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Cook turns Seamstress…

At the moment I am doing far more sewing than food history research and I wanted to chronicle this. Having acquired a dress form partly so that I can post photos of items I have made, it seems appropriate that I should write first of all about this.

Like many others I have been deliberating about purchasing a dress form for quite a while. I have been seriously considering purchasing the Olivia adjustaform model, but they are expensive. I was also hesitant about how well they would show off clothing aesthetically,  as my longer term objective is to make clothes to sell.  So in the end I purchased a standard size dress form, as near to under my measurements as I could find. Being honest, it is also the largest I could find!

So here is Alice.  She is named after my Grandmother whose sewing skills I aspire to but may never achieve.  She is a size 18. One thing that would not have occurred to me prior to purchasing a dress form would have been that  even a very expensive adjustable form would not have had my cup size. So the first thing that I did was to put Alice in a bra that fits me well. And then I padded the cups.  For padding I used the inside of an old synthetic pillow, and was pleased to discover I could effecively unroll the wadding unto layers. With the cups padded she was instantly my bust size. So then with Alice in a vest, I measured my under bust and gave her a layer of wadding all the way round, and then some extra for a tummy and a bum, checking measurements along the way. It was surprisingly easy to get her to my dimensions.  At the moment it is just the friction of the dress form’s cover and the t shirt holding the wadding in place. For longer term use I would want to get it smoother and a little more secure. Using a fuller cup bra would also be better than the balcony style that I have. For fitting purposes I dont need to worry too much about the area below the bust as I don’t tend to wear styles that are closely fitted there.

Here is the somewhat tubbier version of Alice. We can lose weight together too! It was partly because of this that I didn’t want to put a huge amount of effort into making a duct tape form. And I would still have wanted a form for photography purposes.

The form I purchased was somewhat basic, and I suspect that the polystyrene form itself won’t take a huge amount of pinning without showing some wear and tear, but for under £30 and half an hours work I have a dress form that is a reasonable approximation of my figure, with the bust, the important bit for fitting for me, quite accurate.  Now if only I could get her to do the ironing….


Collop Monday, Shrove Tuesday and Lent

We are familiar with pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, which has now very much become pancake day, certainly there are probably not a huge number of people who think they should confess and be shriven of their sins on this day. In some places the day before Shrove Tuesday was Collop Monday, when the meat that wouldn’t keep would be eaten up, perhaps in the popular dish of Scotch Collops. This one is from the Gell family.

Scotch Collops

Take ye best part of a Leg of Veal & slice it very thin then hack it & fry it with very sweet butter & when it is fryed take Time, Winter Savory, sweet marjoram, & strip them very small, take 5 or 6 anchovies, 3 or 4 yolks of eggs beat up with a little nutmeg sliced & a whole onion, a little Broth or Gravy, put ye Liquer into ye pan & all things into ye pan together, then shake them well together & when you see them begin to thicken then take them from ye fire & all your meat together in your pan & put some juice of Lemmon & garnish your dish with Lemmon & Lemmon peel.

In Olney, in Buckinghamshire, the pancake race, a tradition taking place since 1445, still takes place. Housewives in aprons would run to the church, tossing their pancakes as they go, once the pancake bell is rung at the church. The winner would receive a kiss from the verger. Perhaps how fast the housewives ran depended on who was Verger that year. Only residents can enter, although there are now races for the schoolchildren.

Having eaten up your milk and eggs in the form of pancakes you would then be on to your days of fasting. If anyone has ever taken the trouble to count the days between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday, they will have noticed that they number more than 40. This is because, even in lent, Sundays are not fasting days. It may be best, perhaps, not to mention that to those who have been denying themselves the luxury of such things as sweets and chocolate for Lent. Pepys records in his diary having wiggs and ale in lent.

