Friday, February 10, 2006

Cornish Fairing biscuits


Cornwall has quite a list of intriguing sounding foodstuffs:

Licky Pasty (leek pasty)
Star Gazy Pie (pie made with herring, mackerel or pilchards)
Figgy 'Obbin (suet pudding with raisins - figs are the Cornish name for raisins)
Heavy Cake (a pastry-lie cake with dried fruit)
Mahogany (a mixture of black treacle and gin! Drunk by sailors to put hairs on their chests - I expect)

Cornish Fairings I had made (& enjoyed) in the past, but I had never considered the meaning of their name. A 'fairing' is basically any item bought as a gift at a fair. This could be an edible item or a more lasting memento.

Every old town or country fair in England had a different food associated with it, often a type of gingerbread, a long-lasting heritage deriving from the Medieval love of spices. In Hampshire you could buy a Gingerbread Husband. These little fellows were pressed into a wooden mould to form their shape, and then gilded. If I can ever find a Gingerbread Husband mould I will be making up a whole batch of husbands (at least you can eat them if they get tiresome). Bath Fair sold Gingerbread Valentines (perhaps to give to your Gingerbread Husband).

Cornish Fairings are also a spiced biscuit. They have a success beyond their fleeting appearance at the local fair, and have been produced commercially for over a hundred years by a firm called Furniss based in Truro (established in 1886).* Click here for a related story for cat lovers.

I have always had a romantic view of these traditional fairs - seeing them in a Thomas Hardy-esque light. Many British fairs that still make an annual appearance are the great-great-great etc. grandchildren of Medieval fairs. Their ancient relations were either Charter or Hiring Fairs.

Charter Fairs were a venue for the sale of horses, cattle and other livestock. The name comes from the fact that these fairs were licensed by a grant or charter from the monarch. The local landowner or parish council held the charter that was a source of income for the king. Fairs were usually held on a Saint's day or feast day, so they became not only a chance to sell your cow, but to meet up with old friends and have a bit of a jolly.

Hiring Fairs originated for more sober reasons. In the mid 14th century a terrible plague ravaged Britain (The Black Death) and killed many thousands (and quite possibly 2 million people in total), which meant that any healthy, fit individuals able to still carry out manual labour could expect to command a premium wage. Therefore in 1351 was introduced a Statue of Labourers Act, which set a limit on the days that workers could be hired, and also tried to enforce wages to return to pre-plague levels. Statute (Hiring) Fairs were held quarterly with the intention of stabilising the labour market.

The annual fair in the Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury, near to where I grew up, is the descendent of a Medieval Hiring Fair. Round those parts, and across the Midlands, such fairs were often known as Mop Fairs due to the fact that women wishing to be hired would bring a tool to hold to symbolise their trade. The Mop Fair in Tewkesbury is still held on or near-to, the same dates each year, the 9th and 10th of October - dates which link it also to the celebration of Old Michaelmas Day.

But enough history, and on with the baking. My recipe for Cornish Fairings comes from Linda Collister's 'Baking Bible'. The recipe is very straightforward, and the only step I didn't follow was to add in mixed peel (didn't have any to hand, and I don't think it is an essential ingredient, as none of the other recipes I read used it). Linda attributes the cracked surface of the biscuits to the combination of baking powder and bicarbonate of soda - more on this later.

100g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
40g golden caster sugar
50g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
1 tablespoon of mixed peel, very finely chopped
3 tablespoons of golden syrup (in cold weather, warm the syrup before adding to mix)


1. Preheat oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Prepare a couple of baking sheets.
2. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and mixed spice into a larger bowl.
3. Stir in the sugar.
4. Add the diced butter and rub in until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
5. Stir in the mixed peel, and then the syrup.
6. Using your hands, roll the dough into about 20 marble-sized balls (I found mine were quite large 'marbles' ). Space them well apart on the baking sheets.
7. Bake in oven for about 7 minutes or until golden.

I watched my marble balls slowly sink down onto the baking sheet, as if descending into a curtsy, before completely prostrating themselves before my gaze. Perhaps my little dough discs grew shy or obstinate, for they remained resolutely of a piece and crack-free.


I double-checked the 'use-by' dates on my raising agents - well within. Both my baking powder and bicarbonate of soda were stored in dry conditions, and the baking instructions followed as I had followed them before. Mysterious. Not that this lack of cracking effected the flavour, but the texture of the biscuits was distinctly more chewy and less snappy then earlier batches. So, it is at this point I have to confess that I remembered I had photographed an earlier set of Cornish Fairings that I had made, and I thought that I would insert the images into this posting so that you can see that the 'ones that I made earlier' are how the biscuits are supposed to look.


