GRUB!: Summer Pudding

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It’s been too long since we talked about food, but recently a few things came together to correct that. The first thing was this:

The towpath where I’ve had the boat moored in the last few weeks features a good collection of wild blackberry bushes. (Actually it turns out the towpath is a veritable supermarket, as pointed out by an oddly friendly and garrulous woman who was passing the boat one day as I was leaving and showed me where the hazelnut trees were and talked about growing up picking all kinds of produce on the towpath, including crabapples and other things I can’t remember because I was slightly unnerved by how she absolutely glommed onto me to relate this information.)

The second thing that led me to the inevitable was an email exchange with a local English friend in which I semi-bragged about having a particularly “Swallows and Amazons” day that started with picking said blackberries on the towpath and then proceeded to a very agreeable spell of moving the boat in the bright sunshine.

(Aside for Astute-but-non-UK-based Go Stay Work Play Readers: "Swallows and Amazons" is a series of young adult novels, an accompanying 1960s tv series, and two feature films about the four siblings of the Walker family who have grand adventures in the Lake District involving sailing, camping, fishing and piracy. It's all a health and safety nightmare that would never fly today. However, in the Swallows world, the Walker dad - a naval officer absent on duty in Malta - remotely gives the children permission for a particularly dangerous nighttime sailing mission with an oft-quoted telegram reading, "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN", an utterly un-modern message, but indicative of the sort of Empire-building, Blitz-surviving qualities that make some over here go all misty-eyed. "Swallows and Amazons" is English and summery and nostalgia-for-a-time-now-lost.)

So my email about blackberries and boating led to this response:
"Fresh blackberries, how fantastic. The start of a summer pudding ;-)"
A bit of explanation is probably needed here, for the above mentioned AbnUKbGSWPLRs. First, a reminder about pudding.
"In one sense, "pudding" refers to the entire panoply of sweet stuff you might have at the end of a meal. In fact, the course called dessert is often called pudding here, which I find just charming. As in, "What's for pudding, mum?” Sadly, the term pudding is slowly being supplanted by "dessert", which I also find kind of sad. It's like hearing "fries" instead of "chips" or "cookies" instead of "biscuits" and feels like the last small tumble in the fall of the Empire. More specifically, "pudding" can refer to a whole family of cakey sort of things that are cooked by steam, and can include both sweet and savoury options.  Christmas pudding is probably the best known pudding out there, but other favourites include the most excellent Sticky Toffee Pudding, and the giggle-inducing Spotted Dick."
Summer pudding falls into this category, though it’s not actually cooked at all. But it is a sweet end-of-meal treat and it is prepared in a pudding basin (or not, as we shall see). It’s a cold dessert made with stale bread and soft summer fruits, usually raspberries, red currants, and blackberries, but can also include strawberries, blueberries and other fringe fruit like black or white currants, loganberries and tayberries (which I'm pretty sure are made up). (Also note that the currants listed here are the fresh variety, not the dried fake-inferior-raisin thing you might be thinking of.)

I reviewed several recipes online before settling on one from the BBC website as a guide, but being genetically incapable of following a recipe to the letter, I free-styled it a bit, partly because I wasn’t going to make anything like the volume of pudding the recipe called for, and partly because I didn’t feel like doing a lot of measuring, and partly because of the aforementioned inherited propensity to muck about with recipes. For instance, it seemed utterly boring to cook the fruit in water. In a stroke of genius I can only describe as utterly inspired, I elected to use Pimm’s as my stewing liquid, reasoning that a bit of booziness would only add to the party, and what says English summer more than Pimm's?

The recipe on which I based my summer pudding is here, but I sense it’s the kind of thing you can muck about with infinitely, so I’ll just outline what I did and pretend it's a proper recipe. The amounts suggested here are from the BBC and are for a 1.25 litre pudding basin which seems to be about 17cm (or size 30, for those fluent in the arcane field of pudding basin sizing). I do own a proper pudding basin, but it's massive (size 18 maybe?) and since I was not making summer pudding for the entire England Test Cricket side, I used a non-traditionally shaped metal bowl of about half a litre. Not really tall enough for a properly shaped pudding, but it yielded four small though adequate portions.

