Dining with Thomas More

Dinner at Thomas More's house. Episode 2 of BBC TV's adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Dinner at Thomas More’s house.
Episode 2 of BBC TV’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Thomas More’s reputation for asceticism is clearly reflected in the BBC’s new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In episode 2 Stephen Gardiner mutters over a dull and sparse-looking dinner at More’s house that there is absolutely no danger of the household Fool’s excitable behaviour resulting from too rich a diet; shortly afterwards, on the boat journey back to Westminster, he complains to Thomas Cromwell how hungry he is. In contrast we hear that Cardinal Wolsey, even as he travels towards his final downfall, asks his loyal servants urgently to send him quails. Food imagery is used to nice effect to tell us most of what we might need to know about the natures of these men—and the nature of their enmity with one another—on multiple levels.

Likewise, in More’s own island state of Utopia, food-related imagery operates as an effective satirical device and a means of pointing to the everyday realities of life in a better society. Descriptions of communal dining and the collective harvests brought home by city and country dweller alike point the reader to the possibilities of a society in which every citizen contributes to both the production of its sustenance and its enjoyment. Straightforward social and cultural themes such as good husbandry and good eating—including a clear indication of what the right dietary choices are and what they say about people—ground the fiction, underpinning the radical with the commonplace and thus making Utopia a reasonable account of what might be possible.

But Utopians are not the hair-shirted ascetics More himself is often depicted to be. While at pains to point out they chiefly value the joys of the mind, they also pursue the enjoyment of good health, and “the delight of eating and drinking, and whatsoever hath any like pleasantness, they determine pleasures much to be desired.” (83) Individual bodily gratification, experienced without gluttony and excess but with an enjoyable “delectation” in both food and drink, contributes to the fitness and happiness of the body politic. (81-82)

By contrast, the vain and worldly, more impressed with wealth, title and display than simple pleasures and good human fellowship are unable to eat well. Subject to poor taste and bad judgement in their food (as in everything else), they are likely “to accept bitter or sour things for sweet things”. (81) The Utopians’ exploitation of the Zapoletes as mercenary soldiers is partly justified by descriptions of their uncivilised eating habits: “abhorring from all delicate dainties”, they live in ramshackle houses, foraging and hunting rather than cultivating the land. (101) Similarly their bondsmen (or slaves) are said to have an innately corrupt nature, reflected in their willingness to undertake animal slaughter. (64) Though they might enjoy eating meat or fish prepared at a safe distance from the city, no Utopian has blood on his or her hands.

While Utopians eschew boisterous behaviour and excessively sumptuous fare, their communal dinners are not the sparse and joyless affairs served up by More in Wolf Hall. The dining room is designed to be calm and orderly, with due reverence given to the elderly, but children and adults mix at the tables and lively conversation is encouraged. The food is far better than anything one could prepare at home, and within the Utopian order, pleasure and engagement of all the senses is essential. Indeed, “No supper is passed without music. Nor their banquets lack no conceits nor junkets. They burn sweet gums and spices or perfumes and pleasant smells, and sprinkle about sweet ointments and waters, yea, they leave nothing undone that maketh for the cheering of the company. For they be much inclined to this opinion: to think no kind of pleasure forbidden whereof come no harm.” (67)

Whatever the truth of dinner at Thomas More’s house—and whether he allowed himself or his guests this kind of sensual gratification at dinner time or not—I find it very encouraging to consider that from the moment the term utopia was coined it required full exercise of all of the pleasures of the table.


[Page references are to the 2008 OUP paperback edition of Utopia. See: More, Thomas, Francis Bacon, and Henry Neville. Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis and the Isle of Pines. Translated by Ralph Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.]


How to read a cookbook


Maybe, like me, you are one of those people whose shelves groan under the weight of their cookbook collection. So here’s a question: what do you use all those cookery books for?

Easy! To find and compare recipes, to get inspired with new food ideas, to plan and dream about future meals – and to COOK, of course!

