Updated: 7 days ago
By Nhl4hamilton (Rick Cordeiro) - Own work, Public Domain
In a park, overlooking the picturesque Burlington Bay, the British set up a military camp during the War of 1812 as protection against American forces.
In the 1830’s, Sir Allan McNab, Premiere of the United Canadas, built a huge Italian-style villa here.
Think Downton Abbey.
The locals called it Dundurn Castle.
To this day, if you visit my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, it’s the no. 1 tourist attraction.
Outside the castle was a long aviary. I’d run over to the peacock, begging him to show me his tail.
Sometimes he did.
On the park grounds sat an adorable outdoor theatre called Piccadilly Circus. During the summer, a troupe of performers put on children’s plays. My brother and I would race to the front, flop on the grass in the front row, waiting for the show to start. Sure enough, Hansel and Gretl would come out singing and dancing, pulling me up by the little hands, twirling me around the stage in the opening act.
I knew in my heart when I grew up, I was going to live in Dundurn Castle someday.
One day, I would be the Lady of the House, serving tea from a silver tea pot to my guests.
It was all planned out. I’d buy Dundurn Castle, leave the museum as is, and live there happily ever after.
And...then I grew up.
Alas, Dundurn Castle has never been for sale.
I have cooked in its kitchen several times.
Just call me Daisy because I got to spend the day with my very own Mrs. Patmore.
One blustery winter day, I took part in a recreation of a dinner Sir Allan McNab served in 1855. The original dinner included two soups, one—mock turtle. Instructions included boiling the head of a cow and serving the eyeballs as garnish.
There were ten roasts, eight boiled dishes, six entrees, three relishes, eight second courses, five cheeses, and approximately fifteen desserts.
For our recreation dinner, we only cooked a fraction of the original meal.
Our bill of fare that day was:
Roast Duck with Orange Sauce
Chicken Curry after the East Indian Manner
Boiled Beef Tongue
Stewed Red Cabbage
Carrot Pudding with Plum Sauce
Tea & Coffee
That day, I’d be a servant. So, after trudging through the snow to the servant’s entrance, I was escorted down the back stairs.
Bypassing all the beautiful rooms.
It was straight to the cellar for me.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and even then, everything was so dim. The lack of light would have been depressing for anyone, day after day.
Although a museum, inside the kitchen we pretty much had free reign. Everything was useable and old. Cupboards had drawers of rolling pins. Mixing bowls sat on open shelves. We had to keep drinking water so not to become dehydrated while working over the wood burning stove.
A dry sink held two basins of water: one for washing, one for rinsing.
We prepared the dinner at long work tables. When a recipe called for a cup of something, we’d fill a teacup for measurement. If it called for 3/4 tsp of nutmeg, we eyeballed it using regular spoons. The spices were in glass bottles with corks. The good old sniff test was used to find the correct one.
We had to keep our eye on the stove fire, making sure it didn’t go out. Next to it was not only wood...but an entire bucket of baking soda on one side, a pail of water on the other, and a huge blanket hanging on the wall in case someone’s clothing caught fire.
We split into groups to prepare the menu. My friends, Cathy, Joyce and I prepared the Mulligatawny Soup, German Carrots, and Apple Pie.
Nobody wanted to prepare the boiled beef tongue.
“But the taste buds have already been removed,” our Mrs. Patmore reassured us.
So, on with our soup recipe:
”Take two large fowls...cut the flesh entirely from the bones into small pieces...”
Ugh. I glanced around the table uneasily and then let out a sigh of relief.
Store bought chicken breasts.
The ingredients required were quite strange. Our soup included tart apples, not potatoes. It was to be served over a bed of rice. A soup? It also included a boatload of curry—a status symbol at the time to show you could afford such faraway spices.
Now, my friend, Cathy, was in her element cooking downstairs in the kitchen, certain she must have been a servant in a past life.
Me...I found myself wandering about the kitchen quite a bit, examining everything, leaving my poor friends to do most of the cooking.
“I think I’d rather be upstairs, drinking tea and doing needlepoint in the parlour,” I‘d joke while taking the long wooden spoon from Cathy to give her a break from the hot stove.
After about three hours, all the food was prepared, ready to be eaten. Since the real dining room is a museum, a make-shift one was set up in the “McGinnis Billards Room.” It was still very beautiful. With ornate mouldings and gorgeous windows, it overlooked a snowy tree-lined walkway leading to the lake. A winter wonderland.
The table was set with white linen and pretty dishes. The first item of the menu was the Mulligatawny Soup we’d prepared. It turned out so awesome that I’ve made it again several times.
I sampled everything, determined to try each item to get the full experience, including the beef tongue. Topped with chutney, it was actually quite delicious.
The flavours were all very different to the food we eat today, even the desserts.
Except for the apple pie.
A good apple pie is always the highlight of any meal.
Then, as fate would have it, I had the honour of being the “Lady of the House”.
To serve tea to all my guests gathered around the table...from a silver tea pot.
Funny how life works out.
I may not have grown up to live in Dundurn Castle, but the first time I dine there, I’m “Lady of the House” serving tea from a silver tea service. Technically, my childhood wish came true.
Someone up there in the heavens has a great sense of humour.