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A History of the Kitchen
By David J. Eveleigh
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David J. Eveleigh
All rights reserved.
Farmhouse and Cottage Kitchens, 1600 to the present day
The farmhouse kitchen has long held a fascination for those searching for traditional values and ways of life. In 1792, Arthur Young (1741-1820), agriculturalist, traveller and writer, wrote with affection of the kitchens of substantial farmers in Suffolk and the 'central counties'. 'A large, roomy clean kitchen', he wrote, 'with a rouzing wood fire on the hearth and the ceiling well hung with smoaked bacon and hams'. Young's ideal conveyed a way of living untouched by pretension and modern fads - of rustic simplicity – plain manners and plain but wholesome food. Farmhouse kitchens were cosy, comfortable and convivial. They inspired writers such as Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and artists like Frederick Daniel Hardy (1826-1911) and Helen Allingham (1848-1926) who found in their interiors much which was picturesque - and without artifice in good taste. For these and other admirers, the same timeless atmosphere could be found in the cottages of the better-off sort of rural labourer and the kitchens of old country inns.
In remote rural locations, farmhouse, cottage and country inn kitchens maintained and preserved traditional ways of doing things. Some proved remarkably resistant to change: as recently as the 1950s, it was possible to enter the kitchens of some farmhouses in Devon and, in effect, step back two or three hundred years. Their large open fireplaces with pots hanging over an open fire would have been familiar to a seventeenth century Devon farmer and his family. As early as the 1780s, rural kitchens could appear decidedly old fashioned. Staying overnight in the 'Red Lion' in Bodiam on 17 August 1788, John Byng (1743-1813) observed that the inns of rural Kent still cooked over wood fires, noting in his diary that, 'a common cook here would not know how to manage a coal fire'. Inevitably, farmhouse and cottage kitchens were subject to change, however subtle and gradual. When Arthur Young was writing in the 1790s, his ideal farm kitchen was already under siege, at least in those prosperous southern and midland counties. He and other rural commentators like William Cobbett (1762-1835), the son of a Surrey farmer, wanted to see farmers and their families living in the kitchen and rubbing shoulders with their farm servants and outdoor workers. But the prosperous farmer – socially aware and ambitious – was turning his back on the kitchen and retiring to a more private parlour or drawing room furnished like any of a well-to-do town dweller with upholstered furniture, carpets and worst of all, a piano!
As Arthur Young had observed, farmhouse kitchens were generally spacious. The kitchen at Unstead Farm, Godalming, Surrey, described by Gertrude Jekyll in 1940, was thirty feet long and twenty feet wide, with a low ceiling and paved with stone slabs. One was deeply cut with a large 'W' and marked the position of the well ten feet deep. A water supply, of course, was vital to the running of any kitchen but the sink and pump, which drew water from a shallow well, was more usually found located in a back kitchen or scullery.
The kitchen was the hub of the farmhouse: here the preparation and cooking of meals went on side by side with every day family life. Drawing on her late Victorian childhood in Castle Top Farm near Cromford, Derbyshire, Alison Uttley (1884-1976) wrote in 'The Country Child' of the farm kitchen as, 'the heart of the house ... full of doors and windows and old oak and people going to and fro'. Essential kitchen equipment and furniture was frequently jumbled up with working tools from the farm. A valuation of the furniture at Hallen Farm, near Henbury, Gloucestershire, made in March 1870, records such a seemingly random assortment. It included two 'elbow wood seat chairs', a dining table, a mahogany bureau, an oak oval table, a weather glass, a settle, coal box, paraffin lamp, two saws, a steel yard and pestle and mortar. There were also two clotheshorses and a 'wash trough'. By this date much country and kitchen furniture was made of deal, replacing the native hardwoods – oak, elm, ash and beech - traditionally favoured by the village joiner.
At Unstead Farm in 1904, a long table of deal, eleven feet five inches long and two and a half feet wide, ran down the middle of the room. Dressers were found in farmhouses from the seventeenth century and made of oak or elm although nineteenth century examples were more likely to be made of deal or pine and painted or grained. Some dressers were built in as fixtures but many were moveable pieces of furniture. Alison Uttley's were of oak and consisted of 'shining brasses and beeswaxed sides and drawers with their own distinctive names'. The shelves above were filled with a dinner service, jugs of various kinds and a set of graduated dish covers. Other typical pieces of furniture included corner cupboards and bread creels or bacon racks suspended from the ceiling.
Most farmhouse and cottage kitchens were furnished with a clock. When the stock and effects of Mr Cripp's farm at Bierton, near Aylesbury, was sold by auction in August 1796, the kitchen furniture included a thirty hour clock in a 'wainscot case' whilst the kitchen at Hallen Farm in 1870 contained an eight day clock. At the 'Bell Inn', in Aldworth on the Berkshire Downs, a long case clock with a brass dial and a 'bull's eye' glass showing the pendulum is fixed between two settles beside the large kitchen fireplace. The clock was made by a Reading maker, Ian Hocker, about 1760 and has quietly ticked away in the corner of this public house ever since.
