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Looking back at an Essex recipe book from 1715

PUBLISHED: 17:22 04 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:22 04 May 2018

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Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office shares some delights from our culinary past with a look inside the recipe books of yesteryear

What do you fancy for dinner? Maybe a stewed calf’s head or some smoked ox tongue? Or, if you’re feeling peaky rather than hungry, a syrup made from turnips and herbs or a gruel made with garden snails might perk you up. Instructions for all of these can be found in Elizabeth Slany’s handwritten book of recipes, begun in 1715.

Food, drink and medicines unite us all across space and time. We all need to eat and drink, and most of us at some point will need some sort of medicine to help us fight off an illness. This was the case for our ancestors just as much as it is for us today and historical recipe books can provide fascinating windows into life in the past.

Historical recipes help us to imagine what life was like for our ancestors. They tell us what people ate and drank, and how food was prepared, flavoured and preserved in a world before supermarkets, mass imports, convenience food or refrigeration. They can also be surprisingly exotic, telling us about the interconnectedness of the world in the past.

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Many historic recipe books also include instructions for making medicines, telling us how our ancestors battled illnesses before painkillers and antibiotics.

There are more than 200 recipe books among the thousands of records cared for by the Essex Record Office, including that of Elizabeth Slany. Elizabeth was born near Worcester and in 1723 married Benjamin LeHook, an agent in London. Elizabeth’s daughter, also Elizabeth, married Samuel Wegg of Colchester.

The first part of the book is in Elizabeth’s own handwriting and then another hand takes over later, perhaps her daughter running her Colchester home.

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Elizabeth’s book provides fascinating insights into her life in charge of a well-off 18th century household. Some of her recipes are for very rich food and there is a focus on food preservation, by pickling, salting, drying, and jam making.

Elizabeth’s calf’s head stew calls for the head to be boiled in a broth with oyster liquor, cider vinegar, mushroom liquor, an anchovy and butter, and to be served with the brains, sweetbreads and tongue of the animal. The smoked ox tongues, meanwhile, should be soaked in water for three days, then in brine for three weeks, before being hung up in the chimney ‘a smoaking till they are dry’.

For those not inclined to meat, there are plenty of recipes for preserved fruits, such as a raspberry jam, made from raspberries boiled with loaf sugar. Currants could be added to make the jam firmer.

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There are also several sweet desserts, such as ‘whipt sillibubs’, made from cream, egg whites, wine, lemon peel and sugar whipped together, ‘the larger the bubbles are the better’.

There are also several medicinal recipes throughout the book, such as this one for snail gruel. Snail-based preparations were considered useful in treating consumption or tuberculosis and most required huge quantities of snails, so this version is an easier alternative (not that we recommend it).

The Snail Grewel for a Consumption

Take ten garden snails, pick off their shells then boil ’em in a quart of spring water with one spoonful of pear[l] barley and one spoonful of hartshorn shavings, till it is wasted to a pint then strain it, add to it half a pint of milk, sweeten it to your taste with eringo root.

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Let the person drink half a pint of this first thing in the morning and last thing at night going to bed. If their stomach can bear as much, every other day is often enough to make it, it’s very good for the rickets.

Some of the recipes in the later hand are surprisingly exotic, including curry, Chinese rice, and fresh pasta.

Receipt for making Currey

Take of a loin of mutton without fat or bone, from two to three pounds cut it into small pieces, stew it till it is tender in no more water than is necessary – add to it a few cloves, garlick and shallots – some white pepper and salt and carefully skin it when tender drain it very dry in a cullender reserving the broth.

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Then fry the meat a good brown with a lump of butter and some sliced onions and return it to your stew pan with as much broth as will barely cover it – thicken it with your currey stuff – season it with some cayenne pepper and salt, and add the juice of two lemons.

NB two large spoonfulls of currey stuff is sufficient for a currey of two pounds and so in proportion – add to the currey powder about a fifth of Turmeric.

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