A Skirret Pye

We know what you’re thinking… what on Earth is a skirret?!

Sium sisarum, commonly known as skirret, is a root vegetable in the Umbelliferae family of plants. The skirret plant grows clusters of long, knobbly, edible roots, which can grow up to a metre or so in length. Each individual root looks a little like a parsnip or carrot in appearance and, when cooked, has a firm texture and a sweet, nutty taste.

Although almost unheard of in British supermarkets today, the skirret is surprisingly easy to grow. It is a perennial plant and is resistant to cold as well as to many pests. It is therefore little wonder that the skirret was a staple food in Medieval Britain.

Following the introduction of the potato to the British diet in the late 16th century, the popularity of skirret declined. By the early 1700s skirrets were being used less widely and by the turn of the 19th century they had disappeared from most recipe books altogether. Our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies suggests just one dish using the vegetable: skirret  pie.

18th century recipe for skirret pie from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for skirret pie from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Skirret Pye

Take the largest skirrets you can get & parboyle them & peel them & season them with cinnimon & powder sugar & put them in a dish with a good deal of fresh butter & some sliced citron & candid orange peel & candid eringoroot, 3 spoonfulls of rose water, 4 of white wine, some Jerusalem hartichokes boyled & sliced. Make it with cold butter paste. When it coms out of the oven, have ready a caudle made of half a pint of sack, some sugar & nutmeg & the yolks of 4 eggs & a print of butter poured on it very hot & the lid laid on it again.

There’s a fantastic article about skirrets in the Food History Jottings blog, complete with photos of an impressive reconstruction of a 17th century skirret pie. Well worth a look!

A monster plum pudding at St Marylebone Workhouse

Archivist Jo Buddle explores the extraordinary story of a giant plum pudding and reveals the darker reality of life in Britain’s Victorian workhouses:

Members of the United Cooks' Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse

Members of the United Cooks’ Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse

This image from the Illustrated London News of 3 January 1863 records a ‘monster’ undertaking at Marylebone Workhouse.  It shows a plum pudding being made by the London United Cooks’ Society for cotton workers in Manchester, who were struggling with supply because of the American Civil War. The Marylebone Union lent their boiler and facilities for the job

This was no ordinary plum pudding. The finished pudding was over 10 ft in circumference and the list of ingredients was breathtaking. It contained 130 lb of currants, 130 lb of sultanas, 210 lb of flour, 130 lb of suet, 80 lb of peel, 80 lb of sugar, 1040 eggs, 8 gallons of ale, 4 lb of mixed spice and 1 lb of ground ginger. The final result weighed in at 900lb!

The kitchens at Marylebone Workhouse were well set up for mass catering. At its height, Marylebone workhouse had capacity for 1921 inmates. Its dining room was was 120ft long and the kitchen was equipped accordingly, with two 50 gallon beef-tea boilers and a 200 gallon tea infuser. The potato steamers had a total capacity of three quarters of a ton.

On occasion, at Christmas, inmates at Marylebone might be granted a special meal by the workhouse guardians, supplementing their regular meagre diet with a festive cake or pudding. The usual fare at Marylebone was much more simple, featuring cheap dishes such as pea soup, mutton broth and Irish stew. Food was simple and strictly rationed. 

This view of St Marylebone Workhouse was originally drawn by a pauper inmate of the institution in 1866.

This view of St Marylebone Workhouse was originally drawn by a pauper inmate of the institution in 1866.

Although the Marylebone workhouse did not rank amongst the severest of the poor house institutions, life within it was nevertheless hard and uncomfortable. Those who had lost the means to house and feed themselves turned to the shelter of the workhouse as a very last resort. Men, women and children were segregated and those who were able were expected to work for their living. All able inmates were employed in menial tasks, from stone-breaking to oakum-picking (unravelling old ropes, which would then be sold on to the Navy).

Plan of St Marylebone Workhouse in 1881, showing the separation of male and female dormitories (wards)

Plan of St Marylebone Workhouse in 1881, showing the separation of male and female dormitories (wards)

In some workhouses, the regime descended into cruelty. Rather than providing a living for inmates, the imbalance of exacting physical labour and a nutritionally-poor diet at these institutions was leading to starvation and death. In 1845 a scandal broke out at Andover, where workhouse inmates were found gnawing on animal bones due of a lack of food. 