Standing in front of the hearth, the settle served as a seat, a draught screen and store; many settles had cupboards in the back in which hams were hung and lockers under the seats for keeping hand tools. Settles gradually appear in household inventories from the 1620s when they were also found in town houses; however, by the eighteenth century, the settle was established as the archetypal piece of country furniture: eminently functional, locally made and untouched by fashion. Many curved round from the side of the fireplace to face the hearth, creating a cosy, warm and intimate environment protecting its occupants from the strong draughts pulled through the kitchen by the large chimney. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) described the benefits of the settle in 'The Return of the Native', first published in 1878. 'Outside the settle candles gutter, locks of hair wave, young women shiver, and old men sneeze. Inside is paradise. Not a symptom of a draught disturbs the air; the sitters' backs are as warm as their faces and old tales are drawn from the occupant by the comfortable heat ...'.
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The focal point of the kitchen, of course, was the large open fireplace. They ranged in width from about five to nine feet, some three or four feet deep with an opening supported by a low brick or masonry arch or an oak beam about five feet from the floor. A shelf above the fireplace provided space for miscellaneous kitchen utensils and ornaments. A farmhouse kitchen scene by W.H. Pyne (1769-1843) of about 1790 shows the mantle shelf filled with an hour glass, a mole trap, a chamber candlestick, two coffee pots, a cream skimmer, meat chopper, a candlestick, candle snuffer and a tinder box. Tinder boxes were essential kitchen articles for making a light until the widespread introduction of friction matches in the 1830s when they quickly fell from use. A wooden rack was sometimes fixed above the chimney opening. Known as a 'clavy' in Dorset, it was chiefly for storing roasting spits and occasionally, an old musket or blunderbuss. Made of steel, spits were liable to rust so it made sense to keep them close to the fireplace – not only the warmest part of the house - but also the driest. For the same reason, salt was stored close to the fireplace. Amongst the kitchen hearth equipment in Mr Cripp's farmhouse at Bierton in 1796, lot forty two included: 'a fireshovel, bellows and salt box'. They were knocked down for just two shillings.
The chimney fireplace had become an essential architectural and structural component of farmhouses and cottages across much of Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its introduction was gradual. Starting around 1500 in the south-east, the chimney had reached the north by 1700 but as late as 1900, the central hearth occupying the middle of the floor lingered on in crofters' cottages in the Orkneys. Nevertheless, in some localities the adoption of the chimney occurred quickly enough to be worthy of notice. In 1577, William Harrison, rector of Radwinter in Essex, wrote that old men in his village had seen many changes in their lifetime, including 'the multitude of chimneys lately erected'.
Burning wood, turf or peat, the fireplace was usually large enough for people to sitwithin the recess on low stools or benches. Here they could look up the wide flue and on a cold, frosty night see the stars or when the weather was wet, hit by a sooty splash of rain. A cavity in the wall – or 'loft' - for smoking bacon and hams was a common feature at roughly first floor level. Fallen branches, roots and hedge cuttings were burned along with bundles of slim poles of coppice wood bound up as faggots. Lighter brushwood was made into 'bavins' which were used to light fires and heat ovens. The best faggots were made of ash and in some Devon farmhouses, it remained a tradition into the mid-twentieth century to burn one on Christmas Eve; as each hazel bind disappeared in the flames, glasses were raised to make a toast. As faggots burned quickly a sizeable log – called a 'back-stick' in Devon – was placed across the back of the fire to keep the fire going. Wood smoke was required for curing bacons and hams. Coal could not be used – nor resinous woods – such as fir or pine. The outer bark of oak was best and in 1940, Gertrude Jekyll noted that in west Surrey, this rough bark was sold by tanners for sixpence a sack for smoking bacon.
The fire was made on the hearth and the faggots placed across a pair of wrought-iron firedogs. Larger and taller firedogs, generally known as andirons or 'cobirons', were made with hooks to support a roasting spit and some had cuplike supports at the top which served as trivets or stands for small vessels. In Writtle in mid- Essex, John Hillyard, a brick layer left, 'two cup cobirons' when he died in 1726. At South Molton, Devon, fire dogs were still on sale in the local ironmonger's in the early 1950s. Then in 1982, a farmhouse in Butts Hill Road, Woodley, Berkshire – which had been virtually engulfed by the outward spread of suburban Reading – was found scarcely touched by the twentieth century. In the kitchen, rusty and unused, but still intact was an open hearth containing a pair of fire dogs. Such is the immutability of some farmhouses.
