I remember my Dad making a turf fire in the garden …
He’d start by just constructing a small mound of dry paper, twigs and other combustibles; then set it alight and gradually add turves around it, grass side downwards, until it was transformed into what looked like a pyramid of earth. It was a very useful means of disposing of a large quantity of grass which had grown where it was, for instance, covering soil needed for cultivation. The turves kept the heat in and (presumably) just enough oxygen seeped in to maintain combustion. The most memorable thing about it for me was that it just kept burning for days on end, usually with a thin wisp of sweet-scented smoke curling around the top of the ever-growing pile, with occasional flare-ups. At the end there was a large pile of useful, weed-free ash, which could be spread around the garden and acted as a cleanser (or so I was told), whilst adding valuable nutrients such as potash.
Now that was back in Wales, but I was reminded of those fires when I came across this postcard in our family archives. It shows an indoor turf fire – with a remarkable caption: “Turf fire at Huckaback, Castleton, Yorks, which has not been out for 70 years (1910)”.
If ever proof were needed that turf fires can burn for a very long time, this is surely it; except that there used to be one in The Saltergate Inn in Teesside which is reputed to have burned continuously, until fairly recently, since the 1730s!
By chance another postcard caught my eye with a related subject. This one is captioned “THE TURF BAKE KITCHEN SLEIGHTS”, Sleights being a village in North Yorkshire, located in the Esk Valley in the postal region of Whitby.
Despite my best efforts, I haven’t managed to find out how common turf cake kitchens were – whether they were “a thing”, in current parlance – but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a large number of them back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Yorkshire. The Foods of England Project website, whilst helpfully describing how turf cakes were made, also points us in the direction of a wonderful quote from the utterly charming Yorkshire Painted And Described by Gordon Home: “I stepped into the little parlour, with its sanded floor, and demanded ‘fat rascals’ and tea. The girl was not surprised at my request, for the hot turf cakes supplied at the inn are known to all the neighbourhood by this unusual name.” So it seems that turf cakes are directly related to what are nowadays known as “fat rascals”, similar to both rock cakes and scones.
(By the way, for anyone interested in the history, cities, towns, villages, ports and beautiful countryside of Yorkshire, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Project Gutenburg Yorkshire Painted And Described ebook, which is freely available online and contains some twenty-five chapters and thirty-one paintings).
There’s a little more information about Sleights Turf Cake Bakehouse on the Facebook page of Rustic Baking Co Ltd, a small artisan bakery based on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors near Whitby. who also point to the link to fat rascals. But here the plot thickens …
In 2017, in what you might call a turf war, a small cafe in Whitby, Sandgate Coffee & Delights, was taken to court by Bettys Tea Rooms, who claimed to own the trademark in Fat Rascals. Bettys Tea Rooms won the case, despite Miss Matos, of the Whitby cafe, being able to show that fat rascals were baked on peat fires in Whitby as long ago as 1855.
Rustic Baking continues to make turf cakes, but they call them Bossy Bettys.
I wonder why?
Fat Rascals at Betty’s of York, UK – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) – author Wendy Slattery