Tag Archives: food

Cobblers To The World!

The past is another country and in my case it is my scrapbooks, and Rochester and Chatham where I spent three years at art school.

The Medway at Chatham, from Fort Pitt Hill in Rochester

The Medway and Chatham from Fort Pitt Hill, Rochester.©David Porter

In 1803, in America, the present was another country. Few Americans knew anything about the land west of the Missouri, so President Jefferson sent an expedition of thirty men, led by two young soldiers Lewis and Clark, to explore and map the wilderness.

Commemorative stamp celbrating 150th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

U.S.stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

They didn’t know how long they would be away, or how vast was the country that lay ahead. Dinner was uppermost in their minds and much of their time was spent hunting and foraging for food, which they cooked in a type of pot the early settlers had brought with them from England, the Dutch Oven. Two and half years later Lewis and Clark returned, and wagon trains began spreading westwards towards the Pacific. In the mid 19th Century nearly 3,000 Mormon pioneers, many of them religious refugees from England, pulled handcarts 1,300 miles from Iowa to Utah. No covered wagons for these poor people but hanging proudly from their carts was a Dutch oven.

Mormon Handcart Pioneer monument

Mormon Handcart Pioneer Monument in Salt Lake, with Dutch Oven. ©Morris A. Thurston

Americans still celebrate their ancestors reliance on the Dutch oven, holding cook-offs at Dutch Oven Gatherings (DOGs). The DOG season has just started in America, and one favourite dish is the old English ‘pot pie’, also known as a ‘cobbler’. Pot pies are as old as pastry making, and were a regular item on the menus of  grand houses in England and France; the ‘four-and-twenty blackbird’ pie was a pot pie.  Americans really took pot pies, or cobblers, to their hearts. Regional variations come with colourful names: the Grunt in Massachusetts, the Slump in Vermont, the Buckle, the Betty, and the Sonker! The Brown Betty is a bit like a bread pudding, and the Pandowdy is similar to an apple crumble. The ‘Washington Post’ commented that the phrase “as American as apple pie” should really be “as American as a cobbler”.

Maybe the name came about because they resemble cobblestones, or perhaps because small round loaves were called ‘cobs’ in England. Sometimes uncooked biscuits or suet dumplings were scattered on top of the filling, giving the appearance of a ‘cobbled’ road when the pie was cooked. The ‘Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America’ says: “Without brick ovens, colonial cooks often made cobblers in pots over an open fire. As cobblers cook, the filling stews and creates its own sauce and gravy, while the pastry puffs up and dries.” English recipes tend to use a scone type of dough, and in America they use a more crisp pastry.


Dutch Oven ©The Yurt Farm

The Dutch Oven is perhaps the single most important item of cooking equipment in the history of cooking, a simple cauldron with three legs to raise it above the fire and a flat lid with a raised lip allowing coals to be scattered on top; the lid can be used by itself as a skillet. A wire handle attached to the pot allowed the Dutch Oven to be hung over a fire. We still have these pots but now they’ve lost their legs, the lids are rounded, and we call them ‘casseroles’. The hardware shops of Deptford sell ‘Dutch Pots’ or ‘Dutchies’, aluminium pots in varying sizes but no legs, and if you search the internet you’ll find camping shops selling the real thing, a cast iron Dutch oven with legs.  In the 17th Century saucepans were mostly made from brass and very expensive. They were handed down through generations, George Washington’s mother stipulated in her will that her ‘kitchen iron-work’ should be divided between her grandchildren. Iron pots were cheaper but heavier, more difficult to make and liable to crack.  At school I learned about Abraham Darby and the Industrial Revolution, he was the inventor of the coke-fuelled blast furnace. Darby was manufacturing brass cooking pots in Bristol when in 1704 he travelled to Holland to study a new iron-casting method utilising sand moulds. He brought his skills and some Dutch workers back to England where he carried on experimenting and perfected the iron casting process, making thinner, lighter, and stronger pots.

Coalbrookdale at Night

Abraham Darby's blast furnaces at Coalbrookdale at night, by Philipp James de Loutherbourg

He moved to bigger works in Coalbrookdale and patented his casting method in 1707 monopolising the cast iron cooking pot market in Britain and America for the next 200 years. There’s something reassuringly sturdy and no-nonsense about cast iron cookware. We have quite a collection of frying pans, griddle pans and pots. I like the gritty blackness of them and the way you never really clean them, they just get better and better. ‘Seasoning’ it’s called, which is now a family joke.  Anything I buy or acquire that just sits unused in a corner is described as ‘seasoning’ till the time is right. I’ve a dishwasher seasoning at the moment.


