Tag Archives: England

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. ideal-homes.org.uk.

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.

Support Your Local Farmer

First, let me declare an interest: I’m a bloke. And blokes like tractors, which is why a couple of weeks ago I could be found with a soppy grin on my face walking around a display of vintage tractors and steam engines at the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match.

1930s Oliver 70, row crop tractor

Ploughing matches and point-to-point racing are some of the countryside’s best-kept secrets, and for a townie like me a terrific day out getting immersed in tweed and dogs.  We took a basic picnic and at the show bought St Michael’s Blue cheese from Silcocks Farm, pickled walnuts and cider  to eat later in the stubble.

It was the end of the short hop-picking season and among the trade stands (more, bigger, tractors!) there was a display of old farming photographs, some showing hop picking in the days when tens of thousands of Londoners, including children that should have been in school, would descend on the hop gardens for a working holiday staying in corrugated iron huts and picking hops.

By the 1950’s hop picking was becoming mechanised, and the annual migration from London gradually died out.

from the collection of I.Coomber and D.Ludlow

But its not all tractors doing the ploughing, pairs of heavy horses were stoically pulling especially polished ploughs; and for £5 you could have a go at driving horses and plough whilst trying to carve a straight furrow. The tractor match is judged depending on the type of plough, and points are scored for well-cut and straight furrows, uniformity, firmness, accuracy and the curiously-named ‘ins and outs’. Points are deducted for finishing the wrong way and leaving double wheel marks. The rules of horse ploughing are even stricter but the winner can look forward to the first prize of £12!

The Bolebrook Beagles trotted around the arena in a disorganised fashion, and later a pack of foxhounds from the Ashford Valley Hunt ran around following the huntsman and two whippers-in, before the ritual invitation for children to come into the arena and meet the dogs. I realise hunting is controversial, and the commentator repeated several times that the hunt operated within the law, but obviously no one at this show was offended in any way and the ring soon filled with children. Contrary to what you might think a foxhound is not an aggressive blood-thirsty animal but is extremely friendly, unlike some of the dogs in my local park. To be surrounded by twenty foxhounds licking and wagging is a happy experience, but then I’m not a fox.

Three years ago I took a friend to the East Kent Ploughing Match. As a confirmed Guardianista he saw foxes as the cuddly animals he fed in his back garden. Farmers, he thought, were all rich and right-wing,  sponging subsidies from the rest of us and driving around in 4x4s.  They’re just ordinary people I told him they just get muddier, and they work longer hours seven days a week, putting up with endless inspections from government officials and spending their evenings filling in the mountain of forms demanded by the EU.  He couldn’t bring himself to stroke a foxhound but he grudgingly admitted he’d enjoyed himself, apart from the extortionate price of the venison burger (£3-50), and remarked that everyone had been very nice and polite, and he’d not heard a four-letter word all day. I bought him a “Support British Farmers” mug which once he was back at home went straight to the back of the cupboard and was never seen again.

Ian Florey of Liquid Pleasure in Tenterden

Walking past one of the beer tents a voice called “David!” It was Nicky Aldhouse from Wadd Farm, helping Ian Florey sell local beers. Ian runs Liquid Pleasure an online wine merchant with a shop in Tenterden. Ian’s favourite small local brewery is the award-winning Old Dairy Brewery which he promotes at shows and charity events,  decorating the tent with Nicky’s hops.  Nicky and her husband Guy rear prize-winning Suffolk sheep at Wadd Farm, and try to be as self-sufficient as possible growing every sort of vegetable and soft fruit imaginable.  Wadd Farm is one of the oldest farms in Kent, going back to the 1540s. “We never have a holiday,” said Nicky, “there’s always something to do, but this is the best job in the world!” Like many Kent farmers they still grow a few rows of  hops, for the sake of tradition and for their homemade beer. Here’s Nicky in her polytunnel with her tomatoes…

Nicky Aldhouse

Every year they hold ‘Wadd Fest’ a music festival on the farm in aid of Demelza childrens’ hospice. I was really impressed with Nicky’s larder, stuffed with homemade wine, beer and preserves; each year Nicky makes over 30 bottles of wine, mostly from over-ripe fruit. “It’s important not to waste any fruit,” she said, “and it’s so simple to do.” It was Nicky that told me about ‘Farmhouse Fare‘, a collection of recipes from the readers of Farmers Weekly. I went home and ordered it on Amazon, it’s a simple, easy to use and unpretentious collection of recipes and one of my all-time favourite cookbooks.

