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.

 

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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?

Fish sauce four ways

A selection of sauces for serving with fish, from our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

The Cookbook features four rather hearty recipes for wine-based sauces, each with an injection of heat from horseradish, a spicy pickle or a touch of cayenne pepper. All but one use red wine or port as a base. These hot, rich and tangy sauces may threaten to overpower the modern palate, but they were served as typical accompaniment to white fish well into the 19th century.

18th century recipe for sauce for bass, mullet or turbot, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for sauce for bass, mullet or turbot, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Sauce for Base Mullit or Turbet

Set half a pint of claret on ye fire with an onion shred, a little grose [coarse] pepper, a shillat, 2 anchoves, a little horse reddish scrape’t. Let it boyle till you think it has ye strength of ye spice, dren draw a good deal of fresh butter & mix it with yr wine. So pour it on yr fish.

18th century recipe for a fish sauce, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for a fish sauce, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Sauce for Fish Another Way

Get some strong greavy, anchoves, shillot, nutmeg, & all spice. Set ym on ye fire together. Let ym stew a good while. Then strain it & draw a good deal of fresh butter, very thick, a glass of claret or white wine, ye body & pea of a lobster, or body of a crab. Mix all together. So serve it wth pickles.

The ‘pea of a lobster’ refers to the lobster’s coral, or egg sack.

The next recipe also suggests using shellfish as a flavouring. It asks for ‘oyster’s liquor’ or ‘cockle liquor’, the residual liquid found inside the shells:

18th century recipe for a fish sauce, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for a fish sauce, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

How to Make Sauce for fish with out Gravey

Take a print of butter and brown it. Shake some flower. Then, if you have oysters liquor or cockell liquor, pour it to it, if not, clean water. Then put in anchoves, a fagot of sweet herbs, parsley. Slice thin a lemond, scrap som horse reddish, put it into half a pint of white wine. Then put in a pound or more of butter and draw it up all to gether. Great nutmeg and put it into it. So pour it on.

Our last recipe comes from the early 19th century, but draws on the same principle ingredients: a fortified red wine, shallots,  anchovies and a spicy kick from cayenne:

19th century recipe for fish sauce from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

19th century recipe for fish sauce from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Fish Sauce 

Two wineglasses of port, two of walnut pickle, half a dozen anchovies pounded, same of eshallots pounded & shied, a drachm of cayenne pepper. Let them simmer gently for ten minutes. Strain & when cold, put into bottles well corked & sealed. Twill keep a long time.

As well as a glug or two of full-bodied wine, all these recipes have another ingredient in common: the humble anchovy. This little fish has long been employed by chefs to add ‘oomph’ to sauces, and is commonly eaten used around the world in bottled condiments such as Worcestershire sauce and nam pla (Thai fish sauce). In his latest TV series, Nigel Slater featured the anchovy as a ‘secret’ ingredient for a flavoursome sauces . Our Cookbook shows that the anchovy’s potential to transform a sauce was far from secret in the Georgian era.