18th Century Self Sufficiency Manual


This only image in The Country Housewife's Family Companion.

This only image in The Country Housewife’s Family Companion.

I have just bought a copy of The County Housewife’s Family Companion by William Ellis (d.1758).  It was first published in 1750 and the wonderful Prospect Books have reprinted it.  The book includes recipes of the everyday foods eaten in rural England but it is more like a farmers’ survival guide than a cookery book.

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion covers a wide range of topics and reveals the sheer hard work needed to maintain a small farm and to feed everyone involved.  It covers the expected housewifery skills, such as baking and butter making, and then some.  For example, it explains the best way to grind wheat and how to feed the extra workers who come to get the harvest in (beef, bacon, picked pork, beans, puddings, pies, cheese, beer and ale).  It includes a vivid description of how to caponize cocks “…with a very sharp knife…” (pp. 216-217) as well as medical advice and remedies.  The description of how to prepare guts for sausage casings is a particularly telling example of the time consuming work needed to prepare food in a pre-industrial era.

“ Take the fresh guts of a sheep, and cut them into fathom or six foot long pieces; one parcel of guts will cut into six or eight such pieces; stroke the dung out, and put them into water just to wet them, turn them inside out, by the help of a stick, wash them, and scrape a pieces at a time as it likes on a table, with the back of a knife drawn along the inside skin thus turned outwards, and it will come off in two or three times scraping, and without breaking the gut, if it be rightly done; and in the same manner, the outward skin with scraping will come off at the end of the gut; then there will only remain the middle skin, that will appear about the bigness of a wheat straw.  And when all the pieces of the guts are thus scraped, cleaned, and prepared, put them into water made just lukewarm, for if it is too hot, they are all spoiled.  Now in this lukewarm water the guts must be washed clean; then put them into a glazed earthenware pot, with salt enough strewed over them, and they will keep sweet as long as you please.  And that the skins may appear truly fine and clear, put one end to your mouth and blow it, and then you may easily perceive whether the gut is entirely free of all outward skin or fur; for if it is nor, it must be presently taken off.”  (pp. 132-13)

William Ellis started farming in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire around 1717.  Before that he spent time working as a brewer and as an excise man.  The books that he wrote were popular and he earned his money from writing rather than from farming.

William Ellis’s book paints a picture of life just before the Agricultural Revolution transformed Britain.  I thought he was going to be the hero of this blog post but perhaps the real heroes and heroines were the army of individuals who worked incredibly hard to scrape a living and feed their families during the 18th century.

Day School in St Albans


On Saturday 4th October 2014 I will be teaching a day school at Verulamium Museum in St Albans – A Dozen People Who Changed What We Eat.

The course will deal with developments in food production, shopping and cooking between the 1770s and the 1970s.   It  will feature some of the people mentioned in this blog, such as Elizabeth Raffald, Joseph Lyons and Mrs and Mrs Sainsbury.  Thanks to the Wellcome Library it will include a showing of my favourite foodie film, Enough to Eat.  Made in 1936 this film draws on the work of some of the leading nutritional scientists of the era including Professor Sir Gowland Hopkins, Cambridge University and Sir John Boyd Orr, Director, Rowett Institute.

Tickets cost £25 and must be bought in advance.  Tickets include entry to the Museum.  Coffee and tea will be provided.  The course will run 10am – 2pm.  To book a place email me sue.davies@stalbans.gov.uk or call 01727 751810.

Food, Health and Income


John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) was a Scottish nutritional scientist, farmer and campaigner. He is a food hero because he engaged with the political world and used his scientific knowledge to improve global nutrition, which is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

Born in Ayrshire he trained as a doctor at Glasgow University where he won a gold medal for his thesis. In 1913 he was appointed to oversee the development of a new research institute at Aberdeen University. This project was interrupted by the First World War during which he served in the Army as a doctor and was at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Returning to Aberdeen in 1919 he used his considerable financial and persuasive skills to develop the Rowett Institute which was carrying out research into animal nutrition.

