's 1786 map of London

We can wonder why Ann Arthur stayed later than usual in the City, had she done well selling her cheesecakes and stayed for refreshments? Or had she had trouble selling them and stayed till they were all sold. We’ll never know, but as she left the Halfway House behind her she found her way blocked by a tall dark figure she took to be a man, then by the moonlight she saw he had ‘a stern and dreadful countenance’ which filled her with fear and dread.

The Deptford Demon by Clarissa Porter

Afraid it was the Devil himself she tried to run back to the inn but a fierce wind suddenly blew and prevented her turning back, forcing her on towards the lane that led to Deptford, all the while closely followed by ‘that gloomy apparition’ who then demanded to know where she was going and where she had been. In fright she stammered an explanation of her day, adding she was “a poor woman obliged to take that employment for her maintenance”; the spectre made some ‘horrible mutterings’ then thrust out his hand full of silver which Ann refused to take, instead she began praying under her breath for her deliverance from the Devil and from temptation. The cloaked figure urged her to take the silver saying it would lead her out of poverty, then he produced a handful of gold “a vast heap, more than any hand could grasp” and offered to put it in her basket. But Ann still refused and kept walking, her limbs shaking, towards Deptford hoping against hope she’d meet some friendly faces.  At last she began to see the lights of the town, but just as she thought she would be safe a sudden whirlwind blew-up and took Ann and her basket up into the air, carrying her 50 yards before hurling her into a bush (I wonder where he got that idea!). Her screams alerted some of the townsfolk who thinking someone was being robbed rushed to her aid and carried her to a nearby house, and then onwards to Flagon Row where she told her neighbours of her ordeal. Ann never fully recovered her wits and blamed herself for what had happened, she’d neglected the sabbath selling cheesecakes, and she’d swore and called upon the devil. Many tried to redeem her but she refused to change.  I don’t think it ended happily for the poor woman who became an example of what would happen if you led a depraved life.

Cheese has a very long history, but before cheese there were curds and whey. When milk goes ‘off’ it curdles and separates into curds (the solids) and whey (the liquid). Cheesecakes were a way of not wasting curdled milk, but by 1685, milk was being curdled by adding rennet. Evelyn’s recipe says ‘take 6 pints of milk (whole unpasteurised milk) and rennet it cold‘. You can do the same thing, its fun, honest! You’ll need the creamiest old-fashioned milk you can get, preferably unpasteurised (but be aware of the health risks), 6 to 8 pints should do for my recipe. Then add lemon juice, maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons, and wait while the milk curdles and separates. Take some muslin, about a square metre will be plenty, and fashion the muslin into a sieve, pour the milk through the muslin to separate the curds. If you can suspend the muslin over a bowl so much the better. Squeeze the curd in the muslin to drain the last of the whey. Now with the curd still wrapped in the muslin weight it down with something heavy to press it into a more solid mass, and leave overnight. The whey can be left for 12 – 24 hours at room temperature then heated till almost boiling, which once it has cooled is again passed through muslin to produce a low fat fine curd. In Italy this is called ricotta and is very perishable and so should be used at once.

If all that is too much of a to-do then I recommend making my cheesecake recipe with either shop-bought curd cheese (cheap and easily available), or really fresh ricotta. The best place to buy ricotta is Gennaro’s in Lewisham. I was there last Friday evening looking for some fresh ricotta, and the always-smiling Antonio greeted me with his usual cheerful “Buono sera signor!”   I told him I needed about half a kilo of ricotta and you’ve never seen a man change so fast, his whole appearance crumbled. “We ‘ave none,” he shrugged mournfully, shoulders drooping, “a few of the ricotta, they not very well…” He trailed off.  “Not very well?” I repeated like a man sandbagged.  “Si, so, you know, I send them away. It’s a very fresh product,” he added, “they didn’t taste good.”  Antonio was rubbing his thumb and index finger together in the air trying to describe the ricotta’s lack of well-ness.  After several “sorry, my friend, sorry, sorrys” from Antonio I left him to his misery, promising to ring next time to check on the health of the ricotta.

Deptford Cheesecake

 Deptford Cheesecake

Preparation time: 40 minutes to make the pastry (could be done the day before), 5 minutes to assemble the ingredients.

Cooking time: 30 – 40 minutes.


For the pastry,

(This will make more than you need, you can freeze the extra for another cheesecake!)

450g good plain flour

Pinch of salt

1 tbs icing sugar

(all of the above sifted)

110g lard, cubed

110g butter, cubed

Ice cold water, a small cup


In a large bowl and with floured hands, rub the fats into the sifted flour, till it resembles fine crumbs.

Mix a little iced water, drop by drop, into the flour mixture, chopping it in with a knife till you have a stiff ball of dough.