'Man About Town' January 1961.

I’ve been taking pictures since I was three, first with my big sister’s box camera which often jammed. Then I’d watch her disappear under the eiderdown to open the camera and free the film.  Then she bought a Brownie 127, and I was given a small camera from Woolworths that took 16 pictures on 127 film. It had a plastic tartan case and a wire viewfinder. I’ve still got it somewhere. When I was eleven I started developing my films in my bedroom, see-sawing the rolls through glass rollers in a shallow tank and total darkness before making contact prints.  I decided I would be a photographer, my sister Christine encouraged me bringing home the latest cutting-edge magazines with shots by the trendy triumvirate of Duffy, Donovan, and Bailey. ‘Man About Town’.  American ‘Esquire’, ‘Queen’, and American ‘Look’ featured inspiring photographs by Irving Penn and William Klein.  Sunday supplements appeared featuring photographers such as Don McCullin and Art Kane.


Don McCullin photographs the Liverpool 8 poets for the Telegraph Magazine, March 1967.

I saved these magazines, cutting out the pictures and sticking them into scrap books. I still have a serious magazine habit, but now I buy most of my glossies from the stall in Deptford Market on Wednesdays, ‘3 for £4’, and my home is stuffed with hundreds, probably thousands of magazines.

Deptford Market, the cheap magazine stall

Wednesday's Deptford Market, the magazine stall.

My poor mother was dismayed, Christine had been to Wimbledon art school for three years, and her horizons had been broadened. I went to Wimbledon Saturday mornings when I was 10 or 11, but she hoped I’d grow out of it. “Photography is a very expensive hobby,” she said at every opportunity. Followed by a stern, “You needn’t think you’re going to art school.”  But I was quietly single-minded, borrowing all the photography books from the library and staring wistfully into the windows of the local camera shop.


Bill Brandt's 1937 picture of a snicket in Halifax, from my Time-Life book 'The Art of Photography', laying on some exposed cobbles in Ashby Road, London SE4.

I tended towards contrasty images of urban black and white emptiness, my favourite picture was Bill Brandt’s shot of  a ‘snicket’, a steep ramp of cobbles in Halifax. Christine went to New York for a holiday and came back with “Message From The Interior”, a book of photographs by Walker Evans who became my latest hero.


'Message From The Interior' a collection of photographs © Walker Evans, published by the Eakins Press in New York 1966.

“What was New York like?” I asked her, starry-eyed. “If you don’t look up, it’s just like Tooting,” she said.  Luckily my sister’s campaign to get me into art school didn’t waver, and when I was about 16 she bought me a Leica IIIc with a collapsible lens. I left school and took a job so I could buy a second-hand MPP enlarger with all the dishes, paper, and chemicals. When I’d assembled a few prints Christine organised the college applications and then drove me around the country from interview to interview till I found a place in Rochester. Where I met Clarissa, who in the picture below is walking down Constitution Hill in Swansea modelling an Ossie Clark dress for my college-leaving portfolio.


Clarissa modelling an Ossie Clark/Radley dress, on Constitution Hill in Swansea.

That picture by Bill Brandt of cobbles fascinated me. The streets around my home were once laid with granite setts, and when the surface breaks-up the cobbles reappear. Some streets and mews are still cobbled, Comet Street off Deptford High Street for instance, and Greenwich Market. Lewisham has its own ‘snicket’, White Post Lane. Not so dramatic as the Halifax street but still evocative of a mysterious bygone era.


White Post Lane

The streets east of White Post Lane were built in an old quarry, their names give it away: Loampit Hill previously known as Lome Pitt Hole,  Sandrock Road, Cliffview, Fossil, Overcliff, and so on. White Post Lane is much older than the houses and used to run along the quarry’s edge from the brick field to Loampit Hill. The cobbled stretch may date from the old quarry workings it seems out of place among the late 19th and early 20th Century houses.

Brickworks and Quarry near Loampit Hill. Courtesy of ideal-homes.org.uk.

Faulkeners Brick Kiln and Quarry near White Post Lane,1810. Image from ideal-homes.org.uk

Fours years after art school and at last I was working for magazines photographing rock royalty and some fashion. One day we’d been on a fashion shoot and gave the model a lift home to Chelsea. She invited us in for a coffee, and introduced us to her bemused boyfriend Terry. I was star-struck, more impressed than I’d been meeting Paul McCartney.

