In praise of The Pauper’s Cookbook

I often tell people that I can cook because my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t. She was far more interested in studying, writing, teaching and taking us to museums and bookshops, on walks along the riverbank in Durham and, importantly, instilling in my brother and me a love of whiling away afternoons in cafés. All of these are very important life skills.

But she did sometimes cook more than the usual, hasty beans on toast or egg and chips, and when she did, it was from Jocasta Innes’s The Pauper’s Cookbook.

I was just writing something about 70s food, which made me pick up my old, yellowing copy for the first time in years. Flipping through it, I can see it through my mother’s young eyes and understand why it must have been so appealing.

This book is about as far away from the 70s housewife world of perfect garnishes and dainty hors d’oeuvres as it’s possible to get. It’s crammed with recipes for the hurried, harried and skint. It has a let’s-get-on-with-it tone and a spirit of adventure, with recipes such as brandade of tuna fish, tortilla, and Suleiman’s Pilaff (bits of leftover cooked lamb, mixed with garlic, patna rice, tinned tomatoes and ‘a pinch of thyme or rosemary’ – the ‘pinch’ makes me think that the assumption is they’re inevitably dried, not fresh).

Welcome to the 70s, so many beans, so much brown earthenware.

I love the cover photograph, with its earthenware dish which would look quite at home in many of today’s faux-rustic East London restaurants. I love the trickle of burnt-on sauce from the pork and beans, and I love, love, love the blurb on the back cover:

‘So leave it to the affluent to court indigestion at the Waldorf-Ritz: here’s how to live it up in your own squalid tenement without recourse to poaching, rustling, guddling, scrumping or shop-lifting.’ How could you possibly resist? And now I need to go and find out what the hell ‘guddling’ is.

French onion soup

I wanted to make something from the book without having to run out to the shops (too cold, too lazy), so my eyes fell on Jocasta’s recipe for French onion soup. Her recipe was much simpler than the one I create here. Its ingredients are 1 quart basic stock, 4 large or 6 small onions, knob of butter, 1/4lb grated Cheddar, 4 slices toast, salt and pepper. But with my Twenty-First-Century fancy London ways, I have at my disposal wine and brandy, Gruyère cheese and an end of slightly stale baguette. But it is absolutely in the spirit of Jocasta, if not to the letter.


80g butter
4 large yellow or white onions, about 1kg prepared weight, halved and thinly sliced
100ml white wine
1 litre beef stock
1 tbsp brandy
About ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4-6 slices of baguette, about 1cm thick
100g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the butter over a medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan
 or casserole. When it stops foaming, add the onions and a good pinch of salt.  Fry gently, stirring often, until they are just beginning to turn golden – they shouldn’t caramelise at all. This could take at least 30 minutes, up to 45 minutes.

The raw sliced onions…
…transform into these soft, golden ones.

Pour in the wine and stir again for a couple of minutes until almost completely evaporated. Next add the stock and some salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Grate in the nutmeg, pour in the brandy and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. 

Heat up the grill.

Ladle the soup into heatproof bowls. Place a slice of bread on top and scatter the cheese over the top. Grill until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. 

I love the way Gruyère melts into delicious stringiness.

Beware of Crocheters Bearing Gifts…


I attempt to master a double crochet stitch.

There was a great, whispered scandal in my family when Auntie Dolly’s granddaughter rejected the wedding dress she’d crocheted for her as a surprise. It wasn’t a scaled-up version of something which might primly cover up a loo roll, rather a two-ply marvel of gossamer beauty and intricacy. At least it was to my seven-year-old eyes.

All of those Blair girls had good hands. Each one of them could make pretty much anything, but they all had their specialist areas. My grandmother Barbara was the compulsive knitter. Auntie Louie was a marvellous baker. There was always something sweetly delicious in a tin at her house. But Dolly was the crochet queen. She could, with a certain amount of accuracy, have been called Auntie Doily. She once crocheted my mother a highly-unseaworthy bikini in shimmering white and gold, sort of Ursula Andress meets the Women’s Institute.

To be fair, a surprise wedding dress isn’t high on any sane person’s wish list. Nonetheless there was much Cissie-and-Ada-esque bosom heaving and lip pursing over the tea cups when The Ungrateful Granddaughter rejected it in favour of some synthetic lace number bought from a shop. The Blair sisters’ outrage was assuaged only slightly when The Unwanted Wedding Dress won first place in the craft section of the village’s flower and vegetable show.


