Category Archives: history

Foodie ramblings: gardening? anyone for beetroot?

Following Joanna’s wonderful blog on pheasants the other week, another food-related post. About gardening. Sort of.Well, more a ramble, really, but there is some (vaguely) writerly stuff at the end. Promise.

Confession time

Gardening? I am “NotAGardener”. There,  I have said it.

NotAGardeners” will know how inadequate they feel when they see a well tended veg patch, straight lines of leeks standing to attention, beans and peas running riot over a network of canes. Lettuces, cabbages, potatoes – to say nothing of herbaceous borders bursting with colour, flowers waiting to be picked to adorn the dining table. It would be (naturally ) groaning under the weight of food I have grown, harvested and prepared with my own fair hands.

Gardening? Nah

Oscar Keys oscartothekeys, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I would love to do it, I really would.

Some nights I lie awake and imagine my garden looking like Monty Don’s Longmeadow, full of greenhouses and raised beds bursting with flowers or eminently edible produce. Alas, although the spirit is willing the flesh, as they say, is weak.

After one session of gardening I feel like this…

And to be honest, I would much rather be doing this…

Pauline Borghese as Venus VIctrix

It is my own fault

I do not apply myself to the task as I should, cutting corners, rushing jobs. I know final results would be well worth the effort but alas, I fall by the wayside. Let’s be honest here, I’ve been trying for almost half a century. Ever since I saw Felicity Kendall being self-sufficient in Surbiton. I think I am now beyond hope as far as gardening goes.

When I sighed for a greenhouse, my family built one for me.

It is a thing of beauty and I use it for growing herbs, and for sheltering my bay tree in the winter.

But I feel I should be filling it with exotic fruits and flowers.

There have been a few successes…

Srl, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last year I managed to get outside at the right time and sow tomato and courgette seeds and – joy of joys – they grew. It worked. But that was one season.

One. Season.

And nothing like the abundance shown here!

Come this spring, the weather wasn’t good and I stayed indoors. True, my perennial herbs are growing in their pots, my bay tree is still cowering in the greenhouse out of the wind, but there are no vegetables. Nothing I can make a meal from. Sigh.

My excuse?

Woman businesswoman working, files, clockI have commitments. People to see. Books to write. Deadlines to meet. 

I don’t enjoy gardening that much.

So I have to come up with some other way to get my veggies.


Easy: I will let someone else grow the veg.  So I now have an Organic Veg Box delivered once a fortnight.

My local veg box

I know I am in a very fortunate position to be able to afford an OVB. (But let me tell you it is nothing – NOTHING – to what I have spent over the years on seeds, plugs, young plants, seed-trays and compost, etc. etc.)

However, it is more than a 100-mile round trip  to the nearest big shops/supermarkets. AND my OVB comes from from a nearby farm, so I am supporting my local economy. What’s more, the root vegetables are gloriously muddy, so I am getting my hands  dirty.

Back to the Veg Box

I like it, I really do, but this is the Highlands of Scotland. Not for us an abundance of soft fruits & salads (although the raspberries, when in season, are delicious).

The season for fennel, lettuce and French beans is quite short, so there are lots of root vegetables and greens. This means the challenge of finding things to do with the carrots, potatoes and kale. To say nothing of the beetroot and red or white cabbage. You would be surprised how many meals you can get out of a red cabbage. When there are only two of you. Okay, I relish the challenge, and my culinary repertoire has grown enormously.

A brownie point for that, at least.

The Writerly Bit

Writing energy

Buying locally-grown produce in season does make me think about 18th century living. Wealthy families might have hot houses or walled gardens capable of growing more exotic foods, but most existed on what was grown in their immediate area.

Live cattle and geese could be driven for miles to market, but without refrigerated vans, fresh food didn’t travel that well. When I am writing a Regency, I spend quite some time trying to work out what my characters would be eating in a particular season.

Which meant a bit more research for my latest wip…

It’s  a Christmas story and includes pomegranates. (Don’t ask – too complicated. You will have to wait to read it). I  have it on good authority that pomegranates were being grown in England in the 13th century: Alexander Neckham, Augustinian Abbot of Cirencester, mentions them in his De Naturis Rerum (an early encyclopaedia, to you & me).

Pomegranates were established in English gardens by Tudor times and grown in glasshouses in the 17th century. So, it is perfectly feasible for my Regency character to have them growing in his hothouse.

But enough about my book…

What about other authors?

Food is often used as the way to a character’s heart. Quite rightly, too, in my opinion. I am sure you can name numerous authors, but here’s a couple that spring to mind.

Katie Fforde is a self confessed foodie. She often writes about food in her books – Thyme Out (my personal favourite) and Recipe for Love, to name but two.


