Thursday, 30 August 2012

Housewives and cookbooks - Middle-class Victorians

From the Georgian period to the Victorian, the rich continued to eat grandly, but it was the middle classes, and the upper working class that really felt the benefit of industrialization when it came to eating. The kitchen technology recommended to the poor by Soyer and his contemporaries was just the thing for those classes with new spending power who were keen to climb the social ladder. As well as increased wealth in the expanding middle class, there was far more available to buy. Industrial advances meant that food could now be tinned to last what must have seemed ages to people used to fast spoilage; pre-made powders for eggs, custard, chocolate and spices like mustard continued to remove toil from food preparation; and new and exciting flavours could be bottled and sold as sauces – many of them by companies and brands still going strong today.

Not actually Victorian-era artefacts

The was, however, still a limit on what could be achieved – refrigeration was still impossible for most households, and if your wanted convenience, you paid for it - a lot of pre-prepared and tinned food was prohibitively expensive. The role of a housewife and her servants was crucial to the middle-class home – and servants were expected in any household with aspirations. While the recipes circulated by high-profile chefs such as Soyer, Francatelli, and Escoffier, the chef at the Ritz hotel, much have been tempting (charity handbooks notwithstanding) it was the work of two female authors which were most influential with middle-class wives and their cooks in the later half of the 19th century.

One of many, many editions of Mrs Beeton's collection

Eliza Acton was the first, a woman who began as a teacher and poet before publishing Modern Cookery in All Its Branches for Private Families in 1845. Her carefully-considered, tried and tested recipes were ideal for the novide to follow, as she included a novel idea – an itemised list of ingredients and measurements at the end of each recipe. This was the first time anyone had done that, and she was widely copied – not least by Mrs Beeton, who moved the list strategically to the start of each recipe, giving us what has become the standard form. The style used by both women, that of a housewife sharing her own experiences , was popular – enough so that the character of Mrs Beeton was deliberately cultivated as a wise, motherly authority figure… despite Isabella being around twenty-five when her Book of Household Management was first published in 1861. Most of her recipes and household advice, sad to say, was lifted from a variety of other sources – including Eliza Acton, Alexis Soyer, and Mrs Raffald from the century before. Not that it appeared to matter – the books sold well enough that Mrs Beeton stayed in print for over 70 years (my copy of the book was borrowed from my mother’s shelf of cookbooks) and Eliza Acton was cited as a major influence by none other than Delia Smith.

The recipes the two women included in their respective books range from ‘Curried Maccaroni’ to ‘Sweet Pickle of Melon (Foreign receipt.)’, but there is also a strong emphasis on the value of plain cooking and reducing waste that Hannah Glasse or Elizabeth Raffald might have been proud of. Here’s one from Mrs Beeton for using up cold mutton, which also make full use of the British love of gravy…

Not mentioned - grind the mace thoroughly before adding
(Transcribed from Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book, 1914 edition.)
INGREDIENTS – 6 or 8 slices of cooked mutton, 2 shallots or 1 small onion finely chopped, ½ a teaspoonful or powdered mixed herbs, ½ a saltspoonful of mace, 1 dessertspoonful of flour, butter or fat for frying, ½ pint of gravy or stock, lemon-juice or vinegar, salt and pepper. METHOD – Cut the meat into round slices about 2 ½ inches in diameter. Mix together the shallot, herbs, mace, and a little pepper and salt, and spread this mixture on one side of the meat. Let it remain for1 hour, then fry quickly in hot butter or fat, taking care to cook the side covered with the mixture first. Remove and keep hot, sprinkle the flour on the bottom of the pan, which should contain no more fat than the flour will absorb, let it brown, then add the gravy or stock. Season to taste, boil gently for about 15 minutes, add a little lemon-juice or vinegar to flavour, and pour the sauce round the meat.
TIME – altogether, 1 ½ hours.
AVERAGE COST, about 1s. 8d.
SUFFICIENT, 1 lb. for 3 or 4 persons.
SEASONABLE at any time.
I'm not sure how much difference letting it sit for an hour makes.

This isn’t difficult to make, although getting the onion mixture to stay on the meat when cooking is easier said than done – I added a splash of water to help hold it together, and still had trouble, but aside from untidiness this doesn’t matter too much. The meat I used was cold lamb rather than mutton, since mutton is pretty uncommon these days, but it’s from the same animal, so I wouldn’t worry too much. In fact, this would also be delicious with cold beef – it’s hard to go wrong with fried meat, onion and gravy.

