“They must not over-salt the leg; and then, if it is not over-salted, and if it is very thoroughly boiled, just as Serle boils ours, and eaten very moderately of, with a boiled turnip, and a little carrot or parsnip, I do not consider it unwholesome.”
The turnip, while an extraordinarily humble vegetable was, like the carrot and potato, one of the few fresh vegetables that could be counted on throughout the winter without the help of a hothouse. They provided a double benefit as well, since both the vegetable root and greens could be eaten. Turnips are quite a bit sweeter than potatoes and this recipe makes a lovely, fluffy side dish. White or yellow turnips may be used.
To Dress Turnips
They eat best boiled in the pot, and when enough take them out and put them in a pan, and mash them with butter, a little cream, and a little salt, and send them to table.
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy
“…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.
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.
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.
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.
I never saw any thing equal to the comfort and style…The baked apples and biscuits, excellent in their way, you know; but there was a delicate fricassee of sweetbread and some asparagus brought in at first, and good Mr Woodhouse, not thinking the asparagus quite boiled enough, sent it all out again.
Now there is nothing grandmama loves better than sweetbread and asparagus — so she was rather disappointed, but we agreed we would not speak of it to any body, for fear of its getting round to dear Miss Woodhouse, who would be so very much concerned! Emma
Asparagus has been used from very early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavour and diuretic properties. It was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who ate it fresh when in season and dried the vegetable for use in winter. It lost its popularity in the Middle Ages but returned to favour in the seventeenth century.
Only the young shoots of asparagus are eaten. Asparagus is low in calories, contains no fat or cholesterol, and is very low in sodium. It is a good source of folic acid, potassium, dietary fiber, and rutin. The amino acid, asparagine, gets its name from asparagus, the asparagus plant being rich in this compound.
The shoots can be prepared and served in a number of ways, and are often boiled or steamed and served with hollandaise sauce, melted butter or olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Tall asparagus cooking pots allow the shoots to be steamed gently. The best asparagus tends to be early growth (first of the season) and is often simply steamed and served with melted butter.
1 bowl of iced water
1 tray, lined with paper towel
1 set of tongs
1 slotted spoon
1 small knife
1 pound fresh asparagus, washed and trimmed
Olive oil or melted butter to taste
Heat the water
Blanching is a quick way of cooking vegetables while retaining their nutritional values and this technique is especially good for green vegetables. Begin by placing the saucepan on a high heat and fill it with about with 2 litres of water. Now add the salt and bring it to a strong rapid boil. Use 30 grams / 1 oz of salt for every litre / 1.5 pt of water. The salt creates a barrier on the surface of the vegetables and also raises the temperature of the water, sealing in the nutrients.
Blanch the asparagus
Now place the bowl of iced water next to the pan in preparation for ‘shocking’, the vegetables, later on. Then add the asparagus into the boiling water. Allow the water to come back to the boil then prick them with a small knife to check for readiness. The asparagus should be soft but firm at the same time. Blanching the asparagus for roughly 30-60 seconds is enough for it to be perfectly cooked.
Shock the asparagus in ice water
Remove the asparagus with your slotted spoon. Place it into the bowl of ice water, to shock the asparagus, for 30 seconds, or until cold. This will immediately stop the cooking process as well as preserve colour, and crispiness. Once removed from the ice, set them aside on the tray lined with paper towel. Keeping them in a cold place will also help to maintain colour and freshness.
Season and serve
Transfer all your blanched and steamed vegetables onto a serving platter. Season to taste with olive oil, salt and pepper. Your vegetables are now ready to serve. They go wonderfully with any type of meat, can be served with a cheese or herb sauce, or even just as they are.