I have become fascinated by a prewar-postwar cookery writer and broadcaster known only to her public as Mrs Webb. Mrs Arthur Webb was passionate about traditional cooking and preserving old recipes handed down from times past to women in the 1930’s and 40’s who contrived to feed their families using these interesting and nourishing recipes.
So who was Mrs Webb, Mrs Arthur Webb? Well, obviously she was the wife of Arthur Webb; he was born in 1868 and followed his father into the Co-operative movement. He became secretary of the Co-operative Permanent Building Society in 1892 and was eventually appointed Managing Director in 1927 and eventually president.
He married Mabel Elizabeth Edwards in 1899; so Mabel Elizabeth Webb as she became, was born in 1873 in Knighton, Radnorshire now called Radnor/Sir Faesyfed , in Wales. Her father was George Benjamin a valuer and auctioneer, and her mother was Sarah Ellen Judge. She had several brothers but I’m not sure if there were any sisters; by the age of seventeen she was living in Brighton with her mother and was a journalist! Yes, at seventeen, in 1891 she was a journalist! No wonder once her children were older she went back to the profession she obviously loved. She and Arthur had four children, Gwynneth Margaret, Thorold Arthur, Rhona Catherine and Seymour Bryan Burgess, all with the extra name of Burgess which was Arthur’s mother’s maiden name.
Mabel published many books, including:
- Invalid cookery : the doctor in the kitchen
- War-time cookery
- The new herring book : scores of simple recipes
It’s interesting that once again using food to heal and improve health is popular – Mabel was before her time!
She toured the country collecting recipes, and many listeners and readers wrote in with their own recipes – “listeners by the hundred write enclosing their own treasured recipes for rabbit jelly, pork cheese, and apple john…” I wonder what rabbit jelly is – maybe we would call it jellied rabbit, or is it a savoury bunny flavoured jelly? Pork cheese is like a terrine made from unpopular parts of a pig, and apple john… it might be a fruit cobbler or it might be a cake… Other recipes she gathered included figgy squabs from Cornwall (I wonder if this might be two recipes inadvertently jumbled together, figgy hobbin and squab pie – figs rolled in pastry and rook pie) rabbit swaddling from the Welsh borders (was this one of Mabel’s family recipes?) fidget pie from Shropshire, singing nickies from Cumberland, Devonshire custardy pie and cake-in-the-pan from Norfolk.
I wonder what recipes Mabel gathered from Somerset, I wonder if she had anything like my version of a traditional apple cake?
Here is the the recipe I use which I think would be nice eaten with a chunk of real, good, Cheddar cheese – in a Somerset version of the Yorkshire tradition!
- 4 oz Somerset butter
- 4 oz sugar
- 2 eggs
- 8 oz flour, sifted with ½ tsp each of bicarbonate of soda. ginger, and nutmeg
- 5 fl oz good Somerset cider whisked until it is really frothy
- 1 dessert apple, peeled, cored, and very finely sliced in rings or…
- … for drizzle topping 3 tbsp cider, 2 oz sugar
- cream butter and sugar until it is really lightly and creamy and pale in colour
- gently fold in half the flour and spice mix
- stir in the cider,very gently
- fold in the rest of the flour
- pour into a greased and lined 7″ cake tin (if you are using the apples as a topping, lay them lightly on top, arranging to look pretty) and put into a preheated oven, 300ºF, 150ºC, gas mark 2 for 45 mins
- if you are doing the drizzle topping, gently melt the 2 oz sugar into the 3 tbsps cider, spike the cake all over with a fine skewer, or gently with a long tined fork, and spoon the syrup over the cake, distributing equally
- keep for a day before you cut it, eat it, enjoy it!
- (I guess you could do the apple topping and the drizzle, perforating the cooked cake around the apple slices and in the middle of the holes where the core was)