I remember an episode of The Duchess of Duke Street (anyone remember that show?) where Louisa Trotter (the heroine of the show) was cooking for some bigwig but had to travel to the site of the dinner party and do much of the cooking there, in some inadequate kitchen. One of the dishes was a slow-cooked one — a signature dish that had been requested, I think — and so, not having much time, and much of that being on the road, she had to improvise.
What she did was to begin the cooking process in a cast iron pot like a Dutch oven (Dutch ovens have been around for several hundred years.) She wrapped the merrily bubbling pot in a cloth, then placed it in a box and packed it tightly with hay on all sides. The hay acted as an insulator and by the time she reached her destination, hours later, and opened up the Dutch oven, the meat was perfectly cooked and fall-apart tender. Just like the meat I cooked yesterday in my electric slow cooker.
Later this "haybox" method was developed into something called "the fireless cooker", and was much the same, except that the haybox was pre-prepared. They became increasingly sophisticated looking, with nary the sight of hay. The outside might be made of steel and lined with porcelain, better insulating materials were used and pots made to fit the container exactly. Some had stone disks that you heated in the oven or fire, then put in the "fireless oven, " popped your dish of stew on top and after five or six hours, your dinner was ready. Or if you were cooking porridge overnight, a hot breakfast was ready without having to light a fire in the morning.
These "fireless cookers" were in use and still being sold in the UK and America right up to WW2, and, according to my research, are coming back into fashion with those interested in conserving energy. They're still in use in many other countries today.
In the Regency era, the use and management of fire in the kitchen was still fairly rudimentary. The design of ordinary fireplaces were more a matter of custom than efficiency; fires didn't heat rooms efficiently and chimneys could smoke up a room most inconveniently when the wind was in the wrong direction.
This changed when American born physicist, Sir Benjamin Thompson, (later Count Rumford — he was a loyalist who left America after the War of Independence) designed what came to be known as the "Rumford fireplace" (see photo at left.) It restricted the chimney opening to create a stronger updraft, angled the side walls to throw out heat better and introduced a choke to control the updraft of the chimney. It was efficient and attractive and quickly became the rage among wealthy aristocrats, who had their London houses modified to his design. Rumford became a celebrity.
I have a cookbook from 1758 (Eliza Smith's The Compleat Housewife) in which the descriptions of how to roast various cuts of meat, all refer to its relationship with the fire -- "move closer to the fire," "stir up the fire to make a brisk fire," "move away from the fire."
You might think that a joint of meat cooked by sitting close to a fire would be a very dried-out piece of meat, but last year I had the pleasure of eating some home-grown pork cooked on an asado, an Argentine-style barbecue where meat is cooked by placing it vertically beside the fire, not over it — you can see it here in the photo on the right.
And I can testify that the pork, which sat next to the fire for five hours or more, was tender and delicious and not the slightest bit dry. This has therefore colored my view of roasting meat in an open Georgian-era fireplace, though I'm sure a lot of roasting was done in Dutch ovens, rather than in the air.
Cookery in pots or joints on spits were common. Over time, all kinds of ingenious devices were developed to make the turning of the spit less of a chore — clockwork devices that had to be reset after a short period, as you can see in the illustration on the left, some with a pendulum-like affair that powered the clockwork by gravity, but had to be reset the instant the weight hit the ground. And dogs.
Yes, dogs, poor little things. These unfortunate little creatures were specially bred and trained to run on a treadmill that powered a spit. Look at the Rowlandson picture on your right — the circular window above the woman in front contains a small caged dog running madly. From his cage runs a connection to the spit. (Click for a bigger image.) I suppose these dogs were well fed and probably petted by the servants, but still, I can't help but recoil from the idea. I believe there is still a dog spit cage at No.1 Royal Brescent in Bath.
The cast iron kitchen ranges we often think of were mainly in kitchens of wealthy households, and even then, not always because they were fairly new. One one side was a cast iron oven, and water was heated on the other. With the advent of domestic ovens, baking became more popular and there was a flowering of amazingly ornate pies and cakes and so on.
Prior to that most baking was done in local bakeries and special bakehouses. But of course there were no thermostats so, as people still do today with outdoor clay ovens, they had to guess the right temperature, and it became a matter of experience, or vague description, like "toss in some flour and when it turns a biscuit color the oven is ready."
So, from those early Dutch ovens in a haybox, to my electric slow cooker with its easy-clean cast iron-like lining dish, there isn't a lot of difference but my, how cooking has been revolutionized in between. And yet the cast iron stove‚ the modern Aga, is still beloved of the English. I confess to having a sneaking desire for one myself, except that my climate is a bit too warm to justify it.
What about you? Do you remember the Duchess of Duke Street? Do you have an Aga or some other kind of cast iron stove? Do you use a slow cooker at all? Have you cooked over an open fire, or on an asado — or in a clay pit perhaps. What kind of unconventional or traditional cooking have you experienced? Or don't you cook at all?