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A Tansey for Lent


As a plant, Tansey (or more commonly spelt Tansy) has a distinguished history of medical use dating back to ancient Greece. Used in the 8th century by Swiss Benedictine Monks to treat everything from fevers, digestive issues, worms and rheumatism, it is still listed in the United States Pharmacopeia as an acceptable treatment for fevers and jaundice.


According to some sources, “In the 15th century, Christians began serving tansy with Lenten meals to commemorate the bitter herbs eaten by the Israelites. Tansy was thought to have the added Lenten benefits of controlling flatulence brought on by days of eating fish and pulses and of preventing the intestinal worms believed to be caused by eating fish during Lent.”*

Lent is, of course, the period of fasting (either wholesale or from certain foods and activities) observed by many branches of Christianity during the forty days prior to Easter, allowing the participant an opportunity to focus more deeply on pious thoughts and deeds. As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Jane Austen would have participated in this ritual in some way.

In her book, Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Broomfield reiterates this line of thinking and relates how “tansy cake”, which was more commonly called simply “a tansy” served health and medicinal purposes, with deep ties to England’s Catholic heritage. She writes,

“Tansy was a bitter herb whose stalks were juiced and then mixed…with a pint or less of the juice of green wheat, spinach or anything else that is green and not strong tasted. The juice was then mixed with a pint of cream, twelve eggs, nutmeg, sugar and salt. A quantity of white bread to make it thick enough for a bread pudding was mixed in. The batter was placed in a buttered dish and put before a…fire or oven…until it was hard enough to turn out on the dish. People had been eating tansy cakes since the middle ages to purify their bodies, especially after Lent…by the 1700’s, many also ate a tansy cake at Easter in remembrance of the Jewish Passover. Religious reasoning aside, tansy was considered a vital green food for people who had spent the winger eating too much salted meat and pickled vegetables; it was a welcome harbinger of spring’s bounty.”
-Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Broomfield

In Hannah Glasse’s seminal work, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, she boasts an entire section titled “A Variety of Foods for Lent”. Variety (that spice of life) is the key word in this chapter, which includes instructions for everything from Eel-Soup to Soused Mackerel, Baked Apples, Barley Soup, Hasty Pudding, Pancakes and even Stewed Spinach and Eggs. Food for thought. With Lent bringing the removal of many meats and meat products from the table, the beef heavy diet of Georgian England was no doubt happy for any help that could be given.

Hannah rounds out her collection with instructions “To Make A Tansey”. As we have seen, this was a sort of vegetable bread pudding, however, her recipe, surprisingly, contains no actual tansy—just “the juice of spinach to make it green”. A “mock” tansy perhaps? From looking at other period recipes, “Tansy” (or Tansey) seems to have evolved into a term for any pudding baked in the same general way. Recipes for Apple Tansy abound from the period (again, no actual tansy harmed in the making of this recipe) while William Gelleroy’s 1770, The London Cook includes no fewer than eight tansy recipes, with such tantalizing names as A Tansey, Another Tansey, A Gooseberry Tansey, Another Gooseberry Tansey, A Beef Tansey…you get the picture.

And so, without further ado, Hannah Glasse’s Tansey for Lent:


Laura Boyle is the author of Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends.

Andrea L. Broomfield quoted from:
Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History
Praeger (April 30, 2007) 0275987086


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All the Delights of the Season

There was now employment for the whole party– for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.
Pride and Prejudice

In Georgian times, centerpieces that were both exquisite and edible were an inherent part of fine dining. In fact, food was the only centerpiece used until the 1750s. The goal of every great hostess was a captivating and inviting arrangement- a treat to the eyes and the taste. The more elaborate, the better. After all, your wealth and social status were clearly assessed by the size and complexity of the centerpiece.

Food stylist Debbie Brodie created many such arrangements for the A&E film “Emma”. Her challenge was to create confections that would look beautiful while standing up to the heat and transportation necessary in filming.

We created these colassal fruit pyramids, which are certainly not the thing to do when you’ve got four-hundred weight of food to put out and you’re in a complete tiz. They take a very long time. You have to have a completely level base onto which you put a layer of the larger fruits (apples, peaches, oranges).Food Stylist Debbie Brodie creates a pyramid of Peaches for the Box Hill picnic scene This you then spray with mounting glue and add a layer of leaves. I used Ivy leaves but you can use vine or bay leaves.Once that has dried, you do the next layer in the same way, with fruits getting smaller as it gets higher. Any fruits can be used: cherries, strawberries, whatever takes your fancy. After a second layer, I spear down through the fruit with cocktail sticks to give extra strength. These dishes may have to be moved many times during the day and, though I wouldn’t say you could drop one without collapsing, they can certainly take some rough handling.

Traditional pyramid centerpieces, made of exotic fruits, nuts and tiny desserts, were arranged on glass salvers (cake stands stacked one on the other), meant to be as delicious as they were beautiful. To create this centerpiece in your own home, you will need three attractive glass or porcelain cake stands in graduated sizes. These are available as sets from many retailers. The “Georgian pyramid” was originally made by placing like-sized pieces of fruit on a plate, topping with a smaller plate and more fruit, and so on, until a tall pyramid was formed. Boxwood or other greens were then tucked between the fruit to fill in the gaps. Though they are few and far between, a careful viewing of both Emma2 and Emma3 as well as Persuasion2 and P&P2 will reveal scenes of glorious fruit concoctions set out at dinner parties and meals.

For a freestanding, one tiered arrangement, hostess Mary Ellen Pinkham suggests arranging fruit in a pyramid on a cake stand. For the center of the pyramid, cut the flesh off of a large pineapple so that only the core remains. Attach to the middle of the cake stand and arrange whole and cut fruit around it, forming a pyramid.

The Apple Cone is available by mail order from the Colonial Williamsburg Marketplace.

An easy, non-edible alternative is suggested by artisans in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Crafters at Colonial Williamsburg market a conical wood form, called an apple cone, which makes creating one of these pyramids a piece of cake. The form has many nails embedded over the surface of the cone. Apples are impaled onto the nails forming a treelike shape. Often a pineapple, the symbol of hospitality, is placed at the top. Other fruits such as Lemons, limes, pears and pomegranates can be used in place of the apples. Like the early fruit pyramids, boxwood sprigs are tucked between the fruit mounted on the cone. To complete the centerpiece, the base of the cone is decorated with large flat leaves (such as magnolia or ivy).

A similar design can be created by cutting the top off a Styrofoam cone so that it is flat. Use florist’s picks to attach the fruit to the cone. You may want to use two picks each for particularly large pieces of fruit or the pineapple on top, or try the step by step instructions found here

  • Select small apples (Red Delicious, Granny Smith and Lady apples are all good choices) or like sized other fruits.
  • If using pineapples, look for some on the smaller side. Bigger is not always better- especially in this case!
  • Check with a local florist to obtain magnolia leaves and boxwood sprigs. If nothing fresh is available, you can use silk or artificial leaves.
  • Keep your pyramid fresh by storing it in a cool place when not in use on the table. To refresh your centerpiece, replace fruit that has started to soften. At best, the fruit on the cone will last one to two weeks.
  • To protect your tablecloth or table from the effects of “weeping fruit”, place your completed pyramid on a plate or platter before setting it on the dining room table.
  • Additional greenery, fruit, nuts and wrapped candies can be tucked into the greens to extend the centerpiece across the table and provide an edible feature, since the fruit affixed to the nails on the cone is no longer edible.

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