Wrap this in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough in half, freeze half for another time, and with the other half line a greased loose-ring pie tin (mine was 200mm diameter, 35mm deep), letting the excess pastry flop over the sides. Chill the pastry case while you prepare the filling.

For the filling,

225g ricotta or curd cheese

2 tbs double cream

110g softened butter

75g light brown sugar

2 tbs, heaped, of ground almonds

1 tbs rose water

Big pinches of ground ginger and freshly scraped nutmeg

3 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk, whisked


Combine the cheese with the cream in a mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl cream together the butter, sugar, almonds, rose water, ginger, and nutmeg. Fold in the whisked eggs, then fold in the cheese and cream mixture.  It will be quite thick, not like a batter or a custard.

Take the pastry case out of the fridge and now you can tidy-up the overhanging pastry because it will have settled into all the crevices of the tin.

Spoon in the filling, then put the tin onto a warmed baking sheet and into the oven, pre-heated to 180C.

Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, depending on how deep your tin is, it will rise and probably crack. When it has risen evenly, and is shiny and dark it is cooked.

Serve slightly warm, or cold. As the cheesecake cools it will quickly settle down evenly. I scraped some more nutmeg onto the cooked cheesecake.

©David Porter 2011.

A Life of Pie

I almost called this “Home Alone”, but I wasn’t entirely alone, there were the four dogs, and the pork pie.

Clarissa jetted off to Dubai and then India for a week as the unpaid assistant of an internationally famous DJ. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Luckily for me she was anxious about how I was to survive her absence and suggested a pork pie to help tide me over. Clarissa’s pork pies crop up from time to time throughout the year, though at increasingly longer intervals more’s the pity.

A few years ago pies of all shapes and sizes seemed to pour out of our kitchen. She even painted a portrait of herself perched on a giant pasty and called it ‘Madonna of The Pies’.

The Oxford Dictionary notes that the word ‘pie’ dates from the first years of the 14th Century, Alan Davidson in his “Oxford Companion to Food” suggested pie maybe shortened from ‘magpie’, a collection of different ingredients. Early pies were called coffyns, the pastry, hard and strong,  a container for the filling and sometimes discarded.  The pastry was so indestructible that the pie could be placed directly onto the embers of the fire so that the pie crust became its own oven. The raised pork pie is a direct descendant of these early coffyns, certainly the first pork pie recorded in the Melton Mowbray area dates from the 14th Century.

The old recipes are seasonal, traditionally September is the beginning of the pork pie season because Autumn was the time when pigs were killed in readiness for the long hard winter. Lard rendered from pork fat is an essential ingredient in the pastry, which is called ‘hot water pastry’ and necessary to construct a raised pie as distinct from a flat or plate pie, or where the pastry crust simply  covers an open pie. The dough is raised by hand, sometimes over a wooden ‘dolly’ and sometimes using a bowl as a mould to shape the pie. Clarissa has made some free-form pies as well, but however you do it the resulting pie is likely to be uneven, sometimes very uneven as the pie will sag and tilt during the cooking. The baked crust will be shiny and fairly water-tight so you can fill the pie with hot liquid meat jelly. One of our earliest pie-making mistakes was to not make the crust thick enough to hold the stock without collapsing. Getting the amounts right for the jelly is a bit hit and miss, but I don’t think it is crucial if you don’t fill the pie completely. The oldest recipes use uncured pork and mashed anchovies, the result is an old-fashioned taste and distinctive grey meat, unlike the artificially pink shop-bought pork pie.

Melton Mowbray has attained  PDO status (protected designation of origin) in recognition of their pies historic importance, but other areas for instance Yorkshire and Cheshire lay claim to producing some excellent traditional pork pies. Wilson’s the Leeds butchers have become famous for their three-tiered pork pie wedding cake,  and the Pork Pie Appreciation Society is in Yorkshire. Every March they hold a pork pie competition; here’s their amazing  tribute to the pork pie!

Malika Mezeli of 'Lardy Da,' pork pie maker extraordinaire

Nearer to home Malika Mezeli  aka ‘Lardy Da’ makes homemade rare breed pork pies and renders her own lard from pork fat at home in Peckham. I think Malika is a local treasure, she tries to use every part of the animal and even makes pig’s head terrine!

©Leo Johnson

You can find Lardy Da at Blackheath Farmers’ Market on the first and second Sunday of the month, and at other London markets.

In the past I’ve bought pork for our pies from Wellbeloved’s in Tanners Hill, or  Christine’s and JC Smith’s in Deptford High Street, and memorably from Northfield Farm in Rutland and Borough Market.  Memorably because if like me you can remember what pork used to taste like before the  supermarkets told us we wanted lean flavourless pork, then Northfield Farm’s pork is indescribably nostalgic; “there are few places I’d travel 400 miles to buy meat,” said Clarissa Dickson Wright of Northfield Farm, which is also a member of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association.  I did travel to Northfield Farm a couple of years ago, and met farmer and ex-banker Jan McCourt. Jan took me to see his Iron Age pigs, he suggested we didn’t get too close to them;  they were, he said, a bit aggressive and likely to ignore the electric fence in an attempt to attack us!