Lemony gravy

Speaking of gravy – or stock, but I had leftover gravy from the roast in any case, so I used that – I tried it with a squeeze of lemon. It sounded peculiar, but it makes really good gravy – cutting through the fatty meat very nicely. (And if your meat wasn’t fatty before, once fried it will be.) Delicious and economical comfort food, great in chilly weather.

To finish us off with the Victorians, I went back to aspirational cooking, for the middle classes keen to impress. Back in 1782, a visitor to the country had lamented the British inability to make coffee, and event Mrs Beeton warned that it was ‘difficult to make.’ But Eliza Acton provided a few daring recipes, and being a coffee-lover myself, I gave one a go.

'Vulgar' also meaning simply 'in the vernacular language'
Acton is not necessarily insulting the French here

It sounds very like a modern Irish Coffee – hot coffee, with sugar and a spirit – only missing the cream. Warning bells should go off, however, when reading how much sugar she suggests – ‘almost to syrup’? Apparently the famous British love of sugar was still very much in place. Well, I followed her instructions to the letter… several times over.

Try as I might, I could not get the brandy to light. In the end, I heated the syrupy, highly-alcoholic coffee over the stove to burn off some of the spirit before tasting, to little avail – it was so sweet and strong it was virtually undrinkable. 

Hopefully Eliza Acton had more success than I did. A sad end to an entertaining experiment, and to this stage of UK Food History! May my future forays into historical food be more successful that this incident - I can hardly wait.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Victorian Poor – Street Food and Philanthropy

Throughout the nineteenth century there was an outpouring of well-meaning instruction books and leaflets on cooking for the poor; many of which spectacularly missed the whole problem with poverty. As industrialisation marched on, more and more people crowded into the cities – limiting both their living space and their access to freshly-farmed food. Francatelli’s ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ contained an earnest exhortation to his readers to invest in kitchen equipment which came to over £6 a year – a huge expenditure when income was uncertain. Any family able to take his advice was more than likely most comfortably off – and probably more than capable of working with their resources to stay that way. The ‘working classes’ covered a very wide variety of people – a skilled artisan might command a decent wage, and live quite comfortably – whereas a low-paid factory worker, or someone who struggled to find steady work might go hungry from one bad day’s profits, or a fluctuation in the price of staples like bread. The very poorest families might live in one room together with no place for an oven even if they could have afforded one. For these people, food had to be bought on the street, ready to eat – meat pies, eels, bread and handfuls of watercress from street-sellers were the sorts of things that might be found on a Victorian street, high-flavoured, and probably still adulterated, as it might have been a century before. The watercress in particular might seem healthy, but it had a high risk of being contaminated by filthy water, and eaten uncooked, could spread germs rapidly… such as water-borne cholera.

At least the pies were usually cooked?

Baked potatoes were still a cheap and filling option – they could be kept hot in pockets for hand-warmers, then eaten when they were cool – or when hunger became too much. The further South people lived, however, the more potatoes were considered fit only for pigs, and rarely overtook bread as the staple food, except in Ireland. Oddly, despite being cheap, filling and relatively nutritious, many wealthy commentators on the poor also disdained the potato as a ‘lazy food’ - easily grown and cooked, that is. The ‘deserving’ poor – as opposed, presumably, to the ‘undeserving’ – was a very Victorian notion, which may explain why the poor were expected to struggle, even when an easier option was available. Reliance on potatoes was seen as a sign of true poverty, and more than that – almost as a failing.

A lazy potato

If the poor were fortunate, however, they might live near a soup kitchen, such as Alexis Soyer’s in Spitalfields. Philanthropy was becoming more important for the wealthy and influential, and feeding the poor who were increasingly visible on city streets rapidly became a popular cause – although methods of doing so differed. The cooking advice that circulated was, as I mentioned earlier, not always practical, but it was an attempt that showcased simpler methods than used in the fashions of the rich.

From Francatelli's 'Plain Cookery Book...'

‘Cheap’ being relative, of course – eggs and butter were somewhat easier to get in the city as the century went on and railways became more widespread, but even a simple dish like this would have been out of the grasp of many of the very poor. The soup kitchens that were set up were limited, and couldn’t reach everyone – but they were at least one source for a hot meal – and because the food could be made in bulk, it was truly economical.  Sticking with Francatelli, I tried out a recipe for charity soup that he suggested a well-off household could afford to make and give away. Proportions, as ever, have been adjusted somewhat.

1 large leftover joint or carcass (I used a turkey carcass plus the leftover meat that was still attached)
Five or six carrots
Three large stalks celery
One large or two medium onions
Split peas, pearl barley or rice (I used about 200g pearl barley, since I had some left over from the other week, but lentils or a couple of handful of rice are also good for adding body.)
Fresh or dried thyme (a large handful fresh, two teaspoons full if dried)
1tsp ground allspice (or to taste – but be wary, as this is very strong – rather clovelike, which would probably have handily covered an unpleasant tastes.)

