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Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends: Laura Boyle

As the Jane Austen Festival in Bath gets underway, I am delighted to welcome the lovely Laura Boyle who I've known for a number of years. When I heard she had a book out which combines both my love of Jane Austen and food, I had to investigate! The result is a scrumptious book (believe me, I have been tempted to devour the pages) and she very kindly agreed to stop by to tell us all about it. Over to you, Laura!

I have a love affair with cookbooks. Books in general, my family would say, but cookbooks in particular. I have cookbooks on my shelves that I’ve never even used, simply because the pictures were gorgeous and the dinners so nicely staged. Any trip to the bookstore will eventually find me with the cookbooks…and often walking out the door with one, convinced that I, too, can cook Cantonese in “only three easy steps” or that my family will love the meals that “whip together in minutes to simmer invitingly for hours” in my crockpot.

Naturally, when David Baldock, curator of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath asked me if I would be interested in turning their website’s regularly featured recipe collection into a cookbook that could be carried in the Centre’s shop, I was delighted. For over ten years, I’ve been researching period recipes each month for their online magazine feature, always searching for something that was popular during Jane Austen’s lifetime; something, perhaps, that the Austen’s themselves might have enjoyed. From this was born Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends.
Although I live in the United States, I’ve been working with the Centre almost from their opening, in the late 1990's. I have loved Jane Austen’s work ever since I first read Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager and since then I have greedily read all I could about Jane Austen, her life and the period in which she lived. This fascination has spilled over into my work, inspiring my company, Austentation: Regency Accessories, where I offer custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and gift baskets, along with other accessory items of the period. It has truly been a perfect match and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had and the wonderful people I have met along the way.

I well remember my first visit to Bath, about a year after I began working with the Centre. At the close of that visit I was given a vintage copy of The Jane Austen Household Book with Martha Lloyd’s Recipes by Peggy Hickman…a little volume I have turned to again and again over the years as I’ve tried to learn more about the foods the Austen’s ate and how they were prepared. This book is a collection of recipes that Martha Lloyd, a dear friend of the Austen’s (later in life she married Jane Austen’s brother, Francis), kept throughout her life. The recipes range from main dishes to soup, to puddings, to shoe blacking and ink (perhaps Jane’s own recipe?) Delightfully, Martha Lloyd also noted the names of the friends from whom she obtained the various recipes; names that are familiar from reading Jane Austen’s own letters.

In writing Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends I looked first to Jane Austen’s letters and novels in order to see what dishes she mentioned and then tried to find authentic Regency recipes for these dishes, in order to discover just what the food would have tasted like. Many of these recipes came from Martha Lloyd’s household book, suggesting that they were tried in the Austen’s own kitchen. Other recipes came from Maria Eliza Kettleby Rundell’s New System of Domestic Cookery (London, 1808) and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, 1774) among others, titles which would have been household names among Regency wives and housekeepers.

The next decision was, “What type of cookbook to make?” There have been many Austen adapted cookbooks over the years. Cooking with Jane Austen shares history and recipes, while Jane Austen and Food provides innumerable accounts of what the Austen’s ate and why. The Jane Austen Cookbook is a modern take on Martha Lloyd’s household book, while Tea with the Bennets and Tea with Jane Austen provide countless recipes for treats and sweets as well as the history of tea as it relates to the Austen family. Why reinvent the wheel, so to speak?

We finally decided on an affordable, full color cookbook that would include period recipes along with modern equivalents, as well as historical tidbits and quotes from Jane Austen’s work showing why each dish was important. I was adamant that we would include a color photograph of each dish, something which had not previously been done. This meant that each recipe had to be converted into modern measurements (there were no standard cups and teaspoons at that time) cooking temperatures (a “quick” oven?) and times, as well as experimented with, prepared and photographed.

I started with the recipes themselves, hoping to have enough variety to allow the reader to host their own Regency inspired party. With that in mind, we also included information for the hostess on arranging and serving her own dinner party, card party or tea. After deciding on the recipes, they were sorted out by category: Breakfast, Dinner, Sweets and Beverages, and named for the character or person that the recipe seemed to suggest.

If on first reading, Jane Austen’s books seem to say little about food, her letters more than make up for this with a wealth of information about what she ate, what fruits were coming into season in the family garden and even what provisions cost in the various cities she visited. A closer look at the novels, however, proves that once again, Jane Austen never misplaces a word. The foods she mentions are purposeful, from Donwell Abbey’s strawberries (readers would recognize that the forward thinking Mr. Knightley had been busy improving his property…cultivation of this fruit was new to the Georgians) to Mr. Hurst’s Ragout (a “fashionable” French dish compared to Elizabeth Bennet’s plainer, sensible tastes).
Jane Austen even uses the food on the table to set her stage; recall “the milk, a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy” served in the Price household, versus the “cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season…beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches” served at Pemberley. One, in an instant, paints a picture of poverty stricken, slovenly housekeeping, while the other puts you in mind of a gracious table, laden with carefully cultivated fruits and a bountiful harvest.
Months of research resulted in weeks of cooking and testing and tasting. While the children were sleeping, I was cooking. Naptimes became an opportunity to try cookie and cake recipes. After bedtime, I would attempt more complex dishes, such as the meats and Broiled Eggs. My husband became my chief taster, ever ready to photograph my “newest” creation, working to get the lighting just right and the shadows just so.

There were disappointments, of course, but for the most part it was surprising just how straightforward and delicious the recipes turned out to be! My “modern” appliances made quick work of what was once a time consuming chore (one recipe suggested that you “whisk it up for a full hour”) taking the place of any number of kitchen maids. I have never used as much cream and butter as I did in creating these dishes, but the results were amazing!

There was so much satisfaction in creating a dish from scratch in this age of fast food and microwave dinners. The tastes created by these recipes, where layer upon layer of flavor blended to create creamy sauces and hearty gravies, were unbelievably delicious. It was strange, too, how cooking these recipes, over 200 years after they were written, seemed to bring me into a closer connection with not only Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd, but with my own grandmothers and great grandmothers, centuries of women who prepared food for their families using recipes passed on to them by prior generations.

Most of these recipes were unlike anything I had ever prepared before, but thankfully, Hannah Glasse and her “sisters” were at my side. Women who wrote to “the ignorant and unlearned” in such a way that in but a few lines they could convey an entire dish from start to finish. It is my hope that in reading and cooking from Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends others too will enjoy not only the sights, smells and tastes of the Regency, but that they will come away with a better appreciation of Jane Austen’s works, as well as a renewed kinship with those generations of old, from Eve on, who have worked to provide nourishment for both body and soul to those they hold most dear.

Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen's life. She is the proprietor of Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends is her first foray into the world of print publication. Laura's greatest joy is the time she is able to spend in her home with her family (1 amazing husband, 3 adorable children, a red fish and a strange dog).

Thank you, Laura, I wish you every success with your book!