And my latest find is Veronica Henry’s The Impulse Purchase, a delicious story of a mother, daughter and granddaughter who work together to restore a country pub to its former glory. They are all excellent cooks so, of course, the pub food has to be top-notch, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t disappoint. It is full of foodie descriptions that make one’s mouth water.

And talking of Impulse purchases…

Friend and fellow author Louise Allen  bought a “small scruffy disbound book” which turned out to be a treasure trove of recipes and household remedies. She published it under the title Mock Oyster Sauce & A Cure For Corns. As well as a lot of receipts there is a remedy for Gout, two for Cholera Morbus. Clearly a book that should be on every cook’s bookshelf. And I am sure some of these recipes have appeared in Louise’s own novels.

Finally, my ultimate favourites…

I couldn’t let this subject pass without reference to Georgette Heyer. Who can forget the Marquesa de Villacañas in The Grand Sophy, showing her practical side when it comes to dinner:

There is a way of preparing fresh-killed chickens, so Vincent shall at once kill me two chickens, for chickens this woman tells me there are in abundance, and I shall contrive.”

And Frederica, worrying herself silly about poor Felix while the Marquis of Alverstoke summons up the courage to “put his fate to the touch.”

Only Frederica isn’t attending. She is trying to remember the name of an excellent jelly the vicar’s wife recommended when the boys were recovering from the measles. What could have been a tender love scene turned into a laugh-out-loud moment when she remembers it is Dr Ratcliffe’s Restorative Pork Jelly.

There is a recipe for Dr Ratcliffe’s jelly, too…

You will find it in “A New System of Domestic Cookery: formed upon Principles of Economy: and adapted to the Use of Private Families.” Catchy title, what? It is written by “A Lady”, later identified at M E K Rundell.

The book is available online, if you want to try it for yourself, and it also has such nourishing concoctions as Beef Tea, Tench Broth and Rice Caudle, all under a section headed (ahem) “sick cookery”. Good luck with that.

They say confession is good for the soul

So I should be feeling better, yes? Able to get back to my day job (the writing) with a clear conscience. But the sun is shining today. There are green shoots appearing in the garden…

I should know better, I really should.

Where’s that seed catalogue…?

Happy gardening (if that’s your thing)


Conveniences: Shampoo, Toothpaste, Electric Light?

If you found yourself translated back to a previous era, what modern conveniences would you miss? It’s a question I often think about when I turn on a light, for example, or when I read a book or watch a TV documentary about how things were, way back then.1900 House book cover, a story with few conveniences

I am reminded of the Channel 4 documentary, The 1900 House, the first of several such re-enactments. The whole family had signed up for the project, but they met problems and lack of conveniences that none of them had expected.


One of the most contentious problems was the lack of shampoo which hadn’t then been invented. Continue reading

Regency food and characters

fabulous hotel foodRegency food is really interesting and characters’ preferences tell us a lot about them. Their preferences for drink do too, as I tried to show in my earlier blog about what characters (Regency and modern) drank.

But this week, I’m blogging about food in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Sometimes, food in glamorous surroundings, too…

Where Regency food came from…? Meat, fish, game

Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet at the danceThere isn’t much detail of food and drink in Pride and Prejudice, but Mrs Bennet does mention preparations being made for dinners to fête Mr Bingley’s return to Netherfield.

“Mrs Nicholls…was going to the butcher’s, she told me, on purpose to order in some meat on Wednesday, and she had got three couple of ducks, just fit to be killed.”

That shows that meat wasn’t instantly available from a butcher’s as it is now. And a hostess knew and accepted that providing meat entailed killing animals. Continue reading

Drink and characters, Regency and modern

Modern Drink (well, modernish)

Vodka Martini drink for James BondDrink can tell us a lot about characters in the books we read. This image shows a martini, with olives.

Remind you of anyone?

For me, it’s James Bond and his famous vodka martini, shaken not stirred.

Bond drinks booze

Bond drinks a lot. He’s never seen to be the worse for wear, though.
Interesting, don’t you think?

In fact, his martini recipe (in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale) is quite something and not mainly vodka, either: 3 measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken till very cold and served with a long strip of lemon peel (rather than olives). He does say he only ever has one. Just as well, I’d say 😉 That’s most of a man’s weekly alcohol allowance right there in one glass. Continue reading

Silk, Silliness and Sumptuary Laws

Silliness and Sumptuary Laws

Greek temple at Paestum, ItalyTime: 7th century BCE. Place: an ancient city under Greek law. A fanciful tale by Joanna…

A free-born woman, drunk and reeking of wine, leaves the city accompanied by two female slaves. She is wearing a splendid gown with a purple border, and has gold jewellery in her ears and round her neck. Outside the gates, she meets a man wearing a Milesian-style cloak with a gold-studded ring on his finger.

