Monday, December 22, 2014

M'Lady's Book of Household Secrets and 17th Century Almond Ginger Bread

Castleton House (1722), County Kildare, Ireland (19th c photograph)

A few months ago, I received a copy of a charming book, M'Lady's Book of Household Secrets: Recipes, Remedies & Essential Etiquette –– a perfect guilty pleasure for before or after the holidays.  It was full of century's old treasured tips from some stately British households.  I soon discovered that the lady that wrote it is as interesting as her book (and terribly nice to boot).

Long Gallery in Pompeiian style at Castletown

Castletown stairs, so beautiful with the brass balusters

The Honorable Sarah MacPherson knows the ways of a great house – she’s the daughter of the 6th Baron Conolly-Carew and grew up at one of the great houses of Ireland –– the Palladian masterpiece Castletown House in County Kildare (she wrote about here life there in  The Children of Castletown House).

Because of this, Sarah knows this world like few others who write on the subject. Members of her family have lived in many great houses in Great Britain through the centuries. She has first hand knowledge of the treasures in Household Books kept at these houses often with centuries of entries.  Many have been lost but those that remain hold delightful secrets indeed (I shared Elinor Fettiplace's version HERE)!

In her introduction to M'Lady's Book of Household Secrets she reveals, “Eighteenth century ladies of high society and aristocratic lineage kept handwritten notes on recipes, remedies, gardening and household tips in their personal Household Books.” Reading these books is like dropping into the past and breathing the real air of the time. All those brilliant Austen-y details are there to add shade and color to our knowledge of history.

Lady Louisa Conolly (1743-1821

MacPherson uses household books of the first-water from both her own home at Castleton, written by her ancestor, Lady Louisa Conolly, née Lennox (a novel and then a BBC series, called The Arisocrats were inspired by the fascinating Lennox sisters), another one by Lady Talbot of Lacock Abbey (that I wrote about HERE ) as well as a book full of information about the servant class from Weddington Castle – sadly no longer standing.

As with the other household books I have seen, tried and true remedies and potions for everything from worms to coughs and colds are an important component.

Lacock Abbey 

Magic Cold Remedy

2 cloves garlic
1 t grated ginger
2 lemons
1 cup water.
2 t honey
1 cinnamon stick

Crush the garlic, grate the ginger and squeeze the lemons. Boil the lemon skins in water and pour into a cup. Add the garlic, ginger, lemon juice and honey and cinnamon and cool for 2 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and drink while hot.

Therapy for sleeplessness can be as simple as rosemary and hops in a muslin bag in a bath. One might use poppy petals for dry skin and rose oil or myrrh for mature skin, and buttermilk and rosemary for a cleanser with cider vinegar and lavender or rosemary for a toner –– a great collection of recipes awaits you here. Actually, after reading the back of one of my beauty products recently, I am thinking of making my own with simple ingredients from now on (even some perfumes read like something from a toxic horror film).

Matthew Darly, Vis a Vis, May 1776

There are great anecdotes in the book –– one of my favorites is about the famous ‘big’ hair of the 18th century that was championed by the notorious Duchess of Devonshire –– a pal of Louisa. Louisa, ‘…wrote to her sisters, laughing at herself, of having to sit on the floor of the carriage – or she would not fit in.” Herbal powders prepared by her lady’s maid containing arris root and rosemary were applied to keep the hair on a large dome that was fitted to the head – proto-hairspray.

Lady’s maids were mistrusted by the rest of the servants because of the close relationship they had with their mistresses. They did have a great deal of influence over the lady of the house. The lady’s maid controlled her hair, makeup, clothes, jewelry, hats as well as skincare, exercise and diet. Because of this power, the book advises that, “Any employer would be sensible to choose her lady’s maid wisely.”

If you are not feeling like making your own cosmetics, there’s a section on exercises from Lady Talbots’ maid to improve your figure – including the same one I was taught by a lovely older lady a zillion years ago (and should have done!).

Neck and Throat

Sit upright, tilt head back and look at ceiling. With lips closed, make chewing movement. This works the muscles in throat and neck to. excellent effect. Repeat 20 times.

No household book would be complete without household cleaning tips for keeping your armor tidy (scrubbing wool and oil), your alabaster statue white and shining (turpentine and pumice), your doll’s hair from being a rat’s nest (heated bran is sprinkled on then brushed out), your lace snowy white (soak in milk and borax to prevent yellowing).

There’s a section on companion gardening (what plants are best planted together) and a great upstairs-downstairs section on servants – how many to have, what ages for various positions (cooks and butlers the oldest, scullery maids/stable boys youngest), and what their jobs entailed from Weddington Castle (this section aught to get you in the mood for Downton Abbey).

