Before the Brit renaissance

The year is 1987, the place Thatcher's Britain. Pat Cash proves that you can win a major like Wimbledon and still wang chung at night. It takes more than three Aussie paper dollars to buy one English pound. The Joshua Tree is pumping out hit after hit. Iraq is still a friend, the IRA not.

It would be wrong to say I peaked that year, heavens, I'm still to get there, but it was a whole lotta fun being in London town. I lived in grungy Islington with my wing man Justin Higgs, around the corner from our local, the inimitable Slug and Lettuce, where we hosted in our ground-floor slum endless Aussie friends and their trailing harems of South African or Scandinavian girls. Just so carefree and broke, we used to set challenges about just how little money we could spend on food. One day Justin made a scone, just one - did I mention we had plenty of spare time?

Eccles cakes.
Eccles cakes. Photo: Tessie Vanderwert

Out in the streets, we'd try to make bespoke queues. No one knows how to queue like the Poms, so we would stand directly behind each other in front of a post box and pretty soon there would be a line of patient Brits behind us, waiting for something to happen, at which point we'd head off to try to scull a McDonald's thickshake and beat the number 19 bus home.

It was here that I first experienced British food and it wasn't the Blumenthal model back then. In fact, it was pretty uninteresting. Chefs like Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis were still reminiscing French cuisine in their food.

In Mayfair, just off Piccadilly on Down Street, I got my first real job. Having some hospitality experience, I didn't have to tear down buildings by hand or work in pubs for 30 quid and my keep, which were the norm for travelling Aussies.

The hotel, 7 Down St, was owned by the Rolling Stone who eventually married the then 15-year-old Mandy Moore - as I say, the term politically correct hadn't been invented and things were pretty laid-back - like Bill Wyman's son became engaged to Mandy's mother.


It was on the menu here that I was introduced to English cheese. We had a huge wheel of stilton from which you just scooped out the serves from the cart, and we had things like digestive biscuits and eccles cakes to go with them.

I never really got these odd-looking cakes, which are romantically known in their native Lancashire as dead-fly cakes - the Lancashire where you can enjoy such dishes as fag pie and frumenty, rag pudding and Uncle Joe's minty balls.

Eccles cakes are basically little bundles of currants cooked in spice and caramel in puff pastry. You serve them with the local Lancashire cheese, which is an interesting cow's milk cheese, quite creamy, pure looking, with some pretty wild funky undertones.

These cakes are really easy to make and now that we are entering the London Olympic period, we should be celebrating all things British, so I'll get ahead of the game.

Traditionally, eccles cakes are made as two discs with the fruit mince in the middle and sealed around the edge, but the way we had them a few years ago at Fergus Henderson's St John was as little puff-pastry balls with the mince in the middle. Either way, you need three slashes across the top to represent the father, the son and the Holy Spirit.


100g butter

100g light brown sugar

200g currants

20g mixed peel

1 tsp allspice

1 tbsp malt vinegar

puff pastry

Melt the butter in a pan over a good heat, add the sugar and cook until you get a light caramel going. Remove from heat and stir in the currants, peel, spice and vinegar. Cool slightly and roll into balls about the size of a bonker (a big marble, about three centimetres diameter) Place on a tray and freeze for an hour or so.

Roll out the puff pastry - you can make your own, kudos if you do - and cut into nine-centimetre diameter discs. Place a ball of the currant mix in the middle and draw up the edges and twist to seal, invert and squash down a little to make it stable. Slash the top once, twice, three times and into the freezer again.

Heat the oven to 180C and bake them until they are golden and you get the oozing black mixture bubbling out the top. Serve warm with a big slice of Lancashire cheese or even stilton as we used to do back in '80s London.

Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, www.bryanmartin.com.au.