The bitter taste of tansy

“[Mince pies are] as essential to Christmas as pancake to Shrove Tuesday, tansy to Easter, furmity to Midlent Sunday or goose to Michaelmas day”

Lionel Thomas Berguer in The Connoisseur (1754)

The traditional Easter dish ‘tansy’ has largely been forgotten today, but for the Georgians it was as integral to the Easter festival as mince pies were to Christmas.

Members of the Tansy family, including common tansy (fig 11680) from J.C. Loudon's Encyclopaedia of Plants (1828)

Members of the Tansy family, including common tansy (fig 11680) from J.C. Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Plants (1828)

The dish takes its name from the tansy flower, tanacetum vulgaris, the bitter flavour of which was a reminder of the bitter herbs (maror) eaten by Jews at Passover. In our recipe, tansy leaf extract is combined with spinach juice and then added to beaten egg yolks, sugar and naple biscuits. Cream, nutmeg, sack and rosewater are all and added to the mix before being put over the fire to cook.

To make a tansie Mrs Haynes way: an 18th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To make a tansie Mrs Haynes way: an 18th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To Make a Tansy –  Mrs Hayne’s Way (modernised spelling)

Take 12 yolks of eggs and beat them very well. Put half a pound of naple biscuit, a quarter of a pound of white sugar, a pint of spinach and tansy juice, a quart of cream, a nutmeg […] into a gill [¼ pint] of sack, the same of rose water. So, beat it up, put it into a skillet and put it over the fire till it is thick. So put it in the pan and fry it.

The result: a sweet, green-coloured omelette with the bitter undertone of tansy.

As time went on, the term ‘tansy’ was applied to a whole range of egg-based dishes, whether they contained tansy juice or not. One such recipe is a fruit fritter known as ”apple tansies’. We’ll be trying that one out later in the year…

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Saffron cakes and the mystery of the Blew Peel

Saffron is the dried stigma of the autumn-flowering crocus sativus (saffron crocus). This plant was widely cultivated in early modern England, and its historic importance is recorded in several place names in the south-east of the country. Saffron Hill, near Farringdon, once formed part of an estate that grew crocuses for saffron. Croydon’s connection with saffron goes back to Saxon times and is commemorated in its name, croh meaning crocus or saffron, and don meaning valley.

Saffron Walden became one of the foremost saffron farming and trading centres of Tudor and Stuart England, thanks to its light, chalky soil that could sustain large crops of crocuses. The streets of Saffron Walden were said to turn  blue with petals during the saffron harvest, which took place between October and December.

By the early 18th century, the saffron industry was in decline. While harsh frosts in early autumn could effectively wipe out the English harvest, improving trade routes enabled merchants to import the spice from more reliable climates in Southern Europe. Imports in other spices and flavourings were also changing English tastes. Exotic products such as chocolate and vanilla contributed to the demise of saffron’s popularity in English kitchens.

Our Cookbook‘s recipe for saffron cakes favours English saffron over the imported spice, although by this time the country’s saffron trade was on the wane.

18th century recipe for making saffron cakes 'as ye woman at the Blew Peel does'. Extract from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for making saffron cakes ‘as ye woman at the Blew Peel does’. Extract from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To make saffron cakes as ye woman at The Blew Peel does (modernised spelling)

Take 6 quarts of flower, dry it and sift an ounce and a half of caraway seeds [and] 3 quarts of a pound of loaf sugar. Rub in[to] it a pound of butter. [Take] half an ounce of good English saffron dried and powdered very fine, steeped overnight in half a pint of milk; 12 eggs, beat their whites to a curd and mix the yolks with your saffron and milk, and set it over the fire. Stir a little more milk in it. Let it be just blood warm. Make a well in the middle and pour in your milk and whites and strain in half a pint of good barm. Work it up lightly to a paste [so] that it may be smooth. When you make your cakes, pat them with the palm of your hand. Prick them as they go into the oven, which must be very hot, cleaned out with a wet malkin.

Where was the ‘Blew Peel’, where this recipe is said to have its origins? We’ve found no reference to a pub of this name in the London area, nor to any of the obvious variations of this name (Blue Peel) etc. Could the recipe have travelled to our cookbook writers from another part of the country – maybe from as far as Devon or Cornwall, where the tradition of saffron buns is still strong today?

If you think you can help identify our mysterious ‘woman at the Blew Peel’, please get in touch!

