Every so often, I like to check to see whether there have been any developments1Ideally, someone making a batch and offering them for sale; but alas, my luck hasn’t been in just yet… in the world of Norfolk Biffins – the dried, pressed apple sweetmeat that was the subject of the lengthy blog post that I wrote in 2021 – and via a recent online search, I discovered that Amy Baker of the Food Museum in Stowmarket, Suffolk, made a batch of biffins earlier this year for the museum’s Food Diversity Day2According to the article, Amy is planning to make another batch for the Food Museum’s Apple Week event in October ’23… further details to hopefully follow!, with biffin-making advice supplied by local cook and food historian Monica Askay.
Monica’s was a name I instantly recognised as I’d come across her work when I was researching that Biffins article; she is the co-author, with Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, of Orchard Recipes from Eastern England – Landscape, Fruit and Heritage (Bridge Publishing, 2020, r.r.p £14.95).
This book was one of the key modern-day sources that I referred to in the section on ‘Biffins in Print’, and it includes (on p. 66-67) a potted history of biffin-making, along with a modern-oven-friendly method for making ‘quick biffins’, which is by far the easiest method to use if you don’t happen to have access to a brick-built bread-oven3Which the folks at the Food Museum are fortunate enough to possess..
Having re-encountered the work of a fellow biffin-fan, it seemed like a good opportunity to reach out to Monica to have a quick email chat about her work as a cook and food historian and her particular interest in historical orchard cookery; a subject I’m really rather keen on myself.
Here’s what we e-chatted about.
Orchard Notes: Hello Monica, and thank you so much for talking time out to talk to me. On your website you describe yourself as a cook and food historian. Could you tell me a little about your background and how you came to specialise in the history of food?
Monica Askay: My background was teaching – neither food nor history related – but Infant (Key Stage 1) and Special Needs. I left teaching in 1994 and started up an outside catering business. As time went on I also got involved in cookery workshops and demonstrations with tastings on various topics.
I was always interested in history and also the history of food and how foods moved around the world reflecting historical events. I started to specialise in all periods of our food history in 1999. I worked on a few events with a fellow food historian and then worked on my own on events for museums, archives, and organisations such as National Trust and English Heritage. My focus has always been on cooking the dishes and offering them for tasting.
Orchard Notes: You’ve also expressed a particular interest in orchard cookery. What is it about orchard produce and the dishes made from various fruits that you find especially engaging and/or fascinating?
Monica Askay: I became fascinated by heritage orchards initially after hearing on the amazing Radio 4 Food Programme about the first Apple Day organised by Common Ground in 1990. This was held in the old Apple Market in Covent Garden. At the time I was living in the village of Histon, just outside Cambridge. This was home to the Chivers Jam Factory. The family also had orchards and had developed some new apple varieties (‘Chivers Delight’, ‘Histon Favourite’). At the time at weekends they sold their apples from their old packhouse so it was where I first got to sample unusual apple varieties.
I became more involved in orchards from around 2000 when for a number of years I became part of the organising committee for the Apple Festival in Ely, Cambridgeshire. Following that I became involved in the East of England Apples and Orchards Project (EEAOP). Then came two local projects: the Suffolk Traditional Orchard Group (STOG) and Orchards East. I have been to a few food history events (courses etc.) over the years and also regularly attend the Leeds Food History Symposium. I am currently a member of Orchards East Forum and I have also contributed to fruitID.
My main focus has been culinary, delivering cookery demonstrations and tastings, and orchard cookery workshops. I have also been involved in heritage fruit identification and researching the history and development of fruit varieties. My initial fascination was and remains in the visual beauty of heritage orchard fruit.
Orchard Notes: Is there a period in history that you could identify as the golden age of orchard cookery? Assuming it’s not today, how do our modern fruit recipes compare?
Monica Askay: I think orchard recipes have evolved over time. In Medieval times it was regarded as unhealthy to eat fruit (or vegetables) raw, so fruit recipes from that period are all cooked. I think my favourite recipe of that period is Wardouns in Sirop. Wardens are a type of hard cooking pear. The “sirop” is sweetened red wine.
Most other recipes were from the Still Room and were methods of preservation such as Chardewarden or Chardequince, which was basically fruit paste or cheese made from wardens or quinces “charde” meaning “flesh of”; so Chardequince being the same as Spanish membrillo. It was thought to have medicinal properties and it was the forerunner to our modern marmalade.
Recipes from monasteries still exist. Orchards were written about from the C17th. More and more fruit varieties were developed during the C18th and C19th and more and more recipes appear.
