Jan 082019

Today (the day after Plough Monday) was the day when the Whittlesea Straw Bear came out for his annual dance. The festival of the Straw Bear or “Strawbower” is a nineteenth century custom known only from a small area of Fenland on the borders of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, including Ramsey Mereside. Whittlesey (modern spelling) is in the Fens in northern Cambridgeshire. A man covered completely in an outfit made of straw, accompanied by a keeper who led him around on a chain, and a musician, pranced around the streets — the keeper rattling a collecting box. The custom died out around 1909 because the local police inspector regarded it as basic begging with little merit. It was revived in rather different form in 1980. Now the Straw Bear is the centerpiece of a weekend long folk festival and has little resemblance to the original custom. Here is an old description of the original custom and the music used:


The festival has now expanded to cover the whole weekend when the Bear appears (not Plough Tuesday nowadays, but the second weekend in January instead). On the Saturday of the festival, the Bear processes around the streets with its attendant “keeper” and musicians, followed by numerous dance sides (mostly visitors), including morris men and women, molly dancers, rapper and longsword dancers, clog dancers and others, who perform at various points along the route. This is from 2016:

East Anglia has a number of suet puddings to its name, and I am fond of all of them, especially at this time of year if I am in northern Europe. I’ll give you the traditional nineteenth-century version of pork fillet pudding from Cambridgeshire. In Victorian times, cooks made boiled suet puddings by lining a pudding cloth (unbleached muslin) with suet pastry, adding a filing, then drawing up the pastry to make a package, then pulling together the cloth to make a bundle. They then simmered the bundle directly in boiling water. I have done this, but I prefer to line a pudding basin with a double layer of cheesecloth overlapping the sides, line it with suet pastry, add the filling, put on a pastry top, then fold over the excess cheesecloth, and tie the top of the pudding basin with a lid of greaseproof paper. Then steam the pudding in a steamer with the basin clear of the boiling water. This way the suet crust does not get all soggy. So . . .

Take a lump of suet pastry and roll it our to form a 12” square. Place the pastry over a slightly larger pudding cloth and place a pork fillet in the middle. Peel and finely chop and onion and gently sauté it in a little butter until it is soft. Add a generous amount of dried sage and sauté a little longer until the sage is aromatic. Spread the sage and onion mix over the pork, draw up the corners of the pastry to form a package, and tie the pudding cloth around the pudding in a well sealed bundle. Place in simmering water, and simmer, covered for about 4 hours. Check the water level periodically and top up with boiling water from a kettle if the level gets low.

Oct 212014


Today is Trafalgar Day, the annual celebration of the victory won by the Royal Navy, commanded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. The formation of the Navy League in 1894 gave added impetus to the movement to recognize Nelson’s legacy, and grand celebrations were held in Trafalgar Square on Trafalgar Day, 1896. It was widely commemorated by parades, dinners and other events throughout much of the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is still widely celebrated by navies of the Commonwealth of Nations, but not so much in Britain.

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Its public celebration declined after the end of World War I in 1918. The massive casualties and upheaval had changed the general public perception of war as a source of glorious victories to a more somber view of it as a tragedy, for which the newly instituted Armistice Day on 11 November was created. However, Trafalgar Day was still marked as a public day each year. Around 1993, it was rumored that John Major’s government might make it a public holiday in place of May Day, and this plan was revived in the 2011 Tourism Strategy created by the current coalition government.

The year 2005 was the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Royal Navy led Trafalgar 200 celebrations. The 2005 International Fleet Review held off Spithead in the Solent on 28 June was the first since 1999 and the largest since Queen Elizabeth’s 1977 Silver Jubilee.


In Birmingham, the anniversary is celebrated by a ceremony at the statue of Lord Nelson in the Bull Ring. The statue is the oldest statue of Lord Nelson in the United Kingdom. The ceremony is led by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and involves men and women of HMS Forward, Sea Cadet Units from across the West Midlands and various civic organizations including The Nelson Society and The Birmingham Civic Society. Afterwards there is a wreath laying by naval and civic organizations and a parade marches off to Victoria Square, the public square in front of the seat of local government, where the Lord Mayor takes the salute.


Another aspect of the Birmingham celebration is that the statue is regaled with swags of laurel and flowers, possibly due to its location by the wholesale flower markets of the city. This tradition was carried on throughout most of the nineteenth century and was revived in 2004.

In Edinburgh, the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill was built in memory of Admiral Lord Nelson. Weather permitting, the Trafalgar flag signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ is flown on Trafalgar Day. Looking like a tall stone telescope, the Nelson Monument contains a time ball which drops at 1 o’clock daily.


The victory is celebrated each year in the Australian town of Trafalgar, Victoria, in which the town of 2,200 hold an annual Battle of Trafalgar Festival with the Trafalgar Day Ball held on the Friday or Saturday closest to 21 October each year.

I’ve talked before here about rations on board ship in the days before refrigeration. Chief foods were salt beef, dried peas or beans, and ship’s biscuit (hard tack), supplemented with odds and ends such as dried fruits, treacle, and, of course, rum. Steamed pudding, or duff, was a rare treat and was not the rich dessert of home cooks (unless the ship was in port). Usually duff, also called spotted dick if it had raisins in it, was made with crumbs from ship’s biscuit perhaps with some flour added, made into a stiff paste and enriched with a little treacle and dried fruit, then turned into a cloth and boiled for several hours. I don’t think it would be favored by modern diners lacking as it does suet, eggs, milk, and baking powder to make it flavorsome and light-ish (suet pudding is heavy no matter what). But it would have been a luxury for sailors on a monotonous diet. I’ve never tried to recreate it, but I have made the modern version of spotted dick many times (as well as numerous variations on suet pudding).


Spotted Dick


1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
1 cup beef suet, finely chopped
8 tbsp whole milk
½ cup treacle
½ cup raisins


Put several inches of water in a large pot and put on medium-high heat to a rolling boil.

Thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients. Blend the milk and treacle together and add this one tablespoon at a time to form a sticky mass. Make sure that all of the dry ingredients are moistened thoroughly by kneading well.

Grease the inside of a pudding basin well (I use a 19th century lidded pudding mold). Put the pudding dough in the basin and cover it with buttered greaseproof paper which you should tie down with string.

Place something in the boiling water to keep the basin off the bottom, such as a large cookie cutter. Place the basin on this spacer so that it clears the pot bottom. Keep the water at a slow simmer, cover tightly and let steam for 1 ½ to 2 hours, checking periodically to make sure the pot does not dry out.

Turn out the pudding on to a warm serving platter and serve with custard.

Serves 1 in my house.


A good variation is to add a few tablespoons of treacle or golden syrup to the bottom of the basin and omit the raisins in the pudding dough. This will produce treacle pudding which, when turned out, has a lovely basting of hot syrup.