HISTORIC houses have a smell all of their own. It’s the bittersweet, sometimes slightly musty but always evocative aroma of the past.
It’s the whiff of open fires mixed with beeswax polish, burning candles, dusty libraries full of leather-bound books, perfume, cigar smoke and centuries of human habitation.
But visitors to Cragside House every Wednesday afternoon are being greeted with a new smell: freshly baked cakes.
It’s all part of an on-going initiative to help bring to life the mansion built by the great Victorian scientist and technical innovator William Armstrong on the outskirts of Rothbury in the heart of Northumberland.
This includes the chance to find out more about the army of real-life people whose job it was to keep the house and the wider estate running smoothly in a special exhibition called Cragside: The Servants Side.
Every Wednesday between 1pm-4pm volunteers dressed in period costume can be found making and baking Victorian cakes, pies and biscuits in Cragside’s innovative kitchen. Built between 1863 and 1895, Cragside was renowned for being one of the most hi-tech homes of its age.
The first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity, Lord Armstrong installed a Turkish bath suite, hot and cold running water, a passenger lift to the bedrooms, central heating and telephones.
The kitchens boasted a plethora of labour-saving devices too from a mechanised spit to a primitive dish washer – all designed to ease the day-to-day burden on the domestic staff. So famous was Cragside that the then Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward VII – and his family are said to have been enticed to the estate for a three-day visit in August 1884 to see for themselves this scientific wonder of the Victorian age.
The kitchen is now very much the heart of modern-day homes; and it was no different at Cragside in the late 1800s.
There are old sepia photos of members of the Armstrong family posing with kitchen staff, and it is from here that food on an almost industrial scale would have been prepared fresh daily to feed what was in essence a community within a community.
But until now there was little that really brought the kitchen to life at Cragside. That has all changed this year, however. Cupboards have been filled with jars of homemade jams and chutneys; fresh vegetables fill racks; herbs hang to dry; fake salt pastry pies are set out for visitors to touch; a half-packed picnic basket stands ready for Lord Armstrong to take with him on a fishing expedition and there’s even a ladies tray waiting to be taken up to one of the bedrooms. And every Wednesday afternoon volunteers gather to reproduce authentic Victorian recipes from Mrs Beeton’s bestselling Book of Household Management, and an original copy of Francatelli’s Cooking Guide and Housekeeper’s and Butler’s Assistant dating to 1862 that was found in the Cragside kitchen and was almost certainly used by generations of Armstrong cooks to produce an array of savoury and sweet treats.
Visitors can’t actually taste the delicacies cooked in a small oven hidden in the kitchen range, but every week Cragside’s licensed Stables Tea Room puts some of the baking highlights on the menu.
The enterprise is proving a huge hit.
Katherine Williamson, the house steward, says: “Visitors absolutely love the baking Wednesdays and the way the kitchen is now being brought to life. They walk in the front door and are immediately greeted with the smell of freshly baked cakes.
“We’re using authentic Victorian recipes that we are no longer familiar with from the likes of Mrs Beeton and Francatelli’s Cooking Guide.
“Francatelli was a 19th Century culinary celebrity, an Englishman of Italian extraction who travelled to France to study cooking and was one of Victorian London’s leading chefs.
“At one point he was also appointed chief cook to Queen Victoria.
“His Cook’s Guide first published in 1861 was the essential reference guide of its day, yet he has almost been completely forgotten and has been superseded by Mrs Beeton.