The Darwins’ Christmas Fayre


Emma Darwin's Recipe BookThose of us who are planning a ‘double dip recession Christmas’ might find frugal inspiration in Emma Darwin’s traditional Victorian fayre. Over the course of her family life Emma Darwin noted down around forty recipes in her personal cookery notebook which she proudly entitled “Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book”.[1]


When it came to the Darwins’ family cookbook, the women were very clearly in charge; it was Emma, Henrietta and other female family members who took charge of selecting and noting down a range of recipes, from delicious sounding delights like gingerbread and apple compote to perhaps less palatable concoctions such as skim milk pudding, preserved eggs, turnip cresselly and veal cake.[2]


Charles appears to have contributed to the notebook just once when, in his distinctive hand and with characteristic precision, he noted how to make the perfect boiled rice (which was perhaps served up as an accompaniment to Emma’s chicken curry); “keep it [the rice] boiling for twelve minutes by the watch,” he said, “then pour off the water and set the pot on live coals during ten minutes”.

 

Typical Victorian Christmas Card (circa. 1870)When Christmas came around, the Darwin family recipe book provided a wealth of seasonal options. Christmas party staples such as cheese straws and gingerbread biscuits were noted, as was festive cured ham, cranberry sauce and – of course – mince pies which, according to Emma’s extremely festive recipe, contained no less than a quarter of a pint of brandy.

 

Even Emma’s indulgent festive recipes, however, could not draw Charles away from his work.  In typical fashion, on Christmas day 1871 he retired from his family Christmas gathering at Down in order to write a letter to Physican and Naturalist William Ogle; “I have read your paper with the greatest possible interest” Charles said,  before proceeding to detail observations and notes he had recently made on left and right handedness.

 

[1] Cambridge University Library, CUL-DAR214.(0-157).

[2] For more information see D. Bateson & W. Janeway, Mrs Darwin’s Recipe Book: revived and illustrated (New York, 2008).

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