He was asked by the British government to investigate the idea of a national food policy and the resulting report, Food, Health and Income, was published in 1937. It made uneasy reading for those in government. It mustered considerable research to demonstrate that many people in Britain were simply too poor to eat a nourishing diet. The report stated,
“… a diet completed adequate for health according to modern standards is reached only at an income level above that of 50% of the population.” John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income, MacMillian, p.44

During World War Two he advised Lord Woolton and helped shape the wartime diet for the better. In 1945 he retired as the Director of the Rowett Institute and began a new international career becoming as the first Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He proposed a World Food Board to distribute food to where it was needed. It was an ambitious plan and when it failed Orr resigned in disappointment. It may have been a Utopian plan but you have to love him for trying.

Sago Heroes and / or Heroines


The sago palm by Jean-Theodore Descourtilz.  Image from www.thefind.com.

The sago palm by Jean-Theodore Descourtilz. Image from http://www.thefind.com.

When I was a girl I lived in Singapore and one of my fondest food memories is of eating gula melaka, a pudding made of sago, palm sugar and coconut milk.

Until recently I was unaware of how much work went into producing the sago pearls that are the basic ingredient in this pudding.  The transformation from palm tree into edible starch is such an unlikely process that I am nominating the unknown (at least to me) food technologists who discovered it.  In some parts of the world people have been eating sago for hundreds of years so they certainly wouldn’t have called themselves food technologists but that is what they were.

Sago appears to have made its way to Britain during the 18th century, presumably via British ships trading in South East Asia. Cookery books from this time include recipes for sweet sago puddings made with milk, cream, eggs, lemons and spices.  The 19th century cookery icon Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for a savoury sago soup and she gives a great description of the sago making process,

“In order to procure it, the tree is felled and sawn into pieces.  The pith is then taken out, and put in receptacles of cold water, where it is stirred until the flour separates from the filaments, and sinks to the bottom, where it is suffered to remain until the water is poured off, when it is taken out and spread on wicker frames to dry.  To give it the round granular form in which we find it comes to this country, it is passed through a colander, then rubbed into little balls, and dried.”

Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861 p.79

During the 19th century Singapore was a centre for sago processing and the  National Archives of Singapore has more information including oral histories with people who worked in the sago processing industry.

N.B. Sago and tapioca are very similar and can be used interchangeably but they come from different plants.  Sago is made from palms (and palm like plants) while tapioca comes from the root of the cassava.

Stay Calm with Elizabeth David


Elizabeth David.  Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

Elizabeth David. Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

“If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.”   From Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003) edited by Jill Norman, p.11.

Hooray for Elizabeth David (1913-1992).  I love her for wanting to go against the grain and, in the current frenzy of Christmas preparations, the quote above is a refreshing reminder that the simple pleasures are often the best.

Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) is often cited as the book that began to transform British cookery after the Second World War.  My Mum had a copy and I am sure we ate better because of it.   If that was the only book she wrote, it would be enough for her to qualify as a food heroine but she produced many other beautifully research books that are written in a way that makes you want to taste the food she describes.  My favourites are Summer Cooking (1955), English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) and The Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices (1994).

She knew her own mind and, although I know that she often spent Christmas with her sister’s family, I suspect that sometimes she did get her wish and retired to bed with a glass of champagne.  To find out more about her character and her rather adventurous life read Lisa Chaney’s biography Elizabeth David or the one by Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table.

Foriegn Food


In this week’s class we looked at foreign influences on British food.  My aim was to show that today’s British food is a result of our wider history.

If you deconstruct “traditional British” foods the foreign influence becomes evident.  Today a mug of builders’ tea seems a very British thing but neither the tea nor the sugar is originally from Britain.  Similarly ginger cake can hardly be considered foreign although McVitie’s recognise its origins by labelling their version “Jamaican Ginger Cake”.  These examples illustrate how we have incorporated foreign ingredients and adapted food traditions from abroad.

In the class we touched, briefly, on the history of the East India Company and the spice trade.  The East India Company was incredibly influential in establishing the British Empire.  It also had an impact on British Food.  To find out more about the history of the East India Company listen to this episode of In Our Time.

If you want to go further back in history and understand about what happened before Britain was British then I would recommend the book A Taste of History.   This will tell you how the Romans introduced plums, cabbages, onions and much more, that citrus fruits were first imported during the late 13th century and tomatoes during the 16th century.