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Cake shape and Bristol Fashion

27 Mar

Recipe for Bristol Cakes from The New London Family Cook, by Duncan Macdonald, 1808


‘Mix with the hand, in an earthen pan, six ounces of sifted sugar, six ounces of fresh butter’

‘four whites and two yolks of eggs’


‘and nine ounces of flour;’


‘add three quarters of a pound of picked currants,’



‘drop the mixture with a spoon on tin plates, rubbed with butter, ‘


‘and bake it’


Learning your limes

24 Mar


limes on sale in my local Loblaws grocery store

While we were preparing for the Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus event at Fort York this February I was struck by the fact that none of the recipes that we were testing included any limes.  As a commonplace citrus fruit into today’s kitchen it seemed like either a surprising or deliberate omission.  Bridget, the Heritage Food Programme Officer at the Fort, confirmed that it was the latter.  ‘Well,’ she said, when I asked her why we weren’t making any biscuits or cakes with lime in, the recipe, ‘it’s because they didn’t use limes for cooking cakes or biscuits in the 18th or early 19th century’.

So when do limes start to become part of the baking artillery?  Today it’s impossible to come across an on-trend cookery book without some sort of recipe for a delicate lime sponge or biscuits iced with a lime infused frosting (see for example the recipe for mini lime-syrup sponges in Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess – p.242).  In fact it often feels as if limes are the 21st century sophisticated version of lemons, adding zest to sparkling water and gin and tonics, packing a punch in Mexican food or adding a sharp contrast to the sweetness of Vietnamese dishes at smart, upscale restaurants.  But I was interested to try and trace something of the lime’s culinary history.


A gin and tonic with lime – the perfect end to a day

The fruit lime, as the OED defines, is ‘the globular fruit of the tree Citrus Medica, var. acida, smaller than the lemon and of a more acid taste; more explicitly sour lime. Its juice is much used as a beverage. Sweet lime n. Citrus Medica, var. Limetta.’ The OED’s earliest cited mention in English is in 1638 when T. Herbert writes in Some Yeares Trav. ‘The Ile [Mohelia] inricht us with many good things;..Orenges, Lemons, Lymes’.  The lime gets a brief mention in the epic poem The Task, by the 18th century writer William Cowper which talks about ‘The ruddier orange and the paler lime’.  As a cooking ingredient however it seems to get short shrift throughout the 18th and 19th century in England.  The only place where it seems to surface is when the juice is used in a beverage.  For example the London Gazette in 1704 talks about ‘A Parcel of extraordinary good Rum and Lime-juice’.  And in 1774 a P V Fithian records ‘We had after Dinner, Lime Punch and Madaira.’


lime juice in the age of convenience shopping

Of course lime juice wasn’t only good as a mixer for alcoholic drinks.  The importance of lime juice to the British navy in the 19th century as a method of staving off attacks of scurvy for sailors going for long periods without fresh fruits and vegetables was so great that it earned sailors and by extension all Brits the sobriquet of ‘limeys’.  There’s a fascinating account of the complacency and misunderstanding which surrounded the use of lime juice (and that of other citrus fruits) to control scurvy on naval voyages on the Idle Words blog.
Lime takes time to emerge in other British culinary products.  For example it’s not until the 1930s that the reassuringly British Rose’s lime marmalade appeared. Interestingly the strength of the original Mr Rose’s business was built on supplying the British Navy with lime juice but it seems that it took him a number of years to experiment with it as flavour for marmalade.


