The Museum of English Rural Life explores the history of the English countryside and its people. The museum is free to visit and is one of the best things to do in Reading. Whether on your own or with friends and family, discover our galleries, research our collections, refresh in our café, browse our shop, or relax in our garden.
Did you know
...city families used to pick hops on holiday?
Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.
Did you know
...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?
Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.
Did you know
...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?
Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.
Did you know
...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?
Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.
Did you know
...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?
The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.
Did you know
...villages often used to run their own fire services?
The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.
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Our Country Lives - Latest Blog Posts
Our blog explores the people, places and issues of the historic and contemporary English countryside and rural life, uncovering and exploring our collections, the exciting activity around the MERL and the people we with.
Written by Hollie Piff, UMASCS Graduate Trainee Library Assistant.
Here in The MERL Library, we have several copies of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, with 19th century copies held in the University of Reading’s Special Collections. I was having a little dig around through the collection when I stumbled upon Mrs Beeton’s ‘Vegetarian Menu’. What were the dishes it featured? Dear reader, read on.
Who was Mrs Beeton?
When you think of Mrs Beeton, you might imagine a rather matronly Victorian figure. In reality, Isabella Mary Beeton published her Book of Household Management on the 1st October 1861 at the ripe old age of just 25. Sadly, she only lived for three years beyond its publication.
The book itself is hefty, as pictured above, and contains over 2,000 pages of recipes, domestic tips and tricks, and notes on budgeting.
The cookbook form flourished in the Victorian age, and Mrs Beeton’s format of ‘breaking each recipe into ingredients, mode, time, average cost, seasonableness [sic], and number of portions’ (Prasch 942) not only made recipes easier to follow for fellow Victorians, but also for 21st century graduate trainee library assistants.
You may expect Mrs Beeton to treat vegetarians with disdain, especially considering the ungodly amount of dripping, gelatine, and beef that manages to make its way into the simplest of recipes. However, Beeton references the ‘large number of persons’ who ‘abstain from animal food altogether’ and suggests that ‘there is no reason why we should not bestow upon [vegetables] some of the care in selection and cultivation that now is bestowed upon meat (705). I suppose you could say she’s the 19th century’s answer to Yotam Ottolenghi.
Inspired by former MERL blogs (such as our 1970s cheese curry extravaganza and the history of British Christmas food), I decided to take to the kitchen and see which of Beeton’s dishes I could recreate.
I would like to preface this meal with a disclaimer. Unfortunately, I am not equipped with an authentic Victorian kitchen setup. As such, my fire will be replaced by an electric hob, and my good, ‘well-heated’ oven will be a fan-assisted oven at around 180 degrees. I also made some vegan-friendly substitutions. Additionally, please note that complete transcriptions of Mrs Beeton’s original recipes can be found and enjoyed (at your culinary discretion) at the end of the article.
Starter: vegetable soup
We’re starting with a simple vegetable soup made of cabbage, leeks, lettuce, cauliflower, carrots, and peas. There are many, many vegetables that I would happily put into a soup, and lettuce is not one of them. Please place your bets on the colour of this concoction. I’m going with swampy green.
Now, Mrs Beeton’s recipe says that it serves eight, so I’m going to haphazardly quarter the recipe so that I’m not eating cabbage soup for the foreseeable future.
Firstly, I washed and shredded the cabbage, lettuce, carrot, and half a leek. I unfortunately forgot to include the celery, but I can’t imagine it would have imparted much flavour. I fried the shredded vegetables in a large saucepan with some vegan butter until they were soft.
I added half a litre of vegetable stock to the pan and let it simmer for a while. Mrs Beeton suggested simmering for one hour, but it was getting far too late and I was famished. I added the peas and cauliflower, pouring a little more stock into the pan when I felt things were getting too crowded.
After half an hour of simmering I took the pot off the hob and decanted it into bowls. Mrs Beeton doesn’t mention salt, pepper, or herbs of any kind, so I served it as it was.
