Wednesday 21 September 2011

Have a biscuit by Imogen Robertson

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.

Instruments of Darkness

Anatomy of Murder

Island of Bones


catdownunder said...

It works with equal quantities of sugar and flour? Were they very sweet? I am genuinely curious!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Hear, hear! About marrying a great cook. Don't know what I'd do without my husband who cooks for me, also proofreads, does research and makes me drawings and maps!

I loved this post and can't wait to try a recipe with a "fpoonful of fack" rubbed over with a feather.

adele said...

That is wonderful! Quite fancy one of those biscuits right now!

Mary Hoffman said...

I'm not a fan of sweet things like cake and biscuits (just as well, or I'd be the size of a house) but I loved this post.

Just how a simple domestic piece of writing can lead someone with a curious mind into so many aspects of the past and "cook" them up into a story, as I imagine one day you will.

Theresa Breslin said...

Fascinating post Imogen! I use objects as inspiration all the time and there's nothing better than getting back to primary sources. Re the rose water, when I was writing The Nostradamus Prophecy I visited his house (now museum) in Salon-de-Provence and read through his recipes for Elixirs, Potions etc His formula involved picking almost 1,000 roses before dawn, crushing and boiling the flower heads and then adding 400 more! It's believed that his reputation as a successful plague doctor was made because the fleas that carry the disease from rats to humans could not stand the strong smell of his rose water mixture. It must have been a zillion times more pungent than modern perfumes.

Imogen said...

Cheers! Cat, they were quite sweet, but not half-as sweet as I thought they'd be. That said, Ned did add more flour to get a workable dough. The biggest flavour was definitely the coriander. That's fascinating about the Nostradamus perfumes. There's a great scent shop, Floris in St James's that's been open since 1730. I'd love to know how their perfumes have changed over the years... I do recommend the book all, there's gold on every page...

none said...

I have a copy of Apicus's Roman cookbook that I dive into whenever my characters want to eat. I've often thought about trying some of the recipes, but they're so vague! Also, not a great cook, nor married to one. In fact, my family don't seem to like cooking much at all.

Caroline Lawrence said...

BuffySquirrel you should get Sally Grainger's book called Cooking Apicius. She's a re-enactor & hands-on cook of Roman recipes. She really tries them out. She's so good that she has appeared on several documentaries and has a regular gig at the Getty Villa in Malibu.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wonderful post! I learn so much, excuse me while I go for a snack. I'm suddenly quite hungry.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! At the literary kitchen we have been trying to make marchpane with a recipe from a 16th-century marchpane, and we were also wondering how to interpret a recipe of the time.. The result was great, but somehow quite different from 21st-century biscuits!

If you ever have the time to stop by our blog, here is the link: .