The tempting, colourful shelves of Knit With Attitude.

I thought of Dolly when Erika Knight’s new book, Crochet Workshop: Learn How to Crochet with 20 Inspiring Projects dropped through my door. Though I’m a keen knitter (thank you, Barbara), I’ve never mastered crochet. Along with the usual blankets, cushions and mittens, Erika’s projects include more unusual things such as bejewelled brooches, a laptop cover, a rag rug and a dog bed. It’s a very pretty book. I would say that. It’s shot by the wonderful Yuki Sugiura, who took the pictures for Gifts from the Garden and is also one of the most elegant people I’ve ever met.

The book has clear, detailed instructions for a novice like me, but I like to learn things in company if I can. My friend May Linn Bang, a fiendish Norwegian knitter, recently opened a gorgeous wool shop in Stoke Newington called Knit With Attitude. On her beautiful shelves you will find yarns of every imaginable shade and substance: lambs’ wool of course, but also alpaca, llama, bamboo, silk, hemp and milk fibre, and all carefully sourced to be eco-friendly and sustainable (this is Stoke Newington, after all).



Every month, Maya hosts Stoke Knittington in the shop, an evening to get together with fellow knitters and crocheters to make things over a glass or two of wine, bowls of crisps and lots of local gossip. I won’t be crocheting a surprise wedding dress anytime soon, but by the end of the evening I’d just about mastered a double crochet stich without bursting into tears or flames. I think Auntie Doily would have approved.


Maya knits.


Stoke Knittington nights.

Stoke Knittington meets on the second Thursday of the month, 6pm. Suggested donation, £3. 10% off yarns bought on the evening. Yarns also available mail order.

Knit With Attitude shares its space with Of Cabbages and Kings, a great source of British arts, crafts and gifts.

127 Stoke Newington High Street
London N16 0PH

Kipper pâté


When I was about six, I lived in a house where the kitchen had wooden saloon doors which swung out into the dining room. As I spent most Saturday afternoons watching cowboy films, I thought this was brilliant. It also allowed for a perfect ‘ta-daaaah!’ moment when I brought something out to the table. It’s hardly surprising I learned to love cooking early.

In that little kitchen, I performed my first experiments, mostly drawn from the pages of a free Be-Ro recipe booklet – rock cakes, fairy cakes, Victoria Sponge – the sugary, buttery, floury triumvirate of the 70s tea.

The first savoury dish I ever remember making was tuna fish pâté. I don’t recall there being any cookbooks in that house, other than the free pamphlet sort, so the recipe probably came from the back of the tuna tin.

It went something like this: Drain the tin of tuna then pound it together with half its weight in softened butter and season with black pepper and a little lemon juice (from a squeezy Jif plastic lemon, of course). Spoon into a bowl and arrange on a plate with some Jacob’s crackers. Leap through the saloon doors and serve to your flame-haired mum and flame-haired neighbour Bernice, who are probably drinking sherry and listening to Glen Campbell. They will try very hard to look pleased and not get too many buttery stains on their suede trouser suits as Glen trills, ‘And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time…’ for the third time that afternoon.

I was thinking about my early kitchen experiments the other day when The Handpicked Collection sent me some oak-smoked kippers. I do a little consultancy work for them and they wanted me to try a few of the things from their new Foodstore Collection. I adore kippers for breakfast with a poached egg, but I also thought it might be time to revisit another 70s dinner party classic, kipper pâté. (Taaa-daaah! Door swing.)

Now if you, like me, love kippers but are sometimes put off cooking them because of the lingering smell, here are my top tips. For recipes like this one, ‘cook’ the fish in boiling water in a jug which dramatically reduces the whiffy-ness.

Of course, for breakfast kippers, you’ll want to brush them with melted butter, grind some black pepper on them and grill them. This is much more smelly but infinitely more delicious if you want to eat the kippers as they are. In this case, remove all of the fishy remnants, the bones and heads, from the house as soon as possible. Do not read the paper, do not finish the crossword, do not check your emails. Bag up all of the bits and put them in the outside bin. Dump the grill pan in a bowl of soapy water. Put a small pan of water on the stove with some chopped up lemon or orange, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, star anise – raid the spice drawer for anything which smells delicious, essentially – and let it bubble away for a bit. You might also consider making a cake. This is the best case scenario. You’ve had kippers for breakfast, your house smells delicious and you have cake for later. Or right now. As a reward for all of that hasty housekeeping.

