A Taste of The North – Eccles Cakes
The first time I visited Eccles, I asked an acquaintance of mine who lives in the town what he recommended I do whilst I was there. “Get the bus straight back to Manchester,” was his reply.
Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. Once part of Lancashire, now subsumed into the urban sprawl of Greater Manchester and technically classed as part of Salford, Eccles is not the most glamorous location in the area. But, like most places, Eccles has things to recommend it.
First off, how many suburbs have their own organ museum – and a Wurlitzer one at that? In 2002, the Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust, which rescues Wurlitzers from cinemas and theatres that have closed down and are at risk of demolition, bought a former Sunday school in the Peel Green area of Eccles. Today, it is open as a museum on Fridays (and the first Saturday of each month) and holds weekly Wednesday afternoon organ concerts in its 80-seat auditorium, which recreates the velveteen décor and genteel atmosphere of a 1930s cinema. Ask the organist nicely and they might even let you have a go…
Of course, the thing for which Eccles is best-known is its Eccles cakes, a heady mix of dried fruit and spices, encased in flaky, crunchy, sugared pastry. I had my first taste of Eccles cake at a cafe on the main shopping street; make sure you don’t visit Eccles without tasting one!
A suggestion for working up an appetite for your Eccles cake: from Manchester city centre, get the bus to picturesque Worsley village and make your way to the Bridgewater Canal, opened by the Duke of the Bridgewater in 1761 to carry coal. The canal is a sight in itself, tinted a distinctive orange colour by iron in the local rock. Follow the towpath until you get to Eccles, keeping an eye out for geese, brightly painted barges and some local landmarks such as Monton lighthouse, a canal-side folly built a few years ago by a local man. Whilst you are in the area, you really should visit the Barton Swing Aqueduct at nearby Barton-upon-Irwell, a breathtaking feat of Victorian engineering, where the Bridgewater Canal crosses the wide Manchester Ship Canal in parallel with a wide swing bridge for cars (look out for the location in Tony Richardson’s 1961 film adaption of A Taste of Honey, filmed in the days when big ships still sailed down the Ship Canal).
Alternatively, for Eccles cakes without the adventure, you can make your own at home. I was inspired by Robert Owen Brown, chef at the celebrated Mark Addy gastropub on the banks of the River Irwell in Salford, which serves traditional northern grub with a twist. Owen Brown demonstrated his Eccles cakes recipe in the unlikely setting of the town hall at this year’s Manchester Histories Festival (he also showed how to prepare a pig’s head; thankfully I missed that part!).
The Shrieking Violet Eccles Cakes Recipe:
1 block puff pastry, defrosted (as Robert Owen Brown said, who’s got time to make puff pastry from scratch? Ready-made is fine.)
1 pack currants
50g butter or vegan margarine
A pinch of nutmeg, grated
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Melt the butter in a pan. Mix in the sugar and currants and grate in the rind of the orange (taking care not to grate your fingers!). Stir in the nutmeg and cinnamon.
On a floured surface, roll out the pastry. Cut out into circles or divide up using a method of your choice (I cut mine in four, opting for larger, non-circular Eccles cakes).
Place the filling in the middle of each section of pastry, making sure it is divided up equally. Wet the edges of the pastry and fold over to enclose the mixture (I folded mine into triangles). Press the edges down.
Transfer the cakes to a baking tray and press down lightly on the surface. Make a cross in the top with a sharp knife.
Coat with a little milk and sprinkle a little extra sugar on top.
Cook at 180 degrees celsius for 15 minutes or so.
Serve warm. Owen Brown serves his with Lancashire cheese; I recommend a good dollop of custard. Leftovers keep for a few days.