Back in the days when meals where prepared daily on an open hearth over a fire, each household had various utensils and appliances to ease the cooking process. Originally, these were constructed from wood, later – forged iron. One of the most essential kitchen utensils was a device used for suspending the cauldron.
The simplest solution – hearth chains were ordinary chains that were hung from a built-in crossbeam inside the funnel and an S shaped hanger, its upper part hooked on of one the chain holes while the other held the cauldron. The height of the cauldron was adjusted by moving the S shaped hanger higher up or lower down the chain.
More intricate cauldron supports are referred to as hearth hooks. There are two types depending on their construction – hanging hooks and built-in hooks.
Just like the chains, hanging hearth hooks were suspended from a built-in wooden crossbeam. The upper part of the hook was either an iron bar curved in a semicircle or an attached ring (in this instance the hook was secured to the crossbeam using an S shaped hanger or suspended from a hanger affixed to the crossbeam). Its lower end featured an adjustable backstop lever, which held a plate – its lowest part was contracted and curved in a semicircle forming a hook for the cauldron, while its outer side was shaped like a saw with teeth loosely spread out. This setup allowed to effortlessly slide the saw-like plate with the attached cauldron up and down the length of the bar and adjust the distance from the fire by locking the backstop lever in the required notch.
Wealthier home owners desired something better than a hanging hearth hook because in their homes the hearths were bigger and fire places ampler, therefore a more convenient and a safer solution for food preparation was needed. Built-in adjustable hearth hooks were devised as an alternative to hanging hooks. These hooks had a right-angle construction. A diagonal abutment joined horizontal and vertical bars to improve the hook’s load bearing capacity. Its vertical bar was fastened through built-in iron wall hoops (like door hinges), which allowed turning the hook from side to side. A flat-iron plate with corrugated ends was suspended from the horizontal bar. Since the plate was hooked on the bar and not fixed in position, its top end could slide along the horizontal bar with a cauldron hooked on the opposite end. More elaborate constructions featured a vertical line of drilled holes in the plate’s lower part and an S shaped hook for the cauldron. This setup allowed adjustment of the elevation of the cauldron above the fire.
The hearth hooks from the 17th and 18th century reveal that blacksmiths not only endeavoured to improve the design of the construction to make these hooks more convenient but also began to express their own creativity. The hooks were adorned with various design elements and decorated with ornamental, flower, leaf and other motifs.
Since May 2018 the Rundāle Palace Museum has featured a permanent exhibition of ancient kitchens. The idea behind this exhibition was conceived a long time ago and preliminary work lasted several years – kitchen utensils in the museum’s collection were examined and further research carried out reflecting on what else might be needed to create a comprehensive representation. Missing items were diligently sought and acquired. Now the exhibition displays not only the afore mentioned hearth chains and hooks but also log holders, spits, bellows, various cauldrons, pans, dishes, colanders, ladles and other kitchen utensils.
The exhibition and presentation on ancient kitchens is open to all visitors free of charge on the ground floor of the Rundāle Palace Museum.
Author: Jānis Lasmanis,
Restorer of the RPM Scientific Restoration Department