St. Barbe Museum‘s recent exhibition, ‘A Taste of History: Local Food and Farming’ (6th October-17th November 2012) took the visitor on a fascinating journey through the history of British food, from pre-historic times to the 1950s. The exhibition is part of a year-long project organised by the museum’s staff and supported by a team of dedicated volunteers:
We may think that our obsession with celebrity chefs, new ingredients, food imports and diet are a very modern phenomenon, but food developments have been at the heart of our culture since the beginning of farming in the Stone Age.
( A Taste of History, exhibition panel, 2012)
St. Barbe Museum is located in the historic town of Lymington, which nestles on the edge of The New Forest National Park and hugs the Solent shoreline. The town’s unique dual location has meant that for many centuries its residents have enjoyed both a marine and carnivorous diet. In 1079, William the Conqueror (c.1028-1087) established the New Forest as a royal hunting ground and the Domesday Book (1086) even had a separate section for it. (A Taste of History exhibition, 2012).
Lymington once had a thriving salt industry. Before the refrigerator, salt was used to preserve food, particularly meat and the exhibition included a section on its uses. I was interested to discover that as soon as man stopped hunting salt became an important part of our diet. Previously, meat that had been procured by hunting would normally have been roasted thus ensuring that any salt would automatically be retained in the flesh. When meat was farmed rather than hunted, boiling became the preferred cooking method. Boiling extracts salt, rendering the meat bland, adding salt to meat improves its taste. The demand for salt began to increase. Salt was also used in the leather industry for tanning hides and in the treatment of wounds. Edwardians loved salt pork – cured hams hanging in the pantry were a common sight.
Lymington’s salt industry was well-established by the Stuart period in England (1603-1714). According to historian Jude James:
A visit to Lymington by the indefatigable Celia Fiennes (1662-1741) in the 1690s provides us with a very detailed description of the salt making processes. In her account she writes of Lymington as having a few small ships but “the greatest trade is by their salterns” and she gives details of the liquor being conveyed through pipes into iron or copper pans situated in buildings [salt houses] where it was evaporated by furnaces blazing beneath to keep them boiling rapidly. She states that up to 60 quarters of salt could be made in a single pan beneath which the furnace was kept burning day and night.
(James, J., 2006 , The Salt Industry of Lymington and the Solent Coast, published by Lymington Museum Trust)
By the middle of the eighteenth century there were one hundred and forty-nine active salt pans. Wealthy local businessman Charles St. Barbe (1750-1826) owned fifteen salt works and forty-eight pans, after salt taxes had been paid, he made a profit of £25,000 (£2.2 million in today’s money). Salt tax was first introduced in England in 1694 and just over one hundred years later had risen to ten shillings per bushel and in 1805 was fifteen shillings per bushel. The salt industry in Lymington had declined by the mid nineteenth century and by 1865 the boiling houses on the Salterns were forced to close due to the high cost of coal and cheaper rock salt being produced around Liverpool.
