Thursday, 25 January 2018

Food in the Archives

‘Gett a fatt roasting pigg and cut off its head'
Walking through the strongrooms within the Borthwick, you never know quite what you will find. There is a Crown of Thorns, an ostrich egg, and a box simply labelled ‘Hair cuttings (family).’ So I was not surprised to learn that within the archive of the Wood family (later Earls of Halifax), intermingled with estate records, political journals and family correspondence, are a series of handwritten recipe books. We say ‘books,’ but in fact it is a box full of notebooks and loose sheets on which people have scribbled down recipes. While these are rarely dated, they appear to cover much of the 19th century. However, mixed in with the rest is a large, bound volume, written in by various hands, with a collection of loose sheets tucked inside, that give us a good idea of what the family ate.

As you would expect of 19th century aristocrats, the Wood family indulged in some sumptuous and
luxurious meals. One recipe provides the cook with instructions on how to boil a lobster, to be served with a fish sauce made from anchovies, onion, vinegar and horse radish. Pickled walnuts appear to have been a delicacy, as there are three separate recipes for how to prepare them. There is also a straightforward recipe for ‘Oyster Loaves.’ All the cook has to do is hollow out some French rolls, and push the oysters inside. Unfortunately for the cook, not all recipes were so effortless. The recipe for a pork dinner starts with the line: ‘Gett a fatt roasting pigg and cut off its head’!

A recipe with a drawing of a ‘little onion’ at the top
However not all of the recipes in this books are for such decadent meals. Served alongside various meats was a combination of boiled cabbage, mashed potato and onion. There are also recipes for macaroni, dumplings, and dried tongue. Those in the mood for a really humble meal would perhaps have chosen ‘Ham Toast.’ As the name suggests, this was ham on toast with a little scrambled egg on top. It may even have been served with their own home-made ‘Cetchup,’ the boiled innards of mushrooms.


Around the same time as the Wood family were eating ham toast and mashed potatoes, the girls of the Grey Coats School in York were enjoying a similar fare. Grey Coats was a charity boarding school for poor girls founded in 1705, and the kitchen account books today survive with the rest of their archive within the Borthwick. Looking through the account book for the period 1827 to 1848, it appears the girls were largely fed on meat and potatoes. Unlike the poor Wood’s cooks, these kitchen staff bought ready-made sausages and bacon, as well as tripe, pressed beef and pork pie. In the winter months, the school would consume around ninety pounds of potatoes a week; nearly two pounds per student! Oatmeal was consumed at a similar rate, and cabbage also frequently appeared on the menu.

In a later account book, plums and other fruit begin to appear.
In both sets of documents, fruit make a rare appearance. Fruit appears within a few dessert recipes
with the Wood’s documents, including ‘sweetened apricots’ (similar to stewed apples), and the particularly delicious sounding ‘French puffs’. These were made from grated apple mixed with sugar, cream, eggs, butter, flour, nutmeg and orange flower water, which was then fried.  Meanwhile, the girls of Grey Coats’ School gained their five a day from gooseberry, apple and rhubarb pies. A similar account book from the 1920s shows that the girls did later eat a wider selection of fruit, including: bananas, Seville oranges, and plums. It’s worth noting, though, that the account books feature regular payments to a gardener, as well as an annual supply of turf. It is entirely possible that the kitchen staff were growing much of the fruit served to the students, meaning it wouldn’t appear in the account book.

‘Yeast for bread’ and ‘yeast for cakes’
As may have been apparent, puddings featured heavily in the menus of both the Wood family and Grey Coats School. The school account books show weekly purchases of yeast, but ‘yeast for bread’ was costed separately to ‘yeast for cakes.’  The account book show purchases of treacle, trifle, custard powder, and a regular supply of butter and eggs specifically ‘for gingerbread’.  The Wood family also enjoyed gingerbread. Their recipes ‘Honeycomb gingerbread’ and the intriguingly named ‘Transparent gingerbread.’ Perhaps, like the fabled emperor’s coat, only those worthy of gingerbread can see it. Within the bound volume of recipes, there is not only a section dedicated to desserts and puddings, but another for cakes and yet another for creams. They flavoured cream with everything from lemon and Seville orange, to almonds and brandy. However, the most prevalent recipe within the book is rice pudding. Not only are there three different rice pudding recipes within bound volume, but multiple recipes tucked in, all written on scraps of paper in different hands, all using slightly different ingredients, and all claiming to be the ‘perfect’ rice pudding.

Recipes at the time were not solely concerned with food, and neither was the account book of Grey Coats School. Alcohol appears in both sets of records The Halifax book has a whole section dedicate to make special ‘flavours’ of wine (raspberry, gooseberry, spiced cider), while the staff at Grey Coats
A recipe for beef tea addressed to Sir F. L Wood
school were allowed to order alcohol through the kitchen. As such there are entries for ‘ale for Beswick,’ ‘port for Goot’ and ‘ale for the abbot’. Mixed in are also payments for stamps, window cleaning, ‘manure for Matron,’ and ‘cab fare to the hospital’. The very last entries in the later account book are for Morris dancing and a book on folk dancing. The Wood family, meanwhile, were quite concerned with medicine. Their recipes include formulas to cure toothache, rheumatic cramps, and ‘violent discharges,’ among others. At the end of the aforementioned creams section, there is a recipe for ‘Artificial Ape’s Milk’, an indigestion cure that would surely be necessary after all that dessert! Perhaps most touchingly, tucked into the back of the volume is a letter addressed to Sir F.L. Wood (Francis Lindley Wood (1771–1846)). It contains meticulous instructions on how to prepare beef tea, ending with the line “this is an excellent thing instead of broth for a sick person.”

These are by no means the only food-based records found at the Borthwick, but together they paint a picture of what people at both ends of society were eating in the latter half of the 19th century. On the whole, it seems to have been a diet of meat and root vegetables, but with plenty of pies, cakes and gingerbread to follow. Perhaps not the healthiest way to eat, but delicious nonetheless!

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