This time of year as millions of people order things for Christmas dinners with a click and a credit card my mind wanders to the kitchens in the Trust properties of Fota House, Johnstown Castle and Strokestown Park and I think of how foods were sourced and prepared in the past. When everything was prepared from scratch and it took time and hard work. Not an issue in big houses with a dedicated team of servants to pluck, draw, skin, peel, scrape, grate, pound, grind, sieve and wash raw materials that entered by the scullery door – and of course to clean up afterwards.
Food miles were not huge issue for the big house cooks either: a large portion of their ingredients were obtained from the estate. The range of food consumed by the upper classes was great. Potatoes, grains and eggs were in plentiful supply and most of the meat consumed was sourced from the estate including venison from the deer park, game, beef, poultry, rabbit and mutton and a variety of fish if there was river or a lake such as at Johnstown Castle.
The kitchen garden supplied numerous varieties of vegetables and fruit and for table decorations a selection of flowers was essential – it was the head gardener’s task to ensure that there was a plentiful and impressive supply throughout the year. It was deemed so important to have floral decorations gracing one’s table that Victorian advice manuals suggested that hiring flowers was a solution for town dwelling middling sorts who didn’t have gardens of their own. Fota’s kitchen garden with its heated glasshouses shows how generations of gardeners used ingenious means to force (or delay) growth in order to supply the house with out of season delights such as roses or strawberries for Christmas!
The demands placed on the gardener often came through the cook from the mistress of the house. Each day the cook would settle the menus with her mistress. In Fota the ever practical Lady Dorothy made her way to the kitchen for this discussion. This was not the ‘done’ thing and was considered an invasion of the cook’s territory and one which produced much grumbling! In Strokestown the gallery above the kitchen allowed the mistress to stay aloof and drop her handwritten menu down to the cook waiting respectfully below: an action that plainly signified which woman was of the higher social rank.
Another important element of the food supply to an estate kitchen was the dairy which provided the house with milk, cream, cheese and butter sourced from the dairy herd. Butter was a much used ingredient and a very large household could consume up to 40 pounds of it per week for cooking, baking and for the table.
We are fortunate in the Trust that our preserved service wings help us to imagine the contexts and servants who toiled in the old kitchens – but the best way to understand them is to try a recipe! This is just a simple one but does give a sense of the work involved and the ingredients used. Appropriately for the time of year it’s for an extremely Rich Custard from a ‘receipt’ book published in 1806. The book called A New System of Domestic Cookery was written by Mrs Rundell and was a runaway best seller for many decades and I’d like to think that perhaps it was used at one of our houses.
Boil a pint of milk with lemon peel and cinnamon; mix a pint of cream and the yolks of five eggs well beaten [and leave aside]; when the milk tastes of the seasoning, sweeten it enough for the whole; pour it into the cream, stirring it well; then give the custard a simmer till of a proper thickness. Don’t let it boil; stir the whole time one way; season as above.
If to be extremely rich, put no milk but a quart [two pints] of cream to the eggs
Try to avoid the bitter pith of the lemon when scraping the peel – ideally a tool for taking julienne strips should be used. As in all early recipes that we make (without the aid of a servant) this one takes a little time and attention, but it is so superior to readymade cartons of custard and it adds a truly luxurious element when served at Christmas on your deserts or pudding. Happy Christmas!