WHEN a representative of Northumbria Tourist Board rang to inquire what north-eastern foodstuffs he should highlight in a promotional campaign, I told him: none. The North-east has no great culinary tradition, I said. It has the remnants of a poverty cuisine that fed shipyard workers and miners with leek puddings, girdle scones called 'singing hinnies' and rabbit pies.
Shortly after the conversation, remorse set in. I rang back and admitted I had been a bit harsh. For one, I had forgotten the homely stotty cake, now making something of a comeback: a flat disc of bread, traditionally made from left-over dough and baked on the 'sole' - the coolest part - of a coal-fired oven. The relatively low baking temperature allows the yeast to work longer, producing a bread with pleasant chewiness.
The name comes from the practice of 'stotting', or bouncing, the newly baked cake on the kitchen floor: if it did so, it was deemed to be the correct texture.
But the Newcastle baker Greggs of Gosforth no longer tests stotties by bouncing them - environmental health officers take a dim view of this sort of thing, never mind the dozens of staff it would take to stot the 70,000 cakes Greggs claims to bake each week. The modern item is kneaded in modern mixers, raised in modern provers and baked in modern ovens - but a stotty it is, and a perfectly good one.
Greggs guards its commercial recipe fiercely. To a Geordie, this is like hoarding the recipe for mashed potatoes. My mother made stotties: during the Twenties and Thirties, it was a pillar of poverty cuisine and the cakes could be seen lining windowsills in working-class terraces throughout Newcastle. Where the commercial stotty will be white and soft, this home-made version with be crusty and delicious. My mother confirms that this is the authentic texture.
Ingredients: 3/4 lb (350g) plain white flour
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast
1 pinch white pepper
1/2 pint (300ml) tepid water
Preparation: Crumble yeast into a bowl, add pepper, sugar and 3tbs tepid water. Mix and place somewhere warm for 15 minutes, until it becomes frothy. Sieve flour and salt into another bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in yeast mixture. Add remaining water and mix to a firm dough. Knead until smooth and glossy. Cover with a floured cloth and allow to rise for an hour at room temperature, or until doubled in volume. Roll dough on a floured board and shape into 12 rounds, about 1in thick. Place on a greased baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes at 375F/180C in a convection oven or 400F/200C/Gas 5in a conventional one, turning after 15 minutes. Eat warm with butter and jam.
SO WHAT, besides the stotty, do we Northumbrians have to offer by way of local specialities? The answer is: potential. This comes in the form of first-class local produce, the bedrock of any great cuisine. With the Tweed, Coquet and rapidly improving River Tyne, Northumbria has three first-class salmon rivers. Locals would argue that the heather-fed, black-faced Cheviot sheep produce the best lamb in the world. The roe deer that roam in Kielder Forest have tender flesh and delicate flavour. And Northumberland and Durham moors provide feathered game.
As for seafood, the ports of North Shields, Hartlepool and Seahouses supply us not only with the ubiquitous cod and haddock, but also stunningly good turbot, halibut and Dover sole. We have lobsters, crabs and fresh prawns. Add to that, oysters from Lindisfarne and the outlook is less bleak.
But before the folks down at the tourist board and a band of local chefs (of which I am now one) live up to our new slogan, 'Great North - Great Food', we will have to stop shipping quite so much of our great food south, or to fish-finger factories.
This second recipe was inspired by another staple of poverty cuisine: ham knuckle and pease pudding. Granted, the use of foie gras or duck liver is not exactly local practice. It is local, however, in Gascony, where I got the idea after eating a terrine made with confit of duck and foie gras.
Terrine of ham shanks and root vegetables with pease pudding
(Serves 12 northern portions)
Ingredients: 4 ham shanks (soaked overnight in lots of cold water)
6oz (165g) carrots
6oz (165g) onions
2oz (50g) celeriac or 1 stalk celery
6oz (165g) leeks
8 black peppercorns
1 bunch thyme
5 garlic cloves
3 1/2 tbs vinegar
10 1/2 oz (300g) cooked duck liver (optional)
Preparation: Place (soaked) shanks in a large pot, cut vegetables into chunks and add with other ingredients. Cover with cold water, bring to boil, skim, and simmer for 4 hours. Lift out shanks and let cool a little. Take 7oz (200g) vegetables and coarsely dice. Reserve. Remove skin from ham and line terrine with it. Strip ham from bone and separate into large pieces. Half- fill terrine with ham, scatter in vegetables, place cooked duck liver in centre and top with remaining ham and vegetables. Place board on top and press with a heavy weight. Refrigerate overnight.
Pease pudding ingredients: 350g yellow split peas, covered with 3in water and soaked overnight
3 1/2 fl oz (100ml) peanut oil
salt and black pepper
Preparation: Cover soaked peas with water (double the volume of the peas), bring to boil and simmer for 40 minutes, until tender. Drain, allow to cool. When cold, puree in blender with oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Serve a thick slice of terrine, brushed with oil and a scoop of pease pudding.
Terence Laybourne, in addition to being a (now) avid supporter of 'Great North - Great Food', is the Newcastle born and bred chef-proprietor of the restaurant 21 Queen Street, Newcastle upon Tyne (091 222 0755).
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