Oats in the North Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn

Review by Hayley Anderton

Oats Wheat Regula Ysewijn

I know it’s not the easiest time to get baking supplies, or books, or enough exercise to work off the baking that you can do, but if all the stars align as they sometimes do even in these difficult times then this book is a delight. And if flour isn’t available reading about baking is sometimes almost as good as eating it.

I bought this book just as the lockdown hit, more because I’m a big fan of Regula Ysewijn’s combination of photography and food history rather than for any particular need for another baking book, but now I have it I’m surprised by how much it’s the baking book I wanted, and needed, for present times. This is partly because Regula’s enthusiasm for British food, built on childhood memories of trips to Britain came as something of a revelation.

I might still remember with deep nostalgia particular breads (iced buns, and a white bread tea loaf which seem to have disappeared now) that were available in my Shetland childhood, but school holidays were mostly spent mooching around at home, rather than travelling in this or any other country so the whole concept of regional bakery never really meant very much. Even now when I see things like Bath buns, Marlborough buns, Whitby buns, and so on in supermarkets they are a fairly homogenized looking group which don’t speak much to me of their original localities.

Regula’s memories reveal a whole landscape of different things, not just because she can trace a Bath bun back to Bath, but also when she gives us Fat Rascals (familiar if you’ve been to Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate) or Aberdeen butteries. (The buttery or rowie was the hangover breakfast of choice when I was at university in the city: imagine a flat, salty, croissant made with lard). The ingredients also tell their own story – literally wheat in the south changing to oats as you move north – because that’s what grew.

You can trace the history of sugar use in Britain, with all it’s implications, through these recipes as it becomes a cheaper and more easily available commodity. Changing milling techniques for flour also has an impact, but more than anything it must have been the introduction of baking powders as a raising agent in the middle of the 19th century, along with improving ovens, that really changed cakes into what we recognize today. Before baking powder producing a light sponge was a lengthy operation which would have meant it was a treat only for the wealthy.

Most of the recipes in this book are what I would think of as farmhouse or village fete cookery, lots of robust bakes which don’t speak of poverty, but not of top end luxury either. It means more or less everything in it is something I might make given the right occasion. It has already been the right occasion for Welsh cakes and Fat rascals. Both recipes are deliberately for quite small quantities because they don’t keep well which is particularly helpful, especially when you’re not baking for a lot of people.

There’s a good range of savory bakes; particularly pies, but also some breads, and things like oat cakes – just in case I was giving the impression that it’s sweet treats only. There’s also a few ‘lost’ regional specialties – things that appear in old cookery books that are no longer familiar even in their places of origin. One such example is the Aberdeen Crulla, which might have evolved into Yum Yums (the argument is convincing, recipes are given for both). Even more interesting is when things have changed a lot over the years – as for Belgian buns which started off as something a bit like a rock cake, before becoming the iced bread we now know – because we get recipes for both versions.

Altogether it’s a delightful book. The photography is beautiful, the history interesting, and the recipes useful. The Fat Rascals are particularly recommended, they’re delicious, quick, and also the kind of easy baking that’s ideal for doing with quite young children.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Regula Ysewijn, Oats in the North Wheat from the South, (Murdoch Books 2020). 978-19116324, 263pp., hardback.

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