Certainly the idea of fasting should not be taken too literally, William Rabisha, in his 1661 cookery book, has a Bill of fare for on a fish day, in the summer season, with 20 dishes in each of the two courses. Perhaps it is fasting by comparison with the Bills of Fare for Flesh days, which has 30 dishes in the first course and 31 in the second. Do bear in mind that neither of these meals has the dessert course given, which would definitely be there if there were guests for dinner. I think that it is probably safe to assume that meals such as these when served would be at times of celebration, rather than in the normal order of things. You also were not expected to eat from every dish, thankfully.

Hot Chocolate from the Eighteenth Century

Here are the two hot chocolate recipes that I use…

Eighteenth Century Vanilla Hot Chocolate Recipe

1 pint 600 ml full fat milk

4 oz 100g Dark Chocolate (I use 50% cocoa)

2 tsp/ 10 ml vanilla extract

2 tsp/10 ml ground cinnamon or nutmeg, or a mixture of these


Put the milk into a pan

Break the chocolate into it

Add the vanilla and spice

Heat gently until the chocolate has melted and the drink is just below boiling point.

Stir briskly or whisk, serve and enjoy…


And the decadent one…

Eighteenth Century Hot Chocolate Recipe, with Claret

I bottle (75cl) Claret or similar red wine

I pt 600ml Double Cream

300 gms Very dark chocolate (85% Cocoa beans)

Yolks of four eggs

Four heaped tablespoons of light soft brown sugar


Put the wine in a large saucepan and add the broken up chocolate and sugar. Heat gently until the chocolate melts. Take off the heat and add half the cream. Mix the egg yolks with the other half of the cream and stir that in. Put back on the heat and heat very gently until it just starts to simmer, it will thicken as you do so. Do not allow to boil at all. Check the sweetness is to your taste and enjoy!

This makes quite a lot, so you may wish to halve the quantities.


To make Parsnip Cakes: a 17thC accompaniment for today’s turkey

If you would like to try something different with parsnips this year, why not try this 17th century recipe from In Grandmother Gell’s Kitchen.

They make an excellent accompaniment to a roast dinner, and would work very well with Christmas dinner, being a little different to roast parsnips, but are neither too rich nor tricky to make. The recipe is below both in its original, and interpreted for today. I haven’t tried serving them with the sugar sauce though!

To make Parsnip Cakes

Take yor parsnips wn they are boyled break y as small as you can gett y & beat 6 eggs & but abt 2 or 3 of ye whites & a little Tyme & beat y all together, & heat ye frying-pan very hot put y in little cakes into yor pan when they are fryed beat some butter & a little suger for ye sawce. You must put a little sugar into yor cakes too.

 2 medium sized parsnips

1 egg

Fresh thyme or rosemary

Boil the parsnips until tender and mash them with a potato masher, add the chopped herbs and beaten egg. Shape into small cakes and roll in flour. These can then either be fried in butter, until each side is golden, or cooked in the oven. I found making them into small cakes and putting them in with roast potatoes for twenty minutes worked very well.


A Discourse on Minc’d Pyes

Mince pies originally contained meat of some sort and were already established as part of Christmas fare during the Tudor period. As they were usually referred to in the singular it seems likely that they were larger pies rather than the individual ones that are usual today. In fact the pie crust is often referred to as a ‘coffin’, giving a clear picture of what we would perhaps prefer to think of as a loaf shape. The mixture of sweet and savoury flavours together was common throughout this period. We do still, of course, do the same, when we serve apple sauce with roast pork for example.

Contrary to what has been written in some places the suet that is used in mince pies didn’t replace the meat but was always there along side it. How these pies have evolved is interesting.

Gervase Markham, writing in 1615, is using mutton as the meat, and adding currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel, along with spices. There is a sad lack of alcohol in this recipe though.

Robert May, writing in 1660 has different recipes for mince pies of veal, mutton or beef. The recipe for the beef ones is catering on a grand scale (he did think that England needed to go back to the ‘good old days’ of before what we now call the English civil war). He takes eight pounds of beef, eight pounds of suet and four pounds each of both currants and raisins, along with nutmeg, clove and mace but no sugar.

One thing that characterises all these earlier recipes is far less sugar than we would use today, and certainly the over sweetened packaged ones that are available today would have been unrecognizable to Mr Markham or Mr May. The post popular versions during the eighteenth century feature tongue as the meat, and the version from Thomas Gell’s recipe collection is here.

To make minc’d pyes

Take 2 Tongues the same weight in Beef Suit 4 pound of Currans and 2 of Raisins, half an Ounce of Nutmeggs, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, half a quarter of an ounce of Cloves and Cinnamen and Do of Lemon Peel, Wine, Brandy and Sugar to your taste. The bigness of the Tongues must be considered when you put in the above nam’d Spices &c.

Thomas Gell records three festive meals in 1728, 1752 and 1754 and all have ‘minced pye’s as part of one of the courses.

Mrs Beeton, 1861, seems to bring in the idea of making the mincemeat earlier and storing it in jars to mature, and like Mrs Raffald, (1794) has a recipe with and without meat in, although Mrs Raffald favours neat’s tongue while Mrs B. prefers beef. Both use brandy, but Mrs Raffald doesn’t sweeten her pies. The recipe Mrs Beeton gives makes 12lbs of mincemeat which she costs at 8d. ‘A plain cookery book for the working classes’ (1852) uses tripe in its mince pies, which may be economical but perhaps not so appealing.

In a handwritten collection of recipes I have that include dated ones for 1897 and 1902 there is a recipe for mincemeat that includes minced beef. The beauty of manuscript recipes is that unlike those in cookery books, which you don’t know for certain are being used unless annotated or covered in food stains, written out recipes have definitely been used and discovered good enough to keep. This is one I shall be trying this weekend.

By 1914 when Elizabeth Criag was writing, the meat has disappeared from the minced meat pies, and the mince pie, much as we know it, has emerged.




Soul cakes for All Hallow’s

Traditionally eaten at All Hallow’s, there are several versions of their history, depending on what you read.

So, for the pagan, they are the remains of the tradition of leaving food for the dead at samhain. In a Christian culture they are given or eaten on All Hallow’s Eve, either as alms for the poor, or as a thank you gift for praying for the souls of the dead.  Sometimes the prayers were given out with the cakes, although that supposes a level of literacy that seems unlikely for the period concerned. The poor would go door to door singing a traditional song in return for the cakes.

Whether there was a specific recipe is unclear. They do not feature in the dozen or so 17thC and 18thC recipe books that I have, or in the manuscript recipe collections I have transcribed. They are a rich bread cake, similar to Wiggs, but with spice instead of seeds. In Galen’s view of medicine and food the spice would counteract the cold damp days of autumn.

Elizabeth David, in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery, gives a recipe from Shropshire, dating from around 1800.

I have interpreted and rewritten it, to include a little more information and instruction than the original has.

Yeast Soul Cakes

1 lb 8 oz/675g White bread flour

4 oz/125g Butter

1 0z/25g fresh yeast or 2 tsp/10ml dried yeast

3/4 pint/450ml warm milk

1 egg

4 oz/125g soft brown sugar

2 level tsps/10 ml ground allspice.

Rub the butter into the flour and either blend the fresh yeast with the milk or stir the dried yeast into the flour mix. Beat the egg into the milk and add to the flour and knead well. Leave to rise for between half an hour to an hour, depending on the warmth of the room.

Stir the spice into the sugar and tipping the dough onto a floured board, knead the sugar mix through the dough. This can get quite messy! Shape into 18 slightly flattened rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Brush with milk. Bake at Gas 7   425 deg F or 230 deg C for 12 – 15 minutes until golden brown.

These can be split and buttered as Hot Cross Buns are.

Elizabeth David reports that this recipe comes from Mary Ward,  from Pulverbatch, Shropshire, who died in 1853 aged 101, and was the last person to keep up the old custom of giving out Soul Cakes.

2014-11-01 14.50.27

Probate inventory of John Wood, Labourer, 1679

It is easy to assume that a labourer in the 17th century was living a life of poverty but that is not necessarily the case. The term could cover a range of income levels and whilst it signifies that they did paid work they were not necessarily living in a hovel.  Probate inventories list the goods that people had at the time of their death, and give us a lot of information about how they were living.

John Wood died in Farnsfield in 1679. An interpretation of his inventory tells us that he lived in a home that had at least three rooms, the ‘house’, a parlour and a chamber, this was probably over the house and parlour. There was also a cellar and outbuildings, comprising a barn and a quern house.

John Wood was able to brew his own ale, and he kept livestock. He had two cows, a pig, five hens and a cockerel, certainly enough to keep him well supplied with milk and eggs, and he had a churn for making butter from the milk. He had stores or rye and hay, and in the fields he had an acre each of both rye and pease planted. The latter was used very much as a fodder crop. What he also had was a horse, or more precisely a mare, with saddle and bridle showing that she was used for riding, a huge boon when the alternative is to walk everywhere.

Who else shared his household we don’t know, but there was a stock of wool and also a spinning wheel to spin the wool into yarn, which would generally be a woman’s task, so he was or had been married. His cooking equipment, without being extensive, is of good quality, there is some pewter and the pans are brass rather than iron.

So it would seem that John Wood, whilst a labourer, was by no means poor, and in fact his money and clothes came to a value of £3, a not insignificant sum. Full details of the inventory are below.

PR SW 93 24

John Wood


3rd March 1679

A true and perfect inventory of all the goods, Cattells and chattels of John Wood, Labourer, late of ffarnsfield deseased as they was viewed & prised March the third Ann Dom 1679 by us whose names are subscribed.

£    s    d

Imprimis his purse & apparel                                                                                                                                     3 – 0 – 0

It:            in ye house all ye hookes gallowes & fire irons                                                                                           0 – 4  – 0

It:            one table one forme 2 buffetts                                                                                                                     0 – 9 – 8

It:            foure chaires                                                                                                                                                0 – 2 – 0

It:            one joind chaire                                                                                                                                            0 – 2 – 6

It:            one great brasse pan one other little pan & one brasse pott                                                                        1 – 0 – 0

It:            one puter dish & two flagins                                                                                                                          0 – 3 – 0

It:            one spinning wheele & yarne                                                                                                                       0 – 12 – 0

It:            one pair of bellows                                                                                                                                        0 – 0 – 8

It:            earthern potts                                                                                                                                                0 – 0 – 6

It:            two old syeths & all other implements                                                                                                               0 – 2 – 0

It:            In ye parler one table and forme                                                                                                                       0 – 4 – 0

It:            two chists two boxes & one chaire                                                                                                                   0 – 9 – 0

It:            one sadle & bridle                                                                                                                                             0 – 5 – 0

It:            in ye seller ye bruing tubs and four barrels                                                                                                      0 – 16 – 0

It:            one churne & three little kitts                                                                                                                              0 – 3 – 0

It:            in ye chamber one bedstead with beding to it                                                                                                    1 – 0 – 0

It:            rye                                                                                                                                                                    0 – 9 – 0

It:            wooll & all other implements                                                                                                                             0 – 6 – 0

It:            in ye quarnehouse ye quarnes                                                                                                                          1 – 0 – 0

It:            one syeth & sneath[1] one spaid one hack one axe with other things                                                               0 – 6 – 0

It:            ye Linnings in ye parler                                                                                                                                   0 – 15 – 0

It:            In ye barne rye & hey                                                                                                                                       1 – 10 – 0

It:            one acre of rye & one acre of pease earth                                                                                                       2 – 0 – 0

It:            in ye yard one mare                                                                                                                                         2 – 10 – 0

It:            two cowes                                                                                                                                                          4 – 0 – 0

It:            ye manure and fowell[2]                                                                                                                                     0 – 8 – 0

It:            one sowe five henns & a cocke                                                                                                                          1 – 0 – 0

It:            one leather one wheelbarrow one grindlestone & ash wood                                                                            0 – 13 – 0

It:            one fork with all other things forgotton                                                                                                             0 – 2 – 0

————-                                                                                                                                                                                    23 – 11 – 0

John Watson

John Whitworth

[1] Snath – shaft or handle of a scythe

[2] Fuel