Towpath Summer Pudding:
  • 7-ish slices of strong white bread, about 1 cm / 1/2" thick. (Enough to completely line your bowl, including a lid.)  Staleness is a bonus.
This should not be that plastic kind of mass-produced pre-sliced white bread that basically melts when confronted with liquids of any kind.  And no whole grains.  Now is not the time for overly healthy sanctimoniousness.  Some recipes recommend brioche, which would probably be really nice.
  • 1.25kg / 2 lbs of mixed raspberries, blackberries, fresh currants, strawberries, tayberries, loganberries, whateverberries… (Enough to fill your bowl. It seems to be traditional to go heavy on the raspberries.)
  • 175 grams / 3/4 cup white sugar (caster sugar for UK readers)
  • 3 tbsp Pimm’s (or water, but really?) I found I needed more juice, so be generous.
  • Cream, for serving. Ideally, double cream.
Other stuff you need that are not ingredients:
  • Pudding basin or deep bowl. Straight-ish sides is nice.
  • A lid or plate or flat circular thing that fits inside the top of the bowl
  • Small heavy thing that can sit on the lid/plate/circular thing
  • Saucepan and spoon
  • Sieve or colander (Or, if you live on a boat and don't have a colander, the upside down lid of an Ikea cheese grater.)
  • Clingfilm (Saran wrap)
  • Wash the fruit and dry on a paper towel (piece of kitchen roll). Slice the strawberries.
Rasperries and blackberries, washed and waiting
  • In a saucepan, melt the sugar and liquid together and then add the fruit (except the strawberries, if you’re using strawberries)
  • Bring to a boil to extract the juices from the fruit, but don’t cook so long that the fruit starts to break down.
  • Strain the juice into a bowl and reserve the fruit for later.
  • Meanwhile, cut the crusts off the bread slices and shape them so they can completely line the bowl. Cut a circular bit for the bottom of the bowl, or fit two pieces together to cover the bottom, and then use slices or fingers to completely fill in the sides. Also cut a piece or pieces for the top. Dry fit these all and then set them aside. (Aside: I’m guessing this might be the first recorded use of the term “dry fit” in a culinary context…)
Line the bowl with a big piece or pieces of clingfilm (saran wrap) - enough to completely cover the sides and fold up over the top. This will make it easier to de-mould the pudding later.
  • Dip the bottom bread piece(s) quickly into the fruit juice on both sides so they get soaked, and put the bread into the bowl. Continue dipping the side pieces and placing them until the whole inside of the bowl is covered. Use small scraps to fill in spaces and overlap if needed.
It really doesn’t matter if it looks a bit raggedy.
  • Fill the bread-lined bowl with the cooked fruit, dotting in slices of uncooked strawberry if you’re using strawberries.
  • Drizzle in any remaining juice. (I didn’t do it, but I sense this would be an excellent time to put in another splash of Pimm’s. I remain haunted by that lost opportunity.)
  • Cover with the top bit(s) of bread and fold the clingfilm over the top to cover it all.
  • Put the plate or lid or flat circular thing on top of it all and then put the small heavy thing on top of that to press everything down. (A tin of something from the cupboard seems to be traditional.)
Chill the pudding in the fridge for at least 6 hours, though overnight is better.

While chilling, something sort of magical happens as the juice soaks in all over and everything gets pressed together. When you turn it out onto a plate the next day the whole thing holds together remarkably well. Maybe it’s the pectin in the fruit? Whatever the cause, my pudding was decidedly flatter than most pictures you see if you Google for images of summer pudding but still, I think, still turned out quite credible.

The completed pudding, already missing a piece.  Fantastic colour!

