The kitchen at Verrakai’s country house resembles a number of large “great house” kitchens that have been shown on various British TV series…and a couple I saw when taken to see some of the similarly sized stately homes & castles. It’s large enough to supply food for the family and house servants, and to give working room to the cooking staff. Its storage capacity for food is substantially larger than anything a modern family needs; it has two large pantries inside the main kitchen area, plus the dairy, off one side of which is the meat safe. Unlike many great-house kitchens, it is not built underground or half-underground, but is on the main living level of the house. That’s because the underground portion of the old keep tower extended under where the house was later built, and the Verrakaien of that day chose not to connect the house to that underground space. Part of the house, toward the west (back) end does have a cellar level, accessed only through a secret door. Like many old houses, the design has changed from time to time over the years, with additions, subtractions, and combinations enough to baffle anyone dwelling there now. Why, for instance, are the stairs so inconvenient for someone whose rooms are upstairs near the front of the house?
Having the kitchen on the same level as the lowest level living space means it was easier for the staff to move food from the kitchen to the dining rooms or other lower level rooms and made service slightly faster. The dairy and the servants’ bath-house are set lower, to keep the dairy cool, and were carefully placed so as not to come near the keep’s underground expanse. Unlike in many more modern large houses, the kitchen is on the side of the house, not in the rear.
From the front entrance, the kitchen is on the left, once you’ve crossed the big entrance hall and started down a passage toward the back of the house. There is another room on the left, at the front of the house, a smaller reception room; the kitchen pantries lie behind it. At any rate, you start down the passage, and on the left is the kitchen entrance. From the door, you would be looking down the length of the larger work table. It would seat twelve comfortably, but there are no chairs; it’s for working, not sitting (says Lady Verrakai the latest.) It is wood, darkened with age and use; the top is scrubbed regularly, but also oiled with what Cook has been told is a specific against the demons that cause sickeness. (Smells to me like citrus oil.) The table top shows some marks of long use–scars where someone put too hot a pot on it, nicks from knives, etc.
On the right hand wall is the large open fireplace for most of the cooking; it has recesses built in for warming ovens. Formerly, the bread oven was out in the yard, a domed structure. However, several dukes ago, when the side yard was completely walled in and new stables built, the duke of that time decided that the bread oven took up too much room in the yard, and a smaller bread oven was built into the left-hand wall, sharing a chimney with the fireplace in the smaller reception room. A modern cook would notice that there are no work counters along the walls: all the prep work and so on is done in the middle of the room. There is a long stone sink on the far side (outside) of the room with a drain to the outside; this is where dishwashing is done. Above the sink is a window, fairly high, which helps light the kitchen but gives no view of anything. In the far left corner is a door to the outside, to the yard.
Two smaller tables are also in the kitchen, one in the far right corner and one set crosswise to the main table, and lower. The corner table is for record-keeping and the other is for necessary kitchen needlework–mending kitchen cloths, knitting potholders, etc. Both these tables have chairs (total of four). The wall inside the door on the left has the knife-safe, a wall-hung cabinet with slots for each knife. The cook and the lady of the house both have a key; the knife-safe is inspected frequently to be sure servants are not stealing knives. The wall inside the door on the right has hooks for kitchen utensils (most made with a loop handle) : spoons, ladles, spatulas, graters, etc. Small pans also hang there. There is a cabinet with space for the common tableware for servants in the kitchen, against the right-hand wall near the inside corner. Tableware for the family (including flatware) and table linens for the dining rooms is stored across the passage, in a separate pantry under the control of the house steward.
The kitchen is stone-floored, so anything breakable that falls on it will break. The floor is scrubbed daily, of course, because not only Lady Verrakai but Farin herself wants it clean. She insists her helpers wipe up spills immediately.
House servants do not eat in this kitchen, but upstairs in the servants’ sleeping quarters–there’s a largish room they use. They must use the back back stairs to take their bowls down to be filled in the kitchen. Kitchen servants eat standing up at the big table.
So what would you find in the various food pantries? Depends on the time of year, of course. The dry pantry (which also contains the medicines safe Farin showed Dorrin that first day) has barrels of meal (wheat, oat, barley), dried herbs, spices, bread crumbs, nuts, anything that needs to be kept dry, including “dry” vegetables that will stay unrotting in dry bins: onions and their relatives, redroots, dried beans, etc. The wet pantry has anything that, if it spilled, would make a damp mess and bring mold into the dry stuff. Honey, jams, other preserved fruit or vegetables, pickles, vinegar, sauces, stock of all kinds, etc. Some cooks have insisted that hard cheeses and smoked meats are just fine in the indoor pantries; others have insisted that all dairy–fresh or preserved–and all meat, ditto, must be kept outside. Farin is a mixer: she keeps some hard cheeses and smoked meats inside, and brings in the next day’s supply or softer cheese or fresh meats overnight, quite commonly. Fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, etc. are brought in daily when available.
The head cook (Farin, at present) is expected to keep order in the kitchen, direct the cooking, prevent waste, and ensure that the family has whatever food it wants at any hour of the day or night. Although all the servants are supposed to sleep upstairs, Cook may be allowed to sleep in the dairy or kitchen so that she can light the cookfires well before dawn without disturbing anyone else. (Delegating this tasks to assistants has proven…unreliable in the past.) Most cooks have wanted more assistants than they were allowed–the ladies of the household, who don’t of course do the work, are convinced that the kitchen staff is incorrigibly lazy. Which isn’t true: kitchen staff are on the go all day, keeping up with the feeding of (often) 20+ demanding nobles of various ages & with various demands, plus the house servants. Though you might think feeding the younger children would be simple enough, the Verrakai adults make sure the kids have meat and vegetables every day, though supper is usually pretty basic.
So Farin gets up very early, starts the two kitchen fires, and begins shaping the bread dough she mixed late the night before. Bread is made daily (sometimes more than once a day: the “afterthought” bread oven does not have the capacity of the former outdoor oven.) Other baking fits in around the bread. As her helpers come down (they sleep with the other house servants), she sets them to the usual morning chores–bring in more fuel and water to replace what she used in starting the fires–and–referring to Lady Verrakai’s commands from the day before–the prep work needed for that. There’s porridge to cook (no scorching) and at least two meats and eggs and a sweet for the family breakfast, as well as the hot bread or rolls. Farin must ask the house steward to unlock the other pantry, so she has access to the right platters for serving (the house steward, however, will direct other servants to lay the table in the chosen dining room.)
During the day, besides the large meal at midday, the family may expect or demand any kind of food service: Farin keeps sib ready on the hearth at all times, and knows that if the former Duke Verrakai is in residence, he will expect sweet rolls in his office in midmorning and midafternoon. Lady Verrakai and the other noble-women also have their time for snacks and their preferred foods. Farin has to keep track of all that, all the supplies, all the cooking equipment she’s responsible for, and turn out tasty food on top of it. She’s also expected to brew ale (and has, with extreme cunning, co-opted one of the elderly sewing maids who has an old family recipe to help her with that. Lady Verrakai would not be pleased to find out that is why the mending is sometimes behind, which the old woman blames on her swollen joints. On several occasions, the old woman has barely escaped discovery when the lady made an unexpected check of the kitchen.)
Farin’s kitchen smells good…partly the cleanliness, and partly that she is a good cook. In my imagination, I wander into her kitchen when I need to feel warm and comfortable…and sometimes for inspiration. She is not particularly welcoming to visitors, even her author, but I enjoy watching her skilled hands shaping rolls and pastries. I have *almost* convinced her that I know something about cooking and have cooked (though only once a year) for 20+ myself.