Queen of puddings or a sickly confection like river mud?

Love it or loathe it, the gypsy tart is baked into the history of Kent. Andrew Rootes investigates the delicacy served at the school dinner table

Any baby boomer who was educated in our county will probably have strong feelings about gypsy tart – a school pudding loved or loathed by generations of pupils and which prompts a strong reaction whenever it is mentioned among people of a certain age.

There is even a Facebook page dedicated to this most Kentish of desserts. But for a pudding that evokes so many memories for thousands of people, little verifiable information seems known about its origins.

Gypsy tart comprises a pre-cooked flan base filled with a mix of evaporated milk and brown sugar and baked in the oven. There are variations on this recipe, which all have the advantage of simplicity. It delighted those who had a sweet tooth and disgusted those who didn’t.

I must declare an interest. I believe this tart to be the queen on puddings. My colleague Steve, who is about to write the headline for this feature, abhors it with a passion and the mere thought of it gives him a headache.

The story goes that it was created on the Isle of Sheppey by either a gypsy or a farmer’s wife who wanted to feed some children (possibly gypsy and possibly malnourished) with ingredients she had to hand.

Almost every online reference to its history says this, and many of these references are based on the same unverified source. One version embroiders this with information that gypsies would have been a common sight, travelling from farm to farm to help to pick the crops. Hence, no doubt, the farmer’s wife angle.

One site claims it has been part of the local memory for at least 100 years – but there are suggestions that it may have been created in the 1950s, and we have found no sure reference to it before then.

What is certain, as the Bygone Kent team can testify, is that it was served at school dinners at primary schools by the early 1960s, and many others recall it from the 1950s.

And it does seem to be very much a Kentish dish. The odd report says it was served as far afield as south London, over the border in Sussex or even sometimes in Hampshire (perhaps by a Kentish cook?), but anecdotally we can confirm it is unknown by baby boomers in Essex, Suffolk and the Midlands, however much it later spread further.

We shall therefore claim it for Kent. But it is with less confidence that we track its history.

Was it inspired by something called gypsy cake? The Huddersfield Chronicle of January, 1870, reports the bill of fare at a Masonic Ball in the town included gypsy cake. And Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion in December, 1880, listed gypsy cake in its “Housekeeper’s Guide to Good Things”.

Earlier still, The Illustrated London News of December, 1846, referred to “the Christmas or gypsy cake, made at Manchester, weighing 15cwt, and containing 15 gold wedding rings”.

There is a lot of fanciful interpretation of its name but perhaps common to these various dishes is either a rich mix of ingredients and/or a dark colour. This latter attribute seems confirmed by a Falkirk Herald recipe of December, 1943 “for that dark-looking cake called gypsy cake”. This version, given during wartime rationing, involved flour, 3oz sugar, mixed spice and chopped raisins or sultanas – with colouring from six drops of gravy browning. Identical ingredients, including the gravy browning, were listed for the same cake when the recipe was given in April, 1944, in Cooks’ Corner in the East Kent Times.

But what of the gypsies, or Romany people, themselves?

The Romany Heritage Facebook page listed these ingredients for its recipe for gypsy cake in 2015: flour, eggs, lard, marg, eggs and currants or mixed fruit. This mix was flattened and patted until it looked like a pancake and then cooked in a pan over an open fire “and only when the dying embers are left’”. Obviously nothing like the gypsy tart I know and love.

A website run by a retired baker and called Mr Paul’s Pantry says: “Gypsy tart is something people started requesting as something they remembered from their school dinners back in the 1960s and 1970s. It seems strange that as I was born into a gypsy family I’ve never heard of it.

The baker was born into a Romany gypsy family and travelled the highways and byways of the UK in a horse-drawn vardo (caravan). “I really don’t know how it got its name because the recipe calls for a baked pastry base and as we cooked everything on an open fire outside (no ovens) it’s something we couldn’t make even if we wanted to,” he added.

The Romany Heritage Facebook page listed these ingredients for its recipe for gypsy cake in 2015: flour, eggs, lard, marg, eggs and currants or mixed fruit. This mix was flattened and patted until it looked like a pancake and then cooked in a pan over an open fire “and only when the dying embers are left’”. Obviously nothing like the gypsy tart I know and love.

The dominant use of sugar suggests gypsy tart was unlikely to be seen on school tables during the Second World War, when tinned meat and mash was more commonly on the menu. In January, 1940, sugar was one of the first commodities to be rationed, at a level of 12 ounces per person a week. Although sweet rationing ended on 5 February, 1953, sugar itself was still controlled, although restrictions were easing.

These were illustrated by a story from Smarden in the Kentish Express of February, 1953, when three young children and the mother of one of them gave up their sugar and butter rations to help victims of the Great East Coast Flood (Bygone Kent, Vol 23, No 1), allowing 2lb of sugar and half a pound of butter to be the prize in a competition that raised 30 shillings. And in the Sevenoaks Chronicle of April, 1953, A. Dines, chairman of the Kent Bee-Keepers’ Association, answered an implied allegation that bee-keepers had misused their sugar ration, saying that as a class they were no less honest than any other section of the community.

But as these restrictions eased the Whitstable Times was able to say on 2 May, 1953: “Home sweet-making has grown more and more extinct as the years of sugar rationing have dragged by; we have ‘pinched and scraped’ our precious sugar almost grain by grain to allow a little for cakes here or a little for a special pudding there – and still leave some for the tea and coffee.”

Now things were a little easier, it added, “we must begin to learn our sweet-making arts all over again”. It then gave recipes for marzipan dates, chocolate caramels, nougat and fruit bon-bons.

