When Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra of the holiday visits they enjoyed (endured?) in 1808, she included a delightful word picture of one of their guests. As the letter is dated Tuesday, December 27, we can assume that Christmas was the previous Sunday and the visit occurred on December 22. It gives a glimpse into the Austen’s dining and entertaining menu while they lived in the Castle Square neighborhood of Southampton, before moving to Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, the following July.
Our evening party on Thursday produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too, though she had declined it absolutely in the morning, and sitting very ungracious and very silent with us from seven o’clock till half after eleven, for so late was it, owing to the chairmen, before we got rid of them.
The last hour, spent in yawning and shivering in a wide circle round the fire, was dull enough, but the tray had admirable success. The widgeon and the preserved ginger were as delicious as one could wish. But as to our black butter, do not decoy anybody to Southampton by such a lure, for it is all gone. The first pot was opened when Frank and Mary were here, and proved not at all what it ought to be; it was neither solid nor entirely sweet, and on seeing it Eliza remembered that Miss Austen had said she did not think it had been boiled enough. It was made, you know, when we were absent. Such being the event of the first pot, I would not save the second, and we therefore ate it in unpretending privacy; and though not what it ought to be, part of it was very good.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Castle Square, December 27, 1808
Widgeon is a type of duck, and black butter has been explored elsewhere, but the preserved ginger proved interesting to me and I searched my period cookbooks for a recipe. The following piece is from Eliza Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery (1806) and so was certainly in print at the time of the letter writing. The recipe is actually for “mock” ginger, as a way of creating the delectable treat in an economical fashion (along with using up late summer “past” produce) and that idea would certainly have appealed to the Austen ladies who were, at this time, in straightened circumstances, after the death of Mr. Austen.
Mock Ginger.—E. R.—Cut off the stalks of lettuces just going to seed, and peel off the strings. Cut them in pieces two or three inches long, and throw them into water. After washing them put them into sugar and water, mixed in the proportion of a pound of sugar to five pints of water; add to this quantity two large spoonfuls of pounded ginger. Boil the whole together for twenty minutes, and set it by for two days. Then boil it again for half an hour, and renew this five or six times in the same syrup. Then drain the stalks upon a sieve and wipe them dry; have ready a thick syrup boiled and made strong with whole ginger. Pour it upon the stalks boiling hot; boil them in it twice or thrice, or until they look clear and taste like the West India gingers.
Recipe sites such as Food.com offer easy to follow recipes for making your own preserved ginger. Surprisingly, the method has not changed in the 200 years since Austen enjoyed her repast, and the idea of cold duck or chicken drizzled with the candied ginger is as appealing as ever. Why not make up a batch to share with friends this Christmas!