From feast to famine

Mrs Phillips’s Irish Stew; Hunters Pie as at Morrison’s

Here are two hearty recipes to set you up for today’s St Patrick’s Day festivities…

Nineteenth-century recipe for Mrs Phillips’s Irish stew, taken from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle

Nineteenth-century recipe for Mrs Phillips’s Irish stew, taken from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle 

Mrs Phillips’s Irish Stew

Take two pounds of mutton chops, four pounds of potatoes. Peel them and cut them in halves. Six onions peel and slice also. Put a layer of potato, first, at the bottom of your stewpan, then a couple of chops and some of the onions & so on till the pot is quite full, a small spoonful of white pepper, one and a half of salt, and three gills of broth or gravy. Cover all very close in to prevent the steam getting out. Let them stew two hours. A small slice of ham is a great improvement.

Just as fortifying is this recipe for ‘Irish Stew or Hunters Pie’, which Dr Kitchiner has taken from a Mr Morrison of the Leinster Hotel, Dublin:

Irish Stew or Hunters Pie as at Morrison’s

Take part of a neck of mutton. Cut it into chops. Season them well. Put it into a saucepan. Let it brase for half an hour. Take two dozen of potatoes, boil them, mash them and season them. Butter your mould and line it with the potatoes. Put in the mutton. Bake it for half an hour, when it will be done. Cut a hole in the top and add some gravy.

With its mashed potato crust, this dish is more commonly known to many of us as Shepherd’s Pie.

The potato had been introduced to Ireland in the mid 17th century as a delicacy for the gentry. By the early 19th century it was eaten by people of all classes, and was the staple food of the Irish poor.

Irish dependency on the potato had become a national stereotype by the early 1800s, as demonstrated by the popular song The Yorkshire Irishman or the Adventures of a Potatoe Merchant.  

Songsheet illustration for The Yorkshire Irishman by G. Nicks (1805). Image property of Westminster City Archives

Songsheet illustration for The Yorkshire Irishman by G. Nicks (1805). Image property of Westminster City Archives

The song tells of a Yorkshireman who learns from his mother that he is the son of an Irish potato grower. The song ends making a living for himself as a potato merchant in Covent Garden Market. Hard-drinking and with the gift of gab, his successful potato business sees him fulfilling the cultural destiny supposedly prescribed by his alleged parentage.

Ireland’s reliance on the potato as the staple diet of its working poor meant that the population was extremely vulnerable to harvest failures. 28 years after these recipes were first published, a  new type of potato blight ravaged Ireland’s potato harvests. Over the following decade, over 1 million people died as the result of blight, and yet more fled the famine, leaving the country and their livelihoods behind.

The story of the Great Irish Potato Famine is now told by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. You can find out more about the history of the famine by visiting their website:

Unpalatable ‘Pumeatom’

This scented ointment or pomatum is designed for use on the hair and scalp. Would you be brave enough to try it?.

Recipe for a pomade from   The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Eighteenth-century recipe for a pomade from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Pomatum (modernised spelling)

Take one pound of rendered hog’s lard, 3 ounces of mutton suet, 3 ounces of beef marrow, one ounce of virgins wax. These must be melted in an earthen pot with some alkanet root. Strain through some gauze. Put one drachm of oil of thyme, half an ounce of bergamot, one drahm oil of cloves.

Pomades like this one were used widely used for the eighteenth-century’s extravagant coiffures.

In the 1770s, the Duchess of Devonshire pioneered a craze for ‘hair towers’ among aristocratic women.

Heavily pomaded hair for a masquerade, 1773

Heavily pomaded hair for a masquerade, 1773

A thick pomatum was used to ‘set’ hair around cork and horse hair padding, creating wigs up to three feet in height. The waxy ointment also formed a good surface for applying hair powder. Once dressed in this way, the wig could be ornamented with feathers, stuffed birds, or even model ships!

The animal products in pomades – in this case hog’s lard, mutton suet and beef marrow – could attract vermin and insects, and it was not uncommon for pomaded wigs to become infested with mice or fleas.

By the 1790s the fashion had fallen out of favour, and these extravagant hairpieces were rarely seen outside of court presentations. The French Revolution was, in part, responsible for this. The hairstyle had its origins in the fashions of the French court, and in 1789 no one wanted to be associated with the perceived decadence of the French nobility.

The death knell for ladies pomaded and powdered wigs was finally sounded in 1795, with the introduction of a hair powder tax.

Biscuit basics

Savoy biscuits are known to many of us as ladyfingers, the kind of spongy biscuits still used today to create the base of English fruit trifle.

