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.


Pumpkin inspiration from a Regency kitchen

The supermarkets are full of pumpkins for Halloween. If you’re not one for jack-o’-lanterns you can still join in the fun… Here are four tasty Regency dishes from our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, all of them perfect for using up small pumpkins or squashes: 

Early 19th century recipe for a warming gourd stew

Early 19th century recipe for a warming gourd stew

Gourds (or Vegetable Marrow) Stew

Take off all the skin of six or eight gourds. Put them into a stewpan with water, salt, lemon juice and a bit of butter or fat bacon. Let them stew gently till quite tender and serve up with a rich Dutch sauce or any other.

This recipe for Gourd Soup was transcribed into The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies from Kitchiner's The Cook's Oracle.

This recipe for Gourd Soup was transcribed into The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies from Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle.

Gourd Soup

Should be made of full grown gourds but not those that have hard skins. Slice three or four and put them in a stewpan with two or three onions and a good bit of butter. Set them over a slow fire till quite tender. Be careful not to let them burn. Then add two ounces of crust of bread and two quarts of good consommé. Season with salt & Cayenne. Boil ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. Skim off all the fat, pass through a tammis. Make it quite hot & serve up with fried bread.

Regency recipe for fried gourds in breadcrumbs, borrowed from William Kitchiner's Cook's Oracle for the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

Regency recipe for fried gourds in breadcrumbs, borrowed from William Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle for the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

Fried Gourds

Cut five or six gourds in quarters. Take off the skin and pulp. Stew them in the same manner as for the table. When done, drain them quite dry. Beat up an egg and dip the gourds in it, and cover them well over with bread crumbs. Make some lard hot and fry them a nice colour. Throw a little salt & pepper over them and serve up quite dry.

These pumpkin slices are fried in hot lard and seasoned with salt and pepper: a tasty Regency treat from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

These pumpkin slices are fried in hot lard and seasoned with salt and pepper: a tasty Regency treat from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

Fried Gourds Another Way

Take six or eight small ones nearly of a size. Slice them with a cucumber slice. Dry them in a cloth and then fry them in very hot lard. Throw over a little pepper & salt and serve up on a napkin. If the fat is hot they are done in a minute and will soon spoil.

Shin of beef stewed

As southern Britain is buffeted by strong, wintry winds, here’s some hearty, comforting fare to warm us up:

Shin of beef stewed: a Regency recipe by William Kitchiner, transcribed here in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Shin of beef stewed: a Regency recipe by William Kitchiner, transcribed here in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Shin of Beef Stewed

Have the bone sawed into three or four pieces. Just cover it with water. When it simmers, skim it clean. Then put in a bundle of sweet herbs, an onion, a head of celery, a dozen berries of allspice, same of black pepper. Stir very gently for about four hours. Boil till tender some carrots, turnips & button onions. About fifteen minutes will do. Carrots twice as long cut in dices. When the beef is ready, thicken a pint & half of the gravy. To do this, mix three tablespoonsful of flour with a teacup full of the broth. Stir it well together. Scum & strain. Put your vegetables in it to warm, season. Make soup of the rest as directed for Bouilli…

It’s a while since we last took a look at one of William Kitchiner‘s Regency recipes, which our unknown recipe compilers lifted from his domestic manual The Cook’s OracleThis method for stewed beef is another fine example of how Kitchiner’s work paved the way for writers such as Isabella Beeton later in the 19th Century. His recipes often betray the same concern for good household management for which Beeton herself would become famous. Here, he puts the leftovers to good use by turning them into a Bouilli Soup:

Kitchiner's recipe for Soup Bouilli, written into The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Kitchiner’s recipe for Soup Bouilli, written into The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Soup Bouilli

Cover your meat [with water] and a quart more, set it on a quick fire to get the scum up, which take off, then put in 2 carrots, turnips, onions, heads of celery, some parsley and sweet herbs. Set it by the side of the fire to simmer gently for 4 or 5 hours. Put a large carrot and turnip, an onion into the soup whole and some whey. Take them out when done enough, and when cold cut them in square. Strain the soup into a clean stewpan, remove the fat & warm the vegetables in it. If you thicken the soup, take 4 large tablespoonsful of the clear fat from the top of the pot and 4 spoonsful of flour. Mix it smooth together by degrees. Stir it into the soup, which simmer ten minutes longer at least. Skim it well and strain, then add the vegetables. Ox tails and heels make excellent soup. Two hours will do the first, the meat to be taken off the bone.

