It’s my absolute pleasure to bring She Noted’s Little Things Living project to life with our first fully-fledged feature for the year. This week, we’ll wax lyrical with Paul Couchman – the gentlemen behind the pop-up supper club called ‘Dine Like a Servant’ at The Regency Town House, a grade I listed historic townhouse, museum and heritage center in Hove where the past is very much living and breathing still today. What started as volunteering to restore a Regency kitchen back to its former glory developed into a story that’s truly worth telling for any of us who have ever dreamt of bringing our passion to life. For Paul, that’s historical cooking; a tantalising realm of hastily written notations, curious recipes and culinary detective work. From plastering the kitchen, Paul embarked on his own adventure, with a handful of old cookery books, a few utensils and an irrevocable spirit. Tenacity and a labour of love met to create Paul’s work today, cooking, talking and demonstrating in his natural habitat – an 18th century kitchen. Without further ado, allow me to introduce The Regency Cook and the whimsical work that makes it all worthwhile…
- When did you first encounter Regency cooking? Why the Regency?
My first encounter was visiting Brighton’s Pavilion and seeing the table set out with beautiful fake food. There’s also a menu there which lists the food cooked for one particularly grand meal. The scale of the menu impressed me. But I remember thinking I don’t just want to see fake food and see the menu of what was cooked. I want to smell the food being cooked in that kitchen and I want to taste what was listed on that menu. I needed to experience it. When I found myself in a Regency kitchen I got the chance. I’d cook Regency food in a Regency kitchen inside a Regency house. That’s when Dine Like a Servant was born.
- What are people’s reactions to Dine Like a Servant and what is it like hosting this event? Could you describe the atmosphere?
The guests are greeted by Mrs Ainsley the housekeeper, who is wonderfully severe, and all the other volunteers are dressed as servants. The guests are served their welcome drink from an old mixing bowl donated by a cook from Tunbridge Wells. They mingle in the old dining room and eat upstairs in the drawing room. We even pretend that the guests are servants too, visiting from other houses in the Square.
In between food we read stories, often writings from old servants themselves describing their duties or how they used to make the food. The guests who come to Dine Like a Servant are all ardent history lover and come to be a part of something different.
The event has been described as part immersion, part education, part entertainment and if the applause at the end is anything to go by, we know that the guests have fully enjoy being servants for the night.
- What was the first regency recipe you trialled and how did you feel once you’d accomplished this culinary feat?
Beetroot pancakes. Small round discs of perfect purple deliciousness. I made them in the kitchen and took them upstairs to the old dining room and ate them by myself in that appropriately rose blossom painted room. It must have been the first time for more than 100 years that food cooked in the kitchen had been eaten in that room. It felt very special.
- How did you get involved at The Regency Town House?
An exhibition brought me to the Town House. I instantly fell in love with the dishevelled house that it is, former glory, those vast, high empty rooms. And so I joined thinking I could make a difference and I spent 3 years helping to restore the kitchen. I did everything from plastering, to carpentry, to painting. I was obsessed. When the kitchen was finished nobody knew what to do with the space but I’d had a plan in my head to use it for cooking right from the moment I had entered the room.
- Would you say that cooking is its own form of escapism; what adds to the immersion?
When you cook in an old kitchen, it is as if those generations of servants who have worked before you, in that same space, are with you. Kitchens were created to be cooked in and it’s an honour, on a daily basis, to be able to do so. Just to make marmalade in January, create summer fools in July or to pickle peaches in September gives so much pleasure. You know that people before you have made these recipes and you hope that people after you will continue the tradition.
- Tell us about your involvement with kitchen restoration, how fulfilling is this as a project?
I’ve been lucky enough to see the kitchen completely transformed from a dark, wet, smelly work site to the fabulous light working space it is today.
I had to learn skills such as lime plastering and carpentry to help restore the kitchen. Small wonders like finding the original dresser, although in pieces, still in the house and seeing it finally put back together again and returned to where it used to be, was so rewarding & even a little bit moving.
- With historical cooking, what sort of research is involved and how do you go about finding sources? What are the most useful books/titles on your shelf?
There’s been a complete resurgence in interest in cooking from historical recipes in the last 20 years. Many books which give updated versions of old recipes but also many cookery book writers have been republished for example Eliza Acton and Hannah Glasse. Their recipes are relatively easy to follow and the food I’ve cooked has all been incredible tasty.
- As a collector of old cookbooks, where did you start and have you a favourite in your collection – what makes it special to you?
My favourite will always be the cookbook that was fished out of the bottom of her shopping trolley by a lady who discovered it in a charity shop. It’s from the 1820s/1830s and so could have been here in the Town House, it’s the right age. Books like these are called manuscript cookbooks and this one is a handwritten collection of recipes. We have cooked many recipes from it and I’m currently using this book to write my own cookery book.
- I can imagine that a lot of detective work is involved – have you ever come across any tantalising or obscure ingredients? How do you go about “translating” recipes from the past?
I’ve started to develop a list of unusual ingredients and what their modern replacements are. Somethings we wouldn’t want in our cookery today, endangered birds like snipes, finches or sparrows but also musk was used in food. Something we now only use in perfumes. When we want to make jellies today we no longer have to boil up calf’s feet, use fish bladders or shave a hart’s antlers.
- What would you say has been your greatest kitchen/culinary accomplishment to date?
Producing a spectacular menu for Christmas with roast guinea fowl, parsnips, roast potatoes, clementine sauce, white sauce and Eliza Acton’s Superlative Christmas pudding for desert. We have limited facilities in our kitchen and it was a struggle to do but to see the happy faces of our guests that evening made all the hardship worthwhile.
- Have you come across any favourite ‘kitchen wisdom’ on your journey?
The books are full of advice for looking after servants, especially for when they get pregnant or steal. But on a more practical note a Hannah Glasse book from the 1740s has taught me that it is best to blanch your quinces in boiling water before peeling as the skin comes away much easier. A good tip and it works. Thank you Hannah for your 260 year old advice!
- Do you have any words of advice for those looking to dip their toe into the world of historical food?
If you want to start cooking historically buy yourself a copy of Pride of Puddings by Regula Ysewijn. It’s a book all about historical puddings, many of which we recognise today, with all the history and beautiful illustrations. Do visit Hampton Court where do cook historic food in their old kitchen. Highly recommended are the You Tube videos from Audley End House with the Victorian Cook and also the American Townsends on You Tube. A recommended event would have to be our own Dine Like A Servant where you can come to the Town House, visit a Regency house and eat food based on historic recipes in Brighton.
With all my thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer these questions with such care and attention. I hope that article inspires any amateurs or enthusiasts to indulge their interests further. Paul’s personal blog, The Regency Cook is a fount of all sorts of kitchen wizardry, with recipes that are easy to follow for getting stuck in with historical cooking at home. You may also wish to follow his adventures on Twitter, or take a peek at the Regency Town House’s very informative Facebook page.
How to get involved?
I propose using #LittleThingsLiving to mark your moments, your highlights; those that add to the concept I’ve outlined above. Equally, you may have a story that you’d like to have told, to add to the movement. Within She Noted I shall be including posts for Little Things Living, reflective of personal journeys, interests and hobbies – however big or however small.
If you have a story that you’d like to be told, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, using ‘Little Things Living’ as a part of your subject line.