Terry de Havilland, cobbler to the world

Terry de Havilland. Cobbler to The World. Courtesy of matchesfashion.com

Terry de Havilland was the cobbler of the moment, a genius. I had several pairs of platform shoes including a multi-coloured snakeskin pair, a rip-off of Terry’s design. He was very nice and friendly as a proper cockney cobbler should be, and despite his trendy credentials as nice as pie. His shop was on the Kings Road, “Cobblers To The World”, and I’m pleased to say he is still making fantastic shoes.

My recipe is for a Beef Cobbler, real rib-sticking comfort food.  You don’t need  a Dutch oven to cook a cobbler just the modern equivalent, the casserole dish.


Beef Cobbler

Beef Cobbler

Preparation time : 10 – 15 minutes

Cooking times : 90 minutes (but can be started the day before and cooked in two stages)

Ingredients : (makes 3 or 4 portions)

For the filling,

2 or 3 tbs beef dripping

2 tbs plain flour

Rock salt and freshly ground pepper (to season the flour)

975g beef, I used shin of beef, cut into generous cubes

225g banana shallots, sliced (or 2 small onions, but the shallots are sweeter)

300 ml beef stock

300 ml red wine

4 pickled walnuts, quartered, with 125ml of the vinegar from the jar

2 tbs tomato purée

Bouquet garni of thyme, parsley and bay tied together

For the topping,

450g plain flour

1 tsp English mustard powder

5 tsp baking powder

Salt and pepper

110g butter, cubed

50g walnuts, crushed

2 tbs chopped parsley

300ml milk

1 egg, beaten, to glaze

Some fresh sage leaves

Method :

Melt 2 tbs of the dripping in your casserole dish (mine is 23cm diameter and 10cm deep and it is cast iron). Dust the cubed beef in seasoned flour and brown in batches in the melted dripping before removing with a slotted spoon to a plate.

Add the remaining dripping and soften the shallots., then de-glaze the pan, shallots and all, with the wine, the stock, and a wine glass of the vinegar from the pickled walnuts. Stir-in the tomato purée and return the meat to the dish. Add the pickled walnuts and tuck-in the herbs, take care that the meat is covered by the stock, if not add more beef stock or wine. Cover the casserole with the lid and simmer very gently for three-quarters of an hour.

While this happening, prepare the pastry top. Sift the flour and the baking powder into a large mixing bowl and season with pepper, salt and the mustard powder. Rub in the butter till the mixture resembles bread crumbs and then add the chopped parsley and the chopped walnuts, and stir-in the milk. Knead lightly in the bowl, or tip out and knead, whichever suits you, till everything is combined.

Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes, or until you are ready. Remove the herbs from the casserole. Take the chilled dough and flatten it with your hands so you have a circle roughly the same size as the casserole lid. You could press the lid gently onto the dough to give you a template for the amount you need to make the cobblers.

Cut across the dough in opposite directions and take each square and using your hands roll it into a ball before flattening it slightly and placing on top of the meat in the casserole. When you’ve finished brush the dough with egg-wash and scatter with some fresh sage leaves.

Cover the casserole with the lid and put into your oven pre-heated to 200C for 10 minutes. Then remove the lid and continue to cook for a further 20 – 30 minutes at 190C.

The cobbler will be golden and crisp on top and underneath steamy, sticky, and soft, the dough having wrapped itself around the beef!

©2012 David Porter

A Positive Terry Thomas…

If only Nikki could see me now, I thought.  Back in June at a bit of a loose end, I enrolled on ‘A Taste of Food Writing’ course at Greenwich Community College. I’d always fancied trying to write about food so when I read about the course in ‘The Guide’ I thought “why not?”

There were about a dozen of us taking part, and I was probably the least experienced cook in the class. Nikki Spencer was our inspirational tutor and mentor and during the first class, to break the ice, she asked us to talk about ourselves, what we did, what cookery books we had, how many, and which dishes we liked cooking, which restaurants we’d visited, and so on. Rather shamefaced I said I didn’t cook, but I read cookery books for fun, and I prefered eating at home.  I’ve been around cooks for years and I’ve eaten some extraordinary dishes, so I’ve always been confident I could cook, if I wanted to!

The course progressed over five weeks, at about week three Nikki talked to us about food blogging. For our ‘homework’ she asked us to go away and come back with something written for an imaginary blog. “About 300 words..?” said Nikki hopefully.  Fired with enthusiasm I decided to do it for real, and so Deptford Pudding was born.  I can’t say it was easy, I’m not the most computer-friendly person and I found the technicalities really hard work for the first couple of posts but then I began to get the hang of it.  I can’t stick to 300 words though.  “You’re an editor’s nightmare,” said my friend the editor.

