Cooks, Training, and Foreign Influences on Irish Menus
Menus were drawn
up by the cook at the beginning of each week, in close consultation with the
master or mistress. The best cooks were well-trained in the culinary arts, and
in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the finest
houses all had French cooks. Letters between the 1st Earl of
Portarlington and his wife mention French cooks at
|Ladies often exchanged recipes to give to the cook, and handwritten books of recipes were used alongside popular printed recipe books. In the Georgian period, one of the most successful cookbooks was Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Easy, which was reprinted in 17 editions between 1747 and 1803. In the Victorian period, however, no decent kitchen was complete without a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. First published in 1861, it contains not only recipes but also tips on food storage, choosing and buying provisions, household service and labour saving in the home.|
Victorian food was
notoriously adulterated by unscrupulous vendors eager for profit. Bread was
particularly susceptible. As flour was expensive, potato flour or alum were
sometimes used instead, while chalk was added to bread to whiten it. Other commonly
adulterated products were tea, coffee, sugar and pepper. Tea leaves, for
example, were sometimes sold by dishonest cooks to dealers who re-coloured them,
often with poisonous dyes, and passed them off as genuine. The practice of
using copper as a dye was particularly widespread. In 1877 in
Death from copper poisoning was not unknown, as cooking was done in copper pans, which if used with acidic food could create verdigris. As a safeguard, pans were lined on the inside with tin, but over time the lining wore off, and poorer folk who could not afford to have them relined suffered serious poisoning or even death as a result. It was also common practice to deliberately cook vegetables in unlined copper pans to give them a bright green colour! Dangerous dyes were still being used at the turn of the 20th century – one newspaper article from 1903 reported the death of a young boy from the coloured dye in sweets (Leinster Express, Aug. 29th, 1903).
|Given these dangers, it is not surprising that some Victorian recipe books included lengthy advice on how to choose the best market produce, avoiding adulterated food or rancid meat. The same books, however, often included dangerous recipes for how to ‘rescue’ bad meat. Mrs Beeton, for example, advised on how to ‘remove the taint’ from game, suggesting that tainted birds should be repeatedly washed in water with added salt and vinegar. (She also notes that in bad cases, some powdered charcoal placed in the oven helps remove the tainted flavour).|
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Nothing went to waste in the country kitchen: animal heads, brains, tripe, and pig’s trotters were all happily consumed, water used to boil meat was made into broth or stock, while dripping made its way into pies and was used to baste meat. One book recommended that even the heads, necks, gizzards and feet of fowls could be used to enrich soup.
As Victorian meals were large they naturally resulted in a lot of leftover food, as the family and their guests picked delicately at each course. Not surprisingly, Victorian housekeeping manuals advocated the reuse of such leftovers. Scraps of meat left on dinner plates were reused in soup (if not eaten as the servants’ supper). Even pieces covered in sauce or gravy were kept, the meat wiped clean and then placed in a common dish for reuse. Leftover gravy was saved while half-eaten bowls of soup were strained to remove pieces of bread which would not keep. Unfinished desserts of jelly and blancmange were melted down, remoulded and made to do again. The phrase ‘wilful waste makes woeful want’ was one adhered to by every decent cook.
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Victorian housekeeping manuals also advised cooks against unnecessary cruelty, renouncing some of the crueller practices of their Georgian fore-bearers. These included skinning eels alive, baiting bulls before slaughter and crimping live fish (slashing their flesh to make it contract), a practice believed to keep fish fresh for longer. Mrs Beeton, for example, argued that crimping fish immediately after death was just as effective.