“This is a London Particular, a Fog…”

The packed bus crawled along through the smog following an inspector who carried a flaming torch so the driver wouldn’t lose sight of him. The ‘Keep Left’ bollards in the middle of the road were circled by metal pots filled with flaming oil, the effect was medieval and frightening.  It was only a few yards from the bus stop to the entrance of the estate, but I was nine and on my own, and a choking wall of dirty wet yellow smog blinded me, it was as if the air was solidifying and would smother me. Gripped by the icy fingers of panic I crept along. By feeling my way with my hands I found my block of flats. Indoors a yellowy damp mist hung around the rooms but mum lit the fire and soon everything was warm and homely.

Inspector with Flaming Torch in front of an RT Doubledecker

Just before Christmas I was walking along Bowditch and caught the rare whiff of smoke from a coal fire.  Smells can be very evocative, the scent of a log fire in a country pub, bread baking in the oven, the smell of a coal fire makes me feel nostalgic for simpler times.  A tad sentimental perhaps, but I am. In this romantic reverie I turned into Longshore and walking towards me was a policeman wearing a proper helmet, with a tie under a buttoned tunic,  just like my childhood hero PC 49.  Nothing ‘hi-vis’ about this copper, and he didn’t appear to be festooned with gas and pepper sprays, batons, and all the other stuff our policemen carry these days.  My first thought was he might be an extra in a film that could be shooting nearby, but then I wondered if he was simply a bit of a traditionalist, like me. Whatever he was his appearance was strangely reassuring and added to my nostalgia.

My PC 49 Annual

Before we lived on the estate, we lived for a few months with my Auntie Clara and Uncle John in their tiny two-up-two-down in Cheam. Coming from Walworth and Peckham Clara believed she was in the country.  Her ‘front room’ was only used at Christmas, we lived in the kitchen with its cavernous larder stacked with Ministry of Food dried milk tins. My uncle’s chair was in the corner next to the fireplace. He always had a stash of Dandys and Beanos under the cushion, and sometimes The Beezer.  My interest in food started there in that kitchen, Clara cooked old-fashioned food: rabbit, heart, liver and dumplings, bread pudding, and so on.  The smell of rabbit or heart cooking transports me back to her kitchen, if I shut my eyes I can see every detail.  On Sundays her two grown-up sons came with their families, and eleven of us would squeeze around a table meant for six at the most, while Tip the dog hovered under the table hopefully and the budgie chattered to his mirror. Summer meant salad from the garden, and I first tasted mussels, cockles and winkles, and had my first taste of beer from a spoon wielded by Uncle John. Winter was stews and roasts, I was instructed by my uncle in the mysteries of the Yorkshire Pud, and the pudding mixing became my job on Sunday morning. Uncle was from Newcastle, or “Noocassel” as he said. He’d been a rivet boy in the shipyards, catching red-hot rivets in a bucket (“bunnet” he said because the bucket was conical like a bonnet) as they were thrown up from the quay-side to the riveters. Then came the war and he fought with the 8th Army in the desert, demobbed he met Clara, widowed by the war. They seemed perfectly matched and happy; even happier when Uncle John won a small amount on the Pools, enough to buy a television and bring the toilet indoors!

Uncle suffered with his chest, perhaps the searing heat of the rivets, or the dust of the desert, or maybe the coal fire in the kitchen. Or the ounce of Golden Virginia he would send me to buy from the off-licence, along with a bottle of Mackeson for Auntie Clara. The smogs that came in November and December every year were very difficult for him. 1952 was the year of The Great Smog, the smog lasted for 4 days in December and it was reckoned 4,000 people died and 100,000 were made ill by the smog, recent research increases the death toll to 12,000, an almost unimaginable figure by today’s standards.  At the time people thought it was normal, something that happened every year, and after all, London was famous for its fog.  But this was the worst air pollution episode in our history. I don’t remember the Great Smog but I do remember the St Johns rail crash in the thick fog of December 1957 when 90 people died.

St John's Rail Crash 1957, from "St John's Lewisham 50 Years On, Restoring the Traffic." By Peter Tatlow. Published by The Oakwood Press.

The smogs weren’t a 20th Century phenomenon, the mid 19th Century suffered from endless smogs caused by hundreds of thousands of household chimneys, thousands of factories, and the power stations. Deptford and Greenwich both had power stations, Deptford’s first was at the Stowage, in 1891 it was the biggest power station in the world and operated till 1957. Another power station, Deptford West, was built in 1929 and operated till 1983.

Deptford West Power Station in 1973. Photograph from geograph.org.

