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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 October 2008

The Great Scone Infiltration

Today I'm making the case for and against scones.

Why scones? Because they've become a staple food of Regency Romancelandia and they shouldn't be. (See my related post today at Risky Regencies on things that annoy me.) There's a tendency to think that if it's English it's okay, and what could be more English than a scone? Or afternoon tea? Or... well, the list is endless, I'm afraid.

The scone is Scottish poverty food. Think of it as a bowl of rice or a tortilla. Elegant living? Yes, if tarted up. The humble scone was first mentioned in 1513, rather charmingly in a translation of the Aeneid by Scots poet Gavin Douglas. I sing of arms and the man and afternoon tea...?

Here's an early recipe from 1874. Much of my information is taken from the excellent foodtimeline.org.
Put as much barley-meal as will be required into a bowl, add a pinch of salt, and stir in cold water to make a stiff paste. Roll this out into round cakes a quarter of an inch thick, and bake on a griddle. Split the cakes open, butter them well, and serve hot. A little butter may be rubbed into the meal if liked. Richer scones may be made by dissolving an ounce of fresh butter in a pint of hot milk, and stirring this into as much flour as will make a stiff dough. When it is not convenient to bake the scones on a griddle, a thick frying-pan may be used instead. Time to bake the scones, about four minutes.
Now do you see the connection between the words scone and stone? Barley has some, but not a lot, of gluten, the substance that gives dough stretch and the ability to rise. Gluten can be released by yeast, or in this case, by beating the heck out of the dough and subjecting it to heat. By the way, the authentic Scottish pronunciation rhymes with gone, and the English, wrongly, with stone; I don't know why unless it was a bid for gentility, a bit of verbal pinky-crooking.

So how did the scone cross the border and assume its current form? Two factors were needed, a raising agent and a royal agent, baking powder and Queen Victoria respectively. Sometime in the mid nineteenth century, baking powder was developed, replacing earlier substances such as saleratus, which, as its name suggests, gave food an unpleasant bitter taste, and pearlash, potassium carbonate from wood ash. And Queen Victoria fell in love with Scotland--here's the Balmoral drawing room in all its tartanned splendor.

The scone, for some time, until hip coffeeshops decided it was the breakfast food of yuppies, remained the starch that would fill the stomach, with the most modest of ingredients. The 1874 recipe above suggests slathering on the butter because at that time butter was relatively cheap and it didn't keep indefinitely. My mother, whose cooking skills derived from English World War II food rationing, was shocked--shocked!--that I used an egg in a scone recipe, and advised me to skimp on the raisins. Obviously the raisins were meant to be a rare and unexpected treat when you encountered one.


For some fancy recipes that would make my ma roll in her grave and some luscious pictures, visit joyofbaking.com. Here's a recipe for the World's Best Scones, which is similar to what I make, except I use all milk and don't really measure much beyond the flour to get things going. For some reasons scones impress the unitiated, although they are tremendously easy to make, particularly for the slovenly cook.

No wonder they've been popular for so long. But one thing is for sure--scones were not around in the Regency drawing room.

Would you care to share any scone experiences or gripes about historical food inaccuracy?

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8 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I fell into this trap in my second book . . . dang it all. I discovered my error after the galley stage when it was too late to fix (it was one of the things I learned while reseraching foods for my Regency Refreshments workshop).

10:49 AM  
OpenID erastes said...

Hear hear - I've read peasants drinking tea in the 18th century,people having loads of vegetables on their plates pre Regency and English travellers buying bacon in Cairo in the 1920s. Makes me mad!

The BBC did a fab series on historical foods (The Supersizers Go...) a while back which I watch a LOT when I need food research.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm being very daring in my w.i.p. -- having my heroine eat chocolate candy in 1814 -- and already I can smell the angry peasants lighting their torches as they come to get me.

But there were chocolate nonpareils (which were among my favorite childhood movie candies) as early as 1750 in France. The French word was diablotins.

And I figure that anything they made in 18th century France is fair game for 19th century England, with rich people's cooks crossing the channel during the revolution.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Janet! Food is something that can add such texture and richness to historical fiction and there are so many potential traps in terms of period usage.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Pam, you're on solid ground. I can provide you with ENGLISH recipes from 1800 and 1807.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Kalen,

And you know what? There are also 18th French recipes for chocolate olives (rather like chocolate truffles) and a conserve of chocolate (rather like fudge). All of this from my beloved Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Susan/DC said...

You mean not everyone in Regency England was eating one of my favorite comfort foods? Of course, to my mind the heavier the better when I need comforting (falling house prices and a plummeting stock market are my current excuse for indulging). As a Latin American history major, I do know there weren't potatoes in medieval Europe so no one was eating another of my comfort food favorites: meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Poor souls, how did they ever survive without scones or chocolate?

6:08 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Marvelous post, Janet! I've always tried to be as accurate as possible when I've had food in my novels; I hope I've succeeded. In the spirit of "method writing" I've been meaning to try some of the recipes Kalen has posted here. I did try a Regency ice cream recipe this summer, which was published on the Jane Austen Centre (Bath) site and blogged about it here because the texture was so different from ice cream/gelato today.

5:22 AM  

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