‘A Taste of History’ exhibition panels were full of so many fascinating facts about the history of food and here are some of my favourites examples:
- the first recipe book in Britain was introduced by the Romans in the 1st century AD, De Re Coquinaria by Apicius (I have found a translation of the cookbook on-line, CLICK HERE);
- the Romans were the first to introduce Sumptuary Laws which limited the number of dishes allowable at a meal and banned the eating of stuffed dormice;
- a popular Roman delicacy was boiled flamingo with thick sauce made from dates and spices;
- Roman soldiers were paid some of their wages in salt – salt money or a ‘salarium’ from which the word ‘salary’ derives;
- Romans brought to Britain carrots, cabbage, parsnips, turnips, endive, celery, lettuce, cucumbers, marrow, asparagus, onions, leeks, new varieties of plums, apples, damsons, cherries, herbs such as fennel, rocket, parsley, borage, dill, spearmint, aniseed, hyssop, rosemary, sage and sweet marjoram. That is quite an extraordinary list of food imports, we do have quite a lot to thank the Romans for in terms of improving our palate;
- during the Middle Ages (1066-1485) the diet of a Lord included a number of foods that we would find strange today. Beavers were a popular delicacy and because they swam using their tails they were technically thought of as fish, therefore enabling the Lord to eat them but still not fall foul of the strict fasting rules;
- John Bakere was thought to be the first butcher on Lymington High Street in 1391 and he operated from ‘shambles’ or wooden stallsin the market hall;
- in Lymington in 1726 butchers were forbidden from throwing guts of slaughtered beasts onto the street on pain of a 3s 4d fine. Such was the dirt and filfth on the unmade High Street (from general waste, mud, and live dead animals) that in the eighteenth century, ladies would wear pattens, special platformed over-shoes, to protect their shoes and clothing;
- in the Medieval period a feast could have up to six thousand guests. Peacocks were a feast favourite, they were plucked, cooked and sewn back into their feathers before serving. Layered jellies were made, flowers such as violets and primroses were also used;
- in the seventeenth century mushrooms and runner-beans were introduced from Central America and grown ornamentally, along with bananas from Bermuda and grapefruits (called shaddocks) from the West Indies;
- in 1944, Sway (village close to Lymington) Women’s Institute reported that their Jam Centre that year they had made 193 lbs of A-Standard jam and jelly. Sway WI were obviously a most enterprising group and in 1944 The Rural Meat-Pie Scheme was set-up by one of their members. During its first year of existence Scheme records show that an incredible 28,318 pies were made and sold. This really is a remarkable feat considering food rationingwas in force;
- after the Second World War farming began to decline. By the end of the 1950s, tractors outnumbered horses by a ratio of two to one and approximately sixty farm workers per day were leaving agricultural employment.
Throughout this year the Museum organised a large number of educational activities, in particular historical food days, eras and topics included: The Romans; jams and chutney; bread; wartime and the Tudors. If you regularly follow my blog, then you will have already read my articles on Prehistoric Cooking with Jacqui Wood and An Invitation to a Stuart Banquet. Both of this days were part of this programme of events.
I also attended their Victorian food history day. I took along my great, great grandmother’s copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management as well as my china tea set from 1845, some Victorian table linen and a late nineteenth century copper jelly mould.
There were plenty of activities to participate in and a local cook, who specialises in baking historical food, made some very tasty cakes based on original Victorian recipes – a fill belly cake and a pound cake (see below for recipes).
There were costumed museum guides, lots of vintage recipe books to browse through and an opportunity to make chocolate bon bons as well as a little gift box to take them away in.
One of the highlights was a reading, by local actor Bruce Clitherow, of extracts from William Charles Retford’s (1875-1970) Memoirs of Growing-up in Ashley. Retford’s Memoirs provide a wonderful glimpse of rural life in late Victorian Ashley and Burley, two villages not too far from Lymington. Retford moved to London in 1982 to take-up an apprenticeship as a bow-maker for cellos and violins:
All good things come to an end. In 1892 Arthur Hill, the violin maker, spent the weekend at the Old House and offered me a job. By the end of March I was in a third floor back in New Bond Street cleaning fiddles and fitting pegs. Unhappy and hard up. After the first week I was taught nothing more for a year. “Thereby hangs a tale,” written but quite unprintable. Cleaning fiddles was kids play to me.
(For a transcript of Retford’s Memoirs together with a more detailed biography of his extraordinary life, CLICK HERE.)
To accompany A Taste of History a lovely little book has been produced by staff and volunteers at the museum. It contains recipes and notes from the exhibition, here is one entry in particular that caught my eye, a recipe for Saffron Bread:
Saffron Bread (A pre-Reformation Lenten bread)
For 1 loaf:
3/4 cups of milk; 12.5mg saffron; 1 packet of dried yeast; 60 ml lukewarm water; 450g strong white bread flour; 10mg salt; 2 eggs, lightly beaten.
