Nothing new under the sun

We all know it’s fashionable for chefs to take inspiration from old recipes, but I’m sure we don’t always appreciate quite how much of what is currently in vogue has been done before. Here’s a selection of recipes from one late 18th-century manuscript collection (MS 4992, Wellcome Collection) to illustrate the point.

First, those fancy powders that get scattered around the plate? Put to a different use here, but the product is the same:

Mushroom powder which you may use ½ a spoonful at a time to fish or any other sauce

Take the mushrooms & wash them well with salt & water rubbing them with a piece of flannel put them into a sauce pan & drain them out of their liquor season them with pepper & salt add 2 or 3 spoonsfull of vinegar a nutmeg sliced, some mace & cloves 2 or 3 bay leaves a top of rosemary a slice of onion a piece of butter as big as a walnut let them stew till the liquor is dryed up then put them on a tin plate in an oven after the bread.

Typical of contemporary recipes, what this one doesn’t tell you is that presumably the mushrooms will then be desiccated enough to be easily rubbed into powder, probably with the fingers.

Secondly, how about some fancy presentation (probably with some height here too):

To make a dish of birds nests

Make a good forced meat stiff, which must be formed in the shape of little birds nests, do them over with yolks of eggs lay the warm vermicelli upon them like straws, bake them in a slow oven, take care they are not discoloured, beat some yolks of eggs and boil them loosely, you may then form them, by lying them in small pieces of muslin, the size of birds eggs, and scalding them again put a ragout of sweet breads or any thing you like in the dish.

Turning to desserts, here’s an exotically flavoured cheesecake (not sure how it would taste though):

Potatoe cheese-cakes

To a ¼ lb potatoes boiled skined & beaten in a mortar add a ¼ lb of sugar & a ¼ of butter 2 eggs leaving out the whites of one the juice of a lemon & the peel of ½ a one grated sweet meats & currants if you like it, then add a glass of mountain or any sweet wine bake them with a puff paste round the tins.

Want to pair that with some jelly strips in different colours? Here’s how – first the jelly itself, then the colourings:

Orange Jelly

Over night boil 2 oz Isinglass in a pint of spring water till it comes to a ½ pint, also over night put ½ a lb single refined sugar into 3 pints water let it boil fast till half is consumed take the juice of 3 china & 1 seville orange & 1 large lemon pare them thin & put the peels into the juice let it stand covered close till next morning – then strain it off & put the isinglass into some hot water then melt the jelly, mix & stir all well together & put it into your moulds, let them stand till cold, then turn them out & lay thin shreds of the peels over it. N.B. After the isinglass is boil’d strain it thro’ a bit of muslin the jelly shod be stiff enough to cut with a knife & eat with a fork.

Ribbon Jelly

Red, with cochineal – Green, spinach – Yellow, safron – Blue, syrup of violets – White, with thick cream

And finally, that old favourite spun sugar for the ultimate decoration (watchers of today’s cookery programmes will be far more familiar with the type of method here than this rather convoluted description can convey):

To spin a gold web for covering a custard

Beat 4 ounces of treble refined sugar in a marble mortar, & sift it through a hair seive, then put it in a silver or brass ladle (silver makes the colour better) set it over a chafing dish of charcoal that is burnt clear, and set it on a table, and turn a tin cover or china bowl upside down on the same table, and when your sugar is melted it will be of a gold colour then take your ladle off the fire and begin to spin it, take a knife & begin to spin by taking up as much of the syrrup as the point of it will hold, and a fine thread will come from the point which you must draw as quick as possible backwards & forwards, and also round the mould as long as it will spin from the knife be very carefull not to drop the syrup on the web, if you do it will spoil it, then dip your knife into the syrup again and take up more, and so keep spinning ‘till your sugar is done, or your web is thick enough, be sure you do not let the knife touch the lump on the plate that is not melted, it will make it brittle & not spin at all. If your sugar is spent before your web is gone put fresh sugar on a clean plate & do not spin from the same plate again, if you do not want the web to cover the custard immediately set the web on a deep pewter plate or dish & cover it with a tin cover & lay a cloth over it, to prevent the air from getting to it, & set it before the fire; it requires to be left warm or it will fall abroad.


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