Caroline James discovers the origins of her favourite pudding…
Tucked away in a beautiful bay on Lake Ullswater, in Cumbria, sits one of my favourite hotels, Sharrow Bay.
Formerly a fisherman’s lodge, Sharrow Bay was advertised for sale in the Manchester Guardian in 1948 and an enterprising young man named Francis Coulson bought it. With very little money and the help of friends he opened with four letting bedrooms in the spring of that year. In 1952, Brian Sack joined him. Intending to stay for one summer only, Brian too fell in love with the old property and a team was formed that would dominate the British hotel scene for many decades.
I fell in love with Sharrow Bay when I lived in Cumbria. A hotelier myself, I would go to the hotel on special occasions and it was a treat to meet with the two gentlemen, who by then were elderly but still passionately involved in the day-to-day running of their business. For me, it was quite simply the best and Francis and Brian termed the words, ‘Country House Hotel.’ Their over-the-top service and eclectic style was adored by guests from all around the world and they created a business that was aspired to by many and set the bar for hoteliers throughout the country.
Dinner was an occasion. One never knew who might be at the next table and star spotting was an enjoyable pastime. Brian would discreetly tend to a guest’s every need and Francis would appear with a bread basket, quietly offering a selection of delicate doughs at the start of your meal. But the delight for me was the desserts. Displayed on a table, as you went into the restaurant, one’s eyes feasted on the selection, preparing you for the sweet course of the meal. Absolute heaven, and as retro as it may seem, I wish restaurants would bring back the dessert trolley on occasion. Such a treat for the eyes! I always chose the Sticky Toffee Pudding; it was sublime and so suited to the fells and Lake Ullswater that lay beyond the dining room windows. After a day’s walking, what could be more delicious than a hearty dessert to top off a fine meal? The Independent newspaper described Francis’s pudding as, ‘airy, light sticky toffee pudding that could stand as an epitaph to him.’ Indeed it does and is still served today at Sharrow Bay, which thank goodness, is in private hands and is one of the finest hotels in the country.
Many like to claim the Sticky Toffee Pudding as their own recipe and countless versions can be found online. In Australia and New Zealand it is known as sticky date pudding and there is a shop in Cartmel (www.cartmelvillageshop.co.uk) that supplies their pudding to leading retailers including Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason.
Rumour suggests that Francis got the recipe from a Patricia Martin of Claughton in Lancashire who served the dish at her hotel and she got the recipe from two Canadian air force officers who stayed with her during WWII. But, as many celebrity chefs tell me, all recipes are a combination of another’s, and with a little bit of tweaking become one’s own.
For me the pudding is a perfect British dessert best enjoyed on a winter’s afternoon in close proximity to a roaring log fire. It can be served with custard or ice cream and additional toffee sauce and my favourite is with home-made vanilla custard.
This is my version of Sticky Toffee Pud – enjoy!
150g self-raising flour
2 large eggs
60g golden castor sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250ml hot water
200g chopped dates
250ml double cream
220g unsalted butter
400g dark brown sugar
A dash of a good vanilla essence
Method (Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4|)
For the pudding, add the bicarbonate of soda to the water and add the dates. Leave to soak for an hour. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat the eggs and gradually add to the creamed mixture. Fold in the flour then add the dates. Spoon into a 20cm square tin and bake for 40 minutes.
For the sauce, melt the butter in a thick bottomed pan over a medium heat then add the sugar, vanilla, cream. Stir and simmer gently for five minutes.
To serve, pour hot toffee sauce over a portion of the pudding.
Caroline’s latest novel is available now! Jungle Rock