Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen
By Wendy Allen | Photos By Villa Louis
Walking up to the entrance of the Villa Louis historic mansion, in Prairie du Chien, felt like walking back in time. I was greeted by a woman wearing a long, high-necked dress, with an apron marking her as one of the estate’s “servants.” She led me around the house to the kitchen, where I met about 12 other guests who were as excited as I was to experience the Villa Louis Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen.
The Villa Louis staff have put together an authentic experience using what was known about the Dousman family, who owned Villa Louis in the late 1800s, and about how Victorians lived and entertained, plus extensive research on cooking techniques and recipes from Victorian cookbooks. They use as much local food as possible for the breakfasts because that’s what would have been available in the 1800s. Fish came from the Mississippi River at the mansion’s back. Servants grew huge gardens on the estate to feed the family, staff and guests. Ladies from town were hired for marathon sessions of summer and fall canning in the mansion’s “preserving kitchen” behind the house, which also would have been used during dinner parties. In tribute, today’s breakfast is also heavily local: catfish from nearby Valley Fish Market, local eggs, handmade preserves, and in just about every dish, apples from orchards just outside of town.
We split into small groups to each make a recipe that would have been used in the 1890s. We were instructed to read it carefully and all the way through because important instructions sometimes, inexplicably, would appear at the end, like afterthoughts.
A tour guide in lovely red dress said that we often think cooks in the Victorian age didn’t have many tools to work with, but they were surprisingly resourceful. Often they would make, by hand, the tools they needed to do certain jobs, such as an apple corer. The hand-crank mixer was invented in the late 1800s, so that tool would have been readily embraced for scrambling up dozens of eggs at once—and so my partner and I embraced it as well to whip up our German pancakes, baked in cast iron pans in a wood-fired, cast iron oven.
Other dishes on today’s bill of fare included apple “porcupines” (baked apples with slivered almonds sticking out of them—they were the cutest things), rice waffles, Wisconsin “gem cakes,” homemade sausage fried with apple rings, and hand-breaded and fried fresh Mississippi catfish.
Piccalilli, a pickle made of whatever vegetables are available at the moment, would have been popular at the time since they would have let nothing go to waste. In addition, the Victorians ate fairly plain foods, especially in winter, so garnishes like piccalilli made their bland dishes feel elegant. We enjoyed piccalilli made by a local woman (and that’s sold in the gift shop) with our meats, as well as other garnishes like pickled watermelon rinds, green pepper jelly and apple butter—all made by hand either locally or in the estate’s own kitchens by the staff. Drinks included percolated coffee with egg white (added to collect the loose coffee grounds), hot cocoa and apple cider.
We were told that the experience of eating a Victorian meal was as much about the look and feel of the room as it was about the food, so before we sat down to eat, a few of us roamed the grounds gathering materials for table decorations. We wandered in the cool, fall air and picked the last of the mums and clematis, some tall grasses, willow branches and colored leaves, and arranged them in baskets with decorative gourds. It was a nice reminder to slow down, to savor the day. As we enjoyed our meal, I learned that a few in the group were from Prairie du Chien and small towns north, but most of the participants had journeyed from the Madison area, Illinois and Iowa. When asked what brought them all the way here, Jim, a farmer from Illinois, said he had been here for a tour before, and when coming down the grand stairs in the house, he smelled an apple pie that the cooks were making the kitchen. This sparked a fond memory of coming downstairs as a child to find his greatgrandmother baking an apple pie. Since then, he and his wife have returned to Villa Louis six times to participate in this class and to enjoy the atmosphere of the estate.
The Villa Louis Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen cooking class was a beautiful and relaxing way to spend a Saturday morning—and you won’t go away hungry. The food we made stuffed us and also fed the morning’s staff!