Jan McCourt of Northfield Farm, Rutland

So I had to be content with a photograph of Jan with some goats, their only aggression was to try and eat my camera bag, and butt me from behind as I bent over.

But this time we were in Nunhead so we bought the pork from HA Smith & Son. This would be the biggest pie Clarissa has made for some time, and I’m happy to say that even sharing slices with the lurcher, it lasted the week. Of course I was lonely that week and even talked to the dog. Every night on the doorstep after his walk I quoted Withnail to him: “first, we go in there and get wrecked, then we eat a pork pie!” He looked puzzled but agreed.

  A Hand Raised Pork Pie

(serves 12)

The ingredients and method are listed in the order they were prepared and cooked,  the cooking time for the pie is about 2 1/2 hours, preparation 30 minutes, and preparing the stock 3 1/2 hours, but that happens along with the cooking of the pie, or you can prepare the stock earlier.

For the Jelly Stock:

Bones from the pork, shoulder and ribs

2 pigs trotters

1 carrot

1 onion stuck with 4 cloves

Sprigs of Thyme and Parsley and some bay leaves

1 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 ltrs water

Pepper and salt, or 2 tbs fruit jelly


Put all the above into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours. Then strain through a sieve and put back on the heat till the stock is reduced to about 450 ml.  Season with pepper and salt, or 2 tbs of fruit jelly (I used some wild plum jelly I’d made).

Allow to cool, it will set into a jelly.

For the filling:

1.35 kg pork belly, ribs removed by the butcher and reserved for the stock

1.35 kg pork shoulder, bone removed by the butcher and reserved for the stock

(when the bones have been removed the weight is considerably less)

1 tbs chopped fresh sage

Few scrapes of nutmeg

1 tin of anchovies finely chopped

1 onion, grated

Fresh ground black pepper


Hand chop the meat and fat rather than mince so you have small chunks. Put all the meat into a mixing bowl and add the rest of the ingredients for the filling, mix it all together with your hands or a wooden spoon then put to one side.

For the Hot Water Pastry:

400 ml water

340 g lard

900 g plain flour

1 tbs icing sugar ( for a crispy crust)

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

8 bay leaves

Greaseproof paper



In a large saucepan bring the water and lard to the boil. Mix the salt and icing sugar into the flour, remove the hot liquid from the heat and quickly shoot the flour into the hot water, stirring with a wooden spoon. You’ll need a strong spoon because you must stir briskly till the dough forms a smooth ball. Turn out the dough onto a board and when it is cool enough to handle quickly knead the dough for a few moments. Then let it cool some more and divide it by cutting off a quarter of the dough and putting that to one side for the lid.

The cheats way to make a raised pie would be to use a loose-ringed cake tin and press the dough into the tin and up the sides. But Clarissa took the larger ball of dough and plunged her fist into the middle and gradually worked the dough outwards and at the same time upwards, drawing it up and out using both her floured hands. When the dough looks about right, about 15 cm high, and in other words like a pie (!), draw the sides inwards slightly then quickly secure the sides with a piece of grease proof paper folded in half and loosely tied with string.

Pile the meat filling into the pie, pushing it gently down and around the pie case. Remove the paper and gently mould the pastry against the filling with the palms of your hands. Take the reserved ball of dough and just using your hands, flatten it into a lid and lay it onto the pie, crimping the lid into the sides with your fingers. Decorate the top with bits of leftover dough and make a large steam hole in the middle of the lid. Wet the bay leaves and arrange them around the outside, then again wrap the pie sides in greaseproof paper doubled-over and secured with string. Glaze the top with beaten egg. Then using a wide fish slice, mine is 25 cm wide, or two together, carefully slide the pie onto a lipped baking sheet and put in your oven preheated to 180 C (350F) for 2 – 2 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and take off the paper then put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, tie more greaseproof around it, loosely, and allow to cool. Meanwhile, gently warm the jellied stock so it melts and using a funnel or great care, pour the stock into the pie through the steam hole. This takes a little time as the stock dribbles down through the pie and fills the spaces inside, so do it a little at the time. Leftover stock can be frozen for future pies! Finally, if you wish, fill the steam hole with fruit jelly, or jam, which I’d also serve with the pie.

Allow the pie to cool and set overnight still wrapped in the paper, before imagining yourself in a coaching inn on the Great North Road, a deerhound at your feet, sitting beside a blazing fire with a pint of Porter and a slice of pie, the taste of Old England.

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