‘As with the commander of an army, or the leader of an enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house.’
These are the opening words of Mrs Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management, published in 1861. More than just a cookbook, this manual of life showed the newly married Victorian woman how to cook, nurse, and hire a butler. It was the indispensable guide that came out with many of our early settlers and went on to inspire many more cookbooks and handy hint books. Mrs Beeton’s books now provide a time portal to the everyday lives of Victorian families and makes for a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the way Victorian households lived.
Let’s bake a cake, Mrs Beeton style
One of the problems with Mrs Beeton’s book, and the technology of the time, was a lack of standardisation and a great deal of assumed knowledge. For example Mrs Beeton’s recipe for coffee cake calls for a ‘tea cup’ of brown sugar and a cup of butter. Which cups you chose from your kitchen would have determined how well your cake turn out, because measuring cups had not then been invented.
The measuring cup was invented in 1896 by Fannie Farmer, a pioneer in the world of cooking, based in Boston.
You also had to, “pick, wash and stone your raisins and currants well”. Yes, that is how it is worded but how you do that is not explained. I feel sorry for the newly married young lady who read this and didn’t have the foggiest idea either. No wonder anyone who could had a maid and cook!
Then there was sugar. The young Victorian woman didn’t get off easily there either. Sugar loaf was the common form of sugar and was used in many of Mrs Beeton’s recipes. Unlike today’s easy-to-use granulated sugar, sugar loaf was as it sounds – literally a loaf of sugar that you had to break up by hand.
If you were lucky you were gifted sugar nips, a tool that was used to break pieces of sugar off the loaf. You then had to manually granulate the sugar through a grater or a grinder.
Some recipes called for sifted loaf sugar, just to add an extra step – because you were at home all day and all the time in the world, right? Baking was not a quick activity in Victorian times.
Once you had attended to your raisins and finished mixing the batter, there was the not-so-simple task of baking your cake in a coal range. Hint: there were no temperature controls like we have today.
The coffee cake recipe calls for a “quick” oven. Yes a quick oven! For me, that prompts visions of trying to catch my oven as it runs around the kitchen quickly. Other temperatures that were called for included cool, slow, brisk and tolerably brisk.
Women got to know their own coal range and could tell how well it was heated by splashing water on the front door or watching how a little flour thrown into the oven bounced across the oven tray.
If the oven was not ready then adjustments would be needed to be made to the wood or coal and the dampers, which controlled airflow.
Once you had guessed which cup and spoon size was the correct size, hoped your soda was in good order because baking powder was only invented in 1856 and was still expensive – even if you could get your hands on it. Then selected and stoned your dried fruit and appropriately mixed your batter, plus caught your oven at the right speed and kept it at the right speed, you may or may not have an edible cake at the end.
Don’t forget while all this was going on, being a Victorian wife and mother was more than a full time job. It is easy to see why Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was essential reading.
By Vanessa Coulter
- Young women learning aspects of household management at an Ashburton Technical School cooking class, 1912.
- An exhibition of cakes made by Ashburton Technical School students.
- An inspiring colour plate of puddings, pies, sweets and savouries from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Plate VII.
- The beautiful labels on tinned kitchen supplies from the collection of Ashburton Museum.