By Val Hewson
In this Heritage Open Days blog, I find that a vintage recipe book unlocks my memory.
I am no cook. I enjoy food but am not particularly interested in the art of preparing it. There are people who read recipe books just for pleasure. Their favourites are worn – loved? – with wrinkled, stained, torn pages. Recipe cards, cuttings from magazines, scraps of paper fall from them. My recipe books sit, clean and mostly unused, on their shelf. But there is one which, though I don’t have a copy, is a stop on my reading journey: Be-Ro Home Recipes (Thomas Bell & Son Ltd, 1957).
My mum had a copy of the Be-Ro book when I was a small child. Where it came from, I don’t know. It was one of the few books in the house, perhaps one of the first I ever saw, and I suppose this is why it is so clear in my mind. The solid Be-Ro logo. The recipe titles in a font that mimics handwriting. Black and white illustrations of cakes, biscuits and pies. Line drawings of women pouring, mixing, beating (and, I see, the only man to feature, shown sitting back, relaxing, as his wife or girlfriend unpacks a picnic basket). Clearest of all to me, the cover photo of a young woman, smiling in her blue blouse and red and white checked apron. Her pose is awkward, half-turning, the Be-Ro book in her left hand and a mixing bowl, measuring jug, cake tin, eggs and, of course, Be-Ro flour on the table in front of her.
Thomas Bell & Son was a Newcastle firm, and this somehow made it special to me as a Geordie. The name came about from a shortening of ‘Bells Royal’, the original name for the company’s self-raising flour and baking powder. In the 1920s, Bells produced the first of their recipe books and distributed them free. This proved to be a brilliant way to establish the brand. There have been about 40 editions over the last hundred years – with updated ingredients and recipes but similar in format – and the name Be-Ro is still familiar.
At least, in my experience, the name is familiar in the north of England and in the Midlands but much less so in the south. When I mentioned it to my Sheffield neighbours, all of a certain age, all northerners, they nodded.
I’ve still got a Be-Ro book.
It helped me learn the basics – making pastry or a sponge cake and that sort of thing. Techniques. And then you could make other things.
Regulo. Do you remember Regulo? My grandkids don’t know what I mean. They laugh.
My mum was a very good cook, who served an excellent Sunday lunch and had a light hand with cakes and pies. She made the best egg custard I’ve ever tasted. But she was not a great one for cookery books. Be-Ro is the only one I remember. My dad liked the food he had always known so there was little call for innovation or experiment. My mum’s skill came from long practice, handed on from her mother or elder sisters. At least, I suppose they taught her. She never said and I never asked.
I do know that our Christmas Cake recipe came from Be-Ro, although my mum always added extra cherries, because I loved them. She never iced the cake, which Be-Ro suggested, as none of us liked icing much. Once made, the cake was put away in a tin until Christmas. A second cake was usually made for my birthday a few months later. Plain fruit cake, perhaps with a slice of cheese, is still my cake of choice.
12 ozs Be-Ro self-raising flour
One teaspoonful mixed spice
4 ozs ground almonds
8 ozs currants
8 ozs sultanas
8 ozs raisins (optional)
4 ozs cherries (halved)
4 ozs peel (chopped)
8 ozs butter
8 ozs caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten with
8 tablespoonsfuls milk
1. Clean and mix the fruit.
2. Mix flour, spice and ground almonds.
3. Beat butter and sugar to a cream in a warm bowl.
4. Beat eggs and milk together.
5. Stir in (alternately a little at a time) the flour mixture and eggs and milk, with the butter and sugar.
6. Add the fruit last.
7. Mix thoroughly. If a darker cake is desired, add one teaspoonful of gravy browning.
8. Use a large round cake tin (8” in diameter) lined with greased paper.
9. Bake about 4 hours, the first hour in a moderate oven (350°-375° F. Regulo 3-4) and then a slow oven (250°-300° F. Regulo 1-2)Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)
As I turn the pages, other recipes from 1957 look familiar: scones, drop scones, girdle cakes (‘griddle cakes’ in our house), ginger cakes, sly cake, jam tarts, mince pies, rock cakes, custard tarts and maids of honour. Until I started reading, I had forgotten that my mum used to make all of these. With changing fashions, most of them have disappeared from more recent editions, replaced by carrot cake, lemon drizzle cake and banoffee pancakes.
When she was baking, I was usually allowed to press down the edge of the pastry on the tart my mum was making and to make neat airholes with a fork. She used to let me have some pastry to play with. Kneeling on a chair to reach the table, I would roll the pastry out and turn it and roll it and turn it, until it was grey and sticky. It would be a ‘cake for the birds’, we pretended.
I don’t know what happened to my mum’s Be-Ro. Perhaps it fell apart with use and was thrown out. Or it got lost when she moved house. In her later years, she no longer cooked much, and in any case, after so long, she must have had the recipes by heart.
Perhaps I should have a go.
Three Rules for Pastry Making
1. Handle it lightly.
2. Keep it cool.
3. Bake it in a HOT oven.
Cool hands, a cool slap, and water as cold as possible help you to produce the best results. Use the finger-tips, as they are the coolest part of the hands. Always mix with a knife. Add the water gradually, using as little as possible, as the pastry should be very stiff. After adding water, avoid adding more flour, as this spoils pastry.
Pastry requires a HOT OVEN. Bake on the top shelf, as this part is the hottest.Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)
Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman for lending me the Be-Ro book, which you can see on display during September at Sheffield Central Library in our Heritage At Home exhibition. The Be-Ro story can be found here.