Felicity Hebditch volunteers with the social history team at the Dorset County Museum, and has been researching this fascinating little recipe book ‘Domestic Cookery or Family Receipt Book’.
In it, Felicity finds out about the life of a domestic servant around 1850’s. Meals were prepared under conditions far removed from what we are now accustomed to…. uncovering stories from sparrow dumpling recipes to fuller’s earth with vinegar for pimples.
‘A Lady’ author
In the Museum’s collections is a small book ‘Domestic Cookery or Family Receipt Book’ written around 1850 by ‘A Lady’ as ‘a practical guide for housekeepers’. Who wrote it? Before Mrs. Beeton there was Eliza Acton (1799-1859), who was the first cookery writer to list the ingredients and the length of cooking time for her recipes. She produced ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ in 1845. Before Eliza Acton there was Maria Eliza Rundell who wrote ‘A New System of Domestic Cookery’ in 1806, an enormously successful publication which continued to be produced for fifty years after her death in updated versions. Domestic Cookery is probably a pirated edition of Rundell’s work.
Turtle for tea?
All the dishes are written from the point of view of a servant sending dishes to the dining room. These are substantial recipes for large households; ‘portable soup for travellers’ requires three large legs of veal and one of beef, the lean part of half a ham and a quarter of a pound of butter. Recipes are very meat based and the meat is not for the squeamish. The cook (or her assistant) was instructed to kill a pig, kill and draw ducks, skin eels, even kill and deal with a turtle. (The Earl of Verulam came home with a turtle in his coach, a surprise for his cook?) There is also ‘Artificial turtle’, Alice’s mock turtle. Our more ecological times regret their eating larks (‘a dozen or so’), and there is even a recipe for sparrow dumplings.
Many of the dishes are served with sauces thickened with bread rather than flour, as medieval cookery does, and yolks of egg. Wine is added sometimes, or lemons, and generous helpings of Cayenne pepper, ‘catchup’ (ketchup) or mushroom ‘catchup’, and always a good dollop of butter. Very few ‘receipts’ incorporate vegetables, though stews do have onions and carrots, and celery is added to several dishes. The vegetables are cooked in ‘a large quantity of water’; cauliflower is cooked in milk and water, but ‘spinage’ is only cooked for two minutes so wouldn’t have lost all its flavour.
Take off the outside and the green ends of your heads of celery, boil them in water till they are very tender, put in a slice of lemon, a little beaten mace, thicken it with a good lump of butter and flour, boil it a little, add a little cream, shake it over the fire till it be of a fine thickness, but do not let it boil.
Cooks needed to be able to control the fire or stove. The roasting of a piece of meat meant toasting it in front of the fire; to keep the fire at a constant heat for four or five hours was hard work, and the meat would have to be basted to prevent it from drying out. A number of dishes involve boiling and then finishing off with frying in butter. This presumably helped to send things in to dinner hot. The pots and pans were heavy and hard to clean. Various things are boiled in a tossing pan.
Medieval meals featured an amusing or stunning dish as a centre piece, like today’s birthday cake. The book’s author gives descriptions of dishes made with marzipan, a scene of baby chicks and a hen with straw made of lemon peel, a fish pond with marzipan fish floating on jelly, sugar spun to make a nest with marzipan eggs.
There is no dashing down to shops to buy ready made goods. Home grown fruit and vegetables had to be turned into pickles or jam to preserve it. Hand cream had to be made of hog’s fat and hair restorative from honey and rosemary. Ink was made of galls, green copperas, gum arabic and a wine glass of brandy! And then there were the rats; Corks cut very thin, and fried or stewed in dripping and placed in the way of rats will be greedily devoured, and they will die of indigestion. They tried to solve medical conditions; to cure worms with turpentine and egg, fuller’s earth with vinegar for pimples. Mutton suet was the best thing to keep irons from going rusty, tea leaves for sweeping carpets and fine carpets had to be swept ‘on the knees’.
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