Welcome back to the Regency stillroom, where a bountiful harvest has put the staff into a frenzy of work. Every day is a race against the clock to get it all done before spoilage or frost diminish or taint the yield.
In addition to producing the alcoholic beverages and aromatic waters I discussed in my previous post, the stillroom was used for home production and preservation of a wide variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and other ingredients used in the main kitchen as well as medicinal remedies and products such as soaps.
The stillroom was never idle—it was busy year-round, and published guides helped with planning and preparation for production in each season, usually broken out by months. For example, May saw the fermenting of gallons of medicinal cowslip wine. In July, the currant jelly and bottling of cherries were the focus. In September, the cucumber harvest makes pickling hundreds of cucumbers the priority. In October the sousing and pickling of onions, the preserving of damsons (a tart fruit related to plums), and gooseberries. October was also the month when ketchup was made. But this ketchup was not of the tomato variety you are probably familiar with. The word ketchup comes from the Chinese word ke-tsiap, which means “ready.” The original ketchup was fish sauce. The Georgians made mushroom ketchup, anchovy ketchup, varieties of soy sauce that were called ketchup, and many other forms of sauces ready for use. Ketchup-making was a stillroom activity where experimentation and the perfecting of the recipes was something of an art form.
One of the striking observations one makes when perusing the recipes (aka receipts) from the Georgian/Regency era is how little was allowed to go to waste. Take, for example, calves-foot jelly (aka Calf’s Feet Jelly) which was produced by boiling the feet of calves who had been slaughtered for veal to extract the keratin.
The jelly was used in numerous ways, from a savory restorative broth for invalids to an ingredient in desserts, sweetened and flavored with lemon. Copious amounts of calves-foot jelly were produced in the stillroom in advance of a private ball; it was a primary ingredient for the popular warm drink, Negus during the Georgian era. Starting around the 1860s, Negus recipes often excluded the calves-foot jelly.
Another animal part processed in the stillroom was Harts’s horn (aka Hartshorn.) It was one of several products made from the horns of the male red deer. The gelatin produced by boiling the horn was used in making gelled desserts like blancmange, flummeries, and, you guessed it–jellies. A few of the other uses of the Harts horn were medicinal to treat diarrhea and other illnesses, to produce smelling salts, and as a leavening agent in baking. The kitchen would smell like ammonia during the baking, but the baked goods did not taste of it. Upon the invention of baking powder in the mid-1800s, the use of Harts horn gradually fell out of favor, although there are still old family recipes handed down for generations that call for it. Commercially available “Hartshorn” is not a byproduct of an animal, but is a chemical compound.
Having made fruit jams and jellies at home, I never gave much thought to my purchases of pectin, the ingredient required to thicken the preserves. This is a modern product that our Georgian forebears had no access to. They were clever, however, and discovered that certain fruits were rich in pectin which they used to their advantage in the stillroom. For example, currants are rich in pectin but raspberries aren’t. In order to make raspberry jam, you simply start with currant jelly. Problem solved.I hope you enjoyed learning about a few of the commonly made stillroom products. Next month, I’ll be talking about the preservation of flowers and herbs in the stillroom and their uses. I know that many of our readers have researched these things extensively. Please feel free to add your own golden nuggets of knowledge in the comments!