But for our unknown ladies, they were too good for sousing with sherry. Here, we find out how to make delicate, orange-flower-scented savoy biscuits that are   ‘proper with tea in an afternoon’:

An eighteenth-century recipe for Savoy biscuits or ladyfingers from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

An eighteenth-century recipe for Savoy biscuits or ladyfingers from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Savoy Biscuitts

Beat up 12 eggs, half the whites. Strow in a pd of loaf sugar, sifted. When the eggs & sugar are beat white as cream, put in 4 spoonfulls of orange flower water, a pd of the finest flower, dryed & sifted. Mix all well together. Make them into what shapes you please. Bake them on tin plates, first flowerd, in a slack oven. These are proper with tea in an afternoon.

By contrast, our ladies never suggest serving Naples biscuits with their tea. These rusk-like biscuits are closely related to the Savoy biscuit, but in our Cookbook they are always destined for the cooking pot rather than the tea tray.

Our ladies would have probably bought Naples biscuits from a local baker or confectioner. Naples biscuits were rarely prepared in the 18th century home, and there are no recipes for them in the Cookbook.  But in the hands of an able cook, this simple confection becomes a versatile ingredient.

In The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies Naples biscuits are grated and crumbled into cooking mixtures as a thickening agent. They are used in a wide range of dishes, from cheesecakes to meat pies. In this recipe for Apple Pudding, crushed Naples biscuits give body and texture to a creamy, fruity and boozy dessert:

18th century recipe for apple pudding, using Naples biscuits

18th century recipe for apple pudding, using Naples biscuits

To Make an Apple Pudding

Take twelve pipins, roast them, take out all the pulp and put 6 spoon fulls of sack, caraway seeds and sugar to your last, as much Naple biskets as the pulp. Then, take a little thick cream and then beat it up with the rest and put it into a dish, putting in severall places a good of any red or white jellys of sweet meats.

There was another use for Naples biscuits: with their long shelf life, they were perfect stock for ships stores. Travelogues, naval memoirs and correspondence from this period record the Naples biscuit as an essential component of a seafarer’s diet.

Take a calf’s bag…

In our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, the following recipe accompanies that for Mrs Hayne’s Dried Cream Cheese

Eighteenth-century recipe for liquid rennet, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Eighteenth-century recipe for liquid rennet, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

The Rennet for the Cheese

Take a calf’s bag, prick it and put half a pint of sack into it and as much in the pot where the bag lies. Then take one nutmeg and a little mace and 4 cloves, bruise them and put them in a little bag and put it into the rennet, whipping it sometimes and stirring it together. You may use it in 3 or 4 days. Then bottle it up very close to keep it. Put a spoonful and a  half in the cheese.

This recipe takes us through the preparation of liquid rennet, or ‘rennet wine’. The ‘calf’s bag’ refers to the animal’s fourth stomach compartment (the abomasum). The natural rennin produced in the stomach allows the calf to digest its mother’s milk and, when extracted, the enzyme can also be used to separate curds from whey in cheese-making.

Here, the stomach lining is soaked in a fortified wine (sack) for several days to create a liquid extract. Nutmeg, cloves and mace are also added to the mix. According to Richard Bradley’s The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director (1728), the addition of spices in this preparation would ‘strengthen’ the rennet, and lend cheese a certain sharpness or ‘briskness of taste’.

Lessons in cheesemaking with Mrs Lewis and Mrs Hayne

Have you ever made your own cheese? Cheesemaking seems to have been a common activity in the 18th century kitchen, as our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies provides us with a multitude of recipes for preparing soft cheeses. Today we’ll explore two recipes handed down from ‘Mrs Lewis’ and ‘Mrs Hayne’.

Recipe for Mrs Lewis's Cream Cheese (18th century) from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for Mrs Lewis’s Cream Cheese (18th century) from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Mrs Lewis’s Cream Cheese (modernised spelling)

Take 3 pints of water and set it on the fire, and when it is scalding hot take [off] half of the water and let the rest boil. Then take 3 pints of cream, and do with it as you did with the water, and mix them together. Then, take 3 quarts of milk and mix it with the cream and water, and when milk warm, put to it a spoonful of rennet and stir it well. When it is come, take up the curd without breaking it and lay it in the fat with a cloth over it, with a weight of half a pound at first, adding, till it comes to 2 pounds. Turn it every hour. Rub a little salt on it then lay nettles on it. Turn it every morning and night, and clean it as you turn it and put fresh nettles [on] it. It will be ripe in ten days if the weather is hot

The nettles in this recipe are used to aid the ripening process, but this natural covering would also lend its delicate flavour to the cheese.