Not pictured: A lot of water.

If you are using an ingredient which need soaking, such as pearl barley or split peas, cover them with cold water now and leave until you need them. Break up the carcass so it fits into one or two large pots – mine required two, because it was enormous – then fill halfway with water or stock and add about half the thyme, cover, and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to let it simmer, and leave for at least an hour. The tougher the meat you pick, the longer it will need. In the meantime, finely chop the onion, carrots and celery. Once the meat has cooked until falling off the bone, pour the stock into a separate saucepan and put back on a low heat to keep simmering. Separate the meat from the bones and chop into small pieces.

  There isn’t really any way to do this but the hard way.

Return the meat to the stock, and discard the bones, then add all other ingredients except the salt to the pot or pots. (Drain the barley or equivalent first.) Bring up the heat and cover again, and let simmer for about an hour and a half. Again – cooking times depend very much on your ingredients, so be flexible. Towards the end, taste the broth and add salt to taste. Serve in bowls with chunks of bread or dumplings, and a magnanimous expression.

I won’t lie to you – this is not highly-flavoured or exciting. It is immeasurably improved by stirring a spoonful or two of mustard in at the end, and would be more so if pepper or a little friend bacon could have been used for flavour - however, my test audience (three hungry teenage boys) certainly didn’t seem to mind a thing. Taste really wasn’t the point – it was a cheap way for a moderately well-off family to fulfil moral obligations, and for poorer families to fill up on when they had nothing else. Given that thought, it really doesn’t taste so bad after all.

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Victorians: Fine dining and complicated cooking

Today we move from the Regency to the Victorian period – fashions changing from the casually decadent to the lofty and buttoned-up. I’m starting with the rich, and their slightly scary dishes, because (as ever) the richest set the tone for everyone else to follow, and given the increase in travel, industry and fabrication during the years of Victoria’s reign, chefs had more resources to work with than ever. So let’s take a look!

Victorian Dishes created by high-profile chefs were intimidating mainly because of the sheer number of ingredients they used. Most of the savoury dishes in particular relied on complex stock or sauces being ready at hand before the chef could begin – such as this one by Alexis Soyer from 1847, which begins:

The proportions given here are obviously for a much larger number of diners than I’m likely to have when trying something like this – still, several pounds of different meats to make one stock – which was then in turn often used by Soyer to make yet more (and presumably superior) stock – seems excessive, even wasteful. This over-complication seems to be a running theme in Victorian fine dining – the ‘Malaga Tawney’ that I made while looking at the Georgians was based simply on chicken, onion and spices. Soyer’s version went like this:

I was tempted, but didn’t try out the Victorian version, in the end (although I might still – I’d like to compare the finished product). Instead, I started looking at the many, many recipes for desserts that might have been served at a Victorian banquet – at least it wouldn’t require me to make stock from scratch…

Puff-pastry (still known as puff-paste) had been around in British cooking for a while, but was still very difficult to make, needing to be kept as cold as possible while it was folded to create the layers, meaning the chef needed access to ice. The light layers made it popular in more expensive dishes, and gave this dish by Charles Elmé Francatelli its name – (Millefeuille means ‘thousand sheets’ in French – which was still the language of fashionable food). I toyed with the idea of making my own for this recipe, but had to rule it out in the end, out of both time constraint and pity for my hapless taste-testers, who might have ended up with an unpleasant experience of over-handled pastry. Instead, I bought some ready-made, which was convenient and undoubtedly of better quality.

Two 500g packs puff-pastry
Caster sugar, about 250g – accurate measurements are a problem for this one, so I just kept     the packet open and on hand
Whites of two large eggs – again, this depends on what size eggs you have, and how thick a coating you make – two worked for me, but more might give a smoother finish.
Preserve or jam for layering – ‘some preserve’ is one of the more general ingredients I have seen so far, but most large kitchens or households would have had plenty on hand, as it was still a common way to keep excess fruit. I used a strawberry and apple preserve.
Jelly, to decorate – the recipe suggested redcurrant and apple, but I eventually settled on raspberries preserved in jelly, as this was another popular way to serve fruit, and gave the required bright colour.
Whipping cream – half a pint should do.
Liqueur – I used cherry brandy. Another good choice would be an orange liqueur such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier.
Fresh strawberries

Roll out the pastry carefully to about a tenth of an inch thick. Using cutters (or as I did, a bowl for the large circles and a wineglass for the smaller), cut as many discs of around five inches wide, with a hole two or three inches cut in the middle. Dust with caster sugar on both side and bake for about ten minutes in a medium-hot over, or until risen and lightly coloured. As modern ovens do not tend to be nearly as large as the large bread ovens of a wealthy household’s kitchen, you will probably need to do this in batches. Leave to cool. While these are cooking, wash and cut most of your strawberries up, then sprinkle with sugar and a splash of liqueur in a bowl and leave to chill – this improves the flavour of strawberries, which can sometimes be a little sour, and will be mixed with the cream later. Leave a few whole for decorating.

