Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Turf fires - burning peat

Cooking and living with peat fires

Peat fires may seem like a wintertime topic, but in fact summer is the time for cutting turves of peat, drying them, and stacking them.
There used to be many areas of northern Europe better supplied with peat bogs than with trees. Peat, also called turf, was a convenient household fuel when there wasn't much firewood around. Some regions of North America made use of peat for domestic fires in the 1700s and 1800s - and a few still do. (See quote lower left column.) It's been used for cooking, heat, and what we would now call background lighting for longer than history has been written.
Well into the mid-20th century there were places where peat fires were kept alight all year on the floor of a cottage. You can also burn turf, or sod, on open hearths, and in well-engineered fireplaces with grates. Natural, locally-dug peat is still used for domestic heating in Scotland and, famously, in Ireland where the slices of peat are always called turves and the fires are turf fires - even when manufactured peat briquettes are used. In the 19th century cutting peat for fuel was an important part of life in Scandinavia, and in fenland or moorland regions of England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.
In Ireland, Scotland and parts of England it was considered very important to keep the fire burning all the time. At bed-time a peat block and/or ashes would be arranged to "smother" the fire without extinguishing it, so it would stay gently smouldering overnight. Then in the morning it would be blown into life again. Because of the significance laid on never letting the hearth go cold it's hard to find descriptions of anyone lighting a domestic peat fire. There would surely have been varied local customs for building the pile of turves, the use of kindling etc. - just as there were different tools and customs for cutting peat. Peat quality varies too, depending on its depth, colour, age, and more.
...on the hearth, the ashes, instead of being inconvenient, are extremely useful to poor people in various processes of their cookery. Hot peat ashes are excellent for roasting fish, eggs, etc.; and likewise for stewing, and any kind of cookery that requires a mild heat. In this respect it approaches to charcoal.

Webster and Parkes, An Encyclopædia of Domestic Economy, 1855

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