The big question, of course, is how did it taste? Short answer: great! The bread was surprisingly not soggy - ending up with a texture that was more like very very moist cake. The berry flavour was huge and yummy and sweet and tart and perfectly summery. And a pour of double cream over the top turned it into a luxurious treat to have with a cup of coffee on a sunny afternoon.


Happily, this recipe is super easy to make and doesn’t include anything that’s difficult to find in Not-The-UK (like Marmite or golden syrup or red telephone boxes), so I urge you all try it out. It’s summer in a bowl. And if you wanted to swap out the coffee for a glass of Pimm’s, we here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters would heartily endorse that variation. 

Off the tourist track: Crossness Pumping Station

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Really this post should be in its own category called “Way way way off the tourist track” because even for an enthusiastic and experienced London tourist, this one was a push.  This is not just because it is bloody miles from anywhere.  I took me  fully four hours to get there and back, including 45 minutes on a bus each way, trundling through some of southeast London’s least picturesque industrial estates.  No, it’s not just the location that’s challenging.  The subject matter is also a bit of a stretch.  There’s no getting around it - a sewage pumping station is always going to be a tough sell to your average tourist.  However, if you’re going to spend the better part of a humid Sunday navigating your way to any sewage pumping station, surely Crossness must be at the top of the list of options.  (Also, I think by this point it’s fair to say I am by no means an average tourist.)

To fully appreciate the wonder and glory of Crossness Pumping Station we need a bit of historical background.  This time, back to the summer of 1858.  (Though Astute Go Stay Work Play readers will recall I’ve actually touched on this topic before.)  By this time waste management in London had progressed beyond the open sewers of the medieval era, with more than a hundred covered brick sewers having been built.  A few of these simply covered over some of London’s now-buried rivers like the Fleet and the Tyburn and these, along with a host of entirely manmade tunnels, emptied raw sewage directly into the Thames.  This system worked, more or less, until the population of London tripled from one to three million and until the flush toilet arrived on the scene, the combination of which resulted in a vastly increased amount of water and effluent being discharged into the Thames.  Naturally, this lent the river quite a pungent aroma which, combined with the unusually hot weather and low river levels during July and August of 1858 resulted in what is known as “The Great Stink”.  During a debate in Parliament (the buildings of which eventually had to be abandoned due to the stench) Disraeli called the Thames "a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”.  This, coupled with the increasing threat from cholera, meant something really needed to be done.

Luckily, British engineering came to the rescue.  You all know I’m a big fan of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but this time we must tip our hats to another titan of the age: Sir Joseph Bazalgette (pronounced BAZ-el-jet).  A few years earlier, Bazalgette had proposed a system of giant gravity-fed tunnels running parallel with the banks of the Thames to intercept the existing sewer outfall and carry it downstream outside the greater metropolitan area.  With 82 km of large diameters tunnels and a network of 1,300 km of smaller sewers feeding them, under Bazalgette’s plan London’s sewage would be carried, stinklessly (yes, that it a word) downstream where it could be discharged into the river as the tide was flowing out to sea.  It was a monumental undertaking but just the kind of thing the Victorians liked to get stuck into, which they did.  Remarkably, those same tunnels are still in use today.

NPG x646; Sir Joseph William Bazalgette
Bazalgette.  What excellent facial hair.  You can practically taste those muttonchops!

I’m just going to say that again because I think it’s bloody amazing: London’s sewage is still efficiently and effectively carried in brick tunnels built by hand about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Apparently when calculating the diameter needed for the various sewer pipes, Bazalgette "took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said 'Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen' and doubled the diameter to be used.” Joseph Bazalgette, you rock.

