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Mr. Woodhouse’s Thin Gruel

The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said — much praise and many comments — undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable; — but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin. Emma Of all Jane Austen’s hypochrondriacs, perhaps her most endearing is Mr. Woodhouse. Afraid of germs, draughts, too rich food and all manner of nervous complaints brought on by change, he forces himself, and often those around him, to live on a diet of plain foods: “My poor dear Isabella,” said he, fondly taking her hand, and interrupting, for a few moments, her busy labours for some one of her five children — “How long it is, how terribly long since you were here! And how tired you must be after your journey! You must go to bed early, my dear — and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go. — You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.” Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing as she did, that both the Mr Knightleys were as (more…)
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Pickling Plums and Other Indigestibles

My cloak is come home. I like it very much, and can now exclaim with delight, like J. Bond at hay-harvest, “This is what I have been looking for these three years.” I saw some gauzes in a shop in Bath Street yesterday at only 4d. a yard, but they were not so good or so pretty as mine. Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers’, but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or greengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five, I believe, but this is at some of the dearest shops. My aunt has told me of a very cheap one, near Walcot Church, to which I shall go in guest of something for you. I have never seen an old woman at the pump-room. Jane Austen to Cassandra June 2, 1799 In his work on period fruits, Mark Harris provides the following information: “Plums (Prunus domestica) originated around Armenia in Asia Minor and are only botanically distinguished from cherries by their size. Plums were first cultivated in western China. Wild plums, the Bullace (Prunus instititia), Cherry Plums (Prunus cerasifera) and the Sloe (Prunus spinosa) now grow wild throughout Europe and have hybridized extensively. Cultivated plums arose as a cross between the sloe and the cherry plum in (more…)
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The Spices of Life

  The kitchen-garden was to be next admired, and he led the way to it across a small portion of the park. Northanger Abbey “Season the gravy very high,” advised Thomas Jefferson in a household recipe for beefsteak pie. Such instructions sound a bit vague to modern cooks, but the colonial kitchen-master no doubt understood how to proceed. A recipe might state, “first make your coffin,” referring to the fact that “pyes” were baked in rectangular, narrow pans (“coffins”) similar to our loaf pans. The British adored their “pyes”, and of course when they settled in [America], whenever feasible, prepared comforting foods reminiscent of those served in merrie old England. Favorite pies included those containing plovers’ eggs, sparrows, robins, pigeons, pheasant, turkey, veal mutton, pork, “leman” rind, and dates. A smaller version of the pie was the “pastie” or “pasty” or “fried pie” or “turnover.” These portable pies were handy (and tough-crusted enough) to slip into a saddlebag for journeying, and added variety to other travel fare like journeycake (or johnnycake) and corn bread. When preparing savory colonial pies and pastries, the cook had but to step outside to the nearby herb garden to gather savory, rosemary, marjoram, sage, thyme, chives, garlic, onions, etc. In winter, dried herbs hung from the kitchen rafters ready for use. To add flavor and fat to the dry, lean meat of venison, elk, and moose, sugared racoon fat was utilized. Other colonial flavor enhancers included an abundance of imported nutmeg, ginger, vinegar, and wines. (more…)
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Barmbrack

Barmbrack (sometimes called Bairin Brack), a rich Irish fruit bread, is the food most associated with ancient Halloween customs. The “charms” baked into each loaf would fortell the future of the recipiant. Placed in the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth and a ring. Whovever received in their slice the pea, would be unmarried; the stick, would be a fighter (or wife beater!); the cloth or rag, would be poor; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Barmbrack is similar in style, though denser, to the Italian Pannettone. The word barm comes from an old English word, beorma, meaning yeasty fermented liquor. Brack comes from the Irish word brac, meaning speckled – which, of course, it is, with dried fruit and candied peel. Barmbrack is usually baked in a round (20 cm or 8″) cake tin with a loose base, but this recipe works just as well with a rectangular loaf tin. The quantities given here will make one large loaf. 2 tea bags, or 3 tsp. loose tea (a strong black blend works best) 3½ cups (12 oz, 350 g) mixed dried fruit (raisins, golden raisins/sultanas, currants, candied peel) 1 cup (8 fl oz, 240 ml) milk 1 tsp. sugar 2 tsp. dried active yeast (not instant yeast) 3 cups (1 lb, 450 g) strong bread flour 1 tsp. salt ¼ cup (1 oz, 25 g) brown sugar 1/3 cup (3 oz, 75 g) butter or margarine 1 beaten egg 1 tsp. mixed (more…)
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Mashed Potatoes for Christmas

  There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone–too nervous to bear witnesses–to take the pudding up, and bring it in. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843 Goose, stuffing, applesauce and mashed potatoes. The Cratchitt’s Christmas dinner sounds a lot like what many of us will be enjoying this Christmas, but in Jane Austen’s day, only twenty or thirty years before the writing of A Christmas Carol potatoes were a fairly new offering on the dinner table. One that was often eyed with suspicion more than anything else. Though potatoes were brought to Spain from South America in the 1500’s, it would take almost 300 more years before they were adopted with any alacrity by the rest of Europe. Eventually, they were recognized to contain almost every necessary vitamin for survival. The idea that one acre of potatoes could support a family of 10 was especially well received in Ireland. (more…)
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Clotted cream

 We are not so happy as we were. A message came this afternoon from Mrs. Latouche and Miss East, offering themselves to drink tea with us to-morrow, and, as it was accepted, here is an end of our extreme felicity in our dinner guest. I am heartily sorry they are coming; it will be an evening spoilt to Fanny and me. Jane Austen to Cassandra November 24, 1815 Clotted cream is a thick yellow cream made by heating unpasteurized cow’s milk and then leaving it in shallow pans for several hours. During this time, the cream content rises to the surface and forms ‘clots’. Clotted cream purists prefer the milk to come from cows in the English counties of Devon and Cornwall. Scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, served in our Tea Room. Clotted cream is generally served as part of a cream tea (also known as a Devonshire Tea) on (warm) scones with strawberry or raspberry jam. Legends vary, assigning the origins of Clotted Cream to both Devonshire and Cornwall, but regardless of it’s beginnings, it had become a popular dish in it’s own right by the late 1600’s. Numerous recipes abounded, some for creating a plain cream dish, others used citrus flavourings to make a sweet dessert. Common period instructions suggested that you: “Take the night’s milk and put into a broad earthenware pan. In the morning, set over a slow fire and allow it to stand there from morn to night, making certain not to boil (more…)