Coppice wood was not cheap. In early nineteenth century Hampshire, a hundred faggots cost between twelve and twenty six shillings. The expense of fuel was a cause of distress for the rural poor in the nineteenth century – especially in counties such as Wiltshire where wood was scarce. Some cottage dwellers used cow dung for fuel. In Cambridgeshire in 1811, it was reported that the poor dried slabs of dung for use on their hearths. In some localities, the inhabitants were able to exercise rights of turbary to take turf and peat from heath and moorland. In west Cornwall, the cutting of hundreds of turfs and faggots of furze in late spring was an important part of the farming year. The average Cornish farm, according to A.K. Hamilton Jenkin in 1934, required a thousand faggots of furze and a similar number of squares of turf each year. On its own, furze burned too quickly so turf was put on top to produce a slow burning fire with the acrid reek characteristic of peat and turf fires. Some of them reputedly never went out – like the peat fire in the 'Wagon and Horses Inn', Saltersgate, near Pickering in North Yorkshire – which, in 1939, it was claimed, had burnt continuously for a hundred years. Keeping the fire in over night had several advantages. In Devon farmhouses, porridge for the next morning was placed in a pot over the fire and gently cooked through the night. Water could also be kept warm over the fire. It was also a source of light from which candles and lamps could be rekindled.
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Cooking took place on the 'down-hearth' and staring into the smoky, soot blackened chimney recess it was usual to see at least one large iron vessel hanging over the fire. Some chimney openings contained a fascinating assemblage of iron gear – cranes, adjustable hangers, hooks and trivets for supporting utensils over the hearth. These items were not mass produced but made individually – usually in the village forge – of sinuous wrought-iron. With the odd scroll added here and there or with a deft twist of the hot metal, the smith created equipment that was not only supremely functional but naturally graceful and pleasing to the eye.
Alternatively, pots were simply hooked to a horizontal bar fixed in the chimney. At Higher Week Farm at Zeal Monachorum, near Crediton, Devon, down hearth cooking continued until about 1942. Three crooks hung from a fixed bar: one held a boiler filled with water drawn from an outside pump. A second was used for a large tea kettle to which a slender curving wrought-iron lever known as a 'handy maid' was fitted. By pulling the lever, the kettle tipped forward, enabling boiling water to be poured safely without having to take the heavy and soot covered kettle off its hook. The third hanger – they were called 'crooks' in Devon – was occupied by a pot for heating water for the wash boiler or, alternatively, a three legged 'crock' was used to make stews, soups or boiled suet puddings.
In 'The Old Curiosity Shop' by Charles Dickens, Little Nell sought shelter in 'The Jolly Sandboys' – a 'roadside inn of ancient date'. There was a blazing fire spreading a ruddy glow around the room and a large iron cauldron hanging in the massive chimney opening which contained a stew of tripe, cow heel, bacon and steak with peas, cauliflowers, new potatoes and sparrow grass, 'all working up together in one delicious gravy'. When the landlord stirred the fire and lifted the lid of the pot, 'there rushed out a savoury smell while the bubbling sound grew deeper and more rich and an unctuous steam came floating out, hanging in a delicious mist above their heads ...' That was 1842. Two years later, Mrs Parks, writing in Webster's 'Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy', declared the three legged pot to be virtually redundant – except for boiling pitch - and use in the distant northern of Scotland. Yet according to Flora Thompson (1876-1947), in the 1880s, the inhabitants of her north Oxfordshire hamlet near Banbury still cooked a meal in the one iron pot over the fire. 'About four o'clock, smoke would go up from the chimneys as the fire was made up and the big iron boiler, or the three legged pot, was slung on the hook of the chimney'. Everything was cooked in the one utensil – potatoes, green vegetables and the meat – usually pieces of bacon - were placed in the pot in separate nets or cloths.
Other cooking operations could be carried out on the down hearth using specially adapted equipment. Frying pans were hung over the fire or made with long straight handles so they could be manipulated at a safe distance from the fire and without bending over. Cooking at hearth level could be back breaking so cooks often sat on low stools in the chimney opening. Pans were supported on a low tripod stand called a 'brandis'. In Devon the brandis was used to support a large pan of simmering water in which a covered jar of cream was placed to make clotted cream. When a skin of clotted cream had formed, it was taken off the heat and the cream skimmed off once it had cooled. In some parts of the country, chiefly in Wales and the north, oat cakes were made by spreading a batter of oatmeal mixed variously with yeast, bicarbonate of soda, water and salt, on a thick round, cast-iron plate – a 'griddle' - heated over the fire. Some griddles were made with bail handles so they could be hung from a pot hanger. Mulled beer was warmed using small cone or boot shaped vessels of tin-plate or copper which were pushed into the fire until the beer had acquired a delicious creamy froth.
Excerpted from A History of the Kitchen by David J. Eveleigh. Copyright © 2011 David J. Eveleigh. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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