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Fine Herbes in April: Adding Flavor to your Pot

Fine herbes

Fine Herbes Abound

One of the joys of April is the appearance of green and growing gardens after the chill of winter. In her quintessential guide to English cooking, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse offers a round of up all the dainties one might expect to harvest this month. She does not offer hopes that one has a garden or tips for growing the garden of fine herbes — these are already assumed– she merely states what might be found in the garden. Estates and even cottages relied on their gardens for fresh produce throughout the year and the lack of a garden was one annoyance of city living.

In her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse offers an overview of the kitchen garden, month by month.
In her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse offers an overview of the kitchen garden, month by month.

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The Swiss Garden: A Regency Gem

garden

‘…but we shall not have Miss Bigg, she being frisked off like half England, into Switzerland.’ (Jane Austen to Anne Sharpe , 22 May 1817)

cottage
The Swiss Cottage, sitting atop one of Lord Ongley’s mounds (Photo: Darren Harbar)

Lord Robert Henley Ongley (1803-1877)inherited Old Warden Park in 1814 when he was just eleven years old. During his early twenties, newly in receipt of his fortune, he transformed a 9-acre section of boggy brickfield in north-east Bedfordshire intoan alpine scene such as one would expect to find in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. A great earth-moving feat moulded this level patch of land into an undulating landscape complete with mounds, ponds, serpentine paths and shrubberies, to which Lord Ongley added a Swiss Cottage, an aviary, huge trellis frames arching over sweeping lawns, and a thatched tree seat, complete with sentimental poem etched into a marble slab and the nearby melancholy walk and tiny chapel with its stained glass window. Small but beautifully ornate cast-iron bridges, an Indian Kiosk and a fine Grotto, later incorporated into a Fernery, were added to create a collection of features without which no Regency garden would be complete. At the same time, he remodelled the village of Old Warden, also in the ‘Swiss Picturesque’ style. Local legend has it that Lord Ongley supplied his tenants with red neck-ties, which they were expected to wear as he rode through the village. This was a set piece like no other; a little slice of Switzerland, just under fifty miles north of London!

A cottage in the village of Old Warden (Photo: C Price)
A cottage in the village of Old Warden (Photo: C Price)

The estate was sold to Joseph Shuttleworth in 1872, who embellished the garden with several impressive Pulhamite stone features, but despite some alterations to the buildings and structures, the garden escaped any significant changes, and the landscape and many of Ongley’s original features survive to this day. A contemporary account of the garden, written by Emily Shore, a visitor to the garden in 1835, described it as:

“A very curious place…full of little hills and mounds, covered with trees, shrubs and flowers. Here and there are arbours shaded by ivy and clematis; in some places are little hollows surrounded by artificial rocks; in others are subterranean paths, besides railing, hedges, ponds, white tents, enclosures for birds, etc. Over the whole are scattered white statues and painted lamps, some on stands, others hanging from lofty arches which join the mounts. The principal object is the Swiss cottage, … which is surmounted by a ‘gilded pill’, on which stands a dove of white stone. What I liked best was the conservatory. We entered a subterraneous passage, at the end of which is a little polygonal chamber, curtained all round with red and white, and carpeted with coloured sheepskin.”[1]

Cecilia Ridley, visiting in 1839, thought the Swiss Garden “the most extraordinary garden in the world made out of a bog; full of little old summer houses on little round hills, china vases, busts, coloured lamps – in short quite a fairyland…”[2] Other gardens of the time were also described as fairylands, notably Whiteknights in Reading, designed by Lord Blandford, later 5th Duke of Marlborough with the help of John Buonarotti Papworth and described in an 1818 book containing over thirty illustrations of the grounds, where ‘…all around is Fairy ground’. Between 1798 and 1819, Whiteknights was the scene of vast extravagance and wild entertainments, all at the Marquis’ expense; the splendid gardens, beautifully laid out with the rarest of plants, were its greatest attraction however. Sadly, the Whiteknights landscape has been wholly lost, consumed within the campus at Reading University, but it contained many features which would not have looked out of place in Ongley’s Swiss Garden. Illustrations in Papworth’s Rural Residences of 1832 and Peter Frederick Robinson’s Rural Architecture (1822) and Village Architecture (1833) demonstrate a tendency towards the rustic and the cottage ornée during this period, a trend which had been prevalent since the turn of the nineteenth century. Robert Ferrars, in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility (1811) is:

‘…excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest, if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me, and be happy’.