But for those of us who spend our time thinking about history and culture, reading a cookbook can tell us so much more than just how to cook something. Cookery books are a little window into a cultural moment, giving insight into a particular place or time or group of people. They don’t just tell us about the next dish or the domestic microcosm, but help us think about the place of this slice of the everyday in the wider world beyond.

The wonderful writer and mentor-to-many, Barbara Wheaton runs a week-long seminar exploring all the ways to think about cookbooks as historical objects. If you can get yourself to Cambridge, MA in late May/early June, do it: I’ve attended twice, and it’s such an exciting week at the Schlesinger Library (which also has an enviable collection of cookbooks). For 2015 details see this page.

Combining what I learned from Barbara with my own work, and adding some actual cooking into the mix, I ran a Metalab seminar on the theme of reading historical cookbooks last year. We talked and read, and cooked and ate, and had a fabulous time.

On Friday evening (2nd May 2014), I am repeating the seminar for ‘Leisure’ week at Birkbeck’s pop-up university in Willesden Green, London. Sadly the facilities do not permit us to do any live cooking this time – but if you want to look at some beautiful paintings, read a few bits of cookbook text, and talk about food, history and culture for a couple of hours, then do come along. I might even manage to bring along a little something for you to nibble on while we talk.

This session – like all of them in this great initiative – is free, but you do need to register via Eventbrite.

I hope to see you there!

Irn bru sorbet for Burns night


Irn bru may be one of those things you have to enjoy as a child – like marmite – to really develop a taste for it. Happily for me, I did, and in the right circumstances there’s little better than a cold, rusty orange, sweet, fizzy glass of it. It’s impossible to describe the taste. When I was growing up, the adverts told us it was “made from girders”, and that remains a good enough explanation for me.

I volunteered to help my niece (the macaroon niece) with a Burns supper she was working on. We chatted about mini macaroons and deep fried mars bars as the ideal follow up to the obligatory haggis, neeps and tatties, and then it came to me: irn bru sorbet! Perfectly combining the roles of palate cleanser and sugar hit, it seems like the obvious missing link between main course and dessert. No Burns supper need be deprived of this Scottish equivalent of the trou Normande ever again. It wouldn’t do any harm to add a slug of vodka to it, either.


This recipe is an adaptation of the wonderful Robin Weir’s (much more sophisticated) cider sorbet recipe. His brilliant book with Caroline Weir, Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati is my definitive guide to frozen desserts.

300ml cold water
200g sugar
600ml irn bru, chilled
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 egg white

Dissolve the sugar in the cold water, stirring until there are no grains left. Measure out the chilled irn bru and combine with the sugar syrups lemon juice. Refrigerate, if it isn’t completely cold. Start the ice cream machine, and pour in the bright orange liquid. After about 10 minutes, when the mixture is beginning to freeze, take your egg white, very lightly break it up with a fork (don’t make it frothy), and add it to the mixture in the machine.

Continue churning until the sorbet is a light and fluffy snow. You will be amazed at how strongly it smells of irn bru! The sorbet gets paler and paler as it churns, ending up a pretty pale orange. If you want to retain the aggressive rusty hue of the original ‘bru, you could add some food colouring, but I don’t think this is essential.

Serve immediately. If keeping for later, pour straight into a clean plastic container, cover the surface with greaseproof or waxed paper, seal with a lid, and freeze. Depending how hard it is when fully frozen, allow to soften slightly in the fridge for 10-20 minutes before serving from the freezer.

Bitter with bits in: my ideal marmalade

IMG_2247When I was growing up marmalade meant one thing: a citrussy concoction with bits of peel in it, related to jam but somehow more complicated in flavour and less obviously sweet. It was also one of the only things my father ever cooked – it still is – and although he comes up with all sorts of variations on the theme, one or more members of the citrus family are always the star ingredients, and perfectly sliced peel an essential element. I think this is generally the case in the UK today, though the earliest origins of the name lie with a smooth Portuguese quince concoction and over centuries the word has applied itself to many different kinds of fruit jam in other European countries (for full marmalade history and lots of recipes see my friend Elizabeth Field’s wonderful work).

