Starch 'speriments


Starch 'speriment the first.

Long ago two recreator wenches were idly prattling about the fashion of the
day - ruffs - and how to get their fellows to wear them, when the first,
Sorrel, let slip that she had a fancy to be a starcher of ruffs at the
forthcoming event set in 1578. The second, Annie, asked in all innocence,
"What did they make starch from, then?"
A few days later Sorrel had dug out a recipe and having heard tales of
Annie's last enthusiasm, dyeing, filling her tiny kitchen with dye vats,
begged her not to try it. Well, that was it. The Starch Experiments had

The Recipe.
Steep bran in water with rock alum for 10 -14 days, rinse through three
different tubs finishing with rinsing in clear pump water. Stand the
resulting fine washed flour in its own water for about a week, add
more water, strain off the smallest bran that has settled to the bottom.
Leave the tub for another day. Draw off water entirely and leave to dry for
two more days, rinse lightly with clean pump water. Cut out of the tub in
great pieces with sharp trowels. Pack into troughs with holes in the bottom
through which remaining water drains. Lay on cold bricks to dry
for two days, then on a bakers oven for another four days. Then either grind
to a white powder or dry on a hot stove.

(Taken from Joan Thirsk's Economic Policy and Projects)

Annie's Diary.

Day 1.
Brain is reeling. Why bran? How much alum? How big is a bran tub? How big is
a trough? Pig trough? Horse trough? Pull books of shelves. Surf the net.
Slap off emails. Oh, who cares? Let's get started.
Down to the health food shop. Got the bran. No need to go to the chemist's
for the alum - I've got some left over from dyeing. Delve into the
Tupperware drawer. Spot 6 tiny, red, plastic, ex-Christmas pudding bowls.
Perfect bran tubs.
The only way to find out how much alum to use is to try different amounts.
I put 1oz of bran in each pot.
Into pot 1 went 1/16th of a teaspoon of alum, into pot 2 went 1/8th tsp.
pot 3:1/4 tsp., pot 4:1/2 tsp., pot 5:3/4 tsp., and pot 6: 1 tsp.
I'm thinking, "to a bucket of bran add a handful of alum". Sounds sort of
(I had dissolved the alum in boiled water first.)
I topped each pot up with water and stood back.
The bran swelled up and almost overflowed out of the pots.
A good day's work.

Day 2.
Looked at the pots. Stirred them for something to do.

Day 3.

Day 4.
Whey, hey! Pot one is bubbling and by evening is covered with foam and scum.

Day 5.
Pot 2 is following suit. Pot 6 has 5 dead vinegar flies floating in it. Have
I invented Tudor insecticide?

Day 6.
Pots 3, 4 and 5 have got islands of mould floating on top. Pot 1 has gone
clear. Bit bored so I skimmed the mould off.

Days 7 to 10.
Pot 1 stank of sour dough. Mould kept growing on the other pots. I kept
skimming it off. Pots 2 and 3 start to stink. The children threaten to leave

Day 11.
So excited, I woke up early. Poured the water off the pots and poured clean
water on. Bit worried that I had no pump to hand and was forced to use a
tap. Wondered what the modern cocktail of chlorine and nitrates might do.
but not for long as I repeated the process 3 times during the day.

Day 12.
Reread the recipe. Another week of doing nothing! Ho hum!
Ah, ha! an email from a professor of starch production. He asks, "Why not
throw the alum away and make starch from flour in a day?" Oh great!
Just what I need. Encouragement!

Days 13 to 17.
Watch the mould grow again. It's very pretty..........

Day 18.
How do you filter off bran if it's at the bottom of the tub? Are the bits of
starch small enough to go through muslin and leave the bran behind?
Only one way to find out!
I carefully lifted off the thick cover of mould thinking "I could sell this
as velvet........"
Lay a muslin square in a sieve and pored the contents of each bowl through.
It worked like a dream! Milky white stuff in the new bowls, brown bran
caught in the muslin.

Days 19 to 20.
Decanted the water off the top and topped up with clean water.

