Archive for the 'Cookery and Consumables' Category

Cookery Books and Pickled Beef

Cookery Books and Pickled Beef

Hello! I cannot believe The Queen’s Scullery closed its doors nine months ago, can you? It was nice to have a break. I thought maybe it was for good, but then something happened to awaken the kraken, as they say. I have been fortunate enough to sign a book deal for all the recipes I have reworked for The Queen’s Scullery. The book should be out next year, I hope in spring.

In the meanwhile, I will be editing the book like a mad thing,  tinkering with some of the recipes that I feel I need another pass at, and I will try to mention them here and put up some pictures. I never finished wrasslin with jaunemange, and I’m convinced there’s a way to turn it out without ISENGLASS, for the love of hoop skirts, so I need to wrap that up and make it taste not like horrible burning death.

The cookbook will be a tiny bit academic, feature discussions of techniques, ingredients, and cooking methods, and will of course contain 100+ recipes that I have pulled out of the Book of Household Management and reworked for modern cooks (imperial and metric). It will have a 23-word title, inspired by my hero, Dr. William Kitchiner. Take that, Daniel Pinkwater. (Pardon the librarian hoomor.)

What have I been doing otherwise? It’s pickling season. I did pickled eggs recently but I’m embarrassed to show you because they are so torn up from being boiled brand-new-fresh out of chicken butts. Amateur hour!

BOUNTY!

The Dill Stalks at Midnight

Pickled lemon cucumbers YUM YUM YUM YUM

Pickled Beef

This, above, lately, is the new jam of cows. The excellent cookbook and early-fall savior, The Joy of Pickling, pictured above in the bean and cucumber picture, is responsible for this pickled beef. So simple and so delicious!

So–how are you? Any food adventures to report or links to share?

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Has Beans!

Has Beans!

Throughout this project I have been haunted by the question – what types of vegetables did people grow in Melbourne during the Victorian era (well haunted might be an overstatement … so Victorian). Discovering the answer to this question has not been straight forward. This is an update on an earlier post in which I searched through a collection of ancient seed catalogues in the National Herbarium of Victoria‘s library.  The selection of vegetable seeds available in each catalogue was surprisingly small.  There were artichoke, cabbage, carrot, turnip, onion and other basics. Mmmm…

…so I began trawling other other library collections…

My next step was to visit the State Library of Victoria, in June, a magnificent Victorian beauty, in the heart of Melbourne’s Central Business district.  I went to the State Library to read an original copy of ‘The Colonial Gardener : being a guide to the routine of gardening in Australia with a catalogue of select kitchen, garden and flower seeds as sold by Smith, Adamson and Co, 1854‘. This short pamphlet, with a surprisingly long title, published twenty years after the settlement of Melbourne is now digitized and available to read on-line (and as SJ has said – the Victorians would have loved the internet. I did however enjoy the experience of handling an original copy).

Reading Room at SLV - or what the afterlife looks like!

The ‘Colonial Gardener’ provides advice to commercial and beginner gardeners in an almanac style. I love the foreword to the pamphlet – authentic 1850′s marketing spiel!

“At considerable trouble and expense, we have got the following calendar compiled, by a thorough gardener to meet a very obvious want. It has been criticised by and had the approval of some of the oldest resident gardeners in the colony and though printed principally for the guidance of our non-professional customers, professional gardeners but of short experience in the colony might do worse than be guided by it. It may not enter sufficiently into detail to satisfy all, but we flatter ourselves that the information it does give is substantially correct. Smith, Adamson and Co.”

Finally, a proper list of vegetables! The interesting thing about the ‘Colonial Gardener’ is that it shows the beginnings of working out how to grow vegetables in the new colony. The entries each month provide general growing advice, invariably refer to the unpredictability of rainfall and the extremes of temperature. One of the interesting things I’ve noted about their advice is that they are encouraging gardeners to plant ‘a little and often’ this is still great advice as it means that you have a succession of vegetables available rather than them being ready all at once. This is something that I still struggle with as a gardener because once I’m out there with the seed packet open I’m in a planting kind of mood! ‘Little and often’ also has the advantage of ensuring that in an unpredicatable climate you are more likely to get at least some of your crop. Very clever Messers Smith and Adamson!

My next challenge is to see how many of the seed varieties listed in ‘The Colonial Gardener’ still exist in modern seed catalogues. This task is likely to take longer than the life of this blog – so at the end of December 2010 I will move this research to my regular gardening blog.

Making a start on this research in June the first Victorian vegetables to go into my garden were broad beans (Yes Fava Beans! Liver and Chianti fffff). The Colonial Garden lists two bean varieties for planting in June: the Mazagan and the Long Pod. Looking in the American Heirloom Seed Companies catalogue the Mazagan are described as an early fruiting dwarfed plant.  I can’t find seeds available to Australia so far.

Long Pod have also been hard to identify as there seems to be a long list of bean types that have been called Long Pods – the Mr Smith of the vegetable world. In Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management – The Art of Gardening, Mrs B cautiously promotes both the Mazagan and Early Long Pod with the following advice

“…but whatever sort is grown, the culture is the same, and as it is not a favorite vegetable with many persons, it should be carefully considered how much ground can be devoted to it without encroaching on space required for more important crops”.

Crimson Broad Bean in flower by October (mid-spring Melbourne)

Eventually I found an ‘Early Long Pod’ Broad Bean in the Australian Yates Seed Catalogue. I love broad beans so despite Mrs B’s warning I planted a whole garden bed and added some ‘Crimson Flowered’ Broad Beans another old variety of bean rescued from extinction by seed savers in the 1970′s. One of the main themes that I keep returning to in my reading, and it is especially evident when you look at old fruit catalogues or read ‘The Victorian Kitchen Garden’ by Jennifer Davies, we have far less variety of vegetable seeds available to us now than the Victorian gardeners had.  One of the losses that I feel most keenly is that we no longer have the knowledge of what grows well in our own neighborhoods and in many cases we have lost the plants.

Now it is November (late-spring in Melbourne) and there are broad beans ready to eat. They have grown so well this year as the weather has stayed wet and humid. Our first wet spring in ten years! I harvested a big pile and turned to Mrs Beeton’s Household Management to see if she included receipies for broad beans.

Has beans!

Young beans liberated from their pods.

Here is Mrs B’s receipe

1092. INGREDIENTS – To each 1/2 gallon of water, allow 1 heaped tablespoonful of salt; beans.

Mode.—This is a favourite vegetable with many persons, but to be nice, should be young and freshly gathered. After shelling the beans, put them into boiling water, salted in the above proportion, and let them boil rapidly until tender. Drain them well in a colander; dish, and serve with them separately a tureen of parsley and butter. Boiled bacon should always accompany this vegetable, but the beans should be cooked separately. It is usually served with the beans laid round, and the parsley and butter in a tureen. Beans also make an excellent garnish to a ham, and when used for this purpose, if very old, should have their skins removed.

Time.—Very young beans, 15 minutes; when of a moderate size, 20 to 25 minutes, or longer.

Boiled Ham Beans and Swirls of Parsley Butter - Yummy!

Something to bear in mind is that if you salt and boil tender young broad beans for 15 to 25 minutes they will taste and look like grey sludge (hence Mrs B’s contradictory views on the enjoyment of beans). My advice is to get some unsalted water boiling rapidly and blanch for 3 minutes any longer and they are yuck, yuck, yucky.

Parsley butter (cut parsley up finely and mix with butter) was a revelation with the ham and beans and is really worth trying. I made little swirls with a piping bag rather than placing in ‘a tureen’ as directed – with only two to feed a tureen would be over-kill and the parsley butter doesn’t keep very well.

All in all I highly recommend growing and eating broad beans with or without cannibalism and Chianti.

Time Traveling to Tute’s Cottage, Castlemaine

There is a garden in country Victoria that I’ve been wanting to see ever since Mandy Stroebel’s fantastic new book ‘Gardens of the Goldfields – A central Victorian sojourn’ came out in July this year – Tute’s Cottage. This tiny cottage now jammed between a road reserve and the Forest Creek embankment was built in 1858 when the surrounding area was still being mined for gold. Tute’s cottage was occupied under miner’s rights – the right to fence off a small amount of land to create a productive garden, these types of gardens were amongst the first gardens of settlement, and were not owned by the occupiers but leased from the Crown.

Tute's Cottage - lived in by 'Miner's rights' from 1858 to 1997.

In Mandy’s book she describes her project to recreate an 1850′s productive garden in the bones of the remaining allotment garden at Tute’s. This garden is now looked after by a collective of neighbours who live near the cottage and is occasionally open to the public – especially on Castlemaine’s Open Garden Weekend – the weekend after the Melbourne Cup each year.

Broad Beans (Back Left) growing in Tute's Cottage Garden.

Mandy also notes the difficulty of finding nurseries and seed catalogues that still stock Victorian seed varieties and plants. You will see in the photo of Tute’s Garden that the beds are edged with local sandstone rocks. Miners had to be resourceful in creating their productive plots from materials at hand and gardens of this period were often edged with bones or bottles – these were subsistence rather than pleasure gardens.

If you feel like time traveling to the 1850′s and can’t afford a Tardis or Star Gate then a day in Castlemaine during the yearly Garden Festival is the strategy for you. Failing that boil up some broad beans and ham.

Mint Juleps? Yarm!

Mint Juleps?  Yarm!

I was reading about bootleg bourbon and came across a note about the fermentation stage. Grind up a bunch of corn, mix with water, warm up, and then leave it in the woods to get stanky. Kind of like coming back from a week’s vacation to discover you forgot to wash out the polenta pot, except with bourbon, you do it on purpose. So that’s kind of gross, but it gets better.

Back in the day I baked lemon bars and forgot to cover them up before going to bed. I came back and there were tiny mouse footprints all over the lemon curd. Similarly, the bootleggers hop in their Charger and peace out back to their farm leaving a giant cauldron of corn goo in the woods. And approximately the same thing happens to the goo that happened to my lemon bars. Which, again, is kind of nasty. And, again, it gets better.

Possums being the horrible reprobates they are will find the corn mash, climb in, and start chomping. Unfortunately for the possums and also for the corn mash, they don’t hold their liquor too well. They have a tendency to get super drunk, pass out, and drown in the mash. But hey, a little possum never hurt anyone, right? So we’ll go ahead and distill the mash.

I shouldn’t like mint juleps, I really shouldn’t. Or any other cocktail made of bourbon. I know about the possums in the bootleg stills. I shouldn’t be able to calmly sip a julep from a sweating glass, but you know what? I can do it. No possum’s going to be the boss of me. And anyway, look at these gorgeous cups.

The julep has been around a long time. It shows up in Beeton’s. And I found a bunch of old recipes for various versions. Though I notice that neither of these use any possum bourbon:

AMERICAN MINT JULEP
Put into a tumbler glass some powdered sugar, a bunch of spear-mint, a wine-glass of sherry wine, the same quantity of brandy, and fill the tumber[sp] with broken ice.


Mint Julep
.–To equal quantities of rum, cognac, and sugar, add fresh mint, herb, and fill the glass half full with gin and water.

So what’s my point? Don’t have one. It’s summer. I’m going home and have a julep.

The Tea Trade

The Tea Trade

It’s hard for me to imagine England without tea.  High tea in the afternoon with scones, three kinds of jam, and terribly unsatisfying sandwiches.  The gentry taking tea in paper-thin porcelain cups after doing in a fox who seriously wasn’t asking for it.  John Cleese as some ridiculous character drinking his tea with his pinkie out so far, passerby are endangered.  But how’d it get that way?  Tea is from China, after all, half a world away.

The tea shrub (Camellia sinensis) is thought to be native to that part of the world where India, China, Burma and Tibet rub shoulders.  But it was first widely cultivated in China.  People have grown and drunk tea in China for so long that it’s origins are archaeological, rather than historical.  But for our purposes the important part is that when the British began trading with China, all the world’s tea was in China.

Cultivation of tea is a good deal more involved than say growing tomatos.  After propogation the tea plant requires pruning for ease of harvest and to get the maximum output.  Once picked, the tea requires several processing steps to produce a finished product.  Besides all of the worlds tea plants growing in China, so were all of the people who knew how to grow and process tea.  Europeans thought green tea and black tea came from different plants.  Botanists even went so far as naming two different tea plants, one black and one green.

The British would have to trade, but that wouldn’t turn out to be so easy.  Tea is a mountain plant, growing well as high as the foothills of the Himalayas.  Good tea growing geography is not so good for growing grain like wheat and rice, and tea was traditionally traded within china for food.  When the British trade ships arrived in China, the Chinese did not particularly need a new tea market, were not that excited at the prospect of British trade goods, and were not at all interested in cultural exchange.  Foreign traders were restricted to the port of Canton and the only trade good the Chinese would accept was silver, not something in over abundance in England.

With the almost complete disinterest China had in British traders and with the restrictions placed upon those traders, it’s a bit surprising that coffee didn’t become the caffinated beverage of choice in England.  But the history of Europe is not particularly harmonious.  The Portugese and Dutch traders were already established in the coffee growing regions of Africa and not at all interested in competition from the British East India Company.  The British had taken over large tracts of land in Ceylon to grow coffee.  But the plantations fell victim to a fungal epidimic, almost totally demolishing production.  So goodbye Ceylon, for now, but we’ll come to back to you in awhile.

Now back to Canton.  Paying silver for tea was expensive.  In a story reminiscent of the triangular trade of molasses for rum for slaves, the British hit upon growing opium in India to trade to China for tea which was then sold in England.  Part of the money from the sale of the tea was then used to pay for troops to maintain control in India. Troops were quite necessary to maintain control in India.  The opium was grown on land traditionally used for cotton or food production, leading to economic hardships for the Indian workers.

China was and is immensely large, populous, and tough.  It’s central government was quite well established.  The British East India Company was able to continue trading opium for tea in the face of Chinese objections.  But there was essentially no posibility of them colonizing China as they had done in India.  Up to this time, all the tea in China was still all the tea in the world.  But this was about to change.

Let’s now return to the ruined coffee plantations of Ceylon and the jungles of India.  A botanist named Robert Fortune managed to secure tea plants.  Using elephants and Indian laborers, they cleared vast areas of Indian jungle to plant tea gardens.  Eventually, the tea harvests of India and Ceylon rivaled those of China, which is kind of amazing considering that before the Victorian era, neither country grew any tea at all.  When I consider how the colonization of India effected British kitchens, I usually think of curry.  But that’s nothing compared to tea.

Sources:
Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937
Tea: The Drink that Changed the World
Wikipedia

Timeline of the Tea Trade

1557 Portugal trades with China at Macao
1600 British East India Co. chartered
1619 British East India Co. establishes factory in Western India
1657 Dutch trade tea in London
1662 Catherine of Braganza marries Charles II, bringing habit of tea drinking from Dutch capital to London. Marriage allows British access to trade routes controlled by Dutch
1669 First tea imported by British East India Co.
1685 All Chinese ports open for trade
1715 All Chinese ports except Canton closed
1729 Chinese edict against using opium
1750 > 10 million lbs. tea imported by British
1757 Battle of Plassey
1758 Parliament grants British East India Co. monopoly to produce opium in India
1796 British East India Co. switchs to trading tea for opium via independant traders
1799 Chinese edict against importing opium
1803 Anglo-Maratha conflicts begin
1805 Anglo-Maratha conflicts end
1830 Son of Chinese emperor dies of opium overdose
1834 British East India Co. monopoly on trading tea from China ends
1840 First Opium War begins
1842 First Opium War ends, Treaty of Nanking opens ports to British and cedes Hong Kong
1848 Conquest of the Sikhs in India
1848 Robert Fortune collects and ships to India twenty-thousand high-quality tea plants, in addition to instruction from 8 Chinese tea experts
1856 Second Opium War begins
1857 India becomes British colony
1858 Second Opium War ends, Treaty of Tientsin opens more ports and allows Christian missionaries into China
1862 2 million lbs lbs tea imported from India
1866 6 million lbs tea imported from India, 90% of British tea still from China
1869 Fungus begins killing coffee plants in Ceylon
1888 86 million lbs tea imported from India, for the first time more tea from India than China
1900 Tea replaces coffee as major crop in Ceylon
1911 End of opium shipments to China by British East India Co.

Grenadine in the 1800s

Grenadine in the 1800s

Bartenders have always seemed arcane to me.  They’re separated from the crowd by a waist-high wall surrounded by mysterious substances in bottles.  Ask them for a drink by a strange name like “Rusty Nail” or “Bay Breeze“, and they start pouring, stirring, and shaking moving so quickly who knows what went in.  And with a flourish, you receive a sweating glass.  Abracadabra, basically.

I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious ingredients that was present in Victorian cocktails.  I think of grenadine as sweetened food coloring.  Actually, these days that’s what it is.  Most bars in the States use Rose’s Grenadine, which is food coloring and corn syrup.  But in Victorian times, grenadine was fruit flavored syrup, usually made from pomegranate juice.  The name is from the French word for pomegranate, though it can be made from cherry, currant, or raspberry as well.  Regardless, it is always a red sweet-sour syrup.

Pomegranates trees were grown in glass houses in Victorian England.  But the climate wasn’t right for setting fruit out of doors.  Still, there were close-by sources of pomegranates to make grenadine syrup.  Pomegranate trees were planted widely all over the Mediteranean.  Grenada in southern Spain is even named after the pomegranate.  And something like a modern Italian soda made from grenadine syrup was available in France.  “…In the French cafes, the visitor will find a number of light beverages that will not compromise his health, such as the fruit syrups, Orgeat or Grenadine, with seltzer water…”

In modern times, pomegranates are known as a good source of antioxidants which are thought to have various health benefits.  Victorians didn’t know about antioxidants but they also considered pomegranates health food.  Lord Bacon recommended wine made from pomegranates as a remedy for liver problems.  And recipes for pomegranate syrup show up in druggist and pharmacist literature of the 1800s.  This is just a guess, but the use of grenadine in cocktails may possibly be an outgrowth of an older use as an aperitif or digestif.

Here’s the recipe I used to make pomegranate syrup:

  • 16 oz. pomegranate juice
  • 1/2 oz. lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. vanilla extract
  • 16 oz. syrup
  • sufficient soda foam

I couldn’t figure out what soda foam was, so I skipped it.  I’m hoping it was either a preservative of some kind, and keeping the syrup in the refrigerator will cover for it, or they just meant to serve the syrup with enough soda water to make a nice drink.  Syrup usually means simple syrup, but modern grenadine is insanely sweet.  So I went 3 to 1, water to sugar, instead of the usual 1 to 1.  The result was brown rather than red, started with a strong vanilla burst (I’d go with 1/4 oz. next time), and tasted fruity instead of New Jersey.

grenadine ingredients

grenadine ingredients

How did it work in cocktails?  First I made Italian sodas.  Those are just soda and syrup, so I thought it’d be easier to taste the difference.  The tasters could tell the difference, but generally liked New Jersey better.  They said it tasted a lot sweeter.  I assume that’s because of the corn syrup and because the Roses doesn’t have the sour ingredients like lemon and pomegranate.  The kid picked the bright red one because she liked the color better.

italian soda

italian soda

Next I made Singapore Slings from this recipe:

  • 2 shots gin
  • 1 shot cherry brandy
  • 1 shot lemon juice
  • 1 tsp grenadine

The tasters either couldn’t tell the difference or guessed wrong which was which.  Not surprising really.  Flavor-wise, there’s a lot going on in a Singapore Sling.

singapore sling

singapore sling

I’m a bit disheartened about how this turned out.  I love how classic bars still have weird ingredients that are made in a monastery from a secret combination of herbs.  Some of the inventors might have called themselves alchemists or wizards.  My sample size was two, but apparently people like corn syrup and food dye better than fruit juice and romantic history.

–update 5/5/2010–  I made another batch of grenadine with a lot less vanilla.  The flavor still came through extremely strong.  Apparently if you don’t want it to taste like vanilla, don’t put any in.  Yeah, I perhaps ought to have figured that out.  In other news, I gave most of the first batch to some friends of mine.  According to them, it makes amazing cherry cokes.  Which is strange because it contains no cherries.  The human tongue is a strange and wonderful creature, I guess.

Driving Six-Up Mushrooms

Driving Six-Up Mushrooms

I pickled some mushrooms per instructions in Beetons.  Why mushrooms, you might ask, rather than something standard like cucumbers?  Well, it’s February, and the cucumbers at the grocery are looking mangy and expensive, while the mushrooms look great, cozily tucked into their mounds of steaming horse manure.

Speaking of disease vectors, just then I caught a lovely virus.  It was pretty standard as these things go.  The usual getting kicked by a mule feeling the microbes are so good at.  One day of high fever followed by six days of low fever and dragging around like I’d given up caffeine.  I did switch from coffee to tea because in my weakened condition, I probably couldn’t fight off whatever is living in the urn at work.  How is my health related to pickles?  How are mule hooves related to bottoms.

When I healed up a bit, I took a bleary look at the jars.  I eat pickled mushrooms all of the time, but I’d never made any.  So when I made the ones from the Beetons recipe, I also made a batch with a modern recipe that looked reasonably close in terms of preparation and ingredients to the nineteenth century version.  I wanted some comparison so that if I ended up giving the Beetons mushrooms the raspberry, I’d know it wasn’t just because pickling mushrooms is really hard and I’d fouled up the recipe.

The modern recipe called for simmering the mushrooms in the pickling liquid, while the old-school recipe called for cooking them in a dry pan until they gave up their juices and continuing until those juices had dried back up.  That takes a lot longer and makes a pan that’s real hard to scrub out, the dried-out mushroom juice causes a lot of murk in the jar.  The modern recipe is hands-down easier and gives a prettier result, but how about flavor?

Mushrooms with salt and herbs

Mushrooms with salt and herbs

Spice-wise, Beetons calls for mace and nothing else.  The modern recipe has allspice, peppercorns, onion, and bay.  I liked the mixture of spices in the modern recipe a bit better, but the real deal breaker with the Beetons recipe was the pickling liquid.  The modern recipe calls for 1/3 vinegar with water making up the rest.  Beetons calls for pure paint-stripping vinegar.  Everyone who tried them said biting into the Victorian pickles was like a mule kick in the tongue.

Pickled mushrooms in the jar

Pickled mushrooms in the jar

To be fair, the Victorian recipe was designed to be shelf stable without canning, while the modern recipe has to stay in the fridge.  Old pickle recipes that use salt brine rather than vinegar used to require enough salt to float an egg.  That’s a ten-percent solution.  Pickles preserved in ten-percent salt brine would have needed a couple days soaking in fresh water to remove some of the salt before eating.  I’ll make more pickles as the fruits and vegetables come into season.  I imagine dealing with the kick of the strong salt or vinegar solutions will continue to be the major challenge.

Modern Cookery and Flavored Vinegars

Modern Cookery and Flavored Vinegars

I return to the world of Victorian cooking fresh from a February vacation with two children in the grip of cabin fever and a roof that decided to relocate, in part, to my front lawn.  It’s good to be back in the land of butter and sheep’s head!

In the rare free moments I’ve had over the past two weeks I cheated on Beeton and spent time exploring Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families.  Acton was a poet-turned-cookery author whose Modern Cookery predated Mrs. Beeton’s book by about 16 years.  Beeton actually jacked over one hundred recipes from Modern Cookery for her own book; what a naughty little devil she was.  In any case, you can read Eliza’s book online here, or read the great bio of her (including a poem) here.  Her poetry, by the way… not too bad.  Don’t expect it to bleed into the cook book in any significant way, although she does get lyrical on occasion (to boil lobsters, “throw them into plenty of fast-boiling salt and water, that life may be destroyed in an instant.”  Poor, lifeless, tasty lobsters.)  It’s not that it’s a poorly written book – it’s not – but it’s hardly a lyrical masterpiece.  Instead, it’s collection of simply described recipes, written out with amounts and specifics not often included in books of this kind prior to its publication.  I would say that Mrs. Beeton takes things a step further in terms of standardizing measurements, and she also gives some more suggestions on how to use certain sauces and other dishes than Acton does.  But all in all, I’ve really enjoyed reading Modern Cookery, and I’ve only just scratched the surface.

I choose to try out three of her recipes for flavored vinegars.  Mrs. Beeton uses them with some variations in her book, but since these are not complicated recipes, nor are they earth-shatteringly new ideas on how to flavor vinegar, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they were stolen.  I tried Acton’s Green Mint Vinegar, Celery Vinegar, and Cucumber Vinegar.  They each involve, very simply, pouring vinegar over the main ingredient, adding salt and pepper (and in the case of the celery, cayenne pepper – really), keeping it closed for about one to two months, then straining and using it.  In Mrs. Beeton’s book she suggests using these types of vinegars for salads, and Acton mentions using them in any sauce which requires an acid.

I had a hard time remembering not to jam the jars full, since I was not pickling the ingredients, but rather flavoring the vinegar with them.  I’m curious how they will taste, especially the mint and celery, and I plan on using the mint for something when I’m done with it, as Acton mentions can be done.  So…  at the end of April perhaps I’ll try these with the first greens of the season!  Any other ideas on what to use them for are quite welcome and encouraged.

Scented Geraniums and Stealing Cuttings

Scented Geraniums and Stealing Cuttings

We are coming to the end of the summer in Melbourne. Leaf-curl Spiders have strung their webs and leaf hammocks throughout the garden and the morning air is decidedly crisp despite the paper’s promise of afternoon heat. These are the first stirrings of autumn in the garden and the deciduous leaves will soon be turning and falling. As Mrs Beeton suggests it is time for the Under Gardener to plan for winter and time to take Geranium cuttings to increase the plants available for display next spring.

1817 Geraniums. Now that the planting-out season may be considered over, attention should at once be directed towards furnishing a supply of plants for another year. The class of plants which will require propagation first are geraniums, of which both the fancy and common bedding kinds must be struck in time to get established in small pots before winter, and the different scarlets and horseshoes and zonal sorts. There is no plant more useful for decorative purposes; many are, besides, deliciously fragrant, and there is none whose cultivation is more simple.

Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.

Geraniums are great plants! They are fabulously egalitarian growing in just about every garden in Melbourne from the burbs to Toorak mansions. One of the reasons they are so popular is that they are very easy to grow from cuttings; so easy they are practically free. They were swapped and traded by early Victorian settlers and as an ongoing tribute to our convict ancestry they are still stolen from botanic and backyard collections today. I am descended from a man transported from Britain to the Australian colonies for the ‘term of his natural life’ for “using exciting language and inciting men to riot” so I know that crime is wrong – very wrong.

Striking Geranium Cuttings

Striking Geraniums

To grow a Geranium from a cutting all you need to do is break a piece off a large plant. If you are doing this by moonlight while hanging over your neighbour’s fence just remember not to make enough noise to wake their Pit-bulls.

Remove three sets of leaves from the bottom of the cutting carefully so as not to strip the stem.  Once you have removed these leaves dip the bottom end of the cutting in honey. The honey will help to stop the cutting from rotting and will promote root growth. Then pinch out or cut off the top pair of leaves, make a hole in a pot of soil with a stick or your finger and place the cutting into the soil.

Keep watered and warm.

The pots then needs to be keep damp and warm until the next spring. I place the pots on a sunny outside window sill through the winter.

In colder climates the pots will need to be taken into a glasshouse or sunny inside window until spring as Geraniums are not frost hardy.

When is a Geranium a Pelargonium?

If you are interested in learning the difference between Geraniums and Pelargoniums then have a look at this link. Confusingly Geraniums and Pelargoniums (both members of the family Geraniaceae) are commonly called Geraniums. To avoid confusion (and annoy the botanists) I’m going to just call them all Geraniums!

Biodiversity and the Collecting Bug

Geraniums from South Africa were first introduced to Europe in the 1600′s and to Britain via Paris by John Tradescant the Elder in the 1700′s.  During the Victorian Era they became extremely popular and the craze for collecting and breeding new hybrids sweep through Europe, America and Australia.

A very diverse family of plants!

Depending on which book you read there are now some 2000 varieties of Geraniums and you can see in the photograph on the left that there is an enormous variety of flower colour, form and leaf shape available in these genera.

The other reason that Geraniums were so loved by the Victorians is their enormous range of leaf perfumes. It is possible to find varieties that smell like rose, lemon, ginger, cinnamon, mint, incense, pyrethrum, southern-wood, nuts, balsam, apple-cider, nutmeg, orange, coconut and fusions of this list such as minty-lemon or lemony-rose.

The Victorians grew Scented Geraniums along the edges of pathways or placed pots inside in winter where wide crinoline skirts would brush past and release their scent.

A Vase of Geraniums for the Library.

Cut Flowers

I had a go at following the technique for placing flowers in a wide vase outlined in the BBC’s Victorian Flower Garden DVD.  Instead of modern green oasis block Victorian Head Gardeners would cut lots of small pieces of English Box and place these in the vase to hold the flowers.

I don’t have any Box in my garden so I cut pieces of Rosemary to hold up the smaller Geranium flowers.  I think it works well but it would look neater if I had cut all the pieces very short and evenly.

In the Kitchen and Household

Lemon Scented Sugar

The Victorians used Scented Geraniums to make flavored sugars. I have a Lemon Geranium in my backyard which smells just like Lemonade Icy Poles. Australians will know exactly the smell that I mean. I guess the smell is just about the same as Lemon Verbena but fizzy.

Rose Geranium leaves baked into Plain Cake

To make the flavored sugar all you need to do is layer the Geranium leaves in sugar and seal in a jar for two weeks in a warm spot.  As I have learnt from bitter experience it is a good idea to make sure that you have flicked all the insects off the leaves before entombing them in sugar. You then sieve out the leaves and use the sugar to flavor desserts or dust on cakes.

In Denise Greig’s book Scented Geraniums and Pelargoniums she describes how the Victorians flavored cakes with Geranium leaves. So I had a go by placing Rose Geranium leaves at the bottom of a buttered cake tin before pouring in Plain Cake batter.

Dust icing sugar over leaves as stencils

Once the cake was baked I peeled off the cooked leaves, placed fresh leaves on top of the cake and sprinkled over icing sugar. I think this makes a nice pattern on the cake. So did it taste of Rose Geranium? Well no actually; not to me. The Master of the house said that he could taste a faint herby rose flavor which he liked. Not sure I would try this again unless I find a really strongly rosy Geranium.

A Scarlet Geranium Buttonhole

Geranium Buttonhole

While doing the research for this article I came across what looks like a fabulous book, A Passion for Pelargoniums, by Anne Wilkinson. In one of the extracts of the book that I read online Anne describes the Scarlet Geranium as Charles Dickens’ favourite flower and one that he frequently wore.

Unfortunately this book has not been published in Australia and mysteriously we can no longer buy books like this via Amazon (what’s going on Amazon?). So my family in the UK will help out by sending it to me. I just wanted to share my frustration in not being able to get me hands on this book immediately!

The extracts speak tantalizingly of the Victorian craze for collecting plants and the criminal lengths that people would go to to get their hands on that elusive Geranium specimen. I have read about the wanton Orchid and the Orchid thieves in their thrall. Who ever would have though that the gentle Geranium so frilled, flounced and proper could excite such passions? There is something so addictive about the Scented Geraniums. I can feel the irrational need to seek out and find that Apple-Cider scented one – I need it now and I don’t know why! There is a Dark-Purple Flowered Geranium in a house around the corner from me; when you see me on the news being carted away in a police van you will know that it was all in the name of Victorian authenticity – your Honour!

Hard Labor with Costume Changes (and Preserving Pineapple)

Hard Labor with Costume Changes (and Preserving Pineapple)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself until I started flipping through Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders.  I’m a working mom with a long commute, so I am, legitimately, an overworked and often tired person.  Compared to a Victorian-era maid-of-all-work, however, I’m a huge slacker who sits around with her feet up all day.  All I need is some bon bons to complete the picture.  Judith Flanders creates some pretty vivid descriptions of the kind of life these women led and the hard labor (complete with costume changes!) they put into every day.  Here’s just a quick peek:

“… She folded up the hearth rug for shaking outside and laid a coarse cloth over the carpet so that she could put down the blacklead box, the cinder sifter, and the fire irons.  Cleaning the grate, fire irons, and the fender – which had to be done daily – was supposed to take twenty minutes but often took longer.  The fire was then lit to warm the room before the family came downstairs for breakfast.  Then she cleaned and rubbed the furniture, washed the mantelpiece and any ledges, dusted the ornaments.  She strewed damp, used tea leaves, rinsed the day before, over the carpet to help collect the dust, then swept them up again…  This was the last of the early-morning dirty work, and now the maid was expected to change into a clean cotton dress, apron, and cap.”

And this was just a very small piece of what she did after getting up, cleaning the kitchen, lighting the range, cleaning the boots, and making breakfast.  The family, presumably, is not even awake at this point in the day.  For me, loading the dishwasher after sitting at a desk all day suddenly seems like a breeze.

I’ve just scratched the surface of  Inside the Victorian Home, but I’m enjoying it so far.  I’ve been struggling to put Mrs. Beeton’s book in an accurate context, and this book is helping me move from the Victorian England I know from movies and half-remembered History classes towards something a bit more fact-based.  I’ll put together a review when I’ve had time to get through the whole thing.  Maybe after I shake out the hearth rug and put on a clean dress.

So what I’ve managed to squeeze in between being super busy and reading about women who were even busier is Preserved Pineapple, for Present Use  [1579].  Notice the contradiction in the title?  This isn’t the recipe for Preserving Pineapple [1578] which keeps for some unspecified amount of time; this recipe is for pineapple that’s preserved but that doesn’t keep (Beeton’s recipe actually advices, “It must be eaten soon, as it will keep but a very short time.”).  So this doesn’t fall under the “preserved foods” section of my Beeton adventures; it’s actually closer to comfort food.

The recipe is quite simple – you boil the peel and core of a pineapple for 15 minutes, strain it, boil the pineapple in the same liquid for 10 minutes, add as much sugar as you want (“to sweeten the whole nicely”), boil it again for 15 minutes, and then you’re done.

Doesn't look like such a great idea, does it?

This recipe actually fits best under the category “things you boil the hell out of” and I expected it would taste like most things that undergo that sort of treatment – bland, flat, just generally unappealing.  But Beeton surprises as only she can.  Boiling a pineapple for an ungodly amount of time  actually improves its consistency – it’s not at all stringy or tough, as it can sometimes be when it’s fresh, but it’s also not mushy.  It held its shape but came apart easily with the back of a spoon.  And it had a full, almost smoky flavor that I wasn’t expecting.  I might actually try using this in a savory recipe if I make it again.  The addition of a cinnamon stick would have make it pretty interesting, too.  I added just over a cup of sugar and the finished product was fairly sweet, but it’s easy enough to adjust the sweetness up or down, depending on your preference.  So overall it was a good experience – not a lot of effort for a surprisingly pleasant outcome.

Still doesn't look like much, but the taste is good.

Still, it’s more work than I’m generally inclined to do for what is essentially canned pineapple in light syrup, and it would be a criminal use of really good, fresh fruit.  Plus, my eight year-old said it tastes like, “Halloween candy, like, five days after Halloween,” so it might not be to all tastes.  But if you’ve got a less-than-perfect pineapple on hand give it a try.  It makes the house smell great and gives a bit of a different take on a familiar fruit.

Poulet a la Marengo

Poulet a la Marengo

Ever since my stock escapades I looked for a recipe that could utilize the delicious stock yet fit my wheat-free, dairy-free issues. Not so easy with Beeton. Poulet a la Marengo doesn’t quite fit that bill but I decided to take a page from SJ’s arrowroot bechamel and substitute that for flour in this recipe. Since I just got home from work and still had to go to the store and get the ingredients and cook, the easiness of this recipe was very reassuring.

949. Ingredients – 1 large fowl, 4 tablespoons of salad oil, tablespoon of flour, 1 pint of stock No. 105, or water, about 20 mushrooms – buttons, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoonful of powdered sugar, a very small piece of garlic.


I was determined to follow the recipe as close as possible this time out and ran into a snag pretty much, well, right off the bat.

Mode – cut the fowl into 8 or 10 pieces; put them with the oil into the stewpan, and brown them over a moderate fire; dredge in the above proportion of flour; when that is browned, pour in the stock or water; let it simmer very slowly for rather more than 1/2 hour, and skim off the fat as it rises to the top; add the mushrooms; season with salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar; take out the fowl, which arrange pyramidically on the dish, with the inferior joints at the bottom. Reduce the sauce by boiling it quickly over the fire, keeping it stirred until sufficiently thick to adhere to the back of the spoon; pour over the fowl, and serve.

Clearly, I can cut a chicken in pieces. Not pretty ones, mind you. Brown the meat, easy peasy. Now, dredge. Um, dredge the browned meat? Why not dredge it ahead of time? But, ok.

I love the way the arrowroot powder puffed everywhere. It was a pain to clean up later but the picture is cool.

After dredging about half the pieces it finally occurred to me that perhaps you were supposed to put the flour in the pan and let the fat and flour make a roux. Then the next thing – add mushrooms, sugar, salt and pepper. Raw mushrooms, uncut, straight into a dish with the stock? I feel like this was just a lack of proper directions. So, I had the browned chicken sitting to the side and I put the (sliced) mushrooms in the pan and dumped in whatever arrowroot powder was left into the stock pot and allowed the mushrooms and the “flour” to catch all the yummy browned bits on the bottom. THEN I added the stock.

After that is was easy to add the seasonings and the chicken and put a lid on it and let it simmer on low for 30 minutes. After that was done I arranged the chicken and reduced the sauce, and served it over the chicken.

The sauce was amazing, from already silky stock the arrowroot powder added another luxurious mouth feel and the mushrooms added so much in terms of flavor. It was like the fancy version of my whitetrash family’s recipe of chicken with cream of mushroom soup over rice-a-roni. I wanted to spoon that liquid up and eat it right in the kitchen.

However, the dredged flour on the skin that was then boiled made for a gelatinous covering. Not very nice. Who needs skin on a simmered piece of meat, anyway?

Here’s what I am doing the next time I make this, and boy howdy, am I making it soon. I would take off the skin and use it to render some fat for use in browning the chicken. (Yum! Cracklins for an appetizer!) Then skip the whole dredging idea, put the browned chicken to the side, and put the flour in the bottom of the pan, then add the mushrooms. When they have given off some nice moisture add a little bit of white wine to the pan and scrape up all the brown bits then add the stock, chicken and spices. Last, I am definitely going to add some green herb to the sauce when it is reducing, probably tarragon because it is my favorite and a squeeze of lemon to make it a little zippier.

All in all, I feel like this is my first pure success and it yielded a luscious meal. Since my husband is out of town for work this week I have plenty of leftovers.