Mrs Rundellâ€™s Really Rich Custard Â
This time of year as millions of people order things for Christmas dinners with a click and a credit card my mind wanders to the kitchens in the Trust properties of Fota House, Johnstown Castle and Strokestown Park and I think of how foods were sourced and prepared in the past. When everything was prepared from scratch and it took time and hard work. Not an issue in big houses with a dedicated team of servants to pluck, draw, skin, peel, scrape, grate, pound, grind, sieve and wash raw materials that entered by the scullery door â€“ and of course to clean up afterwards.
Food miles were not huge issue for the big house cooks either: a large portion of their ingredients were obtained from the estate. Â The range of food consumed by the upper classes was great. Potatoes, grains and eggs were in plentiful supply and most of the meat consumed was sourced from the estate including venison from the deer park, game, beef, poultry, rabbit and mutton and a variety of fish if there was river or a lake such as at Johnstown Castle. Â
The kitchen garden supplied numerous varieties of vegetables and fruit and for table decorations a selection of flowers was essential â€“ it was the head gardenerâ€™s task to ensure that there was a plentiful and impressive supply throughout the year. It was deemed so important to have floral decorations gracing oneâ€™s table that Victorian advice manuals suggested that hiring flowers was a solution for town dwelling middling sorts who didnâ€™t have gardens of their own.Â Fotaâ€™s kitchen garden with its heated glasshouses shows how generations of gardeners used ingenious means to force (or delay) growth in order to supply the house with out of season delights such as roses or strawberries for Christmas!
The demands placed on the gardener often came through the cook from the mistress of the house. Each day the cook would settle the menus with her mistress. Â In Fota the ever practical Lady Dorothy made her way to the kitchen for this discussion. Â This was not the â€˜doneâ€™ thing and was considered an invasion of the cookâ€™s territory and one which produced much grumbling! Â In Strokestown the gallery above the kitchen allowed the mistress to stay aloof and drop her handwritten menu down to the cook waiting respectfully below: an action that plainly signified which woman was of the higher social rank.Â