Gilbert White’s Kitchen Garden Series – An Introduction
Dr J. Grant Repshire takes us into Gilbert’s Garden in this series of blogs
Gilbert White not only recorded pioneering observations of the natural world, he also gave us a valuable insight into how nature was cultivated by humans in the mid-18th century with his ‘Garden Kalendar’, a record of his observations of the ornamental and edible plants that he grew from 1751-1767. The original manuscript now resides at the British Library, and facsimile editions have been published since the 1970s. Using the Garden Kalendar, Gilbert White’s Kitchen Garden is now reinterpreted by museum staff on an area of the museum grounds called Baker’s Hill, teaching us about the advances in diet that occurred in the 18th century that White himself was at the forefront of.
We might be tempted to think of 18th century meals as stodgy, bread-based affairs with the occasional supplement of questionable meat and dairy, but in fact the century saw something of a culinary revolution – at least in the countryside, and for city-dwellers who could afford it. As White wrote in a letter dated 1778 ‘As to the produce of a garden, every middle-aged person may perceive, within his own memory, how vastly the consumption of vegetables has increased. Green-stalls in cities now support multitudes in a comfortable state, while gardeners get fortunes. Every decent labourer also has his garden, which is half his support, as well as his delight; and common farmers provide plenty of beans, peas, and greens for their hinds [labourers] to eat with their bacon; and those few that do not are despised for their cursed parsimony, and looked up on as regardless of the welfare of their dependants’. (White, Natural History, pp. 185-186) White ensured that his Kitchen Garden kept his household provided with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. It may be fair to say that the garden tells us as much about the man as the exhibitions in his house do.
The increase in vegetable consumption during the 18th century was partly owed to Dutch immigrants in earlier centuries bringing their gardening knowledge to British shores, increasing the availability of crops in quantity, quality, and variety (it is possible that it was the Dutch, in a patriotic mood, who bred the ubiquitous orange carrot that we know today – older varieties were the white, yellow, red, and purple varieties that are now popular with chefs and home gardeners.) (Stocks, pp. 57-8) Lettuce varieties increased in the century, including more ‘cut-and-come-again’ types, and White himself noted that the eating of celery and endive raw in salads in England had become increasingly common since the English naturalist, John Ray, noted this practice while traveling in Italy in the 1660s. (Stocks p. 116; White, Natural History, p. 187). Cauliflower was still considered exotic, but was becoming steadily more common – though it tended to be purple rather than the white we are used to today. (Stocks, pp. 64-6) Cucumbers were the height of fashion, requiring expensive ‘hotbeds’ to grow them in British gardens. Hotbeds were another Dutch innovation, fuelled by cartloads of fresh manure that would give heat as it decayed. White himself employed this practice, and it is still employed in a historically accurate fashion by the museum’s garden team. Prior to the 18th century, cucumbers had been viewed sceptically, even Samuel Pepys believed them to be potentially deadly. (Stocks, p.88) Sour cherry varieties became more popular, due to cheaper sugar being available to sweeten them, while blackcurrants were grown for medicinal use (we now know they are high in vitamin C), and apple breeding ‘became something of a British mania’ in the century. (Stocks, p. 84; pp. 94-95, p. 3) White himself tells us that the potato had increased in popularity in Hampshire in the twenty years preceding 1778, having rarely been eaten by the working classes there before (White, Natural History, pp. 185-6).
The availability of a variety of vegetables is evident in British cookbooks of the period, though methods of serving them have changed. In ‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple’, (first published 1747) Hannah Glasse’s instructions ‘to dress carrots’ state that if the carrots are ‘young spring carrots, half an hour will boil them; if large, an hour; but old Sandwich carrots [a long variety first cultivated by Dutch gardeners in Sandwich, Kent] will take two hours’. (Glasse, p. 15) The 18th-century British palate certainly had little room for crispy carrots – though Glasse also advises not to over-boil all vegetables: ‘All things that are green should have a little crispness’. (Glasse, p. 18) Pickling was an important preservation method; Glasse’s recipes for pickling include mushrooms, walnuts, fennel, cucumbers, and even grapes (Glasse, pp. 260-70). The era saw an expansion in both brewers of vinegar and producers of the specialised stoneware jars needed for storing pickles. (Atkins, p. 1) This was no doubt an effect of the greater amount of vegetable produce now needing preserved.
Studying White’s Garden Kalander, we can get an idea of the foods that he grew and consumed, and can combine this with period cookery books to get can get an idea of how he prepared his produce, the meals he ate, and what he served to entertain guests. In discovering how Gilbert White’s diet was affected by his garden, we will look at each season in turn over a series of blog posts, beginning with the summer, when the garden is at its height, and ending with the rebirth of spring the following year. We will observe White’s life in the years 1763-1764, years which saw his Fruit Wall, constructed in 1761, start to come into its own, and in which he had many guests to entertain and feed. We will also look, where possible, at foods from outside the Kitchen Garden that White mentions, such as meats, breads, and drink – White brewed his own beer (his brewery is in the process of being restored now), and even produced raisin wine.
Atkins, Peter, ‘Vinegar and Sugar: The Early History of Factory-made Jams, Pickles and Sauces in Britain’ in The Food Industries of Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). Also available online at: https://www.academia.edu/3550965/Vinegar_and_sugar_the_early_history_of_factory-made_jams_pickles_and_sauces_in_Britain (and so used for citations above)
Stocks, Christopher, Forgotten Fruits – The Stories Behind Britain’s Traditional Fruits and Vegetables, (London: Windmill Books, 2008
White, Gilbert, The Journals of Gilbert White, Vol. 1, 1754-1773, ed. by Francesca Greenoak, gen. ed. Richard Mabey (London: Century Hutchinson Ltd., 1986)
White, Gilbert, The Natural History of Selborne, ed. By. Ronald Davidson-Houston, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993) [Originally published as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1789]
Glasse, Hannah, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, (London: Printed for A. Millar, R. Tonson, W. Strahan, T. Caslon, T. Durham, and W. Nicoll, 1767 [first published 1747]) Digitised version made available by the US National Library of Medicine, online at: https://archive.org/details/101264293.nlm.nih.gov