‘Dry bread is hard, but it’s harder where there’s none’ Old fen saying as we explore some of the language - and food - of the Fens

PUBLISHED: 17:33 18 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:40 18 April 2020

Author Mike Rouse (right) takes an engaging look atthe Fen language and (left) workers at Pymoor stop for a docky. Mr Rouse explains its origins. Picture; ARCHANT/CAMBS ARCHIVES

Author Mike Rouse (right) takes an engaging look atthe Fen language and (left) workers at Pymoor stop for a docky. Mr Rouse explains its origins. Picture; ARCHANT/CAMBS ARCHIVES


Vittles, grub, though not fools grub which was something like a trifle that hadn’t set: ‘too thick to drink and not thick enough t’ eat’and docky, are common words for fen food.

Docky is probably the most familiar of the old fen words. The farm labourer took it with him for his morning snack, when he sat down beside the field, got out his old shut knife and enjoyed a hunk of Bread, some cheese, raw onion and perhaps an apple, washed down with cold tea,

For that twenty minutes or so he ate, the farmer would dock his wages, hence ‘docky’. Oh yes, you only got paid when you were working, hence the old fen saying: ‘God made bees, bees made honey, Labourers do the work and farmers get the money.’

When I was a child my mother kept chickens, so we had fresh eggs. If there was a surplus then fruit was bottled, eggs were bottled, and apples were stored. Nothing was wasted.

For most people that was how it was, and I was fortunate, but many families did go hungry.

Most fen cottages had a biler (boiler) in which you biled your clothes but it was also used for biled puddens, a staple of most fen diets. In the early 1970s I collected the stories of some elderly Soham people, including Dorothy Green, and Blanche Looker.

A pudding was a daily must every day – roly poly, currant, onion, jam, fruit, treacle, date. There were apple turnovers and fruit tarts in season. (Dorothy Green) A boiled pudding might have meat at one end, then a stopper in the middle and jam at the other, so main meal and dessert in one.

An occasional meal was broth made from sheep’s pluck or sheep’s head. A sheep’s pluck – liver, lights, milk and such could all be bought for ten pence, while a sheep’s head cost eight pence. A fire would be lit in the hearth in the lodge and a boiler containing water placed on two iron bars over the fire. Into this would go the pluck or the head, soaked lentils and vegetables.

This would be left to boil all day and the resulting broth gave them several meals.

Dorothy Green recalled how they managed: Every April when eggs were plentiful (one shilling a dozen) we preserved eggs in liquid to tide us through the winter when prices were higher.

We stocked our cupboards with jams, wines, pickles - all home-made, to help when times were hard, so we always had something to turn into a meal.

Shin bones were in great demand – boiled for hours, strained – when cold the marrow dripping was taken off, used to spread on toast. The stock went for soup, packed with vegetables and served with dried peas and dumplings.

A good meal could be made cheaply from pigs’ fry (these were the heart, liver, lights and sweetbreads) flavoured with sage and onions baked in the oven – this was delicious and inexpensive. Another luxury was chittlins, or chitterlings, (the intestines of the pig) and salted, soaked in brine for a week, boiled, fried to a crispy state, eaten with mustard or vinegar.

So, as you go furging round the supermarket looking for food, just remember the time people managed with more simple foods.

Chafer Legge told WH Barrett of a dish called ‘hummer supper’ – kidney fat from a dead lamb with moorhen’s eggs on top. If some of the eggs were a bit addled that only added to the hum.

Beastings, the first milk after a cow had calved, when baked tasted like egg custard. Chafer Legge’s mother used to grate acorns on the dish before baking to stop ‘the back door run’.

Blanche Looker remembered how she was given bread and water sop, sometimes called kettle broth, but her brother was given milk mess, because he had to grow up big and strong.

Roy West, who was born in Soham c.1930 gave me a recipe for Salt and Pepper Sop which he still

made for himself. He also added his observations about it.

Recipe for 1: Warm small basin (1 1/2 pint); Break 4 slices of white bread into basin. Pour boiling water on bread and cover basin with small plate. Amount of water comes with experience, just enough for water and steam to make bread moist but not soggy. Leave for 3 minutes, remove plate and with dessert spoon mash bread into a revolting looking mess. Add generous amount of butter, salt and pepper to taste. Mash well.

‘If you can acquire the taste for it there is nothing better on a cold frosty morning, but if you find the

look and taste of it disgusting, you will not be alone.’

Other recipes I’ll leave for another day. Having whetted your Fen appetite, it’s the least I can do.

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