Perhaps someone out there knows the answer? All suggestions received with great interest. One other recipe I read suggested that you SLAM the baking tray down on a worktop after taking the biscuits from the oven. Not sure that that would have made a difference. Another recipe suggested moving the biscuits from a top to a bottom shelf during the course of the baking time. However, previously I have followed Linda's recipe without any problems. She does mention as a tip warming the syrup in cold weather - which I didn't do - so maybe this had a bearing?


In the meantime, I found that the biscuits went down well with a cup of tea, and even better broken up and strewn over a bowl of Cornish Clotted Cream icecream. It is nice to know that in the world of baking there is rarely any wastage.

44 comments:

Andrew said...

No idea about the cracking problem but I was wondering if you knew of a list of the food associated with fairs local to me (Henley and surrounds). Just wondering...

Monkey Gland said...

On vaguely related to his post is the story that a friend of mine told me about ginger nut biscuits. Apparently, ginger nuts where the shepards pie of the biscuit factory world. Any biscuits that had gone wrong or cooked too long would be crushed up and used in the ginger nut mix. The pungent ginger would mask any flavours. The problem was that later when they stopped the practice people began complaining that ginger nuts had lost some unique to where they were made. My friend, said that people in the south said that the biscuits tasted wrong. Since the factories in the south had only made certain biscuits, indeed the now formalised recipe was wrong. He never mentioned if they ever sorted it out.

anna said...

Hello Andrew,

Your question has kept me happily occupied all weekend! None of my reference books gave me any leads - most documented fair foods seem to have come from the West country. However, several pleasurable hours on the internet later I can give you a little bit more information.

I couldn't find any information on Henley's own town fair, but firstly I looked further into the county of Oxfordshire. Places like Abington, Wantage, Witney and ,of course, Oxford, all have interesting historic fairs, but I could find no mention of special foods. However, north of Oxford lies the town of Deddington, Each November Deddington held what was known as a Pudding Pie Fair. The traditional pudding served/sold at the fair was something like a plum pudding baked in pastry - although it was apparently a rather robust affair! The old bakery in the town of Deddington was responsible for the pies, and a fate worse than demolition has now befallen this building - that's right, it's an estate agent's office!.

Heading a little over the border into Berkshire we come to the town of Lambourn. On St. Clement's Day (23 November), was held the Clementide Sheep Fair. Sold at the fair was a special cake made from enriched bread dough, with dried fruit, peel and spices. This cake sold up until 1883.

Sadly I could find no recipe for either the Clementide Cake, or the Deddington Pudding Pie. If anyone knows of any further information, please let me know.

This site has a good list of regional/traditional fairs.

MG - Ginger nuts have usually tasted OK to me. It is just their name that makes me laugh in a rather childish way...

Chloe said...

I love your blog... hearing the town names is neat coming from the States and New England. Those could be our towns here! What wonderful pictures and stories. Those cookies look great even without the cracks!

anna said...

Hi Chloe,

I like the theme of your blog - if you can get hold of clotted cream icecream in the States, bake up some of these biscuits to go with a bowl or two... Actually, just a bowl of clotted cream would do - but that really would be VERY naughty!

Kevin Wignall said...

Anna, coincidentally, I'm from Tewkesbury!
Do check out our website www.localfoodweb.co.uk
Great and informative blog.
K

Kirk Elder said...

What a truly splendid site! Have you ever come across a recipe for a heckly biscuit? This is an austere, pastry-like biscuit from Angus, which comes in sweet and savoury varieties, but which has almost disappeared now.

anna said...

Hello Kevin and Kirk,

Thanks for stopping by. I am sadly unaquainted with the heckly biscuit, but I will endeavour to learn more about them (see below), find a recipe, bake and sample them. Any leads please let me know.

In the meantime I think it best to redirect readers to Kirk's own website to read his Proustian heckly reminiscences, warm from Grandma'am's combinations. How can I now resist the lure of experiencing a heckly for myself!

Saxon said...

I've occaisonally had problems with not cracking, it seems to be with the amount of time between mixing and cooking, I think the bicard and baking powder react early.

The biscuits I made from your recipe were delicous, I've been searching for Fairings receipes for a long time!