Kipper pâté


1 pair of kippers, about 600g (which will produce about 350g flaked fish)
300g unsalted butter, cut into cubes and softened
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
Juice of half a lemon
A bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the kippers heads down in a large jug and fill up with water from the kettle so that they are completely submerged, bar the tails. Leave them for 10 minutes and discard the water. (Fill the jug with soapy water.)

When the kippers have cooled down a little, remove the heads and bones. It will take a little while to pick out as many of the tiny bones as you can, but that’s what Radio 4 plays are made for.

Put the flaked fish into a food processor with 200g of the butter, the cayenne pepper and lemon juice and pulse until fairly smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper (you may not need much, or any, salt as the kippers are already quite salty). Spoon into a pot or jar.

Melt the remaining butter in a small pan and let it cool slightly. Carefully pour into a small jug, trying your hardest to leave as much of the cloudy milk solids in the bottom of the pan as possible. Place the bay leaf in the middle of the pâté and pour the butter over the top. Cover and refrigerate until the butter is set. It’s even better the next day and will keep for about 4-5 days in the fridge if covered tightly with cling film or foil. Serve with hot toast. Or Jacob’s crackers. Taaa-daaah.

It doesn’t get Leadbetter than this…

Yesterday’s trip down memory lane to dinner parties past inspired me to revisit some of my early culinary experiments, so here they are, more or less as I made them 30 years ago with a bit more booze and a bit more seasoning thrown in to mark the passing of the years. And to celebrate being old enough to drink.

Gingernut log

I remember going to Chittock’s on Newgate Street to seek out sweet, crunchy, fiery crystallised ginger from Mr Chittock, a proper, white-coated grocer as neat as his immaculately ordered shelves. If you ever find yourself in Bishop Auckland, you should drop in. I think his daughter runs the shop now, selling lovely Wensleydale cheeses, pease pudding, and delicious ham.

Chittock’s used to sell carlins too, also known as maple peas or pigeon peas (because they were fed to the ubiquitous pigeons). In the North East, Carlin Sunday precedes Palm Sunday. Traditionally the carlins were soaked overnight then boiled up with perhaps a ham bone thrown into the pot for extra flavour. Then the peas were fried in butter or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and a splosh of malt vinegar.

Anyway, I digress… onto the sweet treat that is the gingernut log. I made this from memory, adding the sherry to make it a little more interesting. You know, it wasn’t bad! Margo would have been proud…

350ml double cream
160g gingernut biscuits, about 3 per person
1 tbsp of ginger syrup from a jar of stem ginger (optional)
50ml of sherry – I used Palo Cortado, but any medium sherry would do
A few tablespoons of crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
40g dark chocolate

Serves 4

Lightly whip the cream with the syrup until it forms soft, cloudy peaks. Spoon a line of the cream down the middle of your serving plate – this will form a sort of ‘glue’ which will stop your biscuits rolling all over the place.

Next, pour a good couple of slugs of sherry into a bowl and quickly dip a biscuit into it – don’t soak it in the bowl, the sherry and the biscuit should have only the briefest flirtation, any longer a courtship and the biscuit will crumble into mush. Spread a good spoonful of cream onto the biscuit and then stand it on its edge on your serving plate.

Continue dipping and spreading, sandwiching the biscuits together on the plate to form a log. Next, spread the remaining cream all over the biscuits in a generous coating then scatter over the crystallised ginger. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and then spoon it over the log. Chill for at least four hours before serving in fat slices.

Tuna pâté

When I made this as a child, I think all it involved was beating a can of tuna into a paste with the same weight of butter and a dash of vinegar. Hmmm. There’s only so far down memory lane a girl is prepared to go. I made this today, it’s more of a spread than a pâté – the kind of thing you could probably throw together from the things in your cupboard. It’s good as an open sandwich and would be quite tasty on small bits of toast to go with drinks. If I’d had any dill, I think that would have been a good addition too.

100g of tinned tuna, drained weight from a 160g tin
40g unsalted butter
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 spring onion, very finely chopped
A good squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast and chopped hard-boiled egg and gherkin to serve

Beat the butter, mustard, spring onion and lemon juice together until smooth. Stir in the tuna, breaking up the bigger chunks. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve on hot toast, with chopped boiled egg and gherkins.