The work of high-profile campaigners such as Charles Dickens, along with news stories such as the scandal at Andover, led to a growing unease about the workhouse system. By late 19th century it was recognised that the dietary regimes of the nation’s workhouses had to change. From 1900 onwards, workhouse unions were encouraged to provide a more varied and balanced diet for their inmates. In 1901, the distribution of an official workhouse recipe book by the National Training School of Domestic Cookery ensured that workhouse kitchens were producing better meals with greater nutritional value.

In 1930, the system of poor law administration changed and, with the abolition of the Board of Guardians, many workhouses closed or became public assistance institutions. However, many people consider that workhouses didn’t truly disappear until the establishment of a Welfare State and the foundation of our National Health Service in 1948.

[Jo]

Revisiting sago…

Sago pudding… If you were at school in Britain in the ’50s and ’60s, the very mention of it may be enough to send shivers down the spine. Sago pudding, semolina pudding and tapioca pudding were all regulars on the school dinner  menu and, while some remember them fondly, many others have been put off these puddings for life by the gloopy versions they were confronted with as a child.

It’s a shame, as sago pudding is highly nutritious and, cooked well, serves as the perfect comfort food. If you’re brave give sago another go, why not start with this 18th century version from our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies?

This sago pudding is prepared ‘an excellent way’ with flavourings of orange and lemon peel, cinnamon and brandy:

An 18th century style sago pudding from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

An 18th century style sago pudding from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Segoe Pudding an Excellent Way

Take 2 handfulls of segoe & boyle it in just as much water as will cover it, stiring it while it is boyleing least it burn. Dont boyle it longer than till it is thick. Take 8 eggs, beat them with a qr of brown sugar. When yr segoe is cold, put it to them & some pounded cinnimon, a large spoonful of pounded orange & lemon peel, 2 spoonfulls of brandy, half a pd of melted butter. Let it cool. Mix all well together & besur[e] stir it well as it goos in the oven lest the segoe settle to the bottom. An hour bakes it in a slow oven.

Sago is derived from the pith of a palm tree, native to India and South East Asia. The Elizabethan Explorer Sir Francis Drake is said to have been one of the first Britons to experience the harvesting and preparation of sago on the eastern Indonesian island of Ternate. A written record by Francis Pretty, one of Drake’s attendants on his voyage around the world, states that the local people there gave them

meal, which they call sagu, made of the tops of certain trees, tasting in the mouth like sour curds, but melteth like sugar, whereof they make certain cakes, which may be kept the space of ten years, and yet then good to be eaten.

Our next starch pudding is based on an ingredient found closer to home: millet. This cereal was widely eaten by the peasantry of continental Europe and was generally considered as a food of the poor. However, in the 18th century millet puddings became rather fashionable in British kitchens.

This Georgian recipe shows how millet was appropriated for the middle classes. The pudding is enriched with large quantities of eggs, butter and cream: ingredients which would have put it out of reach of the labouring classes. Delicate flavourings of nutmeg and sweet bay (‘lawrell’) water lent an additional veneer of sophistication:

A Georgian-era recipe for millet pudding from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Georgian-era recipe for millet pudding from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Millet Pudding

Take a handfull of millet, boyle it a little in a pint of water. Then, after you have taken it of the fire, stir in to it whilst it is hot 2 large prints of butter, a whole nutmeg, some sugar to your taste. Set it by to coole. When it is quite cold, put in 12 eggs and but half the whites, a pint of sweet cream boyled & mix all these well together. An hour boyls it. A boyled rice pudding is the same way but pound the rice & put in a little lawrell water.

“Hot Spiced Gingerbread!”

