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Carol Barstow in Grandma Gell’s kitchen

March 14, 2015
Carol Barstow

Carol Barstow

The mistake many books make that try to bring old recipes back to life is that they don’t adapt the recipes for ingredients currently available, or the modern palate. As one of Carol Barstow’s taste testers I can state that the Grandmother Gell knew what she was doing in her kitchen.

How did you come to write ‘In Grandmother Gell’s Kitchen?

It grew out of my local history MA, which I did at the University of Nottingham. For my dissertation I did ‘Kitchens and cooking from 1650 to 1800’. I looked at a variety of sources, for example probate inventories which list the goods that people had when they died down to each individual pan. I looked at household accounts. From these you can get information such as people’s butcher’s bills from the seventeenth century. And I looked at recipe books – published recipe books of which there are quite a few. We tend to think of published recipe books starting with Mrs Beaton, but a good number of published recipe books were written before then. I found several collections of manuscripts recipes. In particular the ones relating to the Gell family were absolutely fascinating. So I took the opportunity to go back to them and decided to transcribe them all, so that I had a complete collection.

There were about 500 recipes altogether, copied into home-made books, although some of them were just on scraps of paper like letters and all sorts of things. They ended up in Nottinghamshire archives even though they relate to Derbyshire family. This was due to a series of marriages. At least this was what my research indicated. But you can never be absolutely sure on some of these things. It looks as though the recipes, although here they are actually compiled by a man named Thomas Gell, had actually passed down the female line of the family and so ended up with the Strelley family, who deposited their documents at the Nottinghamshire Archives.

So having started transcribing these recipes and playing around with cooking some of them, I wanted to have a go at writing an eighteenth century recipe book. What I wanted to do was take the recipes, which tend to be vague at the very least and almost untranslatable at the worst and then make a workable modern version from it. This was o that they could be cooked today by someone who wanted to have a go at a recipe from the past, but didn’t want to go into working out what to do with 2 pecks of flour and a dozen eggs. This meant that for a lot of them I not only had to make them workable but also reduce the quantities considerably. I was really lucky because I wrote to the archives initially to ask permission to use the material thinking that was the first stage to actually writing the book. To my surprise they offered to publish the book. They publish one or two local history items a year and they offered to publish this one so obviously I was delighted with that and said yes.

Going back to the MA course that you were on what sort of things did you do? Was it the content of the course that enabled you to get on and do this research?

It looked at local history in the East Midlands through quite a long period of time. There are also variety of options you could study further. It also covered some of the basic skills like palaeography, because you need to be able to read the documents and make sense of them. We also looked at the church with regards to how religion fitted into people’s lives, and how various towns had declined in the area through the period.

So they did teach you how to read these manuscripts. Did this help?

Yes. But it’s still isn’t easy, although deciphering the old handwriting was something I very much enjoyed. But there were a couple of issues: the first being trying to transcribe the handwriting. As you know even today you can get someone’s handwriting you can’t read it. Take this back to the seventeenth century where spelling was flexible and I’ve seen a document where one person wrote on the same piece of paper his own name in four different ways. There were no standard spellings in accepted use. I noticed when I went back recently to the archives after a bit of a break and got some eighteenth century documents out I found I’d got very out of practice. So there are ways in which the letters are quite different from the ones we use these days, but then at least if you are consistently reading one persons handwriting then you do get a little bit of an idea how they write their characters. But at first glance it sometimes looks like a complete different alphabet. And they use a lot of abbreviations. You have to work out what the little dash above the letter means. And different people use these abbreviations in slightly different ways. The more practice you get, the more you get your eye in.

What sort of useful things come out of probate documents?

It would list all the kitchen equipment that people had got. In particular I was interested in some of the specialist equipment from which you could infer what they were doing. So if they’ve got a copper and brewing vessel, then you know that they brew their own ale. If they’ve got a kneading trough, then they are making bread. If they’ve got a cheese press then they’re making their own cheese. Salting tubs mean their salting their own meat down for the winter. So there are quite a few things you can work out from that and just the general impression of how sophisticated their equipment was. For example whether they had weighing scales which were in existence at that time. Slightly more upmarket gadgets were either a Dutch oven or a hastener, which was effectively a metal screen that you would put in front of the fire to reflect the heat back and will have small clockwork jack to put a joint of meat on to roast it (the microwave of the time really). A chaffing dish is what you would put hot coals or charcoal in just to give yourself a gentle heat for doing some fine sauces that you don’t want to cook directly over a fire. All this tells you the state of their household.