The chancellor in his budget statement in April, 1953, reported that the minister of food had arranged to buy one million tons of surplus Cuban sugar, and that this would allow the government to end sugar rationing soon. As a preliminary step, the ration would be increased on 17 May.

At least by now the Free Milk Act (1946) was providing free milk to all British schoolchildren, a state of affairs which existed until 1968 in secondary schools. In 1971 Margaret Thatcher, then the education secretary, ended free school milk for children over the age of seven – earning her the nickname Milk Snatcher.

Sugar rationing in the UK – the only country still enforcing it – came to an end at midnight on Saturday, 26 September. By December, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported, “home-made puddings are back” and that demand for brown sugar had increased fourfold since the end of rationing.

Is this what opened the floodgates for the sweet-toothed and allowed the creation of gypsy tart? Certainly, the first reference we have been able to find to it in online newspaper archives was in June, 1955. That month the Birmingham Post carried an article headlined “Trials of a school cook”.

The unnamed cook described how 650 boys and girls were served at her primary school in two sittings, and mentioned that “frog’s spawn and seaweed” was their affectionate name for tapioca and greengage jam. The cook talked about their likes and dislikes and added: “Best of all, they like gypsy tart, which is a simple concoction of evaporated milk and brown sugar, whisked up together, in a pastry flan. Mothers often ask me about it, and I gather the children’s description is rather baffling!”

This last sentence is perhaps telling. The fact that mothers often asked her about it suggests it was not yet a widely known dish, either county or nationwide, and perhaps points to it being a relatively new concoction.

Whether or not it was on the menu, school dinners could never please everyone. By March, 1953, on a day when 124,500 primary pupils were present in schools across Kent, 60,350 (48.5%) were served dinner. But the standard of these meals wasn’t good enough in November, 1957, for the children at King Ethelbert’s Secondary School, Birchington, where 300 pupils signed a petition expressing their dissatisfaction.

“Children generally are hard to please about dinners,” one parent said. However, a boy at the school was able to add: “The bother started last week and dinners have been much better since.”

The success of gypsy tart among pupils certainly helped it succeed beyond the county boundary. It was referred to in The Scotsman in 1974 and a recipe for it appeared in the Liverpool Echo in 1983. In 1987, the Reading Evening Post women’s page editor referred to a request for the recipe for gypsy tart and added: “Apparently this is a long-standing favourite at some schools. I have had an enormous correspondence on the subject.” It seems you can’t keep a good pudding from an appreciative public.

Everyone will have memories of their school meals, some good (jam roly poly?), some bad (overcooked butter beans and mash with lumps?). Maybe you hated “frog spawn” (tapioca) but didn’t mind the cabbage?

But whatever its origins, the love for gypsy tart remains strong, even if the move to healthier nutrition seems to have made it mostly disappear from school menus. There is now even the Gypsy Tart Appreciation Group, set up in Kent and with more than 900 members at the time of writing. They share recipes and photographs of their efforts. Some report that gypsy tart ice cream has been on sale at Folkestone (which I can confirm), some tried baking a cheesecake topped with gypsy tart (surely a step too far?).

Noel Fielding (born 1973) got excited on The Great British Bake Off TV series when one of the contestants made a gypsy tart, a dessert he recalled fondly. The chef and restaurateur Mark Sargeant, from Larkfield near Maidstone, was also born in 1973 and recalls it being served “every lunchtime” during his schooldays. The Kent-born food writer Rosie Birkett recalled in The Guardian: “It always felt like a real treat as kids.”

Stephen Harris, the chef-owner of the Sportsman restaurant at Seasalter said in 2019 that gypsy tart was an obsession in his family and recalled: “I found it very strange that some people hated it. In fact, when we put it on the menu at the pub it still divides people even today.”

So, just how is it made?

A Kent County Council video on YouTube from 13 years ago shows gypsy tart being made with a chilled can of evaporated milk and soft brown sugar. One dinner lady’s recipe from the 1970s used a pre-baked pastry case, a 6oz tin of evaporated milk, the same tin being twice filled with soft brown sugar, beaten well and cooked for 15-20 minutes at gas mark 2-3.

Most recipes seem to use that pre-baked pastry case, a full-size 410g tin of full-fat evaporated milk (chilled in the fridge overnight) plus 280/300g of dark muscovado sugar, whisked together until light and fluffy, poured in the base and then cooked in a low oven (80C fan) for 15-20 minutes and left to cool. Others have confirmed it should not be overcooked, perhaps even left to “set” on a hot shelf above the oven.

Paul Hollywood, who used to have a delicatessen and bakery in Canterbury, makes a version using a combination of condensed and evaporated milk. The principal difference is that evaporated milk is unsweetened. Condensed milk is sweetened and thickened.

My recollection (quite possibly faulty) is that the filling in the school version in my day was thicker and darker than most versions now sold by bakers, perhaps more closely resembling “river mud” — the epithet used by some disparaging pupils in the 1960s, particularly at St Matthew’s, Borstal, which was built near a particularly muddy stretch of the Medway.

Pending further discovery, its origins may remain a mystery. Mr Harris, of the Sportsman, is not convinced by the story of the woman cooking it for emaciated gypsy children.

But whoever first made it, it is perhaps no coincidence that we first find it being referred to in print in the mid-1950s not so very long after the end of sugar rationing.

Mr Harris adds: “What I do know is that when it was on the menu, there would be a lot of very excited children passing the message down the line, ‘It’s gypsy tart!’. ”