Anyone for tea?

Winner of the Michael Smith Award for work on British food, Guild of Food Writers, 2011.


Sitting down for summer tea and spotting a small pot of homemade fruit curd always adds an extra frisson of excitement. Its unctuous texture and sweet-sharp taste are a real treat spread on bread or dolloped on freshly baked scones.   Lemon and lavender, gooseberry, blackcurrant or raspberry – there are myriad variations, but all are delicious.   Somehow, this peculiarly British concoction is imbued with a sense of luxury.   It feels like the height of decadence to ply one’s bread with a rich conserve made from eggs, butter, sugar and fruit, rather than an austere jam.   Reckless, even, to take a large spoonful or two from a small pot, even though its natural shelf life is only three weeks in the fridge.  


Now is a good time for all those of a sybaritic bent, to make some fruit curd.   If you need a palliative against any guilt, remember that curds are an excellent way of using up a glut of summer fruit and, should you be so lucky, excess eggs.  


Lemon curd, or lemon butter, as it is sometimes known, was the first fruit flavoured curd.   According to Traditional Foods of Britain by Laura Mason with Catherine Brown (Prospect Books), its origins date back to an 18th-century English dish called Transparent Pudding . The redoubtable Mrs Elizabeth Raffald gives a recipe for this in her The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769).   She makes what we would recognise as a nutmeg-flavoured curd by beating eight eggs, (seasoned with nutmeg) with 8oz (225g) of butter and 8oz (225g) of loaf sugar over a fire until it thickens. This was then baked in pastry and turned out.


By the 19th century, Transparent Pudding had evolved into lemon cheesecake, what we would now describe as lemon-curd tartlets. The nutmeg was replaced by lemon zest and juice. Mrs Beeton gives a recipe in 1861 where she instructs the cook that the lemon-cheese filling can be made and stored in advance. Before long, lemon curd was being manufactured and started to find its place on the tea and breakfast table.  


However, British cooks are nothing if not experimental.   Not satisfied with sandwiching cakes together with lemon curd and spooning it into tarts, they started to explore other flavourings.   In the 1970s, for example, Mary Norwark gave recipes for apricot curd, blackberry-and-apple curd, and gooseberry curd in her The Complete Book of Home Preserving (1978).   She added lemon juice to the sweeter fruit combinations.   Like all curd-makers, she stresses the necessity of ensuring that it only thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon, as it will thicken further as it cools.


By the 1990s, the Australian fashion for passionfruit curd had spread to that bastion of British lemon-curd makers, the WI Markets.   Its exotic notes soon found their way into soft meringue roulades , pancakes and ice cream and is delicious with whipped cream and raspberries. For maximum juice extraction, gently heat the passion fruit pulp over a low heat, then strain and measure out the equivalent amount of juice to lemon. Four passion fruit yield 3 ½ tablespoons (50ml), the equivalent of one lemon. Lime curd, blackcurrant curd and flavoured curds such as orange and cardamom soon followed – all based on the proportions of lemon curd, namely the juice and zest of four lemons, four strained eggs, 8oz (115g) butter and 12oz (340g) caster sugar.   Once the sugar has dissolved, cook over a low heat for 20 minutes in a bowl over water, then pour into sterilised jars and seal like jam.   The same principles work well with other tart fruit such as rhubarb and loganberries.   Surely it’s time for tea?


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