Alan Crosby: The secrets of country house cuisine

By Jon Bauckham, 16 July 2015 - 1:53pm

Alan Crosby recently came across some fascinating details about the diets of our Georgian forebears – enough to make a modern nutritionist scream

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 16 July 2015
Alan Crosby
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Knowsley Hall

As Alan discovered, the 18th-century occupants of Knowsley Hall dined on an unhealthy amount of dairy products (Credit: Getty Images)

I’ve been doing some work on country houses in the 18th century. Among the interesting topics was food and drink, so I made good use of household accounts, recording the purchase of groceries and other foodstuffs.

There were many fascinating insights about how the aristocracy and gentry lived 250 years ago, including their alarmingly unhealthy diet – especially from the point of view of modern nutritionists!

The occupants seem to have eaten gargantuan quantities of butter and an extraordinary number of eggs. At Knowsley Hall near Liverpool, housekeeper Ann Barton took delivery of 173lbs of butter in just two weeks during August 1729, together with about 550 eggs.

I know eggs were smaller in the Georgian period, but even so, that is a lot of eggs – especially as the household above stairs comprised only the elderly Earl of Derby and his wife.

But there were other surprises – someone called “Old Hodd” made frequent visits bringing fish and shellfish, travelling 10 miles inland from the coast. He must have been from a fishing family, but occasionally he brought other delicacies with him. On 6 November 1729, for example, he delivered “2 Dozen of Larks”.

That wasn’t a one-off: other payments for larks are recorded. The songbirds were a real Georgian delicacy, either being baked in a pie or threaded (wrapped with bacon to keep them moist) and roasted on a miniature spit. The smallest of mouthfuls, I imagine, and probably served up at dinner parties for their snob value.

Skylarks are rather uncommon in Lancashire today, with modern farming methods largely to blame. How much nicer to hear their beautiful song than to imagine them roasted, on a plate!
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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