Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fire works!

Celebrating an English Tradition!

Autumn through to winter is gathering pace.  The annual warning to keep your   dogs and cats indoors has gone out!  Some strange animal sacrifice ritual that unwary pet owners have to avoid? No, it's Bonfire Night! Or approaching closer to it's origin Guy Fawke's Night.

In England Bonfire Night is celebrated with a Firework Display, Bonfire and the burning of an effigy or Guy.  A bit Wicker Man in context given the time of the year (5th November) when it traditionally takes place or a punishment for a heretical act. The notion of punishing the heretic is closer to the origin.

Without going too far into the history (you can follow the Guy Fawke's Night link) it is essentially a celebration of the capture of a group of Catholic gentlemen. Their intention to raze Parliament (in Westminster, London) to the ground.   The stocks of Gunpowder secreted into the cellars of Parliament are the origin of the association with Fireworks.

Nowadays the religious connection to the tradition is mainly forgotten.  The film V for Vendetta uses the Guy Fawkes theme as the basis for it's storyline set in a futuristic London.  The masks from the film are now used by the Anonymous Group in protests both online and offline as signature and badge of support.  The image of the lowly watchman of the gunpowder below Parliament now has world wide coverage, but it's origins are probably unknown to the majority of mask wearers.

Usually in this blog I talk about food (usually British or ideally from Suffolk something to do with my botanical and agricultural training).  One of my favourite food writers is Hugh Fernley-Whittinstall and his River Cottage Odyssey  (he has now produced a lot of books and TV series).   An episode showing a traditional Bonfire night can be seen via the Channel 4 website .  In an almost seamless flow  Halloween and Samhain traditions have amalgamated with Guy Fawkes Night.  

A  lot of American cultural food such as hot dogs and Pumpkin Pie seem to be making appearances at British Guy Fawkes parties.  The traditional drink of Cider in the countryside of England was usually just about ready at this time of year after the apple harvest.  One way of preparing the orchards for the following year was to clear any disease laden debris such as leaves and branches, fallen or pruned.  Straw was then put on the floor of the orchard between the trees and burnt.  This was in the days before the effects of sulphur containing smoke was known on  hitherto unseen fungal spores.  It worked there was less disease the following compared to other orchards that had not been managed this way.  Might be something to note in the current Great Ash Tree Die-back crisis .  Atmospheric pollution and coal fires I would mischievously suggest might not be all bad.  So what do you do with all the debris?  You have a bonfire.  Contact with  ancient cultural traditions maintained (Samhain), a bit of crop protection, showing your support for the Protestant English State and a very good party.  Party probably the most important.  Still tradition for young Brits abroad so nothing changes!

In a round about way we have reached the issue of traditional food for Bonfire night.  We have mentioned the drink cider.  We have the bonfire from the apple debris and any other donations of old wood from the vicinity.  Into the bottom of the fire go potatoes to be cooked slowly (in foil or without foil).  Apple bobbing for the adventurous and those can hold their breath underwater.  Toffee apples for the young and the young at heart.  The Apple runs through as theme here going with it's cultural importance since pre-Biblical times.

This picture taken from one of Nigel Slater's recipes, real home made look to them.

Recipe this week is the traditional Toffee Apple.  Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall has produced a toffee apples I seem to remember on one of his programmes.   On the website and various books I own I could only find a recipe for Hot Halloween Pumpkin fold overs.  Trying to avoid American cultural influences I have sourced this recipe for experimentation from the BBC website (


  • 8 Granny Smith apples
  • 400g golden caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vinegar
  • 4 tbsp golden syrup

  1. Place the apples in a large bowl, then cover with boiling water (you may have to do this in 2 batches). This will remove the waxy coating and help the caramel to stick. Dry thoroughly and twist off any stalks. Push a wooden skewer or lolly stick into the stalk end of each apple.
  2. Lay out a sheet of baking parchment and place the apples on this, close to your stovetop. Tip the sugar into a pan along with 100ml water and set over a medium heat. Cook for 5 mins until the sugar dissolves, then stir in the vinegar and syrup. Set a sugar thermometer in the pan and boil to 140C or 'hard crack' stage. If you don't have a thermometer you can test the toffee by pouring a little into a bowl of cold water. It should harden instantly and, when removed, be brittle and easy to break. If you can still squish the toffee, continue to boil it.
  3. Working quickly and carefully, dip and twist each apple in the hot toffee until covered, let any excess drip away, then place on the baking parchment to harden. You may have to heat the toffee a little if the temperature drops and it starts to feel thick and viscous. Leave the toffee to cool before eating. Can be made up to 2 days in advance, stored in a dry place.

So here's to maintaining a Great British tradition.  Just thought will, the unintentional SEO technique of mentioning Anonymous increase increase the number of government security personnel who make toffee apples.  If you are reading this I hope you enjoy the recipe!


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