Thursday, 30 August 2012

Housewives and cookbooks - Middle-class Victorians

From the Georgian period to the Victorian, the rich continued to eat grandly, but it was the middle classes, and the upper working class that really felt the benefit of industrialization when it came to eating. The kitchen technology recommended to the poor by Soyer and his contemporaries was just the thing for those classes with new spending power who were keen to climb the social ladder. As well as increased wealth in the expanding middle class, there was far more available to buy. Industrial advances meant that food could now be tinned to last what must have seemed ages to people used to fast spoilage; pre-made powders for eggs, custard, chocolate and spices like mustard continued to remove toil from food preparation; and new and exciting flavours could be bottled and sold as sauces – many of them by companies and brands still going strong today.

Not actually Victorian-era artefacts

The was, however, still a limit on what could be achieved – refrigeration was still impossible for most households, and if your wanted convenience, you paid for it - a lot of pre-prepared and tinned food was prohibitively expensive. The role of a housewife and her servants was crucial to the middle-class home – and servants were expected in any household with aspirations. While the recipes circulated by high-profile chefs such as Soyer, Francatelli, and Escoffier, the chef at the Ritz hotel, much have been tempting (charity handbooks notwithstanding) it was the work of two female authors which were most influential with middle-class wives and their cooks in the later half of the 19th century.

One of many, many editions of Mrs Beeton's collection

Eliza Acton was the first, a woman who began as a teacher and poet before publishing Modern Cookery in All Its Branches for Private Families in 1845. Her carefully-considered, tried and tested recipes were ideal for the novide to follow, as she included a novel idea – an itemised list of ingredients and measurements at the end of each recipe. This was the first time anyone had done that, and she was widely copied – not least by Mrs Beeton, who moved the list strategically to the start of each recipe, giving us what has become the standard form. The style used by both women, that of a housewife sharing her own experiences , was popular – enough so that the character of Mrs Beeton was deliberately cultivated as a wise, motherly authority figure… despite Isabella being around twenty-five when her Book of Household Management was first published in 1861. Most of her recipes and household advice, sad to say, was lifted from a variety of other sources – including Eliza Acton, Alexis Soyer, and Mrs Raffald from the century before. Not that it appeared to matter – the books sold well enough that Mrs Beeton stayed in print for over 70 years (my copy of the book was borrowed from my mother’s shelf of cookbooks) and Eliza Acton was cited as a major influence by none other than Delia Smith.

The recipes the two women included in their respective books range from ‘Curried Maccaroni’ to ‘Sweet Pickle of Melon (Foreign receipt.)’, but there is also a strong emphasis on the value of plain cooking and reducing waste that Hannah Glasse or Elizabeth Raffald might have been proud of. Here’s one from Mrs Beeton for using up cold mutton, which also make full use of the British love of gravy…

Not mentioned - grind the mace thoroughly before adding
(Transcribed from Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book, 1914 edition.)
INGREDIENTS – 6 or 8 slices of cooked mutton, 2 shallots or 1 small onion finely chopped, ½ a teaspoonful or powdered mixed herbs, ½ a saltspoonful of mace, 1 dessertspoonful of flour, butter or fat for frying, ½ pint of gravy or stock, lemon-juice or vinegar, salt and pepper. METHOD – Cut the meat into round slices about 2 ½ inches in diameter. Mix together the shallot, herbs, mace, and a little pepper and salt, and spread this mixture on one side of the meat. Let it remain for1 hour, then fry quickly in hot butter or fat, taking care to cook the side covered with the mixture first. Remove and keep hot, sprinkle the flour on the bottom of the pan, which should contain no more fat than the flour will absorb, let it brown, then add the gravy or stock. Season to taste, boil gently for about 15 minutes, add a little lemon-juice or vinegar to flavour, and pour the sauce round the meat.
TIME – altogether, 1 ½ hours.
AVERAGE COST, about 1s. 8d.
SUFFICIENT, 1 lb. for 3 or 4 persons.
SEASONABLE at any time.
I'm not sure how much difference letting it sit for an hour makes.

This isn’t difficult to make, although getting the onion mixture to stay on the meat when cooking is easier said than done – I added a splash of water to help hold it together, and still had trouble, but aside from untidiness this doesn’t matter too much. The meat I used was cold lamb rather than mutton, since mutton is pretty uncommon these days, but it’s from the same animal, so I wouldn’t worry too much. In fact, this would also be delicious with cold beef – it’s hard to go wrong with fried meat, onion and gravy.

Lemony gravy

Speaking of gravy – or stock, but I had leftover gravy from the roast in any case, so I used that – I tried it with a squeeze of lemon. It sounded peculiar, but it makes really good gravy – cutting through the fatty meat very nicely. (And if your meat wasn’t fatty before, once fried it will be.) Delicious and economical comfort food, great in chilly weather.

To finish us off with the Victorians, I went back to aspirational cooking, for the middle classes keen to impress. Back in 1782, a visitor to the country had lamented the British inability to make coffee, and event Mrs Beeton warned that it was ‘difficult to make.’ But Eliza Acton provided a few daring recipes, and being a coffee-lover myself, I gave one a go.

'Vulgar' also meaning simply 'in the vernacular language'
Acton is not necessarily insulting the French here

It sounds very like a modern Irish Coffee – hot coffee, with sugar and a spirit – only missing the cream. Warning bells should go off, however, when reading how much sugar she suggests – ‘almost to syrup’? Apparently the famous British love of sugar was still very much in place. Well, I followed her instructions to the letter… several times over.

Try as I might, I could not get the brandy to light. In the end, I heated the syrupy, highly-alcoholic coffee over the stove to burn off some of the spirit before tasting, to little avail – it was so sweet and strong it was virtually undrinkable. 

Hopefully Eliza Acton had more success than I did. A sad end to an entertaining experiment, and to this stage of UK Food History! May my future forays into historical food be more successful that this incident - I can hardly wait.

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