Press release: What’s cooking in the community? Find out at the MERL Village Fete


Students, Ben and Deiniol, met with members of the Chinese Association

Food Science students at the University of Reading have been challenged to create new dishes from ingredients used by the diverse communities in Reading. The results will be revealed in the ‘Reading, Steady, Cook!’ demonstrations at the MERL Village Fete on May 31st.

The Village Fete at the Museum of English Rural Life, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, will be on the theme of food (production & consumption!) this year. The cookery demonstrations will showcase the diverse culinary heritage which exists in Reading today, including ingredients such as including salted boneless cod, bonnet peppers, tofu and oyster sauce.

Members of the Barbados & Friends Association, the West Indian Women’s Circle and the Chinese Association have met with the students to exchange ideas and give them a list of ingredients to use in their new recipes. The Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan members of the ‘Newcomers to the University’ group have also selected ingredients which they would use for a dish called dolma, also prepared in the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey) and in the Middle East. Representatives of each the groups will help the students prepare the recipes – and taste them for the first time – at the Fete. 

The students, Ben Smith, Lydia England and Deiniol Pritchard, are in their 2nd, 3rd and 4th years of Food Science degrees respectively. They aim to make the demonstrations informative by looking at some of the science behind the cooking and the food we eat, as well as making some tasty dishes!

Ben said “This is a great initiative from MERL to bring the department and the public together so we can explain something of what we learn about on our degree and perhaps dispel a few myths about what food scientists do!”

Bob at Fete

Professor Bob Rastall at the Village Fete in 2013

Professor Bob Rastall, Head of the Department of Food & Nutritional Sciences, will be joining the students and members of the Reading University Baking Society (RUBS) at the fete demonstrating the science of baking and cheese making. Visitors will also be able to taste Caerphilly cheese made by colleagues in the department using milk from cows on the University farms! Professor Rastall said “This is a great opportunity for our superb students to engage with the people of Reading and for us to showcase the ground-breaking work taking place in our department.”

Phillippa Heath, Public Programmes Manager at MERL said “If visitors want to get involved, we’d love them to bring along their favourite homemade biscuits to enter the Biscuit Bake-off at the Fete. We’re hoping to inspire people to revive one of Reading’s famous culinary skills!’

The MERL Village Fete takes place on Saturday 31st May from 10am to 4.30pm. For more details, visit Tickets are available in advance for £2.50 and on the door for £3. Admission for children is free.


Press are welcome to attend on the day. Please contact Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at MERL, on 0118  378 8660 or  for details or to arrange interviews.

Biscuit recipe of the week: Picnic Café’s famous macaroons

by Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer and biscuit sampler. Phillippa at Picnic

Fans of Picnic Café in Reading will share my excitement about this week’s recipe, which owner, Jon Amery has kindly agreed to share. Picnic is supplying the cake for the tea tent at the MERL Village Fete again this year, and Jon will be a judge on the Biscuit Bake-off panel. We mentioned these weekly biscuit recipes a little while ago to Jon, hinted at our preference for Picnic’s delicious macaroons and held our breath! Apparently it was a topic of some debate amongst Picnic staff as to whether the macaroon could be classed as a biscuit. Thankfully, it seems it can!

Last week, Phillippa and I decided to prove our dedication, and visited the café for a working lunch, which obviously had to include the famous macaroon (and some apple cake!) … it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it!

Anyway, here is that very special and surprisingly simple-looking recipe from Jon, who has (sadly?) scaled down quantities to make just 10 golf ball sized macaroons:

Picnic’s Macaroons

Mix together 440g of ground almond, 300g of caster sugar (we use an unrefined organic sugar from south America) and 4 egg whites until consistent in texture.

Shape into golf ball sized balls and place on a baking tray ensuring a 1” gap between balls Push (don’t place as they will fall off!) a whole almond on top.

Pop in a pre-heated oven for approximately 20 minutes on 180 C or until golden brown.

Have a go and let us know how they turn out! If you’re brave enough to put your version in front of Jon, why not enter the Biscuit Bake-off at the Village Fete on May 31st?!

