Who would have thought that a humble, yellow sauce would be something that divides our two cultures? The origin of the English word ‘custard’ is apparently ‘custarde’ which is a corruption of ‘crustarde’ which means a pie with a crust. Hum, I am not entirely convinced by the logic of the pie giving its name to the sauce.
The French equivalent is ‘crème Anglaise’ whose name would suggest that it takes its inspiration from our vanilla flavoured sauces. However, there is one major difference. French ‘crème Anglaise’ is invariably served cold. Let me tell you a little story.
When I was teaching English to a class of retired people, I would ask them what they did at the weekend. One gentleman said that as his wife was away, he used her ‘robot’ to make some ‘crème Anglaise’. I asked him to describe all the steps and procedures he had to pass through to make his favourite sauce. He related putting, cream, egg yolks, vanilla and sugar into the machine, turning it on and waiting for the appliance to mix, stir and heat the preparation until it was thick, creamy and delicious. Then I interjected, ‘And you eat it while it is nice and warm’. ‘Oh, no,’ he replied with a look of horror on his face, ‘I put it in the fridge until it is cold!’ I was equally horrified that such a gourmet eating opportunity was passed by. ‘Is this true?’ I asked the class. ‘You eat ‘crème Anglaise’ cold?
No wonder, I had never had hot custard served with a desert in France. I had assumed it was easier for the chefs to keep the sauce in the fridge and that they couldn’t be bothered to heat it up. How many times had delightful pairings been bypassed? Chocolate desserts with hot custard, apple tart and hot custard, profiteroles and hot custard – all great opportunities had been sadly missed by chefs not taking the time to heat the sauce, I had supposed.
We receive hikers and cyclists who are on their way from Canterbury to Rome. One of the deserts they love is fruit crumble served with hot custard. One group of young men enjoyed it so much they ate it again at breakfast! The custard they enjoyed was made with Bird’s Custard Powder.
The story behind the invention of the powder is inspirational. Mr Bird was a pharmacist, scientist and a Fellow of The Chemist Society. His wife was allergic to eggs and yeast, so he invented a thickening powder based on cornflower so she could enjoy something equivalent to ‘crème Anglaise’ thickened with egg yolks. Their guests appreciated the sauce and he realised that there could be a market for his custard powder. So since 1890 it has been available firstly in Birmingham where they lived and later round the country. Bird’s Custard powder was even supplied to troops during the First World War.
Only a very few British people heat double or single cream mixed with 3 egg yolks, sugar and vanilla essence to make ‘a proper custard sauce’ as Delia Smith, our favourite TV cook, calls it. There is the risk of over heating it and the whole pot curdling and separating. It is so much easier to heat a pint of milk with 2 tablespoons of Bird’s custard powder and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Eating lovely, comforting, thickened milk is far less calorific than eating thickened double cream. Second helpings will not ruin a diet. Even the British TV chef Rick Stein in says in his book French Odyssey that his TV director preferred Bird’s. AND he says to serve his french style crème anglaise warm. Quelle horreur! He calls himself a ‘francophile’?! Similar products exist in France but have far more ingredients than the cornflour, natural colouring and vanilla in Bird’s Custard powder. The one I looked at recently contained, potato starch, palm oil and lots of other unnatural things and it too was meant to be eaten cold.
But, there is a ‘grand souci’! Bird’s Custard is no longer a family concern, it is not even owned by a British company. There is talk of the plant in Knighton, Staffordshire being sold! The French take to the streets and protest over everything they disagree with. Where are the protests and petitions to save Bird’s Custard powder? It is not any old product – it has a Royal Warrant that means it is eaten in the palaces of our country. I decided to write to the company to ask if the rumours were true. I received a reassuring reply that even though the plant where Bird’s Custard is currently made is closing, that product will continue to be made.
Just to be sure, I ask you to go out and buy a tin of Bird’s Custard Powder. Let the manufacturers know that British people care about our history and culinary traditions. There is the expression, ‘revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Apparently it was coined by a French writer. I would say that he was gravely mistaken. Neither revenge nor custard are ever best served cold.