The Great British Bake Off Exists Thanks to Coal-Fired Ovens

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The Great British Bake Off Exists Thanks to Coal-Fired Ovens

Many European nations pride themselves upon the quality and variety of their sweet baked foods. The Viennese have a particularly long and illustrious tradition of pastries, and the French often consider themselves to have elevated bakery to an art form. But these elaborate pastries and confections were the work of professional bakers, developed in aristocratic kitchens by formally trained men before becoming the speciality of shops catering to the aspirations of the gentry and merchant classes of seventeenth-century Europe.

In Britain, professional bakers provided a narrower and simpler range—baked bread of course, but also relatively modest buns, cakes and biscuits. British innovation in baking took place instead in domestic kitchens, where an amateur baking tradition, led by women, was born. With its antecedents reaching back to the medicinal and sugar cookery of the sixteenth-century aristocracy, this non-professional feminine style of baking truly took off once the first integral ovens arrived. Coal made what had once been a country house convention into a national institution.

Image:W.W. Norton

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, day-to-day medical provision in the homes of the wealthy was not solely provided by professional male apothecaries. Another authority held sway: the household’s ‘still room’ (a name derived from the word ‘distillation’). Here, the lady of the house, assisted by her gentlewomen, made distilled herb, spice and flower waters as well as a host of fairly simple medicines. Among favoured ingredients were “electuaries,” based upon honey, and “suckets,” based upon sugar.

Initially, honey and sugar were purely medicinal, their use no more prominent than, say, that of rosemary or feverfew. And in all but the wealthiest households, they may have been used quite sparingly, particularly given how fearfully expensive sugar could be. At the same time, they were prescribed for fairly common complaints. Considered to be both warm and dry in nature, honey and sugar were used to combat health problems associated with wet and cold conditions. They were used to ‘dry up’ coughs and colds and to encourage and speed up digestion after heavy meals.

Although they were a medically approved digestif, no one could fail to notice they were also very pleasurable to taste, and so the still room’s production of sweet products expanded rapidly. By 1600 cooking with sugar was all the rage, done in still rooms by aristocratic ladies themselves, not by the staff in the kitchens of their grand houses. Recipe books of the era, both printed and handwritten, contained a high proportion of sugar cookery recipes, frequently outstripping the savoury elements by a large margin, as was the case in Lady Eleanor Fettiplace’s book. A distinct social occasion was devoted to consuming the produce of the still room: the banquet.

By 1600 cooking with sugar was all the rage, done in still rooms by aristocratic ladies themselves, not by the staff in the kitchens of their grand houses.

Today, we generally apply the word ‘banquet’ to any large, formal meal for many guests. But in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a banquet was a select gathering of only the most honoured and highest status individuals, who withdrew from the main hall to a separate, more exclusive place, perhaps in the garden or upon the rooftop, where a sort of sweet buffet was laid out. Merchant families aspiring to improve their position in society were keen to learn about this new upper-class diversion.

Gervase Markham’s instructions to the upwardly mobile housewife of 1615 instructed her to lay an iced marzipan confection in the centre of her banqueting table and surround it with sweets: preserved fruits—some candied, some in syrup—fruit pastes, candied flowers and spices, fresh fruits and wafers. His recipes for banquets included several different gingerbreads and “jumbles” (a type of biscuit), Banbury cakes (with lots of currants, a bit like an Eccles cake) and numerous biscuit breads that varied in nature from langue de chat to flavoured meringues.

By the 1670s the production of such sweet things was within the reach of those a little further down the social scale. No longer the fashionable activity of the lady of the house, sugar cookery had primarily become the domain of the gentlewoman or senior female servant within the household. Hannah Woolley’s Gentlewomans Companion (1675), made this point: “If you desire to be a waiting Gentlewoman, it will be expected that you can Dress well; Preserve well; and Write well a legible hand … If you would be a House-keeper … you must Preserve well, making Cakes, all manner of spoonmeats, and the like.” Chambermaids were also expected to be able to turn their hands to most forms of cookery, although they were “not often required” to get involved with meat and fish, their work being more likely to involve pastry.

Over time, this division of labour became more pronounced in elite households. Housekeepers, assisted by chambermaids, provided the jams, marmalades, pickles, preserves, cakes, buns and biscuits distinct from the work of the kitchen. Housekeepers’ pantries were increasingly equipped with small fireplaces and ovens to facilitate this independent production. A large proportion of the surviving handwritten recipe books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries owe their existence to this separate jam- and cake-making tradition.

Cooks and cook maids (generally known as kitchen maids in later years) generally memorized the recipes they used, but girls working as chambermaids under the housekeeper’s eye were expected to be more literate and write down their recipes. Their career plan was aimed at becoming a housekeeper, and this necessitated the ability to keep accounts and write letters. Little notebooks full of cake recipes thus functioned as both practical memory aids and status symbols. Being a housekeeper was considered to be the more genteel route through domestic service. The gentility of home-baking and preserving was also evident in smaller households where the mistress did a share of this work. The lighter, tidier and cleaner share of housework, as well as what Mrs Beeton called the “higher department of cooking,” was the province of the mistress of the household, while the hired help did the laundry, the cleaning of fireplaces and the basic cooking, tending to the meat, fish and vegetables.

Coal did a good deal to support this division of labour and ensure its spread down through the social classes. Brick-built, wood-fired ovens encouraged the production of large, uniform batches of baking. Each load, for efficiency’s sake, should fill the floor of the oven. Successive batches ideally were uniform in size as well as type; the best results were obtained when everything in the oven required exactly the same amount of heat and time to bake. Try to bake a cake that needs forty-five minutes with a tart that needs just half an hour, and things had a tendency to go awry. Opening the door released a huge amount of heat from the brickwork, and there was no method of boosting the temperature back up. In a large household, this set-up was fine. Each firing of the oven produced a large batch of bread and possibly a second large batch of pies, which would see the household through until the next firing.

This was not, however, such a perfect arrangement for producing a small selection of luxury, sugar-based baked foods. While many households might need twelve loaves of bread to see them through the week, far fewer needed twelve fruit cakes all at once—even if they could have afforded all that sugar, spice and dried fruit. Small batches of baked goods were simply not practical, even in the great houses, until coal-fired perpetual ovens appeared around 1750.

When they first appeared, perpetual ovens were not especially cheap. They required setting aside a chimney exclusively for their use, and the work of a good mason or bricklayer. They also were not particularly useful as a replacement for the traditional wood-fired bread oven as they simply couldn’t handle the necessary volume of baking without burning an extortionate amount of fuel. As a result, they were better suited to a wealthier household with aspirations towards fancy baking and rarely installed elsewhere. Neat, small and self-contained—the technical properties of cast iron dictated that these ovens rarely exceeded 18 inches across—these coal-fired ovens fit rather well within the concept of a separate, more genteel cooking space often found in grander households. They could be added into a housekeeper’s still room without causing major disruption to the kitchen, and permitted an ever expanding array of cakes, biscuits and pastries to be pursued there.

Across the rest of Europe wood-burning ovens encouraged experiments with fancy cakes and pastries to remain within the purview of professional male chefs, who had the means to bake large batches of sweet luxury goods. Patisserie shops could sell a dozen fine apple tarts from a single firing, as well as the thirty small custard tarts that followed them into the oven. In Britain, the market for patisseries never really developed. Those with the spare cash to buy fine pastries were producing their own small batches at home in a coal-burning oven.

Coal also influenced baking recipes. Wood-fired ovens are especially good at producing crispy textures. Think of how different a thin-crust pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven is from one baked in a conventional electric model. Like the enclosed boxes of modern electric and gas appliances, coal-fired ovens held more steam around the food, producing baked goods with a moister texture. That which we call “cake”—a mixture with an almost equal amount of butter, eggs, sugar and flour—bakes especially well in a cast-iron, coal-fired oven; it’s rarely successful when attempted in a wood-fired oven. Meanwhile, the light crispy texture of puff or flaky pastry is more successfully achieved in a wood-fired oven. Flaky pastry cooked in a coal oven can often be disappointingly soggy. Because of coal, British baking slowly diverged from continental styles.

By 1850, a century after perpetual ovens first made their appearance, more and more ovens were routinely incorporated at the side of the grate as part of the range, or “kitchener” as it was called in early adverts. Prices for these appliances were dropping rapidly too. Home-baking became accessible to more people, and it was meat, potatoes and cakes they were primarily baking, not bread.

Home-baking became accessible to more people, and it was meat, potatoes and cakes they were primarily baking, not bread.

Throughout the nineteenth century, well-meaning people were scolding poorer housewives that they should be baking their own bread, now that they had the equipment to do so at home. The advocates ranged from political philosopher William Cobbett, who argued that home-baking was more economical and conducive to an independent and self-reliant lifestyle, to health food pioneer Dr Thomas Allinson, who saw home-baking as an opportunity to produce wholemeal, unadulterated bread. But soaring commercial bread sales suggest very few people took them up on their advice. Had these (frequently male and well-off) commentators ever done much baking with a cast-iron, coal-fired domestic oven, they would have known its drawbacks as a bread-baking vehicle. Their small capacity, as mentioned earlier, made them uneconomical for baking on a large scale in terms of fuel use. It also made for a very time-consuming process, with the baker required to be on hand, turning the loaves so that they cooked evenly. Such time and fuel expenditures were all very well for the occasional cake or batch of biscuits, but not really viable as part of a general domestic routine.

Thus, the coal-fired domestic oven gave the working people of Britain not an up-to-date method of putting the basic baked goods on their table but instead a new means of producing what had once been luxury, party foods. Alongside baked meats mimicking ancient roasts, coal-fired ovens spread cake-baking and cake-eating far and wide. And this coal cookery tradition shows no sign of abating today. Indeed, certain TV series indicate that, if anything, home-baked cakes and other sweets are a growing obsession.

Excerpted from The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything. Copyright (c) 2020 by Ruth Goodman. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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