Wednesday, 29 May 2013

If Walls Could Talk

Last week I talked about Amanda Vickery's book, The Gentleman's Daughter.  Today I want to share a few of the fun bits from Lucy Worsley's book, If Walls Could Talk - An Intimate History of the Home

I just wanted to share some things I learned about words, because you know how much I love words. For example, the origin of the term 'upper crust', from medieval days:

"At the bottom end of the hall an elaborately carved screen was constructed to hide the entrance to the kitchens.  It disguised the doors to the buttery (for storing drinks) and the pantry (where bread was kept).  The pantry was the workplace of the pantler, who handed out bread to the household. ... 'Trenchers' were slices of old bread which acted as throwaway plates.  They were formed from the burned and blackened bottoms of loaves. The more desireable top crust was eaten at once by the master and guests, hence the enduring term 'upper crust' for something posh." 

Ever wonder why desert and dessert were so similar in sound and appearance but nothing to do with one another?  Turns out they are in fact related terms:

"The separating out of sweet from savoury was an important development of the sixteenth century.  One step towards the breakdown of the communal household meal was the new Elizabethan practice of serving the sweets that now followed the main meat course in a different room.
Often a concert or play followed dinner in the great hall, so it was necessary to clear the tables away.  The action of removing the dirty plates from the tables was in French called the desert, the creation of an absence (the same word used for the Sahara).  This act of 'deserting' the table gave its name to the dessert or sweet course served elsewhere while the entertainers were setting up."

I always wondered about sculleries, given that this house and those of our neighbours all had one.  Most of us have modernised and joined the two kitchen-y rooms together, but I always wondered about the term 'scullery' since I associate sculling with some kind of boat.  Turns out sculleries were where the dishes were washed (also cleaning food, plucking birds, etc - the dirty stuff).  Escuelerie is the French word for 'dish room'.  

I've always wondered why Brits call 'cookies' biscuits (or why American's call them cookies). Lucy doesn't explain fully, but she does tell you about the term 'biscuit':

"Early ovens work quite differently from modern ones, where heat is provided continuously throughout the cooking process.  A stone- or brick-lined oven is heated before the food goes in, by the burning inside it of bundles of twigs called faggots.  Then the ashes are raked out, loaves are shovelled in, the door is closed and the bread is left to bake in the slowly cooling oven. 
When I used the bread oven at the Weald and Downland Museum, we stopped the oven's opening with a wooden door previously soaked in water to prevent it from catching fire. We sealed the gaps around the door with a strip of uncooked dough.  When this dough was baked, we knew that the bread inside must be finished too.  After the baking of the bread, the oven still contained just enough heat to bake a second round of cakes or biscuits.  The very word bis-cuit means 'second cooked'.

Cookie, was recognised in American English from 1703.  It comes from the Dutch word koekje,  for 'little cake', a diminutive of koek, for 'cake'.  I can only guess that Brits are more likely to take words from the French language, given the Norman invasion and all, in spite of the fact that their sovreign from 1689, was Dutch.  We could go on to talk about why the colour orange links Ireland, Holland and France, but that would be another post.

Getting back to If Walls Could Talk, it really is a good read, not least because she talks about what people actually did in bed.  You'll have to read her book to find out, but it's probably not what you're thinking.


Carolyn said...

I don't understand why Americans call them cookies either. It can be quite offensive when they refuse to recognise that other countries have their own word. For example, we have a biscuit here called Anzac biscuits, which are historically and culturally very significant to Australians and New Zealanders and is a legally protected term. Once I did a post on them even explaining the significance of the name, and lots of comments went "Oh, cookies!'
Um, NO.

I'm glad you are enjoying your travels. You are really covering lots of ground!

Anonymous said...

I have baked in a wood-fed oven before and always found gauging the cooking time a bit tricky. Love the notion of the bread dough around the door.

Of course, Americans have their own variation of biscuit. I wonder what the Brits might call that concoction?

Shelley said...

Carolyn - Your Anzac (now I know what that term means) biscuits are similar to American oatmeal cookies, though in the US there is a product called Karo syrup; I've no idea how similar it is to golden syrup. I have a tin of the latter in my cupboard; I should go try this out.... I can appreciate why they have cultural significance and are treasured as a way of commemorating your history. Poppies are still sold here every November to remember veterans. Before actually moving to Britain I'd not realised that there were so many words used in different ways.

Shelley said...

Terry - The product closest to a biscuit here in Britain that I am aware of would probably be a scone, and they usually have dried fruit in them (or cheese, but I don't care for those much). Scones are lumpy in appearance and generally quite heavy. Delicious with strawberry jam and cream, but nothing like an American biscuit. There are no tinned biscuits here, something I miss a lot. I have actually transported a few tins in my suitcase (in plastic ziplock bags), but of course the burst on the trip and so have to be cooked right away. My few experiments with cookbooks don't come close, mainly being heavier and not rising as I'd like. Maybe just as well...don't need the calories anyhow.