A masterclass in simplicity

One of the tenets of modern gastronomy is simplicity: allowing good ingredients to take centre stage.

Today’s recipes reveal the Georgians as the masters of this art. There are no lengthy lists of ingredients, complicated cooking processes or extravagant proposals for presentation. Instead, we are offered a masterclass in moderation, as even the cheapest meat and fish are given the space to shine on the plate. 

The first recipe, for lamb stove or stew, comes from William Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle. With a little parsley and onion and a good helping of spinach and beef stock, lamb’s head and lungs are turned into a warming winter stew:

Regency recipe for Lamb Stove. Our unknown ladies borrowed this recipe from Kitchiner's Cook's Oracle

Regency recipe for Lamb Stove. Our unknown ladies borrowed this recipe from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle

Lamb Stove or Lamb Stew

Take a lambs head & lights. Open the jaws of the head and wash them thoroughly. Put them in pot with some beef stock made with three quarts of water and two pounds of shin of beef strained. Boil very slowly for an hour. Wash and string two or three good handfuls of spinach. Put it in twenty minutes before serving. Add a little parsley & one or two onions a short time before it comes off the fire. Season with pepper & salt & serve in a tureen.

Next comes herring pie, a simple dish of seasoned herrings, onion and butter in a puff pastry shell:

18th century recipe for 'Herring Pye' from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for ‘Herring Pye’ from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Herring Pye

Season yr herrings with pepper & salt. Put a good deal of sliced onion with then & good store of butter. Soe bake them in puff paste & eat them hot.

And finally, water souchy. The dish’s curious name comes from the Dutch waterzootje, and it seems possible that this soup may have become enshrined in the English culinary repertoire around the time of William of Orange’s accession to the throne in 1689. Today, the Belgians still enjoy a traditional fish stew known as waterzooi.

The version of water souchy given in our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies is another recipe taken from Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle. Flounder, whiting, gudgeon and eel are suggested as suitable fish varieties for the soup, but other fish could also be used according to availability: 

William Kitchiner's recipe for water souchy, a fish broth, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

William Kitchiner’s recipe for water souchy, a fish broth, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Water Souchy

Is made with flounders, whitings, gudgeons or eels. They must be quite fresh & nicely cleaned, for what they are boiled in makes the sauce. Wash, gut & trim your fish. Cut them into handsome pieces. Put them into a stewpan with as much water as will cover them, with some parsley, an onion minced, a little pepper & salt. Some add scraped horseradish and a bay leaf. Skim it carefully when it boils. When done enough, (which will be in a few minutes) send it up in a deep dish with bread sippets and some slices of bread & butter on a plate.


Potted salmon with warming spices

This potted baked salmon is flavoured with cloves, mace and nutmeg: spices we’ve come to closely associate with the culinary world of our Unknown Ladies:

This potted salmon recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies produces a fish dish with distinctive 18th century flavours

This potted salmon recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies produces a fish dish with distinctive 18th century flavours

To Pot Salmon

Take a side of salmon & take all the skin of & chop it very fine with half a pnd of fresh butter. Then take half an ounce of cloves & mace, a nutmeg, half an ounce of pepper, a large ounce of salt. So season yr fish and put it in to a small close pot and let it bake an hour & half exactly. Then strain all the liquor very dry from it & then cover it with drawn butter for your use.

The melted butter which is used to cover the fish would set upon cooling, sealing the potted salmon from the air. This way, the salmon could be kept in a cool place for several days: far longer than a fresh, untreated fish ever could.

The product of this recipe is a rich, buttery fish dish, which would work very well warmed up and spread on toast. Our Cooking Up History team have come across similar spice combinations many times now: in almond puddings, as well as in veal florentine and citrus dumplings. For some of them, cloves, mace and nutmeg ‘tasted of Christmas’. So here’s an idea: why not ditch the smoked salmon blinis and mackerel pâté at your Christmas party this year, and make 18th century style potted salmon the talking point of your festive table?

Stewed oysters on toast

Oysters were extremely popular in the Georgian era and, selling for remarkably low prices, were enjoyed by people at all levels of society. The unknown ladies behind our Cookbook certainly had a taste for them – we’ve seen them serve oysters in soups, bake them in bread rolls and add them to pies in their hundreds.

Here, they set out how to make a simple repast of stewed oysters on toast:

Method for stewing oysters from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Method for stewing oysters from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

How to Stew Oysters

Take an hundred of large oysters unopened, save all their own liquor. Pick out all splinters from them. Put them in a stew pan with an anchovy shred, half a nutmegg grated, a few blades of mace, half a pint of white wine. Sett to stew on ye fire slowly till ye oysters are done. Then, take half a pint of sweet cream that has been first boyld & is cold. Put in to a lump of butter roll’d in flowere. Toss these up with y oysters, shakeing them well untill ye flower is not raw. Let them get a boyle or two together. Take care it is not burnd. [Serve] them with white bread sippits toas[t]ed under them.

Oysters for everyone!

Oysters today are considered a delicacy and the reserve of the rich. Back in the 18th century however, they were served up liberally and savoured by all levels of society. London’s many shellfish shops often offered an ‘oyster room’ where their wares could be sampled on site, and oyster-men did the rounds of the city’s theatres and public houses, selling produce from the oyster-beds of the Kent and Essex coasts. The shores of the Thames are still littered with oyster shells, discarded by Georgian Londoners at a time when the shellfish were considered fast, cheap food.

Whitstable is a fishing town that has that supplied the London markets for centuries. This weekend, hosts of Londoners will be making the journey over to Whitstable harbour for the start of the town’s annual Oyster Festival. It seems a fitting occasion to explore a couple of oyster dishes from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

The recipes below each call for a hundred oysters, making them expensive dishes by today’s standards! While our unknown ladies’ oyster loaves recipe sees each crusty roll stuffed with 16 of the shellfish, Paul Hollywood’s modern version on the BBC website is scaled down to suit 21st century wallets.


This 18th century recipe for oyster loaves calls for 100 oysters!

This 18th century recipe for oyster loaves calls for 100 oysters!

To Make Oyster Loaves

Take half a dozen of French roules, cut of the top of the crust about the breadth of a shilling piece and scoop out all the crum and be sure not to breake the crust. Then take a hundred of oysters, open them and wash them very well in […] their own liquor. Then take the oysters and some crums of bread and two spoonfulls of their own liquor and a bout half a pint of white wine. Take some mace and cloves and a little nutmeg and pound them in a morter and put all these in your sause pan and stir them all together. When you find your oysters prity well stued, then take three prints of butter drawn very thick, put into your oysters. Take your Frensh roules and fry them in fresh butter, very crisp. Then put your oysters into them. Then put on the tops which you cutt of and keep them very hot till you serve them up.

Our second recipe is for an ‘oyester pye’. This is a hearty dish: oysters, sweetbreads, boiled eggs and chestnuts are just a few of the ingredients:

Extract from an 18th century recipe for "oyester pye" from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Extract from an 18th century recipe for “oyester pye” from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

An Oyester Pye

Take an hundred of the largest oysters you can get. Wash them, when opend, in […] warm water. Strain all ther own liquor and put ye water yow wash ye oysters in likewise. Cut two large sweet breads in small bits. Have an half hundred bouled chesnuts peeled, six yolks off hard eggs, two anchovys shred, some lumps of whole marrow. Intermix all these in ye pye. Pour on ye liquor & a water glass full of white wine. Fill ye pye with what liquor it wants, with greawy. If you have not marrow, put in butter. Seasone it with salt, mace and cloves.