Of course I am so conditioned by citrus that oranges are always the first fruit that spring to mind when I read the word, and I’ve been reading it a lot recently as I continue my pursuit of Charles Fourier’s gastrosophic (or truly gastronomic) vision – and his sweet tooth. Fourier seems to love marmelades, and constantly suggests them as one of the ideal and economical foods of Harmony, especially for women and children. The Néo-Physiologie du Gout par Ordre Alphabétique (1839) confirms that in France in this period a marmelade was simply the type of jam that uses the whole of the fruit, as opposed to a jelly, made with only the juice. Its marmelade section discusses everything but citrus, and although there is a brief, all inclusive description of citrus marmelade under the citron entry, this requires passing the cooked peel through a sieve to produce a smooth preparation – sacrilege on my breakfast table!

Although I know some people chop their marmalade peel finely with a food processor, and Fourier himself was expecting an un-bitty preserve, I’m afraid I simply can’t bring myself to make you a puréed or strained marmalade, especially not while Seville oranges are in season. You can click here for a basic recipe for a very British orange marmalade, passing on as many tips from my father as I could glean. It might not be what Fourier had in mind for his Harmonians, but as far as I’m concerned it brings you as close as you can get to marmalade perfection.

Rediscovering the Mirliton – Charles Fourier’s favourite tart


IMG_7482When you read any of Charles Fourier’s utopian tracts you can’t help noticing what an important part sugar plays in his idea of the perfect world. He constantly refers delicious cakes, jams and sweets, and does it with such relish that it feels obvious that his future world, Harmony, was the perfect place for anyone – like him – with a very sweet tooth.

One of the cakes he mentions most often is the mirliton, and everyone who has written on Fourier’s theory of gastrosophy mentions them too, equally casually. But one day I asked myself – what exactly IS a mirliton? And where can I get one? In fact, why am I not eating one right now as an essential element in my research? I started to ask for them in bakeries all over Paris, and other towns I visited in the south, and made the not entirely original discovery that the best way to feel extremely foolish about your apparent lack of mastery of the French language is to ask a pâtissier about a cake he’s never heard of: rest assured that it’s never him, it’s you!


It became clear that if I wanted this essential taste of Harmony in my life I had to find a recipe and make one myself. The Néo-physiologie du gout par ordre alphabétique, ou Dictionnaire général de la cuisine française ancienne et moderne (Paris: 1839) obliged, with not just one recipe, but a basic recipe and two variations. This in itself was very exciting, as one variation was for Mirlitons de Rouen and one for Mirlitons à la parisienne. If you have read about Charles Fourier’s formative years you will know that in 1789 he made his first trip to Paris, via Rouen, at the age of 18. Clearly this visit, at such a significant time in his own development and in the social and political history of France, had a major influence on the rest of his life, thought and writing. For me, it’s intriguing also to wonder if the mirliton was another significant yet somehow hidden discovery on that trip, and speculate that the lighter, puffier mirliton of the Parisian recipe only added to his enchantment with that city.

So, what are they like? I’d say, with Fourier, they are miraculous, and a true taste of paradise: fluffy, dainty, light as air, beautiful to look at, delicious to eat. Watching them through the oven door as they rise at unlikely speed to an impossible height completely explains their name – a non-edible mirliton being somewhere between a kazoo and one of those party blowers that hoots as it unfurls a long flat tongue when you blow into it. For every reason I reckon the mirliton, baked to be as light and sweet as Harmony demands it, is long overdue for a major comeback.



Ingredients (for about 30)
4 eggs – 2 whole, 2 separated
120g (4 oz) icing sugar
90g (3 oz) meringues (hazelnut is very good) – crushed
½ tbsp orange flower water
pinch of salt
60g (2 oz) butter – melted
800g (1¾lb) fine puff pastry
Icing sugar and Demerara sugar for finishing

Pastry moulds/tart tins 5cm wide and 2cm deep
Fluted pastry cutter 7cm diameter.