This man cried "Hot Spiced Gingerbread" as he sold sweet treats to passersby in Oxford Street

This man cried “Hot Spiced Gingerbread” as he sold sweet treats to passersby in Oxford Street

Hot Spiced Gingerbread, sold in oblong flat cakes of one halfpenny each, very well made, well baked and kept extremely hot is a very pleasing regale to the pedestrians of London in cold and gloomy evenings. This cheap luxury is only to be obtained in winter, and when that dreary season is supplanted by the long light days of summer, the well-known retailer of Hot Spiced Gingerbread, portrayed in the plate, takes his stand near the portico of the Pantheon, with a basket of Banbury and other cakes.

Itinerant Traders of London (1804)

This ‘gingerbread man’ was one of over 30 street traders featured by William Marshall Craig in his book, Itinerant Traders of London. Craig himself seemed pretty impressed by the cakes, describing them as ‘very well made’ and ‘well baked’, and cheap at the price of a ha’penny.

We don’t know whether the unknown ladies of our Cookbook ever patronised this street trader’s stall at the Pantheon, but we do know that they were fans of gingerbread. They recorded two recipes for this spicy cake in their manuscript recipe book.

The first recipe comes to us courtesy of Mrs Ryves, whom we last met when she was making cream cheese. Here, we share her simple method for a classic gingerbread:

"To make gingerbread Mrs Ryve's Way"

“To make gingerbread Mrs Ryve’s Way”

To Make Ginger Bread Mrs Ryves’ Way

Take two pound of fine flower, half a pound of white sugar, won ounce of pounded ginger all well dryed and sifted, a pound and a quarter of treacle, half a pound of fresh butter. Boyle the butter and treacle together then take it of and make it into a past with the things above nam’d and make it into what shapes you pleas. Butter your papers very well you bake them on. Your oven must be as hot as for Chease Cakes.

The second recipe is a little different from the gingerbread we’re used to today. Along with the ginger, caraway seeds and candied citrus are used to flavour the mix. It sounds rather intriguing… one to try as warming treat at tonight’s Bonfire Night celebrations? The mixture also contains eggs, so although our ladies make no mention of cooking, don’t forget to bake it!

A Georgian gingerbread recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

A Georgian gingerbread recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

To Make Ginger Bread

Take fore qurts of flower, a pinte of treacle, & not quite halfe a pound of butter, four eggs, halfe an ounce of pounded ginger, halfe an ounce of carraway seeds, a qr of a pd of brown sugar, a nagin of brandy, som canded lemmon or orange. Mix all these in the flower. Melte the treacle & butter to geather. So mix all very well.

London’s market gardens: the Neat Houses

Today, Pimlico is a bustling , diverse and densely-populated part of London. It occupies the north bank of the Thames between Vauxhall Bridge and Chelsea Bridge and is perhaps best known for its handsome white stucco buildings, part of Thomas Cubitt’s distinctive development of the area in early 19th century.

Cubitt’s building plan for Pimlico was implemented in 1820s, and radically changed the nature of this area of London. Before his famous residential terraces were built, much of the land had been dedicated to the growing industry and Pimlico was famous as the home of the Neat House Gardens.

This extract from a map of 1812 shows the site of Neat House Gardens

This extract from a map of 1812 shows the site of Neat House Gardens

In the 17th and 18th centuries, market gardens surrounded London and provided the fruit and vegetables on which the city’s inhabitants thrived. The Neat House Gardens were named after the Manor of Neyte and occupied approximately 100 acres, with cauliflowers, asparagus, artichokes, spinach, radishes and melons featuring among its produce. The land was ideal for gardening as it was low-lying with a high water table. Pasture was not far away, so there was also easy access to large quantities of manure.

Horwood's map of late 18th century London shows the ornamental layout of Pimlico's market gardens

Horwood’s map of late 18th century London shows the ornamental layout of Pimlico’s market gardens

Alehouses cropped up all around the gardens, and Neat Houses became known as a place of recreation and revelry. Many people travelled from the city to the many tea gardens in the area, and among them was one Samuel Pepys:

After the play, we into the house, and spoke with Knipp, who went abroad with us by coach to the Neat Houses in the way to Chelsy; and there, in a box in a tree, we sat and sang, and talked and eat; my wife out of humour, as she always is, when this woman is by.

Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1August 1667

The Monster Tavern was one of the many tea gardens and ale houses nearby Neat House Gardens. This watercolour shows the tavern circa 1820.

The Monster Tavern was one of the many tea gardens and ale houses nearby Neat House Gardens. This watercolour shows the tavern circa 1820.

Henry Wise, Royal Gardener to Queen Anne and designer of Kensington Gardens had gardens at Neat Houses, but many of the gardeners were tenants who farmed just a small patch of land.

This section from an estate map of 1725 shows Mr Wise's Estate next to the Bailiwick of Neat. Much of the rest of the land was divided into small tenancies.

This section from an estate map of 1725 shows Mr Wise’s Estate next to the Bailiwick of Neat. Much of the land was divided into small tenancies.

At the turn of the 19th Century the population of London was expanding rapidly and there was increasing pressure on the gardeners to give up their land to prospective builders. John Johnson bought the lease for much of the land in Pimlico in 1817 but found his proposals constantly thwarted by the gardeners. In 1825 Johnson gave up his battle against the gardeners, but threat to Neat Houses remained as real as ever as he sold his interest in the land to Thomas Cubitt.

By 1827 the urban sprawl surrounded Neat House Gardens. It wouldn’t be long until these too would fall victim to the city’s expansion.

By 1827 the urban sprawl surrounded Neat House Gardens. It wouldn’t be long until these too would fall victim to the city’s expansion.

The writing was on the wall for the Gardens and it was now only a matter of time before roads and large-scale building works would change the character of Pimlico entirely. Today nothing remains of The Neat House Gardens, but if you come along to Westminster Archives Centre you can relive their glory days through our collections of books, maps and prints.

[Jo]

A concise history of clotted cream

It is with great pleasure that we welcome back Maya Pieris as today’s guest author. Maya has a passion for food history and, as a founding member of Bridport’s History Girls group, she has plenty of experience in recreating historic recipes. In her last article, Maya explored the history of the British picnic, from working lunches in the fields to formal outdoor dining. Today she serves up another appetising slice of food history as she shares an international story of clotted cream… 

‘Clouted’ Cream

I was taken to see an old gentleman of eighty who has eaten [clotted cream] all his life, four times a day, and he seemed none the worse

 – from Truffle Hunt by Sacheverell Sitwell (1953)

Cream first, or jam? It’s an issue almost as divisive as that which surrounds the pronunciation of “scone” (skəʊn or skɒn): a question which provokes earnest and passionate opinions! I feel that logically (and culinarily) that the order should be scone, then cream and then jam on top. Not only is it visually more appealing this way, but the cream also acts like butter and a kind of ‘glue’ for the jam. No doubt many of you who read this will be of the opposite point of view!

As well as being the focus of this on-running gastronomic debate, clotted cream also has a fascinating history and a wide cultural reach. In the cuisines of countries such as Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, local people make a rich clotted cream called kaymak from water buffalo milk. Cows milk and cream are also used to produce a version which is a little less rich. Production in this area of the world dates back to the 16th century at least:  in 1573 a decree was issued to women of the Ottoman Empire, forbidding them to enter shops selling kaymak as these establishments had become known as trysting places!

Macedonian Kaymark

 - 1 quart milk
 - 500ml /1 pint thick cream

  • Boil the milk in shallow pans and carefully pour the cream in from a height.
  • Simmer on a low heat for about 2 hours being careful it doesn’t catch.Turn off the heat and leave to stand for about 6 hours without touching.
  • Cook again on a low heat for ½ hour and cool again without touching.
  • Place in the fridge for 24 hours. Once the cream has formed, loosen it with a knife and ease it onto a plate for serving.

British clotted cream also has a long and intriguing history.  It has been suggested by food writers such as Alan Davidson that the arrival of Phoenician traders to Cornwall around 2000 years ago may have introduced the tradition. The cream’s association with the dairy farming region of the West Country is also well-established, with recipes for “clouted” cream in local cookbook collections dating back several centuries. But clotted cream was also very popular in other counties. Lady Elinor Fettiplace, Elizabethan mistress of an Oxfordshire manor house, recorded her method for clotting cream in her household book. She made it from the top of the morning’s milk, alternately cooled, heated, “dripped” with fresh cream, heated again and then left to stand overnight. Cinnamon and mace were sometimes used to flavour it.

