A Hint of Spices Past

Ingredients: a good book, time, tasty food.

Method: Combine as desired. Try to keep grease spots and crumbs off the book.

VariatIon:

Ingredients: A historical recipe, unfamiliar ingredients, time, and a mixing bowl. 

Method: Follow recipes wondering if they’ll work. Eat the result whatever it turns out like. Don’t worry too much about crumbs and grease spots because they’re a badge of honour on a cookbook.

My interest in what people in ‘olden days’ might have eaten started when I was about nine and read a book called ‘The Gauntlet’ by Ronald Welch. In it, a modern boy is transported back to the Middle Ages and lives as a nobleman’s son in Carreg Cennen castle. At one point, someone brings in a dish of meatballs and there on the page was the recipe for how they were made. It somehow brought the scene alive, not simply to imagine them ‘doing a Henry VIII’ (as my aunt used to say, meaning to eat with ones fingers and chucking bones onto the rush-covered floor for the dogs to munch) but visualising the cook, sweating in the kitchen, preparing something I could actually cook myself one day.

Roll on a few years and as a writer of historical fiction, one of the things I like to research is what people might have eaten and how they might have managed their lives. Below, you can see a selection of my historical cookbooks (original, facsimile, translated).

You might think it’s hard to work out for Lucretia and her fellows in the Murder Britannica books but fortunately, not only are there translations of Apicius’s Cookbook but Farrell Monaco works out a modern version of those recipes and shares them on https://tavolamediterranea.com/ under Edible Archaeology. I’ve cooked a few of them myself for Sunday dinners and very nice they are too. 

It’s easier for the Caster and Fleet and Margaret Demeray books, because if all else fails, there’s Mrs Beeton. I bought my copy a very long time ago from a shop in the Forest of Dean which specialised in secondhand/antique cooking utensils and books. This edition is from the early 1930s though, so wanting to be sure that I had a better idea of what women who had to do their own cooking or at least help with it might have cooked, I sought other books. 

‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’ (facsimile) is interesting, as the recipes were sent in by ordinary women to be compiled into a book which not only would raise money but would suggest things a busy campaigning woman could cook and eat in a short time. They are all very simple, easy, and mostly cheap, nutritious and generally appealing even to modern tastes (maybe eating brains isn’t). There’s a vegetarian section and a sick room section and also practical hints and tips. ‘The Best Way’ book (original) gives pages of simple, flavoursome recipes and explains how to deal with anything from cleaning brass to baby care. I can imagine Margaret and Katherine referring to both of these, although only Margaret can cook well. 

Even though ‘Indian Cookery’ (original and pristine, so not a real cook’s book) dates from 1861. It would have been thirty plus years old by the time the Caster and Fleet and Liz Hedgecock’s Maisie Frobisher mysteries take place, but it’s perhaps possible that in a wealthy household like Connie’s or Maisie’s cook the cook would have had one as Indian cuisine was already very popular in Britain and Maisie has been to India. It was written by Richard Terry, chef de cuisine at the Oriental Club, what is referred to as the first Indian restaurant in London. I’m sure there were already others, run by Indian people with authentic recipes, but were perhaps not appreciated by well-off white British people at that time. The recipes in the book are all called ‘curry’ of course and doubtless are/were unrecognisable to anyone from India. There’s reference to a curry powder blend, the recipe for which is provided and a curry paste which isn’t, perhaps because the author sold it and wanted to keep the ingredients secret. Due to the British Raj, Indian food caught on (and was Anglicised) very quickly and has never looked back, though hopefully nowadays, there’s more authenticity and respect. For a fascinating if sobering article about the early British fascination with Indian cuisine, check out https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/curry-in-colonial-india

Although ‘Indian Cookery’ itself might not have been on the kitchen bookshelf of the average middle class woman like Margaret in the 1910s, don’t let anyone tell you that ‘foreign food’ like pasta, rice and all this spice is a modern thing. 

There are plenty of all of them in the Suffrage Cookbook, Mrs Beeton and ‘The Best Way’ which might have been. Cayenne, curry powder, chillies, curry paste, rice and pasta are all mentioned throughout. The Suffrage Cookbook includes a vegetarian version of babotie (spelled boboté) using a meat substitute called protose. Babotie is a spiced South African dish we often eat at home (meat version) and the recipe I follow is fairly similar. Apart from a slightly worrying recipe for ‘the kind of macaroni called spaghetti’ which boils it for half an hour otherwise, everything is very edible even if the recipes are sometimes a little vague as to method.