What do you think might be going on in this silly tale of mine?

The answer was inspired by this first written record of sumptuary laws which made me gasp and then chuckle when I first read it.

gavel balance judgement integrityA free-born woman may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery; she may not wear gold jewellery or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.

In the light of the laws above, you have probably worked out what the man and woman are up to. But I’ve got them sticking to all the laws in the book while they’re at it 😉

Clearly, in those days, any wife would know what her man was planning when he went out wearing his Milesian cloak. Or even just his gold-studded ring. Continue reading

Cinderella and the Birth of a Book…

December sees the publication of my latest Regency romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon. It is also the time of festive fun and pantomimes, so the Cinderella title is very apt, I think.

Cinderella and the Scarred Viscount


Once upon a time….

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The story is set in Regency England but its origins are much further afield. Spain in fact. The whole thing starts with the Spanish Armada!

Many Spanish ships from that ill-fated expedition came to grief around the British Isles, and the are many stories of survivors “leaving their mark” on the local population in the form of dark eyed, dark haired children. My heroine, Carenza, has this dark colouring, inherited from her mother.

Of course, she isn’t the first literary character to have such a heritage. The one that springs first to my mind is Jimmy Perez in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series (not that the lovely Dougie Henshall, who plays Perez in the TV series is dark haired OR dark-eyed).

Then there are The Westray Dons

Continue reading

In Search of Svengali – Part One

Svengali, silent movie

Wilton Lackaye as Svengali (1905)

Looking for Svengali has been in my mind for a while now. I have a Project. (It’s medium term, no need to think I’m abandoning The Book I Need to Finish, Libertà hivies!)

When I realised that today would be Halloween, I thought  the time had come to share a little of my digging so far. After all, on Halloween the novelist’s imagination lightly turns to thoughts of spookiness. And Svengali is surely one of the most unsettling creations of any novelist.

As it happens, last year I got the Halloween brief too . It took me on a wild ride of serendipity. We went to 1938 New York, by way of my neighbours’ pumpkins and The Golden Bough.

So this year please follow me to the nineteenth century in Paris;  and London; and Australia; well all around the world really. Continue reading

Pauline Borghese’s House

Joanna’s blog of three weeks ago, set me thinking about Pauline Borghese’s house in Paris. JoannaPauline Borghese's house was talking about her visit to the Villa dei Mulini where Napoleon lived during his first exile. She described an enormous gilt mirror flanked by busts of Napoleon himself and “a woman in antique dress”. Tradition has it that the woman is Pauline Borghese.

Well, I thought that was odd. Maybe it would have been impolitic to take a bust of Josephine. But surely Napoleon had fallen out with Pauline (not for the first time) because she disliked his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria. Why would he want a bust depicting a family he had fallen out with?

So I dug about a little. And it seems that, after her brother’s first defeat, Pauline sold up everything and went to live in Elba. Apparently she was the only one of his siblings to visit him during that time. Continue reading

The Elba Intermission : Napoleon’s First Exile

Napoleon signs his abdication, April 1814 by Bouchot

Napoleon signs his abdication, April 1814 by Bouchot

I was reading Louise Allen’s book, The Earl’s Marriage Bargain, this week—much recommended—and it reminded me of the Elba intermission because the story starts in the summer of 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication. It’s such a useful period for Regency authors. It allows us to bring war heroes home and confront them with all sorts of society dilemmas that they’ve been missing.

In the Peninsula and then France, they’ve been in largely male company and they’ve been subject to the rigours of war. They’ve seen death and destruction. They’ve seen horrors that they can never share with their loved ones. And they’ve suffered fierce heat, bitter cold, privations and hunger, too.

Vauxhall Gardens - 1820.At home again, they have to try to be the kind of tonnish gentlemen who can make idle conversation with ladies in the ballroom. Yes, I know that Wellington insisted his young men should dance well. And I also know that there were females around, not all of them camp followers. But society, in the Peninsula, was not the same as coming back to Society, with a capital S, in England. Continue reading

Sarah Mallory on creating your fictional new world

A Whole New World?

Creating a whole new world is one of the things I love about starting a new book.

the mappa mundi, a whole new world

The Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral

I love that moment when a story is forming in my head. The whole world is my oyster.

And yes, I admit food and wine are often involved in the initial creation process….

The past few weeks while I have been working on my new book have been particularly fascinating. It always involves lots of daydreaming as I think of plots and characters, but one of the most enjoyable parts of starting a new story is the setting.

When and where will my characters live in this new world?

Continue reading