When cold, layer the cutouts on top of one another, spreading the preserve between them. (If your preserve is a little thick, you can add a splash of your liqueur to loosen it up. Well, it’s going into the dessert anyway…) Once done, whisk together your egg white with some fine sugar – two ounces (or 50g) of sugar per egg white is the rule of thumb for meringues, so I stuck with that, but didn’t whisk them completely stiff to make coating the pastry easier. Spread the sugar and egg mix very carefully over the pastry, then put into a very low oven for two to three hours, or until the coating has dried. You can also turn up the heat if you want it done quicker, which gives a caramelised appearance – just don’t let it burn!

 I’m afraid I dispensed with the idea of using a paper ‘cornet’ for decoration, since I have no illusions about my artistic ability and had no intention of holding a banquet. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the fashion for embellishment of food that was hanging on from Georgian times. Whip the cream until it stands in peaks, then stir in a few spoonfuls of your macerated strawberries and a splash of liqueur, and use to fill the centre of your Millefeuille. Decorate with strawberries, jelly, and a dusting of caster or icing sugar. The rest of the cream and strawberries can be served on the side for anyone who want more!

This dessert is a wonderful example of the complexity and luxury of Victorian fine dining. It requires quantities of expensive sugar, fresh cream and strawberries – only available either at certain times of year, or from costly imports – all layered with flaky pastry, which required the finest flour, a very light hand, and a great deal of effort. It’s a little easier these days, but still the most time-consuming recipe I have tried so far – and on tasting a slice, I was convinced it was absolutely worth it. Delicious!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Wealthy Georgians and New Flavours

The Georgians, and the Regency period in particular, are generally known for extravagance in all things – well, for the privileged few who could afford it – and food was no exception. The court of the Prince Regent (aka ‘Georgie-Porgy’, ‘Prinnie’ or ‘The Prince of Whales’ - don’t ever let someone tell you people used to respect authority figures) was opulent and indulgent, demanding the very best in spite of the occasional cash-flow problem. The king kept his son on a short leash financially, by royal standards, but few people would refuse to lend to the Prince of Wales. Anyway, as the younger George’s gluttony was famed, food was naturally a priority.

On June 15th 1817, a dinner was served that included over a hundred courses. This was provided by the famous French chef Antonin Carême, possibly the best candidate for the first ‘celebrity’ chef. After the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century, a lot of high-profile chefs who had previously been in service to the aristocracy were out of a job – so were available to work in other countries, bringing their styles and techniques with them. He was lured to Brighton Pavilion, the Prince’s holiday residence, but left after just a year despite the state-of-the-art kitchens; fed up with his patron’s gluttony. (The fact that a chef had a problem with this is an indicator of just how decadent that court was.)

Not everyone was wholehearted about the fashion for intricate French dishes, however – many women cooks and writers (such as Hannah Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald, discussed a couple of entries back) were advocates for ‘plain English cooking’ and among wealthy men there was a group who made a point of belonging to a high-profile dinner club: The ‘Sublime Society of Beef-Steaks’, which revolved around dinners of enormous steaks, baked potatoes, onions, port or porter to drink and the strict exclusion of women. (Presumably this makes the meat tastier.)

Still, despite the occasional backlash, new flavours and techniques characterised Georgian cooking, and with them came willingness to experiment. The explosion of tea’s popularity was only one among several new fashions – coffee also became stylish, and because it was harder to fake the taste, stayed in heavy and expensive demand, particularly once coffee-houses began appearing, centres for sociable discussion and intellectual thought (in theory) across London and the larger English towns and cities. How things do change.

For today’s recipes, I wanted to try some things with less usual tastes – for Georgians and for modern cooks – curry. Once I knew the Georgians were using Indian flavours in their cooking, I knew I had to try and find an authentic recipe – and the one I chose was ‘Malaga Tawney soup’ – the original mulligatawny. Apparently, the English abroad were so concerned by Indian food not featuring a soup course that this was adapted – missing the point as unerringly as people still do when they go on holiday to foreign climes and insist on a full English breakfast every morning.