Another example of this style of architecture can be found at Blaise Hamlet, near Bristol, designed by John Nash in 1811. This charming hamlet of nine picturesque cottages is laid out around an open, undulating green, and was built to accommodate retired staff from the Blaise Castle estate in Henbury.  Like the village of Old Warden, each cottage is unique, and the hamlet was one of the first examples of a planned community – there is a stone sundial and water pump on the green which commemorates its construction. The cottages, again like those in Old Warden, are lived in to this day. This style was later copied widely, helped along by books such as Robinson’s Village Architecture.

The Grotto Fernery – the ironwork dates back to Ongley’s time, while Shuttleworth’s Pulhamite rockwork additions were added in the 1870s, creating an unusual and atmospheric structure (Photos: Darren Harbar)
The Grotto Fernery – the ironwork dates back to Ongley’s time, while Shuttleworth’s rockwork additions were added in the 1870s, creating an unusual and atmospheric structure (Photos: Darren Harbar)
A Second view of the Fernery.
A Second view of the Fernery.

So…why Switzerland? The influences for Lord Ongley’s unusual landscape were probably fairly eclectic, and it is also quite probable that he visited Switzerland at some point. Garden historian Mavis Batey, in an article for Country Life magazine in 1977[3], points out that the vogue for Alpine scenery, Swiss cottages and peasant costume that seized England in the 1820s was essentially a by-product of Romanticism. The craving for the sublime and the primitive had made mountain scenery desirable, and a trip to Switzerland became as necessary to the Man of Feeling as the Grand Tour had been to the Man of Taste a century before. The exodus began once peace resumed in Europe following the retreat of Napoleon’s troops in 1815, and two years later, Jane Austen referred to an absent friend as having ‘frisked off like half England, into Switzerland’.[4] The timing also coincided with the publication of the Prisoner of Chillon, offering a new Byronic emphasis to the Tour by showing those who sought to escape the bondage of society’s conventions how to achieve liberation of the spirit through an encounter with the Swiss sublime.

Jane’s interest in garden design, mentioned several times in her novels and the correspondence, starts with William Gilpin and the Picturesque and then moves into an ambivalence about Humphrey Repton, but she does embrace the idea of decorative shrubberies, which feature frequently as the stage on which many of the romantic events in her novels are played out. The key novel for the pre-Swiss Garden period is Mansfield Park, where a discussion takes place about improving one’s landscape, and Repton’s ideas are debated in some detail. Lady Bertram, listening to the proposed improvements, offers her own opinion on the matter: “If I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather.”[5] This, perhaps, can be interpreted as Jane’s personal view being expressed through the debate about Mr Rushworth’s landscape. Although she appears to be criticising Repton in the text, it is very likely that she would have enjoyed walking through the type of flowering shrubberies which he favoured. At Chawton Cottage, where she settled with her mother and sister after the death of her father in Bath, an airy gravel walk was planted up with trees, flowering shrubs and colourful under-planting, a pleasant addition to the productive garden. Scented plants were a vital ingredient, as Jane describes in a letter to Cassandra in 1811:

“Our young Piony at the foot of the Fir tree has just blown & looks very handsome; & the whole of the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with Pinks & Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines already in bloom. The Syringas too are coming out.”[6]

The tiny chapel, reminiscent of the roadside chapels found in Europe, with its stained glass window, Contains a marble tablet inscribed with biblical verses (Photo: Darren Harbar)
The tiny chapel, reminiscent of the roadside chapels found in Europe, with its stained glass window,
Contains a marble tablet inscribed with biblical verses (Photo: Darren Harbar)

Jane, with her rather more refined tastes, may not have been particularly fond of the extravagant excesses of the Swiss Garden described by Emily Shore, but Lord Ongley’s gentle undulations, serpentine paths and tasteful planting are very likely to have delighted her if she had ever seen them. Island beds and shrubberies were popular features of many gardens at the time, as were the Alpine structures seen in the Swiss Garden today. Jane is very likely to have heard of Whiteknights too, and there were plenty of examples to be found of buildings in the rustic style, but what makes the Swiss Garden rather special is that it is believed to be the only surviving example of a ‘complete’ Regency garden, with all its features intact, known in the UK today. Whiteknights, and many other gardens of this period have disappeared altogether, or survive only in part. This makes the recent restoration, funded by a £2.8 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, all the more significant to the current custodians of the garden, the Shuttleworth Trust and Central Bedfordshire Council, particularly as it has been on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register since 2009.