Rose’s lime marmalade, a nursery staple from the 1930s

In fact until relevantly recently the most likely mention of ‘lime’ in British cook books is likely to refer to the calcium oxide product, for use in cleaning and other household tasks.  Not the lovely vibrant green lime at all.  For example in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management she advises that ‘To preserve bright Grates or Fire-irons from Rust’ one should ‘Make a strong paste of fresh lime and water, and with a fine brush smear it as thickly as possible over all the polished surface requiring preservation. By this simple means, all the grates and fire-irons in an empty house may be kept for months free from harm, without further care or attention.’
So back to the issue of limes in baking.  Perhaps the best known dessert recipe using limes is the iconic Key Lime Pie from Key West, Florida (anyone who watched last year’s Great British Bake Off will remember Ryan’s perfect Key Lime Pie that wowed judges Mary and Paul).  It appears that its it exact lineage has been clouded in the mists of time but most stories contain the following suggestion, that the dish originated with the cook of William Curry, the first millionaire of Key West.  The dessert used the distinctive key limes grown in the area (the 1926 storm wiped out most of the local production) and condensed milk.  The comparative isolation of the islands, without cows, meant that the only source of milk was the sweetened condensed milk, first made available by canned condensed milk in mid 19th century before the advent of modern refrigeration.  As many of the websites I looked at suggested, the smaller key limes are very different from the more familiar vibrant green lime variety and a true Key Lime Pie should be tinged a delicate yellow, not a strong green colour.

The difficulty comes when you try and pin down the first written Key Lime Pie recipe.  I’ve been looking for a number of days now without success.  A number of sources suggested that I wouldn’t have any success pre-1930 and so I began looking at a number of American classics from The Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer’s Boston cookbook to James Beard’s American cookery.  None of them contains a recipe for Key Lime Pie.  The very helpful woman in the Cookbook Store, Toronto pointed out to me that it might well be that the recipe first appeared on the back of a condensed milk tin.

In fact finding any recipe using limes for much of the 20th century is tricky.  I felt hopeful when I looked at the promisingly titled Zestful recipes for every meal: Pure Gold and Silver Seal oranges, lemons, grapefruit published in California sometime in the 1930s by the Mutual Orange Distributers.  Alas, no lime recipes. When you do fine pre-1950s lime recipes they tend to be for cocktails or for marinating fish. For example The Modern Cook Book for the Busy Woman, by Mabel Claire, published in 1932 contains a recipe for a lime rickey and a non alcoholic lime cocktail.  Mrs Vaughan Moody’s 1931 Cook Book tells you how to make a lime sherbet with 12 limes and a Hawaiian cocktail to marinate fish with limes.  The Patio Cook Book from 1951 includes Joe Tilden’s Garlic Sauce (created we’re told by one of California’s most famous amateur chefs) which incorporates lime to create a sauce perfect for French bread, fish or jacket potatoes.

By this point I was beginning to feel really despondent – where was I going to find any written proof of the beginning of our love affair with lime as a baking ingredient?  Well, my perusing on a local bookshop shelf of American cookbooks did reveal something slightly more helpful.  A reprint of the first Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book from 1950 contained a range of lime recipes; its Lime Meringue Pie recipe was contributed by a member of staff from Florida (could this be a Key Lime Pie in disguise?) and it was accompanied by a Lime Cake Pudding and a Lime Chiffon Pie.  At last, the lime seems to have made its mark on the baking scene!

There’s plenty of gaps in this culinary account of limes, especially in terms of their use in Mexican, Indian and south East Asian cooking (one of my favourite discoveries in Singapore last year was lime juice, refreshingly sharp, with just a hint of sweetness below, the perfect drink for a bakingly hot day).  I would love to be presented with an earlier recipe using limes in the baking of something sweet.  And please, please do let me know if you come across a recipe for Key Lime Pie pre-1950.  For this amateur historic cook there’s plenty more lime learning to do.

Oranges and Lemons

6 Feb

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.


Traditional English nursery rhyme

Cooking at Fort York has taken a decidedly citrus turn over the past few weeks, since we’ve been preparing for the Fort’s long running February event, Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus.  I’ve long been a lover of citrus fruits – as a child oranges and lemons were basically the only fruits I’d eat – so the idea of celebrating the flavours of sweet oranges and sharp lemon zest is one which appeals to me greatly.


Orange gingerbread squares

It’s a pity I won’t be around for the event itself but at least I get the fun of all the behind the scenes preparations and experimentation.  Rosemary and Joan have been working on orange biscuits, perfecting the consistency which is key to these macaroon like offerings.  Of course in the interests of achieving the best possible biscuit there needs to be a fair amount of testing by eating, a task in which we’re all more than happy to take part.