So what happened when all that waste made it out of London?  In order to be able to discharge it at the right time - when the tide would carry it out to sea - the waste needed to be pumped up out of the gravity fed tunnels that, by the time they reached their end point, were thirty to forty feet below sea level.  This required huge pumping capacity and therefore huge pumps.  Luckily, the Victorians were absolute demons at big steam-powered machines and Bazalgette’s designs for the system included not just the tunnels, but also the pumping stations to raise the effluent up into reservoirs ready for discharge.  The station on the north bank of the Thames is located at Abbey Mills and the one the south is at Crossness.  Also luckily, those Victorians did nothing by halves, and created not just highly functional but also truly beautiful machines.

The facade of the public entrance.  This building used to house the boilers.

Thus our historical background concludes and we can rejoin our weary blogger at the gates of Crossness Pumping Station on one of the very rare Open Days when they actually run - with steam - one of the giant old pumps that they’ve painstakingly restored, and let people wander around watching it all happen (which happens a mere six times this year).

I started out in a relatively new exhibition that told the story of London’s sewage - uplifting subject matter for a Sunday afternoon to be sure.  There were a lot of carefully researched information boards telling, in much greater detail than I’ve done here - the problem of sewage disposal, the risks from cholera, the history of the engineers involved, the impact of the system on the river, blah blah blah.  In truth, it was all pretty interesting stuff, but by far the most fun was the large display of historic toilets.

They also had a very informative display on toilet paper alternative used throughout history and in different cultures. (Including, if I recall correctly, corncobs and seashells.)

I absorbed as much information as I could, but in truth I really just wanted to go look at the giant machine.  The beauty of these Victorian engines is not just in the effectiveness and cleverness of the machine itself, but in the fact that the Victorians were particularly good at making machines not just functional but gorgeous.  Crossness Pumping Station is sometimes called “The Cathedral on the Marsh” because of its spectacular and brightly painted ornamental ironwork.

The main beam

Gratuitous but excellent Victorian frippery

And now settle down for a quick primer on beam engines, the particular bit of machinery on display at Crossness.  A beam engine is perhaps best described as a powered see-saw.  Steam power drives a big piston that pushes on one end of a giant beam (the tippy bit of the seesaw).  The other end of the beam is attached to a huge flywheel.  And in between, closer to the pivot point, are two shafts that lift plungers which actually pump the sewage, operating in opposition to one another and driven by the motion of the beam.  And when I say giant, I do mean that.  The main beam of a Crossness engine is 42’ long and the flywheel is 27’ in diameter and weighs 52 tons.  When in operation, each pump could lift 6 tons of sewage at a stroke, so one revolution of the flywheel would move 12 tons.  And considering that Crossness was equipped with four such engines, each running at about 10 RPM, that allows almost 5,000 tons of sewage to be moved every minute.  The Crossness Engine is thought to be the largest rotative beam engine still in operation in the world.  (The "rotative" part is the flywheel, which converts the uppy-downy motion of the beam to turny-roundy motion.  Sometimes beam engines are just uppy-downy.)

For steam-fans, the engine is a triple expansion, as is clearly obvious from the diagram.  Duh.

Bazalgette’s sewage system proved to be transformative for London.  The stink disappeared, along with the cholera that was thought, at the time, to be carried along with this “bad air”. Luckily, in wrong-headedly solving the problem of the smell, the Victorians also unintentionally eliminated cholera in the water supply, and outbreaks of typhus and tyhoid also decreased considerably.  However, let’s not forget that raw sewage was still being discharged into the Thames estuary, just not in London’s front garden.  (Unsurprisingly, the effect on downstream communities was not good.)  Now, of course, the sewage is treated properly, but London’s system still combines sewage and rainwater into the same sewers (unlike, for instance, Paris, where the two are separate).  And because the systems in London are combined, when there’s a large amount of rainfall in a short amount of time the system gets overwhelmed and they have to dump out into the Thames.  Yes, you read that right.  Even now, in 2016, London regularly dumps raw sewage into the river.  And not just a couple times a year.  Apparently this happens about once a week.  Seriously people?

