The plan was that the maid-of-all-work who cooked and cleaned for my Farewell to Kindness heroine and her sisters would be a magnificent baker, and win prizes every year at the village fair. I envisaged lovely light cakes and bread to die for. And jam. Wild strawberry jam, made from berries collected by the hero and heroine together.
But as soon as I began to research early 19th Century recipes, I hit a problem. Anne and her sisters lived in a workers’ cottage, on of a row of cottages built for his tenants by a former Earl of Chirbury some 200 years earlier. Yes, they had the largest dwelling in the row. Formerly two cottages, it had been knocked into one for a foreman perhaps, or some other slightly more prosperous tenant. But it was still fundamentally a 17th Century cottage, and the kitchen was very much a 17th Century kitchen.
What that meant was no oven. Not even a bread oven built into the brick of the chimney, which more modern and more substantial houses would have had at that time. Many of the villagers would have taken anything they wanted to bake to the cook shop, where it would be put into a large brick oven heated with firewood. The baker would burn exactly the right amount of wood to ash, then rake aside the ash and set the pots and pans in among them to cook in the heat radiated by the bricks.
Great houses, such as my Longford Court, would have their own brick ovens for bread built into a wall, and some might also have one of the brick stoves invented in the 18th century. Open at the front, they had a fire inside and an iron plate on top for the pots to sit on. The Rumford Stove, invented in 1795, was a huge improvement, since the heat could be regulated to give different pots heat at different times. It was not widely available just over a decade later and was, in any case too big for all but the biggest kitchen.
The efficient cast iron ovens that revolutionised cooking in the Victorian era were still at least 30 years away.
So in Anne’s little cottage – two rooms downstairs, and three up – cooking would have been done in an open fireplace.
Fireplaces were large, and set up a step from the floor. In an inn or great house, the fireplace might be so large that the cook would walk right inside, and move around the various fires that kept what was cooking at different temperatures. This was risky, especially in a long skirt, so many people would only employ male cooks for such establishments.
In Anne’s cottage, Hannah (the maid) would still have several fires, though they would be smaller and tended from the front. She would also have iron kettles and pots, spits to hold roast meat at the correct distance from the flame, and hooks that could be raised or lowered to regulate heat and swung away from the fire.
Food might also be cooked in a pot or kettle that sat on a trivet next to the fire, toasted on a fork, or baked on a skillet or griddle – a flat plate of iron that had been preheated either over the flame or by having embers piled on it.
Several times in the novel, Hannah serves drop scones that had been baked on a griddle.
But Hannah’s favourite tool was the dutch oven. An Englishman conducted a little bit of industrial espionage early in the 18th century, and brought the innovative Dutch process for making these cooking vessels back from the Netherlands. A kitchen such as Hannah’s would have had several, and would have used them all.
First, she would take embers from the fire, and sit the cast iron dutch oven directly on the embers. Then she would put into the oven whatever she wanted to cook – a stew, a cake in a tin, a loaf of bread shaped into the dumpy circle we still call a cottage loaf. After putting the lid on the oven, she would shovel more embers on top.
As to that strawberry jam, into a kettle with that, and over the fire, with a careful scoop of sugar – not too much. The price was coming down in the early 19th century, but it was still a great luxury for a household living on the edge of poverty. Once the jam had boiled to setting stage, she would have carefully ladled it into earthenware pots, and sealed the tops with melted wax and waxed brown paper.
And here is what happened when Anne, her sisters, and her daughters went berry picking, and met the Earl, his sister, and his nieces:
The group sorted themselves into teams: Anna and Daisy, chattering away as they picked strawberries, feeding half to the baskets and half into their mouths; Amy, standoffish at first, thawing out as she talked books with Miss Kitty; Susan and Miss Haverstock bonding over a discussion of art and music.
That left Reede to work with Mrs Forsythe and Meg. Meg ate as most of the strawberries she picked. Reede began passing her some of his, and Mrs Forsythe scolded him, half laughing.
“But they taste so good!” To prove it, he popped one in her mouth, his fingers lingering for a moment on her lips, brushing past her cheek. Their eyes caught, his suddenly hot; hers with an expression he couldn’t quite read. Apprehension, perhaps. Some yearning, though that might have been a figment of his own desire.
Meg broke the moment, pressing a strawberry into Reede’s own mouth. “Taste so good!”
He savoured the sweet taste and the rich smell. “Yes, Miss Meg. It tastes very good.” But his eyes drifted back to Mrs Forsythe’s lips. She, he was convinced, would taste even sweeter.