Preserving Cambridge

William Clement 19 October 2009

As the university celebrates its 800th birthday, it’s time to reflect on what’s good, what’s bad and what’s worth keeping. In this food and drink special, William Clement examines Cambridge’s culinary traditions, foods and outlets.

People in Cambridge get very indignant about creme brulee. At the end of last term I ate at the Cambridge Chop House. For dessert, having seen them being carried past my table, I asked for “a creme brulee.” The waiter made an irritating little grimace and said, “Do you mean a Cambridge burnt cream, sir?”

I might have said, “It’s the same thing and you know what I meant. Why be so smug about it?” Of course, I didn’t. I ordered my Cambridge burnt cream and ate it – and it was lovely. It had a delicate layer of caramelised sugar and tenderly set custard underneath, well sweetened, with a nursery scent of vanilla. Delicious.

The idea of provenance is attractive because it gives a dish geographical, historical or social colour. No doubt the burnt cream has strong roots in Cambridge. Custards enriched and set with eggs and topped in some manner with caramelised sugar have been variously called “burnt creams” or “creme brulees” for over four hundred years, the most common variants, apart from “crema catalana”, being “Cambridge burnt cream” and “Trinity burnt cream”.

The origins of the dessert in Cambridge are recorded in Eleanor Jenkinson’s The Ocklye Cookery Book, a small collection of Edwardian family recipes, published in 1908. She writes that a Scottish undergraduate at Trinity offered his family’s recipe for burnt creams to the college cook, who turned it down. Later, when he had graduated and become a Fellow of the college, he offered the recipe again. This time the cook accepted, liked it, prepared it regularly. From the students studying at Cambridge in the late 1870s who ate it in hall, talked about it, had their own cooks recreate it, the dish derived its Cambridge pedigree and began its ascent to twentieth century popularity.

A restaurant serving English food – the Cambridge Chop House serves extremely good English food – ought to concern itself with local produce and gastronomy. The idea has become popular in recent years. It’s still exemplified by the French preoccupation with terroirs and the Italian reverence for regionality. But we’re catching up. The AOCs and DOCs (controlled appellations or denominations of origin) of those countries are now finding their English equivalents in attempts to stop the Cornish pasty fall foul of Ginsters, Stilton of cheap and inferior imitations. It’s all very pleasing and forward-thinking, with an eye for the preservation of good things.

My waiter’s correction was the kind of friendly banter some waiters will deploy on you. I don’t necessarily mind it, but the tittering self-congratulation of the comment had a ring of the absurd jingoism that often arises from these proud appellations, whether they’re official or not. Had I pointed at a piece of Roquefort and said I’d like some of that “Danish Blue”, I’d have duly expected a sharp, waiterly slap on the wrist. They are different things: one delicious, the other acrid. But a Cambridge burnt cream is a burnt cream is a creme brulee – a dessert whose history is, in any case, obscure.

The first reference made to a “creme brulee” is by Francois Massialot in his book, Cuisinier Roïal et Bourgeois, in 1691. Composed of milk, “as much Flower as you can take up between your Fingers” and “a small Stick of Cinnamon with some green Lemmon-peel cut small”, the custard is “set upon the Furnace” and finally burnt with “a Fire-shovel heated red hot”. The recipe would produce something rather different from the modern burnt cream, Cambridge or not.

The earliest examples in English cookbooks appear in the eighteenth century and are largely copied from the translation of Massialot’s text with various additions and subtractions. By the time it reaches Hannah Glasse’s Complete Confectioner at the turn of the century, the milk of Massialot’s crème has become good, thick (and, vitally, very English) cream, and orange flower water has found its way in there. The caramel should look, writes Glasse, “like a glass plate put over your cream”.

In contrast, the cream in the recipe alongside Eleanor Jenkinson’s story of the Cambridge undergraduate is unsweetened and unspiced, thickened with only yolks of eggs, and bruleed with plenty of sugar. But my Chop House “Cambridge burnt cream” was certainly sweetened, certainly contained a good deal of vanilla, and had the very thinnest caramel. It tasted like a modern French creme brulee – the kind students of Escoffier might knock up.

There is quite a lot in a name – or there should be. A “Cambridge burnt cream” could denote something distinctive: the beautiful bareness of Eleanor Jenkinson’s recipe, perhaps, in contrast to the earlier versions with their strong spices and aromatics or the sweeter French crème brulee. Perhaps the present Trinity cook has an idea, other than, say, branding the creams with the college crest.

There should be pride in the burnt cream’s local associations, but unless the appellation has proper significance, no-one should be smug about casually inserting “Cambridge” or “Trinity” into the title and boldly claiming its correctness. Massialot writes that if you add the peel of an orange to your burnt cream “then ’tis called Burnt Cream with Orange”.

His advice, in plain French, is sane. Cambridge should mean as much as Massialot’s orange peel, adding a distinct flavour to a very lovely dish.

William Clement