The collections of manuscripts you used were in Nottingham archives. Are these archives situated all over the country?

Each county will have its county archive so Derbyshire’s is in Matlock. Nottinghamshire archives are here the city centre, just down by the canal. They usually double as a diocesan record office too so that the church deposited their records as well.

How much information can you get online?

You can get a fair amount of information about what they have, but mostly from the point of view of local archives they’ve not managed to digitise much. People who are interested in family history can find quite a bit online for a fee. Places like the National archives can provide digital copies of things but there may be a charge for that obviously because it costs them time and money to do it.

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If someone did want to start research on the Internet, typically local history. How reliable are Internet sites?

Interestingly as a librarian who dealt with students once we had to keep telling them it’s only as good as the quality of information people put on it. If it is straight scan of the document then you can read the document directly and make of it what you will. If you’re looking at a transcript then you’ve got to be aware that they could have been transcribed imperfectly. It depends on how good the person is at transcription. Similarly on any interpretation of data, certainly things about people, you do have two keep an open mind when you realise that they’ve got someone getting married at the age of 14. In the nineteenth century that is not very likely.

What about books? Example some books are written by journalists not historians. So how would you judge whether you are looking at a good quality book?

Going back to my own food history, one of the things I had to judge was whether the recipes in published cookbooks have actually been used. I think a lot of us have shelves full of recipe books but certainly haven’t cooked all the recipes in them. In particular I can imagine that some of them were so complicated that they were never tried. I know that a very good food historian Peter Brears, who is based in York, has tried following some of the recipes in the books, but they just don’t work. He thinks they be put in the books for show and nobody has ever tried to use them. One recipe book that I always like to quote from has something very improbable. Robert May wrote around the time of the Restoration of Charles II and thought we needed to get back to the good old days of what life used to be like. He has a description of a desert course at a party, where you’re effectively firing miniature pastry models at things with real gunpowder. You have live birds in one pie and frogs in another. It tells you exactly how to do it, but I don’t believe anybody actually did that one. So there is always the question of what is it somebody actually does as opposed to what has been written down as a suggestion.

As far as the quantities concerned, you said you had to scale them down. What sort of quantities were you talking about?

One of my favourite recipes is for something called Whigs which is a rich bread cake flavoured with caraway seeds. This was obviously popular in the Gell family, because there were three different recipes. I’ve tried them all and settled on the one that Mrs Gell had written above ‘this is good’, and I agreed with her entirely. But the quantity started with a peck of flour, which is 2 gallons in volume, and that is quite a lot. That would have made an impressive number of bread cakes.

Was this because they make a lot all because they were feeding a lot of people at one time?

A mixture. They would have cooked less often. Given that you were baking something like bread; heating the oven up would have taken you at least four hours and probably six in winter. So they tended to have quite a large baking day. So you heat your oven up and start with things that needed the hottest oven and as the oven gradually cooled down, you’d start putting different things in. So you would be cooking quite large quantities at once. Yes you would be feeding a large household, but it’s also a because of the fact that you not going to be baking every day.

You did the experiment with the cooking. You’d already had quite a bit of experience cooking. I know you are a very good cook. When you started because of the experience you’d got, did you have an idea of what may or may not work?

It was a case giving it a go. One is tricky things was working out the right cooking temperature because the temperatures weren’t usually given in the cookbook. Occasionally, if you are lucky, you will be told to put it in the oven after taking the bread out, so you can work out what that would be today. But I did tend to look back at some older cookbooks from 1900 and 1920 to see what sort temperatures they were using and looking at what they were describing, to see if I could find something as near to the types of recipes I was having a go at. Some of the flavourings in different mixes were not the same as we use today. For example the savoury recipes with meat came out with almost a bit of an Oriental/Moroccan type flavour due to the spices they were using then. We don’t use a lot of mace and nutmeg in savoury things today, but they were doing that and it gives quite a nice flavour. So it was quite a lot of experimentation. Sometimes you realise that you have the consistency totally wrong, so then you are working out what to add or starting again. So as I was going through the recipes I was taking notes as to how much of things I put in. So if I put in some flour and clearly I was going to have a batter instead of something I could put in a cake tin then I would keep a note of how much extra flour I needed to add so that I could have another go and see how it went.