For at least two weeks in a row Emma has produced the most delectable lemon puffs, pillows of airy fluffiness offering the briefest wisp of tart lemon before melting away.  We’ve been imaging the many permutations for serving lemon puffs, including sandwiching them together with a swirl of lemon curd and cream.

The recipe I’ve been working on, with Krystle, was an orange gingerbread taken from the first known English language cookbook published in Canada, in 1831, The Cook Not Mad.  The author of the cookbook is unknown and before being published in Canada it actually first appeared in America, in Watertown, New York in 1830.   Its title clearly suggests that its author wanted to demonstrate the rationality behind cookery, as opposed to it being any sort of mystic alchemy.

No. 130 Orange Gingerbread
Two pounds and a quarter fine flour, a pound and 3 quarters molasses, 12 ounces of sugar, 3 ounces undried orange peel chopped fine, 1 ounce each of ginger and allspice, melt twelve ounces of butter, mix the whole together, lay it by for twelve hours, roll it out with as little flour as possible, cut it in pieces three inches wide, mark them in the form of checkers with the back of a knife, rub them over with the yelk of an egg, beat with a tea cup of milk, when done wash them again with the egg.

The recipe, No. 130 in the book, is for a classic hard gingerbread with a melting of molasses and butter.  The combination of spices – all spice and ginger – is augmented by the addition of orange peel, which is what makes this a little more unusual than the standard gingerbread recipes of today.  There has been much discussion in the kitchen about they original recipe instruction to add ‘undried peel, chopped fine’ and what it actually means.  Is it simply orange zest or is it a peel in syrup then chopped? While the historic recipes when read carefully give many clues about their methods and ingredients, sometimes even close examination cannot unlock all their meaning and the best approach is to take an educated guess in the service of experimentation.

The melted molasses (fancy molasses, a little more refined that the usual molasses) and butter had to cool to room temperature and we began by simply stirring the mixture.  Elizabeth suggested that a cool bain marie and sure enough a bit of ice and water was much more effective in dropping the temperature.

 IMG_4107  IMG_4110

our molasses and butter mixture before and with the bain marie


Krystle preparing the all important orange zest

The cooled molasses mixture was added to the flour, sugar, spices and orange and then combined to make a soft dough which needed considerable chilling before it could be worked.  Even once chilled it still stuck to the table frequently while being rolled out; no wonder the original recipe suggested chilling it over night.


The dry ingredients – flour, sugar, ginger, all spice – and the orange zest

The recipe also gave very specific instructions about how to shape the gingerbread; it was to be rolled to ¼ “ thick and then marked in a chequerboard pattern of 1” squares, before being cut into squares of 3”.  While undoubtedly producing a biscuit pleasing to the eye this was not so easy to achieve; the dough was difficult to lift up and transport to the trays without suffering more than a little shape shifting.  These were quickly given a little bit of manual coaxing to regain their right angles.

To cut the squares we had a basic square template and we experimented with different methods of scoring the 1” squares; sometimes before cutting into 3” squares, sometimes once they were on the tray.  In the interests of speed I adopted a rather cavalier approach, just running my palette knife through the dough after cutting but before placing on the tray, making sure not to run my knife all the way through the dough.  My accuracy left much to be desired; I definitely wasn’t producing nine perfect 1” squares on each biscuit – I don’t know how precise the author would have expected their readers to be.


all ready for cutting


                                Hardly a model of mathematical precision, but that doesn’t effect the taste, does it?

The finished squares were glazed with a mixture of beaten egg and milk and then left to stand for 30 minutes before being placed in a moderate oven.  After about 15 minutes they came out again and were given a second coating of the glaze before being left to cool and harden.


The resulting biscuits have a pleasing crunch as you break the biscuit, with a hint of chewiness as you enjoy the deep, rich flavour of the marriage of molasses, orange and spices.  It’s difficult to know if we chose the right method of adding the orange peel  but they taste great.  In the cold and bitter weather of February it’s easy to imagine how much they must have been enjoyed by those who first made them, providing a little bit of sweet sustenance.


