Menus and Ingredients

Menus were largely determined by what was in season and readily available. Country estates such as Emo Park were mostly self-sufficient, with vegetables grown in the vegetable gardens and local and exotic fruits grown in orchards and hothouses. Head gardeners often displayed their produce at local horticultural shows, competing for prizes and recognition. The head gardeners at Emo were particularly skilful and the lists of prizes won by them give an idea of the range of fruit and vegetables grown on the estate in the late 19th century. Prize-winning vegetables included celery, turnips, carrots, cauliflower, parsnips, French beans and scarlet runners, while the fruit included apples, pears, figs, peaches, apricots, nectarines, greengage plums, gooseberries, pine-apples in pots, melons and black grapes.


These tasty fruits were made into dishes such as orange jelly, plum pudding, raspberry soufflé and ‘d’artois of apricot’ (dainty sugared pastries filled with apricot jam). When hothouse fruits were not available, simple recipes allowed for imitations: one early 19th century recipe explains how to make apples taste like pineapples by storing them in deal box! Walnuts were also grown at Emo, making their way into walnut cakes and other recipes. Salad items such as lettuce, cress, cucumber and spring onions also graced the table. Tomatoes, often called ‘love-apples’, were not eaten raw until the end of the 19th century, although they began to appear in recipes in the late 18th century.


Game-store at Emo


Meat was also readily available on the estate, where large herds of cattle, sheep and deer were kept, along with pigs and fowl. Thus, prime beef, veal, mutton, bacon and chicken all made their way into the Emo kitchen, along with fish freshly caught from the lake, or brought by carriage or train from the coast. Pheasants and rabbits were reared in great numbers, while large herds of fallow deer provided ample supplies of venison. Gentleman’s shoots brought in enough freshly killed game to feed a small army. At one shoot at Emo in 1861 the game bag included 56 pheasants, 35 woodcocks, 70 rabbits and 15 hares. One can only surmise that the dinner menu at Emo over the following days consisted strongly of rabbit and pheasant. Luckily, the Victorians liked strong-tasting game, so much of this bag would have been strung up and stored in the game-house to be consumed up to several weeks later.


Hooks for hanging meat in the game-store at Emo


What was not available on the estate could be bought from local grocery stores such as Mathews’ in Portarlington or from travelling tradesmen such as ‘the tay man’. Other supplies such as wine and fresh fish were brought in from Dublin or Kingstown. Account books from the nearby Abbeyleix House record some of the items bought in by housekeepers and cooks. The Abbeyleix accounts list produce bought between 1800 and 1805, along with their prices. Commonly bought items at Abbeyleix included tea, coffee, sugar, flour and fish, along with freshly baked bread and barm brack (a traditional fruit bread still eaten today at Halloween). Other luxuries listed include currants, lemons, oranges, ginger and nutmeg.


Fine wines would also have been imported from France and Italy, along with port brought in from Oporto. Other imported food items which were commonly used in Victorian recipes included anchovies, macaroni and arrowroot, a thickening agent used in puddings and desserts which was imported from the West Indies.