It is very hard for us to imagine homes without a gas or electric cooker and a fridge or freezer to keep food fresh. How did Manx people manage when there were no convenient shops to go to whenever they were short of something? How was it possible to feed families with ten or more children or all the workers on a sizeable farm without these things which seem essential to us? It was a case of making use of everything that was available from croft or farm and from the Island and the sea around it. To survive people had to provide almost everything for themselves and to prepare, preserve and plan ahead. Winter stores were essential and salting or smoking were the only ways of keeping meat and fish for long periods.
Fuels for Cooking
The main fuel continued to be turf until well into the 19th century. Pieces of turf from the thatched turf stacks outside would be brought in and placed in special store recesses by the ‘chiollagh’ (open hearth). Gorse sticks from beneath the corn stacks provided an almost smokeless fuel for baking and in some districts, it was collected in large quantities and was almost as important as turf. Trees were very scarce on the Island in the 18th century and so gorse ‘bons’ (sticks to light the fire) were collected instead of logs. Straw, ‘fearin’ (bracken) and potato stems were all used under the griddle. Ripe briars also supplied extra heat for cooking.
The chief cooking utensils were the kettle, frying pan, three-legged pot, griddle and pot-oven. The three-legged pot was used for making porridge, broth and potatoes and herring. It hung from the ‘slouree’ (a device for hanging a pot or kettle over an open fire from a stone peg in the chimney above) and was also used to boil small potatoes for the pig. The griddle was a flat circular metal plate, sometimes with handles, used for baking. It was placed on a metal tripod called the ‘croe’. Two people worked together when baking, one attending of the dough and the other feeding small pieces of fuel under the griddle to make extra heat. Often it was a child or an old person who did the ‘putting under’. The pot oven was a round pot with a flat lid. It was placed on the hot turf and a red hot sod of turf was placed on the lid. The pot oven was used to bake pies, puddings and even the goose at Christmas.
Fireplaces and Ovens
The method of cooking changed much between 1700 and 1900. In early times baking had been done on a baking stone or ‘losh’ and this was gradually replaced by the griddle. A primitive type of built-in oven was sometimes made in the thickness of the wall beside the chiollagh. It was made of brick and either square or beehive shaped. This type of oven was first heated by burning gorse bons and other sticks inside it. These were raked out when it was sufficiently hot, then the oven was quickly brushed out and the cooking put in. The oven was sealed up with a well-fitting piece of slate.
As the 19th century went on, the chiollagh began to disappear. First a metal grate made by a local blacksmith took the place of an open fire on the hearth, then later on a small Yorkshire range, consisting of iron hobs, grate and oven would be put in. Spits and Dutch ovens were common on the larger farms.
Changes in Food
Just as cooking utensils changed over this period so did some of the foods. An important change in the early 18th century was the coming of potatoes to the Island. Before they were here the staple diet of the Manx people was bread made from barley or oatmeal, barley and oatmeal porridge, fish and meat, especially pork. Potatoes quickly became a very important part of the Manx diet and potatoes and herring were eaten two or three times a week even on large farms. The potatoes were cooked in their jackets in the three-legged pot, with the herring laid on top of them.
It was well into the 19th century before wheat flour came into general use. Thomas Quayle who wrote about Manx farming in the year 1812 remarked:
‘Even at this day it (wheat) has not entered into the ordinary food of the inferior orders of people dwelling in the towns, and still less of the peasantry. With other English habits in towns especially they begin to relish the wheaten loaf.’
Later in the 19th century after wheat prices became lower, wheat flour began to replace oat and barley bread. It was then that soda cake (called ‘flour bread’), bonnag, and potato cakes became typical items of the Manx diet.
Bread and Porridge
Oatmeal and barley meal supplied both bread and porridge. All bread had to be made at home. Oat bread would keep longer than barley bread so it was made in larger batches. The oatcakes would be kept in a ‘dollan’ (a circular tray with sides) and placed on the ‘latts’. The ‘latts’ were a framework of thin wooden strips nailed between the joists of the living room ceiling. Both oat and barley bread were made by mixing meal, salt and water together. Oat bread was hardened beside the fire before being scored. The circular barley cakes were about 40cm in diameter and ‘as thin as paper’. They were always clapped by hand without the use of a rolling pin.
Porridge could be made from either oatmeal or barley meal. A basin of porridge was often eaten both for breakfast and supper. The thickened cold porridge was often boiled up again with milk and buttermilk was put on the porridge. Fresh milk was at times considered too precious to eat with porridge and if there was no buttermilk, ale might be put on instead.
Pease porridge, made by putting peas, a little groats and water into a pan, adding a few sliced potatoes and boiling for a long time was common on farms where peas were grown.
In winter much home-preserved food was eaten. Salted herrings from the barrel or crock were washed to remove the pickle, then roasted for breakfast or boiled with the potatoes. Other fish such as cod, conger, pollock and carp, from local fishing yawls were also important. ‘Gibbins’ (sand eels) harvested with a special sickle from northern beaches, were boiled, fried or salted. Fish were often dried and smoked in the chimney to be eaten later with butter and potatoes.
Salted meat in the form of mutton was kept in a barrel for winter use. On larger farms a beef would be salted. When a pig was killed it was an important occasion. Brawn would be made from the head, pies from the ribs, and hams would be salted. Hams and home-cured bacon could be seen hanging from the hooks in the kitchen of croft and farm alike. The crock of salted butter was another part of the winter store.
Buttermilk from the churning was the favourite drink. Tea was a luxury for most of the 19th century. In 1878 a pound of tea cost 2s 6d (two shillings, six pence) when a farm labourer living on a croft would receive 12 shillings a week. Parents might have a cup of tea on a Sunday only, watering down what was left for their children.
In earlier times ‘crockans’ of home-brewed ale with large earthenware plugs were common household items. Brewing pans were passed from house to house around the parish during the 18th century. Various herb beers were also made. Milk and water was commonly drunk.
Broth and Pudding
Broth, made in the three-legged pot, was a common dinner. Broth was made with a piece of mutton, pearl barley, leeks, parsley, thyme, turnip and carrots. Dumplings – one for each person – were cooked in the broth.
In later times ‘Spotted Dick’ – a flour pudding with whole raisins or currants in – was frequently cooked in the broth pot, wrapped in a thick cloth. What remained of the ‘Spotted Dick’ was often eaten fried the next day.
(source: text is from a school resource set entitled ‘Manx Farming & Country Living 1700-1900’ published in 1991 © Manx Heritage Foundation; photo by Ber Weyde)