Sir Kenelm Digby, 17th century courtier, natural philosopher and recipe collector

Sir Kenelm Digby, 17th century courtier, natural philosopher and recipe collector

Another fan of clotted cream was Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), a 17th century resident of Covent Garden. Sir Kenelm’s passion for science and philosophy saw him commit much of his life to the pursuit of alchemy. But he was also a keen collector of more prosaic recipes. A posthumous publication of his cookery writings included a couple of recipes for clotted cream. Although the recipes differ in detail and length (one comprises two pages of instructions while the other extends only to 7 lines), both dishes are decidedly sweet, being strewn with sugar before they are served:

Sir Kenelm’s Clouted Cream

Take two Gallons more or less of new milk, set it upon a clear fire; when it is ready to boil, put in a quart of sweet cream, and take off the fire, and strain it through a hair sieve into earthen pans; let it stand two days and two nights; then take it off with a skimmer; strew sugar on the cream, and serve it to the Table.

Over the centuries, clotted cream has gained a well-deserved place in the nation’s culinary pantheon. Many of us may not follow in the footsteps of Sir Kenelm Digby or Lady Elinor Fettiplace by preparing the cream ourselves, but no matter… this dairy delight seems as popular as ever, whether enjoyed in a West Country cafe or at a London hotel for afternoon tea.

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To find out more about the activities of The History Girls check out their Twitter feed, or browse Maya’s range of historically-inspired pickles by visiting her Four Seasons Preserves online shop!

 

Shopping on the move: the street traders of Georgian London

Pictures of London’s street traders provide a colourful and characterful insight into how Georgian Londoners shopped, and the range of goods that were made available to them from the city’s streets. In today’s blog post, Archivist Jo Buddle explores a selection of images from the collections City of Westminster, capturing the energy and vigour of Georgian street traders at work.

Traders, hawkers and pedlars were an important part of London street life in the Georgian era. They could be found on street corners, at major landmarks, and perhaps even under your window, selling a wide variety of goods including food. Men, women and children were involved in the various trades, and many different nationalities were represented.

From fat geese to hat boxes, almost anything could be bought from pedlars on London's streets

From fat geese to hat boxes, almost anything could be bought from pedlars on London’s streets

The street traders brought colour, variety and vibrancy to the streets of London, and many became famous characters, instantly recognisable by their distinctive cries. “Fair Lemons and Oranges!”, “Twelve Pence a Peck, Oysters!”, “Four for Sixpence, Mackerel!”, “”Sixpence a Pound, Fair Cherries!” echoed throughout the city.

"Fair lemons and oranges" was a familiar street cry in Georgian London

“Fair lemons and oranges” was a familiar street cry in Georgian London

This street trader sold rabbits round and about Portland Place

Rabbits sold at Portland Place

One trader near Portland Place sold rabbits for eighteen or nineteen pence each, a much cheaper rate than was available in the shops. A man known simply as ‘The Turk’ sold rhubarb in and around Russell Square for many years. The criers also acted as early equivalents of fast food: baked apples could be prepared and sold to busy pedestrians using a lighted pan of charcoal and a tin plate.One man operating near the Pantheon on Oxford Street sold gingerbread cakes for one halfpenny each as a winter-warmer treat. During the summer, he sold Banbury and other cakes.

This man cried "Hot Spiced Gingerbread" as he sold sweet treats to passersby in Oxford Street

This man cried “Hot Spiced Gingerbread” as he sold seasonal treats to passersby in Oxford Street

Though resented by some shopkeepers as unfair competition, the traders and their street cries were a source of much fascination to the local population. Illustrated books depicting the criers were extremely popular. Although in the later 19th century street traders would become – unfairly – associated with the criminal poor in London, well into the Regency period they were appreciated and celebrated as an integral part of city life and the capital’s flourishing economy.