Detail of the North Bridge, designed by Cato & Sons (Photo: Darren Harbar)
Detail of the North Bridge, designed by Cato & Sons
(Photo: Darren Harbar)

Previously hidden behind the hangars of The Shuttleworth Collection aviation museum, the Swiss Garden is now set to take equal billing and prominence as a visitor attraction. The garden’s 13 listed buildings and structures – including six listed at Grade II* – have undergone careful conservation using traditional materials and techniques where possible. Its two-storey centrepiece, the Swiss Cottage, has been re-thatched using water reed from Norfolk, its finials re-gilded with 23 carat gold leaf and missing or broken rustic decoration replaced using slices of Monterey Pine cones and hazel and willow twigs. Almost 4,300 panes of glass in the Grotto and Fernery have been replaced with hand-cut handmade cylinder glass and rosette detailing replaced on the Pond Cascade Bridge.

Over 25,600 shrubs and 8,400 bulbs have been planted in 53 beds and 340 metres of path laid using 300 tonnes of gravel. Lost vistas have been reinstated recreating the scenic windows which opened onto very deliberate stage-set views of buildings, bridges, urns, arches and other garden features as originally intended by Lord Ongley.

An ‘augmented reality’ shot depicting the possible design of Lord Ongley’s Aviary – now available on the Swiss Garden’s new (and free) Smartphone app.
An ‘augmented reality’ shot depicting the possible design of Lord Ongley’s Aviary – now available on the Swiss Garden’s new (and free) Smartphone app.

Corinne Price is the manager of the Swiss Garden, which reopened to the public in July 2014, and is open all year round. The garden has been on English Heritage’s ‘At Risk’ register for some time, and is hugely important in the world of garden history as it’s the only completely intact garden of this period in the UK. Please check the Shuttleworth website for current opening times and events, and follow us on Facebook  for up-to-date news and seasonal images of the garden.

A Regency Garden Party will take place on Sunday 19th July 2015 to celebrate a year of the garden being open again. Please check the website for details nearer the time.

The Swiss Garden, Old Warden Aerodrome, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire SG18 9EP.

[1] Journal of Emily Shore, edited by Barbara Timm Gates, 1991, University Press of Virginia, p.113-114

[2] The Life and Letters of Cecilia Ridley 1819-1845, edited by Viscountess Ridley, 1958, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, p.32, 37-8.

[3] ‘An English View of Switzerland’, Mavis Batey, Country Life, February 17, 1977

[4] Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 2003, The Folio Society, London, p.341

[5] Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, Collector’s Library Edition (2004), p.73

[6] In the Garden with Jane Austen, Kim Wilson, Frances Lincoln (2008), p.7

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Strawberry Hill: A Gothic Fantasy

Strawberry Hill House, often referred to simply as Strawberry Hill, is the Gothic Revival villa that was built in Twickenham, London by Horace Walpole beginning in 1749. It is the type example of the “Strawberry Hill Gothic” style of architecture, and it prefigured the nineteenth-century Gothic revival. Walpole, an author in his own right (among many other things) was said to have been inspired by his home, to write the  novel, “The Castle of Otranto” generally regarded as the first gothic novel.

800px-Strawberry_Hill_House_from_garden_in_2012_after_restoration
Strawberry Hill House in 2012 after restoration

Walpole rebuilt the existing house in stages starting in 1749, 1760, 1772 and 1776. These modifications added gothic features such as towers and battlements outside and elaborate decoration inside to create “gloomth” to suit Walpole’s collection of antiquarian objects, contrasting with the “riant” (smiling) garden. The interior included a Robert Adam fireplace; parts of the exterior were designed by James Essex. The garden contained a large seat shaped like a Rococo sea shell.

