What have Panzanella, Pancotto, Ribollita and Bolton Brewis all got in common? And why are they trumped by the ultimate Wet Nellie – described by Parkers Arms chef Stosie Madi as part of the DNA of the UK’s No.1 gastropub? The answer is stale bread.
Frugality made delish by using your loaf, not binning it. Well, maybe not in the case of the Brewis. which I first encountered when celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rhubarb and Black Pudding, Matthew Fort’s year in the life of Paul, Heathcote’s Longridge restaurant. Like the eponymous black pudding, tripe or Eccles cakes, Brewis might, in Fort’s words, be proof of ‘Lancashire remaining true to its own regionality’, but it’s a desperate culinary remedy in its most basic form – hot water pored over hard bread scraps to make a mush come soup, seasoned with salt and pepper or whatever is to hand.
The French for gruel is brouet. So it’s not just a Lancashire thing. It crops up in that 1869 tale of Devon derring do, Lorna Doone. The author, RD Blackmore says of one numpty character “She can’t stir a pot of brewis.” Cross the Atlantic to Newfoundland and you’ll find a ‘deluxe version’ – Fish and Brewis with Scruncheons, combining hard tack and salt cod.
All of which is not a far remove from Italy’s Cucina Povera, which lifts making do on the poverty line to a different level, celebrating the rustic virtues of enhancing plain wheaten staples with herbs, foraged weeds, unmentionable meat parts and the like. The perception is the peasants of the Mezzogiorno and the Abruzzo liveD their lives in one long Dolmio ad. Our tables never recovered from the Industrial Revolution.
As it happens, I’m about to spend a few days among the Tuscan vineyards, where the diet may well be on the rich side. Yet, I’ll be looking out for Panzanella, a Tuscan and Umbrian chopped salad of soaked stale bread, onions and tomatoes, liberally doused with Extra Virgin or Pancotto, which has a variant in Campania utilising escarole or chicory with garlic and chilli. Tastier than either of these is Ribollita, a blend of Cavolo nero, red wine vinegar, cannellini beans, parmesan rind and carrot that strays into hearty territory. Closer to German Brotsuppe.
Guilt over leftovers is universal or should be and crumby ingenuity stretches beyond bread soup. Witness the aforementioned Wet Nellie, whose appeal extends from Liverpool into deepest Lancashire and finds its true haven at The Parkers Arms in The Trough of Bowland. Don’t dare to write it off as just a simple niece of Bread and Butter Pudding. in the hands of Stosie Madi and its true champion, business partner Kathy Smith, it’s a thing of beauty. Check out this video of its making.
So what makes up a Wet Nellie, perennial Parkers dessert fave? Let Stosie explain: “ We keep all left ofter sourdough, pastry, cakes etc using an electric mixer we make chunky crumbs. We then add our spice mix, ur own candied citrus mix, our own citrus syrup. Mix in lots of good candied cherries, dried currants and raisins. Now allow 48 hours before checking taste and texture. Add more syrup if dry; more crumbs if too wet. Fill cooked shortcrust tart cases and bake until golden. Serve with marmalade ice cream or maybe duck egg custard. It’s on the menu because it is a historic Lancs pudding.”
Beats Bewlis any day.