I also have a copy of ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ first published in 1852, which aimed to help people on a limited budget cook nutritiously. This is a suggestion of what should be in a basic kitchen:

  • A cooking stove (with oven and with or without boiler)
  • A three gallon boiling pot
  • A one gallon saucepan with lid
  • A two quart ditto
  • A potato steamer
  • A frying pan
  • A twelve gallon copper for washing or brewing (or presumably both though not at the same time)
  • A gridiron (griddle/girdle/bakestone)
  • A mash tub
  • Two cooling tubs (or an old wine or beer cask cut into two would be cheaper and do the same)

The total cost for all this was apparently £6/12/4 – six pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence. To put this in context, even a clerk might be lucky to earn one pound a week and someone further down the social scale a lot less. The author (chief cook to Queen Victoria) suggests that if the reader doesn’t have enough savings to buy these, then they should save up. How long would that have taken given that your £1 per week also had to pay for rent and food? Having doubtless depressed the average working class wife and told her she must keep everything clean, the author next suggests a Sunday dinner for a family of ten with leftovers for the next day of boiled beef with cabbage and potatoes with suet pudding or dumplings. He says it will cost perhaps three shillings (and to note that small children only really need the dumplings). On a wage of £1 a six day working week, three shillings would have been one day’s wages. I imagine the leftovers may have lasted more than one day. You only need to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ to get an idea of how hard things could be . (Sadly they still are, and it’s good to know there are resources for cooking on a very limited budget, https://cookingonabootstrap.com/category/recipes-food/ being one.)

Going back to my research, of course, just reading the recipes is no good, I like to try them too. Yesterday, I had a historical baking afternoon. 

I made some Richmond Maids of Honour Tarts (bottom right on the plate), which have a history going back to Henry VIII’s time. The original recipe (which allegedly once involved a maid being locked up) is a closely guarded secret (though I assume she’s been let out by now). So I used this one by Delia Smith.

As April 25th was Anzac Day, (which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign on 25th April 1915) I also made some Anzac biscuits (top). The recipe I followed to avoid having to choose between NZ or Aussie recipes was my gran’s and you can see it below (and a photograph of the original in her writing).

Finally I thought I’d go back to Roman times and make some barley biscuits with cheese and figs (left) from the Tavola Mediterrea site. 

How did it go? The tarts, while looking nothing like Delia’s are delicious. I used ready rolled puff pastry which I put in a patty pan and ended up with 12 tarts and a small amount of leftover filling. The Anzac biscuits, are delicious too, even though I had to use granulated instead of brown sugar (I’d run out and went to the shop to get some and of course forgot and came out with something else entirely as you do). The barley biscuits dough possibly needed more water as the dough was quite dry, but the end result is very good, a little like an oatcake biscuit. I drizzled them with maple syrup and the cheeses are Mantego, Cheddar and Philadelphia.

What’s on the menu today? Well, I have some cod and a Roman recipe book. What about Patella Lucretianam? It’s a cod recipe with herbs and spring onions. I have all of those. And according to the book, ‘Lucretius has yet to be identified.’ What if it wasn’t a Lucretius? What if a certain Lucretia inspired the recipe and Apicius wrote it down wrong? Mmm.  It seems a bit bland for Lucretia. Now what’s in the fridge that’ll go with cod and onions really well? Aha! Chorizo. I can pretend it’s spicy Lucanian sausage. That’ll be right up Lucretia’s street. 

Now where’s my pinny?

Granny D’s Anzac biscuits

1 cup flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon hot water

125g margarine

2 tablespoons golden syrup (black treacle may be used)

Method

  • Preheat oven to Gas mark 4; 180°C; 350°F
  • Heat the margarine and syrup gently together.
  • Mix all dry ingredients together, except bicarbonate.
  • Pour well stirred margarine and syrup into the dried ingredients.
  • Add the bicarbonate mixed with water.
  • Mix all together.
  • Make into walnut sized balls, put onto biscuit tray well spaced.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes.
  • Reverse trays on shelves after 5 mins, turning trays for even cook.
  • These are more gooey if slightly undercooked.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.