Nutritious, economical and full of flavour… what’s not to like?

A turnip rice and noodle soup

When the BBC broadcast its famous spaghetti tree hoax for April Fool’s Day 1957, it revealed how little the British knew about the source of so-called ‘exotic’ foods such as pasta. Thousands of viewers were taken in by the report, which showed strings of spaghetti being harvested from trees in Italy before being laid out to dry in the sun. The day after the broadcast, the Corporation was inundated with queries about spaghetti cultivation.

It may come as some surprise, then, that our Georgian ancestors were fairly well versed in the finer points of pasta. This recipe for turnip soup calls for vermicelli: thin, cylindrical strings of pasta (the Italian term translates as ‘little worms’). The pasta both thickens the broth and adds interesting texture. Think of this dish as an 18th century rice and noodle soup, or perhaps a turnip minestrone…

Turnip Soop

Take 12 large turnips & 2 heads of cabbage cut small & slice ye turnips, 4 onions. Fry the turnips & onions in butter, put all down & some pepper, allspice & a large handfull of rice, a bunch of sweet herbs & parsley & 8 qrt of water. Let these stew close cover’d over a slow fire till it coms to 3 qrts. Than have some raw turnips cut small, a little vermicelly stewed tender. Strain the soop over it, give them a boyle together, season it with salt. So serve it up.

‘Sheeps head soop’

This could be considered the perfect Georgian dish: economical and flavoursome, dished up with a strong (albeit a little gruesome) performance element.

Recipe for sheep’s head soup, part 1: "Take the sheeps head and put it down with as much water as will cover it..."

Opening of our Unknown Ladies’ recipe for sheep’s head soup: “Take the sheeps head and put it down with as much water as will cover it…”

A Sheeps Head Soop

Take the sheeps head & put it down with as much water as will cover it, a faggot of sweet herbs, a little all spice & pepper. Let it stew softly till the head be very tender. Then, take up the head & strain the broth & have 2 or 3 onions cut small & an head of white cabbage cut small. Put these in the broth & let it stew till it be very tender. Than have a qrt of new milk boyled, the yolks of 2 eggs brewed in it. Stir this into the soop. You must have one side of the head kept very hot & serve it in the middle of the soop. Put a little salt in.

The method is quite straightforward. The sheepshead is stewed in water with herbs, spices and seasoning until the meat is tender and its juices have flavoured the broth. The head is then taken out, and onions and cabbage are added to the remaining liquid. When the vegetables are tender, a custard-like mixture of hot egg yolks and milk is poured in to thicken and enrich the soup.

The soup is now just about ready for serving, but there’s one final step to both visually amaze the diner and add some meaty textures to the dish. Half the sheeps head, which has been kept hot, is lowered into the serving dish and the rich soup is poured in around it. Then a sprinkle of salt, and it’s ready for the table.

This soup may not be to many modern British diners’ tastes, but there is no denying that nutritionally, economically and as a theatrical pièce de résistance, it is hard to beat!

