As some readers may already know, I also run a book blog based on my never ending TBR Pile, and one of my recent reads was a book about the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) by Mary Gordon. I was curious to learn more about the Ladies so I requested a book from the library called A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen edited by Elizabeth Mavor (Penguin, 1986). This comprises a selection of journal entries taken from Eleanor Butler’s journal, arranged from January to December to give a good idea of their seasonal activities from year to year.
In amongst the journal entries, written mainly by Eleanor Butler are extracts from the accounts kept by Sarah Ponsonby. The accounts give an indication of the practical housekeeping aspects of the Ladies’ lives, as also do the recipes that were included within the original journal. The women had servants, as befitted their social class, but I assume that they kept a close eye on what went on the kitchen to ensure that everything ran smoothly. I just want to mention a couple of the recipes here. I have been thinking that when I have time, I might play around and adapt some for a twenty-first century kitchen. If you remember, that is what Juliet Greenwood did as part of her research for her World War I novel We That Are Left (Honno Press). I made her version of seed cake from the recipe she adapted from that era. Very tasty it was too!
Some of the recipes from the Ladies’ book strongly tempt my creative juices, though not perhaps anything involving a sheep’s head, neat’s tongue or sausage making. Some of the recipes are too robust for modern tastes I fear (well, mine anyway). Some dishes, such as stewed cucumber sound quite strange and not particularly palatable. Having said that, I am willing to give it a whirl, as it does not involve brains or eyes. Naturally, the recipes for cakes and biscuits have most interest for me, with the bonus that they are potentially adaptable to modern ovens and ingredients. I have picked out two recipes to give you an idea, quoting them exactly as Elizabeth Mavor has done, with the erratic punctuation and capitalisation.
The first recipe (or receipt) comes from a March 1794 entry (p65); the ingredients are all that the writer gives, so I assume that the method, baking times and temperature must have been so well known as not to require mention. It does remind me of some of the cryptic notes I find in my own recipe folder; I know what I mean, so it does not occur to me to expand on the basics for anyone else’s benefit.
Eight Eggs and two Whites, three quarter of a pound of Sugar a quarter of a pound of sweet Almonds half an Ounce of Butter. half a pound of Flour. Bake them in little Earthen pans.
I am guessing that the method would be to whisk the eggs up with the sugar, then to fold in almonds (ground?) and flour followed by the ounce of butter (melted). For practical reasons I think it would make sense to scale down the recipe to half the quantity to try it out for the first time. The recipe does not say whether the almonds should be roasted or how finely prepared, but again I suppose the Ladies knew that detail and didn’t consider it necessary to write it down.
The following cheese recipe [From January 1815, p37] might also be a good one to try. At first, I had visions of the Ladies having a 1970s style fondue party, but what they call a fondue is a sort of baked cheese soufflé. Again, the details are sketchy, as the cook gives no quantity for the cheese, so I suppose you would put grated cheese in to your taste depending on its vintage.
Fondue of Cheese
Rasp some Old rich Cheese and some common cheese equal quantities of each. boil half a Pint of good Cream and let it cool, beat up the whites of four eggs. Mix all together lightly, put them in little paper Cases and Bake them in a Gentle Oven.
Literally plenty of food for thought, and I have only browsed as far as March. I shall be truly sorry to have to return the Ladies to the library. Elizabeth Mavor’s book will be one to hunt down and buy I think. I would love to hear from anyone else that has tried out old recipes and to hear about the results.
UPDATE: September 2016
I have finally got around to ordering a copy of a Year with the Ladies of Llangollen and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. However, I don’t know how long it will be before I manage to try out any of the ladies’ recipes. I will keep you posted!