The squares have two coats of an egg yolk and milk glaze


 Krystle with the finished squares

Kensington Palace Recipes 2 – Jo’s Welsh cakes

19 Jan


After a little bit of investigation and improvisation I had all the ingredients I needed to make Jo’s Welsh cakes, as the next of the recipes from my Kensington Palace custom cook book.  After asking Elizabeth at Fort York it turns out that lard in Canadian supermarkets is found in the baking section, ie. it isn’t refrigerated.  The other ingredient which wasn’t easy to come by was mixed spice, not being a regular baking addition in Canada.  In the end I bought spices and made my own mixed spice; two parts ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon to one part cloves.  I’ve never mixed up my own mixed spice before so if anyone has comments on the spices and proportions I used I’m open to improvements.


mixed spice mixed by Mrs Kim


Canadian lard; I needed a little help to find in the supermarket, nestled as it was alongside flour and yeast, rather than chilled with the butter and margarine

Jo is the assistant curator for Historic Royal Palaces and is one of the most organised and super efficient people I know.  Throughout the preparation for our exhibition Jubilee – A View from the Crowd last year, which had a vast range of loan objects from museums and private lenders, Jo kept them and all their accompanying information in meticulous order, as well as charming our lenders, overseeing installation and generally being an indispensible part of the team.  She also discovered a hidden talent as a hand model; during the photography of the exhibition objects Jo’s hands were extensively used to hold and frame the objects and all the white glove shots you see have Jo’s talented hands beneath them.

 hand and cupA Victorian Diamond Jubilee mug, beautifully framed by Jo’s hands

Jo hails from Wales so it’s perhaps not surprising that the recipe she contributed was Welsh cakes.  These sweet cakes, usually containing currants and spices, are actually more like a thin scone and would have been baked on a griddle or bakestone over the hearth.  As I’ve never had Welsh cakes before I went online to find out what type of texture they should have and a little more about their history.  Something I was keen to try and find out was how old Welsh cakes were.  One on-line writer suggests that as they contain an added raising agent they probably are little older than mid-19th century.  However, cooking on the hearth is such a long tradition that I’m sure that Welsh cakes existed in some form before this, whatever the raising agent.  The Laura Secord Canadian cookbook which I was given for Christmas has a Welsh cake recipe which it introduces by commenting that these were the cakes which King Alfred traditionally burnt.  The name might be wrong but the technology of using a bakestone, a thin stone or slate, to cook cakes near a fire, seems a little more plausible for any cakes King Alfred might have had a hand in burning.


St Fagans, the National Museum of Wales, rightly point out that there’s no definitive recipe for Welsh cakes; each family would have had their own particular traditions and touches. One of the earliest published recipes for Welsh cakes however seems to appear in the cookbook written by Lady Llanover, a staunch supporter of Welsh customs and traditions who championed the Welsh language and music and is credited with ‘designing’ the Welsh national costume.  Her book Good cookery illustrated: And recipes communicated by the Welsh hermit of the cell of St. Gover, with various remarks on many things past and present  was published in 1867.  However, according to the OED’s quotations for Welsh cake a recipe also appeared in a January 1867 edition of the periodical Young Englishwoman ‘Welsh Cakes.—One pound of butter beaten to a cream, add by degrees an equal quantity of flour, a tablespoonful of yeast, and three eggs.’  If anyone can find an earlier recipe do let me know.

The size and texture of a Welsh cake is key – they should be fairly thin, or as Jo helpfully describes, rolled out to the width of your little finger – as they need to cook quickly over the heat of the fire or hob.  Ann Romney (her grandfather was a Welsh miner), wife of the Republican contender for the American presidency, seems to have raised some sceptical Welsh eyebrows with her much thicker Welsh cakes which she baked last year on Good Morning America, a recent article pointed out.


flour, salt, mixed spice, sugar, lard and butter, all ready to mix by hand


after rolling out the dough to the width of my little finger I cut it into rounds

With these tips and warnings to guide me I took the plunge with Jo’s Welsh cake recipe, in a sense literally, since I mixed the ingredients by hand.  Volunteering in the Fort York kitchen has reminded me of the enjoyment of mixing ingredients by hand and the benefits of being able to judge each stage in the process of combining much more directly than using an electric mixer.  Since our hyper-modern apartment is without both bakestone and hearth these were cooked on a hob in a frying pan.  After burning the first batch I allowed the heat to cool and had much more successful results for the remaining cakes.  And as all the recipes suggest they were delicious sprinkled with sugar and eaten warm.  Thanks very much for the recipe Jo!


Following in the footsteps of King Alfred; burning my Welsh cakes…..

       IMG_3936 …but they weren’t all bad; some more palatable Welsh cakes, sprinkled with sugar

With my own fair hands

7 Jan

Today I spent my birthday making my own cake, which I haven’t even had the chance to try yet!  This however, was no ordinary birthday cake, but Elizabeth Cleland’s 1755 recipe for ‘a seed cake, very rich’ (on p158 of this link)from her cookery book A New and Easy Method of Cookery.  Appropriately since I was born in the Outer Hebrides, Elizabeth Cleland was a Scottish cook and her rich seed cake contains a pound each of butter, flour and sugar, as well as ten egg yolks, six egg whites and a gill (a quarter pint and pronounced ‘jill’) of brandy.  The seeds in the cake are caraway seeds, a popular flavouring for cakes and biscuits (they were the flavour of the cattern cakes made by lacemakers to celebrate their patron saint’s day, St Catherine’s Day on 25 November, for example) On this snowy January morning I was once again at Fort York to join some of its team of historic cooks for a day of historic recipe making and experimentation.


A snowy Fort York for a twelfth night birthday

With 8 cooks the kitchens, both the officers’ mess early 19th century kitchen and the preparation kitchen, were hives of activity.  Mya, leading the session, explained to me that I’d be preparing the seed cake by hand, quite literally.  The Fort York cooks make sure that anything used in the officers’ mess kitchen is authentic to the time so that when visitors enter the space it’s as close as possible to the way it might have looked in the 19th century (although my outfit of jeans and a jersey top clearly fell well behind these standards of historical authenticity).  So I was going to mix all of the ingredients using my hands, beginning with creaming the butter until it was fluffy and yellowish white.  As people pointed out to me the butter was a great hand moisturiser and I now have a right hand significantly softer than the left (next time I’ll remember to swap them over more efficiently).


The ingredients for Elizabeth Cleland’s ‘seed cake, very rich’; from top to bottom, a gill of brandy, eggs, butter, sugar, some pound cake for sustenance (not part of ingredients!), caraway seeds


creaming butter by hand; quite tough on the right forearm, but beautifully soft and strangely satisfying

Once the butter was sufficiently creamed the sugar was added gradually, once again worked in by hand.  Then the eggs were beaten, yolks and whites separately, until they were thick and stiff.  For this we did use a balloon whisk.  I was expecting it to be tough with the whites but it was actually the yolks that took longer, even with considerable help from my fellow cooks.  Gradually however the yolks evolved from a liquid orangey yellow to a soft pale yellow, falling in gentle peaks.  The yolks were added to the butter and sugar mixture, then the flour and brandy alternately, before the caraway seeds and then the whites folded in last of all.


Mark with the egg yolks which he kindly whisked to perfection; not the lovely buttermilk colour and the ribbon trail it leaves as it pours


me and the egg whites; I’m practising using my left arm for whisking too, otherwise it will be the right arm that gets all the exercise; note that we’re using a copper bowl for egg whisking

Mya and Catherine had already kindly prepared for me the baking tray which was simple a metal hoop – round baking tins with a base did not arrive until later in the 19th century, with baking paper tied around it and then lined with baking paper.  Mya and Catherine make it look very simple but when I tried helping Brenda with preparing the tin for her gingerbread it seemed much more complicated.


preparing the hoop for baking; metal hoop wrapped in brown paper, so that the paper forms a base, tied round with string and plenty of extra paper at the top to help stop the cake from burning. 

 With the tin ready the mixture was spooned in, by hand, and then placed in a 350°F oven.  It’s a slow-cooking cake so it stayed in for just shy of two hours.  Since it only came out of the oven at the very end of our session I’m going to have to wait until Tuesday to taste it.


The finished seed cake, just out of the prep kitchen oven

 While I was busy concentrating on the seed cake a wealth of other recipes were being tested and preparing, from Mya and Elizabeth’s transparent biscuits filled with currants, Brenda’s 1831 gingerbread (dating from a time when the first artificial raising agent, pearlash, had become available), Mark’s Jumbles, which he twisted into shapes following 17th century illustrations, Amy’s Black Bun and Cherie’s Oliver biscuits; a super plain biscuit developed by Dr Oliver in the 18th century for people taking the nasty sulphur water in Bath, to nibble and take away the taste.  One of the elements of the cookery which I think is so impressive at Fort York is the level of experimentation in order to recreate the recipes as authentically as possible.  It means that even if a recipe doesn’t turn out quite as expected it all becomes part of the learning process.  Mark’s jumbles were a good example; the 17th century illustration showed these spiced biscuits in a whole range of interlaced and twisted shapes; clearly depicting how their name developed from ’gemmel’, the name of as double finger ring.  The recipe had called for plenty of butter and then flour to make the dough workable, which it was but it was also incredible delicate and my attempts and the double bow shape were far from elegant.  I then stuck to trying the reef knot shapes which still looked a little rough and ready in comparison with Mark’s beautiful twisted rings, but when the shapes reached the oven the high butter content meant that they lost their shape really quickly.  Definitely a case for more flour next time, both to make the dough easier to work and to help retain the shape.  It was also fascinating seeing how they fared in the three different ovens; the ones cooked in the officers’ mess bake oven retained their shape most successfully, those in the convection oven were the next best and those in the conventional oven were the flattest.  They all tasted delicious though.


from Peter Brears, Food and Cooking in Seventeenth Century Britain, p11


My attempts at the reef knot shape; I’m not sure I really improved (I was working left to right in vertical rows) but by the end I did have a better technique for using the right amount of dough. 


The final jumbles, which do look a bit of a jumble after their time in the oven; you can see how differently they all fared, the smaller ones in the top left were Mark’s twisted rings which were cooked in the bake oven and the ones to the front of the picture his slightly larger twisted rings cooked in the normal modern oven

Meanwhile Catherine was concentrating on our lunch; a white fish roasted by the fire, scalloped potatoes (except we couldn’t find the scallop shells so we made do with shallow tins) and stewed carrots.  The breadcrumbs on the potatoes which were mashed and then sat by the fire in the officers’ mess kitchen, were browned by the use of a salamander, a thick disk of metal on a stick, which was heated in the fire and then used to brown the breadcrumbs.  It was remarkably effective on the first dish of potatoes but lost its heat quite quickly so that the second dish took a little longer to brown.


Catherine scraping carrots for the carrot stew with the white fish awaiting his fate


The white fish roasting by the fire


Mya browning the scalloped potatoes with the salamander, as per 1769   E. Raffald Experienced Eng. Housekeeper (1778) 253   ‘Hold a hot salamander over it till it is very brown’.

I might not have been able to sample the seed cake before I left but there were plenty of other treats that had been cooked over the day to try, from Amy’s black bun, which was very similar to hot cross buns and Brenda’s rich and currant studded gingerbread.  When I go back on Tuesday I’m looking forward to finding out how my hand made birthday cake has turned out.


Brenda and her gingerbread


Amy and her black bun


Cherie’s Oliver Biscuits

A range of pretensions

18 Nov

I wonder what your first considerations are when you’re shopping for a new piece of kitchen equipment?   Does function and the capabilities of the equipment win out over its form and aesthetic beauty? Mr Kim and I often have a discussion over the relative merits of the Kitchen Aid and Kenwood mixers, the former being favoured by Mr Kim as the perfect synthesis of form and function and the latter being preferred by me as an example of utter dependability in the kitchen (my mother’s Kenwood mixer survived for decades despite falling on the floor on one occasion).

It was great therefore to come across a Victorian  kitchen combination of form and function when I visited the William Lyon Mackenzie house this afternoon.  Mackenzie was Toronto’s first mayor, a radical journalist and leader of the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion; a general thorn in the side of Canada’s ruling elites.  The house, which stands preserved on Bond Street in down town Toronto, was bought for Mackenzie by loyal friends and supporters, since Mackenzie while being a spirited and principled individual was always short of cash.  Mackenzie only enjoyed a few years in the house which was given to him in the late 1850s (he died in 1861).  His wife and unmarried daughters however, once again due to the generosity of loyal friends, were able to stay in the house after his death.