If you’ve visited the States you’ll know that most Americans think London is permanently shrouded in fog, London’s fog is part of our heritage. The Victorians were obsessed with it probably because it made their lives difficult, dangerous, and maybe exciting. Thomas Miller in 1852 describes how someone milking a cow in the street near Smithfield had to hang on to her tail for fear of losing her, and how the butchers in Smithfield would sometimes leave their cellar flaps open in the fog hoping a stray sheep or prize bullock might tumble down and add to their stock!  American visitor Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1857 that it was so dark at 10am he had candles placed on his breakfast table, and that later it was even darker: ‘very black, indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud,—the spiritualized medium of departed mud, through which the dead citizens of London probably tread, in the Hades whither they are translated. So heavy was the gloom, that gas was lighted in all the shop-windows; and the little charcoal-furnaces of the women and – boys, roasting chestnuts, threw a ruddy, misty glow around them. And yet I liked it. This fog seems an atmosphere proper to huge, grimy London.’  Not for nothing was London known as ‘The Smoke.’

Link Boys in a London Particular

“This,” said Mr Guppy to Miss Summerson in Bleak House, “is a London Particular. A fog Miss.”

Charles Dickens used the thick yellow smog as a metaphor for the law in ‘Bleak House’, something common to everyone but at the same time keeps them apart.  In ‘Barnaby Rudge’ he mentions the ‘link boys’ that carried flaming torches and for a ‘joey’ (fourpenny bit) would guide you home.  Pea soup was sold, half a pint for a halfpenny, on street corners; in the mid 19th Century it was estimated there were 500 pea soup stands in London.  Made at home by the poorest it was reheated over and over, ‘Pease porridge hot,  Pease porridge cold,  Pease porridge in the pot  Nine days old‘  goes the old nursery rhyme. Pease was both singular and plural, porridge was pottage a thick semi-solid dish now called Pease Pudding. Auntie Clara often made Pease Pudding for my uncle, in the north-east it was almost the national dish. I didn’t like it much when I was younger, now of course I love it. The yellow pea soup is more solid than liquid and gave the fog its name: ‘pea-souper’. Because the smog was particular to London it became known as ‘A London Particular’.

London Particular, or Pea Soup

Pea Soup, A London Particular.

Serves 4 – 6

Preparation time: 10 – 15 minutes.

Cooking time: 2 hrs 10mins.


1  500 g packet of dried split yellow peas, soaked in cold water overnight then drained  (£1 from Robert Walker, aka John’s in Deptford High Street)

900 g  pork belly slices (about 6 slices)

Little rock salt

A little oil, or lard (more traditional), about a serving spoonful.

675 g vegetables, finely chopped, to include half a large onion, carrots, 2 or 3 sticks of celery.

1 ham hock

1 bay leaf, 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme, and 3 pieces of parsley. All tied together with string.

Freshly ground black pepper.

Bay leaves for garnish


Season the pork strips with some rock salt.

Melt the oil or lard in a very large pan, the type your auntie would own, then brown the pork on all sides till the fat begins to melt.

Add the vegetables and the peas (the soaked peas will have more than doubled in weight) to the pan. Tuck the ham hock and the herbs in the middle and cover with boiling water. Simmer gently for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Season with some freshly ground black pepper.

You can serve immediately, or let it cool then reheat  it (remember the rhyme, pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold…).

Serve in large bowls with a pork strip and a couple of slices of the ham. Garnish with small bay leaves and have some fresh bread to soak up the soup .


©2012 David Porter.

“Widow Medlar? She Lies Open to Much Rumour…”

I’ve just finished making some Medlar Jelly from fruit gathered in my local park.  Medlars are forgotten and neglected now like quince and mulberries, but John Evelyn had Medlar trees in his Deptford orchard, as mentioned in his ‘Directions For the Gardiner at Sayes Court‘.

Medlars in September

When you find a Medlar tree, say in the Summer, you watch and wait.  And wait… Around the middle of October you’ll still be waiting, and watching. Traditionally Medlars are picked at the end of November, after the first hard frost. David Pennel from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale reckons it is better to pick the fruit at the end of October. “If you leave them on the tree to blet, they may become infected with a fungal rot. You won’t know they have been affected, but the fungus will taint anything you make with the Medlars. Just one infected fruit will taint everything.” They have about 8 trees at Brogdale, and sell all the fruit they produce. “In a good year we’ll sell 30 – 40 kilos per tree, in a very good year we might get 100 kilos from a single tree.”

Dan Neuteboom who grows and sells the trees from his nursery in Norfolk says that people only buy them for the blossom, not the fruit. He sells about 40 trees a year, of about 4 different varieties. Nigel Slater planted a Medlar in his garden, along with Quince, Mulberry, and Cobnut. He said he was “captivated by the romance and mystery… a fruit shot through with visions of walled Medieval gardens…How could anyone resist?”

The Benny Hill of Fruit

The medlar is the Benny Hill , the Monty Python, the Julian Clary and the Blackadder of fruit.  Their medieval name is ‘open-arse’, but they have other names: ‘granny’s arse’, and in France cul de chien, the ‘dog’s bottom’! An 18th Century essay described them: “A fruit, vulgarly called an open arse; of which it is more truly than delicately said, that it is nevre ripe till it is as rotten as a turd, and then it is not worth a fart.

