22 March 2022 · Discover ckbk
To mark the arrival of Be-Ro Home Recipes (1951 edition!) on ckbk’s shelves – and to celebrate Mother’s Day in the UK – we talk to food writer Roopa Gulati, food historian Annie Gray, and blogger and chef Neil Buttery about what has given the slim Be-Ro booklets their continued appeal in home kitchens across Britain.
Interest in the Be-Ro recipe book remains strong to this day, almost 100 years since its first publication – in fact this Facebook group for Be-Ro cookbook fans has nearly 50,000 members!
Annie Gray, author of The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook (and co-author of How to Cook The Victorian Way with Mrs Crocombe), has found the Be-Ro pamphlets incredibly helpful in her role as a food historian. So many people in the UK (and, as Gray says, “more to the point, now people’s mothers and grandmothers”) started out cooking from them. Be-Ro, a flour brand of based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England, first produced its now-iconic recipe pamphlets in 1923. It was a late-1920s edition that Gray used to research The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook.
Gray says, “I use the various editions for period-appropriate recipes which I know were actually used. It’s hard to tell whether a recipe published (or written) was ever really cooked – but the delight of the Be-Ro ones is that I know they were.” Her Downton Macaroons came from Be-Ro. She says, “They are delicious, but more like Bakewells than macaroons as we would know them.” She writes in the book that the influence of these “small-scale manufacturer-led recipe pamphlets is often underestimated, but for many people, they were the key way they learned to cook.”
In the 1880s, Thomas Bell founded a wholesale grocery firm near the Tyne quays and railway station. ‘Bells Royal’ baking powder and a self-raising flour were among his best-selling brands. After the death of Edward VII in 1910, it became illegal to use the Royal name, so he adapted ‘Bells Royal’ to ‘Be-Ro.’ With the aim of making self-raising flour more popular, the company produced a free pamphlet of recipes to be given out at cookery exhibitions and door-to-door, and Be-Ro subsequently became the best-known flour in the north of England.
Be-Ro’s website suggests that it may be one of the best-selling cookery books ever, with more than 38 million copies sold, while the Baking in Franglais blog provides a helpful survey of the many editions. The recipes from ckbk’s 1951 edition, in keeping with the style of the booklets since 1923, are simplicity itself. They include Swiss Roll, Family Cake, Macaroons (made with “rather less than 1 egg”), Spiced Buns, Tartlets, Gingerbread and Cocoanut Rocks (spelled the old-fashioned way!).
Author Roopa Gulati says that she remembers well the black and white cover of the Be-Ro recipe booklet: “My first introduction to it was through ‘grandma,’ who lived in Carlisle. Mrs Wills wasn’t our real grandma, but as our Indian family didn’t have any real relatives in the UK, she became our adopted grandma. She loved baking, and as a 6-year-old in 1969, I’ll never forget the beauty and aroma of just-baked, glacé cherry-topped Melting Moments biscuits cooling on her wire rack.”
“As an 8-year old, I took mum’s spice box for granted: curries were everyday fare - the hooks to my parents’ Punjabi background. They were first-generation Indians who settled in rural Cumbria, and although mum was an accomplished cook, British baking was a new challenge. To help her get started, her neighbours shared their Be-Ro recipes with her. It soon became a Saturday afternoon ritual for mum and me to weigh out flour, cream, butter, and sugar… and to embrace that great British institution of afternoon tea.”
Gulati remembers Be-Ro Jam Tarts in particular. “There was no specification in the recipe for the type of jam and no quantity indicated, either. I loved how the Be-Ro editorial team believed in no-faff cooking.” Chef and food blogger Neil Buttery also fondly remembers this recipe, and using his own preserves to make it. Be-Ro Ginger Pudding became a particularly popular dish on his dessert menus. Buttery says: “I think poring over the Be-Ro book and baking from it with my mum made me feel very comfortable in the kitchen as a grown-up. I don’t believe I can overstate how important the Be-Ro book and my Mum are to my present career.”
Earlier this year, when Annie Gray Tweeted about her Melting Moments from the 1957 edition, many people responded, recalling their own tweaks on this Be-Ro classic (Gray’s family rolled theirs in cornflakes). Though Melting Moments had not yet made it into the Be-Ro cookbook for ckbk’s 1951 edition, you can try Karen Burns-Booth’s recipe adapted from a later Be-Ro edition (no mention of cornflakes here, though – the Be-Ro cookbook suggests rolling them in desiccated coconut or oats). Meanwhile, Frances Bissell uses flaked almonds and adds lavender essence to the dough for her version. Note that these are not to be confused with New Zealand’s Melting Moments biscuits – two cookies sandwiched together with buttercream in the middle, as in Kiwi baker Kirsten Gilmour’s recipe.
As further evidence of the ongoing popularity of Be-Ro recipes, and Buttery notes that his story on the Be-Ro booklets is his most commented-upon blog post ever. Are we seeing a return to heritage cooking and traditional recipes? Buttery says, “These things ebb and flow, of course, but we seem to cling to our food culture, then get excited by new foods, then – perhaps feeling we are losing our culture a bit – suddenly go back to traditional foods again. We have been doing this since the 18th century (when what we think of as traditional British cuisine really found its feet). The COVID-16 pandemic probably intensified it, but traditional cooking was on the rise anyway.”
Two further nostalgic and child-friendly baking books are now sldo available on ckbk, in time for Mothering Sunday in the UK: The Pooh Cook Book and Pooh’s Fireside Recipes, both by Katie Stewart who became a household name as the cookery editor for The Times in the 1960s and 1970s. Food writer Leah Hyslop recalls the former as her first-ever recipe book. “You can tell what pages we cooked from because they are often glued together with spilled honey or golden syrup! I love cookbooks that are tattered and splattered; like falling-apart teddy bears, you know it's because they’ve been loved.”