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….!)