Pre-heat oven to medium hot, 180°C-200°C / 350°F-400°F.

IMG_2372Melt the butter and allow it to cool. In a bowl mix together the two whole eggs and 2 egg yolks and stir in the icing sugar, crushed nut meringues, orange flower water and the pinch of salt. Mix in the cooled melted butter. Beat the 2 egg whites into soft peaks and fold them in to the rest of the mixture.

IMG_2366Roll out the puff pastry to a thickness of 6mm (2/8”), and cut into 30 or so pieces with a 7cm (2 6/8”) fluted pastry cutter.

IMG_2367Gently place them in lightly buttered moulds 5cm (2”) wide and 2cm (6/8”) deep.


IMG_2375Fill the pastry cases with the mixture.

IMG_2377Sift icing sugar over them to give a light dusting over the whole surface, and sprinkle a few grains of Demerara sugar on each one.


IMG_2379Bake in a medium to hot oven, with even bottom heat, for about 10-15 minutes. The pastry and the filling will puff up to an unlikely-seeming height – if they don’t, adjust the oven temperature and stand your filled trays on a hot metal tray or baking stone.


Serve hot or cooled on the day of baking. They don’t really need any embellishment but if you want to plate them as a dessert they are good with some fruit coulis (raspberry or blackberry) on the side.


For a more printable version of the recipe, look on the Recipes page.

Bread in Kazakhstan – Taba Nan baked in a dung fire


At any market in southern Kazakhstan you will see piles of the most beautiful big round breads, called nan or non. All of them have a raised edge and some kind of decoration on the central dough, though there are many variations on the theme, and they are priced accordingly. Some are plain (taba nan, or lepeshka in Russian), others enriched with egg (salma nan); some Uzbek-influenced version have fried onion rolled into the rim or mixed into the dough, while others are strewn with sesame or nigella seeds. In a restaurant, you might be served smaller and highly decorated versions of any of these breads, damdy nan.


Typically, the plain or seeded version is eaten at breakfast with thick sour cream or butter and fruit jam. Others accompany salads and meat dishes. Whichever variation you are served, it’s clear that these breads are closely related to the Uzbek non or patyr in form and ingredients. But one of the more interesting things about the Kazakh version is the way they are traditionally baked at home: not in an oven as we might understand it, or a clay tandoor as in Uzbekistan, but in a couple of metal dishes, put together to make a kind of mini oven for each individual bread. Presumably this entirely portable technique is tied to the nomadic roots of the Kazakhs. Using it allows anyone to make a perfect bread anywhere it’s possible to light a fire and unhook two pans from your luggage – and produce something that one might more usually asscoiate with a bakery, an oven, and settling in one place.


Of course not many Kazakhs live this nomadic life any more, but this only makes it more interesting to find out how people make the bread today. Zubira Boranbayeva showed me how to do it first in the traditional way, on a dung fire; and then in the new way, on an electric stove, when I visited her in the village of Zhabagly in southern Kazakhstan. The different heat sources require slightly different techniques, which in turn subtly affect the flavour of the bread. It was a fascinating example of how recipes and dishes can adapt, and how the small changes and compromises needed to make a recipe work in new circumstances result in tiny but discernible changes in flavour, look and feel.


The common factor in both versions is the dough. It’s a very wet, porridgey mixture, generally mixed in the morning and left wrapped up in a warm place for 8-9 hours. Above is the lively result we had to work with! The next step is to light the fire. We had a traditionally Kazakh fire made of dried dung, but you could use wood instead.


The next step is to heat the pans as the fire takes. These must be heavy iron pans, safe for use over an open fire, of almost the same size. They need to fit together edge to edge, or with one very slightly smaller than the other fitting just inside the rim of the other.


Once heated, the bottom pan should be rubbed with a piece of sheep tail fat to prevent the bread from sticking.