Biscuit recipe of the week: Anzac biscuits

Since the recent launch of our Village Fete Biscuit Bake-off , we have started publishing a biscuit recipe each week to inspire you to practise baking biscuits and to enter the competition at the Fete on May. Our Librarians and archivists are digging out some interesting recipes from the MERL collections, and we’d also welcome suggestions of favourite recipes from our readers, but for today there’s one perfect biscuit…

At the launch event, one Toddler was very proud to show us his biscuits, and with a little prompting from mum, he was able to tell us confidently that they were Anzac Biscuits. Although I was familiar with the term ‘Anzac’, I’d never heard of the biscuits, but a little research revealed that they were originally made to send to the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) serving in Gallipoli.  Apparently they were sent by wives to soldiers abroad because the ingredients did not spoil easily and the biscuits kept well during naval transportation. This, along with the general scarcity in wartime, is why there are no eggs in these biscuits.

Anzac Day is celebrated on April 25th, and marks the anniversary of the landing in Gallipoli in 1915, a campaign which led to major casualties for Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

Andrew Palmer & Leo with his Anzac biscuits

Andrew Palmer and Leo with his Anzac biscuits at the launch event

Anzac Biscuit Recipe

This particular recipe is taken from the BBC Good Food website. You can also try for some alternatives


  • 85g porridge oats
  • 85g desiccated coconut
  • 100g plain flour
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g butter, plus extra butter for greasing
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda


  1. Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Put the oats, coconut, flour and sugar in a bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the golden syrup. Add the bicarbonate of soda to 2 tbsp boiling water, then stir into the golden syrup and butter mixture.
  2. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the butter and golden syrup mixture. Stir gently to incorporate the dry ingredients.
  3. Put dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to buttered baking sheets, about 2.5cm/1in apart to allow room for spreading. Bake in batches for 8-10 mins until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Give it a try and let us know how you get on! If you enjoy these biscuits, why not enter them into the Biscuit Bake-off at the MERL Village Fete on May 31st?!

MERL Village Fete: MERL Toddlers take the biscuit!

This is the first of a series of posts from the Village Fete team on the run-up to this year’s event, by Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer.

Preparations for the 2014 MERL Village Fete are well underway and it’s exciting to be able to start sharing some of the new features of the event, which will focus on food this year!

Last Friday, the Village Fete team hijacked the regular Friday Toddler Time session to launch the ‘MERL Biscuit Bake-off’ which will be judged at the Fete on May 31st.  One of Reading’s famous 3Bs, biscuits are part of the town’s – and MERL’s – heritage. Our beautiful Victorian building is the former family home of the Palmer family of Huntley & Palmer’s, and we hold their archive in the University’s Special Collections. Introducing a ‘Biscuit Bake-off’ competition to the Fete seems the perfect way to encourage the people of Reading to get baking biscuits!

 MERL toddlers take the biscuit group

Regular Toddler Time attendees were invited to bring in their favourite homemade biscuits to be tasted by long-term MERL supporter and descendant of the Palmer family, Andrew Palmer and his wife Davina. Despite the chaos as families arrived armed with plates of biscuits, Andrew and Davina had a great time trying out everyone’s delicious offerings!

Andrew Palmer & Leo

Andrew Palmer trying Anzac biscuits baked by Leo

Everyone was also very interested to try the biscuits baked by Deiniol Pritchard, a Food Science student at the University. These were inspired by a recipe for ‘University Rusks’ from the records of ‘Huntley & Palmers’.


Deiniol with his biscuits, the Huntley & Palmer recipe for University Rusks and an image from the archive of Tea Rusks.

After a photo session (look out for pictures in the local press!) and the usual sing-along on the carpet, the toddlers enjoyed the rest of the session decorating biscuits in the Studio, where they were joined not only by the Palmers, but also by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, who happened to be at the Museum for a meeting, and called in to investigate the commotion!

VC & toddler 1

The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, joined in the biscuit-decorating activity

Everyone is welcome to enter the ‘Biscuit Bake-off’ at the Fete. There will be ‘traditional’ and ‘freestyle’ categories, and several age groups – from Under 5s to adults! Just bring your favourite homemade biscuits to the event on the day. You can find details of how to enter on our website.

In the meantime, we’re going to be posting a different biscuit recipe on the blog each week, so watch this space for inspiration and start practising!




Focus on collections #2: Collecting your #muscake (and eating it!)

