Mrs. Jocelyn shovelled the white hot ashes off the top of the cast iron dutch oven and lifted the lid with a hook. Inside were perfectly brown biscuits and our group gave a proud gasp.
We were participating in an EdVenture, an afternoon of learning to cook as our ancestors had, in the open hearth fireplace, before the invention of the stove. A hot fire flamed in the hearth and in spite of summer heat, meals had to be made each day. And this was our day to find out how it was done.
King’s Landing is a historic village that recreates life in New Brunswick in the 1800’s. The village consists of a collection of homes that were moved to save them from planned flooding on the St. John River to build a hydro electric dam in the late 1960’s.
Each King’s Landing family cooks in the way they would have in the year represented by their home. Cooking methods vary as families progress from using the open hearth fireplace to cast iron wood stoves.
Styles and food changed with time but many traditions live on in the recipes we still use today.
Our Afternoon of Open Hearth Baking
Mrs. Jocelyn was our teacher for the afternoon and she promised some surprises. She tied on her long wool apron. It was summer and we wondered why she had chosen such a heavy apron.
Evelyn Rossiter as Mrs. Jocelyn has worked at King’s Landing for sixteen years. She answered our questions and patiently taught us how to bake without a stove or oven.
She explained that wool protected against the heat and that you can smell sparks if they fly into a wool apron. Many women died from fire related injuries cooking in an open hearth fireplace she cautioned us.
We gathered around the long wooden table in the summer kitchen of the 1820’s Moorefield House. Having a summer kitchen at the back of the home was a sign of affluence. The plan for our afternoon was to make a gingerbread cake and biscuits and enjoy the results with our tea later in the afternoon.
Cooking started early in the day, to make the food necessary to feed the family the main meal at noon. We cooked using only what was available in 1820 and learned how to “make do.”
As the clock ticked in the background, time slowed down and we could understand how much of the day was occupied cooking meals for the family. We learned that soda was first made with from seaweed and our whole wheat flour was ground from locally grown grains at the nearby grist mill. White sugar was not yet available and they used only brown sugar. Spices were precious and were stored in cloth bags in a wooden spice box. Money was in short supply so families bartered at the general store with extra farm produce. The origins of these ingredients give depth and a new appreciation to the cooking process.
We all helped put the ingredients in the bowl for the gingerbread, and the final secret was to mix the baking soda with warm water and add it to the batter last. A fluffier cake would result.
We put the cake pan in a metal box (oven) that was built into the side of the stone fireplace. A fire had been set in the oven earlier and was allowed to burn down. The coals were removed before we slid our cake into the hot oven with no knowledge of temperature. We would leave results up to fate and hope for the best.
While we sipped on tea we discussed how little we missed the mod cons that didn’t exist in 1820.
Next we started our biscuits. To make our biscuits rise we added cream of tartar and back then we would have used lard that was boiled from pig’s fat. Mrs. Jocelyn told us the less we handled the dough the lighter our results would be. We patted out the dough to about ¾ of an inch and cut the biscuits with the open end of a glass and placed them tightly together in a pan.
With a fireplace shovel we pulled red embers out of the main fire placing them on the brick hearth. The biscuits were placed in a covered cast iron Dutch oven on a trivet (small metal circle) to keep them from touching the heat directly. We put the heavy metal lid on top, covered the lid with red coals…and waited with anticipation. No timing, just the odd poke at the biscuits would help us to know if they were done.
“Let’s go calling on the neighbours while the biscuits cook” suggested Mrs. Jocelyn. We had a chance to peek into the future of cooking on cast iron stoves. But who could make the best biscuits? That was the question, and we were sure that our open hearth biscuits would be the best in the village.
We lifted the lid, broke open the soft fluffy biscuits, spread the handmade butter and took our first bite.
Success, we agreed. I have never been so proud of a cooking result.
Biscuits baked with the heat of an open fire. Now that’s progress. Dining Out with History at the King’s Head Inn, in King’s Landing
The stone inn sits at a turn in the old dirt road and was a stop for travellers on their way.
The King’s Head Inn is now a place for visitors to King’s Landing to sample dishes from New Brunswick’s past. I had corn soup with hot biscuits and homemade bread. My husband went right for dessert and tried a sampler plate including sugar pie, squash pie, maple cream pie, and gingerbread with whipped cream…
Other menu items included New Brunswick Salmon Chowder, homemade brown bread, a ploughman’s lunch and other specialties of the day.
The inn was lit with candles even during the day, as no hydro was used. We were served by wait staff in period dress. While we waited for our meal, the clock ticked slowly and we looked through the eight paned windows to see the wagons go by on the dirt road below the inn. It felt as though we had all the time in the world to catch up to the twenty first century.
We enjoyed every bite of the food from the past cooked the slow way.
Visiting King’s Landing
Location: King’s Landing is located in Prince William, New Brunswick, 20 minutes west of Fredericton. It can be accessed from Route 102 or the Trans Canada Highway, exit 253.
For further information: http://www.kingslanding.nb.ca
EdVentures at King’s Landing
Half day workshops are offered by Fredericton Tourism as part of their EdVenture program from July 8 – August 9, 2013. Workshops at King’s Landing include: Open hearth baking, wool processing, quilting, rug hooking and medicinal plants and herbs. http://www.kingslanding.nb.ca/edventures/
Dining at King’s Landing
King’s Head Inn is opened during the summer daily from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. The pub is open until 5 pm. http://www.kingslanding.nb.ca/the-kings-head-inn/
The popular Visiting Cousins program is offered in the summer to children between the ages of 9 and 15. For four days the children are dressed in period costume and participate in all of the village activities as they would have in the past. They help families with cooking, tend gardens on the farms and attend a one room school house, amongst many other experiences. It is a living history lesson. For more information: http://www.kingslanding.nb.ca