Realistically, when a dish is composed only of vegetables and stock there are upper and lower limits on its potential. My soup landed itself perfectly in the middle of those limits, tending towards the mediocre.
The salad course
I have been looking forward to this one! We have a simple cucumber salad. Time to dust off the mandoline.
Firstly, I peeled and sliced the cucumber. Mrs Beeton told me to slice it ‘as thinly as possible,’ but gave no mention of the direction of cuts, so I decided to go for long ribbons rather than thin little circles. I then added the salt, pepper and the oil.
Now, we come to our first translation difficulty. French vinegar? A quick google did not answer my questions. My instincts told me to go with a light vinegar rather than balsamic. I’m far too fancy for my own good, so we only had rice wine vinegar in the cupboard. That’ll do!
Truthfully, it tasted a lot like salty, vinegar-y cucumber. And I didn’t hate it! It was light and refreshing and would be lovely on a warm sunny day with a barbecue, or even in a sandwich.
Dessert (pt. one): rhubarb tart
What could be better on a sunny summer’s day than a seasonal rhubarb tart for dessert? Mrs Beeton’s rhubarb tart contains only three ingredients: ‘puff paste’, moist sugar, and rhubarb. I imagine this would be rather more complicated if one made one’s own puff pastry, but shop-bought is conveniently vegan and I am a very busy graduate trainee library assistant with an enthusiasm for baking.
Firstly, I halved the recipe, since Mrs. Beeton seems to always be feeding the 5,000, and it made quite enough for the entire family!
I started by chopping the rhubarb. Mrs Beeton suggests cutting it into one-inch length pieces, however I seem to have bought the largest rhubarb known to man, so I’ve adjusted my measurements to suit.
While I’m sure that Mrs Beeton was a much finer baker than I, I have watched an awful lot of the Great British Bake Off, and the fear of a soggy bottom prevented me from ‘piling the fruit high’ on unbaked puff pastry. My rather more experienced sous chef, Google, suggested that I bake the pastry in the oven for fifteen minutes prior to adding the rhubarb. I cut the pastry to fit into the tin, pricked it all over with a fork and popped it into the oven. While the puff pastry inflated, I combined the ‘moist’ sugar with the rhubarb. I went with soft brown sugar for this part. Hopefully that’s what Mrs Beeton meant.
After 15 minutes, I pulled out the crust and piled the rhubarb high! I cut out a little pastry heart for decoration, popped it on top, and returned the tart to the oven for a further 25 minutes.
To be frank, Paul Hollywood would have scowled at the bottom of the pastry as I cut into the steaming rhubarb. Actually, he wouldn’t have had anything to scowl about, since the ‘base’ of the tart had almost entirely dissolved into the sugary, rhubarb-y filling.
The tart was very tart, as rhubarb is prone to be. But, with a generous spoonful of vanilla ice cream, it went down a treat!
Dessert (pt. two): vermicelli pudding
Dessert number two is the pinnacle of Victorian absurdity: vermicelli pudding. Yes, you read that right. Vermicelli. Pudding.
After some research, I found that some cultures still make vermicelli pudding, in a way similar to rice pudding, but to me it was certainly a surprise. Mrs Beeton’s recipe calls for an egg custard, and I had to get creative to veganise the recipe. So, I combined Mrs Beeton’s vermicelli premise with a vegan custard tart recipe from One Green Planet.
I had learned my lesson after the puff pastry parachute incident with the rhubarb tart. So, I lined the tin with puff pastry and covered it with baking paper. I then poured a bag of rice onto the paper to weigh down the pastry and prevent it from rising in the oven.
I baked the pastry base for 20 minutes at 200 degrees, removing the rice about halfway-through to allow the bottom to crisp up. While the pastry cooked, I added corn flour to a saucepan, covered it with a splash of my oat-milk-cream concoction, and whisked until smooth. I then added the remaining ingredients: the rest of the oat milk and vegan cream, two tablespoons of golden syrup, and a splash of vanilla extract. I brought everything to a boil, stirring vigorously for 3 minutes to prevent any lumps from forming.