This recipe is a simple one to make – particularly scaled down for one person (as I made it – two quarts is equivalent to four pints, and nobody needs that much soup unless they’re holding a party.) Here what I did:

1 chicken breast (all hail supermarket convenience)
½ pint water
1 large onion, finely chopped
¼ to ½ a large chilli – depends on how hot you like it
½ tsp ground dried ginger (fresh ginger would have been hard to come by in Georgian times)
½ tsp curry powder – ready-mixed is fine. Although the blend varies, the staples are ground coriander seed and cumin, and milder versions are more authentic – the Georgian palate was subtler than nowadays.
½ tsp turmeric
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
A little cream (optional)

Finely chop the chicken – it will not be blended at the end, so keep the pieces small. I fried them lightly in a little oil, as we no longer have the chicken skin to add fat to the mix, then added the water and boiled for ten minutes until cooked through. Add half the chopped onion, the chilli and spices, cover and leave to simmer for half an hour. In a separate pan, fry the remaining onion with a little oil until golden at the edges, then add to the soup. Most Georgian recipes would likely have been finished off with a little cream, although it is not specified here. If using cream, take the soup off the heat before adding it, and serve immediately. I left it out of mine, and it was excellent without – up to you.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this recipe – despite the relatively few ingredients, it is intensely flavoured and delicious, and the chicken, the onion and the spices all really shine. This does make sense, given that this recipe served in England would have been to show off the unusual Indian flavours. It tastes unusual mostly because soup nowadays has more body – potatoes, or lentils or rice – but this would have been served a la francaise with lots of other dishes at the same time – it was an appetiser, and not expected to be filling. I do recommend it, if you like both soup and curry – it’s a very fresh taste, and would be lovely with a bit of naan bread.

 I can’t really talk about decadent Georgian dishes – especially soup – without mentioning the ultimate prestige meal – the turtle dinner. Turtle is a rich, fatty, and above all expensive meat that wealthy households could make the basis of a whole meal, with the most ubiquitous dish being turtle soup. Now, most people couldn’t afford to buy a turtle from the Americas – so ‘mock turtle’ soup recipes began to circulate, and now these are arguably more famous than the original. Here’s a contemporary recipe from 'The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined' by John Mollard (1802), using the usual substitute – a calf’s head:

 Indeed.  Nowadays, recipes are a little less gruesome, and generally made from oxtail, which strikes me as a little dull – I’d go with the Malaga Tawney every time – and maybe follow it up with something chocolatey. Georgian style, of course.

Chocolate wasn’t a new flavour in Georgian times, exactly – but it wasn’t yet eaten as a dessert, either. Instead, it was grated into water or wine, which sounds very strange to modern ears. Naturally, I had to give it a go.

Heat your red wine in a saucepan – don’t let it boil, but until it steams a little. (I used a cheap Merlot, but really, the type of wine doesn’t matter too much.) Then, finely grate in some dark cooking chocolate – perhaps 25g per glass, plus sugar to taste – 2-3 teaspoons per person works – and some ground nutmeg for that traditional Georgian flavour. Stir until all ingredients are dissolved, then remove from the heat. Serve hot, so preferably try not to make it in the middle of a heatwave, like me. (I regret nothing.)

I was dubious about this one – apart from anything else, I thought it might curdle. But the plain chocolate dissolved nicely as I stirred it into the hot wine, and stayed dissolved when I took it off the heat. It looked rather thick and bloody as I poured it into a wineglass (note to self – remember this for next Halloween) but as soon as it was cool enough to take a sip… Oh my. This is delicious. It’s rich and fruity and decadent and just sweet enough to take the edge off – absolutely lovely. Next time I hold a dinner, forget pudding – I’m serving this instead. As soon as the weather cools, do yourselves a favour and try this. No wonder the wealthy Georgians didn’t bother inventing chocolate bars – they had this drink instead. Lucky, decadent people.


Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Georgian Poor and Food Adulteration

(Before we begin - food adultery is something else, and not under this blog's purview.)

While the wealthier classes of the Georgian and Regency periods were climbing on up through the cunning deployment of dinner parties to raise their social status, the vast majority of people were naturally unable to follow suit. Tea, sugar and white bread was in fashion for all classes – trouble was, the poorer you were the more likely it was that any foodstuffs you bought would be heavily adulterated, to make it go further or give it the appearance of higher quality. Bread could be whitened with exciting things like alum (also known as hydrated potassium aluminium sulphate - yum), lime, chalk, or ground animal bones, and could not have been very tasty – but hey, it was white. Ish. This would be eaten with a little cheese, or what meat could be afforded – usually salted. Fish was an option, too, but was considered far inferior to meat – oysters, now ironically a symbol of wealth and taste, were incredibly cheap and common, especially by the coast.

