Potatoes were grown at Steventon as early as 1773. In this, Mrs. Austen was decades ahead of her time, and the wonder of her neighbours who supposed them to be a dish fit only for gentry. Puddings had served as the main source of starch in English diets, but a wheat shortage in 1794 led the Board of Agriculture to advise all clergy “to encourage, as much as they can, the farmers and cottagers to plant potatoes this spring, in order that the kingdom may experience no scarcity…”
Though nearly seventy when the family moved to Chawton Cottage, Mrs. Austen “found plenty of occupation for herself, in gardening and needlework. The former was, with her, no idle pastime, no mere cutting of roses and tying up of flowers. She dug up her own potatoes, and I have no doubt she planted them, for the kitchen garden was as much her delight as the flower borders, and I have heard my mother say that when at work, she wore a green round frock like a day-labourer’s.” (Fanny Caroline Lefroy, great-granddaughter of Mrs. Austen)
There was, at the time, some difference of opinion about the preparation of potatoes, as voiced by Susannah Carter: “Some pare potatoes before they are put into the pot; others think it the best way, both for saving time and preventing waste, to peel off the skin as soon as they are boiled.” I chose the former manner for this recipe as an easier alternative to handling boiling hot potatoes.
To Dress Potatoes
You must boil them in as little water as you can, without burning the sauce-pan. Cover the sauce-pan close, and when the skin begins to crack, they are enough. Drain the water out, and let them stand covered for a minute or two; then peel them, lay them in your plate, and pour some melted butter over them. The best way to do them is, when they are peeled to lay them on a gridiron till they are of a fine brown, and send them to table.
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747
- 900 g / 32 oz / 2 lbs All Purpose potatoes, peeled and cut in quarters
- 3 Tablespoons Melted Butter
- 1-2 teaspoons Flour (see recipe)
In a large sauce pan, place the potatoes in enough water to cover them and bring them to a boil. Allow them to boil furiously over a medium to high heat for 20 minutes or until they are fork tender.
Melted butter was perhaps the most common sauce to be served with any number of dishes. To make your own, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over a medium heat. Quickly whisk in 2-3 tsp of flour and remove the butter from the heat. Do not allow the mixture to boil or the sauce will separate, thus becoming “oiled”.
Preheat your oven to 218° C / 425° F. Drain the potatoes and place them on a foil lined baking sheet. Pour the melted butter over them and bake them until they are brown and crispy, about 10-15 minutes.
Excerpted from Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends by Laura Boyle.