Reading Louise’s blog yesterday got me thinking about the many different methods we use to get a sense of the past. I’m a great fan of photographs and paintings, those moments in sketches and portraits that give a glimpse of the personalities and preoccupations of the past. OK, I promise to stop with the alliteration for the moment. I’m also a great fan of the object. The book, the fragment of cloth, the dinner plate or the toy ship and all the questions they offer you as line of enquiry. Who made this? Who used it? Where did it come from and how did it end up here? (wherever here happens to be - junk shop, museum), but surprisingly enough this year the single thing that gave me most, fresh questions to ask, and insights into the 18th century, was a biscuit.
Let me explain. Early in the year I took a group of booksellers and bloggers on a short walking tour of central London to some of the locations that feature in my second book, Anatomy of Murder. Now, my concentration wavers if I don’t get fed on a regular basis, so I thought it would be a good thing to take something along
as a snack for us all, and as the book is set in the late 18th century, I thought I should aim for a late eighteenth century treat. I had just come across this: Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It’s a fascinating book, published first in 1747 and was one of the first practical cookery books published in English. So I found a biscuit recipe and asked my long suffering partner, Ned, to put a batch together.
He had quite a time of it. At first glance you can see that the basics of a biscuit as we know and love it are all there: sugar, flour, eggs and flavouring, but if the bakers among you start to look more closely, you’ll see there are some odd things going on. First of all that is a lot of eggs, probably three times as many as you’d use to make a cookie dough now. So were eggs much smaller in the 18th century? Probably. Certainly agriculture was going through a revolution and animals were getting a great deal fatter, but unless Hannah really wanted a dough that was an impossible
to shape at all, I’m going to go for yes, eggs much smaller. I’m four words into the recipe and already I thinking about the agricultural revolution in a fresh way.
Then there are the flavourings. Sack is a fortified white wine, from Spain or the Canaries, and sherry comes from the name of one sort of sack, but what did sack taste like in the 18th century? Was it much the same as sherry is now
? Sweet or dry? Why can I not get sack in the supermarket now? Port seems to have become popular in England early in the 18th century after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, but it doesn’t seem to have made it to the kitchen. Hannah mentions port once, in a recipe to pickle a buttock of beef, sack gets 53 mentions. And all that coriander! An ounce of seeds! Ned used a quarter and they still rather overpowered the rose water. Was that the foodie fashion of the time? Did coriander not taste as strong then as now, and how could that be? Then there is that beautiful detail of the feather as a tool in the kitchen instead of a brush. What sort of feather? Were they saved for this sort of use when you plucked a chicken? I have a sudden image of a woman applying egg-white onto her coriander cookies and the past is suddenly present, but at the same moment those seven lines of text have given me a quick reminder of some the questions we forget to ask.
The biscuits came out beautifully by the way, not like any biscuit I’ve had from a 21st century recipe book, but sweet and citrus and spicy, but then Ned is a fantastic cook. There, two things to remember if you want to be a historical novelist, ask yourself new questions and marry a great cook, the sort willing to turn the kitchen into a historical laboratory and report back. I might ask him to make the cordial poppy water next. Any recipe that begins ‘Take two gallons of very good brandy…’ sounds promising to me.
Oh, you can find a video version of the tour here. Apologies, but we ate all the biscuits.