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In Love with “La Pomme D’Amour”

tomatoesHave you any tomatas? Fanny and I regale on them every day…”
Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 11, 1813

 Tomatoes

The first tomatoes are beginning to come in from my garden now, and if the green fruit on my vines is any indication of the bounty to come, my family will, like Jane, be “regaling on them every day”. I can’t wait! This is the first year we’ve actually had a successful crop (possibly due to my new raised beds next to the house that actually get watered!!) We’ve also tried a topsy-turvy planter– which looks odd, but seems to be thriving as well. This, at least keeps the cherry tomatoes away from the Early Girls so that we are finally getting large and small versions this year– instead of the cross pollinated medium sized fruits from years past.

Of course, tomato season also brings the onset of canning season. In the past we’ve canned peach and strawberry jam, apple sauce, pepper jam, pickles, beets and relish– this year though, I have high hopes of enough fruit to finally can tomatoes. To that end I’ve been reading up on recipes and found a fascinating one in Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s “New System of Domestic Cookery” (originally published in 1806) Ms. Rundell actually boasts recipes for Tomato Sauce à la française (2), à l’italienne (2), Tomato Ketchup (2), Marmalade, Preserves, Stewed Tomatoes, and Preserved Tomatoes for Soup.

What makes this list so impressive is that “tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. One of the earliest cultivators was John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard’s Herbal, published in 1597, and largely plagiarized from continental sources, is also one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. Gerard knew the tomato was eaten in Spain and Italy. Nonetheless, he believed it was poisonous (in fact, the plant and raw fruit do have low levels of tomatine, but are not generally dangerous). Gerard’s views were influential, and the tomato was considered unfit for eating (though not necessarily poisonous) for many years in Britain and its North American colonies.By the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopædia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups, broths, and as a garnish.”*  So much so that by 1813, Jane Austen was regaling on them daily at Godmersham.

To Preserve Tomatoes for Soup
The tomatos should be perfectly sound and quite ripe. Peel them, take out the seeds and lay them in a large wide pan with plenty of pepper and salt. Lat them remain twenty-four hours for the juice to run out; then put the whole into a stewpan, and boil it very gently for an hour and a half, frequently stirring it. Put it into small jars, and when cold, tie them down; small jars are preferable to large ones, as frequent opening would spoil the tomatos.

This recipe calls for “hot packing” the tomatoes and tying the lids tight with paper and string. This, I would strongly discourage– although tomatoes are very acidic and usually keep well, when properly canned, it is important to make sure that you *do* properly can them to avoid botulism (unknown at the time of the recipe’s printing)

If you are unfamiliar with the canning process, pickyourown.org has a wonderful step by step instruction page with photographs for everything. If you are an experienced canner, then this will be an easy recipe to try– I know I’m looking forward to it! The salt and pepper will be a different taste from the garlic and lemon juice used in traditional tomato sauces, and just think of how delicious it will be to whip up some hearty soups this winter using your own canned fruits.

  • Since there are no suggestions for number of tomatoes used, it should be noted that 7 large tomatoes will fill 1 quart or 4 half pint jars.
  • Peeling the tomatoes is fairly easy with either a vegetable peeler, or by cutting an X into the bottom and scalding them in boiling water for a few seconds. Run them under cold water and the skins will slide right off.

Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen’s life. She is the proprietor of Austenation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends is her first book.

*Quoted from Wikipedia.com

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Mr. Collins’s Garden

 

“…the chief of the time between breakfast and dinner was now passed by him (Mr. Collins) either at work in the garden, or in reading and writing, and looking out of window in his own book room, which fronted the road.”
Chapter 30 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

A vegetable garden and small orchard were a necessity for a country parson. The produce provided food for his table and helped to stretch a modest income. In Pride and Prejudice, we are also told that Mrs. Collins encouraged this occupation in order to gain a respite from her loquacious husband.


When Mr. Collins gave Sir William, Elizabeth, and Maria a tour of his garden, Jane Austen is silent as to what they were shown. Indeed, why bore her contemporary readers with a list of well know plants that would hardly forward the plot of her romance. At a distance of some 200 years, we may well wonder what plants might have grown in Mr. Collins’s garden.

