2 September 1666: The Great Fire of London

'…. to Sir R Ford's and there dined, in an earthen platter a fried

breast of mutton, a great many of us. But very merry; and ended as good

a meal, though as ugly a one as I ever had in my life.....But strange

it was to see Cloathworkers Hall on fire these three days and nights in

one body of Flame - it being the cellar, full of Oyle'

Diary of Samuel Pepys: 6 September 1666

The Great Fire of London broke out in Thomas Farriner's baker's shop in Pudding Lane in the early morning of Sunday 2 September 1666. Pepys’ servant Jane roused her master and mistress at about three am. to tell them that there was 'a great fire in the city'. Early in the morning Pepys got a boat and went down river to see the destruction which was already immense; by seven o’clock some three hundred houses had been destroyed. The thatched wooden houses tightly packed in the squalid lanes of the old city caught fire readily in the steady breeze.

Every British schoolchild learns about the Great Fire and how it started in the delicious sounding 'Pudding Lane' – in fact the lane was so called because it was the direct route from Smithfield Market to the River Thames. Carts full of entrails (puddings) were lead down there to be loaded onto barges and dumped in the river. So ends my romantic view of a lane lined with bakers' shops and fragrant with the scent of baking spices and vanilla – far from it!

(Anonymous painting of the Great Fire destroying Ludgate and St Pauls c 1670)

The city authorities were completely overwhelmed by the disaster, and the Lord Mayor's indecisiveness about how to tackle the blaze added to the problems. After three days, by which time the fire was threatening the Royal Palace of Whitehall the King took command and troops used gunpowder to blast fire breaks. Not surprisingly the panic stricken city population sought a scapegoat; and many foreigners unfortunate enough to be out and about, were assaulted and worse.

No one knows how many people died in the fire, Thomas Farriner's maid was killed when she wouldn't jump from the burning bakery, but popular myth says that the number is tiny. I doubt it. Many of the urban poor surely could not have escaped with their lives, more likely their bodies were simply cremated in the terrible heat and their deaths unrecorded.

By the time the fire was exhausted it had destroyed over 13,000 houses, 87 parish churches, Old St Paul's - the major City Church and most of the other important buildings of the City.

Amazingly though, the city was rebuilt on exactly the same plan as previously, no opportunity was taken to create wide thoroughfares and quiet residential quarters, all was built again, just as before. Pudding Lane now houses a beautiful memorial to the fire and the new St Paul's Cathedral is a monument not only to the fire but to the man of vision who designed it; Sir Christopher Wren.

So Pepys tells us what we must cook; a fried breast of mutton. Here it is but with lamb which is easier to get and very cheap.

Fried Breast of Lamb (for 4)

1 breast of lamb

1 1/2 litres good vegetable stock

Bouquet Garni

Salt and peppercorns

1 large egg

2-3 oz white breadcrumbs

Sunflower oil for frying

Trim the meat of any excess fat and sinew and put into the cold stock with the seasonings. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for one and a half hours. Remove the meat from the pan and leave to cool slightly then pull out the long bones. (Mine had been boned and rolled before I bought it, so I simply undid the string and poached it flat) Leave the meat until cold - it helps to weigh it down between two chopping boards. Cut the meat into squares about an inch across. Dip the meat into beaten egg, then into breadcrumbs and fry until golden brown (if you have time to chill the little squares for half an hour between the coating and the frying so much the better).

The traditional accompaniment for this is Bearnaise or Tartare Sauce, but I think the little lamb pieces are very rich so I prefer an astringent salsa verde. I made mine by blitzing a handful of mint, a half clove of garlic, a small bunch of basil, a teaspoon of capers, three small cornichons and enough olive oil and lemon juice to make a just runny consistency. You could of course just have traditional mint sauce which would be really good at cutting the fat.

This is a bit of a fiddly recipe but it’s a good one for a quick dinner because everything can be prepared in advance or even on the day before and the final stage done at the last minute.

' And in the evening Sir W Penn and I did dig another (pit) and put our wine in it, and I my parmezan cheese as well as my wine and some other things.'

Diary Of Samuel Pepys 4 September 1666

(interesting that Parmesan was available in England as long ago as 1666, and that it was valuable enough to bury!)

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