Cooks at Dundurn Castle restore Victorian recipes, sending visitors back in time
Cooks use heirloom vegetables harvested from the castle garden
Culinary historian Janet Kronick thinks of herself as a kind of art restorer.
Her medium is food and she preserves pieces of history by reviving recipes from the 1800s in the Dundurn Castle kitchen.
"To me it's like a restoration," she said. "When you're very aware of that, you'll do whatever you can to be very accurate to what was written in the historic recipe."
Kronick coordinates the historic kitchen at Dundurn National Historic Site and calls herself the "spoon-bowl-fire lady." She said that there's a certain beauty in making recipes from the past without electricity and fancy kitchen gadgets.
And if you want to help revive and cook up recipes from the past, you've got a chance this weekend.
The centre is holding a 'Soupreme' historic cooking workshop on Saturday, where participants will help make and get to taste soups dating back to the Victorian era.
Attendees will gather in the kitchen of this 40-room Italianate style villa — affectionately known as Dundurn Castle for its massive size — to cook by gas light on a 19th century cast iron range.
The soups will be made with heirloom vegetables harvested straight from the castle's two-acre garden — so that participants get as close as they can to the real deal.
The recipes might involve tomato, squash, or onion. But either way, they'll all be grown from historically accurate seeds.
"You wouldn't make a recipe if the ingredient wasn't available," Kronick said. "Accuracy — that's what we want."
From garden to kitchen
Despite being in the basement, she says kitchen staff set the scene for all visitors. The anticipation starts once people enter the home and smell the kitchen fire and comforting scent of shortbread.
And when visitors finally get to taste the food, they're transported back in time.
"The kitchen and garden are memorable," said Andrea Meunier, a historic cook at the castle. "People remember those experiences for years to come and that's usually what keeps them coming back."
And Meunier said that coming together to share food with the public adds another layer to her work.
"It's so rewarding to get to plant something from seed and then watch it grow and to harvest it," Meunier said. "As a cook, to be able to turn it into something delicious and to share that with other people...it's such a joy."
Decoding historic recipes
The cooks only use recipes from books that were available at the time. Some books were officially published, while others were put out by women auxiliary groups or churches for fundraisers.
They find them through online auctions, or meticulously gather them from collectors and people who uncover them in their families' attics.
But before the cooking starts, the recipes need to be decoded.
Kronick said that standardized measurements didn't come into play until later on. So instead, the recipes use a variety of instructions, from now-familiar words like 'pounds' and to actually describing how much of an ingredient to use, like a "quail egg" or "chicken egg" amount.
"We have a lot fun reading the recipes here and trying to decipher what the heck they mean," Kronick said. "We'll tell people to read the recipe...and we'll get different results, which is why your chicken soup doesn't take like your grandmother's chicken soup."
But that doesn't mean the recipes are restrictive. For example, the recipe 'fritter from roots' means cooks could use whatever vegetable was available, whether it be a potato, carrot, or turnip. And cooks had a way to make sure it was always delicious.
"Well, you fry anything in butter, you're gonna love it," she said.
'Connected to where our food comes from'
And while cooking for the wealthy could be elaborate — the occasion would call for all kinds of spices and sugars, exotic fruits, wines and warm sauces and gravies to pour on food — the average person would eat more simple food.
Kronick said people would cook all in one pot and eat things similar to how doctors tell you to eat today.
"We talk about that now — we should eat the way our ancestors ate," she said. "They didn't eat a lot of processed food, and they didn't have a lot of sugar [because] it was really expensive to import."
She said the irony is the kind of bread we eat today, pricey "health bread" with its various grains, was just a part of people's lives back then.
Kronick also added that bringing in food from the garden often surprises a lot of workshop participants who regularly eat out or warm up frozen food.
She said while there's a place for that, it's important for people to have the skills to make simple meals. She also said that it helps people realize the pressure ancestors felt to grow crops for survival — no imported, frozen meals were available if unfavourable weather hit.
"We have to be connected to where our food comes from," she said. "Understanding the preciousness of food and being mindful about what we have is probably the best message we could give."
The soup workshop takes place on Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Workshop tickets are $50. The cost covers a demonstration, a hands-on experience, a booklet of some recipes to take home, and a complimentary family admission pass for a return visit. Recipes will be vegetarian-friendly.
Pre-registration is required on the City of Hamilton's website.