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The Great Be-Ro bake-off cook book brought back many Black Country memories

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 04, 2014

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IN our mothers' and grandmothers' day, the only fast food to be had was a fish and chip supper. As for cakes and pastries, it was home-made - or go without.

In most families, recipes and cooking skills were handed down, mother to daughter.

But, to add a little variety to their store of recipes, most women had a favourite cook book.

One of the most popular, even today, was the Be-Ro cookery book published by the producers of Be-Ro flour.

Over the years this little gem found its way into the nation's kitchens, where it has become a real, albeit well-thumbed and grease stained classic.

Over the last few years many readers have written to me, singing the praises of this old favourite.

Witness this, from Mrs. W. Walker, of Friar Park, Wednesbury, who wrote: "In the early 1950s I had a Be-Ro Home Recipes book put through my letter box. I think every house had one. I still have it. It's old, but very useful."

These days, as shows like the 'Great British Bake-Off' have inspired a baking renaissance, it seems as good a time as any to look back at the Be-Ro phenomenon.

It all began in the 1880s when Thomas Bell founded a wholesale grocery business in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Among his best selling brands were 'Bell's Royal Baking Powder, and his self raising flour.

All was well, until King Edward V11 died, after which time, apparently, it became illegal for manufacturers to use the word, 'Royal' in this way.

Suddenly, Bell had to rethink his branding. Eventually, he had the idea of taking the first two letters from Bell and Royal, and the 'Be-Ro', brand was born.

Until the early 1920s plain flour was mostly used, especially by home bakers.

Self raising flour was seen as a novelty, as consumers could still buy plain flour more cheaply, direct from the miller.

Self raising flour was only available from independent grocers and was more expensive.

Bell saw a business opportunity in the making, and decided to make self raising flour more popular with the public.

So, throughout the 1920s, he organised a series of exhibitions where visitors could buy freshly baked bread, cakes and pastries made from his flours and baking powder.

These exhibitions proved so popular that people began clamouring for his recipes so they could make the melt in the mouth treats at home.

So Bell's next move was to produce a free recipe book to be given away at his exhibitions and posted through peoples' letterboxes.

Much of the book's popularity was down to the recipes being aimed at feeding hungry families on a low budget.

And, before long, the Be-Ro cook books became an essential part of a young girl's training in running a home and feeding a family.

Consequently, Be-Ro became one of the best known flours, especially in the north of the country.

The first ever Be-Ro cookbook was produced in 1923, with just 19 pages of recipes.

It was an instant success. And, over time, it became a tradition that the front cover featured local girls from Bell's area, earning them the trademark name of "Miss Be-Ro".

Forty editions later, the cookbook has expanded to 86 pages and is, undoubtedly, one of the best known cookbooks ever produced, with more than 38 million copies worldwide.

The 41st edition ventures into new territory, with an up to date section entitled 'Quick and Easy', specially geared to busy, modern lives. And, by popular demand, there are even more cake recipes.

The Be-Ro brand still exists online, where you can download many of its tried and tested recipes.

So, if you've a hankering after some retro baking, visit the website at: www.be-ro.com

Here's a Be-Ro recipe for an old favourite that sadly fell out of fashion for years. It was the quintessential plain and economical, "every day" cake dear to our forebears. With our rediscovery of traditional baking, it could make a comeback.

Caraway Seed Cake

8 oz Self Raising flour

4oz sugar

4oz margarine

2 eggs beaten with 4tbsp milk

1 dessert spoonful of caraway seeds

Method

Mix flour and seeds. Cream the sugar and margarine. Stir in the beaten liquids and flour, a little at a time. Mix thoroughly and put into a greased 6 inch cake tin, 3 inches deep. Bake in a moderate oven (350 – 375 degrees) for about one and a quarter hours.

You only have to look at the countless food and cookery blogs online to see how popular the Be-Ro recipe books were. At time of writing, the website and recipes are still available. And, several bloggers have mentioned that the 41st edition has been spotted in the bakery aisle at some Morrisons' outlets.

While on a subject dear to many hearts, perhaps it's time to revisit an old favourite that no Black Country housewife worth her salt could ignore, namely Bread Pudding.

In the past, many women faced a constant struggle to get enough calories into their large broods.

Black Country women relied on "fill bally" food like puddings and pies to pad out meagre supplies of more expensive proteins, like meat and fish. Not considered nutritionally sound these days, when times were hard there was little choice.

One of the easiest and most popular "fill bally" dish was the humble Bread Pudding. Many readers have fond memories of eating this "heavy, solid, yet moist, slab affair" as Cannock reader Brian Wildblood described his grandmother's bread pud. A few years ago, Brian wrote to me on a mission to find a recipe that could reproduce something like his gran's original, a favourite from his boyhood.

To be honest, we're treading on dodgy ground here, as many readers will all have their favourite recipes. And, my research reveals there are different types of bread pudding bearing different names in different areas. For instance, I've heard that bread pudding is called "Wet Nelly" by some Walsall folk.

But, whatever you call it, I think it's fair to say that modern bread pudding just doesn't hack it compared with the old fashioned ones – which most people of a certain age recall being moist, almost soggy, inside.

When freshly made, they were eaten hot with lashings of custard. Any leftovers were eaten cold, the flavour improving as the bread pudding solidified or "matured", the longer it was kept.

The only reason I can think of for this is that it's down to our modern shop-bought bread.

The old recipes used leftover, stale bread, which, unlike modern bread, went dry and hard without turning mouldy – and still tasted fine. In those days, many housewives baked their own bread and folk in general believed slightly older bread tasted better than fresh.

I remember my own nan always telling us to leave the loaf to mature for a day before cutting it.

Much of our modern bread is made using what producers call the Chorleywood process. This produces the light, spongy texture we are so familiar with in shop bread.

Apparently, it's also designed to keep bread tasting "fresher" for longer. The trouble is that it goes mouldy before frying out. So, the moral is, if you want to make an original tasting bread pudding, use leftovers from hand-baked style bread, or bake it yourself.

Here's Marjorie Cashmore's classic recipe from the early 1900s ('A Feast of Memories – Black Country Food and Life at the Turn of the Century', Westwood Press, 1986)

Bread Pudding (Fill Bally)

2lb stale bread

8oz shredded suet

1lb granulated or brown sugar

1lb mixed dried fruit

3 eggs

2oz butter or margarine

2tsp mixed spice

Soak the bread in water then drain and squeeze out the excess moisture. Flake with a fork and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well together and spread the mixture into a greased baking tin. Dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven for about two hours, or until nicely browned"

Happy baking!

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