Life in the Victorian Kichen:Culinary Secrets and Servant’s Stories


Have you ever read and old recipe, or and inherited family cookbook and wondered how your ancestors managed
long before the introdution of the microwave and freezer?Just how should you ‘coddle’ an egg,how would you
source a pineapple in the 18800s and what on earth wa mock turtle soup? Today we rarely take seadonal cooking
into cosideration, but long before the development of the modern supermarket ,the availability of produce
and ingredients dominated people’s lives.

Picture the scene:it’ a hot summer’s day and fields of corn sway gracefully in the gentle mid-afternoon breeze,
as jewel coloured kingfishers watch the world go by from the riverbank. Outside a tumbledown cottage children play,
skipping alongside the vegetable patch,chasing each other between the lines of freshly laundered washing,
whilst the aroma of hot fresh-baked bread wafts through the open kitchen window. Add appropriate costumes and a dash of makeup
and you could have walked onto the set of a television period drama.

Even before TV gave us historical adaptations, our forebears often romanticised life in the past through paintings ,
which presented a highly idealised view of the world. These images of rural life,where the mother of a brood of children
casually bakes bread on the kitchen table, seem carefree and easy – a moments in time captured on canvas. I often wish we
could revisit the same scene half an hour later to see the reality:the mother up to her armpits in washing, with the stone
floor to be scrubbed ,the fire to be stoked, and the ongoing dilemma of feeding eight with only one loaf of bread.

Although these artists secured rose-tinted snapshots of an era before the camera, the reality was of then harsh and unforgiving .
Summers in the Victorian countryside ,uninterruped by industry and bursting with the sights and sounds of nature must have been
glorious ,but what about the bleak winters,when fields of forstbitten crops brought little work for the menfolk,leaving their families hungry?

Period novels help to give us further perspective,enabling us to revel in the luxurious lives of the wealthy whilst feeling

grateful that we arenot exposed to the dire situations experienced by the poor.Jane Austen largely avoids the subject of poverty in her novels and
when she refers to the servants they rarely speak for themselves or reveal their thoughts
and feelings,only confirming the belief that at this time domestics were ‘seen and not
heard’.Jane showcased polite society in her upper middle class tales of Regency life but,
as the Victorian era dawned ,writers began to give a truer picture of the wildly differing,
living conditions experienced among the social classes.
Dickens offers a glimpse of the underbelly of nineteenth century society and criticises
the blind eye turned to it by the wealthy. Flora Thompson wrote of her late Victorian
Oxfordshire childhood in what now seems like a rural idyll,yet behind the everyday
occurrences she skilfully exposes the hardships faced by the hamlet dwellers compared to
their contemporaries in the nearby town.

During the period, the lives of the rich and the poor could not have been more
different.Their homes, amenities, employment choices and incomes were poles apart.In the
nineteenth century, your social status determined everything from the way you wore your
clothes to the food you ate.Etiquette was essential among the educated upper classes, but
the working classes didn’t have the time to linger over a leisurely breakfast.Employment
was hard to come by and easily lost ,so getting to work on time was their priority. They
didn’t possess multiple sets of cutlery, taking up a fresh one for each course,instead a
single knife fork and spoon for each family member.

For most ordinary working people , meals consisted of one simple course to deliberate
over, and they could only dream of the lavish, or the wherewithal to pay for them.Country
people would sow basic crops in their small kitchen gardens or on a rough patch of land
near their cottage and hope to grow enough produce to last the winter. Life was a constant
battle of finding work, putting food on the table, clothing their families and maintaining
their homes and ,on the rare occasion when the had a spare half an hour, they had very
little resources to do anything with it.

But every social class shared one common denominator. No matter what era we live in, our
lives revolve around food – what we eat,when we eat, the quantity of our food, or the lack
of it.As a result ,the kitchen has long been the heart of every home,whether a basic
cooking pot in a rural cottage or the bustling hub of a country mansion.
To fully understand the development of the Victorian kitchen, we must first look back at
the economic history of Britain and the inherited legacy left by previous generations.From
the battle to reduce the global price of wheat to the introduction of new labour-saving
methods and innovations,each event, incident and invention revolutionised life within the
home.The Victorians witnessed more rapid changes in mechanisation than in any previous
ear.Cooking over an open grate was commonplace at he start of Queen Victoria’s reign,but
when her era drew to a close gas and electric devices, ground-breaking technology and an
endless variety of ingredients from the Empire had opened up a new and exciting culinary
world to the British public.

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