The focus in the past seem to be more on sweet dishes though some savoury dishes appear, usually pairing apples with pork or goose. How to use both culinary and dessert apples and other fruits in recipes both savoury and sweet is perhaps more of a focus in today’s recipes.
Orchard Notes: You must have studied an enormous amount of primary source material in the course of your work. What would you say are the most interesting sources you’ve come across?
Monica Askay: I have come across many interesting sources. One of the most interesting is John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629). This is fascinating and contains amazing woodcut illustrations. It has been digitised and can be downloaded (follow the link for the Google Books version – ON).
Another fascinating C17th source is The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May. Our oldest cookery manuscript, The Forme of Cury from the Court of Richard II, also contains interesting recipes. Many sources on orchard history have now been included in fruitID.
Orchard Notes: What’s your favourite orchard recipe, modern or historical? And how did you discover it?
Monica Askay: I’m not sure I have just one favourite orchard recipe! I think my favourite recipes vary with the season. Eliza Acton’s ‘Black Caps par Excellence’, a recipe from Modern Cookery in All its Branches (1845) is one. There is an earlier version in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) using orange flower water and I have also come across a version using rosewater (and Henry Howard’s 1708 version uses claret – ON). However, I think Eliza Acton’s use of Raisin Wine works best and I use Australian liqueur muscat. I came across it some years ago when searching for recipes for Norfolk Beefings. (For a text version of the following, please see this post – ON).
I also really like modern Damson Leather. Modern fruit leathers are not really part of our food heritage but really come from hotter climes where they can be dried in the sun. They are made by cooking the fruit to a purée, passing through a sieve as necessary and sweetening to taste with honey. The purée is spread very thinly and dried very slowly. The result is a thin, flexible, slightly translucent sheet. We did have something called a fruit leather in the C17th but the process was different. It involved making a thick fruit paste and then drying it.
True damsons make the most amazing leather because of its intense flavour. Note: Plums are very confusing! Varieties such as ‘Merryweather Damson’ are not true damsons but are part plum. True damsons have names such as ‘Shropshire Prune’ or ‘Aylesbury Prune’!
Orchard Notes: Do you grow your own fruit, and if so, what are the best culinary varieties or cultivars in your own orchard?
Monica Askay: In my previous garden I had two inherited apple trees (‘Discovery’ and ‘Egremont Russet’) as well as a massive walnut tree. I was very fond of ‘Discovery’ eaten straight from the tree. Here I don’t have as much space. I have an inherited apple tree which appears to be ‘Saturn’, not a variety I would have chosen. I also have various fruit trees in pots: three apples (‘Cox’, ‘Shoesmith’, and an M25 rootstock), a dwarf mulberry, a cherry, and two figs. I would love to grow apple varieties like ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’.
Orchard Notes: You and I share an interest in Norfolk Biffins, and I understand you’ve made a batch or two in the past. What would be your top tips for biffin-making?
Monica Askay: Take care not to break the skin, so do not core or flatten too aggressively. Patience! Best not to use a gas oven as the heat contains too much moisture. Instead use an electric oven, or better still a brick bread oven.
Orchard Notes: Could you tell us about any research projects that you’re currently involved in, and how we can go about finding more about your work?
Monica Askay: I am currently involved in a number of cookery demonstrations and tastings in Dunstable in Bedfordshire as part of their High Street Heritage Action Zone project. I am also attending a couple of Apple Days in Potton, Bedfordshire and at the Museum of Food in Stowmarket, Suffolk, where I’ll be giving out samples of orchard fruit gins – including damson, quince and medlar – and recipe sheets, and discussing recipe ideas.
I am planning on moving from cookery demonstrations and workshops to spending more time researching and writing about local recipes using orchard fruits. Watch this space..!
Huge thanks to Monica Askay for taking time out to e-chat with me. If you’d like to know more about Monica’s work as a cook and food historian, or if you are interested in hiring her services for a historical food event that you’re planning, so visit her website at monica-askay.co.uk for details of how to get in touch. And don’t forget to check out Orchard Recipes from Eastern England – Landscape, Fruit and Heritage (Bridge Publishing, 2020, r.r.p £14.95), a fascinating mix of landscape and orchard history, with plenty of great orchard fruit recipes to try. It’s out of print with the publisher, but there are still a few copies left at Amazon.co.uk, or you might be able to track a copy down via eBay or a.n.other online retailer or high street bookshop.
- 1Ideally, someone making a batch and offering them for sale; but alas, my luck hasn’t been in just yet…
- 2According to the article, Amy is planning to make another batch for the Food Museum’s Apple Week event in October ’23… further details to hopefully follow!
- 3Which the folks at the Food Museum are fortunate enough to possess.