Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Ladies, Housekeepers and Cooks

It’s a bit of a risky proposition to describe over a century of food history in one short blog post. Still, reading through the cookbooks I can get my grubby little hands on (bless the invention of .PDF files), mostly for and by the upper or merchant classes, there are some definite themes in the types of food that were being prepared. There was still a strong preference for meat, where possible, although vegetable dishes were now becoming common too. Butter and cream featured heavily, in particular – the preference was for rich tastes, and new kinds of sauces were made with this in mind. On British tables specifically, melted butter or ‘butter sauce’ was used on nearly everything that wasn’t already accompanied by sauce of its own. From Hannah Glasse, The art of cookery:
        To melt butter,
…melting of butter you must be very careful; let your saucepan be well tinned, take a spoonful of cold water, a little dust of flour, and your butter cut to pieces: be sure to keep shaking your pan one way, for fear it should bil; when it is all melted, let it boil, and it will be smooth and fine. A silver pan is best, if you have one.

(To clarify: Heat a little plain flour and water in a saucepan over a gentle heat until it makes a paste with no lumps, then stir in small pieces of butter until melted and smooth. Proportions don’t matter too much, but I used a heaped tablespoon of flour, about three tablespoons of water, then about 50g butter. Use common sense for larger quantities – the Georgians certainly seemed to. A pinch of salt near the end doesn’t go amiss.)

Women cooks and authors weren’t that unusual – though the most prestigious and fashionable were certainly men, and frequently French. I’ll talk a little more about them later on. Women writers such as Hannah Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald were a few rungs down the social ladder, but could be remarkable successful nonetheless. Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper went through dozens of editions, and she eventually sold the copyright for the equivalent of £200,000 – not bad at all, for a cookbook.

Reading through some of the cookbooks that were published at the time (many of which are available online, for the curious – see the sources page) I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible they are, once you get used to the writing style – although that makes sense, considering they are instructions. Mrs Glasse wrote in 1747 that it was her intention ‘to instruct the lower sort’, which suits me, if it keeps her instructions nice and clear. The recipe I picked to try out, however, is one of Mrs. Raffald’s, and pretty straightforward. Although chicken was not the cheapest of meats at the time – they were more valuable for laying eggs, so most birds would have been either cocks or slightly old and stringy, unless you were rich enough to afford a young one. Veal was more common – but there are enough mentions of chicken meat in The Experienced English Housekeeper that I don’t feel like I’m cheating.

 The style of listing the ingredients separately from the instructions wouldn’t come in until the next century, but this dish is uncomplicated enough to deal with without one. Mind you, I spared many a pitying thought for cooks who had to kill, pluck and gut their birds as well and skin and butcher them – all very well for Raffald to say ‘cut them in small pieces’! Still, it happened, if a little messily. Here’s a slightly simpler version:

 1 large chicken
Large glass white wine (the rest of the bottle belongs by moral right to the cook)
Pickled lemon (can be bought from most large supermarkets, or made at home, for the enterprising.)
1 anchovy
A few blades of mace
About half a nutmeg, grated finely
1 medium onion, peeled and pierced with a skewer all over, and stuck with cloves (Not too many, as these are strong - five or six will do.)
Bunch lemon thyme and sweet marjoram ( The thyme will need to be discarded at the end as the stalks are tough - they are, however, good for tying the bunch of herbs together in the first place.)
About 50g butter, plus extra for thickening
Heaped tbsp plain flour
Yolks of 2 eggs (eggs were smaller then, go with me on this - also, please make sure they are very fresh - let's have no salmonella here.)
Large cupful double cream - 150-200ml
Salt and pepper

Butcher a large chicken - removing the legs and wings first by cutting between the joints, then slicing down the spine to cut away the breasts. (Yes, this is harder than it sounds, as I soon discovered: Here is a slighter better guide. Alternatively, you can go the easy route and buy individual pieces of chicken.) Rinse and dry, then rub with salt and pepper - easy on the salt. Place the pieces in a heavy pan with all the other ingredients except the flour, egg yolks, cream and extra flour. Simmer until chicken is tender and falling off the bone - a good hour. Place the cooked chicken in a serving dish, reserving the liquid, then heat the flour in the remaining butter for a few minutes and pour in the liquid again. Whisk to remove lumps, then take off the heat. Beat the egg yolks into the cream and then stir into the hot gravy until it thickens slightly. Pour over the chicken, and serve.

Ideally, this would have been served with many other dishes, placed artistically together on the table in the style called ‘a la francaise’ – a pattern of individual dishes all served on the table together, from which the host and guests could serve themselves. As it was, I did my best to make a couple of dishes of potatoes, carrots and cabbages look appealing – all at least authentic accompaniments – plus a jug of the butter sauce that was so typical of the time.  My tasters (parents and siblings, today) seemed to approve. 

Obviously, taking just one dish that would originally have been served with many others all at once isn’t really representative of a proper upper-class dinner of the period; but I do feel it summed up a lot of the themes of cookery at the time. Fresh meat was the star of the main dishes, and was cooked up with lots of velvety cream sauce flavoured with wine, nutmeg and a hint of clove. The vegetables were enriched with lots of butter sauce, and the whole thing was heightened by a little taste of lemon pickle in the background – a nod to the Georgian and Regency store cupboards. Pickling and the making of pre-cooked flavourings was a major occupation for a housekeeper; after all, few people could afford an ice house, so preserves were a necessity as well as an acquired taste. This was the age of ketchup (also known as ‘catsup’ or ‘catchup’) made at home from mushrooms or walnuts – tomatoes were still viewed with some suspicion during the most part of the 1700s, so tomato ketchup would not become favoured until the next century. Regretfully, I did not make my own lemon pickle, despite Elizabeth Raffald providing a recipe in the same book as the recipe for chicken fricassee. We had a jar of pickled lemons in the fridge already, something now used more commonly in Moroccan cooking, and after all, the idea of making pickles in advance was for convenience as well as economy. If you want to try it, however…

 For despite the luxurious flavours and richness favoured by Georgian cooks, few housekeepers could afford to be wasteful. Recipes such as fricassees, ‘forcemeats’ (stuffing) or ‘olives’ (stuffed rolls of meat baked or fried with breadcrumbs) could use leftovers efficiently, while still providing variety – a necessity, when even small dinners frequently involved five or six different dishes.

In the spirit of economy, never fear – the remains of my inexpertly butchered chicken are now simmering away to make soup for later, and smelling lovely. I think perhaps I’ll stir in the remains of the cream, and eat it with hot buttered toast. It’s what any Georgian housekeeper would have wanted.

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