One of the minor disappointments of life is that there are no croissants in the Regency. My characters can enjoy flaky rolls, buns, sliced bread, tarts and all sorts of pastries for breakfast, but croissants didn't arrive in Paris till the late 1830s. They're as anachronistic on the Regency table as cornflakes.
Regency folks can chow down on brioche though. We got brioche.
Brioche is a light yeast bread, eggy and somewhat sweet — though the recipes tell us it was less sweet in 1800 than it is nowadays — frequently carrying a nice surprise of nuts or raisins. It was a veritable breakfast cliché in Paris in the Eighteenth Century. Brioche would have been comfortable and familiar on any wealthy English breakfast table, those being the ones influenced by the French way of cooking. By 1820, brioche was so common in England it was standard in cookbooks.
Which brings us to the question, how did a cook in a London or Paris household knead up a brioche for the gentility upstairs?
Carl Sagan said, "If you want to make an apple pie, you must first invent the universe." Somewhat less ambitiously, if we wish to set brioche before our Regency lady and gentleman, we must invent some Regency cookery.
We start the universe with hydrogen.
We start the brioche with flour, of which there were many kinds. 'Grist' was the most ordinary sort, flour with only the bran removed, used for making common bread. But our urban household buys their day-to-day bread from a bakery. They keep only fine white flour in the house for cakes and pastries and special puddings.
Flour would have been delivered to the house in a big barrel. In fact, a 'flour barrel' was a standard measure that held fourteen stone or just shy of 200 pounds, (ninety kilos,) of flour. That would be the size of forty modern bags of flour, stacked. That would be a bit of a tight fit in my kitchen.
Our Regency cook — she's a formidable woman wearing a big white apron with the bib pinned up high on the shoulders — is monarch of a substantial domain,
including some extensive food storage in the pantry, which is where they roll that flour barrel. When she sets out to make brioche, she sends some hapless underling — the kitchenmaid — to pop up the lid of the barrel and scoop out an earthenware bowl of flour.
Our flour is sifted through a round sieve at this point to remove any ambitious wildlife that might have found a way in.
Then — Take four pounds of very dry flour. Lay the flour on the table after you have sifted it, says an 1828 recipe.
The cook would take part of that flour to mix up a 'sponge' of flour, water and a dollop of yeast from her yeast-on-go supply she has back in the pantry. She'd cover the bowl of sponge and set it to keep warm next to the fire. This gives the yeast a kickstart and makes sure it's working.
Cook keeps her own little farm of yeast going, stored in a jug on a cool shelf in the pantry, covered with a cloth. She might stick a quill through the cloth to let gases escape.
Here's how she makes yeast:
Mix two quarts of soft water with wheat flour, to the consistence of thick gruel, or soft hasty pudding; boil it gently for half an hour, and when almost cold, stir into it half a pound of sugar, and four spoonfuls of good yeast. Put it into a large jug, or earthen vessel, with a narrow top, and place it before the fire, so that it may, by a moderate heat, ferment. The fermentation will throw up a thin liquor, which pour off and throw away; the remainder keep for use in a cool place in a bottle, or jug tied over.
In Paris, in the Regency era, water is still delivered by water carriers. Drinking water in Paris would be stored in a copper cistern in some handy spot in the kitchen.
Our cook has set the sponge aside to do its frothing while she performs other useful and interesting culinary tasks. After an hour or so she comes back and sets herself up at the big working table. All the ingredients are at hand. Flour. Eggs. A bit of salt. A bit of sugar. Raisins. The yeast is in its bowl, all sprightly and blowing off bubbles in the sponge. We're ready.
A period recipe says: Make a great hole in the flour, put four small pinches of salt on as many different places, with a good pinch of sugar to correct the bitter taste of the yeast, and a little water to melt the salt. Then take two pounds of butter, which you break into small pieces with your hand, and put in the middle of the flour: next break the eggs, and smell them successively to ascertain if they are good: mix the whole well together.
Salt she probably bought in a grocery. This would be a small shop by modern standards, the place to pick up coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, raisins, and spices. This is a modern and forward-looking, brioche-eating Regency household, so our cook probably bought 'basket salt' that came from the salt springs in Cheshire instead of the common sea salt. Basket salt was considered superior for its whiteness, purity and fineness of grain. In the kitchen, the store of salt would be a saltbox, a small, square, lidded wood box that stayed dry next to the fireplace. The saltbox might rest on a shelf, or have a niche by the oven designed to hold it, or hang from a nail in the wall. Our cook would take a small bowl of salt from the box and put it handy on the table, ready to dip a pinch out when needed.
On to the sugar.
I always wondered, in a desultory manner, why 'sugar loaf' mountains don't look like loaves.
In the Regency, sugar came to the household as a big tall cone. This was because, out in the Caribbean, the end of the process of sugar making was to pour thick sugar syrup into cone-shaped molds and let it harden. The little hills of Vermont look like those cones.
We buy bags of granular, free-running sugar. We pay extra for hard sugar formed into cubes.
Our Regency cook, on the other hand, just naturally expected sugar to come in a rock-hard cone. To get pouring sugar she had to chip or saw pieces off the cone, pound them into submission and grind them up fine in a mortar and pestle.
Grind, grind. More work for the kitchenmaid.
This here is a 'sugar nipper', not a Medieval torture instrument. They use sugar nippers to nip off handy-sized bits for putting in tea. 'One lump or two' was the result of this artistic handwork.
Can you see a fussy Grande Dame looking over the sugar bowl and trying to decide whether the sugar lumps are running kinda puny before she commits herself to how many she wants?
Milk was brought to the kitchen door at the crack of dawn by clear-complexioned and buxom — buxom means having big breasts, but it's a really polite way to point this out — milkmaids. They carry a pair of cans suspended from a yoke over their shoulders and dole out a helping into the kitchen jug, using various measuring dippers. Cream was sold separately from the milk.
The cook would strain the milk one last time before using it.
Our cook buys her butter in the open air markets of the city when she's going from booth to booth, comparing freshness of all those lettuces and carrots. She probably goes to a farmer's wife she knows whose butter costs a little more and whose product is superior. This would be butter that was never let go rancid and then 'refreshed' by kneading it through many washes of water.
Mistress Farm Wife molds her butter into fancy shapes using a wood butter mold. The top comes out stamped with the unique design that tells the knowledgeable what farm the butter came from.
The cook might buy her eggs right from the same market.
Talking about eggs . . .
I had this mistaken assumption that brown-shelled eggs were traditional, old-fashioned eggs and white eggs were sorta modern. I guess I assumed they came up with white eggs in the Fifties to be hygienic
Not so much. If you go searching back through the visual record of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, all the eggs are white. Yup. White eggs everywhere.
Now it might be all that preponderance of white eggs used in paintings could be because they're more — to steal a modern idea — 'photogenic'. But I'm inclined to think the eggs the cook broke into the dough were white.
Flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs. At this point, much kneading is proceeding.
The final ingredient this morning is raisins, because this is a somewhat festive brioche, a gay and debonair brioche to cheer everyone up.
Before the mid-Nineteenth Century, just about all grapes had seeds in them. Recipes call for 'stoned raisins' which means they'd had the seeds removed, not that the raisins were inebriated. To get the seeds out, you'd cut each raisin open with a small knife or split them apart with fingers and pop the seeds out, a process that must have been tedious in the extreme.
One kind of naturally seedless grape of the time is the small, dark, sweet raisin, grown in Greece and exported all over Europe. They're called currants, after Corinth in Greece.
These currants are grapes, though, and not to be confused with the 'black currants' that grow on a bush and are related to gooseberries.
Why they decided to call two entirely different and unrelated fruits the same word I cannot imagine. It's not as if we are short of words.
I mean, sometime you look at the language and just wonder, 'why?'
Raisins come to the household still on the vine, as it were. They're dried in the sun as bunches and sold attached to the twigs and branches, from which they must be removed before they are washed and rolled in flour and kneaded into the dough.
We're at the finish line. Our brioche dough makes a firm sphere. Cook adds one fanciful flourish. A small ball of dough is pressed into the
very top to make that cap that is the traditional Brioche
The brioche is tied into a paper and ready to bake. Later on, in Victorian times, they'll get around to using distinctive, fluted baking dishes. Now it's paper cookery.
And so, to the oven.
When Marie Antoinette was not saying, 'let them eat cake' —
which she didn't say because the phrase was around before poor Marie Antoinette arrived in France —
what she didn't say was, 'Let them eat brioche.'
Which I will now leave my Regency ladies and gentlemen to get down to.
Thinking back, I find I have set my characters down to eat breakfast in all three books. Annique has a bowl of milky coffee and a flaky pastry in The SPYMASTER'S LADY. Jessamyn is offered toast and tea in MY LORD AND SPYMASTER. And Maggie toys with surprisingly good coffee and a slice of bread at the café in THE FORBIDDEN ROSE.
What does a hero eat for breakfast? (Villains. Right. I set myself up for that.)
No, really. Roarke and Eve just finished French Toast for breakfast. When you picture a heroic character just rolling out of bed, what does he have for breakfast?