Saturday 22 May 2010

Gingerbread, mixed peel and grandmothers

Last Christmas I received an excellent cookbook from my sister in law (HH) called Scottish Home Baking by Judy Patterson. I have searched high and low for a book of traditional Scottish recipes and never found anything else as good. When recently baking some gingerbread with mixed peel from this book I began to ponder how our grandmothers cooked, the myths and the reality.

Let me tell you about the gingerbread first. It was wonderful, being both soft and spicy in a mild and inoffensive way. I did wonder if I should have left it for the texture and flavours to deepen over time but it was pleasant enough to eat fresh. However, when I gave a few pieces to E to take to work, they were forgotten for a few days and he liked them much more when he rediscovered them.

What first piqued my interest about the recipe was that it had dried mixed peel in it. Not many recipes do these days. I used to hate mixed peel as a child, never being a huge fan of all things citrus, but now I have come around to appreciating it. However I noticed that while it can be found in dried fruit mixes, it is not easy to find by itself in shops any more. So that got me wondering why. Here is my hypothesis – once upon a time, our grandmothers couldn’t buy an orange for love or money and all they could get was dried mixed peel but today recipes often call for fresh orange or lemon zest because it is so easy for us to buy.

Maybe I am wrong but it did make me think about how much we take for granted these days. We don’t have to wait for fruit and veg to be in season, we don’t have to wait for our hens to lay eggs, or to deal with a glut of zucchinis from the garden. Even in Scotland, where in E’s childhood fruits such as watermelon were rare and exotic, you can find many fruit and veg these days.

Thinking along these lines made me interested in an excellent recent article on Nutrition Unplugged questioning the pithy advice Michael Pollan writes in his books. I love the way he writes (and have written about Michael Pollan previously but I did start to think about the assumptions underlying his suggestion that we should not eat any anything that our grandmothers would not recognize as food.

The assumption is that our grandmothers were wholesome and healthy, eating only the food produced by the land. The assumption is that they would be horrified to see what we are eating today because they loved baking bread every day and collecting eggs from the chookhouse every day. The assumption is that they were right and we were wrong.

But let’s think about their lives. Our grandmothers had hard lives. We only have to look at some of our processed foods to understand this. Take for example one of my favourites: condensed milk. I love it because it is sticky and gooey. Our grandmothers loved it because sometimes it was the only way they could get any sort of milk. I have always loved my mum’s tomato sauce and was surprised to learn that the secret ingredient is Wild’s Ezy Sauce. This is a spicy liquid flavouring. More recently I fell in love with my grandmother’s tomato chutney and found it had the same ingredient.

I love using my own blend of spices for chutney but it is easy to buy a whole range of spices these days and I only make chutney when I choose. However if I had to make chutney to deal with the tomato glut, or because we had to be frugal to make ends meet, or because we had to make do with whatever was available, then I might welcome any help I could get. Ezy sauce has become part of my heritage now and one day I might find myself using it because the taste is a comfort to me and reminds me of the food of my foremothers.

When Pollan talks about not eating food our grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized, it suggests they had nothing to do with overprocessed foods and our lack of connection with the source of food. In fact many of our grandmothers would have been delighted at the new world opened up to them by processed foods and bright shiny supermarkets. Of course there were other forces at work – industrialization, the entry of women into the workforce, colonization etc. But when I think about it, I think that maybe our grandmothers would recognize and welcome more of our foods than Pollan suggests. His advice is a warm and pleasant sentiment but it ignores the reality of how and why our food culture has changed.

But all this discussion is not to forget that our grandmothers knew how to make do far better than we do these days. I live only 5 minutes walk from three supermarkets that are open long hours as well as many small fruit and veg shops and middle eastern food stores. I am spoilt.

So I always feel a little pleased with myself when I am able to make do. Having a small child about makes it a little harder to rush out to buy what I need. On the day that I made the gingerbread, I discovered that although I had mixed peel, I did not have eggs or buttermilk. Milk with a splash of lemon juice could be substituted for buttermilk and bananas were substituted for eggs.

Ironically, it is not from my grandmothers that I have learnt these skills of substitution but rather from the blogging community. Nevertheless I like the idea that history is cyclical rather than linear and that my foremothers might approve of such resourcefulness.

Previously on Green Gourmet Giraffe:
This time last year: Pumpkin Hummus
This time two years ago: Condensed Milk: Heirloom Comfort Food
This time three years ago: Choc Chip Cookies go Bananas!

Gingerbread Squares with Peel
from Scottish Home Baking by Judy Patterson
  • 450g plain flour
  • 225g soft brown sugar
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 175g butter or margarine
  • 50g mixed chopped peel
  • 4 tbsp treacle
  • 160ml buttermilk (I used milk with a generous squeeze of lemon juice)
  • 2 eggs (I used two small bananas)
Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease and line a lamington tin. Place all dry ingredients except the peel into a large mixing bowl and rub the butter in. Stir in the peel. Warm the treacle gently (I did this in microwave) and mix in the eggs (or banana). Add to the dry ingredients. Stir in the buttermilk. Bake 30-40 minutes. Cool and cut into squares. I liked them fresh but E preferred them forgotten about in his desk for a few days.

On the Stereo:
The Köln Concert: Keith Jarrett


  1. *applauds* I love this perspective on the grandmotherly foods argument, and think you're very right! And I must say, when my 81 year old grandmother at dinner tonight mentioned often eating pigs' trotters as a child, cooked by her mother (my great-grandmother), she didn't seem overly enthused by the idea. She herself cooks a hot meal for herself and her husband every day for lunch, but they also order Chinese takeaway every single Saturday as her "day off". Plus, she has a lot of allergies, so some "processed" foods make her life a lot easier.

