Doughnuts are from Hertford

Hertford is, as you know, responsible for many iconic phenomena – notably evolution and toothbrushes.

But I’m delighted to report that Hertford is the home of the doughnut, AKA donut if you’re of an American bent.

I must confess to a personal interest here – (1) I used to live in Dimsdale Street in Hertford (more will be revealed in a minute) (2) I’m very partial to apple doughnuts and used to have one every Thursday evening with Mum after my swimming lesson at Northumberland Baths (3) One of my best and oldest friends is called Paczek, which is Polish for ‘doughnut’.

Dimsdale Street Hertford

Dimsdale Street Hertford

So, back to the origin of the doughnut …

Until recently, it was thought that the earliest doughnut recipe dated from 1847 and that doughnuts were invented by American sailor Hanson Crocket Gregory.

Hanson, named after a teenage pop band who had a hit with MMMBop, allegedly invented them aboard a lime-trading ship when he was only 16. He claimed to have punched a hole in the centre with the ship’s pepper dispenser and later taught the technique to his mother.

In the Washington Post in 1916, when he was very elderly and clearly bonkers, he said –

Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts then. They was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’

Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done, the insides was all raw.

Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’ Then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration.

I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!

(Interviewer – Were you pleased?)

Was Columbus pleased? Well, sir, them doughnuts was the finest I ever tasted. No more indigestion, but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.

Another story has it that his ship hit a sudden storm in 1847 and he impaled a doughnut on the steering wheel to keep his hands free. How frightfully American – ie. untrue.

Meanwhile, the Dutch, smug as ever, claim they invented the doughnut and called it an olykoek.

Not so. Doughnuts were first mentioned by Baroness Elizabeth Dimsdale of … Hertford. The first recorded doughnut recipe was recently discovered by Dr Heather Falvey in the baroness’s recipe book, compiled between 1800 and 1808 and inspired by her cook Mrs Fordham – The Receipt Book of Baroness Elizabeth Dimsdale.

The recipe, for ‘Dow Nuts’, included ‘flower’,  moist sugar, eggs, butter, a nutmeg and yeast. The dow nut was then deep-fried in ‘hog’s lard’.

It appears in a collection of 80 household hints, including tips on rat catching, and 700 recipes, from the kitchen of Cowbridge House in Hertford. This grand house survives in part in the form of Hertford Town Church on Hartham Lane.

Cowbridge House Hertford

Cowbridge House Hertford

Elizabeth, quite a character by all accounts, was married to inoculation pioneer Dr Thomas Dimsdale.

Baron Thomas Dimsdale

Baron Thomas Dimsdale

He was made a Baron of the Russian Empire by Catherine the Great, after protecting her and her family against smallpox.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great

When Elizabeth was introduced to Catherine, she apparently ‘flew towards her like a tiger, and almost smothered the poor empress with hugging and kissing’. Sounds more Ware than Hertford, but there you are.

So yet another first for Hertford.

Snuff box given to the Dimsdales by Catherine the Great

Snuff box given to the Dimsdales by Catherine the Great


Sadly, not many Hertford restaurants serve doughnuts. But it’s good to know that the Duncombe Arms offers Spanish fried doughnuts filled with chocolate hazelnut praline and sprinkled with sugar, served with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce.