My Year with Mrs. Beeton Part 9 – Milk, Butter, Cheese and Eggs, Oh My!

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management

This month, the watchful eye of Mrs. Beeton takes us into the realm of the dairy and a look at milk, butter, cheese and eggs, both how to keep them and how to cook with them.

Mrs. Beeton impresses upon her readers the importance of milk both as a food item but also as an ingredient in the preparation of any number of items. She says this about the value of milk: “From no other substance, solid or fluid, can so great a number of distinct kinds of aliment be prepared as from milk; some forming food, others drink; some of them delicious, and deserving the name of luxuries; all of them wholesome, and some medicinal; indeed the variety of foods that seem capable of being prodiced from milk appears to be almost endless.”

One note I would like to make about the chapter on milk is that the year of this edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is 1912, two years before pasteurization was beginning to be carried out in Canada with early adopters of the process in Toronto and Saskatoon. It would take until the 1960’s before more than 90% of Canadian municipalities required milk to be pasteurized and not until 1991 that it was made compulsory Canada-wide.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Beeton starts out with a very detailed look at milk as a product. She tells us that “for the majority of those who lead healthy, simple lives, milk is an excellent article of diet; but the milk of each animal is distinguished by its peculiarities; and as that of the cow is by far the most useful to us, the remarks will chiefly have reference to that source of supply.” Of cow’s milk she says that “Its taste is agreeable, and rather saccharine… Milk, as it is drawn from the cow, is slightly alkaline, but afterwards lactic acid is formed, so that it becomes at first neutral, then acid, and the acidity goes on increasing until it is easily perceptible to the taste. This acidity is said to assist in the rising of the cream.”

Of course, much depends on the cows. “The quality and wholesomeness of the milk depends greatly on the food and the home of the animal. Large numbers of cows are kept in confined, ill-ventilated buildings, and are fed upon brewers’ grains so that the milk is thin and poor, and unfit for food. Milk from an animal in a state of disease cannot but produce ill health to the consumer.”

Plate 95 – two common cow breeds familiar to Mrs. Beeton’s readers.

Adulteration of milk and of many foodstuffs was a common problem in the Victorian period and Mrs. Beeton reminds her readers to be wary of milk that might be watered-down or have flour added to it for colour or thickener. Additionally, Mrs. Beeton speaks to the challenges of keeping milk fresh in the days before the electric refrigerator. She tells her loyal readers that “for the preservation of milk, scrupulous cleanliness is the first necessity. Not only must pots and pans be scrubbed and scalded, but the diary must be cleaned and well-ventilated; in it no open drain, no meat or game hanging; outside no foul heap of year refuse of decaying matter. Nothing is more certain to taint the milk and spoil the butter than neglect of those precautions.”

Speaking of butter, again, she begins by describing the product itself – the churned fat from cream – and says: “It is extremely agreeable when the best quality, but its flavour depends much upon the food given to the cows.” She goes on to remind household managers that butter is prone to going rancid quicker than any other of the “fats”. Mrs. Beeton also reminds us that England imported a huge quantity of butter – and cheese for that matter – from a number of countries, including Canada which sent to England a quarter of a million pounds sterling worth of butter evert year.

In 1912, it would still be common for the average housekeeper to make their own butter. In fact, In St. Catharines at the time it was still commonly a way for women in the home to make some extra money by selling their home made butter to the local grocers. So of course, it is important to know the proper way to churn the butter. Mrs. Beeton’s advice: “…the secrets of good butter making are simple and applicable to all kinds. The first is scrupulous cleanliness…the second if the right temperature for the cream… butter in these conditions, should come out in about 15 minutes.”

Plate 96 – two ways of serving butter and an omelet.

Cheese – the curd of the milk dried – occupies 3 pages of this chapter and Mrs. Beeton tells us the cheese making process and explains the differences in the different types of cheese that are most popular at the time. She advises her readers that “the taste and smell are the best indications of quality. there is so much difference of taste that cheese, almost alone of all foods, is tasted by the customer before purchasing.” She goes on to say that “a good cheese has rounded edges and sides, and when a piece is rubbed between the fingers it should melt and feel smooth.”

Plate page 1296a – a variety of cheese available to the early 20th Century household manager.

Eggs of course cannot be overlooked! Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Beeton lists the kinds of eggs available to the cook and notes the following about the use of eggs: “The purpose for which eggs are employed are more numerous and varied than any other article of food; they form an impervious coating for frying; they bind dry mixtures, they increase the tenacity of paste and dough so that they more completely retain the air, when beaten to a froth, and thus increase its lightness; and to all mixtures they give colour, flavour and lightness.”

In the 1912 edition of the book, Mrs. Beeton notes Canada as an important exporter of eggs into the United Kingdom.

As per usual, Mrs. Beeton accompanies this diary related chapter with 13 pages of recipes and for those who are beginners, she even provides a recipe on how to boil and egg:

“Eggs for boiling cannot be too fresh, but a longer time should be allowed for boiling a new-laid egg than one that is 3 or 4 days old. Have ready a saucepan of boiling water, put the eggs into it gently with a spoon, letting the spoon touch the bottom of the saucepan before it is withdrawn, to avoid cracking the shell. For those who like eggs lightly boiled, 3 to 3 1/2 minutes will be found to be sufficient, 4 minutes’ gentle boiling will lightly coagulate the white and 5 minutes will set it firmly. Eggs for salads and sandwiches should be allowed to boil for 10 minutes. Cracking the shell and allowing the yolk to remain in water until cold prevents a dark rim forming round the yolk.”

For those so inclined, more complicated recipes like Eggs in Mayonnaise Aspic are provided to test the expert cooking skills!

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services for the City of St. Catharines and the proud owner of a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

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