EARLY COOKING UTENSILS
Old kitchenware provides a fascinating insight into a time when the preparation and cooking of food were very different from the way they are today.
Georgian and Regency cooks worked in the time-honoured way, over an open hearth, or on the then-innovative kitchen range, invented in 1780. The first ranges had the fire in an open grate, but these were gradually replaced in the 19th century by an enclosed fire topped with a 'hob grate'.
Two basic types of cooking vessel were used for boiling or stewing. Round-bottomed, cast-metal cauldrons were hung over the fire or sat on it, with three short legs keeping them upright, while flat-bottomed kettles, made of sheet metal - brass, copper or tin - stood by the fire, often on three-legged stands called trivets. Kettles usually had close-fitting lids, and evolved into the modern-day saucepan.
Frying was done in heavy iron skillets, which typically had three feet, like cauldrons, while meat, fowl and fish were roasted over or in front of the fire on spits. These were turned by hand or by one of a number of ingenious contraptions, including, in the late Middle Ages, a treadmill powered by specially-bred dogs. The most common method, though, was a spring-loaded device called a bottle-jack.
Pots and pans began to be manufactured on a large scale only around the middle of the 18th century. Before this, they were generally supplied and kept in repair by the village smith or itinerant tinkers, who continued to provide many of the smaller food preparation tools. This lack of standardization continued well into the 19th century in more remote parts of the country, as the industrial products of the great steel towns were only really readily available at the annual livestock fair.
Every well-stocked Regency kitchen would have a number of copper pots, pans and kettles. The great majority were tinned inside, to prevent the copper reacting with the contents to poisonous effect. The copper pans were made, sold and repaired by travelling tinkers, who went the round of villages on foot or in horse-drawn wagons or caravans.
KITCHEN COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Early cookware tends to be collected more for its historical interest than for any practical purpose. Cooking utensils, then as now, were made to be used until they broke or fell to pieces. Metal implements were thrown away or melted down, often by itinerant tinkers, to make new pots and pans. As a result, Georgian and Regency pieces are rarer than you might expect. Old pieces may turn up in auctions, where several miscellaneous items tend to make up a lot, and at antiques markets and various specialist dealers.
You're most likely to find trivets. Iron ones are generally older than brass ones, though not necessarily more valuable. Toasting forks, especially decorative brass ones, and heavy sugar and herb choppers, are also relatively easy to come by. Bottle-jacks, which were usually discarded as the spring wore out, are now rarities, while knives, strainers, skimmers and colanders are almost as difficult to get.
It isn't easy to date old utensils accurately. Some pieces in use in the 18th century were still being made in the late 19th century. As a gener4 guide, the plainer a piece, the older it is likely to be. Iron trivets and forks generally pre-date ornate brass ones. Plain cook-pots with flat bottoms are probably from the mid-18th to the mid-l9th centuries, while those with a maker's mark or plaque, or with enamelled surfaces, are likely to be Victorian.
Unless a piece is rare, its condition is important. Damaged pieces can be difficult to repair. Rust spots and stains can be removed by rubbing with a pan scourer or steel wool, but be gentle, especially when you're cleaning decorative details.
Clean brass or copper items by washing off surface dirt and tarnish with soapy water then polishing away ingrained dirt with a proprietary metal polish. Wooden handles can be revived with a wax polish.
Any plain iron utensils you find are likely to be genuine, but it is worth checking for signs of wear. Fine metal implements, especially in brass, are often faked or reproduced. Again, convincing signs of use or wear are the best guide to what is genuine.