Monday, August 18, 2008

Tea, Bread, Cheese.

I haven’t started a story with ‘On This Day’ for a while, which is a bit remiss of me as that was the daily theme when this blog started out. There is an interesting story that does have its anniversary today however, and it has given me a theme for the next few days.

On this day in 1831, Richard Abbey (Gentleman) of Walthamstow in the County of Essex, England, was granted a patent for ‘a new mode of preparing the leaf of a British plant for producing a healthy beverage for infusion.’ In a nutshell, Abbey had developed a substitute tea from the leaves of the Hawthorn bush (Crataegus mongyna).

Now, the Hawthorn bush is very ordinary, very common, very everyday. Its only real claim to fame is that it was the emblem of the House of Tudor, supposedly because after Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth his crown was found in a Hawthorn bush and used to crown Henry Tudor (Henry VII). Even if Abbey’s method resulted in a delicious and acceptable substitute, it would hardly have been a commercially viable proposition as every English villager would have access to quantities of the leaves. Perhaps the patentable idea was something to do with his processing of the humble leaves?

His ‘new idea’ was to carefully pick the leaves, rinse them well in cold water, and while they are damp to put them in an ‘ordinary culinary steamer, where they are ‘to be subjected to the action of the vapour until they change from a green to an olive colour.’ The leaves are then to be dried upon ‘a hot plate well heated’, and be ‘continually stirred up and turned over until they are thoroughly dry, in which state they may be preserved for use.’

I am baffled as to what was patentable in this idea. It is not as if the Hawthorn was not known to be edible. In fact, the Hawthorn is a veritable pantry. It seems that ‘tea’ (more properly ‘tisane’) has been made from the dried buds for aeons or thereabouts. Any berry, including that of the Hawthorn can be used to make jelly. The berries can also, I understand, be made into quite an acceptable liqueur. Every pantry needs its staples, and jelly and booze may or may not count as staples where you come from. Bread and cheese probably would count as staples in most of the places I have lived. The Hawthorn bush used to be called ‘the bread and cheese tree’ because the buds and leaves can be eaten straight from the tree, as they have often been in times of famine, or used in salads or sandwiches, to add variety in better times. The bush is also called ‘Quickset’, supposedly because mere slips of it stuck in the earth quickly become hedges. I have a vague memory that it is also a source of vegetable rennet, which would be an alternative source of the name – but don’t quote me on that until I have time to investigate. If you know, please let us all know via the comments!

Hawthorn Liqueur.
THE full blossoms of the white thorn [alternative name for Hawthorn] are to be picked dry and clean from the leaves and stalks, and as much put into a large bottle as it will hold lightly without pressing it down ; it is then to be filled up with French brandy, and allowed to stand two or three months, when it must be decanted off, and sweetened with clarified sugar, or with capillaire. Without the sweetening, it is an excellent seasoning for puddings and custards.
The Practice of Cookery. Mrs. Dalgairns. 1830


I am delighted that this post has inspired a poem! The poet is my friend Jim Sharp, who grew up in England but is now many years from his 'roots and shoots'. He says he loved to pick and eat from the bread and cheese tree. Here is his poem:

roman banks 1940’s

in ancient times the imperial army

camped on top of the roman embankment

nowadays the babbling brook meanders

singing softly to those soldiers of yesteryear

on one’s tod sloan a sharp eyed bairn walks

amongst grazing & cud chewing contented cows

whilst around him rabbits & weasels scurry free

a slow moving hedgehog is too spiny to touch

and from the birds nests in the hedge rows

he takes only one egg for his collection

white elder flowers he gathers for granny’s medicinal tea

& from blue-black elderberries she makes jelly & wine

come the days end a sharp bairn lays in the long grass

watching skylarks fall out of a fading sun.


Rachel Laudan said...

My goodness, this takes me back. We had a hawthorn hedge at the top of the yard and every spring we children would go out nibble on the leaves, calling them bread and cheese. It always puzzled me because they didn't taste a bit like bread and cheese. But by March and April we were yearning for something green.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Rachel. Did you eat the buds too? I'd love to try them. I'll be in the UK in a few weeks, so maybe I will get a chance!

Rachel Laudan said...

No we didn't. They would have been very tiny because the hawthorn as you know has little sprays of flowers. But we did eat the haws which really weren't worth the trouble. All stone and a little pithy surround.