A healthy balanced diet

Drinking options were not much healthier. Tea – always in short supply except for the very rich – could be dried out and re-darkened with healthy additives such as… lead. Even beer, a longtime English staple, was often darkened and flavoured with treacle to make it appear better in quality. Basically, choice of drink for the very poor – particularly in large towns or cities – was limited to possibly-tainted tea or alcohol. Polluted or unsafe water was nothing new in England, but previously the standard drink had been beer – full of sustaining calories, not too alcoholic, and even a source of some vitamins from the grains used to make it. Weak, sometimes lead-poisoned and as sugary as could be achieved, tea was not exactly a healthy substitute unless you could afford to buy the best, and few were wealthy enough for that. There was also the seductive lure of gin – strong and cheap, it was more or less the drug of the day.

Gin Lane, William Hogarth 1751

Although Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ was a none-too-subtle exaggeration, it had some basis in truth. You could buy enough gin to get you ‘drunk for a penny,’ (perhaps fifty pence in today’s money – Venetia Murray suggests multiplying by fifty as a very general idea of what money in Georgian times would be worth at the time her book High Society was published – 1998.) and ‘dead drunk for twopence.’ Around 1750 it was estimated that one in fifteen houses sold gin – and that’s a lot, by any standard.

Recipe selection for demonstrating food eaten by poor Georgians was a tricky one – I have no particular desire to eat chalky bread or drink lead-flavoured tea with possibly-off milk and sugar. (Some sacrifices are too far; I really hate sugar in tea.) I had a look through the simpler recipes in cookbooks that make claim to economy, instead, and there is a definite porridgy theme – a call-back to when pottages of grains or dried peas were the staple instead of ‘white’ bread.

From Hannah Glasse 'The art of cookery', 1774

Here’s one using barley – this sort of food was very much for filling the gaps, and was sometimes sold as a kind of street-food, as it could be cooked in advance and reheated quickly. I’m fairly sure Mrs Glasse meant ‘put your wheat into a sauce-pan’ with water, but being an intrepid and literal-minded blogger, I did try it without first.


 It tasted a bit like a cross between popcorn and nuts – but rather hard to eat. Experiment conclusive, then – always boil the barley even if the recipe doesn’t say so. The second try was far better – I boiled the pearl barley hard for a good twenty minutes (and it could have done with more – maybe half an hour’s simmering would be more effective). Then a blob of butter, a spoonful of sugar, and some ground nutmeg, plus the drained barley.

Not a historically-accurate nutmeg grinder - 
a small grater would have been more the thing.

 It tastes… fine? However, the barley is a strange texture – not helped by my attempt being still a little chewy – and the only flavour came from the butter, sugar and nutmeg – unhelpful for those who couldn’t afford them. Still, give this one a go for the taste of an authentic Georgian snack or breakfast. Just wash it down with a few tumblers of gin if it’s not to your taste.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Ladies, Housekeepers and Cooks

It’s a bit of a risky proposition to describe over a century of food history in one short blog post. Still, reading through the cookbooks I can get my grubby little hands on (bless the invention of .PDF files), mostly for and by the upper or merchant classes, there are some definite themes in the types of food that were being prepared. There was still a strong preference for meat, where possible, although vegetable dishes were now becoming common too. Butter and cream featured heavily, in particular – the preference was for rich tastes, and new kinds of sauces were made with this in mind. On British tables specifically, melted butter or ‘butter sauce’ was used on nearly everything that wasn’t already accompanied by sauce of its own. From Hannah Glasse, The art of cookery:
        To melt butter,
…melting of butter you must be very careful; let your saucepan be well tinned, take a spoonful of cold water, a little dust of flour, and your butter cut to pieces: be sure to keep shaking your pan one way, for fear it should bil; when it is all melted, let it boil, and it will be smooth and fine. A silver pan is best, if you have one.

(To clarify: Heat a little plain flour and water in a saucepan over a gentle heat until it makes a paste with no lumps, then stir in small pieces of butter until melted and smooth. Proportions don’t matter too much, but I used a heaped tablespoon of flour, about three tablespoons of water, then about 50g butter. Use common sense for larger quantities – the Georgians certainly seemed to. A pinch of salt near the end doesn’t go amiss.)

Women cooks and authors weren’t that unusual – though the most prestigious and fashionable were certainly men, and frequently French. I’ll talk a little more about them later on. Women writers such as Hannah Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald were a few rungs down the social ladder, but could be remarkable successful nonetheless. Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper went through dozens of editions, and she eventually sold the copyright for the equivalent of £200,000 – not bad at all, for a cookbook.