Next, take a handful of dough and spread it on the bottom of the greased pan.


Push it right out to the edges of the pan and make some marks in the surface of the dough with your knuckles.


Cover the lower pan containing the dough with the warmed covering pan.


Now it’s ready to go into the fire – a large set of tongs is a good idea, as the pans are already hot and will not get any cooler during the baking! Spread out your fire making a good flat bed of glowing embers for your pan to sit on. Put your pans in the middle of the fire and cover with some of the smouldering dung (or wood embers).


Leave it to cook for about 5 minutes, then sweep everything off the lid, remove the lid, and check whether the bread is done.


If it is golden on top, pull the pan out of the fire with your tongs and remove the bread. It should tip out easily thanks to the pre-greasing with sheep tail fat.


The combination of direct top and bottom heat on a relatively small amount of dough makes this an incredibly quick bread to cook, and the wet dough makes for a light and springy texture. The fat, the smoke and the smell of the outdoors combine to make it an unbelievably delicious one.

Bread in Kazakhstan – Baursak

During a visit to Aksu Jabagly nature reserve in southern Kazakhstan, the wonderful Mrs Natasha Karatayeva of the Ruslan homestay showed me how she makes baursak, the delicious puffy fried bread served on special occasions all over Kazakhstan. This isn’t an everyday bread, but something for an important party, like a wedding, or even a memorial. It is said that the smell of the oil and the frying baursak floats high into the sky so that your dead loved ones can feed on the aroma and enjoy them with you. It’s a beautiful thought as you fry.

I’d had a lesson in baursak in Almaty, too, that time at Dana Altybaeva’s house (the photos in the recipe below). Dana had told me that you could vary the recipe according to whether you wanted it sweet or not, and whether you wanted the added richness of egg. Hers were unsweetened; Mrs Karatayeva’s were sweetened (yespe baursak). They both produced fabulous fluffy pillows of crisp yet soft dough, hollow in the middle, light as air, and irresistibly moreish. You can vary the recipe below as you prefer – just reduce the sugar to a pinch if you want a more savoury version. Another note – it sounds like a lot of salt, and you can reduce that too if you prefer – but it does taste good!


1.5kg white flour
500ml lightly warmed milk
1 tbsp salt
3-4tbsp sugar
10g dried yeast
2 eggs
1 tbsp melted butter


Mix the ingredients together in a large bowl with your hands, and once it is pulled together knead it for up to 5 minutes until it is springy and forms into a nice, slightly loose, ball. Cover and leave in a warm place for a minimum of 4 hours (this is generally a dough made in the morning for cooking in the evening).

After the rising time has passed and you are ready to cook, heat a light oil (e.g. sunflower) in a heavy pan for shallow frying – about 3cm depth of oil in a pan with high enough sides for safety.

Separate the dough into 7 or 8 medium-sized balls and one at a time roll them out to a thickness of about 5mm. Cut your rolled dough into strips of around 10cm wide, and then each strip into rectangles. Don’t worry about the curved bits at the edges – these shapes do not have to be perfect, simply fairly regular. You can use either a straight sided or fluted cutter depending on what you prefer. As you make the shapes set them aside on a towel in a single layer, and repeat the process with each of your balls of dough.

Once you are ready to cook, lay out a few of the shapes on a plate you can carry to the stove, and make sue your oil is at the right temperature. Mrs Karatayeva drops a match into her oil, and if it lights, it’s ready. You may prefer a more conventional method. like testing one small piece of dough before putting in the rest.

Put as many pieces of dough as will fit in a single layer into the hot oil and fry, turning over to ensure they are golden all over. Scoop out, drain on paper briefly, and serve.

There is apparently another version, the damalak baursak, richer and a bit heavier:  curds are added to the dough, and the breads are boiled before they are fried. I’d love to hear more about that one if anyone has had one or even cooked it.

For a visual step-by-step, here is the complete cycle demonstrated by Mrs Karatayeva: