Tag Archive for 'Mrs. Beeton'

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.

The Splendour of the Turf

The Splendour of the Turf

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Melbourne Cup, the world’s richest horse race, which was run on the turf at Flemington for the first time in 1861. The Melbourne Cup Spring Racing Carnival has come down to us from the Victorian Era with many of its traditions intact. In many ways the Melbourne Cup became our equivalent of Spring (May Day) Festivals.

Turf Racing 1881

Almost from inception the Cup became a Melburnian institution with 100′s of 1000′s of people of all social classes attending. The Cup was a place to promenade and picnic, to see and be seen. To underscore its importance to the social life of the colony the Victorian Government made the first Tuesday of November, Melbourne Cup Day, a public holiday in 1873 closing all banks and government offices.

Fashions on the Field 1881

Today  as I enjoyed my public holiday I spent some time trawling through the internet looking at historic images of the Cup. There is very little to pick between images of 1881 and 2010. Men and women still dress in their finest and promenade on the lawn. Despite the waxing and waning of fashion hats have endured as a constant feature of race day – ensuring that millinery has remained a thriving art in Australia.

A traitor to my city I have to confess that I’m not interested in horse racing. I’ve never managed to get excited about the idea of dressing up and attending but nevertheless I feel a social obligation to place at least one small bet on the Cup each year (look in Melbourne parents take their kids to place a bet from the moment we are born). I have bucked the trend in my family who on both sides have loved racing from both sides of the turf. I’ve even found an extraordinarily wealthy ancestor, William Bailey, who (apart from being a career criminal) was exceptionally fond of a flutter. His 1906 obituary is online and a good third of the text lists the horses he owned, races won and the seemingly ridiculous amounts of money he paid for yearlings (1000 Guineas – This is why we are no-longer rich, ‘Damn you Bill’, I say as I shake my fists at the heavens).

Where did the money go Bill?

Fashion and flowers remain an important part of the carnival especially roses. Each of the major racedays at Flemington has an official flower. Victoria Derby Day is the Corn Flower, Melbourne Cup Day is the Yellow Rose, Oaks Day the Pink Rose and Stakes Day the Red Rose. There is a modern staff of 12 gardeners that tend the enormous race track rose gardens and lawns with modern equipment; in previous eras this staff would have been much larger.

By the 1860′s the vast expanses of turf at Flemington would have been mown using horse drawn mowers. Horse drawn mowers were developed in the 1830′s. Previously lawns were managed using scythes (think Grim Reaper). To protect the turf from damage from the horses’ hooves the horses were fitted with leather booties.

These boots are made for mowing...

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Garden Management has an extensive section on the newly developed Mowing Machines. All are a hand pushed version of the mowers that horses pulled along.

Mrs Beeton gives the following advice on when to mow the lawn:

“A scythe works better in the morning when the dew is on the grass, or when it has been wetted by a slight shower of rain, so when mowing is effected by means of the scythe it is better to get the work done early in the morning.  The mowing machine, which works on an entirely different principle, acts more smoothly and pleasantly when the grass is dry, and may therefore be used even at midday… to produce a soft elastic velvet-like surface of fine short, close grass, a lawn should be run over with the machine at least once a week.”

One of the models recommended by Mrs B.

Taking up Mrs Beeton’s advice I have been mowing our front lawn with the modern equivalent of the ‘Excelsior Junior’. The hand mower is definitely a lot more work than the petrol lawn mower. If the grass gets too long or sends up flower heads it wraps around the blades and jams the mower. This is one of the reasons that you do need to mow the lawn every week when using these devices. With out a scythe (I really think that me doing the lawn with the scythe would be the very last straw for our neighbors – which has almost inspired me to find one) I use hand clippers to cut down the long pieces.

As for a finish that looks like “a soft elastic velvet-like surface” well … it looks more like a neatly tossed salad.

The Junior Salad Tosser!

So now that Melbourne Cup Day is in its dying hours I can go to bed with the knowledge that while I didn’t back the winner again this year or solve the puzzle of where the Bailey millions went (I imagine it was all lost at the track) – a least my front lawn is almost up to scratch!

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!

Love Apples for Valentine’s Day

Love Apples for Valentine's Day

We are now in High Summer in Melbourne.  February brings warm weather, windy skies, very little rain but if we are lucky a glut of tomatoes for Valentine’s Day.

This week I am continuing my quest to find out how Australians gardened during the Victorian Era. Did we grow and eat tomatoes?

Turning to the esteemed Mrs Beeton it is clear that tomatoes were grown in Victorian England but were not as popular as she felt they should be.

Tomato, or Love Apple an admirable sauce by itself, it enters largely into a great number of our best and most wholesome sauces.  It also may be cooked and brought to the table like other vegetables, in several different ways; or eaten raw cut into slices like cucumber, but much thicker, and dressed with salt and pepper, oil and vinegar in the same way. When prepared in this manner, as a salad, a few slices of onion will be found an improvement. Further, it is extremely palatable when eaten as a fruit, dipped in sugar. Those who have analysed its properties say that the tomato is singularly wholesome, and very useful, especially in cases of bad digestion; still, it is not appreciated or cultivated as it ought to be.   Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.

Mrs B's Simple Love Apple Salad - Yummy!

Inspired I prepared tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper as Mrs B suggests.  The tomatoes were still warm from the garden; served with crusty bread this simple salad suggestion was simply fabulous.

Mrs Beeton’s advice for growing tomatoes follows the steps that would be very familiar to any modern gardener. Tomato seeds are planted in late winter keeping the pots in a glasshouse or on the window sill in the sun.  The seedlings are then planted out once the soil begins to warm up in spring in a hot and sunny spot in the garden.

In the reading that I have done so far one of the things that sings out loudly about Victorian Head Gardeners is how clever they were, if successful, at using and creating micro-climates within their gardens. If you have good soil and water in Melbourne it is easy to grow tomatoes. In colder British gardens large estates built walled gardens which allowed gardeners to take advantage of the reflected heat off the sun facing walls to grow crops such as tomatoes. It seems that really successful Head Gardeners needed to cultivate a strong connection to the seasons and the particular conditions and opportunities of their garden – I take my hat off to them!

The plants should be well watered with liquid manure to keep up a rapid growth. As soon as the blossom buds appear, watering should cease.  Stop shoots by nipping off the tops, and throw out all those sprays that show little signs of fruit, exposing the young fruit as much as possible to the sun and air, only watering to prevent check in case of very severe drought, of which the state of the plant will be the best index. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management

When I first learnt about growing tomatoes from my Father nipping or pinching out the lateral tomato shoots was still the preferred practice.  It means that the tomato plant can grow neatly straight up a tall stake. The theory behind this practice was that you would get fewer but larger tomatoes than a bush that was allowed to sprawl unchecked. The Victorians were very interested in precision and efficiency and their estate gardens needed to be as beautiful and orderly as they were productive.  I can see that neat stakes of tomatoes would appeal to their aesthetic tastes. Interestingly research by the Digger’s Club shows that un-pruned tomato plants produce more (and a greater weight) of tomatoes than their pinched out cousins.

Tigerella and Cherry Bite Tomatoes

So did Australians grow tomatoes during the Victorian Era and what other vegetables were grown in colonial Melbourne gardens? In order to answer this question I visited the library of the National Herbarium of Victoria which has a small collection of seed catalogues from the mid 1800s. I have a thing for seed catalogues I love reading them so this was a great treat.

The selection of vegetable seeds available in each catalogue was surprising small and didn’t list varieties.  There were artichoke, cabbage, carrot, turnip, onion and other basics but no tomatoes! In a present day Australian seed catalogue produced by Eden Seeds there are 162 varieties of tomato listed from Black Russians, Green Zebras to the delicious Tigerallas.

I’m finding it difficult to believe that this meagre list of seeds represents the only vegetables that were grown in the mid-1800s. It could be that settlers were still purchasing seeds from England. If they were free settlers rather than convicts it is very likely that they brought their favorite varieties with them on the voyage to Australia. I’m reading a really interesting book called Green Pens by Katie Holmes, Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamdi.  In this book a reproduction of a letter from a land agent Henry Widowson in 1829 to prospective settlers of Tasmania encourages them to bring seeds “I should recommend every one to purchase a quantity of the best kinds of seed previous to leaving England.”

I’m still dipping in and out of Green Pens but it seems clear from the letters reproduced that settlers were sending seeds back home as they found native plants that they liked and requesting seeds in return from home. Plants, cuttings, seedlings and seed were also swapped between settlers as a means of making friends or establishing status. It isn’t difficult to imagine that creating a garden as a way of establishing a sense of home and belonging let alone growing food would have been a priority for settlers.  Interestingly gardening seems to have become the province of women very early on in Australian settlement. It isn’t until the late Victorian / Edwardian era that gardening is exhorted as a suitable occupation for women in Britain.

While the seed catalogues in the Herbarium have very few vegetable seeds they are full to overflowing with fruit trees, roses, azaleas, fuchsias, geraniums and pelargoniums. Roses don’t seem to have ever gone out of fashion here in Melbourne; they are just as popular today as they were in the Victorian era.

Ballam Park Homestead 1855 - The view from the rose garden

Roses and Chocolate

On the weekend I visited Ballam Park Homestead a local property maintained for public display by a volunteer historical society. Ballam Park was built in 1855 and where I live now in suburban Melbourne was once a field in this 8000 acre estate.

The great thing about Ballam Park is that much of the 1855 ornamental garden, gravel paths and orchard are still intact. I took this photo standing in the recreated rose garden.  To the left of the house is an Oak tree which would be one of the oldest oaks in Melbourne to the right is a Carob tree – the only Carob I’ve ever seen.  The pods of this plant were used by the family who built this house to create a chocolate substitute – good to see they had their priorities straight – get settled grow chocolate!

The orchard follows the main road way to the house and was planted with apples, fig and olives.  There isn’t any trace of a kitchen garden and the guide book to the house doesn’t talk about a location for a kitchen garden. Apparently the President of the society is a font of knowledge and I have been invited to call in again to talk to her at the tea-rooms now run next to the homestead. It maybe that the archive has records of the kitchen garden. So I will report back on our meeting.

Ripe Carob Pods - still fruiting 165 years on!

Again not possible to take photos in the house.  One of the interesting things about the house is that the dairy is attached directly to the kitchen with a stable door for bringing the cows into be milked. It looks a lot like a cow garage.

Ballam Park was in the middle of nowhere when it was first built and was accessed by boat across the bay from Melbourne and then a long walk along the beach, through swamp and then scrub.  The house has a small lantern room at the front of the top storey of the house. It is believed that a whale oil lamp was hung in this top window, which faces the bay.  This was to provide a guiding light at night to people trying to find the homestead. This seems a risky strategy during the days of bushrangers.

I still haven’t tracked down a copy of the Colonial Gardener but I have found that their is a copy on fiche at the Victorian State Library.  Once we get some cool weather I will make time to visit the VSL and to sit and read it in the great Victorian domed reading room – sounds like fun.

A Button-hole for Valentine’s Day

I think the Victorian’s would approve of this button-hole with a dusky red rose for love on Valentine’s Day. This variety of rose is called Tradescant and is named for one of the most famous Head Gardeners of all time John Tradescant the Elder born in 1570. Not a Victorian obviously but his work was tremendously admired by Victorian Head Gardeners so it seems an appropriate choice. The rest of the button-hole is purple Plectranthus flowers called Mona-lisa (because the Mistress is a big fan of purple), Yellow Lomandra flowers a sweet scented Australian native plant and a Rose Geranium leaf. This button-hole has a very fragrant rose perfume. Happy Valentine’s Day for this coming 14th February 2010!

Happy Valentine's Day

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.

Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne – Como House

Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne - Como House

Last week I was overcome with excitement when my copy of Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Garden Management – the art of gardening arrived in the post – finally! The tricky thing is that this Wordsworth Reference Series book doesn’t let you know when it was first published or reprinted.  It does own up to being newly type-set in 2008. So should I assume that it is abridged?

I’ve never heard Mrs Beeton’s name associated with a gardening book. I have seen reference to a Mr Beeton’s gardening guide. Doing some googling I found that Mr S.O. Beeton published this book in 1861. So now I’m not sure which book I actually have?

On the plus side this book does have one very long article on the usefulness of the Dutch Hoe. Be advised do not operate heavy machinery while reading this coma-inducing quote.

The Dutch Hoe, or Scuffle, as it is sometimes called, is shown at A. It consists of a sharp and comparatively narrow blade, attached to the socket by two arms, which spring from the lower end of the latter, and are fastened at their extremities to the blade, one on one side and one on the other. The blade of the hoe being thus attached forms an angle with the handle, and by means is almost parallel to the surface of the soil when in use. The edge is thrust into the earth with a pushing motion and cuts up the weeds, which, with the surface soil, pass through the aperture between the arms.  By this arrangement the tool meets with far less resistance, and the labour is rendered far lighter than it would be if the opening was closed, or even if the socket for the handle proceeded immediately from the centre of the blade.

The mysterious and legendary Dutch Hoe

As we know the Beetons were editing or compiling these books from many other uncredited sources rather than writing them. This gardening book like BOHM is a grab bag of articles from horticultural magazines, journals and pamphlets. This led me to wonder about the reliability of this book as a text for explaining how the Victorians gardened. Was this the kind of book that you owned rather than used? Certainly it is likely to be a reference book that came out to the colonies but does it capture gardening in Australia in the Victorian era? Australia has such a radically different climate to the Mother Country.  In other words have I been barking up the wrong tree?

Como House - Living in very grand style in colonial Melbourne

While I try to find some Australian gardening reference books I decide to visit Como House in inner-city Melbourne. This amazing house was built in 1847 and is still furnished with its original period furniture and boasts a vegetable garden – hazar!

Apart from being stonking enormous it really has a very plain exterior or I guess elegant depending on your point of view. It actually looks more like an English Regency house than a English Victorian country mansion. The family that built this house were extremely rich owning some 1 million acres of sheep farms across Victoria – baa! It seems unlikely that lack of money was the barrier to a  full flowering of fanciness in architecture.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside due to the low lighting that they use to conserve all the soft furnishings. Have a look at their gallery if you are interested.  I was however allowed to take as many photo’s as I wanted in the laundry – very happy!

The laundry outhouse at Como

So by way of an update to my earlier post exploring Victorian laundries here is the real thing.

The devices on the window sill are for ironing crimps into fabric and lace.

In the back left hand corner is a wood fired copper in the corner. Just to the right of the copper is a black iron stove for heating Flat Irons.

Stove for heating irons.

This laundry would have been a hot and steamy spot. It does at least have high ceilings and lots of doors and big opening windows. So not as bad as it could be – still I bags working out in the garden rather than in the laundry as a Washer Woman. I do love the old shabbiness of this room!

A green winding mangle just like Grandma used to use.

That’s probably enough laundry porn.

The kitchen was really unbelievably basic which is surprising as it was the kitchen they used right through until the 1960′s when they sold the house to the National Trust.

The benches in the kitchen were all low; about mid thigh in height.  I’m 165 cm (5ft 6 in) and I would have had to stoop down uncomfortably to use them. The tour guide said this was evidence of how short people were during this era – I don’t know – this would make them very very small indeed.

The scullery seemed cramped for catering to such a large household so maybe they used more of the outdoor space around kitchen than just the indoors? This would be a good solution apart from the flies.

Scullery - not the Queen's

Unfortunately the 5 acres of garden remaining around the house are a legacy of the the 1920′s. The vegetable garden is a recreation of a garden planted by the Mistress of the house in 1925 and uses varieties that were available in Melbourne between the wars.

The 1925 Vegetable Garden with chicken coop but no Art Deco stylings

A little disappointing for me as I was hoping to see how Victorian-Melburnians grew their vegetables. While my time traveling experiment wasn’t entirely successful I have since found one fabulous book and a lead on another.

Remembered Gardens – Eight women & their visions of an Australian landscape by Holly Kerr Forsyth is a wonderful read. Forsyth states that

“Gardens created in the colonies during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) displayed all the plants popular in Britain.  In towns and cities, front gardens of the less wealthy continued to feature circular and oval beds surrounded by upturned rock or glazed tiles…Gardens of the wealthier settlers now featured edging of Box, introduced to the colony in about 1828, and even carriage circles. A typical front garden for a large Victorian terrace house might have a parterre of box hedges encasing standard roses.”

So nothing yet specifically about the vegetable gardens but it is likely that Melburnians were using the same vegetable seeds as the English.  To confirm this I need to track down an 1858 publication called Brunning’s Australian Gardener. More time travel maybe required!

Artichoke flowers at Como

The Citrus Saga Continues

The Citrus Saga Continues

This past week was spent babysitting lemons as a part of my lemon pickling experiment.  I periodically turned over a salted lemon without a peel and regularly stirred two brining lemons with peels, looking for signs of some magic alchemy taking place.  Sadly, none was immediately evident, which was not surprising but was disappointing, nonetheless.  Still, I put my faith in Beeton and dutifully tended my citrus for six days.

As soon as I had free time this weekend I sprang the lemons from their respective brines.  There was little obvious change, but I did notice that the lemons with the peels on were slightly heavier than they had been before brining, and their peels were slightly smoother.  The one without the peel on had shrunk a bit, as if it knew what awaited it.  And (spoiler alert!) what awaited it was not good.  I tackled this one first, following Mrs. Beeton’s instructions to heat the lemon to dry the salt.  Not having a fire in the same way I imagine she’s describing, I put the lemon in a heavy lidded pot over a very low flame on my gas stove.  Since the idea is, as I mentioned, to dry the salt – for what reason I’m not exactly sure, as the next step has you pouring boiling vinegar over it all – I think it would have been wiser to do this in a low oven.  But I’m apparently more of a trial and error cook and in this case that was pretty much exactly as it turned out – I tried it and it was an error.  Insert rim shot here.   The problem was that, even on a super low flame the salt on the outside burned before the rest of the salt was even remotely dry.  Eventually, the entire business got brown and stuck to the pan, and when I tried to get it up the lemon pulled apart and it all went to hell.

poor, sad lemon

I didn’t bother continuing with the process, because there was so little left to keep and it really needed to be put out of its misery.  RIP, pickled lemon without the peel.

On the plus side, the lemons with the peel on fared much better.  I boiled them, as instructed, and can recommend this as an air freshener, too.  The lovely, lemony smell almost covered the boiling vinegar smell that preceded it.  After boiling, the lemons were even heavier and smoother than before.  Who knew how much liquid a lemon could absorb?  Once they were cool I popped them in sterilized jars (Mrs. B doesn’t specify that you must sterilize the jars but the USDA canning site has scared me so deeply that I fear I will soon be sterilizing our silverware and plates and anything, basically, that comes into contact with our mouths) and watched the cloves and other spices swirl around.  It was kind of dazzling, to be honest, even if it’s not the most amazing culinary feat ever attempted.  I have just been kind of skittish about canning in any way (picking, fermenting, whatever) because of the aforementioned site o’ horrors.  It’s a great site, really, a deeply informative site, but the underlying message I pick up is that if I don’t do everything just right I will die.  The minute the jar is opened, instant death.  So you can see how spending a week with a couple of lemons and finally wrangling them into what I assume is a fairly disease-free environment for what I hope is about a year or so might bring a measure of satisfaction.

Lemons pickled (or, pickling), I decided to end the Beeton-related activities for the weekend.  I’ve got my eye on some more comfort food recipes for this week, though (bread and butter fritters, for example?), and the sawdust quest from my first post continues.   And – prepare for another rim shot – the picture I grabbed of my pickled lemon includes, I kid you not, my favorite uninvited guest…  Eggs, anyone?

Hello, my little friend in the background.

Kidnapping chickens and pickling lemons

Kidnapping chickens and pickling lemons

Week two, for me, of all things Beeton and the going is best described as… slow.  Both in terms of what I wanted to have done by now and in terms of what I’m actually tackling this time around.

First off, the egg experiment promised in my last post has come to a stand still.  The first problem is that it requires really fresh eggs, and every time I acquire really fresh eggs I eat most of them immediately.  It’s like eating a different food altogether when you compare them to grocery store eggs.  People rave about the incredible yolks of fresh eggs and I get it, but for me the biggest difference is in the whites.  They set up better, they taste better, they look better… The whole thing is just a big improvement on mass marketed eggs.  My neighbor keeps chickens but uses all the eggs for his family (or perhaps they have them packed away in sawdust).  I have been showing some restraint and getting them from a lovely woman at work instead of sneaking over and raiding the neighbor’s coop.  Their chickens, however, keep getting into my yard.  I may start holding them ransom, and offer them back in exchange for a dozen eggs per bird.  Or maybe two dozen… We’ll see.

Returned without a ransom note. This time.

That’s not really the biggest issue, though; I’ve been known to not eat delicious things I shouldn’t eat.  No, the biggest problem is the sawdust.  I live in a fairly urban area, admittedly, but I’m surrounded by vast stretches of deeply rural land.  Like, unincorporated,  no local government, rural-type country.  And yet sawdust seems to be a rare commodity.  I enlisted a little help from someone who is married to a carpenter for heaven’s sake, and the best he could do for me was wood chips.  Wood chips?  Not the best thing, I imagine, in which to preserve an egg.  So I’m going to go begging at a lumber yard, I think.  Or I might just do a little scavenging behind a big box hardware store.  We’ll see.  I’ve found that a lot of people are interested in how this thing is going to work – and so am I – so I’ll find a way to put this together soon.

In the meantime, I’m tackling a much slower project – pickling lemons.  Mrs. Beeton offers two recipes (numbers 455 and 456); one with the peel on and one without.  I’m trying both.  The one with the peel on takes about a year or “rather sooner” (what a tease); the one without the peel takes about nine months.  I know, there are many recipes out there, in books and online, that are much quicker (including this one for an Indian pickled lemon I might also try – it only takes two months and looks really flavorful), but I am throwing in my lot with this Victorian-inspired ultra-slow food madness.  And I’m looking forward to it, honestly.  I like the idea of some lemons pickling over here, eggs in saw dust over there, and so on.  Sure, my kitchen is best described as microscopic, but it will be nice to have some long-term food-related projects going, especially during these months when the garden is on hold.

The first steps for both are fairly simple.  The lemons with the peel just have to be brined for about a week; the lemons without the peel have to be packed in salt for about the same length of time.

The peeled lemon in salt.

After that (and you’ll get pictures of this next week), it’s the pretty standard process of packing them in a jar and adding vinegar and assorted spices.  Then the waiting… If it works and I can resist I’ll crack open the peeled lemons in the fall, and the unpeeled ones around Christmas.  In the meantime, I’ll keep you updated periodically and will pick a slightly less long term project for next week.

Scotch Woodcock

Scotch Woodcock

I’ve mentioned this new blog to a few people and they almost invariably ask, “Why?”  It looks to me like the reasons people are writing here are as varied at they themselves are, but for me it’s part of a trend of doing for myself.  It’s very simply that the idea of going back to some of the old ways of doing things around the house to find out what’s been forgotten appeals to me.

So what has been forgotten?  Something inherently missing in today’s world?  Absolutely not.  I am infuriated by “the good old days” syndrome in which the past is fine and wonderful and today is somehow weaker and wrong.  And believe me when I say that Mrs. Beeton and I have some fundamental differences of opinion.  For example, she says of the tomato plant that it “has a most disagreeable odor” whereas I’ve been known to stick my face in one and swoon.  And I won’t be taking up her suggestion of beef tea when I’m ill (the whole “Invalid Cookery” section really kills).  But there are things we have forgotten how to do that are described here; ways of preserving food and ways of working with vegetables we don’t find in the grocery store or at the nearest chain restaurant are two that interest me most.  That’s primarily what I’ll be talking about in my posts, in addition to exploring whatever random Victorian-era comfort food tickles my fancy.  And gravy, good lord, Mrs. Beeton’s world is all about gravy, and I am right behind her on that.

The first thing I was planning to do here was chronicle my attempts to keep eggs without refrigeration.  Mrs. Beeton offers several suggestions, and I’d figured that by now I’d have been able to get my hands on a big box of saw dust and some extremely fresh local eggs.  It is, however, harder to find saw dust than you might think.  Still, the call has gone out and by this time next week I should have something to show you.  In the meantime, let me introduce you to my friend, Scotch Woodcock.  This falls under the “random comfort food” category.  I was thinking about doing Welsh Rare-bit but was, honestly, seduced by the name “Scotch Woodcock.”  The recipe is quick, so I include a slightly abbreviated version below.

Scotch Woodcock

1653. Ingredients – A few slices of hot buttered toast; allow 1 anchovy to each slice.  For the sauce – ¼ pint of cream, the yolks of 3 eggs.

Mode. – Separate the yolks from the whites of the eggs; beat the former, stir to them the cream, and bring the sauce to the boiling point, but do not allow it to boil, or it will curdle.  Have ready some hot buttered toast, spread with anchovies pounded to a paste; pour a little of the hot sauce on the top, and server it very hot and very quickly.

Ok, so, I first went out to get some good bread with a little heft.  This is the only part of the recipe that worked for me.

Damn fine bread.

The recipe appears super simple, but it’s that “to the boiling point, but do not allow it to boil” part that killed me.  I curdled the damn sauce every time.  This is partly due to my being a generally impatient person, and partly due to the difficulty of not boiling such a small amount of cream mixed with egg yolks.  Eventually I put some sauce on the bread, even though it was essentially like really runny scrambled eggs.  It tasted fine, but looked frightening.  Feel free to turn away.

Scotch Woodcock FAIL.

Would I make it again?  Possibly, but I would skip the anchovies and tart the whole thing up with some fresh dill or maybe even curry powder.  Other ideas?  I’d love to hear them.

Introduction and Christmas 2009

Introduction and Christmas 2009

My goal for 2010 is to explore Victorian cookery though the recipes in a classic of the era, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, henceforth referred to as “Beeton’s” or “Mrs. Beeton’s.” I am using an out-of-print, unabridged 1969 facsimile of the first edition. I am going to prepare a meal from this book weekly as an informal but sumptuous family-style supper, and will crank up the fanciness for special occasions like parties or holidays.

My goal is not to kill myself always making everything from scratch. I know the Victorians jumped at shortcuts and conveniences when they could (like a staff of eight, ho ho), and I will too, when it seems necessary. When I want to go crazy and make stock and candy my own orange peel and basically do the work of a staff of servants all by myself, I will. I am going to make some food that is uncommon on our tables now–I will make aspics, will attempt to source less-common game, and will explore the world of organ meats, something I’ve avoided in the past. I think this will fulfill one of my primary goals, which is to amuse myself.

I did a three-course Victorian-style meal for Christmas, based on two different December menus that are presented in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. If you have an interest in cookery and were raised eating Western European-style cuisine, Victorian cooking is not going to be that out there.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about the December menu, and the recipes in general. It sounds extremely obvious, but I am used to doing whatever I want, whenever I want, with any food I want. Your typical modern general cookbook is going to have variations on dishes from all over the world, or will combine cuisines.

If I felt like making a fresh strawberry dessert yesterday, I certainly could have, though the results would probably not be as delicious as the same dessert in June. I understand the Victorians were fond of hot houses and greenhouses and even had access to exotic foods like pineapple if they were wealthy enough and were interested in pursuing in cultivating tropical fruit. Beeton’s is directed at a more general audience and seems to have been affordable to the masses, so the recipes and menus have a seasonal focus. There are even asides in the recipes, such as “when parsley is not available.”

In a nutshell, what this means is that a December menu is going to focus heavily on game, onions, and other root vegetables. Here is the menu for my dinner:

Christmas Menu '09

I served five people and cherrypicked from menus 2116 and 2118, but ultimately decided to roast a stuffed duck, because they are delicious and I hadn’t made one in yonks. Most recipes were scaled WAY back because originally I planned to serve two people and a preschooler, but lo, my sister and her husband did not have plans and so they came to dinner. Of course with a full-sized duck and pudding in the offing, there were little tastes of something, and loads of others.

A Whole Stuffed Duck

I asked everyone to be very honest and restaurant-critic-y, because I was more interested in the true take on recipes rather than fluffing my ego because I’d worked for hours preparing dinner. Hits were the béchamel, which, as I mentioned in a Christmas Day blog post, was different than what you see now, with stock, arrowroot (I used cornstarch), and cream as a base, rather than flour, butter and milk. Same principle (fat, thickener, dairy), but remixed. The sole in cream sauce and fruit-ices (one part cream to one part mashed/pureed fruit, sugar to taste) was also declared a success, making creamy dairy the winner of the day.

The meal was very heavy on “breadcrumb,” which meant croquette coating, duck stuffing, and pudding component. I decided not to go all medieval on dinner and bought a couple loaves of “pain paysan,” a loaf made by a local company that seemed French-bready–no bells and whistles, just a nice chewy white bread that would probably hold up to being coating and stuffing. I could not bear to stuff a duck with crumbs (ugh, the resultant sog) so I chopped them into small cubes.

Plum Pudding-Now with 100% Fewer Plums

The most interesting part of this for anyone who is into this level of napkin-gazing was the unexpected. I have never prepared rabbit, and I was shocked at how little I was advised to actually eat off it–back legs and saddle. As I write this, the rest of the once-raw carcass is becoming stock along with the cooked duck leavings.

That is one sexy MF Rabbit

The rabbit led to the other big surprise for me–the mulligatawny soup. I did not expect it to be half as tasty as it was. It called for “pounded almonds” to be added at the end, I reckon as thickener, and I did the best I could with some almonds and the food processor. I served it over rice, as Beeton’s suggests. Since that was my favorite, I will reproduce it here with my notes, and I will list the rest of what I made with the paragraph numbers [n.b. Link to be added to forthcoming menu page], which is how Beeton’s is organized.

Mulligatawny Soup

2 tablespoons of curry powder
6 onions (I used 3; 6 would not be too many)
1 clove of garlic (I used 6)
1 oz. pounded almonds
a little lemon-pickle, or mango-juice, to taste
1 fowl [smaller] or rabbit
4 slices lean bacon
2 quarts medium stock (this refers to quality, I used Pacific Brand chicken broth)

Slice and fry onions of a nice color; line the stewpan with the bacon [I chopped the bacon and fried everything else in the subsequent drippings, dropping the bacon into the stewpot I used]; cut the rabbit or fowl into small joints and slightly brown them [I tossed the rabbit in flour and lightly fricassed the chunks]; put in the fried onions, the garlic [I minced and gave it a quick panfry as well] and simmer gently till the meat is tender; skim very carefully, and when the meat is done, rub the curry powder to a smooth batter [I added the curry powder with the stock]; add it to the soup with the almonds, which must first be pounded with a little of the stock [it was fine just stirred in]. Put in seasoning or lemon-pickle or mango-juice to taste [I topped with a dollop of homemade curried green tomato pickle], and serve boiled rice with it.

Time–two hours. [This is about how long I stewed it.]

Related Links:

Complete Searchable Mrs. Beeton’s (Whole chapters posted, so you have to kind of know what you are looking for.)

How to Joint and Prepare a Rabbit for Cooking
Part One
| Part Two

History of Mulligatawny Soup

My Complete Christmas Set (with family mixed in with food)