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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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Toasted Cheese--The Dish Purported to be a Jane Austen Favorite

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ January 31, 2022

On August 27, 1805, Jane Austen was staying at Goodnestone Park, the family home of her sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges. Elizabeth’s brother Edward dropped in unexpectedly for a late dinner. Jane reported the occasion in a letter to her sister Cassandra: “It is impossible to do justice to the hospitality of his attentions towards me; he made a point of ordering toasted cheese for supper entirely on my account.”

From that, the surmise that toasted cheese was one of Jane Austen’s favorite foods, seems to be a fair assumption. And the great thing is that we have the very recipe Jane would have enjoyed at home in Chawton, although, since there are as many ways of preparing toasted cheese as there are cooks, we don’t know how it was made that evening at Goodnestone Park.

Household Books

The recipe familiar to the Austens, however, is recorded by Jane’s dear friend Martha Lloyd who lived with the Austen ladies at Chawton and oversaw the running of the kitchen. Martha maintained a household book which has come down to us today. A facsimile edition, edited by Regency food scholar Julienne Gehrer, has been published by the Bodleian Library.

Gehrer described household books as “essentially the Google of the 18th-century household.” They were collections of recipes and medical remedies put together by women to help with managing their homes.

Recipe

Martha Lloyd’s directions are the essence of simplicity: “Grate the Cheese & add to it one egg, & a teaspoonful of Mustard, & a little Butter.” Then concludes, “Send it up on a toast or in paper Trays.”

The young Jane also referenced the dish in a “Collection of Curious Comments” (comic letters) which she wrote for the amusement of her cousin Jane Cooper. In “Letter the Third, From a YOUNG LADY in distressed Circumstances to her friend,” the distressed young lady Maria, being quizzed by her grand hostess, is asked about her mother before she left home:

“And what had she got for supper?”

“I did not observe.”

“Bread and Cheese I suppose.”

“I should never wish for a better supper.” said Ellen [the grand lady’s daughter.]

Ingredients

A glowing accolade for a dish of such simple ingredients, even if it can be difficult to be certain about the details of these ingredients:

First, what kind of cheese would likely have been on hand at Chawton Cottage? (Read my account of Julienne Geher's "Cheese Tour of Regency England" here.)  Jane refers to two varieties in her novels.

Stilton

In Emma the eponymous heroine is at first encouraged when she finds Mr. Elton engaged in conversation with her protégé Harriet Smith, but then disappointed when she finds that he is only giving his fair companion an account of the Stilton cheese and other items he had been served at a recent party.

During the Regency Stilton was especially popular among the fox-hunting set, to which Jane’s brothers James and Henry belonged, where it was savored at many a hunting breakfast. But since the rich, blue-veined cheese with its delectable salty flavor, was only made in a few counties, and they as much as 200 miles north of Chawton, the transportation costs alone would have made it an out-of-reach choice for the budget-restricted Austen ladies. On one occasion, however, Jane reported that they “received half an excellent Stilton Cheese—we presume from Henry.” It is doubtful, though that such a treat would have been used for cheese toast.

Cream Cheese

In Mansfield Park, upon the party’s visit to Sotherton, the ingratiating and inveigling Mrs. Norris is given “the receipt for a famous cream cheese” by the housekeeper. But that is only the beginning. When the party is about to depart after their day’s outing, “Mrs. Norris…fidgeted about, and obtained a few pheasants’ eggs and a cream cheese from the housekeeper.”

Arriving back at Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris explains and instructs: “There, Fanny, you shall carry that parcel for me; take great care of it: do not let it fall; it is a cream cheese, just like the excellent one we had at dinner. Nothing would satisfy that good old Mrs. Whitaker, but my taking one of the cheeses. I stood out as long as I could, till the tears almost came into her eyes, and I knew it was just the sort that my sister would be delighted with. …Take care of the cheese, Fanny.”

Delicious and easily melted as it would be slathered on toast, cream cheese, such as the one Mrs. Norris fenagled, was made from unskimmed milk with extra cream added. This was a luxury food, so not likely have been used for simple cheese toast in the economy-minded Austen household.

More to the point, again in Mansfield Park, when Fanny Price visits her ramshackle family at Portsmouth: “Fanny, fatigued and fatigued again, was thankful to accept the first invitation of going to bed; and was off, leaving all below in confusion and noise again; the boys begging for toasted cheese.”

But, alas, once more we don’t know what kind of cheese was available in the Price household—although one can be quite certain that slapdash household would not have provided Stilton or cream cheese.

It is likely that a firmer, lower fat cheese would have been used for Jane’s cheese toast. Perhaps more like that English staple cheddar, which has been popular since the 12th century. My guess is that the usual choice for this down-home comfort food would be a type of locally available farmhouse cheese, something simple to suit the spirit of the dish.

Mustard

And then, the mustard. What kind would likely have been used? Since my personal favorite, Coleman’s unique blend of brown and white mustard was developed in 1814, it is possible that Jane Austen would have known it during her lifetime. Although, again, since it was made in Norwich—some 170 miles from Chawton—it would certainly not have been readily available. But perhaps the more basic question is, did the Austen cook use dry or prepared mustard?

Since the recipe for prepared mustard given in Georgian Recipes and Remedies: A Country Lady's Household Handbook is considerably extensive and requires sitting for 4 or 5 days after mixing, using dry mustard would have been much easier—although that, too would require drying the seed in an oven, pounding it with a mortar, and sieving it.

As a final caution, the cook might be wise not to go overboard in the use of this condiment. In Jane’s only mention of mustard she tells Cassandra that on a visit to a neighbor they were served sandwiches “all over mustard.”  That does not sound like an accolade, so one might assume that Jane Austen did not approve of too much mustard.

Butter and eggs

The butter used would doubtlessly have been hand churned and from a local source. Apparently acquired from someone known to the family because Jane wrote to Cassandra that there would soon be butter from Mrs. Clement’s cow because she had sold her calf.

Hopefully it would have been fresh because Jane was apparently rather fussy about her butter. On two occasions she refers to having been served “bad butter”—at the Bull in Dartford and whilst staying in Queen Square in Bath.

The eggs also would have been fresh and almost certainly home-grown, since Mrs. Austen was famously proud of her poultry. But there still remains the question: What kind of egg? Mrs. Austen raised ducks, turkeys, chicken, and guinea fowl.

All this wondering and guessing would likely have surprised and amused anyone making toasted cheese in the Chawton kitchen, where they undoubtedly used whatever came to hand. And we have Jane to attest that it produced a deliciously satisfying dish.

My Process

 Like the Chawton cook, I, too, used what I had available. I grated perhaps half a cup of Manchego cheese into a small skillet, added a chicken egg, a teaspoon of dried mustard, and about a teaspoon of butter. I stirred it vigorously over low heat until the cheese was melted and the mixture smooth.

I toasted one side of a slice of sourdough bread—in my toaster oven, rather than over an open fire as it would have been done in Jane’s day—then spread the untoasted side with half my cheese mixture and broiled it until brown. 

                                                                                             (Photo credit)

Delicious!

I used the remaining half over steamed cauliflower.

 It was good, but the toast was better. As usual, Jane knew best.

I would love to hear from readers who have tried similar recipes. What was your experience?

 

 

 

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

Read More: Regency World

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Reader Comments:

What a lovely bit of history. Thank you,Donna.
-Susan Sundwall, January 31, 2022

Thank you so much, Susan! It never ceases to amaze me how much there is "Jane Austen" on almost any topic--and how much seems to apply to so many lives today.
-Donna, February 2, 2022

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