Thursday, 31 October 2013
Several years after my grandmother died, I was given her cookery books. They were kept in the darkest corner of her kitchen and stacked, piled and slotted together to fill every shelf.
Amongst them I found a slight yellow and brown volume from the 70’s named Devonshire Flavour, compiled from various local contributors. In it, I found my first reference to treacle scones. A. N. Winckworth from Dunchideock House provides the recipe, explaining that the scones should be made with genuine Dunchideock treacle, “mined from the local theriaciferous rocks”. Without pausing to think, I swallowed the story whole.
After pointing out that other treacle can be used, the editor drily notes: “It is perhaps due to Lewis Carroll’s reference to a treacle well that supplies have become so elusive; becoming... almost exhausted”. At the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the sleepy dormouse tells a story about Elsie, Lacie and Tillie, the three little girls who lived in a “treacle-well”. Alice is incredulous: “There’s no such thing!”
Treacle wells and mines seem to have become a joke to trick the gullible around the time of Carroll’s writing. They still pop up – they’re mentioned in Terry Pratchett’s novels and there are plenty of websites about treacle mines.
Treacle is, of course, the syrupy product of refining sugar - sadly there are no wells or mines involved.
The treacle well in Alice was inspired by St Margaret’s Well, next to the church in Binsey, Oxfordshire. It can still be seen today, sunken and encased in mossy stone. The well was called a treacle well because the Middle English word triacle meant a curative antidote or medicine and the water was believed to have healing powers. It has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries - Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon are said to have visited to pray for a healthy son. Carroll twists this around, causing the three little girls in the well to become “very ill” from consuming the treacle.
The story behind the healing powers of the well goes back to the eighth century. According to one version, a local noblewoman called Frideswide ran to Binsey trying to escape the advances of King Algar of Mercia. Algar caught Frideswide but when he touched the holy virgin’s hand, he was struck blind by heavenly powers. In pity, she prayed that his sight might be restored. In answer, St Margaret of Antioch (who has a wonderful story herself – I love her Old English and Katherine Group lives) appeared along with her dragon and told Frideswide to strike the ground with a staff. As it hit the ground, water started to gush out. Frideswide bathed Algar’s eyes and he was healed.
Frideswide became the first Abbess of the Oxford monastery and remained there until her death in around 727. She is the patron saint of Oxford. Her tale has been handed down the generations in several versions (some not quite as dramatic as the one above) and several formats (you can see her story depicted in a big stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral). Chaucer even has the Oxford-based carpenter cry "help us Saint Frideswyde" in the Miller's Tale.
Treacle scones are homely, richly flavoured and particularly good with salted butter, hot from the oven. I wasn’t expecting to like them quite as much as I do.
I imagine my granny would frown at the extravagance of splashing the unbaked scones with melted butter and covering them with a crunchy coating of Demerara sugar, but it tastes too good to stop.
230g plain flour*
30g dark brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
2 tbsp black treacle
60g cold unsalted butter
5 tsp Demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F. Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Sieve the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together – you may have to squish the sugar through with a spoon if it’s a fine sieve. Stir everything together.
Place the milk and treacle together in a bowl. Using a fork, keep whisking the treacle into the milk until it’s dark brown and the treacle has dissolved. Take 15g of the butter and melt it in a small pan. Cut the other 45g into cubes and then rub it into the flours until there are no big lumps left. Add the treacle-milk and gently combine (I use a folding motion) with a blunt knife or spatula until the mixture comes together – it is quite sticky.
Brush a circle of melted butter about 18cm in diameter onto the paper, then sprinkle with 2 tsp of the Demerara sugar. Tip the dough out onto the sugared paper then pat into a circle about 2-3cm high with flour-dusted hands. Cut into quarters then again into 8 triangles with a sharp knife dusted with flour. Don’t move the scones about – leave them next to each other (don’t worry, they’ll still cook properly when stuck together). Brush with the remaining butter (don’t worry about the butter pooling in the cuts, that’s normal) and sprinkle the remaining 3 tsp of sugar over the top.
Bake for 16-18 minutes until puffy and browning around the edges. Remove immediately to a wire rack so the bottom stays crisp then tear each scone off and eat while still warm with salted butter.
*I've also tried it with 180g plain flour and 50g wholemeal flour, which was lovely.
Three more recipes that involve treacle:
2013: Treacle Flapjacks
2011: Ginger Root Bundt Cake