Scald the milk with the saffron. Let it cool. Dissolve yeast in water. Sift together 300g of flour with the salt, spoon in eggs, milk and yeast mixture and blend. Add enough flour to prevent it becoming sticky. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour as needed. Put in a greased bowl in a warmish place, leave to rise until it has doubled in bulk. Punch down, shape in a round loaf. Place on a greased baking sheet, leave to rise until it has again doubled in size. Bake at 170C (375F) for 25-30 mins. then cool on a rack.
(A Taste of History: Celebrating food and farming throughout the ages, 2012, St. Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington)
At the Victorian food history day there were lots of historical recipes to take away and try for yourself which was such a lovely touch. Another nice idea was an opportunity for a recipe swap, you could pin your handwritten family recipes on a noticeboard for others to see. Here a few of my favourite recipes that I discovered:
150g self-raising flour; 5ml baking powder; 65g margarine; 50g sugar; 15ml golden syrup; 125ml milk or milk and water; jam for filling.
Sift the flour and baking powder. Mix the margarine, sugar and golden syrup until light and soft. Add a little flour and then a little milk or milk and water and mix it in. Continue adding the flour and liquid like this until the mixture is smooth. Grease two 18cm cake tins and sprinkle them lightly with flour. Divide the mixture between them and bake at 200C, for about 20 minutes or until firm to the touch. Tip out the tins carefully and spread one cake with jam. Cover with the other cake.
Fill Belly Cake
2lbs stale bread; 0.5 lbs shredded suet; 1 lb granulated or brown sugar; 1lb mixed dried fruit; 3 eggs; 2 0z butter or margarine; 1 teaspoon mixed spice.
Soak the bread in water then drain and squeeze-out the excess water. Flake with a fork and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well together and spread the mixture into a greased baking tin. Dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven for about 2 hours or until nicely browned. A variation is to make a pastry base, spread it with jam and then cover with the bread pudding mixture. Bake as before.
Victorian Pound Cake
10 eggs, separated (or 1lb in weight); 1lb sugar; 1lb flour; 1lb currants and candied peel; 1 glass of brandy (optional).
Cream the butter and sugar together. Mix in the egg yolks. Stir in the egg whites lightly. Add the currants and peel, then mix in the flour a little at a time and the brandy if you are using it. Bake for about 2 hours (or one hour if using half quantities).
6oz self-raising flour; 3oz margarine; 3oz sugar; 1/4pt milk; 1tbsp vinegar; 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda; 3-4oz mixed dried fruit.
Sift the flour. Cream the margarine and sugar. Pour the milk into a large basin, add the vinegar and bicarbonate of soda; the mixture will rise and froth in the basin. Blend the flour and vinegar liquid into the creamed margarine and sugar then add the dried fruit. Put into a greased and flour 7″ tin, bake in a moderate oven for 1 hour.
3/4 lb flour; 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder; 2oz lard; 2 oz butter or margarine; 60z brown sugar; 1 egg; 10z candied peel; 1/2 oz caraway seeds; a little grated nutmeg; pinch of salt; about 1/4 pt milk.
Pass the flour and baking powder through a sieve, rub into it the butter and lard, and add all the dry ingredients. Beat up the egg with the milk, pour this into the cake mixture and mix thoroughly. Turn into a 6″ x 3″ tin lined with a greased paper (7 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ tin if making double quantities). Bake for 1 1/2 hours at gas mark 4 (or 2 hrs 30 at gas mark 3 for a double quantity cake).
St. Barbe’s next exhibition is ‘Randolph Schwabe: A Life in Art’ which opens on 24th November and runs until 16th February 2013. Randolph Schwabe (1885-1948) was employed as an official War Artist in both the First and Second World Wars. He is known for his portrait series ‘Women on the Land’ depicting the Women’s Land Army at work during the First World War. During the Second World War he produced drawings of bomb damage. The exhibition, curated by Dr Gill Clarke MBE, contains a number of works by Schwabe previously unseen. Schwabe was born in Barton Lancashire in 1885. He entered the Royal Academy of Art aged fourteen and in 1900 went to Slade School of Fine Art. He married Gwendolen Rosamund on 19th April 1913 and they had one daughter.