My post on the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog…
It’s officially autumn (even though the temperatures do not reflect it where I live), and my menu planning is making a seasonal shift. As temperatures cool and winter approaches, a richer and more sustaining menu appeals. Soup is a favourite of mine for this time of year. An ancient dish, I suspect it evolved as soon as man figured out how to put edible things in a pot of water over heat. Soup is featured in virtually all culinary traditions and, of course, is a significant part of food history in Great Britain. As a history enthusiast, I enjoy reading details of normal life, including food, whether I’m reading fiction or non-fiction, as it gives an immediacy and life to the material.
Peasant fare, elegant fare, or invalid fare, soup was a staple of the British diet. Early cookery books don’t show as many recipes for soup as for other dishes. I suspect this is because it was assumed that individuals already knew how to make the standard daily dish for the household, made from local ingredients to personal taste. THE FORME OF CURY, a cookbook from c. 1390 (originally a scroll showing authorship by “the Chief Master Cooks of King Richard II”), contained some soup recipes designed to be served to the nobility. The names frequently included “soppes” or sowp” as the dish was served over bread. One was “Fenkel in Soppes” ….
I grew up in an area where apple orchards were easy to find. Late August, September and October were beautiful months where the various fruits and other crops ripened and were gathered, leaves changed and hayrides were the order of the day. I remember riding with groups of friends in wagons filled with hay that were pulled by horses or tractors. These were usually late afternoon or evening events and frequently ended with bonfires where marshmallows were roasted, apples crunched and apple cider was drunk. Although not a traditional harvest celebration, it’s easy to see these activities as a continuation of harvest celebrations in general.
The blessing of a good harvest has been celebrated for thousands of years by all cultures. Pagan rites were adapted into Christian celebrations. In England, Lammas was celebrated on August 1 to celebrate the wheat harvest. (“Lammas” comes from the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas which means “loaf mass”.) It was also known as the Feast of First Fruits. The English Catholic Church celebrated this until Henry VIII separated the Church from Rome. The harvest festival evolved to a local tradition, celebrated with local customs, and not necessarily on an annual basis. Even the date could vary, with the traditional August 1, Michaelmas (September 29), or the harvest moon (falling in September or Oct, depending on the year) all as possibilities. Whenever the celebration fell, it was a time of feasting on foods in season, in appreciation for a time of plenty. One fairly common tradition was the Harvest Cake, which was distributed to farm workers after the harvest was done.
I looked for recipes for a traditional English harvest cake that might have been available during the Georgian era. To my surprise, instead of heavy cakes loaded with apples, nuts and cinnamon, I found that seed cakes were popular. Made with caraway seeds, these seeds were symbolic of the wheat harvest. I found two recipes for seed cake in The Compleat HOUSEWIFE by Eliza Smith (my copy is a facsimile of the 16th edition which was first published in 1758). Although not specifically designated a harvest cake, it is easy to see that it would serve a large group. The recipe for “A good Seed-Cake” includes 5 pounds of flour, 4 pounds of sugar, 4 pounds of butter, a pound and a half of caraway comfits (candy-coated caraway seeds, about the size of a grain of rice), a half-pound of candied orange peel and a half-pound of citron. When mixed and put in the “hoop”, it was baked in a quick oven for 2 to 3 hours. This would yield a big cake! I can see that a few cakes like this would serve a lot of people, especially as part of a feast. (It’s interesting to note that caraway comfits were popular in Elizabethan time as a digestif, the anise-flavored seed being recognized as beneficial for indigestion and flatulence.)
As summer ends and autumn draws in, I think it is almost instinctive to think of the seasonal foods: apples, root vegetables, heartier dishes, and desserts to match. Last year at Christmas, I baked my first fruitcake and plan to do another this year. Maybe this year, for Thanksgiving, I will try a seed cake with plenty of caraway seeds. There is something so satisfying about bring old customs into my modern celebrations.
Recently, I posted about my secret fondness for fruitcake, and my intention to make one this year. Well, I did it, and it was a success! I went through several cookbooks, searched on-line for a recipe, and finally selected Alton Brown’s Free Range Fruitcake (find it HERE: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/free-range-fruitcake-recipe/index.html). I did not follow it exactly (some differences in the fruit used, the liquid used to soak the fruit, and the nuts) but the method worked extremely well, and the fruitcake is delicious! Moist, dense, spicy, packed with fruit and nuts. My husband, who ducks and runs when fruitcake is mentioned, tasted it and liked it. (He ate the whole slice!) Here it is:
I’m so glad I made this cake, and plan to make it again. Not only is it delicious, but it’s part of a tradition going back hundreds of years. From Eliza Smith’s “Plumb Cake” in The Compleat Housewife and Hannah Glasses “Rich Cake” in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy to fruitcake of today, the ingredients and methods are strikingly similar. Baking from scratch is a special pleasure, one I had almost forgotten as I do it so seldom. Friends and family, who knows what may be in that Christmas gift next year? Just taste it before you make that face – I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
It’s summertime, and the air is full of buzzing and humming (not to mention whining and slapping noises!). I have purple porterweed blooming by my door. One early morning, I was absolutely entranced by the cloud of white butterflies that flitted from bloom to bloom. It was amazing and exquisite to watch. The same bush attracts honey bees; not so exquisite (and sometimes a little scary when they buzz up to me when I go out), but the hum of bees as they busy themselves in the flowers is still an important element of summer. I do like honey so I give the bees plenty of room.
Then, there are those other summer visitors: flies, mosquitoes, fleas, and more. Not to mention that ancient scourge, bed bugs! How to eliminate pests without affecting the pleasant and beneficial insects, or ourselves, has been a concern down through time. While some of the earlier remedies are rather off-putting, others are pleasant as well as effective.
An infallible Receipt to destroy Bugs in Eliza Smith’s THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE is a concoction of egg whites and quicksilver (mercury) at the rate of 1 ounce of quicksilver for every five or six eggs. These ingredients are mixed well, and beat together in a wooden dish with a brush until the quicksilver is barely visible. This is applied to the cleaned and disassembled bedstead (brushed clean, not washed). The mixture must be rubbed into all cracks and joints and allowed to dry. You cannot wash the bedstead afterwards. According to the recipe, the first application will destroy the bugs; if not, a second application will finish the job. This is clearly a remedy for the loathsome bedbug. However, we now know that mercury is highly toxic. The idea of leaving an emulsion of egg white and mercury on a bed is almost as distasteful at the bug itself; I was also not attracted by the idea of not washing the bedstead before or after the application. (The old fashioned remedy of burning the bed suddenly seems more reasonable!) Don’t try this at home…
It’s so much pleasanter to think of lavender and its many uses. It is a wonderful insect repellent. I had excellent results using it to deter silverfish and other fabric-loving bugs that loved to lurk in my laundry room in a previous residence. No matter how I cleaned or what I used, the little wretches would reappear, until I made lots of little lavender bags and tucked them into the backs of shelves, in corners and so forth. They never came back. Dried lavender, alone or mixed with other herbs such as rosemary, not only gives clothes or linens stored in closets, chests of drawers or other storage containers a wonderful smell; it discourages moths as well. So much more pleasant than moth balls, and not poisonous!
A few drops of lavender oil or essence in water makes a very soothing solution; it can soothe a slight burn and helps relieve an itch. A Jane Austen Household Book with Martha Lloyd’s Receipes contains a recipe for Lavender Water, and instructions “To Make A Sweet Pot” which seems to be a potpourri which contains violets, roses, thyme, lavender and other flowers and herbs. A health food store I frequent carries a wonderful lavender witch hazel solution. Culpeper’s COMPLETE HERBAL & English Physician credits lavender with numerous healing virtues. If nothing else, a spray of lavender water on a pillow creates a lovely and soothing atmosphere for a good night’s sleep. You won’t even notice all that humming!
Take a look at:
Hickman, Peggy. A JANE AUSTEN HOUSEHOLD BOOK with Martha Lloyd’s recipes. 1977: David & Charles Inc. North Pomfreet, NY.
Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s COMPLETE HEREBAL and English Physician. 1981: Harvey Sales-reproduces from edition published in 1826.
Smith, Eliza. The Compleat HOUSEWIFE. 1994: Studio Editions Ltd., London, England. First published in 1758.
Image: Wikipedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Albin_Eleazar_Moth_1720.png