Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Baking bread without an oven . . . the old Cornish way

Interior of a cottage (c. about 1810) at St Fagans. This is the first of a row of terraced cottages which are decorated internally spanning a 150 year period.

I found a wonderful little book recently in Hay-on-Wye, for just £4; “Cornish Homes and Customs” by A K Hamilton, it harks back to a much earlier time – sometimes up to more than a hundred years before this. It is a fascinating book to read and I learn more with every page I turn. How to bake bread though you don’t have an oven was one such lesson. I will include the preamble to this, as it offers a fascinating insight into cottage life generally:

“Notwithstanding the fact that from the early part of the 18th century onwards coal was being freely imported for the use of the mines, furze and turf long continued to serve the needs of the people for all domestic purposes. In 1799 the overseers of Mylor parish were paying but 9d. hundred for furze faggots for the use of the poor-house, a price with which coal, however cheap, must have found it hard to compete. Indeed, until almost the end of the last century many Cornish houses knew no other fuel than that which came to them from within a short distance of their doors. In one or two instances these turf fires are said to have been actually kept alight for a hundred years, faithfully serving the needs of the inhabitants from birth to death (N.B. the same was said of the fire in the Warren House Inn on Dartmoor). Each night, the embers were banked up before going to bed, and the kettle hooked on to the cross-bar in the chimney. On coming down the next morning the water was always boiling, whilst sufficient fire still remained to fry the bacon and mashed potatoes for breakfast. After the meal, the hearth was swept clean, fresh turf was put on, and so the old fire entered on anther day of service and companionship to the household. With the aid of such fires as these the Cornish housewife contrived to do all the cooking for the largest family, asking nothing more than a ‘kettle’ for baking and a ‘crock’ for boiling. The kettle, it should be explained, in no way resembled the ordinary utensil of that name (which was distinguished in Cornwall by being termed a 'tay (tea) kettle’, but was simply an iron bowl with three legs capable of being stood on the ground like a small crock. Whenever baking had to be done, the brandis or heavy iron trivet was first drawn forward into the centre of the hearth and on it was placed a round sheet of iron, known as the ‘baking ire’. With the aid of the ‘fire-hook’, which took the place on the open hearth of a poker in ordinary grates, the smouldering embers were raked around the brandis and under the baking iron, and were fanned into flame with the (bellows). As soon as the baking iron had been heated in this way to the proper temperature it was taken off the brandis, carefully wiped and greased, and replaced on the hearth. On to it the bread or other food was then laid and covered by the inverted kettle. Hot embers were raked around, and a fire of furze and 'bruss' (dried hedge gatherings etc) built up over the whole. Beneath this the bread, protected from all dirt and ash, was left to cook for about an hour and a half, at the end of which time the embers were removed, the kettle lifted off, and there was the loaf baked to perfection! All sorts of dishes – heavy-cakes, pasties, and pies – were prepared in the same way, the only variation being that in some instances a ‘baker’ was used instead of a kettle. The former resembled in shape a heavy iron frying-pan without a handle, and differed from a kettle chiefly in having no legs. For boiling and stewing the crock was used, either placed on the brandis or hung from a cross-bar in the chimney.Occasionally, when very large joints of meat had to be roasted, the crock itself would be inverted over the baking iron in place of a kettle."

Enjoy. I temporarily have an internet connection, so will post this and run. "They" (BT) are finally shutting the road, lopping trees, replacing poles and rotten cable next Monday . . . It had better blardy-well work PERFECTLY after that . . . I have been going stir crazy here after so many weeks without broadband, and have been writing letters in desperation - but no one has written back yet!!!

1 comment:

Val said...

I did enjoy ! Thank you that was a really interesting piece. lots of info and as we heat and cook by woodstove in winter (so have an assorted ment of cast iron pots etc) and often camp out with open fires in summer I look forward to trying baking bread with out an oven!
Thanks!(Good luck with BT)