Some of the happiest years of my childhood were spent in the small Aberdeenshire town of Ellon. When my parents decided to move back ‘down south’ in the mid 80s I told my friends I would never return. I didn’t mean it of course. It’s the sort of thing a petulant teen says to over dramatise an otherwise mundane occurrence. There was a regular turnover of people in Ellon as a consequence of much of the townsfolk being involved in the oil industry (as was the case with my father). Perhaps there was a touch of Cassandra in my declaration because I haven’t been back to Ellon or even ventured further north than Edinburgh since my family left.
You may well ask what the above has to do with Regula Ysewijn’s latest book. Occasionally you don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you are given a friendly nudge. So when I came across the recipe for the Aberdeen Buttery Rowie I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten one of these pastries (which Ysewijn describes as being ‘a bit like an unfortunate croissant you find in the bottom of your bag’) since I departed Ellon all those years ago. I also recalled how much I had enjoyed eating butteries (as we called them). So I set about baking a batch. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the Proustian experience of eating a buttery but suffice to say they were every bit as good as I remembered.
What is the essence of the book?
If main title ‘Oats in the North, Wheat from the South’ doesn’t give you a clue as to what this book is about then the title subtitle removes any doubt. As it clearly states on the front cover this book reveals the history of savoury and sweet British baking from classic raised pies to beloved biscuits like the custard cream. Historically speaking in terms of baked goods oats were indeed favoured in the North as they were easier to grow in that part of Britain (think of parkin or clapcake, an oat based crisp bread) whereas wheat was grown in the south.
About the author
Regula Ysewijn is a Belgian author, photographer and anglophile who is fascinated with the culinary history of Britain. Her first book Pride and Pudding (2016) was shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason Food & Drink Awards and the Andre Simon Awards. She is also a judge on the Flemish version of the Great British Bake Off.
Who will like it?
If you have a passion for baking and want to get to grips with some of this nation’s traditional recipes, like Devonshire Splits or Manchester Tart, you are in for a real treat. The book also includes recipes for ‘recent classics’ like carrot cake, so just about every era (in terms of cake) is covered.
Who won’t like it?
This book focuses on homely baked goods that you would expect to find at a village fete or in an unassuming tea room. It is not about fancy pants patisserie. If you’re looking for detailed instructions for how to make a croquembouche or an opera cake this won’t hit the mark.
What do I like about the book?
Some people may question whether we really need another book on British baking. It is true that there have been books written on this subject in the past. What I particularly like about Oats in the North is its combination of the everyday fare like the Rich Tea Biscuit to the more exotic Tamarind Tart based on an eighteenth century recipe by Charles Carter. It is also lovely to see recipes like yum-yums and the butteries, so often overlooked, make an appearance. Like Pride and Pudding the provenance behind each recipe has been meticulously researched but succinctly summarised in the introductions. Ysewijn’s enthusiasm for the subject shines through in her writing. The book is a joy to read as well as to cook from and, as you would expect from a photographer of Ysewijn’s standing, the pictures accompanying the recipes are exquisite.
Would I cook from it?
Absolutely! (I’m eating a buttery rowie as I write this).