My grandfather was an ardent eel fisherman : he was not a romantic man.
Consequently, the 14th February loomed large in our home as the start of the Eel catching season, rather than the romantic outpourings of St Valentines Day.
My grandmother was far more likely to be presented with a dead eel needing skinning than flowers and a card. She didn’t seem to mind though as she was also rather fond of jellied eels.
As I was growing into my teens however, she did take me to one side and impart some of the customs of her childhood to ensure my chances of scoring a boyfriend was enhanced. As a rather freckled faced, horse mad girl with my head in a book rather than the clouds; my attraction to the opposite sex was somewhat limited.
And so I dutifully slept with a fresh bay leaf under my pillow to ensure that I dreamed of my future lover. The only dream that I can actually recall was somewhat reminiscent of the Second World War – (but you know there might be something in it, as I eventually joined the military and married a soldier!!)
It always seemed somewhat contradictory that St Valentine, who was reputed to be famous for his chastity, took up the cause of the unwed. My cynical grandfather pointed out that the 14th Feb had been the eve of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, where boys drew the names of girls out of an urn and then the couples paired off. A sort of pre-industrial age dating agency.
We find this tradition being continued in some of the Valentine games where boys would write the names of girls on slips of paper, and then draw lots for their sweetheart for the year. They would often present a glove, as a symbol of their affection to them. And I recall seeing an elaborately embroidered glove presented to Queen Elizabeth 1st by one of her courtiers which recalled this custom.
As I grew older, my grandmother taught me how to bake what she called Plum Shuttles and which others referred to as Valentine Cakes, which hopeful girls presented to the boys of their choice as an indication of their willingness to receive their attention.
My Gran used to shape them into weaving shuttles, (hence the name Plum Shuttles) but I have forgotten what they actually looked like, and so I shape them into the more traditional heart shapes.
So for all desperate freckled faced girls – here is the traditional recipe for Plum Shuttles which are traditionally baked on the 14th February along with the eels.
My original recipe is in Imperial measurements, but my more metrically competent daughter has translated them into the Europe friendly ones. She also declared that they actually do work as she served them to her then boyfriend, who is now her husband.
(We are busily teaching the recipe to the 11 year old grand daughter – one can’t be too careful) anyway here it is :
1½ lb (600 g) plain flour
4 oz (100 g) castor sugar (add ordinary sugar if you haven’t got castor – it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference)
2 oz (50 g) chopped dried orange or lemon peel – or shove in same amount of mixed peel – see above for castor sugar
¼ pint (250 ml) of milk – don’t substitute
4 oz (100 g) best butter – yes that’s what it says, if you’ve only got second class butter bung it in anyway.
4 oz (100 g) currants
1 oz (25 g) yeast – Gran only used fresh yeast from the local bakers blended with a little of the sugar and some warm water; but if you must use dried can you do the maths – I can’t !!
Now, having gathered together all your ingredients it is time to make the cakes. Here’s the step by step process –according to My Grandmother (who was rather scathing about Mrs Beaton – it sounded personal!)
Step 1 – Rub the butter into the flour until it is well blended but not sticky. Mix in your sugar, whatever peel you have and the currants.
Step 2 – Now add the yeast and the milk, and then add sufficient water to make a soft dough. It depends on the flour but about ½ pints or 250 ml should be ample.
Step 3 – Leave it about 45 mins and help yourself to one of those chocolates or, as in my grandmother case, go skin your eel.
Step 4 – Turn out onto a floured board, and knead until smooth and lightly springs back when pushed. (The original recipe says to “create an homogeneous whole” and if you know what that means you can do that as well!
Step 5 – cut off small pieces and mould into the shape of a weaver’s shuttle – and if you know what they look like go for it; otherwise cut out the more traditional heart shape. The dough is springy (being yeast dough) and you might do better with a sharp knife to cut round a cardboard shape. I do. And if all else fails roll them into balls.
Step 6 – Place them onto a baking tray and let stand for approx 15 mins before baking in a fairly hot oven until golden brown. 375 F or 190 C should be fine.
Serve warm to the love of your life with lashings of fresh butter and enjoy.
Incidently, one of my bright ideas was to sprinkle them with coarse sugar before baking, but Gran did not approve – however that was my problem you can suit yourself.
My daughter tried icing them, but I did not approve – but again, you can suit yourself.
So have a happy Valentines Day on the 14th, indulge yourself these traditional goodies, and with champagne and chocolates if that’s your thing. Or, of course, you could take them with you when you go babbing for eels – either way it’s your choice and you are being traditionally English.