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.

We are a part of the University of Reading and work with Reading Museum as the Arts Council England-funded Museums Partnership Reading.

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Did you know 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 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.

Item from the Suttons Sees Ltd. archive collection

Did you know

...villages often used to run their own fire services?

The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.

Did you know


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.

Feeding the Nation: Serving us our strawberries

Summer is with us again. Wimbledon is underway. The sparkling wine is in full flow. Generous servings of strawberries and cream are being eagerly consumed by an excited audience of tennis fans. And here at The MERL we’ve served another ace, bringing you the latest installment in our series of online exhibitions about migrant workers in UK farming. This time, the display follows the journey of British strawberries from harvest to distribution, with striking illustrations by artist Sarah Hannis capturing the complexity of summer work on a strawberry farm.

One of 30 ink and watercolour sketches by Sarah Hannis providing insight into the daily lives of migrant agricultural workers who came to the UK in 2021. This image shows workers walking to work.
A sketch by Sarah Hannis providing insight into the daily lives of migrant agricultural workers who came to the UK in 2021. This image shows strawberry picking workers walking to work. Copyright Sarah Hannis.

Caring for the people that care for our food

As with the previous exploration of raspberry planting in winter, Sarah’s evocative images link to research completed as part of a timely and important project called Feeding the Nation, which has done much to shed light on this little-known aspect of UK farming. You can find out more about this project and its impact in a previous blog by the researchers involved.

Timely the project’s work very much is, given the wide-ranging impacts of departure from the European Union, COVID-19, and the rising costs of energy and other resources we all now face. With these complex factors at play, and price hikes faced by farmers and by the food system as a whole, this feels like an industry at break point and struggling to proceed to the next round.

Newspaper reports tell us that the price of a serving of strawberries at Wimbledon this year has not risen with inflation. Yet costs faced by growers have gone up staggeringly. Happy tennis punters may not be paying much more for their punnets, but others are undoubtedly feeling the bite. On the plus side for migrant labourers, much of this rise reflects a remarkable 38% uplift in the cost of staffing, stemming from new rules governing seasonal wages. However, with supermarkets trying to avoid resorting to cheaper overseas imports, consumer spending appears to be curtailing the degree to which point of sale costs are also able to increase.

Traditional wooden tennis racket (MERL 57/154)
This traditional wooden tennis racket dating to the 1870s, is on display in our Making Rural England gallery. The Wimbledon tennis tournament dates to this same decade, having been founded in 1877. Strawberries were popular back then, much as as they are today (MERL 57/154).

All of this is arguably good news for those of us who want to buy soft fruits or to avoid further impact on the environment. After all, in our climate-damaged world, none of us want to eat foods that have been produced or brought to us in unsustainable ways. However, the net result is that differences in cost are largely being absorbed by strawberry farmers, some of whom might well be driven out of business by the time we get to close of play. In this sense, the migrant workforce, in spite of their rising wages, will probably lose out either way; without farmers to offer seasonal opportunities, there is no work to play for in the first place.

The future of strawberry production

With climate breakdown another key player among the list of top seed challengers in this complex market, we’re looking at a very different future for where and how we grow our strawberries. Indeed, with many foodstuffs—possibly strawberries included—we may need to get used to sourcing things from different regions. In some cases, we’ll probably have to switch varieties or possibly even product altogether.

The implications of this on what we eat and drink, and how we think about it, may be more profound than we imagine.  Mindful as we increasingly are of where food comes from, and careful as we have become about checking food miles, we may soon be thrust into a world of products coming from unfamiliar places. For example, the rising quality of sparkling wines from the south of England (no doubt some of which are being quaffed by Wimbledon watchers) attests to not only the movability of wine-making skills, but to the warming climate more commensurate to production of a tasty tipple.

This image shows a long thin basket used for soft fruits, displayed alongside other objects in a museum display case.
This ‘pottle’ basket was designed for picking soft fruits (MERL 2014/2). The skills to produce such objects were revived by basket maker Annemarie O’Sullivan, who copied old and fragile examples from The MERL collection. Craft skills, much like seasonal farm skills, are not always fixed to place.

Alongside a deep history of the movement of people and skills across national borders, we now have the prospect of fresh tensions emerging in the relationship of foods to specific regions. Food traditions often have at their heart a notion of place. Much like the linking of craft skills to particular localities, the very idea of some kind of protected designation of origin or protected geographical indication suggests a fixity of produce and a strict sense of local history underpinning food products.

The problem here is that much like craft skills, which are mobile and can be learned and shared with others from elsewhere, both the produce and the products themselves, and indeed those with the skills to produce them, are able to migrate and move from place to place. The end game might be rained off for now, but the centre court challenge of our food futures demands that we both celebrate the idea of the local but also prepare ourselves to be adaptable to new food systems and food security solutions that reach farther afield.

Match point?

So, what now for our humble strawberries? As you tuck into your own seasonal treats, spare some thought for the degree to which we rely on skilled labour from other places to support and serve us with the British food that we want. And do what you can to support a workforce whose match fitness is not in question but whose industry future is dangerously uncertain. If we don’t wake up to the challenge of these intersecting issues, it’ll be game, set, and match for British soft fruits.

Visit our latest online exhibition and learn about the life and work of migrant labourers on a strawberry farm, or follow this link to find out more about the pottle baskets from another online exhibition.

Widening participation at The MERL

Highlights from three years of working with young people

Mrs Beeton’s vegetarian feasts: vegetarian recipes from 19th century England

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.

A person holds a copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. A hefty tome indeed. (MERL Library—7060-BEE)

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.

A portrait of Isabella Beeton.
Isabella Beeton (Mrs Beeton) by Maull & Polyblank. (Hand-tinted albumen print, 1857. NPG P3)

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.

Soup being cooked in a pan.
The cooking is underway. Shredded ingredients fry and mix in the pan.

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.

Soup in a pot.
Mrs Beeton didn’t use seasoning, so neither did we.

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!

A cucumber salad.
Sliced cucumbers. Surprisingly tasty.

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.

Chopped rhubarb and puff pastry.
Dessert is underway, with sliced rhubarb, sugar, and puff pastry prepared for the tart.

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.

A tart in the oven.
A fan oven is not quite the Victorian set-up that Mrs Beeton would have been familiar with. But for our purposes, it will certainly do!

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.

A rhubarb tart.
Et voila!

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.

Rice weighs down the pastry.
I’d learned my lesson from dessert pt. 1. Here, rice weighs down the pastry to prevent it from rising.

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.

Noodles cooking in the mixture.
Um, yum!

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.

The vermicelli pie, complete.
‘A cross between cheesecake and carbonara’. We’ll take that.

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.

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