I‘m lucky enough to live in an old and rather beautiful home. It’s Tudor, with the oldest part dating back to around 1500, although like most houses of its sort it’s been altered and added to over the centuries. We have witch marks on the beams, elaborate Elizabethan chimneys and parchment-written deeds which, sadly though responsibly, the previous owner donated to the county records office for their preservation.
Living here has increased my interest in historical recipes and I thought it would be good to recreate some in a way that reflects the house and the periods it has lived through. We’re situated on a Roman road, too, so at a stretch I could go right back to Apicius. Dormice stuffed with pork and nuts, anyone? A step too far perhaps. I’m not sure modern sensibilities could cope with a rose-flavoured custard containing calf’s brains, either. Let’s fast forward to the 16th century for now.
The plan is to start there, then move forward at roughly half century intervals. But you know how it is with time machines, you can’t always set the dial that accurately, so we may be jumping about a bit.
And these recipes often take a lot of work to convert them to something we can all cook in our modern kitchens. The earliest were more of an aide memoir to the chefs than the precise instructions we’d expect from a modern cookery book.
The oldest English manuscript, a scroll written on vellum, is The Forme of Cury (Cookery), written by Richard II’s master chefs around 1390. It includes a fabulous recipe for goose stuffed with herbs, quince and pears. Clarissa Dickson-Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame once had a crack at it for television. It’s actually quite detailed for a recipe of its time, cooking times and temps excepted, but it predates our house. Sorry. Maybe nearer Christmas when I’m in goose-smiting mode (watch the video).
Elizabethan recipes might tell you to cook something at the temperature you’d use for manchet bread, which takes you down the rabbit holes of flour refining, class (manchet bread was usually reserved for the wealthy) and quite a bit of guesswork regarding wood-fired bread ovens. Just for fun, here’s a Pathé film of a Suffolk bakery still operating a ye olde bread oven in the 1960s.
Cooking over open fires, in said bread ovens or over charcoal braziers meant our ancestors could make sophisticated food, but their techniques were necessarily different and they assumed a basic knowledge on the part of the reader of their day which has been largely lost over time.
The food historian Ivan Day, who successfully replicated many of the old cooking methods at his home in Cumbria, reckons their roasts were infinitely better than ours: essentially we bake meat, we don’t roast it, outdoor spit-roasting excepted (and some of us don’t do that very well).
It’s really not until we get to Eliza Acton in 1845 that we see recipes laid out more or less the way we have them today, and even then she was using very different ovens, so she doesn’t exactly say ‘bake for 40 minutes at 180C fan’.
Most of us are cooking in modern kitchens with electric, gas or maybe oil-fired stoves, so the old recipes need to be adapted. Tastes change, too, so we’ll habitually use a lot less sugar and spice than our forebears, especially in meat dishes, and refrigeration means we don’t need to salt some foodstuffs as heavily. I once followed to the letter one of Miss Acton’s recipe for sausages. She’s normally a heroine of mine but by our standards they were unpalatable.
It’s a question of experimentation and interpretation. Bear with me while I cock things up, re-cook and refine the recipes. This will, therefore, be an occasional series rather than a weekly event and Mrs Portly will still be making 21st century dishes, too, when she can take time out from starching her apron and goffering her ruff.
I think it’ll be an interesting and entertaining project, though, and maybe a springboard for a new class when the cookery school re-opens post-Covid. Are you along for the ride? Hop on board Mrs Portly’s time machine.