Reading through some of the cookbooks that were published at the time (many of which are available online, for the curious – see the sources page) I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible they are, once you get used to the writing style – although that makes sense, considering they are instructions. Mrs Glasse wrote in 1747 that it was her intention ‘to instruct the lower sort’, which suits me, if it keeps her instructions nice and clear. The recipe I picked to try out, however, is one of Mrs. Raffald’s, and pretty straightforward. Although chicken was not the cheapest of meats at the time – they were more valuable for laying eggs, so most birds would have been either cocks or slightly old and stringy, unless you were rich enough to afford a young one. Veal was more common – but there are enough mentions of chicken meat in The Experienced English Housekeeper that I don’t feel like I’m cheating.

 The style of listing the ingredients separately from the instructions wouldn’t come in until the next century, but this dish is uncomplicated enough to deal with without one. Mind you, I spared many a pitying thought for cooks who had to kill, pluck and gut their birds as well and skin and butcher them – all very well for Raffald to say ‘cut them in small pieces’! Still, it happened, if a little messily. Here’s a slightly simpler version:

 1 large chicken
Large glass white wine (the rest of the bottle belongs by moral right to the cook)
Pickled lemon (can be bought from most large supermarkets, or made at home, for the enterprising.)
1 anchovy
A few blades of mace
About half a nutmeg, grated finely
1 medium onion, peeled and pierced with a skewer all over, and stuck with cloves (Not too many, as these are strong - five or six will do.)
Bunch lemon thyme and sweet marjoram ( The thyme will need to be discarded at the end as the stalks are tough - they are, however, good for tying the bunch of herbs together in the first place.)
About 50g butter, plus extra for thickening
Heaped tbsp plain flour
Yolks of 2 eggs (eggs were smaller then, go with me on this - also, please make sure they are very fresh - let's have no salmonella here.)
Large cupful double cream - 150-200ml
Salt and pepper

Butcher a large chicken - removing the legs and wings first by cutting between the joints, then slicing down the spine to cut away the breasts. (Yes, this is harder than it sounds, as I soon discovered: Here is a slighter better guide. Alternatively, you can go the easy route and buy individual pieces of chicken.) Rinse and dry, then rub with salt and pepper - easy on the salt. Place the pieces in a heavy pan with all the other ingredients except the flour, egg yolks, cream and extra flour. Simmer until chicken is tender and falling off the bone - a good hour. Place the cooked chicken in a serving dish, reserving the liquid, then heat the flour in the remaining butter for a few minutes and pour in the liquid again. Whisk to remove lumps, then take off the heat. Beat the egg yolks into the cream and then stir into the hot gravy until it thickens slightly. Pour over the chicken, and serve.

Ideally, this would have been served with many other dishes, placed artistically together on the table in the style called ‘a la francaise’ – a pattern of individual dishes all served on the table together, from which the host and guests could serve themselves. As it was, I did my best to make a couple of dishes of potatoes, carrots and cabbages look appealing – all at least authentic accompaniments – plus a jug of the butter sauce that was so typical of the time.  My tasters (parents and siblings, today) seemed to approve. 

Obviously, taking just one dish that would originally have been served with many others all at once isn’t really representative of a proper upper-class dinner of the period; but I do feel it summed up a lot of the themes of cookery at the time. Fresh meat was the star of the main dishes, and was cooked up with lots of velvety cream sauce flavoured with wine, nutmeg and a hint of clove. The vegetables were enriched with lots of butter sauce, and the whole thing was heightened by a little taste of lemon pickle in the background – a nod to the Georgian and Regency store cupboards. Pickling and the making of pre-cooked flavourings was a major occupation for a housekeeper; after all, few people could afford an ice house, so preserves were a necessity as well as an acquired taste. This was the age of ketchup (also known as ‘catsup’ or ‘catchup’) made at home from mushrooms or walnuts – tomatoes were still viewed with some suspicion during the most part of the 1700s, so tomato ketchup would not become favoured until the next century. Regretfully, I did not make my own lemon pickle, despite Elizabeth Raffald providing a recipe in the same book as the recipe for chicken fricassee. We had a jar of pickled lemons in the fridge already, something now used more commonly in Moroccan cooking, and after all, the idea of making pickles in advance was for convenience as well as economy. If you want to try it, however…

 For despite the luxurious flavours and richness favoured by Georgian cooks, few housekeepers could afford to be wasteful. Recipes such as fricassees, ‘forcemeats’ (stuffing) or ‘olives’ (stuffed rolls of meat baked or fried with breadcrumbs) could use leftovers efficiently, while still providing variety – a necessity, when even small dinners frequently involved five or six different dishes.

