The jobs of baking and churning for a family really were the very bread and butter of country life at the turn of the century. Whatever the time of year or the weather, there was always the bread to be baked once, twice or more a week, and the butter and cheese to be made in the dairy, often with a surplus to sell at the market.This week's food topics are about bread,and butter, how families provided the basics for themselves that we now buy. We shouldn't forget that in a brief seventy years or so, most of us have lost the basic skills and knowledge with which to grow and provide ourselves with a just a plain diet for survival.
Baking day started by firing the brick oven with wood:
"It got hot, and then you raked it out, and if there was a bit of ash left, it didn't matter, it didn't hurt anything. You put your bread in and it baked it beautifully. And then you could put your loaves in, it retained the heat so well, you see. We baked fruit loaves, we didn't call them fruit cakes. They were baked at a lower temperature. You could cook a stone and a half of bread at a time."
Some old brick ovens were built in a shed outside the farmhouse:
"The farmer's wife and the girl did all the baking, in a brick oven, forty loaves going in at a time. The oven was in a shed outside, a stone building outside. I used to fire it, I used to put lumps of wood in, very long, get it going and it used to be absolutely red hot, then in went all the bread after the ashes were scraped out. They were beautiful loaves."
Although bread wasn't rationed during the last War, the Min of Food and Ag, as it was known, controlled with some cunning the public's appetite for hot, fresh, crusty bread:
"We used to have to sell the bread 24 hours old; we made bread on Saturday afternoon which had to be sold on Monday. You couldn't sell it as fresh bread because it wouldn't go as far, people would eat more when it was fresh, and apart from that flour was rationed."
Groceries for a big family or a guest house in the early 1900s were often delivered only once a month, and bought wholesale from a supplier, then stored in a large larder, north-facing and stone-flagged. Butter was also kept in there:
"Sometimes the butter wouldn't churn. You've got to have the right temperature, and I didn't take any temperatures, I had to guess it and sometimes it was stupid. It wouldn't turn."
This particular family kept their own Shorthorn cattle, milked them, churned butter for market and fed the buttermilk to the pigs, which supplied ham, bacon, sausages and black puddings. Nothing was wasted. Another lady, a dairy maid, recalled churning 90lbs of butter a week for the big hotels in Keswick, a job which had to be done in summer at night and early in the morning to avoid the heat. Churning butter couldn't be hurried - more haste, less speed, as one old farmhand remembered:
"We had shorthorns, and made the milk into butter, which the farmer's wife took to market at Whitehaven in the horse and trap every Thursday, and she'd bring back all the meat and everything...but we used to churn, me and the lass, and it was a round churn, it wasn't one of those over-end; and once ower we'd to churn for four hours because we'd gone ower-fast. It still was milk, we couldn't get it set. We'd forty pound of butter come out, mebbe fifty."
It was unusual for a man to help in the dairy; the women nearly always got landed with the job:
"We made butter, 6d a pound in those days. One of the girls churned, the boys always used to get out of the way of churning, they didn't like it. It was a long slow job, really. It was nice when it was done, the butter."
In the days of Moonshine, when folk tales of the legendary Lanty Slee abounded,there was much talk a century ago of illegal stills on the fells, and of poteen hidden away in caves and cellars. But most farming families took delivery of whisky in a big brown jar, distilled by Jefferson's of Whitehaven, or beer from John Smith's of Tadcaster, brewed in 18-gallon wooden tubs and fetched from the nearest station by farm cart. Home-made wine was not as commonly made as it is today, though a keen wine-maker could make use of all sorts of fruits:
"After I left school I started making wine and I made various sorts, out of the burnets, sloe, damsons, all sorts of those things, and elderflower, elderberry,vine leaf...I made a lot of wines, really - apple wine, too, but people in those days didn't seem to make much wine. But now it seems to have come back again, doesn't it?"