Telegraph Journal Article

Published Saturday August 21st, 2010

FREDERICTON – It was her silky voice and musical laugh that first caught the attention of a lonely British aristocrat, but it was her delicious pickles that immortalized Lady Ashburnham in the hearts of many New Brunswickers.

Lady Ashburnham

Lady Ashburnham

Provincial Archives of New Bruns
Lady Ashburnham

The Lady Ashburnham mustard pickle is one of the most enduring recipes in the province. As pickle season heats up, cooks across New Brunswick will be reaching for treasured recipes that bear the name of this home-grown member of the British elite.

But there’s a charming, Pygmalion love story behind the gleaming jars of yellow pickles, one which propelled a lowly Fredericton telephone operator to the highest echelons of British society.

“She had a very pleasing voice apparently,” Ted Jones, a Fredericton historian and author, said in an interview Friday. “He became infatuated.”

The woman in question was Maria Anderson, born in Fredericton in 1858. The man was Capt. Thomas Ashburnham, the fifth son of the fourth Earl of an ancient and wealthy family and the black sheep of the clan.

Although Thomas had been decorated by Queen Victoria for his service with the Queen’s Own Seventh Hussars, Ashburnham’s love of drinking and gambling prompted the family to send him off the colonies where he at least would be out of sight.

He was sent to Fredericton in the early 1900s with a large annuity to pursue a life of travel and leisure.

Jones said it was late-night calls from Ashburnham to the Fredericton telephone exchange that triggered the romance.

Maria was an operator and she would handle Ashburnham’s calls for a horse and carriage to take him from one of the capital’s many taverns to his lodgings at the Windsor Hotel.

“Each time he called, they chatted, laughed and soon fell in love,” Jones says.

“She cured him of the drinking and gambling. She turned him around and he became quite an upstanding citizen.”

They married in Fredericton in 1903. Jones said Maria’s wedding dress is still on display at the York-Sunbury Museum.

The couple lived in downtown Fredericton and she did a lot of entertaining, often serving a tasty mustard pickle that was actually made by her sister, Lucy.

“Maria herself never went near the kitchen,” Jones said.

When Ashburnham arrived in Fredericton, it was believed there was virtually no chance he would inherit the family titles and estates. As the fifth son, he was far down the line for inheritance.

But his older brothers all died in fairly rapid succession and, in 1913, Thomas became the sixth Earl of Ashburnham and the last in the line.

Maria, daughter of a Fredericton firefighter, became Right Honourable, the Countess of Ashburnham, mistress of three large estates and a London townhouse.

“When he inherited the title they went to England, but she was never accepted over there and they were never as happy as they were here in Fredericton,” Jones said. “So they came back to New Brunswick.”

Once back in the social whirl of the capital, where Maria and Thomas were stars, the pickles became increasingly associated with the countess.

Although she didn’t actually make them herself, she distributed them at church suppers, afternoon teas and fundraisers. Jones said that, as result, the tasty and popular mustard pickles became known as Lady Ashburnham’s pickles.

“It’s a good recipe and it’s quite simple in terms of pickle recipes,” Marg Demerson, former food writer for The Daily Gleaner and a pickle maker, said in an interview.

“I used to write a column called Try My Recipe and somebody had written in wanting the recipe for Lady Ashburnham pickles. I put the request in the paper and got a lot of responses. It’s very popular.”

Demerson and Jones said that while there are variations, the basic recipe calls for cucumbers, onions, vinegar, sugar, mustard and seasonings.

“Some people add red pepper, but I don’t believe that was in the original recipe, Demerson said.

“Today, where we’re more safety conscious, I would recommend processing them in a boiling water bath to make sure they stay fresh as long as possible.”

Lord Ashburnham died of pneumonia on a visit to London in 1924. He was 70.

Maria died of a heart attack in 1938 in Fredericton.

Jones said her tombstone in Fredericton’s Rural Cemetery bears the full title of her peerage which is so long, it circles the stone.