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.

A Rationing Hero


Lord Woolton. Photo from the E. Chambré Hardman Archive.

It is Remembrance Day and I want to honour all the men and women that kept the British population well fed during the Second World War.

First among many was Lord Woolton (1883-1964) who was the Minister of Food between April 1940 and November 1943.  He helped to make rationing a success and must be one of the few politicians to have given his name to a pie, the Woolton Pie.

He is a food hero because he helped to apply the new scientific knowledge of nutrition to rationing, organised a system that worked and helped people to make the most of the ingredients that were available.  The radio broadcasts, cookery demonstrations and leaflets produced during the War were particularly important.   You can listen to a 1942 broadcast, the Buggins Family on the Kitchen Front on the BBC’s website.

Born in Salford, Frederick Marquis (he didn’t become Lord Woolton until 1939) was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and later the University of Manchester.  He began his working life as a teacher then, in 1909, he took a job in Liverpool as the warden at the Liverpool University Settlement, a social welfare project. He stayed in Liverpool and went to work for Lewis’s, a big department store, becoming director in 1928 and chairman in 1936.  By the time the Second World War broke out he had already been involved in a number of government committees.

Important lessons had been learnt from the First World War, when rationing was introduced but it had been too little and too late.  By the time the Second World War broke out the government was much better prepared.

There were shortages during the War, the diet may have been dull and queuing common but people were fed.  That in itself was an achievement.  The fact that rationing helped improve the diet of so many people is downright impressive.

During the War Lord Woolton stayed out of party politics.  His strong Unitarian Christian beliefs drew him towards social reform and a welfare sate but as businessman he was anxious about too much government intervention in the economy.  After the War he joined the Conservatives and was the party chairman for many years.

ATeashop Revolutionary


Joseph Lyons. Image from http://www.kzwp.com.

Joseph Lyons (1847-1917) was a caterer who created a chain of well-loved teashops.

Born in London he was educated at the Borough Jewish school in the East End.  He had worked in various roles before being approached by some distance relatives to run a tea pavilion at the Newcastle Jubilee Exhibition in 1887.  The Gluckstein brothers and their business partner Barnett Salmon had noticed that the refreshments on offer at this type of big exhibition were poor.  They thought that they could do better and invited Joseph Lyons to front the business.

Catering at exhibitions proved so successful that a public company was founded, J. Lyons & Co, and, in 1894, the first Lyon’s teashop opened at 213 Piccadilly, London. By 1914 there were 180 Lyons teashops in city centres across England, more than any other company.

The teashops popularity was due to the fact that they served simple food in clean surroundings at affordable prices.  Joseph Lyon’s sense of showmanship also contributed to their success.  The teashops were beautifully decorated (red wallpaper, gas chandeliers and a fair amount of gold paint) and the waitresses (who became known as “nippies”) wore smart uniforms.

In 1909 the first of the larger Lyon’s Corner Houses appeared.  These were fancier establishments designed in an Art Deco style and included mini-food halls as well as several types of restaurant.

The last Lyons teashop closed in 1981.

A Proper Nutritionist


Harriette Chick at work in the 1930s. Image from the Wellcome Library.

Dr. Harriette Chick (1875 – 1977) was a nutritionist best known for her research on vitamins and rickets.

After qualifying as doctor of science in 1904 she applied to work at the Lister Institute .  Apparently, a few members of staff objected to her appointment on the grounds that she was a woman but, happily, the director, Charles Martin, appointed her anyway.  She worked there for over 50 years.

Harriette Chick’s main contribution was to the emerging science of nutrition.  In the wake of the First World War she led a research team to Vienna.  The War had resulted in food shortages and the population was severely malnourished.  Local doctors had noted an increase in rickets among children and similar bone deformities in adults.   At the time it was generally thought that rickets was an infectious disease. The research team, on the other hand, suspected that the problem was due to poor nutrition.

Working with the hospital staff Harriette’s team made changes to the patients’ diets and recorded the results.  The research demonstrated that rickets was caused by dietary deficiencies, specifically a lack of vitamin D.   The findings were published in 1923 as Studies of Rickets in Vienna.  Her notes from this time are held by the Wellcome Library.  They are scientific but they are also very human.  I especially like her recipe for “anchovy paste”.   It contains cod liver oil and marmite rather than anchovies but it would have contain plenty of vitamin D, which is what helped to fix the bendy bones of  the people in Vienna.

On her return to Britain Harriette became the head of a new department of nutrition at the Lister Institute.  She never married and lived to the ripe old age of 102.