I was particularly interested in the description of the cook’s duties –– which could be quite onerous if she was a simple cook and not a ‘professional’ one. Basically, the pro worked for the finer houses and much kitchen work was done for her/him – the pro had no other job but to order and prepare food although the meals were many and complicated. The plain cook did all the work to prepare simple meals but also had responsibilities for cleaning parts of the upstairs of the house, setting fires and caring for candles and lamps and cleaning the kitchen.

In addition to preparing meals, smoking food and preserving, fruit wines and beers were often made by the staff for the household –– upstairs and downstairs. “ There were home-made wines, including “… orange, cherry, cowslip, sage, elder, birch, raisin, ginger and quince, along with traditional mead and metheglin.” ‘Small Beer’ was the drink of choice for household “…until safe drinking water became widely available.”

Lady Ann Talbot’s Household book cover, 1745 from Sarah MacPherson's research

Lady Ivory’s household book cover page 1685-6 from Sarah MacPherson's research 

M’Lady’s Book of Household Secrets includes a section of recipes for fish, vegetables and even cordials. I love looking at the original old recipes and the author was kind enough to share a few from the treasure of 1500 recipes that she's collected from Lacock Abbey. She will soon be using them in her new book out next summer, The Royal & Heritage Cookbook –– some of them hadn’t seen the light of day for 400 years. Sarah has sole access to them so I am hoping this will be the first of many books covering the collection. I can’t wait to see what's next.

Original recipe from Sarah MacPherson's research

The Gingerbread recipe is nothing like you would imagine.  It's more of a spicy candy and perfect for the holidays since it smells like heaven and is gluten free!

The Good Housewife's Companion (1674)

I have tried to make it as accurately as I could.  The word that confounded me was "serched'.  I found it in the 1674 The Housewife's Companion as well as in the 17th-18th century  Book of Simples where it was used in a recipe for marchpane (marzipan), which is what this gingerbread is.  Here the cook was advised to, "... strew in a handful of searched Sugar to bring it to paste...."  I believe that it refers to something that has been ground finely and/or sifted -- sugar originally came in blocks that had to be broken and ground to be used (easy to do now with a machine but devilish tedious by hand). There is a sensational video of about making things the way they were originally done in 1590  HERE, including a gilded marchpane dessert).  These would be grand gilded, wouldn't they??

To Make Almond Gingerbread

1 lb blanched almonds,  ground fine with 4T rosewater  in a processor -- leave in the bowl,  or pounded in a giant mortar
½ lb powder sugar
1 ounce of powdered ginger (***I would say to taste. 1 oz is around 6T which is strong –– their ginger may have been older and less powerful.  Start with 4T and taste) or use less and add a drop of Aftelier's Ginger which is spectacular stuff -- ginger at the top of its game)
1 or 2 drops of Aftelier's Rose Essence (optional, but I love the extra rose flavor, and it is such grand quality)
2 t *gum dragon (gum tragacanth) dissolved in 2 rosewater and stirred till thick

Put the sugar and ginger with rosewater/almond mixture and the soaked gum dragon in the processor and blend - it will have a heavy cookie dough texture (if you do this in a giant mortar it will take a very long time and enormous effort - sometimes technology is a great gift).  Cover the bottom of a sheet pan with parchment. Press the mixture in the prepared pan in a rectangle.   Top with plastic wrap and roll till 1/4 - 1/8" thick.  You can either press a design into the mixture or cut it out and press into a mold - I used a lobster pick to nudge them out.  I used positive and negative pressings of tiny molds I had. Allow to dry and serve.

* available at Kerekes in the USA

Follow Me on Pinterest


ArchitectDesign™ said...

adding this to my amazon wishlist -fabulous!

pam said...

Fascinating as always. AND, I did lean back and do the throat exercise :)

La Table De Nana said...

I am charmed by your Suns!
All the very best to you Deana!

Marjie said...

Magic cold remedy and everything! Looks like a wonderful book.

Merry Christmas, Deana and Dr. Lostpast.

mandy said...

Thank you for including my rose and ginger essences in this marvelous recipe Deana, and what a fascinating book you found -- I always love researching those old “household secrets”!
Happy Holidays!
xo Mandy

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

It's wonderful that household secrets are only an internet search away these days :) I know I would love these almond flavored short bread cookies. They're beautiful!

Barbara said...

I love books like this! Such fun and fascinating to read.
Your cookies turned out beautifully and I bet delicious.
Happy Christmas, Deana !

Marlis said...

These almond treats are reminiscent of Indian 'burfi' which are made from a variety of different nuts, cashew, almond, peanut, or pistachio. Cashew and almond are generally the more popular ones. The burfi are sometimes simply cut into diamonds, other times moulded. Thin (edible) silver paper is often used as adornment on these treats as well as finely chopped pistachio nuts.