Friday 23 March 2018

One family, one recipe book and over 300 years of culinary history

Shane Hickey

First you will need the head of a calf. A few steps later involving the pantry staples of breadcrumbs, butter, eggs, oysters and anchovies, a quick roasting over an open fire and you will be halfway there to one of the mid-table meals of the 18th Century.

Admittedly this may sound a little elaborate for the average four-rung gas hob in a west Dublin two-bed, but the 'Calfs Head Hash' method – one of hundreds of recipes which has emerged as part of a family cookbook dating back 320 years – is helping historians in London with a unique insight into how families at the time ate.

Researchers from the archives of the City of Westminster in London have recently discovered what has been dubbed 'The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies' in their files and are now delving into the hand-written manuscript which details recipes between 1690 and 1820.

From a "pudding of carrots" to "Veal Kidney Florentine", the book's recipes show what an upper middle-class Georgian family was eating over those years – and the copious amounts of butter involved in making the food. Amongst the entries are recipes which are precursors to what can be seen in many English homes now, apple fritters and mince pies amongst them, to those, which may weigh a bit too heavy on even the most sturdy of post-pub iron stomachs, like Cows' Foot pudding.

Judith Finnamore, a librarian with the City of Westminster Archives centre, said it was likely the bound manuscript was handed down through six generations of a family who they were now hoping to identify.

While the book has been in the library for the past 10 years, a misfiling meant that its importance was overlooked until recently.

"There is the odd clue, like the name of a bakehouse which is given in the book and sometimes you can get a sense of where they might have been living.

"You suspect they might have been in the London area because they seem to have access to a huge range of ingredients and probably the big markets in places like Covent Garden. At the same time they seem to be running a small farm, using their own milk and eggs," she said.

Also apparent from reading the book is how tastes changed over the 130-year period, from French influence in the 19th Century – it was fashionable during that period to have a French cook – to the use of river water in the earlier recipes.

Food historian Dr Annie Gray, who is working on the project, said the dishes in the book were designed to be put on the table at once. "It is not like restaurants today where you are brought a plate and expected to eat everything on it," she said.

"Their calorific needs tend to be more than what we would need. We are supposed to eat 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. A manual worker in the past would need about 6,000 calories. The people eating in this book would need 3,000 to 3,500 calories.

"It does not have a lot of vegetable recipes because vegetables in the past tended to be served plain boiled with a melted butter sauce."

Modern chefs have frequently looked at the past for inspiration. Heston Blumenthal's 'Dinner' restaurant in London uses recipes which are based on historical dishes.

However, the same recipes as featured in the book would not fit with modern requirements for a healthy lifestyle, according to Bridget Benelam of the British Nutrition Foundation.

"In the context of today's diet, these would be considered very rich – they contain lots of ingredients like butter, suet, pastry and cream and very little fruit or vegetables, which would be an issue for us in terms of increasing risk of obesity and heart disease, although in the 1600s, with much higher levels of physical activity and none of the labour-saving devices we have now, this may not have been such an issue," she said.

Attempts have been made to replicate the recipes in the book to varying degrees of success. There were "very mixed responses" to the veal kidney florentine, says Finnamore, while an almond pudding went down very well.

The recipes and attempts to recreate them can be followed at

Irish Independent

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