Mrs Lewis’s recipe is thorough, and offers an insight into the time, knowledge and skill required to make good home-made soft cheese. Our second recipe today, attributed to a ‘Mrs Hayne’, is sketchier but no less fascinating.

Mrs Hayne's recipe for dried cream cheese (18th century)

Mrs Hayne’s recipe for dried cream cheese (18th century)

Mrs Hayne’s Dried Cream Cheese  (modernised spelling)

Take 12 quarts of strippings, 2 quarts of cream, 2 spoonfuls of the juice of marigolds and about a teaspoonful of rennet. So whey it and press it as you do other cheese, shifting it every half hour with dry cloths.

Mrs Hayne’s recipe asks for milk ‘strippings’, the last milk drawn from the udder, which has a high cream content.  This suggests that the recipe was written for a household keeping its own cow, or ‘neat’.

The area north of Oxford Street was barely developed in the mid 18th century. (Section of John Rocque map, 1746)

The area north of Oxford Street was barely developed in the mid 18th century. (Section of John Rocque map, 1746)

It is quite likely that the ‘unknown ladies’ who compiled our cookbook lived in households that kept a number of domestic animals, or even managed a small farm. But even with this land and rustic lifestyle, they could quite easily have been living in and around London. By the mid 18th century, much of the Parish of St Marylebone still consisted of fields, common land and small rural settlements. London’s urban development petered out half-way along Tottenham Court Road, as shown in John Rocque’s map of 1746.

For flavouring and colouring, Mrs Hayne’s dried cream cheese adds marigold juice. Another key ingredient is rennet, an essential ingredient for separating curds from whey in the cheesemaking process. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how this rennet would have been made…

Rhubarb rhubarb…

This image, taken from William Marshall Craig’s Itinerant Traders of London (1804), shows a man in Turkish garb, selling rhubarb in Russell Square.

Rhubarb seller from William Craig's Itinerant Traders of London, 1804

Rhubarb seller from William Craig’s Itinerant Traders of London, 1804

His wares are carried in a wooden box which hangs from his shoulders, and in his hand he carries a small pair of scales.

His trade was in rheum palmatum – Chinese or Turkey rhubarb. This rhubarb was not destined for the dining table, as in the spring fruit recipes we looked at yesterday, but rather sold dried as a medicine.  Well known for its purgative and antibacterial qualities, dried rhubarb root was commonly used as a laxative.

Rheum rhabarbarum (edible rhubarb) started to be used in English kitchens from the end of the 18th century, when sugar became more affordable.

In 1815, the accidental discovery of the ‘forcing’ technique at Chelsea Physic Garden led to another boost in its popularity. ‘Forcing’ extended the rhubarb season by several months, and gave a product with a sweeter flavour.  Today, forced rhubarb is best known as Yorkshire produce, but it is interesting to find that it has its ‘roots’ in London.

A savoury soup (and other nineteenth-century rhubarb recipes)

Spring Fruit Pudding, Spring Fruit Tart and Spring Fruit Soup

Today’s recipes are all drawn from Dr William Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle, which was first published in 1817.

Our Cookbook contains transcriptions of several of Dr Kitchiner’s ‘spring fruit’ recipes, all of which use rhubarb as the main ingredient.

Some of the rhubarb recipes would not look out of place on a dining table today. Spring Fruit Tart sees the rhubarb sweetened with loaf sugar before being covered with pastry and baked in the oven. There are also Spring Fruit Pudding recipes, in which the rhubarb is flavoured with spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg), reduced over heat with sugar, and combined with eggs and butter before being baked in pastry.

Recipe for a rhubarb tart from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for a rhubarb tart from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

However, the recipe that really caught our eye is one for a savoury soup:

Spring Fruit Soup

Peel and well wash four dozen sticks of rhubarb. Blanch it in water three or four minutes, drain it on a sieve and put it into a stewpan with two onions sliced, a carrot, an ounce of lean ham and a good bit of butter. Let it stew gently over a slow fire till tender. Then, put in two quarts of good consommé, to which add two or three ounces of bread crumbs. Boil about fifteen minutes, skim off all the fat, season with salt and Cayenne. Pass through a sieve and serve with fried bread.

The recipe has found its way into the modern cooking repertoire courtesy of Jane Grigson (Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, 1982). Grigson takes the recipe not from Kitchiner, but from 1930s cookery writer Ruth Lowinsky, who had included the dish in her menu for a “dinner to impress your publisher and make him offer ridiculous sums for the privilege of printing your next book”!

It is fascinating to find that this recipe of 1823 has survived the best part of two centuries with no alterations to quantities, flavourings or method.