Anyway, as I said, the station was equipped with four identical beam engines, loyally named “Victoria”, “Prince Consort”, “Albert  Edward” and “Alexandra”, located at the four corners of the Beam Engine House.  “Prince Consort” is the one that’s been restored, along with that corner of the room, while the rest of the space is decidedly unloved, which makes for an oddly divided space.  Most of the room has the sad but intriguing feeling of an abandoned warehouse or factory - dusty and rusted and full of seized up bits of machinery whose purpose one can only speculate about.

See what I mean?

And could you possibly devise a better setting for the final chase scene in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that this?  It’s got “Hidden Supervillain Lair” written all over it.

Spin around though, and you’re presented with an improbable festival of colour.  It’s not just the engine itself that’s made of cast iron, the columns and floors and archways in the room are all made of the same material.  And all of it is decorated with scrolls and vines and lettering and embellishments of all sorts, and painted in an unexpectedly brash combination of colours.

This is part of the octagonal centre of the room, taken from the upper floor.

And here you can see where the restoration starts and stops.

It must have been a monumental amount of work to bring an engine back to life.  They were last run in the 1950s and at the time it was deemed uneconomic to dismantle them for scrap, which I guess is lucky.  Instead, as the Crossness website says, “...the pumps and culverts below the Beam Engine House were filled with a weak sand and cement mix to reduce the risks from methane. This has meant that some 100 tons of this sand had to be excavated from around and beneath the pumps before there was any hope of moving the beam and flywheel.”  That excavation had to be done before they could even start to get the machine working. (Not so lucky...)   The restoration of the overall site was started in about 1988 and is still ongoing, though the engine “Prince Consort” was working by 2003.  And it is magnificent.

Seeing something so large moving so gracefully and quietly is amazing.  I took a video but still have no luck in managing to get videos uploaded properly, so you’ll have to look at this much much much better one I found on Youtube.

It is running on steam, though the old enormous boilers are long gone.  Steam is now provided by a boringly tiny modern boiler from an industrial laundrette.

One of the reasons I like this video is that it shows the use of the barring engine.  I didn’t know what this bit of machinery was for, but the volunteers at Crossness are absolutely top notch and answered all my questions.  So - lucky you - you get to hear about barring engines! Because the beams are so massive the engines need a bit of help in getting started.  It was explained to me like this:  think about your bicycle pedals.  When you’re waiting to push off you instinctively position the pedals so that the pedal under the foot you’ll use to push off is at an advantageous angle.  If, for instance, it was sticking straight up or straight down you’d put your weight down on the pedal and it wouldn’t move.  It’s the same with a beam engine.  The beam needs to be at the most advantageous angle (just a bit above horizontal) in order to get going.  The barring engine drives a small gear (yay gears!) that can be meshed to teeth on the flywheel and used to position the wheel (and therefore the beam it’s attached to) in the correct place.  Normally this is done with steam power, but there’s also a backup manual version.

The backup manual barring engine

It was finding out about things like barring engines that made this such a great visit.  And really, the volunteers were lovely.  The ones who tend the engine wear sort of period clothing, and are clearly having a ball, even the guy who was using sort of a mini-mop to slop grease onto one of the moving pistons. (From the diagram, I'm guessing that's the low pressure cylinder.)

Surely for absolute historical accuracy this should have been done by a barefoot orphan dressed in rags, but I guess we can forgive that anachronism.

Even the people who ran the little cafĂ© were dressed up, and served me a nice little pork pie and salad for a very reasonable sum, fortifying me for the long journey home.  And it was long.  By the time I got back to the boat, despite the fact that mostly all I’d done was sit on a long succession of buses and tube trains, I was utterly knackered.  So I had a nap and contemplated refitting the Lucky Nickel's smelly, noisy and intermittently non-functional diesel engine with a nice quiet steam driven engine painted bright red.

P.S.  Just to reassure you all - the fabulous patching system outlined in my last post is still holding strong.  In fact, I've decided that inch-thick layer of submarine grade epoxy is probably now the strongest part of the boat's hull.  And Jackie loved the flowers.