Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Spit and Grease - Food and the Hearth

by Deborah Swift

When we lived outdoors, the fire was essential for warmth and for cooking, and the earliest 'oven' was in fact a cauldron, covered in a lid, which itself was covered in burning embers, and then was suspended above the fire.

Norwegian early cauldron

Once we built houses and moved indoors, the focal point of any room, up until the invention of electricity, remained the hearth. This was the natural gathering place and should be in any historical novel. Because of this, I pay close attention to the correct type of hearth, mantelpiece, and fire tools when I'm planning my novels. For example, poorer houses might not light a fire every day but would send food out to the baker to be cooked in his big ovens for a fee. These characters would be colder and probably a lot less cheerful than their wealthier counterparts who would have many servants managing the whole paraphernalia of fire and cookery!

Up until the invention of matches, keeping the fire going was a priority because striking a light with a tinder and flint was very much a hit and miss affair. (For more information on Tinderboxes check Wikipedia ) Nobody wanted to wake to the chore of lighting a fire, so in the evenings the fire was banked up to keep it in, and smothered by a couvrefeu (fire cover) to stop it burning too hot. (I discuss these more in this article) So characters before they retire for bed, would ensure this task was done.

Tudor fireplace with firebasket and bread oven

Here is a Tudor fireplace where you can see wooden pegs on the mantel for hanging an upright spit, or for drying cloth or herbs, and also the essential  bread oven next to the main fire. Bread was a staple food, so most houses had a bread oven if they could afford it. Fireplaces were built to be wide and deep to enable cooking to take place there. When the fireplace moved to the wall of the room in medieval times, the back of the fire was lined with a metal fire-back. The fire was raised on bricks or sometimes on a fire-basket or brazier to provide for an up-draught under the fire.

18th/19thC firebasket with 17thC back plate

Bread and Meat

Bread ovens were built into the walls next to the fire to take advantage of the heat. In addition brushwood which burns fast and hot would be burnt inside with the door closed. The ashes would be raked out and then the bread put into the still hot oven to cook. Bread was inserted and removed on a peel - a long paddle. It had to be carefully watched in case it burned. No shoving it in and then coming back a few hours later!

Woman using a peel from a painting by Millet

This method was used right up until the 20th century in the countryside in England. (see this BBC link) Meat was cooked by rotating the joint on a spit before the fire, which had to be burning bright. Until the 18th century, a horizontal spit rested on hooks or notches in front of the blaze. For smaller joints, such as fowl, fish or rabbit, a cradle spit or basket spit, in which the joint was enclosed in a cage, were used. Fenders were devised in the 17th century to stop stray embers rolling out into the room. In books set before that, your characters would be likely to have to kick the embers back in using their boot.

The spit was turned by hand, using a cog and pulley system, or by dog power. (See the 17th century engraving below!) But by the 18th century an ingenious mechanical jack that ran by clockwork had been invented. At this time too, burnished metal hasteners (mirrors to reflect the heat) were clipped to the mantelpiece.

Medical use of Fat

Fat was collected in a 'dripping tray' and the dripping served many uses - in the 17th century it was used for candles, soap, and to waterproof shoes, as well as to grease cart axles and mill gears. Fat was also used in medicine mixed with herbs to make salves, but the type of fat was important, because the fat conveyed the quality of the animal to the person. For example the fat from a lively and lithe hare was used as an ointment for rheumatism.

Obviously in smaller households, the cooking would be done over the same fire that was used to heat the living space, whereas in wealthier households the cooking would be kept away from the owners of the house in a specially designated kitchen.

When I am researching my books I always investigate how the characters were fed - who did the preparing and cooking, and where it happened in the house. Each particular period has its new invention for the preparation of food, particularly the cooking of meat on the fire. By paying attention to these I can get to know intimate details of my characters' lives.

I  recommend 'Food in England - Dorothy Hartley'
Cooking with Fire
Roasting Christmas Beef
Tudor fireplace


Deborah Swift ~ Word addict, book addict. Nature, art and poetry fan, and writer of thought-provoking historical fiction, published by Macmillan/St Martin's Press/Endeavour Press. Creative writing tutor and writing mentor.



  1. Lovely post. I love Dorothy Hartley by the way. A treasure.

    1. Her book is a fascinating peek into the past,and supplies me with all the odd food I didn't know existed like boiled beet and stargazy pie full of fish heads (sounds horrible!)

  2. Fascinating. It's by such research one can flesh out character's daily lives . Thanks for posting!

  3. Great post, Deborah. I recall a Yorkist Range in my granny's house, complete with swing-arm to hang the kettle, oven at one side and tank for heating water at the other. Only ten or so years ago did I step into the house of an old lady who refused to have hers taken out on the offer of central heating.

    1. i love those old ranges. My granny got rid of hers, such a shame.

  4. Dorothy Hartley is a must for any historical writer. I learned how to cook in a cauldron thanks to her excellent directions and still chuckle over people who think it's just a very large pot of boiling water.

    1. And its full of other weird information like the bone structure of a pig, and how sphagnum moss grows underwater. I don't think there's another book anything like it.

  5. What an entertaining and enlightening post - many thanks - will repost on FB

  6. Entertaining post, Deborah. I especially like the 'dog power' pic. I wonder how they got Rover to keep on keeping on? Tidbits, or a switch? (I hope it was the reward system!)

  7. Fascinating post! My elderly mother recalls her childhood in Poland, when she had to take the Sabbath bread to the bakery and stand in line, then be issued with a tag and use that to collect it. (And she advised me, when I tried my hand at breadmaking, to cover the basin with a teatowel and put a cushion on that and leave it out in the sun for a while to speed up the rising.)

    1. Hi Sue, Cryssa, and Cynthia, thanks for commenting. Hope your bread is tasty Sue! I think bread is still cooked the same way in many rural European areas - much nicer than supermarket bread.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.