Day 21.
Poured the water off.
Poked it. Bit sloppy. The starch professor said it would go thixotropic.
What's a nice Elizabethan word for thixotropic?
Watched the starch dry off. Oops! One batch went hard and crumbled. That
doesn't seem right. Added more water. Oh good oh! It went sloppy again.

Day 22.
Decided to 'cut it out of the tubs' when it looked like chewing gum. Cast
about for 'sharp trowels' and decided a little plastic spoon got free with a
screwball icecream would do the job nicely - the starch being all of 1/4
inch thick.
Now for the trough problem.... Tiny flower pots? Too big. The ice cube tray
in the fridge? Just the job. Lined each hole with linen incase it sticks.
Packed each pot's starch into a compartment.
It only came 1/2 way up. It looks rather grey. Is it my imagination or did
pot 6 with the most alum produce the whitest starch?
Put it on the window sill to dry.

Day 23.
Ted the baker, Sorrel and I have been having a heated argument over "How hot
is the top of a baker's oven?" with Ted saying, "It depends how long you
cook the bread for." and me shouting, "The starch professor says I'll get
glue if I get this bit wrong!" until Sorrel has the illuminating thought
that none of the ovens we've used to bake bread had tops. They were set in
chimneys! Sorrel suggests an airing cupboard but I haven't got one. I
plumped for a radiator and precariously balance the ice cube tray on top and
ban the kids from entering the room.

Days 24 to 28.
Ignored it.

Day 29.
Took the linen packets out. 1,2 and 3 crumbled. Put it in the oven at 50
degrees for a couple of hours. Then left it in there.

Day 30.
Well, that's it! What have I got? All the 1/2 cubes looked the same. They
had an ecru tinge with a thin grey layer on top. (The mould! - but it
scraped off easily.) Put together I produced 1oz of starch from 6oz of bran.
Was it worth the effort? The jury is still out on that.

Starch 'speriment the second.

From Andrew Lynn my 'starch professor': "It should be easy to get some
starch in a day. Miss out the alum, grind the flour in water, and filter,
allow the filtrate to steely, and dry the sediment. Et voila, you should
have some starch."

Sounded a doddle after the first experiment so
I took 1lb of wholewheat
flour and mixed it with water in a big, see through, Pyrex pudding bowl -
and got a gloppy mess.
1 hour later it had separated into a layer of water on a layer of white
stuff on a layer of brown stuff.
I stirred it, let it settle and got another layer of white. Worrying about a
potential mould problem, I poured the water off and replaced it with clean
water 3 times.
Went to bed. The next day I changed the water 3 times more and got to the
24th hour........
It suddenly fermented. I decided I had better do something quick. I skimmed
the froth off the top and sieved it through muslin into a small, plastic
seed tray lined with muslin and paper. (Thinking I haven't got round to
making a wooden trough yet, the seed tray looks the right size, but the
plastic is not porous - line it with paper and when the starch has
solidified it should hold it's shape while it finishes off drying in the
It looked really good. White. 1/3rd of a brick's worth of starch.
I went away for 2 days and when I came back it was still damp and the top
was covered in mould!
My son Ben commented, "Mum, that's really yucky! It's got layers of mould.
The pink bit with lines of yellow round them. The white, then the grey, then
Undaunted I scraped the mould off (it came off easily) and stuck the starch
in the paper in the oven. 75 degrees for a couple of hours, and left it in
the oven for the afternoon.

It must have dried too quickly because the block broke into 3 pieces and the
top is covered in a mosaic of cracks but apart from that it looks good and
weighs 31/2ozs.

Experiments 3,4 and 5
are still on the go......more alum, more heat, and using wheatflakes.
Experiments 6 and 7 are in the pipeline with barley flakes and pearl barley.
Experiment 9 just has to be which starches stiffest: Spray starch, packet
starch, 24hour starch or it-takes-a-month-to-make-starch.

I'm sitting on the answers to a pile of questions you never knew you wanted
to ask.......
What else can make starch? Who brought starching to England? How much did
mothers pay for their daughters to learn the secret? How big is a barrel of
ale, a barrel of tar and - the closest I got to a bran tub - a barrel of

Annie the Pedlar.