Monday, November 7, 2016

Of Treacle Tarts and Spotted Dick

Among the foods served at a British-style restaurant I visited last week are some whose names are not immediately clear to Americans. 

Eccles cakes are named for the town of Eccles, a suburb of Manchester, where these small, round cakes made from flaky pastry and filled with currants, were first served in 1793. They are similar to (and better known than) Chorley cakes, named for another Lancashire town, and made with shortcrust pastry. Blackburn is another Lancashire town that gets its name on a cake, this one using stewed apples instead of currants. And, of course, we’re all familiar with the Banbury cake, from Oxfordshire, which is quite similar to an Eccles cake, but oval in shape.

Another dessert, whose name tends to raise eyebrows in some quarters, is spotted dick, a sponge cake pudding made with suet and currants or raisins. The “spotted” part of the name refers to the currants that dot the outside of the pudding, but the “dick” has etymologists puzzled. It may be a corruption of the last syllable of pudding, which became puddink, then puddich, and finally, just dich. Others say it is a corruption of the word dough, and some insist it is a German word meaning “thick” or “viscous.” Among other nineteenth-century meanings of dick are “dictionary,” “apron,” “policeman,” and “riding whip”—although none of these seem to apply. Perhaps you can think of another meaning of dick, but establishing its relevance to a dessert pudding may take some doing.

Sticky toffee pudding is a moist sponge cake, made with finely chopped dates and covered in toffee sauce. Toffee is a confection made by caramelizing sugar or molasses, along with butter. The origin of the word toffee is unknown, but some experts say it is derived from a Creole word meaning “sugar and molasses.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1825 and says it’s a variant of taffy, which is also a confection made from caramelized sugar and is etymologically related either to tafia, a West Indian word referring to a rum-like liquor distilled from molasses, or to ratafia, a fruit-based cordial made in France.

Finally, many Brits adore treacle pudding, which is a steamed sponge cake with treacle poured over it, or treacle tart, a pie-like shortcrust pastry with a filling of treacle. Treacle is an uncrystallized syrup made during the refining of sugar. The two most common kinds are a light-colored one, called golden syrup, and a darker variety, which is also known as molasses. Treacle is a Middle English word that describes a medicine used to treat poison and snakebites.  It is derived from Old French traicle and ultimately from Latin theriaca, which means “concerning venomous beasts.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very fond of golden syrup, especially the kind known as Chardonnay.

            The dick is spotted,
            The cream is clotted,
                        Hooray! Let’s sound the trumpets!
            The tea is potted,
            The pot is hotted,
                        It’s time to butter crumpets.
            My tie’s unknotted,
            And I’m besotted,
                        Now please send in the strumpets.

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