The Culinary Historians of Canada hosted a Victorian holiday baking class at historic Montgomery’s Inn last weekend. I joined about 10 other enthusiastic cooks to spend a chilly Sunday afternoon in December baking in the beautifully restored period kitchen. Our hosts were Sarah Hood and Sherry Murphy of the Culinary Historians, both in full costume.
They greeted us with platters of almond and rose water macaroons, gingersnaps, and Queen cakes. The Queen cakes were really lovely, moist little pound cakes baked in individual fluted molds, studded with plump currants and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar.
A small platter of homemade candied citrus peel was deliciously strong, pliant, fruity and fragrant. If more people tasted homemade candied citrus peel, fruit cake wouldn’t be the least loved part of the holiday sweet table.
As part of the event, we had a tour of the historic inn which is now operated as a museum by the City of Toronto. Montgomery’s Inn was built in the 1830’s for Thomas and Margaret Montgomery. Although it was billed as an inn, the pub at the back was where the real money was earned.
The Inn did feature a restaurant, but it would have been only for moneyed travellers and beyond the financial reach of locals. The pub and the church were really the only two gathering spots in town. Restaurant culture did not yet exist.
The license was issued to the husband but the pub was really operated by the wife. The Inn, which is located at the current intersection of Dundas & Islington, was on the historic drover’s path. Margaret Montgomery was responsible for making sure that there was food available at any time for travellers who stopped in. Thomas Montgomery occupied himself as a prosperous landowner, amassing a large portfolio of farm properties worth several hundred thousand dollars.
Victorian Holiday Baking
We worked in a warm kitchen lit only by the dim winter afternoon light slanting in through the high windows, a roaring fireplace and candles in brass candlesticks. Our day started with fire safety instructions coupled with the assurance that Victorian ladies hardly ever set their long skirts on fire at the fireplace.
They didn’t use cups to measure by volume at that time, so everything was measured on an old balance scale. Chilling was literally done on the window ledge. Mixing was literally done by hand.
Making Mince Pie
We were split into teams to do three recipes – mince pie, gingerbread, and ginger nuts. I volunteered for Team Mince Pie. One group combined sweet spices, candied fruit peel and actual beef that was put through a hand grinder.
The concept that meat does not belong with fruits and sweet flavourings is a relatively modern taste preference. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, minced pies were a specialty by the 16th Century, but by the 19th century the meat had largely been phased out with only the suet to stand in its place.
The Mince Pie had two separate crusts. The bottom crust was a “coffin”, which is another medieval holdover. The coffin was designed to act as a combination cooking vessel over an open fire as well as a dish to eat from. Coffins were more about durability than flavour. My trusty Oxford Companion to Food assures us that the word “coffin” for pastry is older than its use for cemeteries, so it wasn’t intended to have a ghoulish association.
I was assigned to the top crust, which was puff pastry. I’ve never made puff pastry before, let alone trying to do it without any appliances or a fridge. To make puff pastry, you make a pie dough, let it rest, then roll it out and dot it with lumps of chilled butter. Obscene amounts of butter. Then you fold the dough in thirds over the butter lumps as if you were folding a letter, then fold again in half and roll. Rest. Repeat.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, genuine puff pastry undergoes somewhere between six and nine cycles of triple folding and rolling. This is supposed to result in somewhere between 512 and 729 layers of pastry. We only did two cycles.
All I know is that my puff pastry dough was a disaster. Incorporating the butter into the flour with your fingertips is a really lovely, therapeutic exercise but I didn’t know when to stop, or how much water to add. I should have added more water. Anyhow, Sherry stepped in and rescued it and it was fine in the end.
The resulting Mince Pie was incredibly flavourful, bursting with spices and tangy genuine candied fruit. There was a l-o-o-o-o-t of booze in the filling, so the ground meat slid right into the mix and you’d never even guess it was there.
All in all, it took at least ten of us 4 hours to produce 3 dishes. Holy Moly! Some things are better done with a group. To keep that kitchen running and food constantly churning for the guests, Victorian cooks like Mrs. Montgomery must have laboured long and hard. Aside from the obvious lack of electrical appliances, the hardest part was timing things so that everything finished at the right time.
Anything that required chilling would have had to be started way in advance of the other things. That’s still the case, but it’s more emphatic when you don’t have a fridge and the butter container was on a table near the fire. The scale was an expensive piece of equipment, so there was only one. The fact that everything had to be measured on the scale was a choke point in the process. If Mrs. Montgomery had servants, they would have had to establish a real rhythm of who was at which work station and in which order.
It was a fantastic event. A class is always a great way to try things that may be too difficult to take on by yourself. Check out the Culinary Historians of Canada at http://www.culinaryhistorians.ca.