Sit back with a cup of tea and a piece of cake (of course) and take a few minutes to read this fascinating post by Assistant Curator, Dr Ollie Douglas, on the little known cake-related collections at MERL (and elsewhere)…


Here at the Museum we’ve been eating rather a lot of cake. The frenetic activity of the annual MERL Village Fete was fuelled largely by cake, either produced for the baking competition or purchased along with cream teas. Add to this a flurry of summer birthdays and a series of project successes and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we do little other than eat tasty confectioneries all day long. I hasten to add that this is, of course, not true and that we not only work extremely hard but only ever eat cake at a safe and conservator-approved distance from our collections!

Winning Victoria Sponge Cake in the children's baking competition at the MERL Village Fete 2013

Winning Victoria Sponge Cake in the children’s baking competition at the MERL Village Fete 2013

If you are tucking into a piece of Victoria sponge right now and muttering that a museum dedicated to rural life should have no reason to acquire cake-related objects then I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. Not only do we have extensive collections on the theme of cake but we probably have sufficient holdings to fill all the cake tins of Mary Berry herself. Inspired by my colleagues and their growing addiction to baked goods as well as by a recent discussion concerning cake and collections I set out to investigate what interesting nibbles I could find in the storerooms of MERL.

In the archive we have several photographs of Princess Marina’s bridal cake, as taken by local photographer Philip Collier (1881-1979), shortly before the royal wedding in 1934. The cake was made by the local firm Huntley and Palmers, who were better known for their biscuits but evidently dabbled in cakes as well. Collier’s work forms an important strand of a new collaboration with Reading Museum entitled Reading Connections.

Princess Marina's wedding cake on display in Reading, 1934 (MERL P DX323 PH1/E150/222)

Princess Marina’s wedding cake on display in Reading, 1934 (MERL P DX323 PH1/E150/222)

Elsewhere in the archive we also hold trade records relating to the production, promotion, and distribution of cake-breaking equipment, including a cake-breaker promoted by Alexander and Sons of Cirencester. This refers to a different, altogether less appetising, sort of cake. Oil cake was made from the material that remained after oil was extracted from crops such as oil seed rape and linseed. The resultant blocks were sold as animal feed but needed to be broken up before being fed to livestock. Cake-breakers were used to grind up larger chunks into pieces that animals could then eat.

Cake breaker made and advertised by Alexander and Sons of Cirencester, 1870s (MERL TR SCM P2/B15)

Cake breaker made and advertised by Alexander and Sons of Cirencester, 1870s (MERL TR SCM P2/B15)

As far as the object holdings go, we have further items relating to animal cake, including an actual cake-breaker (MERL 53/197) from Langley, Warwickshire, which would have been used to prepare animal feed in just the way described. However, let me now return to items connected with cakes intended for people rather than animals. The collection of Lavinia Smith yields a rich seam of cake-related objects. Smith was an American-born collector who gathered items to characterise life in the village where she lived, East Hendred.  Her collection forms another strand of the Reading Connections project. She was concerned as much with life inside the farmhouse or cottage as she was with work in surrounding fields and hence the objects include numerous items of hearth furniture and cooking utensils such as a girdle plate (MERL 51/520) that would have been suspended over an open fire and used to bake oatcakes, scones or cakes. She also collected a so-called ‘salamander’ (MERL 51/751) given to her by the local blacksmith, which comprised an iron bar ending in a flat plate that pivoted on a stand and was heated in the fire until red hot whereupon it was used for browning pastry, mashed potato and cakes.

Gingerbread mould, as collected by Lavina Smith and bearing a striking resemblance to a Biddenden cake mould (MERL 51/536)

Gingerbread mould, as collected by Lavina Smith and bearing a striking resemblance to a Biddenden cake mould (MERL 51/536)

Although it’s not strictly speaking cake-related, Smith also acquired an object described by John Denniss—the baker who passed it to her—as a gingerbread mould (MERL 51/536). Denniss’ family had reputedly been bakers in East Hendred for 200 years and it had presumably been used by them. My colleague Laura recently retrieved it from the store in preparation for a visit by an overseas researcher interested in biscuit, cookie, and gingerbread moulds, and on closer examination I realised that it bears a striking resemblance to the design of the Biddenden cake. These were handed out as part of a charitable dole at Biddenden, Kent, which is said to have been founded by the conjoined twins Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst in the 1100s. Although the story has been largely discredited, it is a potent example of how cakes are easily incorporated into powerful local traditions.

