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Published: August 30th 2019
It’s the Lesbian capital of the North”. It was one hell of an opening line at 9.00 am in the morning as we emerged from our pub lodgings. It was issued by a smartly dressed elderly gent wearing a regimental tie and highly polished shoes. We loitered to hear more. The chap gave us a potted life history encompassing life in the Canadian army and canal boats in Skipton. A condensed story that would put any elevator speech spouting business executive to shame. His taxi arrived to take him to a church service in Hebden Bridge. His parting shot was “I’m in the hands of the Lord until 12, then I get pissed”. This is typical Hebden Bridge.
The Upper Calder Valley (Halifax, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden) gets a good deal of TV coverage in the U.K. it’s largely thanks BBC “offcomedens” from Manchester HQ settling in the area and giving it additional profile and to the wonderful, locally born, Sally Wainwright, writer of Happy Valley and Gentlemen Jack. The series Happy Valley touched on some of complex social problems of this overtly picturesque place best summed up by the comment that is is a “drug town with a tourist problem”.
There is also a strange, benign, thoroughly Yorkshire, nowt-as-daft-as-folk, quirkiness to this former mill town region. One thing entirely unique to the area is Dock Pudding
which is often referred to a regional peculiarity. The pudding is made from the weed Polgonum bistorta
or sweet dock and is not to be confused with coarse cow docks which take the sting out of nettles. Bistorta is to be found growing in profusion in springtime around the canal banks, river banks and the meadow land used to graze diary cows on the flanks of the steep valleys. The plant is easily distinguished by its pink “bottle brush” flowers and pointed leaves. There is even a World Dock Pudding Championship which was revived in 1971. It always fitted that quirky end-of-the-news slot on regional TV when I was growing up and I clearly remember Yorkshire TV actually screening the competition. Entrants have to follow a basic recipe and are judged on flavour, texture and presentation. No mean feat for this dish.
The origins of this foodstuff has been part of the way of life in this area for as far back as anyone can remember and its ancient roots are firmly fixed in local soil. It was said that during the Second World War the German radio propogandist “Lord Haw Haw” heard of the Calderites addiction to the pudding and announced the food situation was so critical in Yorkshire that the people were reduced to eating grass. There is also a story that one man carved up a square of dock plants to move to his new home when he left the area. Despite careful re-planting the graft did not take. Although, there is talk of secret recipes, I don’t believe anyone was really that precious and the ingredients are commonly known.
When I was around 10 years old, myself and my dad would to descend from our home at the edge of the moors into the fields above Hebden. Along the perimeters of these pastures we would find the small dock leaves. Working in silence in the spring air for a couple of hours, we would fill several plastic carrier bags with this common weed. Later, I would be dispatched alone to a nearby dell with scissors and marigold gloves to prune the heads off young nettles that were just emerging. Returning home, a long, tedious Sunday afternoon of de-stalking and de-grassing of the newly foraged would take place. There was invariably a familiar movie on TV like Von Ryan express or Kenneth Moore in North West Frontier that familiarity ensured that only needed occasional nods upwards to maintain continuity.
The book Yorkshire cooking would be consulted. My dad still has it in the kitchen, although the real user is sadly no longer there. It is an old book that is held together by stains. My mum would bring out the ancient aluminium pressure cooker, which I now understand was the only pot big enough for the job. Docks wilt down like spinach when cooked. The seemingly endless cooking would cause every window in the house to be coated in pearly condensation. The resultant slimy green mass of all this considerable labour would look about as unappetising as a food stuff could get. It was served as a side to the Monday evening meal of bacon and eggs. Monday being washing day in Hebden, there was never time for anything more elaborate after a day wrestling with the twin tub washing machine.
Cooked in the bacon fat, it was mealy from oats and astringent from nettles. It had an strong, earthy, complex flavour. There was only generally enough for one helping; as this is all that is required. I had some again recently, I thought the taste that had overwhelmed the palate of a 10 year old boy would had changed, lessened, ameliorated. It had not. Proust can keep his bloody madeleines, I’m better than that. I have Dock pudding.
2 lb of fresh young dock leaves
2 large onions
½ lb nettles
Handful of oatmeal
Knob of butter
Salt and pepper
De-stalk and then wash the dock and nettle leaves thoroughly. Dice the onions and add to the docks. Add seasoning to taste and boil the whole mixture until the greens are soft and tender. Then add the oatmeal and boil for another 20 minutes, stirring carefully to prevent lumps forming. Strain the mixture and add the knob of butter.
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