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.