In the spirit of economy, never fear – the remains of my inexpertly butchered chicken are now simmering away to make soup for later, and smelling lovely. I think perhaps I’ll stir in the remains of the cream, and eat it with hot buttered toast. It’s what any Georgian housekeeper would have wanted.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Introduction: Food in Georgian and Victorian Britain

I consciously steered away from Early Modern food history after some time in research – possibly out of sheer contrariness, since they first thing practically everyone I talked to about this project instantly asked me about the Tudors. (For the record: As much meat as they could get, plus as much sugar as they could afford to show off, frequently in combination.) Starting somewhere in the Georgian period became my idea when I was working on a different project on historical institutions, and got the chance to take a look behind the scenes at Kew Palace Kitchens as they were rebuilt, and talk to some of the food historians responsible for their restoration. The 1700s – particularly the later decades – always feel to me like the tipping point between ‘Early Modern’ and ‘Modern’, before the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution remade the world with factories, railways and telegraph. It seemed a fitting place, then, to look at food fashions and track their changes – even in the very broadest of strokes.
So, I'm beginning with Georgian Britain: Who was cooking what?

Welcome to UK Food History!

I have always been just a little bit obsessed with food and cooking. It’s a pretty good hobby, I’ve found – it’s delicious, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and I rather enjoy doing something that rewards you with a nice meal at the end. It was probably inevitable, given how long I’ve spend studying social history on and off that I’d get around to learning more about the history of food and cooking.

 This blog is a part of my Masters dissertation, and so will be limited in scope – broadly covering the Georgian and Victorian periods. Food history seemed pretty specific a topic at first; but of course, it isn’t. People have needed to find and eat food since the beginning of time, and cook it since we discovered fire. Maybe even earlier – who’s to say ancient hunter-gatherers didn’t have a favourite recipe for their prehistoric salads? (Don’t look at me for that, sorry. Prehistory’s murky like that, and no ancient Delia Smith ever painted pictograms on a cave wall to describe exactly how to whip up a light lunch for two. That we know of.)

It’s nice to think so, though – food and taste are humanising because they are so universal. Everyone has to eat, and there’s a reason people serve food at awkward work parties – everyone has at least that in common. It’s the same with people from history – it’s an experience you can share with someone long-dead. I hope anyone who comes across this blog finds it interesting too.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Further Reading

Online resources
The Food Timeline
 A handy quick guide to food through history

Historic Cookbooks Online
 Exactly what it says on the tin. Mainly English-language books from the UK and USA, but some other countries are represented too - particularly France.

The Inn at the Crossroads
Another food blog, which recreates meals from George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' fantasy series, using both historic and modern recipes. Highly recommended!

Delia Online
The website of English chef Delia Smith.


The Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace
Original Tudor Kitchen run by an enthusiastic team which runs live historic cookery events on certain days.

Kew Palace Kitchens
A reconstructed Georgian Palace kitchen, run by the same team as Hampton Court, and also featuring historic cookery.

General Food History

Roy Strong, Feast: A History of Grand Eating, Random House: London, 2002.

Maggie Black, A Taste of History: 10 000 years of Food in Britain, British Museum Press: London, 1993.

Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking, Bloomsbury: London, 2007.

Heston Blumenthal, Heston's Fantastical Feasts, Bloomsbury: London, 2010. (Not actually a history book, but takes inspiration from historical food, and has a great modern chef's perspective on historical eating.)

The Georgians and the Regency (1714-1830)

 Venetia Murray, High Society: A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788-1830, Penguin Books Ltd: London, 1998.

Liza Picard, Dr Johnson's London: Everyday Life in London 1740-1770, Phoenix Press: London, 2000.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery. London: 1774

Raffald, Elizabeth. The Experienced English Housekeeper. London: 1769 

Kitchiner, William. Apicius Redivivus: or, The Cook's Oracle. London: 1817

Mollard, John. The Art of Cookery. London: 1802 2nd

The Victorians (1837-1901)

 Francatelli, Charles Elme. The Modern Cook. London: 1846 

Francatelli, Charles Elme, A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes, London: 1852 ed.

 Soyer, Alexis. The Gastronomic Regenerator: A Simplified and Entirely New System of Cookery. London: 1847 4th ed

John Burnett, Plenty & Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day, 3rd ed., Routledge: London, 1989.

Liza Picard, Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870, Orion Books: London, 2005.

Sheila Hardy, The Real Mrs Beeton: The Story of Eliza Acton, The History Press: Stroud, 2011.

Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book, Ward, Lock & Co., Limited: London and Melbourne, 1914 ed.

Acton, Eliza. Modern Cookery, in all its branches. London: 1845 2d

Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management... 1861