Irish sack: a treat for mice and men

This recipe for honey wine, or Irish sack,  is among the earliest in our Cookbook. Water (river water) and honey are boiled and ‘scummed’ for three hours. Once cooled, the mixture is left for a couple of days until any solids have settled and the liquid can be poured off into a cask. And then there’s a further six months of brewing time until the wine can be finally bottled.

It is time-consuming, but simple, and the instructions are unusually thorough. There’s even a tip about stopping mice getting to the drink before you do!

A recipe for Irish sack from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A recipe for Irish sack from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Receipt to Make Irish Sack

Take what quantity of river water you please. Mix honey with it till it will bear an egg [so] that the end appears a little above the water. Keep out a little of your liquor in a convenient pot or kettle, and as it boils up put in a little of your cold liquor to make the scum rise […] better and prevent its boiling over. Scum it clean and so continue to do for two hours as the scum rises. Then boil it another hour, having put in all the cold liquor, and keep it constantly scumming as you see occasion. When boiled, put into a clean wooden vessel in a cool place & let it stand [for] two days. [Separate] it […] from the settling and [put it in a cask]. Keep some of it in a black glazed crock covered with a pewter dish to fill up your vessel as it shrinks, &  you must skim of [the] scruff that rises on the top of your vessel with a spoon, and so do till no more rises, keeping it constantly filled up as you find occasion. Keep your vessel covered with a clean slate or thin stone to keep out mice, but not too close as when you stop it because, if it has not air, it will work over and waste. It will be six months, or near it, before you can stop it up. When it is [a] year old, bottle it and put into every bottle 3 [stoned raisins]. Cork up the bottles.

No cold liquor to be put in the third hour. It will waste a third part in the boiling.

Of course, if you do decide to try this one at home, please don’t use river water. Tap water may lack a little in authenticity, but is a much safer option!

And here’s a quick 19th century tip on sealing bottles, passed down from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle:

To Make Bottle Cement

½ lb black rosin, same of red sealing wax, quarter oz of bees wax melted in an earthen or iron pot. When it froths up, before all is melted and likely to boil over, stir it with a tallow candle, which will settle the froth till all is melted and fit for use. 

Stewed cheese

This simple dish of hot, bubbling cheese was a popular repast at Ye Cheshire Cheese public house on Fleet Street. Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens are counted among the pub’s illustrious canon of drinkers, and  may well have sampled its famous stewed cheese along with their ale.

Eighteenth-century recipe for stewing cheese, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Eighteenth-century recipe for stewing cheese, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To Stew Cheese

Put 3 spoonfulls of water, & ye yolk of an egg, & a lump of butter, beat up, at ye bottom of a pewter plate. Slice yr cheese in thin small bits upon it, yn stew it on a chafing dish of coals wth an other plate over it.

The cheese, egg and butter mixture is cooked gently on a chafing dish – a raised grate with allowed the food to be heated over a brazier without the fierce heat of the flames. When ready, the cheese would be served in a small pot, which could either serve as a dipping pot for sliced toast, or be used to pour the cheese over toasted bread.

Stewed cheese was frequently eaten as a ‘chaser’ after a serving or two of Ye Cheshire Cheese’s famous meaty puddings of lark, kidney, steak and oysters. Even for a man of Dr Johnson’s legendary appetite, that would have been quite some meal!

 

The ‘Cooking Up History’ sessions – 1: puddings

On Friday 1 March, ‘Cooking up History’ volunteers David and Angela joined us to whip up some dishes from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies. Our Archives Centre kitchen was transformed with the sights and smells of the Georgian kitchen as we rolled up our sleeves, put on our pinnies, and got busy baking!

Our librarian Judith with Angela and David, the Cooking up History team!

Our librarian Judith with Angela and David, the Cooking up History team!

We began the first in our series of historic cookery adventures with a selection of sweet recipes from the Cookbook: two 18th century recipes for almond puddings, and three buttery, boozy pudding sauces from the early 19th century. Perfect warming food to cheer us through the recent cold spell.

Our first challenge was to ‘translate’ the original recipes for use in our modern kitchen. Easier said than done. While the 19th century sauce recipes were pretty thorough, the earlier pudding methods were riddled with omissions! Filling in the gaps reinforced how these 18th century would have been been compiled by an experienced domestic cook, who was well versed in basic cooking methods, and judged most quantities and cooking temperatures by their own experience of what ‘felt right’.