Thomas Middleton 1580-1627

Widow Medler was a character in Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean play ‘A Trick To Catch the Old One.‘  Medlars were common sexual innuendo in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Shakespeare used medlars for smutty laughs in four of his plays. In Romeo and Juliet he has Mercutio nudge and leer to Romeo “Now will he sit under a medlar tree, and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids call medlars when they laugh alone.  An open-arse and thou a poper’in pear!”  He went to town with the triple entendre of a ‘poper’in pear.’ Poper’in pear was a reference to the shape of a man’s genitalia, and there’s the obvious ‘pop-her-in’, and ‘pop’ as in ‘pop goes the weasel’, a reference to orgasm.  Shakespeare wasn’t the only writer to succumb to the temptation of a cheap laugh from the pit at The Globe.  A few centuries earlier Chaucer wrote in The Reeve’s Tale, “if I fare as dooth an open-ers…till we be roten can we not be rype“.

Chaucer was refering to the apparent contradiction of rotten ripeness, so did  DH Lawrence:

                                        “I love you, rotten, delicious rottenness.
                                           I love to suck you out from your skins                                                          
                                           So brown and soft and coming suave,                                                            
                                                    Morbid, as the Italians say.
                                       What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
                            Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
                                                  Stream within stream.

                             Something of the same flavour as Syracusan muscat wine

                                                             Or vulgar Marsala.
                              Though even the word Marsala will smack of preciosity
                                                      Soon in the pussy-foot West.

                                                                 What is it?
                                         What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
                                                  In the medlar, in the sorb-apple.
                                                    Wineskins of brown morbidity,

                                                        Autumnal excrementa

Medlars are eaten when they appear rotten, bletted is the word used for ripe medlars. When they first appear on the tree they are about the size of a large walnut and hard and inedible. If you cut one the flesh will be white like a very hard apple, and bitter.

Bletted Medlar

As they age the flesh softens, browns and becomes juicy. If you squeeze a bletted medlar the juice will ooze from the paper-thin skin. The best way to eat a bletted medlar is to break the skin and suck out the flesh, it tastes somewhere between a date and dry apple sauce, with a rumour of cinnamon. The taste is totally unique and delicious.  To make more of them you’ll have to make them into fruit cheese, comfits, or a tart. Perhaps the easiest recipe is Medlar Jelly.

Shepherds’ Makhila, picture from wikicommons

They are related to the rose and the hawthorn, and in ancient times the wood was used to make spear points. Basque shepherds carry a stick called a makhila, made from the Medlar tree. The Malika is carved on the living tree, left for a year then cut down and heated. Then for a further ten years (!) the stick is alternately soaked in a secret solution and rubbed with pork fat. One end has a steel tip, and the other a stiletto blade concealed by a silver handle engraved with the owners name.

My pan of bletted medlars with lemon and apple, ready to cook.

This recipe is adapted from  “The Complete Cook” by Nell Heaton, published in 1946, old recipe books are the places to find medlar recipes. It is a simple recipe though you really need a thermometer. Nigel Slater suggests adding lemons and apples, 1 lemon cut into six pieces and half an apple per 450g medlars , they help the jelly to set, or you could use quince for the same reason. Alternatively you can add some hard medlars, about one third of the weight of the bletted medlars. Medlar jelly goes well with game and mutton, and with cheese and walnuts. From my original 3.5 kg I ended up with just under 2 kg of usable bletted medlars.

Medlar Jelly

 Medlar Jelly

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 60 – 90 minutes


(the following amounts assume 450 g Medlars, adjust to scale)

450 g Medlars, bletted, ripe, soft and undamaged.
300 ml water
350 g sugar


Wipe the fruit with a clean dry cloth, then:
Either cut them into pieces, or as I did place them whole into a pan
with some water, 300 ml water to each 450 g fruit so the water just covers them. Bring to a boil then simmer, and wait till they become pulp.  Avoid stirring, but you could press down onto the fruit with the back of a serving spoon, this may take up to an hour.
Then using a clean Jelly Bag or a piece of muslin, strain the liquid through the bag slowly. Don’t squeeze the bag! Patience! You want the jelly to be as clear as possible. Measure the juice then return to a clean pan, and for each 300 ml of liquid add 350g sugar. Boil the mixture hard and uncovered, use a thermometer to heat till the ‘jam’ setting is reached (104C), when the acid and pectin reacts with the sugar which will make jelly when the liquid cools. Should be around 4 – 5 minutes.  Skim off any scum which I neglected to do with my first batch, don’t worry if you forget!  Then pour into warm jars. Leave to set, then cover.  The jelly will be an unexpected reddish colour and taste unlike anything else!

©2011 David Porter.

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