Mackenzie House in Bond Street, Toronto.  When built it was the middle house in a  row of three.

The house, built in the Greek revival style, became a public museum in 1950 and its historical significance meant that it was spared the fate of its adjoining row house neighbours which were torn down in the 1930s.   It’s been restored to give an impression of life in the 1860s with period wallpaper and furnishings and a handful of items which belonged to the family themselves like an chair with seat and back worked by one of Mackenzie’s daughters and a fine sampler worked by his wife when she was a 13 year old girl living in Dundee, Scotland.

There was plenty to catch my interest – I loved the demonstration of the gas lighting in the kitchen for example, with the three jets of flaming gas spurting out of the brass fitting like the veins of a firey leaf and the hallway arch with its angels’ heads, the last touch of original period moulding in the house.  What particularly caught my eye however was the wonderful range in the kitchen.  It was an especially unusual shape; almost triangular and very low in height; our guide suggested that this was because women were used to cooking at hearth level so wouldn’t have found this so strange.  Across the front was emblazoned OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 in vaguely Gothic script.  The whole upper section had the look of a wooden cabinet, perhaps 16th century in style, with the two doors for the ovens each being cast with a clutch of dead game birds, like a decorative carved panel, and the upper warming over doors being cast with patterns imitating carved wood.  Now I suppose when we purchase a cooker (or more likely these days a hob and oven) we’re unlikely to want it to look like anything else.  But taking a quick look over the internet at other 19th century stoves and ranges it’s remarkable how many of them seem to take on the shape of elegant pieces of furniture and wooden cabinets.  It’s almost as if the form of the piece is more important than it’s technical function.


Our Favorite in the Mackenzie kitchen; it was difficult to photograph because the light coming into the basement kitchen was very low but you can just about make out the way it fits back into the wall and the moulding of dead game on the doors above the stove. 

I don’t know enough about the merits of OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 to know if, as a stove, it was particularly functional and efficient.  But it’s modelling and cast decoration certainly suggests that it was greatly valued for its aesthetics.  It reminded me of the way in which early railway carriages were modelled on stage coaches; without a definitive shape for the new form of transport they simply adapted an existing form for new uses.  Maybe the same was true of 19th century stoves; as they became more and more independent of the fireplace they turned to other pieces of furniture to provide an appropriate model.

The upper half of the stove, with the moulded panels like a 16th century cabinet, with the words OUR FAVORITE                              in Gothic script

In actual fact this stove fits neatly into the space which would once have been occupied by a fireplace.  Our guide explained that although the stove in the house today was brought from another property in Toronto, it fitted almost perfectly into the fireplace void in the Mackenzie kitchen, suggesting, especially because of it’s unusual shape that the family had a stove very similar.

The Grand Windsor Stove, a later American 19th century stove, showing clear references to ornamental furniture.

During our tour there were also a number of mentions of the fact that the Mackenzies, as a lower middle class family, did many things for the sake of ‘keeping up appearances’.  Perhaps one reason why such a stove was valued was its suggestion of elegantly and richly carved decoration, a way of showing off social position and cultural sensibility, even if the family finances belied this outward demonstration of position.

All of this has made me very curious about the evolution of 19th century cast iron stoves in function and form, and in the Mackenzie’s OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 in particular.  I’d love to know if anyone has come across references to 19th century stove design or ever heard of OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 before?  Whether it really was a favourite in the Mackenzie household and to what extent they appreciated its fine decoration we shall sadly never know but its elaborate design is great reminder of the changing technologies of the 19th century kitchen.

A taste of Toronto’s past

16 Nov

Today I headed off to Fort York, the military garrison which marked the first beginnings of Toronto as a modern settlement.  Fort York was built in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe admidst fears of an American invasion, and a town, York, established 2 km east of the fort.  The threat of war came and passed in 1793 but Fort York saw genuine action during the War of 1812 fought between America and its northern neighbours.  As American forces advanced towards Fort York its British commander, Major-General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, ordered that the garrison magazine be blown up, an explosion which caused many American injuries and bought the British some time, though the Americans still occupied the town of York for six days, looting, destroying and burning homes.

