The smell of citrus greets us as we enter the restored Regency kitchen at Number 13 Brunswick Square in Hove.
There’s a welcome steamy warmth on a chilly November day from the lemons simmering gently on the stove. As the morning’s guests arrive, shedding coats and scarves, the aroma intensifies and the stage is set for today’s adventure – the historic Christmas Pudding workshop.
The restored and fully operational kitchen of number 13 boasts a walk in pantry, scullery, open fire place and a huge wooden dresser stacked with copper pans, delicate china cups, giant mixing bowls and pretty jelly moulds.
The modern aluminium kitchen table in the centre is almost completely obscured by old fashioned scales, a clutch of wooden spoons in a pewter jug and earthenware bowls piled high with fresh eggs, ripe apples, mounds of dark brown sugar, dried fruit and candied orange peel.
It’s here, with just a few mod cons as a nod to 21st century convenience, that Paul Couchman runs his historical food workshops, recreating the flavours and recipes of a bygone age.
“I’ve always been interested in cooking, history and art – and this all comes together here. I learned to cater for large numbers when I lived in Amsterdam and ran a weekend squatters kitchen. When I came back to the UK and settled in Brighton I began volunteering for the Regency Town House and after a little while began running Dine Like a Servant.”
At these events guests are invited to a fundraising dinner eating the food that would have been made in the kitchen for the high tables of the dining room. What was left made its way back into the kitchens where it was distributed in a class system even more rigid than the one that held sway above stairs.
Now Paul’s expanded to offer special seasonal cookery classes for historic hot cross buns and Easter biscuits, pickles and preserves and this festive special, original Christmas puddings and mincemeat.
The classes are small, no more than 8 people at a time, and appeal to all ages. Name tags are written and introductions made. There are mums and daughters, regulars who come to almost every event and first-timers. All sharing a love of cooking and a curiosity about the past.
Today Paul is teaching Eliza Acton’s pudding recipe and her version of mincemeat. Eliza was a great cook, and her recipe book, Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1845, has inspired many top chefs. It’s pretty clear Mrs Beeton drew heavily on Eliza’s work. We’ll never really know if Mrs. B stole her recipes or Eliza gave permission, but it’s clear that Eliza knew a thing or two about cooking.
The first activity is a communal one and Paul sets his pupils to a multitude of tasks, cutting up butter muslin to make individual pudding cloths, weighing out ingredients, whisking eggs and chopping fruit.
Pride of place in the centre of the table is a huge bowl which comes from Tunbridge Wells. Once used almost daily by a cook-housekeeper, it had lain forgotten in a cupboard for more than 25 years. When she died her family discovered it tucked away and offered it to the House. Today we are using it in her honour.
As the group works the conversation blossoms, with personal memories sparked by smells, tastes and textures and snippets of history imparted by Paul in little snatches, giving fascinating glimpses of how life was when the house was brand new. Paul is everywhere – chatting, advising, demonstrating, offering sniffs and tastes of old-fashioned spices, sharing history, information and anecdotes.
Slowly the smell of mace and nutmeg takes over from the lemony tang and the atmosphere is redolent of Christmases past and present.
The class is a lively and two-way affair. Everyone brings something to the mix – family traditions, shortcuts and their own tips and tricks. “Some of what we do here is guesswork, especially when it comes to old utensils,” Paul admits. “We have ideas about how they were used, but we’re always open to suggestions from our visitors who may know better.”
On a side table sits a pile of recipe books, old and new including one by the famous Mr Charles Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria. The Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes was meant to help those less fortunate to make better meals and the forward has me in stitches exhorting readers to “lay by a little of your weekly wage” to purchase pots, pans and a stove “that your families may be well-fed and homes made comfortable.”
Amongst the printed books is a real treasure, brought in previously by one of today’s workshop participants; a home-made recipe book in beautiful copperplate handwriting.
“I found it in a charity shop a few years ago,” Lucinda explains, “and have tried out some of the recipes myself but thought it should be kept where it would get more use. So I donated it to the House.”
Paul is delighted with Lucinda’s find and is already working his way through every recipe. “It’s clear from the handwriting that this has been put together by at least three different people over a long period of time I’ve already made the lemon mincemeat recipe and it’s turned out really well.”
Back at the kitchen table it’s time to stir the pudding mix. “Always from east to west, in honour of the journey the Kings made in the nativity story,” Paul explains. One participant shares their family tradition of stirring clockwise because anti clockwise or ‘widdershins’ was how witches stirred their potions, so never to be used in baking.
There’s much laughter as Paul says it’s traditional for the youngest to stir first and precedence is soon settled with a willing volunteer who discovers stirring the gigantic pudding mix is a bit of a challenge.
Whilst taking their turn everyone shares their ideas of what should be added as a good luck charm – a three-penny bit or silver sixpence is what most remembered. But Paul talks about older favours; the original single bean or later symbols like a ring, meaning you’d be married soon or for those less fortunate, the spinster’s thimble or bachelor’s button.
Now the class gets to grips with shaping the individual puddings. Firstly comes the sticky but satisfyingly neat way of turning a piece of muslin into a non-permeable pudding cloth. The sterilised muslin, still damp from boiling, is liberally coated with flour, a messy process but one that seals up all the holes.
These cloths are then used to line a tiny pudding bowl, packed full of the mix then firmly tied up with brown string to produce tight little parcels. It’s a technique that many have not encountered before and causes initial consternation, but under Paul’s gentle encouragement everyone manages it and the tiny puds are lowered into pans of boiling water for their first cooking.
After a brief coffee break and whirlwind tour of the house, which is in a constant state of renovation, the class sets to again, this time to recreate Eliza Acton’s superlative mincemeat. The lemons, which have been gently cooling behind the scenes, now come to the fore and the air is filled with sweet citrus as the group begins weighing, chopping dicing and blending, this time creating their own individual mix.
Once again there’s a buzz of conversation, much more chatter than there would have been when this was a working kitchen and servants were governed by strict rules. But even in Regency times the change in routine that Christmas brought would have meant a lively atmosphere in even the most disciplined establishment.
It takes just a few minutes for today’s cooks to heat the suety, brandy soaked fruit over modern induction hobs and in moments the mixture is ready to pour into pretty little glass jars. The sizzle as the mixture hits hot glass and the fruit bubbles at the brim sets taste buds tingling and everyone’s keen to get their goodies home.
And the proof of the pudding lies in the eating they say, so Paul produces one he made earlier to Eliza’s recipe. Even served cold it’s rich and satisfying, less sweetly sticky than today’s commercial offerings, but recognisably festive.
A real taste of Christmas past.
Want to know more about the history of food?
For details of upcoming historic cookery workshops and Dine Like A Servant events at The Regency Town House in Hove check out Paul Couchman’s website where you can learn how to pickle a peach, make Regency-style piccalilli and even restore an old dresser.
For more on the ongoing restoration project at The Regency Town House and how you can support their work see their website
With thanks to all workshop participants.
Interested in historic recipes and retro cookery? Check out more here.