- A short ‘stills’ film I made showcasing the Georgian Christmas event at Chawton House Library, Hampshire (13.12.14).
Although Chawton House, Hampshire, is not a Georgian property (it was built between c.1583 and c.1665), it is still the perfect setting to step back in time and experience Christmas during the long eighteenth century.
The Georgian period started in 1714 and ended in 1830. In 1797, Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) third eldest brother, Edward Austen Knight (1768-1852), took control of the Chawton estate after inheriting it from his childless relatives, Catherine and Thomas Knight.
Edward’s new situation, as a gentleman of considerable wealth, enabled him to take care of his mother and two unmarried sisters (Jane and Cassandra). In 1809, he moved the three of them into Chawton Cottage, located only a short walk from his estate in the nearby village. Whilst living in Chawton, Jane had four of her novels published:
- Sense and Sensibility (1811)
- Pride and Prejudice (1813)
- Mansfield Park (1814)
- Emma (1815)
Edward did not live at Chawton House but instead spent most of his time at his other estate, Godmersham, Kent, letting out his property at Chawton to gentlemen tenants. His brother Frank also borrowed the house at one time. Jane’s mother and her sister are both buried at St. Nicholas Church, situated in the grounds of Chawton House. Jane died in 1817 in Winchester and is buried in the north aisle of the Cathedral nave.
During the eighteenth century, the Knight Family kept a handwritten cook book (Knight Family Cookbook), not uncommon for a household of Chawton’s size. However, what is unique is that the Knight’s cookbook has survived in good condition. The cook book was compiled on behalf Thomas Knight for his sister, when he died, the manuscript passed to Edward.
When I recently attended ‘A Georgian Christmas at Chawton House Library’, facsimile copies of the handwritten The Knight Family Cookbook were available to view. A hardback version of the cook book (un-transcribed) has just been published by Chawton House Press. Eminent food historian, Dr Annie Gray, gave a fascinating talk exploring the Georgians’ dining habits.
The Georgian period as a whole has got an awful lot going for it. The clothing is fabulous, the attitudes are interesting, the Enlightenment is in full swing and people are questioning philosophical, medical and culinary viewpoints, left, right and centre. As for the food, especially the feasting food, you cannot beat it. I would say that the flavours, tastes and textures of Georgian cooking are probably the best. Some of the combinations are just knockouts.
Dr Gray also treated us to food samples recreated from recipes she had transcribed from The Knight Family Cookbook. A delicious spread of sweet treats, cinnamon cakes, ginger cakes, mincemeat pies (with cow tongue!) and Twelfth Cake. There is an excellent interview with Dr Gray about the allure of Georgian festive fare on the Chawton House Library blog. Click here.
In Georgian England, Christmas lasted much longer than it does today. It began on 6th December (St. Nicholas’ Day) and ended with Twelfth Night (6th January, feast of the Epiphany). This month long season became a time of balls, dinner parties, dancing, playing parlour games, singing carols and, of course, feasting.
The upper echelons of society engaged in acts of philanthropy not only towards the poor but also their own servants. On St. Stephen’s Day (26th December), Christmas boxes filled with cake, money and clothing were donated, the modern name, ‘Boxing Day’, originates from this tradition. Dr Gray explained that festivities among the poorer sections of society were rather bawdy, drunken affairs. They would consume lots of boiled meats and puddings, that had been cooked in the household cauldron, normally used for washing laundry!
During the Georgian era, dining was an exciting experience. According to Dr Gray:
No children were present at the dining table, mealtimes were very much an adult affair. It was a ‘choose your own dining adventure’, the most exciting method of dining. The table would be laid à la française [all dishes served at the same time] with between five and twenty dishes for each course. The second course usually consisted of roast meats (game, beef, sirloin and game) from the landowner’s own estate. Another Georgian delicacy was brawn, made from a stewed pig’s head.
Plum pudding [plumb pudden] was treated like modern-day chutney. It goes very well with beef. Georgian plum puddings had a stiffer structure than we are now used to, it held its shape and could be sliced. If you fry slices of Georgian plum pudding, pair with slices of beef and cover in gravy it is delicious. Mincepies were not all sweet like they are now, one third of the filling was actual meat, for example calf or cow tongue.
Service à la française dated back to the Middle Ages and continued until the nineteenth century when it was gradually replaced by service à la russe, a succession of courses, each one cleared away before the next, we still use this style today. The rules of Georgian dining table etiquette were very strict:
When dinner is announced the mistress request the lady first in rank, to shew the way to the rest.., she then asks the second in precedence to follow, and after all the ladies are passed, she brings up the rear herself…The master of the house does the same with the gentlemen…The mistress of the table sits at the upper end (with) those of superior rank next to her, right and left, those next in rank following, then the gentlemen, and master at the lower end….
