The BBC FOUR TV series, If Walls Could Talk concluded last night with a fascinating episode on the development of the kitchen throughout history.
I’ve not mentioned this programme to you before, because it is not primarily concerned with the era in which Jane Austen lived, being a general over-view of the development of key rooms in the house: the Living Room, the Bedroom, the Bathroom and in last night’s episode, the Kitchen.
The Kitchen, of course, developed apace during the 18th century and so I think you might like to see the interpretation of its history as it applies to our era, from last night’s show.
The series is presented by the rather endearing Dr Lucy Worsley who is the Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. She has come in for quite a lot of criticism for her presenting style, in particular for her habit of donning historic dress in every episode. Having now seen all the episodes I feel that when she did this in the company of other historical reenactors it made sense. She would look out of place in the swanky Victorian kitchen at Shugborough Hall, black leading the grate in modern dress when all about her were in pink maids uniforms and flounced aprons. But then I didn’t understand the need to dress up in a Georgian sack dress, when she was in the company of other experts, such as Professor Amanda Vickery, who were sporting modern dress. Ah, well….to Georgian Kitchens.
The great technological developments in our era, cast iron ovens raised from the ground fueled by the more efficient coal were considered. Dr Worsley experienced the hot and hard work of being a turnspit (dressed as a boy) in the Tudor kitchen at Hampton Court, and then the programme jumped to our era to consider one of the most intriguing labour-saving devices of the 18th century, the turnspit dog.
In West Street Lacock ( or Meryton or Highbury, given your choice of favourite adaptation!) in Wiltshire there still exists a public house , the George Inn,
which has retained a working turnspit which was once powered by the special turnspit dog, a breed of dog now extinct, shown below:
During the 18th century and until the early years of the 19th century this special breed of dogs were used, particularly in Bath, to turn the spit to roast meat, while running on a wheel attached to a wall, a subject that I’ve written about previously here. I wonder if any of the houses in which Jane Austen lived while in Bath had a similar contraption in their kitchens? I’ll bet they did….there is still one at Number 1 Royal Crescent.
Ivan Day, our friend of Historic Foods, was in charge of the operation. The dog they used to replace the turnspit was a modern border terrier, Coco.
She was placed in the wheel, shown above on the side of the chimney in the pub, and fed sausages hidden on the ledges in the wheel. Needless to day,Ivan Day’s doubts, that as Coco was not bred to the job and had longer legs than the original breed of dog, did prevail and she did not perform the job at all efficiently.
Dr Worsely, had to take over the job of turning the spit by hand via the wheel.
( And do let me rush to confirm and assure you that no dogs were hurt at all by the filming process: Coco was fed rather a lot of spit roasted mutton as payment for her valiant and good natured attempts to turn the wheel by Ivan who is a very lovely man and a confirmed dog lover!).
The next part of the programme took us up to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire,
Robert Adams’ stern confection of a house built for Lord and Lady Scarsdale in the 1760s. Here we met with the fabulous food historian Peter Brears, who explained that the layout of this grand , up-to-the-minute country house was so designed that no cooking smells would ever permeate the rest of the house from the kitchen.Heaven forfend that aristocratic nostrils should be assaulted by cooking smells, like lesser motals who lived among their cooking pots !
If you look at the floor plan of Kedleston, below, you can see that
©The National Trust
it was first envisaged that the house would have a central block with four pavilions connected to the house by gently curved corridors, rather like the design for Holkham House in Norfolk.
Sadly only two pavilion wings were built.And you can see from the plan that the pavilion to the right housed the kitchen. This is now the National Trust tea room and in the programme though nearly everything tea room related had been cleared, you can just make out one of the large vending machines which was obviously plumbed-in in some way and could not be removed.
The kitchen with its stern warning shot to the staff, above,
The state dining room was decorated not with tapestries and carpets which would retain food odours, but with plain stuccoed walls and in the 18th century there would have been an oil cloth covering the floor. No aristocrat of this era wanted to be confronted with food smells unless the food was actually on his rather grand table.
And Robert Adam thoughtfully provided incense and pastille burners in the dining room to further cleanse the room of any lingering food smells.
Of course , it is a widely held belief that kitchens thus separated from dining rooms could only serve luke warm food at best.
Dr Worsley encouraged Mr Beares to run, while holding a tureen full of that Georgian staple, hot Pea Soup, along a route from the kitchen on the ground floor upstairs to the state dining room ( see the route above on the annotated plan) in order for him to prove that the food would not have arrived cold. Quite a sight to see….
This episode was one of the best of this series of four programmes. I’ve warmed to Dr Worsley’s presenting style as the series progressed, and hope you watch the four installments on series link on the BBC I player, linked above in the first paragraph, if you have missed it. Or look out for the DVD, which is sure to come. There is a book to accompany the series but I cannot comment on it as I’ve not read it, but do bear in mind that it covers periods before and after that in which we are interested if you have a mind to buy it.