Being a food lover I always take an interest in what my characters are eating - but what did Regency recipes taste like?
I started buying original cookery books complete with greasy fingermarks and handwritten notes- The Housekeeper's Instructor or Universal Family Cook (1807); The New London Family Cook or Town and Country Housekeepers' Guide, replete with such useful information as how to dry artichoke bottoms (why?), and A New System of Domestic Cookery formed upon Principles of Economy (1829) with instructions on boiling a turbot. Many dishes sounded familiar, but were they? So few had quantities in the recipe it was difficult to tell.
Last weekend I began to find out, by attending a fascinating one day course at Hampton Court Palace. It was the first one on Georgian cookery run by members of the team of cooks who research and recreate historical recipes in the Palace kitchens. We weren't cooking in the historic kitchens in front of the public thank goodness, so our blushes were spared as we wrestled with raising pastry cases by hand (chocolate tarts) and tried to gouge the centres out of bread rolls without putting our thumbs through the sides (prawn loaves).
Did you know that minced meat was a status symbol on the Georgian dinner table? It was done by hand with a sharp knife, minced and crushed so finely that it ends up more like fine pate than modern mince - and it took over an hour to mince a pound of meat. And a fine array of spices was also a sign of your wealth, so you wanted your guests to taste plenty in their food: we had an eye-watering sampling of three different sorts of pepper, none of them familiar in the modern cruet.
We learned how to break a sugar loaf with a special axe and how to grind and sift it to achieve different grades of fineness - and that sugar of the period had too much molasses in it to allow cooks to make a meringue. We boggled at the pounds of butter being used to fry the stuffed prawn loaves and learned what modern subsitutes are best to reproduce Georgian gravy.
Best of all was tasting the results: Cabbage Pudding made with highly spiced minced meat around a handful of green grapes, wrapped in Savoy cabbage leaves and boiled; prawn loaves dripping with butter and utterly delicious; chocolate tarts browned on top with a red hot shovel and finally, pap.
Pap sounded disgusting, but is actually a delicious mixture of rice flour, double cream, sugar and rosewater thickened like a custard and my husband is in the kitchen cooking it as I write!
If you want to see the Hampton Court cooks in action in full costume they are producing an authentic Georgian dinner every day in the historic kitchens, 27th December - 2 January inclusive (but check first before making a special journey!). They will start in the morning making their own breakfasts and then continue preparing dinner all day until serving themselves the finished meal in proper style about 4pm