Mrs Portly’s Time Machine

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).

Pic: Made In East Anglia

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).

Pic: Made In East Anglia

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.

44 thoughts on “Mrs Portly’s Time Machine

  1. Oh, this sounds great fun. I actually have a family receipt book with the odd item dating back to the days when ‘s’ was often styled as ‘f’. And also, many were for methods of cleaning the inevitably sooty houses our forbears lived in. Time to dig it out again and share a few recipes I think. In my case, I may or may not update them for modern sensibilities.

    • Oh, I’m so envious! Do please share some recipes on your blog. The oldest handwritten one we have is my mother-in-law’s from when she was a medical student … recipes on one side of the and gruesome sketches of internal organs on the other!

  2. PS. Our (rented) home was actually built for the lay brothers of Fountains Abbey in the 13th century. They were here at this outpost rearing sheep. Little is left from that time, but … just enough.

  3. What a lovely post! And I’m green with envy at your house. I’d give my gammy legs to live in a period house.
    Old cookery books are amazing, aren’t they? When I was a child, I bought my Mum the Mrs Beeston cookery book, thinking she’d love it. And then realising I’d made a massive mistake when there was a lot of hilarity over roasting a suckling pig!
    Thank you for the lovely history lesson.
    PS. Apropos of nothing to do with your post, one of my chickens laid the biggest egg I’ve ever had in the 10 years I’ve kept poultry – 103g!! I think that’ll count for two eggs in any of my future projects.

    • Thank you, Alison. I have to confess it’s a tricky house for gammy legs, so many steps, levels and uneven floors! We’ll be getting to Mrs Beeton in due course, will keep you posted. And wow, I hope that hen’s recovered from laying such a whopper. 🙂

      • Ah…I didn’t think about the uneven floors.
        But, still, your house sounds amazing. Do you have a resident ghost?
        And I’m so embarrassed by my error – “Beeston” instead of Beeton. It’s because I live near Beeston in Cheshire. Blame the meds 😳
        The chicken is more duck-like…she’s waddling 🤣

      • I’d be waddling too. No, no ghosts, but if there were any they’d be benign. The house has a lovely welcoming atmosphere. And don’t worry about the typo, you should see my Instagram feed. Naturally, I blame the keyboard, built for fairies. 🙂

  4. Thank you for such an interesting post. I used to live near Bakestone pit. The stones were used to heat up and place underneath pies and bread. Pretty much like a pizza stone is used now.

      • In a village called Delph which is in the area of Saddleworth on the Lancashire /Yorkshire border

      • Ah! Thanks. I’ve just been reading up on havercakes … interesting. Wonder if one could replicate the cooking method with a pizza stone? Although it might be easier to use the Aga!

  5. I’m along for the ride. Right up my alley so to speak. Can you imagine all the work it took? And in long flowing dresses. I’m always struck by the long tables and the elaborate table settings, not that all homes had them. My oldest cookbooks came from an aunt. Purity, Robin Hood. I remember smaller versions of this recipes printed in thin books that usually showed up around Christmas. My mom always made their shortbread and Christmas cakes. I thought the smaller version cookbooks amazing and magical. I look forward to your travels.

    • Thanks! The mind boggles, given some of the underwear the Victorians in particular wore. Is that Purity Mills? And I’m assuming the Robin Hood reference is to a Canadian publisher rather than a man in tights? This series is going to be fascinating, it’s already taking me in all sorts of interesting directions.

  6. I think I would stick with the aga,. I have seen racks rather like clothes airers used to dry them.
    When my sons were teenagers, they would come home from school, grab an oatcake and wrap it around a hunk of cheese. Ten seconds in the microwave made the cheese gooey and ouze through the the holes. Perfect instant food for those times when I had a big shop and they had a big eat.

  7. Really interesting – I’ll be fascinated to see what you make.
    Reminds me of when I worked in a Junior School and we used to do small school trips to Clarke Hall near Wakefield. The children wore old fashioned clothes there and we made marzipan, orange pomanders etc but also cooked hunks of meat on spits over an open fire. The children turned the spits and the meat used to be delicious. Happy days!
    Your house is indeed very lovely.

  8. How fascinating, thank you Linda ~ really looking forward to your historical posts! I live near ‘Kentwell Hall’ in Suffolk, they regularly have Tudor re-enactments, I love it. The dairy is very peaceful with the lapping of the cream being made into butter, the kitchen is busy with meat roasting over the fire and other various treats being cut and made. The brewery is next to the bakehouse and outside pottage is made and it smells so good.

    • I’ve been there too, for one of their Tudor days. Absolutely fascinating – I wanted to sit down at the table and tuck into the food! Glad you like the idea of the series, I look forward to your thoughts in due course. Lx

  9. I’m definitely hopping on. Many years ago, I made my other half a birthday meal with each course from a different period, starting with something from Apicius, though I can’t remember just what. Not dormouse, that’s for sure.

  10. Coincidentally, just watching S4 of GBBO and they’re discussing Hannah Glass, born into 18th C. aristocracy, but ran away aged 16, to marry a soldier. She sank all her money into ‘The Art of Cookery’, a book for “fine dining for the middle classes”, but creating revolutionary dishes on a sixpence.
    She invented jelly – using calf’s foot jelly. And continued on from this by inventing the humble trifle.
    How Trivial Pursuit is that?!
    And a book for you to order from your local Suffolk library 😂

  11. Just wondering if in the current situation we find ourselves and seeing how many people are interesting in the historical side of cookery ~ would it be possible to do an online course?

    • It’s a possibility. I’d like to do more research and refine a series of do-able recipes before I consider it, though. Not to mention becoming au fait with Zoom. 🙂

      • Sounds great although I can’t say I like zoom ~ was envisaging email with a little history and a recipe to try out with some photos? For which recipients would pay? Anyway………will look forward to hearing what you come up with, I will certainly be interested. Pippa

  12. I’m looking forward to your historical recipes, Linda. As you may know I’m fascinated by culinary history. Don’t know very much about English cookery, but I’m eager to learn. And how lucky you are to be living in a Tudor house. And thanks to that, TIL what a “witch mark” is…

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