A piece of artwork (MERL 2009/28) purchased through MERL’s recent collecting project, offers a slightly different take on the link between cake and tradition (MERL 2009/28). This picture by well-known cartoonist Norman Thelwell (1923-2004) offers a wry comment on the invention of tradition. At the centre of the image some rustic-looking yokels appear to be hitting a cake with rough-hewn sticks. This is a reference to cake-based customary practices and to the tradition of beating the bounds, here combined in a characteristically comical, mystifying, and Thelwellian take on English culture.

Norman Thelwell, 'The age-old custom of beating the balm cake at Abbots Dawdling', 1960 (2009/28)

Norman Thelwell, ‘The age-old custom of beating the balm cake at Abbots Dawdling’, 1960 (2009/28)

This image harbours a subtle air of poking fun at folk revivalists and at people who enjoy pastimes that form part of this movement, such as Morris dancers and mummers. Just for the record, MERL remains extremely pleased to be able to host Morris dancers at its Village fete every year, and here at the Museum we warmly encourage links between cake and tradition, though perhaps in a less violent-looking way than Thelwell’s portrayal!

Having delved deeper into MERL’s own slice of cake history I should confess that I have a soft spot for collections that relate to cake. I began my career at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, which houses an extraordinary collection of ceremonial cakes. I think you can still view some of these objects, packed into a drawer on the ground floor. I like to think that these items were left by early curators to slowly desiccate, no doubt offering a tempting distraction from other more scholarly activities. However, these early custodians resisted the urge to snack and the items were preserved to stand as testimony to the inventive baking skills of our forebears, to the rich multiplicity of food-related cultural practice, and to the (sometimes surreal) interests of anthropologists and folklorists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

In the course of my own PhD research I came across references to a collection of ceremonial cakes of the British Isles that was exhibited during the International Folklore Congress of 1891, as held at Burlington House, London (see this list of items exhibited, as published in 1891). This collation of so-called ‘feasten cakes’ was coordinated by a member of the Folklore Society called Alice Bertha Gomme (1852-1938). Gomme was the wife of folklorist George Lawrence Gomme (1853-1916) and was a significant figure in her own right, serving as Secretary to the Entertainment Committee of the 1891 Congress and going on to become a leading expert in the study of children’s games as well as traditional food.

Some of the early collections amassed by curators at MERL sought to offer a comprehensive and regional overview of the whole of England; these include the wagon holdings (as discussed in a previous post) and perhaps most famously the smocks (also mentioned in an earlier post). Much like these later examples, Gomme’s vision for the cake display was clearly one that was comparably inclusive. As this map shows, with the exception of Ireland the coverage was relatively comprehensive and the the provenance of the ceremonial cakes featured is clearly indicative of a desire on Gomme’s part to be as representative of the United Kingdom as possible.

Map showing distribution of British ceremonial cakes exhibited at the International Folklore Congress of 1891 (Oliver Douglas, 'The Material Culture of Folklore' - unpublished DPhil Thesis, p.87)

Map showing distribution of British ceremonial cakes exhibited at the International Folklore
Congress of 1891 (Oliver Douglas, ‘The Material Culture of Folklore’ – unpublished DPhil Thesis, p.87)

The temptation of this edible display was such that it was not simply illustrative and a significant number of these delicacies were purchased by the Entertainment Committee in order to be served to hungry delegates attending the Congress. As the historian of the folklore movement Richard Dorson later put it, the Congress offered “a feast for the eyes, the ears, and even the mouth.” I wonder if perhaps the staff at MERL should take a leaf from Gomme’s recipe book and begin to think more carefully about the foodstuffs we serve at the Village fete and why we serve them. What can different types of cake tell us about English rural life? Are ceremonial and feasten foods still important markers of who the English are and what it means to be a part of a rural way of life? Are we contributing to the continuation of rural cake-baking traditions that the Women’s Institute would be proud of and are we helping to reinvent traditions in a way that Thelwell might have found amusing? I hope so.

Finally, and far more importantly, I wonder whose turn is it to bring in the baked goods (and who ate the last slice of the chocolate cake I saw in the staff room?!).