Sam said...

clotted cream? in the states? we should be so lucky. I couldn't even get any jersey milk today cos I wanted to make some I was so desperate!

thse fairings LOOK exactly like the real mcoy!

Ian Wellens. said...

The fairings look fab ...

... and just in case you fancy making some cheese scones with cornish cheese, have a look at my website The Cheese Shed, which has just about the best selection of Westcountry cheeses you'll find online. I think. It's:

www.thecheeseshed.com

Ian Wellens

anna said...

Hi Ian,

Cheese scones, now that's an idea... I have just looked at your website and am now definitely in the mood for some cheese. Shame no one has invented scratch and sniff computer screens ;)

magwich said...

hi my name is malc thanks for the cornish fairings recipe am about to try it i have a small cake and catering business in cornwall and would love to incorparate them in my list of goods thanks again malc

anna said...

Hello Malc,

Good luck with the Fairings, and good luck with your business.

Anonymous said...

I reckon it's to do with the amount of syrup. The recipe is very similar to Delia's ginger biscuits, but she only uses bicarb, I seem to remember. Syrup is really hard to measure out accurately, and it's amazing how that's the only thing that makes the dough come together. I think that using the least possible amount of syrup results in the nicely crackled biscuits.

anna said...

Thank you anonymous writer. That does sound likely, because as you say it is the syrup that binds the mixture together - and perhaps does the job too well if too much is present. Syrup is hard to measure out, and it is easy to err on the side on generous helpings!

bytheseashore said...

Thanks for the recipe. I left out the peel (in keeping with the way my Grandmother used to make them) and they cracked nicely. Unfortunately the Cornish company famous for making fairings has closed recently which prompted me to make some.

This looks like a good site - I'll be taking a look around. Thank you!

DavidWilcock said...

Actually, Furniss is back in business after being bought and is now producing Fairings again.

Delsa in Greece said...

Hi I just called my mum for my nana's fairing recipe. They have always crackled nicely and I noticed she uses self-raising flour and bicarb rather than plain and baking powder. She also only uses 1 tablespoon of golden syrup which she melts with the butter and then combines with the dry ingredients. I'm making some today as I have terrible morning sickness and I just read ginger can help - what better excuse to bake and eat do you need!

anna said...

Hi Delsa,

I will have to try your Nana's recipe - no doubt she has tried and tested it many times ;)

Hope the morning sickness settles down soon. Wouldn't it be great if fairings were found to be the wonder cure - I certainly would have liked that!

Jennifer said...

Oh, I wish I had some kind of answer to your cracking/non-cracking dilemma, but I don't. So I just wanted to say thanks for posting the recipe, I've just taken them out of the oven (cracked surface) and they're delicious. Best wishes, Jennifer

anna said...

Hello Jennifer,

Sounds as if you managed to 'crack' it ; ) Sorry - rubbish joke. Glad that the biscuits behaved themselves for you.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've made cornish fairings before.
Firstly combine all the dry ingredients. Next you should gently melt the butter in a pan with the golden syrup, taking care not to burn.

Now quickly combine both, mixing with a wooden spoon.

Make walnut sized balls, place well apart on heavily greased baking sheets.

Anonymous said...

Hi All, Great to see your interest in Cornish Fairings. Proper Cornish took over Furniss in September 2006, so Original Cornish Fairings are still available for all ! visit the website at www.furniss-foods.co.uk

Anonymous said...

hi all
we just made some cornish fairings and ours were flat and un-cracked too wonder what the problem is??

Anonymous said...

hi anna. The syrup idea may work i dont know but my mums a fairing and to get the cracking effect she does the SLAM method. Stange but it works. Trust me im cornish. Cheers

Anonymous said...

When we made them at school we had to take them out of the oven midway through, let them cool for a minute, and then put them back in. This seemed to work really well! xx

Amy said...

