Cooking with Jane Austen

A couple of weekends ago I did a rather lovely cooking day at the Jane Austen House Museum. For once, the sun was shining, the kitchen had decent windows (one of which even opened – which was good, for there was a fire alarm sensor in the kitchen), and even though I was in Regency costume and it flatters no-one, I cooked nice things and nothing went wrong. (Apart from slicing my thumb open, but hey).

I had to come up with a set of dishes which were cookable in 4 hours, on an electric hob and very small oven, and which would be representative of the kind of thing Jane, her sister Cassandra, her mother and friend Martha Lloyd would have been eating in c.1810, when they were resident in Chawton at the JAH Museum. They employed a series of cooks, all women as you’d expect, with varying degrees of success, so it had to be food which could be cooked easily by one person. I had various sources upon which to draw. Martha kept a manuscript recipe book. Jane occasionally references food in her fiction and her letters. The kitchen and outbuildings have surviving fixtures and fittings which indicate the kind of foods which could be bought, stored and prepped. And, of course, there are the usual printed books of their day, including Maria Rundell’s New System (1806 and subsequent), the success of which enabled her publisher, John Murray, to take a punt on the then unknown Jane Austen.

As would have been the norm for a household of that type, I opted for a simple one-course à la Française meal with one remove. This would have been dinner, served there probably around 4pm. When dining with her brother at Chawton House, up the road, dinner would probably have been a tad later, around 6pm, and he might even have opted for the newcomer on the meal scene: lunch. My menu was roughly based on the formats in Charlotte Mason’s Ladies’ Assistant, but with dishes taken from the letters, and Martha’s book, plus what was in season in the 18th century in late March (sometimes rather different to today, as more was produced in the UK, using advanced forcing techniques to rather play with the seasons). I also wanted to select dishes to highlight different themes in 18th century cooking and provoke questions from the expected hordes of visitors.

The menu:

Roast Spring Lamb
removed by
Apple Pie

Jerusalem Artichoke Fricassée  – Spring Vegetable Soup  –  Spinnage and eggs

Chicken Curry

Aficionados of the 18th century will recognise a basic five dish, one course, à la Française meal. The roast (which I didn’t bother with, due to not having a spit), and all the other dishes except the pie, would have been on the table as Jane et al came into their dining room. They’d have sat down, eaten their fill, and the remains of the roast would then have been taken away by their servant (probably the cook), and replaced by the pie. It would have been simple, elegant and deeply individual, something like this:

Our Dining Room at York, by Mary Ellen Best (1838).
Our Dining Room at York, by Mary Ellen Best (1838).

The recipes:

I did a bit of a magpie job on the recipes. The apple pie was from Simpson’s Complete System (1816), the curry from Martha Lloyd’s handwritten recipe book, ditto (sort of – I’ve done it before and played with it) the soup, and the fricassée. The spinach is from Moxon’s English Huswifery (1758) and I picked it for her very clear presentation instructions. Inevitably, I didn’t quite complete all of them, but they served their purpose in getting people thinking, talking, and asking for the recipes to take home. The surprise winner was the curry – amazingly simple, but absolutely delicious. I later tweeted the recipe, and the general consensus was that it was effectively butter chicken, with added gloopy sauce. See what you think – I’ll put basic instructions below.

The menu was very balanced, and very spring-like. People talk nonsense sometimes about lack of vegetables on the tables in the past – certainly not the case here (or at all). Any leftovers would have been recycled into supper dishes the next day (mine were recycled into my lunches for the rest of the week). And it would have been doable in 4 hours, apart from the finger incident. On the plus side – I’ve learnt I can make excellent pastry with my left hand. *Sigh*.

Apple Pie. The recipe calls for you to remove the top, cut it into chunks and place them around the apples. I'm not completely convinced mine is exactly a work of art, but it tasted good.
Apple Pie. The recipe calls for you to remove the top, cut it into chunks and place them around the apples. I’m not completely convinced mine is exactly a work of art, but it tasted good.
Spinnage and Eggs, with sippets of bread. Nuff said.
Spinnage and Eggs, with sippets of bread. Nuff said.

Chicken Curry, based on Martha Lloyd’s ms. recipe book.

Joint a chicken and poach it in lightly salted water (yes, the recipe was probably designed to use up an old layer). Drain, keeping the liquid. Melt 8oz of butter and heat until beurre noisette (mildly brown). Reduce the heat and throw in 2 cloves of garlic and an onion, diced finely. Allow to cook gently (you’re basically making a confit). Add the chicken and 2-3tbsp curry powder. Stir, Add enough of the boiling liquid to make a sauce and heat through until thick – and properly cooked. Serve with lemon pickle or a wedge of lemon or orange.