Soup is generally the first thing served, and should be stirred from the bottom….Where there are several dishes at table, the mistress of the house carves that which is before her, and desires her husband, or person at the bottom of the table, to carve the joint or bird before him…
Eating quick or very slow at meals is characteristic of the vulgar; the first infers poverty, that you have not had a meal for sometime; the last … that you dislike your entertainment. So again eating your soup with your nose in the plate, is vulgar, it has the appearance of being used to hard work, and having, of course, an unsteady hand….Smelling to the meat whilst on the fork, before you put it in your mouth…To be well received you must always be circumspect at table, where it is exceedingly rude to scratch any part of your body, to spit, to blow your nose (if you can’t avoid it turn your head), to lean elbows on the table, etc.., etc.., to leave the table before grace is said.
(The Honours of the Table, or Rules for Behaviour during meals by John Trusler (1791))
Greenery featured heavily at Christmas in the Georgian house and represented the strength of life through cold winter months. Greenery included, holly, evergreen, kissing boughs of holly, ivy and rosemary, foliage was dressed with spices, apples, oranges, candles, and ribbons, all of which would be put-up on Christmas Eve. Kissing boughs would only be hung in the servants’ quarter.
Yule logs were the centrepiece of Georgian Christmas decorations. The largest log on the estate would be chosen, one big enough to burn throughout Christmas Day. The log was so large it stick out of the fire hearth into the room and was wrapped in hazel twigs. A small piece of the log would be kept to light the following year’s Yule log.
Twelfth Night was an extremely important feasting opportunity in the Georgian calendar. Wassail and Twelfth Cake were traditionally consumed on this day. Hidden inside a Twelfth Cake would be a dried pea or bean, whoever found these pulses would be King or Queen of the household for the day, even if the finder happened to be a servant! Twelfth Cake went out of fashion in the Victorian era and replaced by the Christmas Cake. It is still tradition in France to eat a flaky cake known as a galette des rois (kings’ tart) on Twelfth Night (see image below).
Recipe for Georgian Twelfth Cake
(From The Knight Family Cookbook (Both recipes below transcribed by Dr Annie Gray)
‘I have already halved the amounts in the original recipe, which calls for a cake tin half a yard.’
Ingredients: 5pt. flour, 1/2 lb sugar, 1/4 oz mace, 1 1/2 nutmegs, pinch cloves, cinnamon, 4 lb currants, 1 lb raisins, 7 1/2 fl. oz. cream, 1 1/4 lb butter (melted into the cream), scant pint of warm water, with a tsp of sugar in it and 6 tsp dried yeast, 10 very small eggs (pullet’s eggs are ideal. Otherwise use 6 medium eggs). Half a jack of brandy (a jack is 2 1/2 fl oz), 1/2 lb peel.
Method: Mix all of the dry ingredients, and then mix separately the cream, melted butter and water/yeast mixture. Leave the liquid for about 30 minutes to activate the yeast (the liquid should be no more than blood-warm). Whisk the eggs. Now add all of the liquid and eggs to the dry mix and mix very well. Don’t use a standard mixer unless it is a catering model, or it will blow up! Use your hand (even using a wooden spoon is unwise, as you’ll get blisters). Layer about a third of the mix into your cake tin, then put in a layer of half the peel. Top with another third of the mix, and then the rest of the peel, and the rest of the mix. Slash the top with sharp knife. Tie several layers of brown paper around the tin and stand it on a few more. If the cake browns too quickly, you’ll need to stick a couple of layers on top as well. Cook in a moderate oven for an undisclosed amount of time.
Ingredients: 3/4 lb caster sugar, 1/2 oz ground cinnamon, a nutmeg (ground or 2 tsp ready ground), 1/2 lb unsalted butter, 2 egg yolks, 1/2 an egg white, 1/2 tsp rosewater, 2-3 tbsp. water (in reserve in case the pastry is too dry), 1 1/2lb flour.
Method: Mix the sugar, spice and butter and leave to rest for up to an hour. Break up the mix, which should form a loose but dry ball and gently mix in the eggs. Add the flour gradually, mixing until you have a malleable dough, which can be rolled out and cut into biscuits with a cutter (or wine glass, as the original recipe suggests). Prick each with a fork a few times. You may need to add the water if your dough is too dry and crumbly. Half of the amount here makes around 50 biscuits.
Parlour Game – Hunt the Slipper
All players, except one, sit in a circle. In the middle of the circle the remaining person sits. It is their task to Hunt the Slipper. The players in the circle pass the slipper between them and behind their backs very quickly and everyone mimics the action of passing the slipper so that the person in the middle of the circle is unable to find it easily.