Posted Sept 2009 - Hi Anna, I realise that it is some time since you posted your comment asking for help as to why your Cornish Fairings don't crack. My Aunt's recipe says to cook them for 15 mins, removing the tray after 10 mins and hitting it against a solid surface then returning it to the oven for another 5 mins. Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled onto this site while searching for information about Victorian Fairings!
The Cornish Fairings post was awhile ago but, perhaps, I can add something.
I am from the US and own a book called FROM AN ENGLISH OVEN: CAKES, BUNS AND BREADS OF COUNTRY TRADITION. It was published in the US in 1948.(I can just hear you muttering "What do you Yanks know about English food?) It is quite interesting, including the usual Eccles cakes, Bakewell tarts and such and others perhaps not so usual such as Pope Ladies and Goosnargh.
There is no mention of Cornish Fairings, but there is a discussion about and a recipe for Fair Buttons from Norfolk that are made either white or brown and are also supposed to crack.
When I have traveling in Great Britain, I always tried to find foods specific to the area and have enjoyed quite a few finds. I came across Kirriemuir Iced Gingerbread in Dunkeld, Scotland and loved it. There is no American importer for this and I haven't found a good recipe either. Perhaps someone can help with this. Thank You.
Braddoc

Anonymous said...

I have made these a few times and each time they come out slightly differet. If the butter isn't straight from the fridge I find the cookies 'melt' all over the cookie sheet. I added freshly ground almonds and discovered that the cookie spreads everywhere but remains chewy. Whatever the cookie did or didn't do, I found them chewy and delicious.
Patti, Canada

Patti said...

I love this recipe!!I found it last Christmas and have been making them for special occasions ever since. This year I started to experiement with them. I used the base ingredients and instead of peel I used chopped walnuts and pecans. My husband loved them!! I added dried cranberries, currants and peel. They were a hit. My grandson wants me to add chocolate chips to the next batch. Instead of making cookies, though, I increase the recipe 4 fold and pat it into a cookie sheet. I make more which means I don't have to bake every day. Thanks for posting this recipe.
Patti in Canada

Anonymous said...

I have had no problem making cornish Fairings for years - until I had a new cooker, and since then, they still crack beautifully, but they don't flatten! Any help gratefully received. (By the way, my recipe says to use an UN-greased baking sheet)

Jenny Wren said...

I am in the middle of making these biscuits from another recipe and came online to check it as the mixture hasn't come together. However the recipe is identical to yours (but without the mixed peel) so I don't know what can be wrong.

Big Bead Little Bead said...

Hi Jenny,

I have just checked my recipe book to see if I can help. I notice that at the stage you are told to add the syrup to create the dough, there is a note to say 'In cold weather, warm the syrup before adding to the mixture'. Maybe your syrup is too cool! I would have thought that thought that the process of mixing would bring the temp. up however (and change the consistency of the sugar)- although I guess this might take more work. I will edit my original post to make this instruction clearer.

(I did try emailing this to you shortly after you posted but unsure that it headed off in the right direction - otherwise this will have come too late to be much help).

Janine, Cornwall, UK said...

In my Cornish WI cook book, the fairings recipe calls for tartaric acid as well as bicarb and baking powder. Could that affect the cracking?

maggiepea said...

I find recipes using spoons to measure syrup can have varying results from one day to the next. I always weigh it into the other ingredients and get more consistent results. Could this have anything to do with the cracking?

SunshineFairy said...

I think the cracking/not cracking bit is all to do with the temperature of the dough. I baked my biscuits in two batches (because I was too lazy to use two trays), so the dough for the second lot was sitting around for ten minutes or so (and I am in southern Turkey, so the kitchen is very warm at the moment). The first batch didn't crack, but the second batch did. Also, when I came to roll the dough into balls for the second batch, it was too soft because of the warm room, so I just spooned it on to the baking sheet using a teaspoon - they still came out beautifully, though not quite so perfectly round. I do agree, though, that measuring ingredients for baked goods by volume is not so accurate as measuring by weight, so the results may not be consistent.

Android 5.0 Jelly Bean said...

This looks like a good site - I'll be taking a look around. Thank you!

iPhonesia said...

Heading a little over the border into Berkshire we come to the town of Lambourn. On St. Clement's Day (23 November), was held the Clementide Sheep Fair. Sold at the fair was a special cake made from enriched bread dough, with dried fruit, peel and spices. This cake sold up until 1883.

Free BitDefender Quickscan said...

No idea about the cracking problem but I was wondering if you knew of a list of the food associated with fairs local to me (Henley and surrounds). Just wondering...

kim dotcom said...

No idea about the cracking problem but I was wondering if you knew of a list of the food associated with fairs local to me (Henley and surrounds). Just wondering...

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iPad 3 said...

Any biscuits that had gone wrong or cooked too long would be crushed up and used in the ginger nut mix.

Krista said...

My copy of The Great British Book of Baking sites that over use of golden syrup will prevent the top from cracking. :)