Tag Archives: food history

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 🙂

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The foods of our past…

I have recently been reading a lot about English food history. It started with an interest in the Victorian era and has developed on from there, and I have now finished my second book about English food history from medieval times to modern day. I find it truly fascinating and I am reminded time and again that nothing is new; no recipe is ever 100% original: we may revise, remodel, recreate, we may update, rediscover old recipes, forgotten ingredients and lost methods, and we apply new methods, modern appliances and ideas, but nothing is ever truly brand new. Food’s been around for too long.

I am loving making these ‘new’ discoveries and learning about our food heritage, so I’d like to share a few fascinating facts in amongst my posts and I hope you enjoy them.

For example, as you know, I love Middle Eastern cuisine and in the UK the recent boom in interest in Middle Eastern cuisine may be responsible for introducing many people to having pomegranate seeds being strewn across salads and savoury dishes, above is an example of one of my past dishes doing just that, as opposed to merely eating them as fruit or in a sweet recipe; I had no idea that we actually grew pomegranates in the UK in medieval times. Likewise, Middle Eastern fare has also introduced many people to the delights of dried barberries, like below, and again, we grew barberries in the UK in medieval times and they were used widely in recipes.

Sweet potatoes have been riding a huge wave in recent years, we’ve baked them, made them into fries and wedges, they’ve been put into cakes and breads and desserts, slices have been toasted, anything that can be done to a potato has been, but the reality is that they’re not new. The methods are new, but not the potatoes. Sweet potatoes are actually the first potatoes that we ate in the UK in the late 1500’s, (and even then they were being cooked with spices and added sugar), white potatoes were introduced soon after but their full popularity didn’t catch on until the early years of the 17th century.

Almond flour, almond paste, almond milk, almond butter – so much the remit of healthy eating these days – again, nothing new here; in medieval times all of these were used widely in cooking, not for boosting health, but for ease. Almond flour was used widely to thicken sauces or in place of breadcrumbs; almond milk was a safer bet than some dairy milk, it also kept for longer, and was sometimes more easily accessible; likewise with almond butter, instead of dairy butter during a period when storing fresh foodstuffs for any period of time was impossible.

For this post, I’d like to focus a bit more on bread…anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, or follows me on Instagram, will know that I am an avid and regular sourdough baker so the ‘rise and fall’ of bread in our food history always interests me…

Bread has featured heavily in every era of British food history, in various forms, as with most cultures and their food histories. In England in medieval times, and for several centuries following, white bread was considered king. The best loaves were considered to be white ‘manchet’ loaves and would have been readily enjoyed by the gentry and aristocracy, and aspired to by those with less means. To achieve this though, bread was often being whitened by unscrupulous bakers for centuries, adding lime, chalk and particularly alum as a bleach. And as industrial knowledge grew and milling capabilities advanced, the wheat germ was being milled out of the grain to make it even whiter, but therefore vastly reducing the breads nutritional value at a time when bread was a key staple of the nations diet.

Down the social scale, breads were often made up of a mix of wheats and grains, depending on what was available, and when their availability was limited, loaves could be boosted by pea powders. When wheat and grain harvests were very poor, whole loaves might be made from peas and beans, so whilst white bread was considered the height of sophistication, it lacked the nutrition, and I imagine flavour, that the bread that the poorer people were being given.

When you think of the rise of artisan bread makers we currently have, and the supposedly experimental breads that are being made with ancient grains, you realise again, that nothing is new. The mixed grain loaves that were considered as breads for the poor would now be considered the better choice by many – I know I’d happily choose a brown or mixed grain loaf over a straight white one. And the use of pea powders is very interesting – current interest for pea protein powders, and beans being used to bake cakes and breads seems so innovative, but they’re not. Which makes you realise just how creative cooks were all those hundreds of years ago.

What I also loved learning about, is the use of ‘trenchers’: these are basically bread plates.

Prior to the ceramic plates that we know today, our ancestors used pewter plates; before that, in Tudor times they used thin wooden boards to eat off…but before ALL of them, in Medieval times, people ate off bread trenchers. These were slices of bread cut especially to be used to eat off. Four-day-old coarse wholemeal bread was cut into 2-3 inch thick slices, about 6 inches wide, and diners placed their meat on the trencher. Alternatively, the trenchers could be hollowed out loaves, much like we sometimes see creative people using to serve soup nowadays.

In grander homes, if the trencher became saturated it was replaced with a new one and the sodden one was thrown to the dogs, or they were collected and given as alms to the poor. In poorer homes the diner ate the trencher as well as part of their meal.

Can you imagine how good that bread must have tasted with the juices of the food soaked into them?

Which is why this fascinates me in particular because in the Middle East if you eat in a Lebanese restaurant, for example, you will often be served your food choice sitting atop pieces of thin round Arabic bread. Only last week, my husband was served his chicken shish (kebab) sitting on a piece of lovely thin bread in our local Turkish restaurant. Throughout the Middle East, marinated meat dishes, lovely salads, even chips, will be served on top of a slice of khobez bread. This means that whatever juices, flavours, dressings and/or oils are on/in the food, soak down into the bread and that piece of bread ends up tasting AMAZING and often the best bit of the meal! Just like bruschetta covered in tomatoes roasted in garlic & olive oil, or a slice of sourdough with runny egg oozing into the holes….hmmmmmm….so good! Is there anything that isn’t good on a slice of bread?

I guess that’s what pizza basically is after all…

So, with this in mind, next time you serve up a salad, maybe tabbouleh, or fattoush, or some tasty marinated spiced meat kebabs or vegetables, especially if they are barbecued, lay a thin bread like khobez or open pitta bread underneath them, or, go the whole hog and ditch the ceramics completely – bring back trenchers I say and enjoy all those lovely flavours soaked into tasty bread! AND save on waste and washing up – what’s not to love?!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these little snippets and that you don’t mind me sharing more in the future 🙂

Happy Easter to those celebrating it, and happy Fiesta Friday to all those bloggers taking part, this week we are co hosted by our wonderful FF founder, Angie, ably assisted by Abbey.

**The information in these books has been collated by historians from letters, diaries and books as well as records, inventories, orders and receipts found or kept from large, grand and royal households, and from the businesses that supplied them. Consequently, much of the information can only be traced back to medieval times, which in the U.K. denotes the period of the mid 1100’s to the late 1400’s, before we entered the reign of Elizabeth I.

EDIT: I’ve been asked by a few people what books I’ve been reading so here is my list so far…

The Art of Dining – A History of Cooking and Eating by Sara Paston-Williams

A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright

The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

The Victorian House: Life from Childbirth to Deathbed by Judith Flanders

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley