Lard and laudanum – a taste of the past from old family recipes

Two family recipe books

Cooking makes me anxious. All that time and effort poured into something that could so easily go wrong. Mistake salt for sugar, use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon and not only is your afternoon wasted but everyone goes hungry.

And you serve up your very soul when you dish up a carefully crafted feast only for everyone to say ‘it’s nice, I’m just not very hungry for it’ or ‘actually I don’t like curry/baked pasta/anything that isn’t cured ham’. Brrrrr.

Apart from the great goddess Nigella, whose recipes I treat like commandments (at least they always work. And she has such good hair) I would never pick up a cookbook out of pleasure.
Apart from scrappy handwritten ones belonging to long-dead relatives.

Two red family recipe books

Dunno why they are red. Was it a regulation?

My Grandmother was born in 1913 and died 20 years ago. My Great-Grandmother was born in 1883 and died in 40 years ago. Both kept handwritten recipe books, recently uncovered during a house clearance (don’t get me started on the house clearance).

Grandma was a fantastic cook. She had the arms for baking, the cool hands for pastry, her roast beef is one of my best childhood memory-smells.

I never tasted any of Great-Gran’s cooking; she was, my mother said, a woman who pleased herself. Her idea of a quick supper was to buy a tin of salmon and make fish cakes with it DURING THE WAR.

Cough tincture recipe

Take opium; add some opium. Flavour with peppermint

But she came from an era when printed cookbooks, espcially ones with tried and tested recipes, were a rarity. She also spent two-thirds of her life without an NHS, hence this gem from the back page of her book:

Cough Mixture
1d Laudanum
1d Paregoric
1d Diluted Acepic Acid
1d Aniseed
1d Peppermint
1lb Black Treacle
Pour 1 pint boiling water over the treacle and when nearly cold add the ingredients. Bottle and take in spoonsful.

I don’t know what acepic acid is – I think she must have meant citric acid, not acetic acid, or she’d have just put vinegar. Not that you’d care what it was after necking a couple of spoons of this – both Laudanum and Paregoric are tinctures of opium. Not just one dose of a grade one narcotic, but two!

Here’s another, for a bad chest:

Half a pint turpentine
1 oz Rock camphor
Quarter a pint of vinegar
1 egg well beaten
Add the camphor to the turps and shake until dissolved then add the beaten egg, lastly the vinegar. Keep the bottle well corked and label it Poison.

Why bother? It would smell so much no-one would go near it, let alone try to drink it. And don’t, whaever you do, light up a fag to clear your airways after rubbing this on, you’d go up like a Roman candle.

Anyone for a pint of nettle beer and a gherkin?

The rest of the recipes are less jaw-dropping, but still fascinating.

There is a plethora of Christmas cake and pudding recipes – everyone must have had their own variation. And so many have an attributions: Parkin (Mrs Hudson’s); Plum Cake (Mrs Arthur’s); Date and Walnut Cake (Mrs Bright); Cocoanut Slices (Grace’s); Crunch (Mrs Bill Wood).

It is a salute to these long-dead women, measuring out flour in teacups and slicing up marg (rarely butter), passing the recipes on on the back of postcards and exercise paper after Grandma admired their bakes at a church fete or a wake.

Instructions can be sort of fluid – ‘Bake in a slow oven’ – no gas marks for the days when Agas and Rayburns were standard and no timings either. Or a recipe for nettle beer stipulates ‘One basket of nettles’. How big a basket? A fancy Little Red Riding Hood type of basket, lined with a spotted handkerchief? Or a massive log basket, hauled over the side of a donkey? How can you know?

Fanny Cradock in the Radio Times

The Nigella of her day, Fanny Cradock tells Radio Times readers how to prepare for Christmas 1966

The oldest recipe I can find is one for Plum Cake, made with lard, that is attributed to ‘Rothwell’s Mother’. This was Great Gran’s mother-in-law, my Great-Great-Grandmother, who was born in 1856. EIGHTEEN FIFTY-SIX.

Meaning she was probably baking this plum cake at the height of the Victorian era. It must have been be massive – it uses 1lb of lard, 2lb of flour, 1lb of sugar, 1lb of currants, 1lb of sultanas, four eggs, six teaspoons of baking powder and a teaspoon of allspice. Where would you get a bowl, a tin and an oven big enough?

The logistics are incredible – to say nothing of your biceps, after stirring it – but much as I dislike baking, I am tempted to try it. I can’t resist the idea of making – and tasting – something my Great-Great-Grandma made.

And, seeing as Boots doesn’t sell opium anymore, I think I’d better stick to lard.

Handwritten recipes

Typed onto the backs of Christmas cards, written onto scrap paper, building up a volume that lasted decades

Torn cuticles and Tipp-Ex – A return to old-school typing

A return to old-school typing

Been clearing out my aunt’s house as she has moved to sheltered housing. That’s a whole other post or ten, but we have come across some stuff that belonged to my late Grandma, who lived in the house all her life.

One of them is her typewriter.

Oh wow, a typewriter. Who can’t, upon seeing a typewriter, have a little play on the keys?

I set it up in the kitchen to see if the ribbon was dry and by the end of the day the paper was full of random sentences. No-one who came in the house could resist it.

Imperial 200

Look! Aren’t the keys BRILLIANT!?

My children love it. When asked why, my daughter replied “it’s such fun!”

“Hmmm,” said my son. “There’s no delete key is there? Don’t you need Tipp-Ex or something?” as if he was talking about needing a button hook to do up his boots before going out to the pump for water.

It also came with two sheets of exciting carbon paper, which I had forgotten existed (originator of the cc – carbon copy – command in emails for you millennial kids out there).

Grandma was a shorthand typist, and once retired she was secretary for various groups, taking minutes and typing them up, sending off letters booking tearooms for forty loud Yorkshire women in flowery dresses on day trips to Chesterfield cathedral and Little John’s grave.

So the typewriter is a good one, an Imperial 200, and has been looked after and well-maintained (there would have been a typewriter service shop somewhere nearby, probably Barnsley, where she would have had it looked at regularly by some ink-stained little man called ‘Mr Spickley’ or something).

Imperial 200 typewriter

You want to start clacking away on it, you know you do

And little did I know, but typewriters go for about twenty or thirty quid on eBay, plus postage.

You can still buy ribbons for this model, including those half black, half red ones, for writing final demands, and even a ribbon of groovy purple ink.

My first newsroom had typewriters the size of mini-diggers, and it was so noisy on deadline day you could hear it on the street. When we finally upgraded to computers (lovely Apple Macs) it was better in every way.


It is such fun, clattering away on the keys, jamming your fingers down and ripping your cuticles, waiting for that lovely little ‘ding’ to say you only have five characters left, getting ink all over your hands when you have to change the ribbon, pissing around with Tipp-Ex whenever you made a mistake, typing over it too soon and getting white stuff all over your keys, having a couple of keys (usually ‘e’ and ‘t) that are so worn down you had to hit them with a hammer to get them to register on the page…

My daughter was thrilled to discover how it works. You press a lever, it hits a thin ribbon of ink, and a letter appears. Easy to see, to comprehend.

Unlike a computer, where the keys have had special springs put in so you feel as if you are doing something but it has nothing to do with levers and ink. No matter how hard you bash the keys, the letters look the same. Nothing gets stuck and you don’t break any nails. There is no ding.

And typewriters aren’t connected to anything. So what you write can’t be traced, as long as you wipe the fingerprints off.

Back in the day, Scotland Yard had typewriter experts (I may just be making this up) who could look at ransom demands and anonymous letters and say ‘the fading on the letter s and the fact the letter p falls below the line indicate this typewriter was bought in a second store in Brighton and is used by a woman with an arthritic hip’.

What can they say now about anonymous Hotmail emails and Twitter trolls? That the writer’s use of Comic Sans indicates they have only a basic version of Windows 98 installed?

Imperial 200

These things make the letters on the paper. It’s so steampunk

You had to think what you were writing with a typewriter. With news stories, you wrote it in your head first, then bashed it out on paper. It was a bloody pain, but it was brilliant training. And you couldn’t write too fast, you had to think about every letter, or your keys got jammed.

When something has been written by a typewriter, it doesn’t have the transient quality a screen, or a sheaf of laser-printed graphics and fancy fonts. Typewritten papers are really written; they stay written.

So what am I doing? Am I looking up Imperial 200 Typewriter 1970s Original With Case on eBay? Yes, of course – in order to buy a replacement purple ribbon and some Tipp-Ex.