    Anyway, enough abotu my own lovely grandmother :) Must say I still can't enjoy citrus peel, but I do love a good warmly-spiced gingerbread!

  2. So true that our grandmothers knew how to make do, and I could learn to be much better at that! Your gingerbread looks delicious, and I've never mixed peel. I'll have to look for it now.

  3. I use the substitution for buttermilk, but am glad to now have one for eggs. The gingerbread looks good.

  4. I love gingerbread! And, I've never had a problem finding tubs of mixed peel in any supermarket here in England. Maybe it's just gone out of fashion over there?

  5. Definitely food for though Johanna. I suppose gingerbread would develop its flavours over time much like a curry or other item. And am I seeing things or does your felt coaster have chillis cut out in it? :)

  6. It can be hard to find mixed peel, and it seems impossible to find separate lemon and orange peel (except at the stall at the Vic market that has all that glace fruit). Another old-fashioned ingredient that it seems is getting harder and harder to get at the supermarket is marzipan!

  7. Very thoughtful post, Johanna! I agree- the "rules" are pithy but life is much more complex than that.

  8. Thanks Hannah - your grandmother sounds like she deserves a break from cooking once a week - and I am sure you could try this gingerbread without peel but I was looking for ways to use up a packet I had bought and opened

    Thanks Lisa - making do is a great skill but best practiced when necessity strikes!!!

    Thanks Jacqueline - I find myself using bananas a lot more as I buy more for Sylvia and she refuses more and they are also a good way to bake low sugar and eggless muffins for her as I have been exploring her eating

    Thanks Rachel - interesting that you find it easy to buy in the UK - maybe it is no coincidence that the recipe with peel came from a Scottish cookbook

    Thanks Lorraine - gingerbread does seem to develop flavours and texture over time but it is hard to be patient and wait - and that is actually a glass placemat with chillis that I keep on my bench by the oven to protect it from hot dishes and knives

    Thanks Jean - I don't buy marzipan very often but now I must look to see if it is our nearby supermarkets - there are a few recipes I would like to try with marzipan some day so better not wait til it disappears

    Thanks Nupur - I guess the complexity of life is why we say that rules are made to be broken :-)

  9. Joanna, your post is beautiful, and very insightful... Thank you for reminding me of my grandmother and all she endured...

  10. What an interesting and though-provoking post - thankyou for sharing :)

  11. I don't think that I have ever seen gingerbread with mixed peel in before but I'd be willing to try. I also used to hate mixed peel as a kid!

  12. What an interesting perspective, and of course it makes a ton of sense. I've often thought that - for all that he was the one to introduce me to the clever tricks behind marketing the concept of the "pastoral" - Pollan often seems to be unrealistically romantic with his food rules!

  13. I adore gingerbread, so much so that I don't ever think any has had the reprieve of living unharmed on counter beyond next day. I shall try it matured. And do I love treacle, although not easiest to come by here (golden syrup, yes; treacle, no)!

    Lovely, lovely shot of La Babe and La Zinc. Clearly, they are loving, kindred spirits.

  14. You know, I think there's a certain amount of generational disjunction in Pollen's advice; your grandmother and mine were alive and kicking in the 50s or so, which was really the heyday of those artificial foods that Pollen is railing against. I think that his books are written at the American baby boomers, whose grandparents were alive a generation before ours at least, when there were fewer of the really spectacularly artificial foods about (although, that's when margarine was invented, go figure). That said, I quite agree, those women, too, would embrace anything that made life easier for them.

    There's also a real nostalgia in the US for "the good old days", without specifying what those days were. Politically, those days are painted with a rosy glow, when teenagers didn't have sex, and families were whole, and no one was obese, and the economy was fine, and people trusted politicians... Yeah, you get the idea. So it seems to make sense that the new food gurus appeal to a similar mentality, in the past when everything was good and as it should be. There's nothing wrong with the "real food" mantra, just the idea that we had it "right" at some point.

    I don't know, am I way off track?

  15. Thanks Astra - glad to conjure up your grandmother's memory and share some thoughts

    Thanks Lisa - glad you found it interesting

    Thanks Cakelaw - mixed peel just doesn't seem to be in many recipes these days - ironic now that we have come around to it

    Thanks Scrumptious - I don't want to disregard Pollan but I agree he is romantic - perhaps it is why it is such a joy to read his prose

    Thanks Susan - maturing gingerbread requires more self control than I usually have - and as for La Babe and La Zinc - oh yes best of friends, or so Sylvia thinks as she tries to share water, mandarins etc with Zinc

    Thanks Scarabee - good point about my grandmother being younger than many that Pollan refers to but having read a bit of food history, I think the processing began earlier than the 1950s - reading about Australian food history shows just how much the new immigrants to Australia even in the 19th century relied on processed food (such as beef jerky!). Extended travel and industrialisation made processed food more of a necessity because it was the beginning of people leaving their connection with the land - I am no expert on the history but this is my memory of what I have read,

  16. I so agree! It's true that our grandmothers had to make due with so many things. Maybe Pollan was talking about "his" grandmother, who might be an earlier generation! And I also hated mixed peel as a kid, but I have to say I'd dig right into this gingerbread--nice to know it can keep for a few days!

  17. I will definitely have to check out that Scottish baking book as I have been searching for that sort of thing! I love the points that you made in response to Michael Pollan's statement. At first it seems as though you should agree with Michael Pollan but once you start digging and flesh it out as you did, it's not so simple. And the gingerbread looks lovely! Yum.


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