Curry powder – 1/2 oz each galangal, turmeric; 1/4 oz cayenne pepper; 2 oz rice flour. (If you can’t get galagal powder, because apparently ‘it’s better fresh’, then use ginger).

Further reading:
Maggie Black & Deirdre Le Faye, The Jane Austen Cookbook

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Let’s have a (1950s) party!

Wakefield Museum has just opened a miniature 1950s kitchen as part of its provision for children’s hands-on learning. It’s rather jolly: all blue formica (ish), with wooden foods and tools, and even a stand mixer. I went over to cook up period food as part of their opening event. The ’50s theme was an interesting one. Until 1954 rationing was still in force, and when it finally ended there seems to have been a sort of collective ‘yippeeeee’, as steak, chips, sweets and exotic fruits went back on the menu. More than that, the influence of America on Britain during the war increased in culinary terms after it, and imports along the lines of fast food and frizzy drinks started to make inroads. I set my party at the very end of the 1950s, so I could take full advantage of all the new foods and preparation methods, and really express the joy of No More Rationing.

I'm not really a fan of fitted kitchens, but I could make an exception for this one.
I’m not really a fan of fitted kitchens, but I could make an exception for this one.

The Wakefield collection includes a pamphlet called ‘Let’s Have a Party!’, which I used for some of the recipes. Others came from my own collection, mainly from the hilarious (to modern eyes) Book of Savoury Cooking by Marguerite Patten. I was given this by a friend, and we planned to do a whole meal from it – except we couldn’t find anything we fancied eating. I have to say, we were wrong. Now I’ve cooked from it, I hang my head in shame. What was I thinking, rejecting marmite and pineapple sandwiches? Honestly, it’s one of those books wherein the recipes don’t sound great, but some, at least, are. (A build from this came via one of my twitter followers, who put cheese and pineapple on TWIGLETS. That is a piece of historically-inspired genius, right there).

Let us party indeed! Best named recipe? Orange Orgies.
Let us party indeed! Best named recipe? Orange Orgies.

The late ’50s was an era where women’s ideal was still to give up work on marriage, or at least on having children, and keep a perfect house for their brill-creamed husband. Labour-saving devices, electric hoovers, stand mixers and the like, came in. Fridges started to achieve household penetration (sales rocketed after tax was halved and hire purchase restrictions lifted in 1958 – up to that point around 10% of households had one). Gadgets galore! The main gadget I made use of was a tin opener. Literally everything I cooked used processed goods in one form of another. It was an eye opener vs even 1930s food. There was a real sense of verve and determination to showcase processed foods as being glamourous, easy and fun. Ready sliced cheese was all over our canapés, Marshmallow fluff provided the filling for a cake, bought silver balls were rolling all over the tables. The food for my party was showy, exotic and had a touch of humour about its presentation.

Hollowed our pineapple filled with mayonnaise and mustard with dips of various kinds. Jelly. Canapés. Sandwiches. My favourite, incidentally, was salami, ready sliced cheese and peanut butter. No, really - compelling....
Hollowed our pineapple filled with mayonnaise and mustard with dips of various kinds. Jelly. Canapés. Sandwiches. My favourite, incidentally, was salami, ready sliced cheese and peanut butter. No, really – compelling….
2015-02-25 17.39.20
Prawns in aspic. Stunning, I suspect, in its Victorian hey-day. ’50s style, with frozen pink bits of horrible goo and bought aspic, meh. Traditional cooking did suffer, undoubtedly, when filtered through the era of The Tin.

Modern food commentary tends to demonise processed foods, and tins, and sugar, and imports. Cook fresh! Cook local! All well and good, but let’s not forget that when these things first came in, they were a mini-revolution. They freed up women’s time, preparing the ground for the vast leaps forward in women’s rights in the west which came in the decades after. They were a joy, after 14 years of monotonous food restrictions. They were of their time, yes, and possibly some of them should stay there, but I think from time to time I might just unleash my inner 50’s cook, because, from a food perspective, it was a DELIGHT!

Me, feeling the joy, with a hollowed out sponge cake filled with tinned fruit and cream.
Me, feeling the joy, with a hollowed out sponge cake filled with tinned fruit and cream.

Further reading:
Wakefield Museums’ own blog: http://wakefieldmuseumsandlibraries.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/cooking-up-treat-at-wakefield-museum.html
Kathryn Ferry (2011) The 1950s Kitchen
Christina Hardyment (1995) Slice of Life