One of the original recipes we adapted for the cookery session

One of the original recipes we adapted for the cookery session

There were plenty of potential pitfalls to avoid. Both of the pudding recipes called for huge quantities of eggs, but as those used in the Georgian kitchen would have been much smaller, we needed to adjust the quantities accordingly. We had to decide on which ‘weight’ of cream to use (we plumped for double rather than single) and even what spirit to substitute for ‘sack’.

And inevitably, there were some pitfalls that we failed to dodge. Without any instructions about how mix our ingredients, our first pudding batter turned out extremely lumpy and rather grey. But some good old-fashioned elbow grease with a wooden spoon got it looking more the part, and disaster was narrowly avoided.

Cross-barring our first almond pudding - almost ready to go in the oven!

Cross-barring our first almond pudding – almost ready to go in the oven!

Once our puddings were snugly in the oven, we sat back with a cup of tea to reflect on how things had gone so far. We’d taken plenty of short cuts in recreating these recipes – such as using ground almonds rather than pounding them by hand – and Angela remarked how time-consuming these puddings would have been without all the kitchen aids we have today. This got us thinking about all the other difficulties that a Georgian cook would have faced.

Even getting hold of ingredients seemed to be easier today. We found nearly everything we needed at the supermarket, and the more exotic ingredients (mace, rosewater) we got hold of from our local Indian grocery. Whereas other recipes in the Cookbook indicate that our 18th century ladies would have sourced some of the ingredients from their smallholdings – eggs from their own hens, and milk and cream from a domestic cow.

The timer interrupted our chat and it was time to try the puddings…

Almond pudding in a pastry case: the first pudding we tasted

Almond pudding in a pastry case: the first pudding we tried and tasted

As we cut into our first almond pudding, we realised that something had gone a little awry, as the mixture was still fairly sloppy, and wasn’t keeping its shape as we’d expected. On taste, though, it didn’t disappoint. David was the first to comment: “ This is delicious!”. Rosewater was the predominant taste, and the nutmeg came through well too. Angela was the first to remark that it ‘tasted of Christmas’, and funnily enough, we all agreed.

David gives almond pudding no. 1 the thumbs up!

David gives almond pudding no. 1 the thumbs up!

The second pudding turned out like something between a bakewell pudding and a baked custard, and was literally oozing with butter. We’d used sherry in place of sack, which came through fairly delicately.

The second almond pudding - a cross between baked custard and bakewell pudding

The second almond pudding – a cross between baked custard and bakewell pudding

Angela serves up our second almond pudding

Angela serves up our second almond pudding

The 19th century sauces were less subtle. ‘Pudding catsup’ was rather heavily laced with sherry and brandy. The alcohol-free ‘Justin’s Orange Sauce’ was a bit more refined, and complemented rather than overpowered the puddings.

We were all surprised at how different these puddings tasted from the ones we are used to today. None of were used to using rosewater or mace in our day-to-day cooking, and the large quantities of butter in the recipes made the puddings seem incredibly rich to our modern palates. Nevertheless, we all felt we’d come one step closer to discovering the tastes of the Georgian kitchen, and to the lives our ‘unknown ladies’ would have lived.

To try out these recipes in your own home, take a look at our Cooking up History page, where we’ve published all of the recipes for your enjoyment!

The Epicure’s Almanack: London’s first ‘good food guide’

Published in 1815, the Epicure’s Almanack was London’s first ‘good food guide’, describing more than 650 establishments in and around the city, and promising to direct the reader to those where he might ‘dine well, and to the best advantage’.

Unlike modern directories that rely on public feedback or teams of inspectors, the Almanack was essentially the work of a single man, Ralph Rylance (1782-1834), who was paid fifty guineas by the publisher Longman to prepare the pocket-sized guidebook. Over the course of two years he visited City chop houses, West End pastry shops, dockyard taverns, village pubs, coaching inns, and suburban tea gardens, always seeking places where the diner might ‘readily regale himself, according to the relative state of his appetite and his purse’.

Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane is deemed "a very excellent house" in the Almanack

Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane is deemed “a very excellent house” in the Almanack

Concerned not so much with fine dining as with convenience of situation and access, speed of service, and above all value for money, Rylance often mentioned prices and especially praised establishments that offered priced bills of fare, either posted on a signboard or placed on the table. Ninepence would cover a mutton chop, vegetables, and bread at the Ship Inn near the Tower, but for the same amount of money a hungry man might instead buy three roasted potatoes, served up hot and dripping with butter, at the Dolphin Tavern not far from St Paul’s. And when no menus were available he could make his choice from the sampling of ingredients and dishes exhibited in the window or a larder near the entrance, extending at one particularly grand eatery to a number of ‘fine, lively, amiable turtle’.

In addition to its brief reviews the Almanack includes chapters aimed not so much at the diner-out as the housekeeper and home cook. There is a survey of ranges, stoves, and cooking vessels, notes on the best shops for buying everything from knives to dining tables, and a list of eighteen Italian warehouses, where the keen cook could purchase herbal essences, spices, pasta, flavoured vinegars, truffles, and a host of sauces from anchovy extract to zoobditty mutch.

Covent Garden market as seen from the Hummums, 1811. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Covent Garden market as seen from the Hummums, 1811. Image property of Westminster City Archives

A trip through London’s markets follows, from the grandest (such as Leadenhall Market and Covent Garden) to the ‘very inferior’, with even a visit to the market in Duke’s Place that catered to London’s Jewish community. Finally, there is an ‘alimentary calendar’, a month by month guide to seasonal specialities, accompanied by notes on the proper choice of meat, poultry, game, and fish, together with comments on such miscellaneous topics as the methods of transporting mackerel and the merits of ‘barn-door’ chickens versus those fattened in coops.

Longman had high hopes for the Epicure’s Almanack, issuing 750 copies and projecting an annual update. But sales were slow: the promised sequel to the first edition never appeared, and at the end of 1817 the remaining Almanacks, some 450 in all, were pulped by the publisher. Today fewer than thirty copies of the original edition can be found in rare book libraries around the world, but in 2012 the text was reprinted by the British Library, illustrated with details from a contemporary map of London and accompanied by a historical introduction and extensive notes by Janet Ing Freeman.

The Epicure's Almanack, reprinted by the British Library in 2012

The Epicure’s Almanack (2012 reprint)


Janet Ing Freeman’s edition of The Epicure’s Almanack is available now from the British Library shop

Barmy baking

How do you make a cake rise? Many of us would run to the store cupboard for baking powder or bicarbonate of soda. But without these modern raising agents, how did the eighteenth-century cook make their cakes light and airy and not sink like a stone? Today’s recipes from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies offer two contrasting solutions.

The first, for plain cakes or barm (‘barren’) brack, uses the fermenting froth that forms on the top of brewing ale. This froth, known as barm, would be skimmed off and either used straight-away, or stored in sealed jars under the ground.

Barm brack is known across the world in the form of the Irish celebratory loaf báirín breac, famously eaten at New Year’s Eve and Hallowe’en. However, this cake mixture is not fruited as we would expect barm brack to be today.

Barren Brack or Plain Cakes, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Barren Brack or Plain Cakes, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To Make Plain Cakes or Barm Brack (modernised text)

Take six quarts of flour. Put to it a pint of good barm. Wet it like dough for bread and leave it to rise before the fire. Take a pound of butter rolled in flour as if to put in pastry, and a pound of sugar, an ounce of caraway seeds and a little brandy. Work them in to it with a whole grated nutmeg.

Our second recipe is simply titled ‘To make a cake without barm’

Recipe for making a cake without barm from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for making a cake without barm from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Take 4 pounds of flour, 4 of currants, 4 of white sugar, 4 of fresh butter without salt, 30 eggs well beaten with a whisk. Let the flour be well dried before the fire. 1 pint of sack or brandy, an ounce of cloves, mace, nutmegs. In all, beat the butter till it cream. With your hand, the sugar must be put to the butter by little and little, and so all the rest. The currants must be the last you put in, for it must not stand long after they are in. Put in a quarter of sliced almonds and sweet meats if you have them. Let it stand in the oven 3 hours.

The alternative to barm is… lots and lots of eggs!

If you feel your cholesterol levels rising at the thought of 30 eggs, it is worth remembering that the eggs used were a lot smaller than the ones we buy in the supermarket today. Eighteenth century eggs were roughly equivalent to bantam eggs in size. So, if you’d like to make up the recipe in your own kitchen, 10 eggs should suffice. For sweetmeats you could choose any dried or candied fruits – figs, dates or candied peel would go well.