Tottenham cakes are a traditional north London bake, now rarely sold.

On food and class 

If there’s been a local food revolution in this country in the last few decades, it’s been a distinctly middle-class affair.

My smallish local supermarket sells five types of brioche, four of ciabatta and precisely zero varieties of cottage loaf, stottie or tattie scone. Glossy food magazines endlessly romanticise the cucina povera of Italy or Spain and the vibrant street food of Asia, but rarely mention the pleasures of a hot pork pie and peas, a pillowy chip butty or vinegary cone of whelks – or indeed almost any of the regional specialities I enjoyed so much while travelling around Britain by bike for my last book Red Sauce, Brown Sauce. 

If there’s been a local food revolution in this country in the last few decades, it’s been a distinctly middle-class affair. The media rejoices in a £24 plate of faggots at London’s St John, but shrinks from any mention of the rough-hewn versions in high street butchers, let alone the £1 boxes of Mr Brain’s in the supermarket freezer.  

For all the brilliant new bakeries in my north London neighbourhood, not one offers a lurid pink slab of Tottenham cake, the traditional local delicacy from this area. A plaintive recent request on the community tips App NextDoor asked for tip offs on “proper jam doughnuts for sale… [I’ve seen] cronuts, yes… cinnamon buns, yes… but I’m dying for an old-school jam doughnut”. Meanwhile, following the closure of our last pie and mash shop, my neighbour orders in bulk from Essex, filling her freezer to justify the delivery charge.  

In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone – and if such traditionally working-class foods become so rare, or pricy, that few can access them, they’re as good as dead anyway. Sometimes, as with crappit heid (boiled fish heads stuffed with oats) popular tastes have moved on; occasionally, as with jellied eels, sustainability issues have hastened the decline. But often it’s lack of availability that’s the problem, something which, of course, proves a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

When real cider isn’t on offer in the local pub, and kippers have vanished from the supermarket fish counter (itself an endangered species), such things inevitably become a niche taste, available only to those with the time, or means, to visit specialist retailers. You only have to remember the general hilarity earlier in the year at the idea we should be eating more turnips, often from pundits who were happy to admit they’d never even tried one, to see how proudly distanced we are from many of the once common foodstuffs that can be produced at the least environmental, and financial cost in this country. Yes, the vegetable I know as swede is still commonly paired with haggis in Scotland, and you can find turnips on the menu at a few high-end British places like St John – but it’s not a revolution if it doesn’t involve everyone. 

Across the Channel, peasant dishes like garbure (ham and veg stew) or choucroute (sauerkraut with sausages) are considered just as much part of the national cultural patrimony as truffles or foie gras, and celebrated accordingly. Yet here we prefer to revel in the notion that our own fish and chips or fry ups are “disgusting” (as reported gleefully by outlets including the Metro and the Independent), while happily jumping on any opportunity to mangle someone else’s cuisine instead.  

Our food culture is, and always has been, enriched by change and outside influence – but if we don’t take our own modest culinary heritage seriously, what hope have we of truly understanding, and thus valuing anyone else’s? Good British food should be accessible to everyone. And that includes proper jam doughnuts. 

This piece was originally published in the latest print issue of Wicked Leeks, out now. You can read the full magazine online for free.


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  1. Thanks for a fab and timely Wicked Leeks piece from Felicity. I look forward to following her (and Riverford) all the way to the barricades! This is one part of the essential, and urgent Revolution, let us link it with the others, so well articulated in the pages of Riverford’s Wicked Leeks. ❤️Riverford

    1. So glad to hear this resonates, it’s so interesting to seek out these sometimes forgotten local foods.

  2. I’m just going to say it… Greggs. Proper jam doughnuts and probably party cake too. They also sell it in my local farm shop near Frome. But party cake is cheap and pretty. It’s meant for kids parties, so does it really have a place on menus, surely we should just be making it at home and honouring tradition that way?

    I think food culture is incredibly complex. I marvel at the number of TV chefs and food programmes we have and yet the level of culinary capability in the UK is in steep decline. As purses tighten it’s surely not the latest London eatery that needs to be celebrating traditional food, but indeed the British population that needs to want to eat and cook traditional dishes if they are going to survive. Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, fish and chips… just a few things I think of as traditional but don’t see many people making those themselves – and I have foodie friends – we buy them. It’s that disconnect to our food that worries me most.

    1. We have heard a few mentions of Greggs proper jam doughnuts! Wonderful. Interestingly the Tottenham cake Felicity mentions has a distinct cultural heritage, separate from a generic party cake, having being first baked by local Quaker Henry Chalkley in the early 20th century, the cake’s bright pink icing came from local mulberries growing in Tottenham. In 1901, slices of the cake were handed out to children for free to celebrate the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club winning the Football Association Cup in 1901. Just fascinating.

  3. This is such a resonating theme with most (I’m sure not the only one here), not just for the type of food itself but a ‘working class’ needs. Living in Cotswolds – wonderful but also very apt for this topic especially since overloaded with Londeners’ second homes, there is nowhere to just take kids for ice creams after school anymore as I (full time working mum) am too late for all ‘local and small businesses that we should all support’ only support trade of tourists and retirees (nothing wrong with them but…) and all close at 3pm….

  4. My husband and I have started buying Riverford fresh organic products 21 weeks ago and we are very Happy. I read your article depicting the absence of wonderful British delicacies and amazing cuisine. However, the reality is this country has no culinary foundation nor a present good cuisine like we have in Italy, France, Spain. All the various dishes mentioned in your article are disgusting and nobody would want to eat them other than those who don’t understand food and have no refined palate. There are no British restaurants and anyway they serve just ba
    d imitations of other world cuisines. Nobody buys or serve British food in the EU. We have a boundless wealth of food and cuisines and British food is not there. Most British people including my English husband have a completely missing “link” between fresh products, prepping and organising, cooking and enjoying around the table. British parents must be deficient in role modelling when it comes to self sufficiency in kitchen.


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