Apple orchards have been a part of English gardens, since medieval times. If space was very tight, the trees may even have been espaliered to the garden walls. Sweet eating apples must come from grafted trees, since all apple seeds produce only tart apples. Grafting was well understood, since medieval times. Apples provided easily stored fruit for eating, cooking in tarts, and for ciders. In 1658, John Evelyn, the famous diarist, wrote The French Gardener: instructing how to cultivate all sorts of Fruit-trees, a how-to book on cultivating fruit trees.

Espaliered trees, like this one in the Chawton House Library garden, were pruned to grow against a wall or wire frame.

Due to the wet climate, vegetables were often cultivated in raised beds that would drain well. Vegetable beds were created by surrounding an area with planks, staked to the ground and filled with earth.

This photo of the gardens at Jane Austen’s Chawton Cottage shows a planked garden.

Root crops might include potatoes and carrots. Potatoes were introduced to England from the New World in the late 16th century. Cold weather during the Icelandic volcanic eruptions, in the 1780s, helped to promote acceptance of the cold tolerant plant. Potatoes also store well in cool, dry, and dark rooms. Carrots came to England, from Holland, in the 1740s, and recipes for soups and puddings using carrots began to appear at that time, also.

Mr. Collins probably grew pumpkins. The American plant was introduced to Tudor England by the French. However, Charlotte would most likely cook pumpkin by cutting off the top of the pumpkin, scooping out the seeds and filling it with a mixture of milk, honey, apples and spices. She would then replace the top and roast the entire pumpkin in hot ashes.

Climbing vegetables, such as peas, were generally supported by cone shaped trellises made of bundles of willow branches, tied together near the top. Peas probably came to England with the Romans, since the English word has Latin origins. The green vegetable became very popular by the 17th century, particularly when served fresh. Peas can be dried and stored for long periods of time, making them a winter staple.

Cucumbers were probably introduced to England by the Romans. Pickling is an ancient art, so Charlotte, who often helped in the kitchen at home, probably put up pickles. Curiously they were called cowcumbers at this time.

Hugh Thomson’s frustrated gardener (Northanger Abbey)

There would, almost certainly, be a row of cabbages in the garden Mr. Collins tended. Cabbages are supposed to have been spread by the Celts, so they had long been present in England. Greens such as lettuce and spinach would also have been planted in the garden. Lettuce probably arrived with the Romans. Spinach came to England from Spain in the 14th century, probably brought back by pilgrims who visited Santiago de Compostela.

Salads dressed with vinaigrettes came into vogue, in England, after the French Revolution forced many French refugees to flee to England.

Tomatoes would probably not be found in Mr. Collins’s garden. Many people believed that they were poisonous and would not eat them, because they belong to the nightshade family. Tomatoes were not widely eaten until the 1820s.

Herbs would have been important plants in any garden of this period. Lavender would be grown and dried, for use in sachets, to be placed in cloths chests. Lavender smells nice but prevents the ravages of insects on clothing made of natural fibers, as all clothes, at that time were. Lavender was also used in soap making. Mint was used in sachets and in cooking. Dill would have been used in pickling and sprinkled over some breads.

The parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme of the old song would also have grown in the garden. Parsley had come to England by Elizabethan times and was an important garnish and ingredient by Jane Austen’s time. Sage was already used with fatty meats such as sausage, and with sage Derby cheese. Surprising, sage was also used as a tea. Rosemary was commonly used as an aromatic herb, as a hair rinse and to season lamb. Thyme probably arrived with the Romans. The herb was used on meats and in stews. It was also burnt as incense.

The walkway approaching the house would probably have been surrounded by flowers and shrubs. However, we would not see roses or bulb flowers, which were still expensive imports, in Jane Austen’s day. Fruit trees and native foxgloves and hollyhocks would be the most likely decorative plantings at a country parson’s house. Hollyhock seeds had come back from the crusades, in the crusader’s saddle bags, and were long established in England.

Though a tour of Mr. Collins’s garden, may seem a bit silent without commentary from Mr. Collins, hopefully a good idea of the similarities and differences of that time and place was conveyed. I beg you will forgive me, for taking over that earnest man’s role.


 

Written for the Jane Austen Online Magazine Sharon Wagoner, Curator of The Georgian Index. Visit her site for a historical tour through Regency London. Her novel, The Coronation, is available for free, for the Amazon kindle.