There were one or two spectacular failures. My family banned me from ever trying to cook the potato pudding again. It was really mashed potato with sugar in it and that’s what it tasted like. It might have been okay in the eighteenth century because the potato was a novelty, but it just felt so very wrong in the twentieth century, so I wasn’t allowed to try that one out on anyone again. There was a recipe for fried cream. Which as far as I can gather was probably meant to be a very rich pancakey type of thing, but I could just not get the consistency right. I had several goes at it and then just realised that recipe wasn’t worth any more effort. Some things were just fun to try. Syllabubs are a wine and cream concoction. The recommended way of making is to have the cream straight from the cow from a certain height into a dish of wine and then the acidity of the wine sets the cream. Alternatively you can use what they called a ‘dry cow’ which was a device for pouring the cream from a height. So I tried with the jug pouring the cream from a height into a bowl of wine and ended up with a spectacularly messy kitchen. It did set properly and was very nice, but that’s one time where a bit of a whisk would be far better than the original way of doing it.

Who did you try these recipes on?

Family, inevitably got to eat them, which they were happy with. My children were a bit younger at the time and my son was longing for me to get back to making things like chocolate cakes. I was fortunate in some respects that working at Bromley House library, I had a set of people who didn’t mind if I turned up on a Monday morning with several dozen biscuits that I’ve been baking at the weekend. So apart from the jokes of ‘did they keep that long?’ when I said it was an eighteenth century biscuit, it was fine. But they did eat them and give me some feedback about what they thought of them. There was one weekend where I made nine dozen biscuits, which was a fair few to get through.

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You do re-enactment, don’t you?

I’ve done some re-enactment with the ‘Sealed Knot’ and with a living history group that do schools week in a seventeenth century farmhouse. I’ve not done any very recently but I did make sure when I was testing all the recipes out initially that I wasn’t using any gadgets, if it said’ knead it for a long time’ then I kneaded it for a long time.

How did you find the re-enactment in the seventeenth century farmhouse, because you’d have to wear their garments and there wouldn’t be modern washing facilities?

Yes. You do kind of get used to it. I was on kitchen staff, so we were cooking an authentic meal for about 40 people each day. So you get used to how to move in a corset or fairly tightly laced clothing. But you certainly move differently and work differently than you would do today. We were camping off the main site, so we could chill out if we wanted to. But there wasn’t much point getting changed back into twentieth century clothing. Most people actually stayed in their costumes, which were just their clothes for the week.

You do give talks. I believe the chocolate one is particularly popular.

I do a talk on tea, coffee and chocolate, as they were effectively introduced into the country with the Restoration in the 1660s. At that time these products had a mixed reception. So I tend to draw people’s reactions to the new hot drinks. The seventeenth century was also a time where people wrote pamphlets. It could be considered the seventeenth century equivalent of a blog where they would write something and there would be a reply to that. So there is what is described as a petition of ‘several thousand buxom goodwives’ who are objecting to what they think coffee is doing to their men, in no uncertain terms. I tend to read an excerpt from that depending on who my audience is. How much of it I’ve read is very dependent on my audience, because the men’s replies are very rude. They do admit they have to go to the coffee houses because they can’t get a word in edgeways at home though!

What about the chocolate?

I have several eighteenth century recipes. Hot chocolate then was a little different to how we drink it today. I have a go with the best approximation to what would have been the Aztec version, which is spiced with chilli and unsweetened, therefore fairly unpalatable to the modern taste, but worth testing out. Then I do to two eighteenth century recipes, one of which is made with milk and the chocolate is also flavoured with vanilla, which is very pleasant. The one people seem to like tasting the most starts with equal quantities of claret and double cream. It’s thickened with egg yolks and more of a desert really than a drink. You can’t manage very much of it because it’s very rich. But that doesn’t seem to diminish its popularity.

If someone wants to start cooking these recipes from your book, which one would you recommend to start with?

It depends whether they want to bake cakes, biscuits or go for a savoury meal. For a dinner, a fricassee of chicken or hodgepodge is rather nice. Hodgepodge is a beef dish that also has bacon in it and quite a lot of different vegetables. You can put some nice flavourings in there. For December there’s a recipe for parsnip cake, which are effectively little fritters of parsnip blended together with egg and some spices. Add it into a Christmas dinner, they make quite a nice twist on what we would often served with turkey. So you can actually take little bits of the recipes and do them without doing an entire meal. That’s probably the best way to start. A lot of the biscuits you can have a go at and there are lots and lots of different biscuit recipes in the book that are very popular. I have to say in the recipe collection there was an emphasis on cakes and biscuits; which I felt every sympathy with. In my book there is also an emphasis on cakes and biscuits. I felt I would have got on very well with ‘Grandmother Gell’.

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From → Non-fiction

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