August 5, 2017 by auntkatefirmin
I had the good fortune to taste some local honey the other day. The flavor of fireweed honey was simply marvelous. It reminded me that my Wiltshire ancestors would have eaten seasonally and locally (as we are so often urged to do). On the bright side this meant that they had access to some items that were exceptional; on the down side, this meant at times that their choices, and even their food in general was very limited. This post will explore a few of the things that have come to my attention that were notable about living in northern Wiltshire.
I recently picked up a charming book: The Heart of a Village: an Intimate History of Aldbourne, which appears to be one of several books relating to Wiltshire by Ida Gandy. Because of the wonderful details in the book this post will mention Aldbourne frequently.
The tastes available to the Seymours, the Allens, the Blackfords, the Skulls, and the Wayts would have been “as different as chalk and cheese” depending on whether they lived on the pasture country with its underlying clay soils which best supported dairying or the chalk downlands that were more suited to arable crops. Of course this is an oversimplification – as, for example, it leaves out the extensive local forest lands.
Among other places, there were markets in Wootton Bassett, Aldbourne, Swindon, and Marlborough that would have been visited by Aunt Kate’s ancestors. There were also annual fairs where the families might have purchased livestock and hired farm workers. Around 1700, the Allen family (ancestors of Dorothy Seymour) can be placed in Upham, part of Aldbourne. Dorothy’s family lived in Chiseldon so they might easily have gone to Aldbourne on a Tuesday for the market – what might they have bought?
One item mentioned in the the Aldbourne book was “sainfoin” honey, said to be a lime-green color and quite delicious. While clover honey is certainly still available I suspect that finding modern sainfoin honey might be an adventure. It would be interesting to find out more about how honey was sold in the 18th century in Wiltshire; from accounts in Buckinghamshire around 1800 I know that at least in one location it was the custom for a honey-dealer to collect the honey from throughout the neighborhood and process vast quantities, selling the wax and by-products to the London market and using much of the honey to produce the two (or more) hogsheads of mead which was consumed at an annual three-day celebration. I’ve not come across any discussion of mead production in Wiltshire – the “moonraker” nickname leans rather more towards drinking (and smuggling) gin, for those who could afford it. It would be interesting to know whether special varieties of honey were produced or sought after in the Stuart or Jacobean eras.
For centuries Aldbourne Chase was famous for coneys (or rabbits in American terms) that were considered to the fattest and sweetest – at least the 18th century writer John Aubrey made that claim. As long ago as the days of John of Gaunt (who was Duke of Lancaster in the time when the Manor and Chase of Aldbourne were part of the Duchy of Lancaster) Aldbourne coneys were found on the tables of the mighty, and they continued to find their way to the London markets until the mid-19th century. Although the Chase itself and the animals therein belonged to the nobility, not the local tenants, the inhabitants of Aldbourne were consistent in claiming their rights to the coneys in other local copses. The popularity of raising rabbits for market was hampered by the near-impossibility of containing them in their warrens and the damage they created when they escaped.
One way or another I’m sure there was rabbit to eat on the Seymour table – although I don’t claim to know how fat and sweet it might have been. In addition to Aldbourne there were warrens at Upham, Liddington, Burderop Park, the Lydiards, and Wanborough. (As an aside, my mother once said she regretted that it wasn’t possible to buy rabbit from the butcher anymore as she had always found rabbit to be very tasty.) I found an amusing recipe for “Ragoo of rabbits.” I can’t say how close that might have been to how Aunt Kate’s Wiltshire ancestors might have prepared their coneys. A stew is certainly a simple way to cook meat and they no doubt had onions, flour, and greens available for their cooking – the question is were any of them well-do-do enough that they could get spices like mace? At least I assume mace was expensive and not easy to find in rural Wiltshire.
The chalk soil that produced plants that nourished the rabbits, and gave them fine coats, also supported flocks of sheep. Wiltshire horned sheep were better for mutton than for their short wool (which they shed annually) and they were prized for their ability to travel every day from where they grazed to be penned at night on the arable land for which they provided fertilizer. So Aunt Kate’s ancestors likely had local mutton on their table as well.
I’ve focused on the meats, and the middling class of Wiltshire yeoman likely also filled up on ham, and small birds like pigeons, at least on days when meat was available. My impression is that, other than for the very rich, meat was not always an every day part of the diet. I’ll leave the grains, the fruits, and the greens for a later post and move on to talk about drink.
According to the Scouring of the White Horse, while playing at single stick it’s hard to “break the heads” of cider-drinkers (those Somerset scoundrels) since they don’t bleed as freely as proper beer-drinkers from Wiltshire and Berkshire. Hops were grown around Aldbourne, and it seems likely that Dorothy Seymour’s Allen ancestors (who leased a farm in the parish) might have grown hops and brewed their own beer. Small beer and ale were the drink of the day until modern water delivery systems could guarantee the safety of the drinking water. (Here I must confess that I appear to break with Wiltshire tradition in preferring cider to ale or beer.)
As always, it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are whole books and websites with recipes, cooking techniques, and more. Now that I’m hungry, it would be entertaining to plan a Wiltshire trip around food: baked goods, cheeses, and other delights. I’m open to suggestions!