Blog: Making history...from the Jurassic larder
WHAT Heston Blumenthal is talking about today, the rest of the world will be jumping up and down and gabbling about tomorrow. So this past week it was historic recipes. And if some of the details in the extracts on BBC Radio 4 made you shudder, many more were fascinating and the book will of course be a best-seller. But in the end, it was rather more about how the great scientist of the kitchen-lab thinks and works than our social history.
Food is an ineluctable facet of social history – we are what we eat. Consider the meagre pickings of a Victorian farm-worker compared with the delicious spread served at a dinner in early 19th century Bath (see below).
In his memories* of life in a Somerset village in the 1830s, George Mitchell, a tenant of the Phelips family of Montacute House, wrote: “Our food consisted principally of a little barley-cake, potatoes, salt, tea-kettle broth and barley flippet” – the broth consisted of a few pieces of bread soaked in hot water with a little salt and perhaps a chopped leek, while the flippet was made by sprinkling barley-meal into a pot of boiling water served with salt and a little treacle. “Sometimes I would pull a turnip from the field and gnaw it to prevent hunger ...”
Food history is a popular topic for research and there are many distinguished writers on the subject, notably Ivan Day, the go-to expert for most food broadcasters (even Heston gave him a call!) Day’s website www.historicfood.com – “bringing back to life the glorious food of the past” – really is worth visiting.
My own interest in the food of the past was stimulated at an early age by my uncle, the antiquarian and Thomas Hardy expert James Stevens Cox. Uncle Jim was a polymath whose interests led him from the Aztecs to zoos, via books on everything from wartime Guernsey, the first and probably still definitive encyclopaedia of hair-dressing and wig-making, Hardy, the Romans in Somerset and ... ice-cream.
As a child I was vastly entertained by the quantities of ice-cream my eccentric uncle would eat and as a teenager getting interested in cooking I dipped avidly into his discoveries of the history of ice-cream and recipes from past centuries.
So, as a tribute to my uncle, who lived for many years in Beaminster, in the house where Masterchef Mat Follas had his first Wild Garlic restaurant, I have been digging around in my Jurassic book-shelves ...
Dorset Dishes of the 17th Century
The Stevens Cox collection of early manuscripts includes cookery and medical recipes from two West Dorset families, Mary Lyford’s Receipt Book, covering the period 1650-90 and connected with the family of William Lyford, a minister of the gospel at Sherborne 1631-53, and the Bragge family of Beaminster and Sadborrow, covering the period 1660-80.
Some of the recipes sound appetising and quite contemporary. Mary Lyford’s “Macaromes” (almond macaroons) and Quince Cakes would not be out of place on a modern tea table, and her recipe for “Piping Marmaled” (Pippin marmalade with slices of preserved orange and lemon) would be worth re-creating.
The Bragge family recipes remind us that our ancestors did not waste any part of an animal with recipes for “Hog’s ears” or “Calves tails, Lambs Rumps and Ears” but also that they caught and ate other things that we would now disapprove of, such as Lark Pie (“Take as many Larks as you please ...”).
The best known and most thoroughly researched of Dorset’s historic culinary figures is Sir Kenelm Digby, a 17th century ancestor of the family that still had the Sherborne and Minterne estates. A copy of his book, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt opened is a prized possession in the library at the National Trust’s Kingston Lacy house near Wimborne. A man with an inquiring mind who travelled widely across Europe, his cookbook includes a famous recipe for mead.
Dining with the Racketts
My uncle’s monographs, published by his Toucan Press, were also helpful to food writer Simone Sekers in her booklet Dining with the Racketts*, published in 2008 by Dorset County Museum.
The starting point for Simone, who lives on the Somerset-Dorset border, was letters and papers of members of the Rackett family – Thomas Rackett was Rector of Spetisbury, an antiquarian, archaeologist, natural historian and musician, who spent so much time in London that the Bishop of Bristol had to write to remind him of his duties.
Lady Rackett, the rector’s sister-in-law, wrote to her sister from Bath in 1827 about a dinner she had given ... “Soup, a beautiful Brill and excellent Lobster Sauce, which were removed for a small fillet of Veal and elegant little ham of 4 pounds ... larded pullets with forcemeat and a fillet of chicken, Lobster patees, and Croquetes. Second course: a larded Galina bottom, the finest seacale I ever saw, four corners orange jelly, Noyeau browne, French pastries of various sweet meats, and an open Tart of magnum-bonum plums.”
Ice as nice
In the preface to Ice-Creams of Queen Victoria’s Reign*, my cousin Gregory Stevens Cox recalls his father’s record consumption of 18 Neapolitan Sundaes, ice-cream topped with fresh fruit, which he followed with a substantial main course of steak, onions and baked potatoes. On another occasion, he ate a gallon of ice-cream while waiting for a bus in a snow-storm in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Yet he was not a greedy man. He just adored ice-cream and his love of the dessert led him to research its history and to collect historic recipes.
Drawing particularly on Gunter’s Modern Confectionery (1881) and Mrs Raffald’s English Housekeeper (1778), he describes real ice-cream as “a compound of sweetened and flavoured cow-milk, congealed by being stirred in a container surrounded by a freezing mixture.”
Writing in 1970, he comments: “Today’s ice-cream, with its synthetic ingredients, has little in common, except its temperature, with the nourishing, toothsome creams of Victoria’s reign.”
The basic recipe calls for a pint of double cream, “whip it well, and then add five or six ounces of pounded sugar. Put it in your freezing pot, work it well until it is smooth.” On sugar, the advice is that too little will cause the ice-cream to freeze hard, too much will prevent it freezing properly (think of those ultra-sweet “softee” ices that don’t have even a nodding acquaintance with the real thing).
He gives recipes from the 19th century for Custard Ices, Plain Ice-Cream, Chocolate, Coffee, Vanilla – for which half an ounce of finely pounded vanilla is required - and Pistachio Ice-Cream, all flavours which remain popular today. Favourite fruit ices including raspberry, lemon, orange and strawberry are included – all using fresh fruit, not “flavours.”
The time-consuming and luxurious Chestnut Ice-Cream is definitely for the gourmet who doesn’t count calories (and probably has a personal chef!) while Green Tea Ice-Cream could be on the menu of a trendy San Francisco or Notting Hill restaurant today.
What research into historic recipes shows is that the comfortably off were able to enjoy interesting and attractive meals, made with proper, fresh and local ingredients. Only the very wealthy ever had exotic imports. And the life of the poor has always been hard, their diet lacking variety and nutrition and ingredients often polluted with cheap additives (flour contaminated by chalk, for example).
* Quoted in the National Trust Book of Healthy Eating, by Sarah Edington, 1990
* Dorset Dishes of the 17th Century, and Ice-Creams of Queen Victoria’s Reign, by J Stevens Cox, Toucan Press
* Dining with the Racketts: Dorset Recipes Reworked, edited by Simone Sekers, 2008