Portable soup

Portable soup was the Regency equivalent of the modern-day stock cube.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that companies such as Oxo started mass-producing dehydrated stock. Before then, most households had prepared fresh stock from scratch and, in cases where a preserved supply was needed, made their own cubes of ‘portable soup’. This recipe, transcribed from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle, shows how it was done:

A Regency recipe for 'portable soup', transcribed into The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies from Kitchiner's Cook's Oracle

A Regency recipe for ‘portable soup’, transcribed into The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle

Portable Soup or Glaze

Break the bones of a leg or shin of beef, 10 lbs weight. Put it in a digester, cover it with cold water, set it on the fire to heat gradually till it nearly boils. This should be an hour. Skim carefully, pour in a little cold water to throw up the rest. Let it boil again and again. Skim carefully when it appears clear (put in neither roots, herbs nor salt). Let it boil for eight or ten hours and then strain into a brown stone pan. Set the broth where it will cool quickly. Put the meat into a sieve. Let it drain – make potted beef – next day remove every particle of fat from the top and pour it through a fine sieve, as quietly as possible, into a stewpan, taking care not to let any of the settlings go into the stewpan. Add a quarter of an ounce of whole black pepper. Let it boil briskly, uncovered, on a quick fire. Take off all scum when it begins to thicken & is reduced to about a quart. Put it in a smaller stewpan, set it over a gentle fire till reduced to the thickness of a very thick syrup. Take care it does not burn. Try a little out in a spoon. If it sets into jelly, it is done. If not, boil a little till it does. Have some little pots an inch & half deep. Take care they are quite dry.

The ‘digester’ in which this jellied stock would have been prepared was a forerunner of today’s pressure cookers, and would have certainly helped to speed up the cooking down of the beef bones. Nevertheless, preparing portable soup was a laborious process. As it formed, the stock needed to be regularly skimmed of fat – the smallest amount could otherwise turn rancid over time and badly affect the taste of the finished product.

Prepared with care and stored in a dry place, this kind of jellied bouillon could be kept for some time. When needed, the cubes would be quickly reconstituted into soup with the addition of boiling water, herbs and seasoning. Who needs Pot Noodle when you have portable soup?

Green peas or white peas: take your pick!

Two contrasting recipes for pea soups. The first, for a “green pease soope” is bursting with spring flavours: cucumber, spearmint, as well as freshly-picked peas…

Recipe for "green pease soope" from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for “green pease soope” from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Green Pease Soope

Take 3 quarts of peas & 5 quarts of water. Boyle yr pease, bruse them & strain them through a hair sive. Take a pottle of raw peas, pound them fine and put them your peas liquor and give them one boyl. Then strain it through a hair seive into a tossing pan & put som pounded peper, mace, some parsly & a good deal of speremint shred small & 2 skallians, one handfull of whole peas, two large cucumbers slict. Let all boyle slow for an hour, then stir in a qr of a pound of butter, a qr of a pint of sweet cream first boyl’d. Stir all well together & put in the bottoms of three harty Choaks boyl’d & cut in square peices. Stir it all one way. If yr soop be nt thick enough, put in a lump of butter rouled in flower.

The term scallion is still used in North America for what we in Britain call spring onions. The ‘pottle’ refers to the container in which the peas were bought from a market or street vendor. And for three harty Choaks read “three artichokes”!

Our second recipe is for a white pea soup. Dried split peas would be a good substitute for the white peas. This is a much heartier soup, with warmth from the bacon, fried bread and beetroot. There’s no need to thicken this one with butter and flour. If anything it is “apt to grow too thick”, so if you do give it a go, take care not to leave it on the stove too long:

"White Pease Soope": a recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

“White Pease Soope”: a recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

White Pease Soope

Take a pottle of good white pease & 5 qrts of water. Let yr pease be put in the water, cold, & let them boil till the are soft but dont break them at all. Then pour the broth from them very cleer & cut some salery small & som lettice & some spearmint & the ends of 2 o 3 leeks & some spinage & beets & some parsley. Cut all these very small & stew them in half a pnd of butter in a sauce pan, very soft. Then put them in yr pease broth & a qrt of strong gravy & a good deal of pounded mace & a little pepper. Give these a boil or 2 together, stirring them well & have some small rashers of bacon & bread fryed & laid in the bottom of your dish. Pour yr soope over them. You must take care yr pease be very clear. You must let it stew a very little while for it will be apt to grow too thick.