Mrs Beeton’s recipe required me to ‘boil the vermicelli in the milk’ until it was tender, adding the remaining ingredients (butter, sugar, and four eggs) soon afterwards. Because I was combining recipes, I boiled the vermicelli in oat milk, but in a separate pan.
I continued whisking the custard mixture over a low heat for 10 minutes until it resembled a thick custard-like consistency. Then, I added the vermicelli. Well, I started adding the vermicelli and realised, quite suddenly, that it would be in my best interest to cut the noodles into smaller pieces. I did this to the remaining noodles, but had to leave some long, worm-like pieces hiding ominously in the custard.
I took the mixture off the heat and left it to cool for half an hour before pouring it into the tart case. Then, I placed the entire tart in the fridge overnight to set (unlike in Mrs Beeton’s recipe, which calls for baking).
In order to celebrate the end of an eventful week, I brought the vermicelli tart to The MERL as a kind, considerate treat for my co-workers. When I showed my achievements to one colleague, she astutely pointed out that it looked ‘like a cross between cheesecake and carbonara’. Appetising.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that bad! The noodles gave it a rather strange texture, but the custard tart was lovely! We were expecting a soggy bottom, but the pastry was flaky and golden, if a little messy.
Although I would recommend that vermicelli pudding is lost to the annals of time, I hope that this little experiment has shown that vegetarian food can be easy, fun, and even historical! Even if you’re not picking up Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management to furnish your dinner table with veggie delights, experimenting with meat-free meals can, at best, broaden your repertoire and, at worst, leave you with some particularly funny anecdotes.
Find out more about the range of books, archives and papers within The MERL library.
Mrs Beeton’s recipes
Interested in reading Mrs Beeton’s original recipes, or following her instructions for yourself? Take a look at the four dishes below.
340 – Vegetable Soup (Another Mode)
Ingredients: 1 cabbage, 1 carrot, 2 leeks, celery, ½ a lettuce, ½ pint of green peas, 1 small cauliflower, 2 oz. of butter, 2 quarts of stock or water, teaspoonful of sugar, teaspoonful of salt.
Mode: Wash and shred the cabbage, carrot, leeks, celery, and lettuce. Melt the butter in a saucepan and put in the shredded vegetables, fry them very steadily about ten minutes; then add the boiling water or stock. Then add the peas and cauliflowers broken into small pieces and simmer one hour, serve in a tureen with slices of bread and butter which have been dried and browned in the oven.
1625 – Cucumber Salad
Ingredients: 1 large or 2 small cucumbers, ½ teaspoonful of pepper and salt mixed, 1 tablespoonful of best French vinegar, 3 tablespoonfuls of pure salad oil.
Mode: Peel and slice the cucumber as thinly as possible, sprinkle the pepper and salt over it; add vinegar and salt in the above proportions a moment before using.
1851 – Rhubarb Tart
Ingredients: ½ lb. of puff-paste, about 5 sticks of large rhubarb, ¼ lb. of moist sugar/
Mode: Make a puff-crust by recipe No. 1675; line the edges of a deep pie-dish with it, and wash, wipe, and cut the rhubarb into pieces about 1 inch long. Should it be old and tough, string it–that is to say, pare the outside skin. Pile the fruit high in the dish, as it shrinks very much in the cooking; put in the sugar, cover with crust, ornament the edges, and bake the tart in a well-heated oven from half to three-quarters an hour. If wanted very nice, brush it over with the white of an egg beaten to a stiff froth, then sprinkle on it sifted sugar, and put it in the oven just to set the glaze: this should be done when the tart is properly baked. A small quantity of lemon-juice, and a little of the peel minced, are by many persons considered an improvement to the flavour of rhubarb tart.
1891 – Vermicelli Pudding
Ingredients: 4 oz. of vermicelli, 1 ½ pint of milk, ½ pint of cream, 3 oz. of butter, 3 oz. of sugar, 4 eggs
Mode: Boil the vermicelli in the milk until it is tender; then stir the remaining ingredients, omitting the cream if not obtainable. Flavour the mixture with grated lemon-rind, essence of bitter almonds, or vanilla, butter a pie-dish; line the edges with puff-paste, put in the pudding and bake in a moderate oven for about three-quarters of an hour.
Almost everyone who lived in the town before this point has some memory of Reading biscuits. The excitement of picking up broken bakes on a Friday afternoon. The smell of freshly baked produce which pervaded the streets along with the scent of beer. And the sight of the company’s magnificent tins, which their parents may have kept as ornaments.
Our exhibition, Biscuit Town: 200 Years of Huntley & Palmers, displayed in The MERL’s staircase hall as part of Museums Partnership Reading, seeks to both encourage this reminiscence and inform a new generation of just how important Huntley & Palmers was to Reading’s history.
Commissioned as part of a series of events celebrating 200 years of Reading being the ‘Biscuit Town’, our exhibition places a particular emphasis on personal stories. Whilst the company’s business archives (held within the University’s Special Collections) are fascinating in their own right, we believe they are even more engaging when used to illustrate the lives and stories of real people. This thinking was based on the success of Queer Constellations, an exhibition last year which highlighted historical and current LGBTQ+ rural lives. It is my personal philosophy that people are more interesting than things, for what are archives and objects but the footprints left by the people who used and created them?
Untold stories – across Reading and the world
Although Huntley & Palmers was established as a small bakery in 1822 on Reading’s London Street (a five-minute walk from The MERL’s gates), the company rose in stature significantly after building and opening a factory on the King’s Road in 1846. The prospect of work in the factory attracted hundreds of people to Reading, and was instrumental to the growth of the town throughout the 19th century.
The first of our personal stories highlights the allure of a career in biscuits. Henry Gibbs, who was just fourteen years old, moved from Oxfordshire to Reading in 1861 to seek employment within the biscuit factory. He had no family in Reading and was mostly independent as he sought a home in which to lodge. By 1894, 9% of the town’s population were people like Henry, counting among the enormous numbers of Huntley & Palmers’ staff. His story also shows how collections can complement each other. I originally found Henry via census records, and confirmed his position within the company by using a wages ledger from the company archives. This ledger is on display in the exhibition.
In some instances, the absence of records needed to tell personal stories is in itself a story worth telling. A good example of this is the challenge of finding people who used Huntley & Palmers products overseas, or worked for the company to procure foreign ingredients. It’s important to acknowledge that Huntley & Palmers took advantage of commercial colonialism, advertising their product towards colonisers seeking familiar British food. They used Britain’s influence within colonised countries to procure experimental ingredients for biscuit recipes, such as spices and coconuts. Unfortunately, the archives do not contain any references to the names of the colonised workers who supplied these items. We know that in Uganda, local people used Huntley & Palmers’ tins to store and protect bibles. However, British foreign office records very rarely name colonised people either, preferring to keep records on European occupiers such as missionaries. As a result of this, the personal story we highlighted was that of the unnamed, whom history did not record in writing but must not be forgotten nonetheless.
The exhibition does not just relate the tales of those linked to the firm’s biscuit production. Notably, The MERL building was once owned by Alfred Palmer, the head of the engineering department. By investigating various online sources, I tracked down Jan Brown, the great granddaughter of George Watson, who was Alfred Palmer’s gardener in the 1880s. Watson and his family lived on the premises, in outbuildings which have since been replaced by The MERL galleries. He kept two greenhouses, at least one summer house and a number of flower arrangements. Within the exhibition we have represented George with a number of gardening tools from The MERL object collections, but his legacy can also be experienced by walking around our garden. The earth is the very same he would have handled nearly 150 years ago. George, perhaps more than anyone else in the exhibition, demonstrates how Huntley & Palmers touched the lives of everyone in Reading.
Huntley & Palmers’ escape from occupied France
War is the origin of stories both tragic and compelling, and we feature one personal wartime story within the exhibition.
In 1940, Reginald Wilde was working in Huntley & Palmers’ Paris factory. His wife and children had relocated to La Baule on the French west coast. When it became increasingly obvious that the French capital was going to fall to the advancing Axis forces, the directors of Huntley & Palmers in England ordered Reginald to evacuate the factory workers. However, he was not provided with transport, funds, or any other form of material support. He was on his own, with an enormous task.
Showing remarkable composure, Reginald gathered the factory staff and their families into a convoy. He ensured that all the essentials were covered, relating that:
‘At 1:30pm the vans and private cars and staff were collected together, and biscuit and cake were placed in one van, and a drum of petrol and a first aid kit in another van’.
The convoy’s journey to the French coast was fraught with danger. The rapid Blitzkrieg of the German forces ensured the invaders were only ever a few days behind. Thousands of others were following the same route, with cars ‘three abreast, stretching for miles’. They passed countless cars that had been abandoned due to lack of petrol (a resource was in desperately short supply). To avoid the traffic, they used side roads which amounted to little more than cart tracks. And it was not only Huntley & Palmers’ head office who failed to offer support. Reginald visited the British Consulate in Nantes and ‘they were not a bit helpful’. He was forced to rely entirely on his own resourcefulness.
Meanwhile, in La Boule, Reginald’s wife Dorothy had heard nothing from her husband. Fearing for her children, she arranged passage to England on the RMS Lancastria. In the nick of time, Reginald arrived and prevented her from boarding. In doing so, he saved the life of his family, as the Lancastria was sunk just outside of port. It was the largest loss of life from a single ship sinking in British maritime history. Having narrowly avoided personal tragedy, Reginald accompanied the rest of the Huntley & Palmers staff back to England and safety. He received a letter of commendation from Cecil Palmer and wrote a full account of his escape. This account, recently acquired into our archives, is on display in the exhibition.
A biscuit-themed visit to The MERL
All of these stories and more can be discovered within our staircase hall display, alongside Huntley & Palmers materials now on show throughout the galleries both at The MERL and at Reading Museum, whose Huntley & Palmers Gallery displays almost 300 of the company’s beautifully ornate tins. In The MERL, many of the farming-related objects throughout the galleries have a link to biscuits and we felt this is something worth exploring. For example: milk had a poor reputation in Victorian England due to the challenges of keeping it both fresh and free from Bovine Tuberculosis. Baking it into a biscuit eliminated this risk, and allowed consumers to benefit from milk’s healthy properties.
In addition to objects on display, we have drawers which can be opened to reveal more about Huntley & Palmers history, including the origins of the company and rules within the factory. Apparently, cutting your toenails on company time was cause for suspension!
A further essential element to any Huntley & Palmers visit is a viewing of the Unsweetened film, on display in the gallery Our Country Lives gallery. The film explores life at the Huntley & Palmers factory at the start of the First World War. All of these gallery-based gems are signified by a vinyl on the floor, as well as knitted biscuits crafted by our wonderful volunteer Mewes Knitters.
It’s easy, perhaps even logical, to think that if you’ve visited a museum once, you’ve seen all there is to see. But coming back to enjoy our commemorative Huntley & Palmers displays will provide a whole new experience. We hope to show the range of influence and cultural importance that Huntley & Palmers has had on real people, both in Reading and around the world. And who knows; perhaps somewhere in your family history, there lies a link to Biscuit Town, just waiting to be unwrapped.
Biscuit Town: 200 Years of Huntley & Palmers is on display at The MERL from the 10th May to 25th September 2022. Visiting is free. Plan your trip to the museum today.
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Have you ever wondered what might be in a Victorian vegetarian meal? We did, and then we cooked it, so you don't have to.
In our latest blog, discover vegetarian dishes from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, a staple of the Victorian kitchen.