Nikki is doing more courses at the Greenwich Community College next year, if you’re interested contact the college; or how about Nikki’s latest course  ‘A Real Taste of Food Writing‘ which will take place at The Guildford in Greenwich where chef Guy Awford will cook a three course lunch, and reveal the behind-the-scenes life of a busy restaurant, as well as talking about his blog and answering questions.

Terry Thomas. Picture courtesy of Whisky Media

It was 6.30 on a Sunday evening four weeks ago when Clarissa slipped in some mud on the marshes and broke her arm. We dashed first to Sheppey hospital, where she was x-rayed and put in a half plaster,  and then immediately onto the Medway Hospital in Chatham clutching a letter which the nurse assured us would move us to the head of the queue in A & E.

At 9.00pm we reached Chatham, the waiting area in the biggest A & E in Kent was hot, sweaty, and packed…  standing room only.  After a warm sunny day, most of the people waiting were dressed for a late summer barbeque, some were in sports strip limping and clutching knees or ankles.  A couple of people were covered in blood, it was like a scene from ‘Blade Runner’ I thought, complete with two policemen in Robocop gear marshaling the queue at reception. Large family groups squatted on the floor eating bags of crisps from a kiosk selling drinks and sandwiches. I asked when the kiosk closed, “we’re open 24/7,” was the glazed reply. Not that it mattered I had very little money and in our dash we’d left the means to get cash behind. The lurcher was abandoned outside in the car park, which was of course pay and display 24/7.

Once, for the ‘News of the World,’ I photographed “24 Hours in Casualty”. The editor had decided Guys on a Saturday would be crammed with dramatic human interest stories ripe for the picking.  I was given the night shift, 10pm Saturday till 10am Sunday, the period expected to yield the most bloody drama. But Casualty was eerily quiet and empty at midnight. The bored nurse on the desk said, “Why’d you come here? If you wanted some action you should have gone to Lewisham.” A couple of people drifted in with minor cuts and bruises, then some very hard looking men arrived and seeing me with my camera one of them said “Point that thing at us sunshine and you’ll be sorry.” So I didn’t. The next night we heard that someone had dropped dead in the car park outside, and a deranged gunman had dashed in firing a shot into the ceiling. The feature never appeared.

After waiting six hours at Medway we were seen at 3am by an orthopedic specialist who announced he would have to straighten Clarissa’s strangely bent arm, it was,  said the tired doctor, “a dinner fork fracture”, a literal description of the shape of her arm, which had been forced into her wrist.  Straighten it now he meant as he called for help, no anesthetic just two men pulling and tugging at her wrist and elbow.

typical 'dinner fork' fracture, courtesy wikimedia commons

Straightened to his satisfaction her arm was fully plastered, “What colour would you like?” said the smiling plasterer. “White” we said in unison, because we’re traditionalists. He shook his head sadly, “We’ve red, blue, and pink.” Pink turned out to be a shade I’d call ‘kinky pink’ so we went for that. Another wait in a bleak corridor for an x-ray, you can just see the pink plaster in the reflection, then home as dawn broke.

spot the pink arm

A few days later and we’re back in Chatham seeing the consultant. “It’s a positive Terry Thomas.” He almost beamed, a little too pleased with himself, “we’re probably going to have to operate.”

We asked to be transferred to Lewisham hospital, and so a week later we’re seeing a different consultant. This one looked a bit like Boris Johnson but without the bedside manner. By way of a hello he said ‘”I hope you realise how serious this is?”  His students milled around the x-ray, clucking.  “We’ll have to wait for it to mend, then break it again and insert a plate.”

Since Clarissa broke her arm she’s been completely out of action and in a lot of pain.  Suddenly I’m a full-time carer, cooking breakfast and making endless cups of tea, plus a snack at lunch time, and then dinner. I’m enjoying being the cook and deciding what’s for dinner, I’m even enjoying the shopping.

home made hop bread

We’ve had some simple dishes, salads and soup, and some more imaginative cooking with fish and rabbit, but Clarissa has insisted on making the bread single-handed (hah-hah).

duck eggs are bigger in every way

She’s decided her favourite meal is one of the simplest: poached eggs with chips. Not potato chips, but parsnip and beetroot chips. We rarely eat potatoes since deciding that they don’t really taste of anything anymore. (I can still remember the last time I ate a potato that tasted remotely like potatoes should taste, and that was around 1990.)

