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6 Jan 2022

A slice of food history at the Hill House

Written by Sophie Torrens, Visitor Services Assistant
Mrs Beeton’s cookbooks were essential to the running of any Edwardian household
With exciting new foods arriving and the invention of new methods to make cooking far quicker and more efficient, the Blackie family moved into the Hill House at the most interesting and rapidly changing period in British food history.

The Hill House was designed and built for the Blackie family: Walter Blackie, his wife Anna and their five children. They moved into their new home in 1904, during the Edwardian era – named after the king of the period (1901–1910), King Edward VII, who was known for his love of partying and extravagant food. Before mass produced foods, preparing even the simplest of recipes would require a great deal of effort. For example, sugar would come in loaf form, and servants would have to use sugar nippers to scrape off the required amount. Household names and products such as Typhoo, Marmite and Cadbury Dairy Milk all emerged during this period.

Breakfast for the Edwardians was a far grander affair than it is today. Kellogg’s didn’t arrive in the UK until 1922, so there wouldn’t be any boxes of cornflakes on the breakfast table at the Hill House. Unlike most Scottish families at the time, the Blackies would have enjoyed a large and varied breakfast.

Having fish for breakfast might seem odd to some, but smoked fish has been a staple of the Scottish diet since the 11th century, believed to have been introduced by the Vikings as a means of preservation. The Highland line that stops near the Hill House on Helensburgh Upper was a vital means of transporting fish from Oban all the way to Glasgow at a faster rate. With the industrialisation of the 19th century, breakfast became even more important as a means of preparing workers for a long working day: something which Walter would have understood as a successful businessman with a lot on his plate.

On days when Walter wasn’t working the family enjoyed days out on the yacht, and so would often take a picnic hamper for lunch. In the afternoons, Anna would serve tea to the family in the hall. As fashion pushed dinner further into the evening, there was a demand for sustenance in the middle of a long day. The tearoom became a Glasgow institution, with Charles Rennie Mackintosh designing interiors for Kate Cranston, the successful businesswoman who ran several tea rooms in Glasgow.

The ‘sand cake’ on the menu (pictured below) was a favourite of the Mackintoshes, with the daughter of Fra and Jessie Newbery (friends and contemporaries of the Mackintoshes) having remembered eating it during visits to the couple. This menu also includes Empire biscuits, which were known as German biscuits prior to WWI. The café at the Hill House now serves its own delicious Mackintosh-inspired version!

The early 20th century was seen as the golden age of dining. This was the ultimate opportunity to impress your guests, which for a businessman like Walter Blackie would have been vitally important to maintaining business partnerships – and forming new ones. Dining was influenced by French tastes, with French chefs like Auguste Escoffier becoming household names.

Dinner would often begin with a soup dish, mock turtle soup being a popular choice. Turtle soup had been a delicacy since the 18th century and almost led to the extinction of turtles, meaning the recipe had to change to use calf’s head instead. The menu (pictured below) also includes Russian jelly, as jellies were incredibly popular on fancy dinner tables in the 19th and early-20th centuries. In 1845, Peter Cooper secured a patent for powdered gelatine. This made preparing jellies much easier (and more appealing) than boiling calves feet. This led to some interesting creations, including mushroom jelly, which can be found in Anna Blackie’s recipe book in the kitchen of Hill House.

In understanding the culinary history of the Hill House, we can get a sense of who the Blackies were, and what mattered to them. You can imagine the dinner parties filled with extravagant dishes lit by flickering candles, the children rushing to finish their breakfast before heading off to school, and Anna enjoying afternoon tea in the hall. Food history is something that can connect us all, and at the Hill House you can discover more about Scotland’s culinary past surrounded by the beauty of Mackintosh’s design.

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