Keeping Food for Winter

pickled-purslaneIn the days before refrigeration and canning, different means for keeping foodstuffs edible over the winter were an essential part of every household’s routine. If you didn’t pay attention to this, much of your harvest would go to waste. Besides, if your own stores failed or were inadequate, you couldn’t easily make up the deficit through purchases.

Some fruits, like apples and pears, could be stored for several months by setting them on racks in a cool place. Others had to be cooked with sugar and preserved in jars, sealed with butter or fat — no rubber seals yet. Pickling could work for others, or even drying. Quite a few fruits were dried, many we would not think of drying today, like gooseberries.

Unusual Choices

You quite often find unusual or surprising recipes in cookbooks from the eighteenth century. All the ones in this post come from “The Compleat Housewife”, written by Eliza Smith in 1739. Nothing suggests her recipes were not offered in total seriousness.

portulaca_oleracea-flowersTake the recipe in the opening graphic. I don’t imagine many people today ever eat purslane, let alone pickle the stalks. Nowadays, it is usually considered a weed, though it is sometimes eaten in parts of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico. While all parts of the plant are edible, it’s said to have a sour and salty taste and a somewhat slimy texture. Still, it also contains a large amount of omega–3 fatty acids, vitamins A, B, C and E and various beneficial minerals, so perhaps we should start eating it again. The reference in the recipe to “walms” is explained in the footnote below[1].

Nobody now needs to preserve lettuce, but they obviously did in 1739.

Lettuce to keep.

About the latter end of the season take very dry sand, and cover the bottom of a well-season’d barrel; then set your lettuce in so as not to touch one another; you must not lay above two rows one upon another; cover them well with sand, and set them in a dry place, and be careful that the frost come not at them. The Lettuce must not be cut but pull’d up by the roots.

Nor have I ever come across the notion of pickling asparagus.

To pickle Asparagus.

Take of the largest Asparagus, cut off the white at the ends, and scrape them lightly to the head, till they look green; wipe them with a cloth, and lay them in a broad gallipot[2] very even; throw over them whole cloves, mace, and a little salt; put over them as much white-wine vinegar as will cover them very well: Let them lie in the cold pickle nine days; then pour the pickle out into a brass kettle, and let them boil; then put them in, and stove them down close, and set them by a little; then set them over again, till they are very green; but take care they don’t boil to be soft; then put them in a large gallipot, place them even, and put the liquor over them; when cold tie them down with leather: ’Tis a good pickle, and looks well in a savoury made dish or pye.

And as for lemons pickled with garlic and ginger! Imagine what that would do to a gin and tonic.

To pickle Lemons.

Take twelve lemons, scrape them with a piece of broken-glass; then cut them cross into four parts, downright, but not quite through, but that they will hang together; then put in as much salt as they will hold, and rub them well, and strew them over with salt; let them lye in an earthen dish, and turn them every day for three days; then slice an ounce of ginger very thin, and salted for three days; twelve cloves of garlick parboiled, and salted three days; a small handful of vinegar. Stop them up very close, and in a month’s time they will be fit to eat.


  1. “Walms” is an eighteenth-century cooking term used to track how much something has been boiled. A walm is defined as a “surge upwards of boiling water”, as when a circular “wave” of water rises from the bottom of the pot and breaks the surface in a kind of bubble. Cookbooks of the time would give directions such as, ”… and so let it boil six or seven walms….”. That meant to look out for six or seven such surges of boiling water. Cooking instructions might also tell you to bring the water to a boil till “it boil high with great walms in the middle of the kettle.” I feel rather sad we’ve lost the term.  ↩
  2. A gallipot was usually a ceramic vessel with a small mouth, often used by apothecaries to hold medicines.  ↩

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About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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8 Responses to Keeping Food for Winter

  1. noelleg44 says:

    I hate to think of the salt in the winter diet! Pickled asparagus I have had – not bad. The preserved lemons might indeed be tasty in a gin and tonic! Parboiling the garlic might remove some of its flavor but probably just softened the cloves. Twelve???

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have actually eaten purslane, nibbling the leaves as I weed the garden. Never tried pickling them as they are small and delicate. Oh, I also think we need to bring back the world “walms.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Charlotte Frost says:

    Perhaps eighteenth-century lettuces were tougher than modern varieties. The Bath Cos I grew — once only! — were chewy and bitter.

    My mother once tried the sand-drying technique on flowers. I remember them going into the crock but I don’t remember them coming out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sue Rosser says:

    My husband, who spent most of his career in the NHS, always called (and still does call) our ramekins ‘gallipots’.

    Liked by 1 person

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