We’ve a hop growing around our front door, and a nearby pub has hops growing in its garden, if you look around carefully there are wild hops growing here and there.  The Hop Shop at Castle Farm in Shoreham near Sevenoaks sells hop plants, that’s where we bought ours, and if you’re feeling ambitious they sell old hop poles and wonderfully enormous balls of thick rough hop string that wouldn’t look out of place in The Conran Shop.

The hop garden at Castle Farm. Picture ©Thomas Alexander

Castle Farm is an old hop garden, now more well known for the lavender fields than the hops. When the price of hops collapsed as brewers turned to cheaper imports, Caroline (above) and William Alexander diversified into lavender, herbs and rare apples, and their son Thomas Alexander is a talented photographer.  Caroline developed a lavender oil just for cooking, something we use in cake-making and always have at home. Castle Farm is local enough for me, just 14 miles down the road, and the farm shop is always worth a visit. I came across an interesting blog about making beer using hops from Castle Farm, you need surprisingly few and Castle Farm sell hop bines, the complete stems with hops attached, during the season.

Next to Nicky’s beer tent was the hog roast, offering roasted pork in huffkins. The queue was too long for me, but huffkins are worth making at home.  The huffkin is a traditional Kentish teacake, unique in that the baker made dent in the top with his thumb, and they have a slight beer flavour.  Some Kent bakers still make them, but they are becoming quite rare. We only make them a few times a year, and at this time of the year Clarissa likes to push a green hop into the dent in the huffkin to add to the flavour.

Huffkins-Kentish-Hiffkins-recipe for Kent Huffkins

Kentish Huffkins

Kentish Huffkins

Preparation time about 1 hour 45 minutes including the resting times.

Cooking time 20 – 30 minutes depending on the size of the individual huffkins.

Ingredients (makes 6 – 8):

10g dried yeast

2 tsp sugar

225ml warm water

110g lard

2 tsp salt

225ml scalded milk. That is milk that has been heated till it almost boils. This disables some proteins that would stop the yeast from properly fermenting.

500g plain flour, sifted

Flour for dusting


Activate the dried yeast in a little warm water with a pinch of sugar added. When it froths it is ready.

Cream the lard, salt, a pinch of sugar, add the yeast and then the sifted flour, making a dough.

On a floured surface knead the dough till it feels ‘springy’ to the touch. Then put the dough to one side in a bowl covered with a clean dry tea towel. Leave the bowl of dough to rise in a warm dry place for about 1 hour.

Then roll out the dough again so it is about 15mm thick and use a knife to cut-out oval shapes about 85mm across the length (the traditional shape), or larger circular shapes if you wish. Some bakers make larger huffkins.

Put your pieces of dough onto a greased baking sheet, well-spaced, and cover with some damp muslin, then leave to rise for further 30 minutes. Pre-heat your oven to 220C.

After they’ve risen, using your thumb make a large dent in the middle of each huffkin. Dust them lightly with a little flour then put them into your oven. How long you bake them for depends on how big they are, but remember they are soft crusted, so don’t over do it!

When they are cooked, remove them to a wire rack to cool, covered with a dampened tea towel to prevent the crust from hardening. Finally dust with a little flour. The dent will have almost disappeared, Clarissa likes to push a green or dried hop into the dent, you may have to make it larger to do this. I’d serve sliced in half and spread with homemade jam!

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