“We went to Spark Bridge at three o’clock. Aunt Sarah had been baking, and her stock pot smelled very good. Nowadays it’s so difficult to take a little present of food. In my ‘lucky bag’ today was gingerbread, parkin, cheese, a wee bit of potted meat and two tomatoes, a bit of dripping and some sweet apples, and Joe’s ounce of tobacco.” 3rd November, 1945, “Nella Last’s Peace”
Nella Last was a wonderful cook, and since reading her diaries I’ve wanted to try making parkin, a sort of gingerbread, which was one of the staples of her picnics.
There are of course recipes on the internet, but I thought it would be fun to make something akin to Nella Last’s parkin. Now a while ago I was delighted to be given a fascinating book called “Health for All Wartime Recipes”. (The book was aimed at Diet Reformers, most of whom were vegetarians, and was dedicated to “those mothers, who, in spite of present difficulties, give time and trouble to ensuring that their children shall have the best natural, unspoiled foods available”.) So, thanks to “Health for All”, I had a proper 1940s recipe to hand.
Ready for the truly authentic experience I put on my apron, propped open the book and, ahem, switched on my laptop. Because I didn’t know what counts as a ‘moderate oven’ (180-190 degrees); I wasn’t sure if it was ok to use black treacle that was considerably past its best before date (it is apparently, as long as it’s not smelly, furry or fizzing, which seems like a decent rule of thumb for most ingredients); and – being a child of the metric system – I wanted to double check that 1/4lb is indeed 4oz. (It is. Phew.)
Sadly, that was not the end of the need for the internet. A short time later I was googling other parkin recipes in an attempt to find out why mine had come out so dry. (And no, I’m not being self-deprecating. Really the only way to eat this was to have a very large glass of milk to hand.)
However, all may not be lost. A lot of the comments on the BBC Good Food site mentioned that parkin is best left for several days, so hopefully it will get stickier over the course of the week. I also wonder if I should have added more milk, as I ladled the mixture into the tin, whereas the recipe does say to pour it. Finally, I wonder whether using porridge oats rather than oatmeal could have made a difference. (I was too lazy to whizz them up in the processor, but justified it to myself by saying that Nella Last wouldn’t have had a Magimix. Ooh, and for a peek at what a 1940s kitchen did have, do have a look here.)
So, while I certainly wouldn’t take what’s currently sitting in the tin to Aunt Sarah and Joe at Spark Bridge (not least as I have only the haziest idea where Spark Bridge is, and Aunt Sarah and Joe must have eaten their last parkin more than half a century ago), maybe it will age well. And if not, I’ll just have to try my hand at gingerbread. Oh, the hardship.