Toronto old and new – the Officers’ mess of Fort York framed by part of Toronto’s contemporary skyline

After its role in the 1812 war Fort York saw no further direct military action and active troops left for new barracks in 1841.  Nevertheless the fort continued to be used by the military until the 1930s and after their departure the fort was turned into historic site, open to the public .

Originally lying directly on the lake shore subsequent filling in of the lake means that Fort York is now nestled between the two dominant transportation features of this part of town; the Gardiner Expressway and the railway tracks.  While November might be characterised by cold, misty and damp mornings I had warming sunshine and only a threat of black clouds on the horizon for my visit.

I enjoyed my visit round the fort, which is due for something of a makeover in the next couple of years, including a new visitor centre and a reappraisal of the site’s original lake shore position.  It was fun seeing the barracks and imagining life in their cramped but regimented quarters, with up to 100 sharing in each three roomed block.  I especially enjoyed the fact that the fort does sleep overs for children so that they get the chance to experience a glimpse of military life in the early 19th century; I bet they love sleeping in the rough soldiers’ bunk beds!

The new kitchen in the officers’ mess, with the kitchen fireplace and dresser; the line of jars of historic ingredients on the dresser reminded me of all  Susanne Groom’s hard work for the representation of the royal kitchens at Kew Palace, investigating the spices and supplies that had passed under the nose of George III’s kitchen clerk.  

However, the part of my visit which really got me going was the discovery of the working kitchen in the officers’ mess.  A few glowing logs in the kitchen’s fireplace hinted that there was definite historic cooking activity at the site.  As my audio guide pointed out food was of high importance to the officers, dinner being not only an occasion for fine dining but also the social fulcrum of army life.  The kitchen would been the site of fevered activity and almost unbearable heat, ensuring that a fitting meal was served to the waiting officers on the other side of the baize door.  Further exploration of the officer’s mess led me down a set of steep basement steps, to the site of the oldest surviving kitchen in Toronto and the mess’s original kitchen.  A great fireplace dominated the east wall while a drainage channel ran through the floor and wine cellars and a garrison safe for gold and money lay in rooms beyond.


The basement kitchen in the officers’ mess with its brick fireplace and drainage channel beneath the stone floor; turned over to wie keeping duties in 1826 this is Toronto’s oldest surviving kitchen. 

To return to the historic cooking.  I was impressed by the range of facsimile historic cookbooks for sale in the museum shop and particularly excited to see that there was a poster advertising a whole range of historic cooking events and workshops, from trifle making to a marmalade celebration.  My attention was particularly caught by a workshop for historic mince pie making.  Now, I’ve had a go at historic mince pies before since Mr Kim doesn’t really believe in mince pies without meat, but I’d never been entirely satisfied with my results.  Here was the perfect opportunity for me to really find out what they should taste like and all perfectly timed for Christmas into the bargain, the course being run on 2 December.

My enquiries into booking led me into a lovely chat around the subject of historic cooking with the ladies in the museum shop – I enjoyed telling them the story about the survival of the royal kitchen table at Kew which was just too big to move out of the kitchen.  They informed me that not only does the shop sell the real mince pies – which are highly popular – but that the site has a volunteer historic cooking team – would I be interested in joining?  What could be a better way to get to know a site than through the reconstruction of historic food.  I was whisked away to the kitchen of recreation to meet some of the team, headed up by Bridget Wrainch. I was immediately offered some 1830s gingerbread samples, being tested in readiness for the fort’s frost fair, to try.  What a great recruitment strategy – the gingerbread, rich in molasses, was more than enough to win me over but was quickly followed by some chicken curry, in preparation as the potential lunch dish for the Marmalade Day in February.  In amongst the warm waft of spices mingling from the curry and gingerbread trifle biscuits were been prepared and the whole kitchen had an air of bustling efficiency combined with deep passion and enthusiasm for the delights and mystery of historic cooking – a wonderful introduction as I shall definitely be returning to learn more about the food of Fort York from the working side of the kitchen table.