Love your oven…more from our food history…

Something that I hadn’t really considered before reading about our food history, is the fact that in terms of our entire millennia of civilisation, ovens are really very recent. Ovens have only really become commonplace in homes in the last 100 years, prior to that everything was cooked over, or in, fires. We take our ovens for absolute granted these days, but imagine cooking everything, every part of a meal, over a fire?

Of course, open fires don’t come with heat control, you really need to know your fire to get it right. So, when you read about the huge, elaborate feasts that were being produced in medieval times, and in every century following that prior to the birth of ovens, and you consider that it was all produced over fires….that is truly amazing!!!! everything from huge roast meats to breads and cakes and sauces and vegetables, every part of the meal was cooked on a fire.

A cook of the era knew exactly which part of the fire to use for which part of the meal. And at what time the heat was optimal for whatever they were cooking. The main heat of the fire was used for roasting and boiling, and the embers were used for long slow baking and simmering.

In less grand homes, amazing home cooks perfected cooking entire meals in big cooking pots or cauldrons over fires. They wrapped different parts of the meal in cloths, or vegetables were placed in nets, and packed them into the cooking pot to cook as they needed, including meats, vegetables, dumplings and puddings. Now that’s clever.

A wooden lid was often placed over the cauldron to stop any soot falling into the pot from the chimney. Sometimes casseroles were created by using a sealed earthenware or metal pot filled with meats, herbs and vegetables, placed inside the cauldron. It was during this time, in 1660, that the first version of a pressure cooking was invented by Denys Papin, a French physicist living in London, after discovering how well food cooked in a completely sealed pot. The ‘digester’, or pressure cooker, however, didn’t become commonplace or widely used until Victorian times

The management of the fires was an art form in itself. It took energy to get a fire going so the ideal was to keep the fire going constantly, letting it reduce to embers overnight so that could be fanned into a fire again in the morning. To do this, a metal hood or ‘curfew’ was put over the embers during the night to keep them warm, and no doubt stop them spitting out embers. I guess that’s where curfew comes from?

Roast joints of meat were cooked on spits over open fires, the challenge being to keep the spit turning. In large houses, they could employ spit men to turn the spit, and for a period in the mid 1500’s there were even dogs bred to turn the spit. These small turnspit dogs had short legs and long backs, and worked in pairs taking, it in turns to walk round and round and turn a wooden dog wheel for hours on end to keep the spit turning via a pulley system. However, they didn’t last long, especially as they hid as soon as they saw the spit being loaded!

As a bread baker myself, and above is my most recent loaf, I find the cooks of the periods abilities to successfully cook breads quite amazing. The understanding of the fire was so complete that cooks knew when and how to use the fire to bake loaves, oat cakes and cakes, pastries, cheesecakes, puddings and pies. Baking is an art form in modern day, with easily controlled ovens and thermostats, imagine having none of that and producing a perfect sponge, pie, cheesecake or baked custard?

Fast forward to the second half of the 1800’s and kitchen ranges had been invented and were the newest monsters to be tamed in the kitchen. They were still based on fires and still didn’t included any temperature controls; I love these instructions from Mrs Blacks ‘Household Cookery and Laundry Work’ of 1882:

1. If a sheet of paper burns when thrown in, the oven is too hot.

2. When the paper becomes dark brown, it is suitable for pastry.

3. When light brown, it does pies.

4. When dark yellow, for cakes.

5. When light yellow, for puddings, biscuits and small pastry.

Well, what can I say?? I’m still not sure I’d feel completely confident based on those guidelines!!!!

So when you’re cooking your Sunday lunch tomorrow, give thanks for your easily managed oven, and give a nod to the cooks and chefs of our past and their amazing skills. (And thank goodness that no one need rely on a little dog to perfect their roast meats any more….!)

I hope that our fabulous co host extraordinaire, Jhuls, and everyone at this week’s Fiesta Friday enjoy more of my ramblings from the last πŸ™‚

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Love your oven…more from our food history…

  1. sallybr

    I’m loving your posts that focus on history of cooking! We do take a lot for granted, it is really hard to understand that some people won’t make food from scratch “because it’s too hard”… it’s never been so easy and convenient to pull all sorts of goodies in your own home

    amazing what cooks had to do just a few generations back!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. marymtf

    My. Mothers oven is fifty years old and the temperature numbers on the dial have worn off. I’ll have to suggest that next time, before she bakes one of her cakes she toss in a sheet of paper. πŸ™ƒ Interesting post, Elaine.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
      1. marymtf

        It does. Mum has adjusted to it and although she’s slowed down a bit, still bakes lovely cakes.
        PS your post brings new meaning to those witches in Macbeth whip stir up a bit of prophecy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary

    Have loved these posts. My Mother always cooked in and on a Coal Range – year round. To test if the oven was the correct temperature for the scones or cakes she would feel the heat of the oven handle with her hand!! If not hot enough – more coal. No temperature gauge and a boiling hot kitchen in Summer but wonderful in Winter.

    Hope you have some more of these posts coming up!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. Jhuls

    Wow! I don’t know if I could ever make anything with those guidelines – without any exact temperature. And salute to our bakers and cooks before!! Thanks for sharing this lovely post, Elaine. You always add something to our knowledge. x

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

Let me know what you think..

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.