Standing between the fire and a dark wooden worktable, Day displays a cleaned 12-pound goose atop a cutting board. Next to it are large glazed ceramic bowls of premeasured ingredients for stuffing, a.k.a. pudding. The kitchen looks like the setting for a Tudor-era cooking show. The recipe is vague, calling for two handfuls of bread crumbs, an onion boiled in stock, sage leaves and a handful of suet, a hard fat that wraps a cow’s kidney and is sold, crumbled in England and will clearly be my first procurement hurdle stateside.
But it’s far from the last. The key to the roast goose is the hearth, an 18th-century iron fireplace inset with a shallow coal chamber roughly three feet tall reaching temperatures that chase us to the far, drafty end of the room.
“There’s plenty of fowl in this country. And coal gave us great roasting,” says Day, who calls himself a “barbecue man” out of affection for his hearth. “But you don’t roast over a fire, you roast in front of the fire.”
There we dangle the bird, stuffed, pinned together with a pewter skewer and trussed in string, for the next two hours, alternatingly spun three times clockwise and another three time counterclockwise by a jack developed by clockmakers in the 1700s. Fat immediately begins to trickle down, flavoring parboiled potatoes heaped in a dripping pan below.
Day next delegates a student to grind pepper in an antique wooden mortar for more pudding. “I bought this when I was 14,” he smiles. “That’s when I started my unhealthy interest in period cookery.”
It was the year prior, at 13, when he discovered John Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, written in 1723. Within six months he had acquired 12 other period cookbooks and by his mid-20s he owned a library of more than 200 from which he taught himself to cook. “All of my teachers died 400 years ago,” he says.
A former botanist and former art teacher, Day considers historic food a lifelong passion and, for the past 20 years, a third career. The 63-year-old, with the scarred hands of a chef and the glinting eyes of a storyteller, combines an encyclopedic memory with the opinionated wit of a crusading academic. He also has talent for impersonation and does a spot-on Martin Scorsese phoning to ask if he will consult on the food for a film he helped produce, Young Victoria (Day agreed to do so). In teaching, he says over lunch of our now finished and succulent goose, “I’m interested in getting people in this country to be more inquisitive about their food culture. The vast majority of people are eating cheap food from stalls.”
Back in the day, according to the historian, selection was surprisingly great. Many of the luxury ingredients found in holiday dishes, such as almonds, currants, citrus and raisins, derive from the Islamic world, brought west in the Middle Ages with returning Crusaders. Several centuries later, peddlers roamed the countryside with sacks of spices like nutmeg and recipes called for exotics such as cassia buds, an aromatic spice related to cinnamon. “The variety of ingredients I’ve discovered is much wider than what we have now,” says Day. “In the 18th century in [the nearby village of] Penrith a woman could buy ambergris [a solidified whale excretion used as a flavoring agent], mastic [a gum used for thickening] and a half-dozen other things.”
Many of them make their most acclaimed appearance in plum pudding, the iconic English dessert that was mentioned as a Christmas treat in the 1845 book Modern Cookery and immortalized in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol featuring a nervous Mrs. Cratchit serving her version to the family’s ultimate delight.
Like other savory puddings, this one starts with bread crumbs and suet. Reaching for another generous bowl, Day breaks into a hearty English ditty,