12 December: St Lucy – Patron Saint of Higglers

‘Hark! How the the cries in every street

Make the lanes and allies ring:

With their goods and ware, both nice and rare,

All in a pleasant lofty strain;’

‘The Cries of London’ (Anon c 1680)

In North Lincolnshire in the mid nineteenth century, my rather disreputable great grandfather Tom Burgess was described in the national census as a ‘higgler’. Here’s the definition:

‘One who sells provisions from door to door, one who buys fowls, butter and eggs in the country and brings them to the town to sell. From the verb ‘ to higgle’ to beat down the price of thing in bargain, Hence’ higgledy-piggled’ corrupted from ‘higgle’ – higglers carrying a confused medley of provisions; in a disorderly manner’

And here's a picture:

I seem to remember doing a post about St Lucy last year and concentrating on the traditional homely Scandinavian customs associated with her day. But what I didn’t know was that she is the patron saint of higglers. ‘Higgler’ is a sixteenth century word and is probably a variation of ‘haggle’.

Walter Skeat’s ‘Glossary of Tudor and Stuart words’ published in 1914 also says the phrase ‘to come in with one’s five eggs’ was a higgler’s phrase meaning to interrupt another’s conversation with an irrelevant or fussy story, referring to the practice of initially offering the higgler a much lower price for eggs than he was prepared to accept.

Oddly enough my Grandfather, Tom’s son in law was a sort of travelling grocer too. One of my very earliest memories - I must have been about three, was being taken by him to visit two elderly sisters who made farmhouse butter. I remember the marble tops in their cool dark dairy very well and the wooden paddles they shaped the butter with. It came in 1lb blocks with a criss-crossed pattern on the top and little beads of butter-milk seeping from it and was very dark yellow and very salty!

So what can I make that's buttery and eggy enough to commemorate the lost profession of higgling? I've been given gifts of both eggs and cheese this week, (my friends are lovely) so....

I’m going to make spaghetti alla carbonara – charcoal makers’ spaghetti. Wikipedia says the origins of this dish are obscure, and unrecorded before the Second World War. I don’t think that means it’s a modern invention at all, it was simply so common that no one bothered to write it down. The great advantage of it is that it can be made with only one pan, and like many simple dishes its origins are as peasant food. It’s a brilliant dish for one person – a solitary charcoal burner perhaps, in the wooded foothills of the Appenines.

I first ate it as a poverty stricken law student in a cold flat in Chester. My flat mate had done an Italian degree and lived in Naples for a year. I was both fascinated and slightly alarmed when I first saw her make it, and was transfixed when I saw the way the heat from the pasta cooked the eggy mixture. We used to make it with shreds of mortadella sausage at 19p for 4 ounces, but it’s more commonly made with pancetta or smoked bacon, I even make it with chorizo sometimes.

There are an infinite number of variations, you can add sliced mushrooms and garlic although I draw the line at cream (as you get when you order it in a pseudo Italian restaurant), and I don’t think the sauce should be runny, just nicely coating the pasta. It's real comfort food, something to make when you're alone, a bit tired or just too lazy to cook anything more complicated.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Cook enough pasta for one person – about 100 grams of fettuccine, spaghetti, or tagliatelle. Warm the dish you are going to eat it from.

While the pasta is cooking, beat a large egg in a bowl and grate a couple of ounces of cheese – it doesn’t have to be parmesan, in my case it's usually a bit of cheddar that’s been lurking in the fridge for far too long.

Fry the shreds of bacon or chorizo or sliced salami.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it and put it straight back into the cooking pan, pour in the egg mixture add a knob of butter and stir it round, the eggs will scramble as you do. Add the grated cheese and season well – lots of black pepper. Now add the meat and the oil from the meat pan. Pour into a warm bowl, add more cheese.

That’s it. Embellish as you wish (truffle oil is good), have a tomato salad to follow and eat on the sofa with your feet up and a large glass of something white and chilly – not water.


Jennifer said...

I find it endlessly fascinating learning the history and background of Saints' days and the meaning of obscure words, such as higgle! I love the word, I must try to find an opportunity to use it in everyday conversation!

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

I never knew the origins of "higgle" . . . love it. But how typical of the British to have a comic sounding word for something a bit seedy!

I agree with you too on carbonara. I suspect it was so ubiquitous that people didn't think it was grand enough to put in a cookbook. I can't imagine that thrifty Italians wouldn't have loved this dish too :)

The KitchenMaid said...

As a higgledy piggledy Lucy I love this post (and I loved last year's one too!)