Mike from Mersham Game

Every week since September I’ve bought eggs from Mike of  Mersham Game at Brockley Market.  Mike has 20,000(!) free-range hens, and his neighbour has 2,000 free-range ducks, I’ve been buying hen and duck eggs from his stall every Saturday. When he sees me and the wonder-lurcher wandering his way Mike picks up the egg boxes and starts filling them. Duck eggs are my favourite, they’re bigger than hens’ eggs with more flavour. Duck eggs contain less water than hens eggs and therefore are brilliant for baking. Want to bake light fluffy cakes? Use duck eggs… Mike sells hens eggs for £1 a half dozen, and duck eggs for £1.50 a half dozen. A bargain!

Luke with his brace of partridge

Walking around the market on Saturday we struck up a conversation with Luke, who is studying painting at Camberwell Art College.  He caught our attention because he looked as if he’d just stepped out of a fashion shoot in his black velvet jacket, carrying a brace of still-feathered partridge dangling from his wrist.  Like a willowy and more handsome version of Pete Doherty, Luke admitted he’d been vegetarian up till three weeks earlier, but he’d been attracted by the traditional offerings from Mersham Game. We wondered what he had planned for the partridge.  “I’m going to put them in a pot, with some other things,” he said, vaguely but at the same time confidently. Which is exactly what I would have said…

Here’s my ‘recipe’ for poached egg with root vegetable chips (that’s French fries for anyone reading this in North America!). I used a duck egg because they are bigger, and taste more ‘eggy’.  And I always use dripping to fry the chips, but you could use vegetable oil.

poached duck egg, with parsnip, swede, sweet potato and beetroot chips

Poached Egg and Chips

Preparation time: 5 minutes to peel the vegetables and chop into chips.

Cooking times: 10 minutes to par-boil the chips. 15 – 20 minutes to fry the chips. 3 minutes to cook each poached egg.

Ingredients  (per person) :

Flour for dusting the chips

1 or 2 parsnips, washed.

1 small beetroot, peeled.

Half a swede (or less),  peeled.

1 sweet potato, washed. I try to use the orange fleshed sweet potato.

200g beef dripping, or if you use vegetable oil you’ll need sufficient oil for a depth of about 25 – 35 mm.

Clear malt vinegar, about a quarter cupful.

1 duck egg.

Black pepper, and sea salt.

Method :

Cut the vegetables into chip sized pieces, the bigger they are the longer they’ll need to cook. But, if you use beetroot cut them smaller, and try to keep them separate from the rest of the vegetables because they’ll stain them. (I fried the beetroot separately in a small saucepan using an extra 100g of dripping.)

Par-boil the chips for 10 minutes, or less, don’t let them get too soft. Test with a pointed knife.

While the chips are simmering, melt the dripping in a deep saucepan, mine is 200 mm in diameter and 125 mm tall. Heat till it fizzles if you dip the tip of a knife dipped in flour into the fat.The melted dripping should be about 25 mm deep, so this is shallow frying.

When the chips are par-boiled, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Scatter flour across a plate and toss each chip in the flour till they’re coated on every side. Then drop the chips into the hot dripping. Move the chips around in the fat, turning them with a palette knife making sure they are cooking evenly.

While they are cooking heat a saucepan of water till it boils. The water should be at least 75 mm deep. Prepare the eggs: (I cook them one at a time), have a cup or ramekin ready for each egg, and break the eggs into the cups. Heat your oven to plate-warming temperature, and put a plate in the oven to warm. If you’re only poaching one egg there’s no need to do this, but if you’re poaching 2 or 3 or 4, or more, then you’ll need to keep them warm while you cook all of the eggs. I’ve poached 6 eggs using this method, they stay warm without the yolks setting. If you use a large pan of water, I believe you can poach 4 – 6 eggs more or less at the same time, but I’ve never tried.

It is difficult to burn the chips but if you think they are ready before the eggs, just lift them out with a slotted spoon and put them in the oven to keep warm.

About 5 minutes before you expect to serve the finished dish, tip the vinegar into the boiling water. This stops the egg whites dispersing. (Don’t put any salt into the water.) Slightly reduce the heat so the water just goes off the boil. Take a hand whisk and vigorously stir the simmering water, I like to think stirring clockwise lets gravity give you a hand.

When you have a vortex in the water take an egg and quickly slide the egg into the centre of the swirling water. The egg will disappear from view in the water but don’t worry. Set a timer for 3 minutes for a soft egg yolk, more for hard. Hens eggs will take half a minute less. My experience is that it is very difficult to over-cook a poached egg.

Have your serving plate ready, check the chips, they should be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Scoop them out of the fat with a slotted spoon and arrange them on the plate. After 3 minutes, carefully scoop the poached egg from the water again with a slotted spoon and arrange the egg on top of the chips. Scatter with sea salt and black pepper and serve.


©2011 David Porter.

%d bloggers like this: