[Sca-cooks] Another book review of an op book

Jadwiga Zajaczkowa / Jenne Heise jenne at fiedlerfamily.net
Thu Mar 22 16:51:47 PDT 2007

Book Review: The Country House Kitchen, 1650-1900.
Once again, I'm splashing around in a subject that interests me, and it 
sends sidelights on my research topics. I've ILLed every available one 
of the proceedings of The Leeds Symposium on Food History -- whose book 
The Country House Kitchen Garden I reviewed earlier.

Pamela A. Sambrook and Peter Brears, eds. The Country House Kitchen, 
1650-1900: Skills and Equipment for Food and Provisioning (London: Alan 
Sutton, 1996).

The majority of the papers in this volume come from the eighth and ninth 
Leeds Symposiums on Food History, though additional papers were added to 
round it out. I'm going to list the contents not in order, but by 

Peter Brears
    The Ideal Kitchen in 1864
    Behind the Green Baize Door
    Kitchen Fireplaces and Stoves
    The Batterie de Cuisine
    The Pastry
    The Bakehouse
    The Dairy
C. Anne Wilson
    Cooks, Kitchen-maids, and Kitchen Helpers in the Country House
    Stillhouses and Stillrooms
Pamela Sambrook
    Larders and other Storeplaces for the Kitchen
    Supplies and Suppliers to the Country House
    Household Beer and Brewing
Rob David
    Ice-getting on the Country House Estate
Una A. Robertson
    The Scottish Country House Kitchen

My first question is, does Peter Brears ever sleep? The man is a font of 
knowledge, and he not only publishes on interesting topics, he writes 
interestingly. C. Anne Wilson is just the same. The articles in this 
volume, though not being period, fill in gaps in my knowledge I 
sometimes didn't even know I had.

For instance, I never realized before--despite my extensive reading of 
early-20th and late-19th century sources-- that the original 'kitchen 
range' is a set of "raised iron firebaskets" for roasting. Though still 
I'm not entirely sure I could point out a range in the wild, Brears 
leaves me in no doubt about how they worked and how they developed. He 
is equally informative about stoves, which were originally built-in 
'chafers' or 'chafing dishes' loaded with coals, above which pots could 
be stewed or simmered at a lower heat than over the open fire. [My 
brother, who works in catering, would stare to see the originals of the 
'shaafers' he and his coworkers deal with.] Brears's description of the 
range of cooking utensils/containers (batterie de cuisine) leaves me 
with intriguing thoughts-- such as the lack of molds in early 
inventories, the identity of several strange pieces of cookware that 
periodically turn up at estate sales, etc. His comparison of the 
equipment from four inventories of the same kitchen (1632, 1764, 1869, 
and 1900) gives me a sense of what I might have had to work with in 
period compared to what I've read in Victorian novels. Brear's article 
about the layout of food-preparation and serving rooms is heavy going, 
but the endless corridors and complicated labyrinths of service 
mentioned in English books now makes more sense.

Of especial interest to me is C. Anne Wilson's article on Stillrooms and 
Stillhouses. Not only were these places-- first the domain of the lady 
of the house, then the housekeeper-- used to distill medicinal liquors 
and process herbs and other items for home medical care-- they were also 
used to prepare confectionery and banquetting-stuffe such as preserves 
and bisket-cakes. Descriptions of the stilling apparatus are here, as 
are some information from seventeenth-century inventories.

Most importantly, it becomes clear that the stillhouse as well as the 
dairy was considered a ladylike place up to the middle of the 1800s-- 
and so our feminine nobility of the SCA would be most likely found in 
these places in the kitchen. Brears quotes Henry Percy, Earl of 
Northumberland, 1595: "The kitching, buttery or pantry are not places 
proper for [great mens wyfes]; a dary is tolerable; for soe may yow have 
perhaps a dische of butter, a soft cheese, or some clouted creme in a 
sommer..." Knowing how to carve and mold butter was apparently a 
desirable professional skill for a 19th-century housekeeper, while she 
also controlled the confections, the pickles, the preserves-- and the 
waiting services of the still-room maid. The differentiation between the 
status of the man-cook (typical of large houses in the SCA period) and 
the slow introduction of women cooks and maids, the status of different 
types of food service workers, and the prequistes thereof, are all 
touched on. Yes, in our period, most women wouldn't be allowed to work 
in a great house kitchen-- the upper body strength needed to handle the 
equipment would be one deciding factor.

It had never occurred to me, until I read Brears on "The Bakehouse" that 
large batches of bread might be kneaded any other way than by hand. 
Apparently, batches of dough might be kneaded using a lever-pole 
apparatus, or by wrapping them in a cloth and walking on it-- certainly 
more efficient than individual human arms. The operation of the kneading 
trough is also explained, as well as questions of flour-bolting. Many of 
the references are from the early-to-mid seventeenth century, with a few 
digressions before 1600. Very useful for casting backward toward 
medieval baking.

I was fascinated by the ice-house article-- who knew there was once a 
thriving trans-Atlantic trade in ice of all things? North American ice 
was gradually replaced by Norwegian ice, and eventually artificial ice 
got the trade-- but only when the purity was guaranteed. I only knew 
about ice-houses from Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I had no idea that 
ice-getting was such a cumbersome and labor-intensive chore. Apparently, 
in some years in England, it was more economically feasible to buy North 
American or Norwegian ice than to pay employees to cut and store it.

The information on Larders is invaluable, as it suggests that efforts 
were made to keep such areas for food that now requires refrigeration 
between freezing and 50-60 degrees F. It also explains the methods used 
to attempt to keep this temperature; what items were kept elsewhere, 
specifically in the 1800s; methods of keeping meat and fish, including 
pickling and ice. The supplies article also gives a lists of the 
'presents' from tenants at a particular hall, Christmas 1643, that might 
make us mutter about interesting presentations.

The Beer and Brewing article contains the best quote of all, in the 
discussion of restoring to working order the brewhouse at Shugborough: 
"The puzzle was resolved when the joiner who carried out [the display 
restoration] work in the '60s explained that no one had any real idea 
whether it should be like that, they just thought it looked good." The 
article focuses primarily on the evidence they found and their process 
of installing a (much smaller) brewing apparatus in the site to 
demonstrate working brewing. For brewers, it's a fascinating read.

This volume does not appear to have been as widely distributed as the 
Garden volume, so it's harder to get online. Still... for the historical 
foodie... a worthwhile purchase.

-- Jadwiga Zajaczkowa, Knowledge Pika jenne at fiedlerfamily.net 
"I thought you might need rescuing . . . We have a bunch of professors 
wandering around who need students." -- Dan Guernsey

More information about the Sca-cooks mailing list