Courtesy of the Guild of Food Writers, I took a lovely trip down Memory Lane last night. Actually, both down my own personal lane and down through the history of English cookbooks. The occasion was a talk by Peter Ross, Principal Librarian at the Guildhall Library in charge of historical cookery books – of which the Guildhall Library has the largest collection in the UK.
Once upon a time, before I got submerged in ‘freefrom’, my day job was combing through these wonderful old books and then creating books of my own which converted their recipes into cookable, and tasty, 21st century ones and set them in their historical setting. It was very good training for working with bizarre and unusual ‘freefrom’ ingredients to turn them into cookable, and tasty, 21st century ones – which is what I have been doing ever since!
Anyhow, for anyone intersted in cookbooks, the Guildhall’s collection is a delight – especially since it is free, open access from 9.30am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, with an excellent catalogue that you can access on line before you go to see whether they have what you want to look at.
The library was founded way back in 1425 as a result of a donation in the will of Richard Whittington, thrice Lord Mayer of London – the Dick Whittington of cat and legend. However, only one book from the original library remains as the whole collection was ‘borrowed’ by Lord Protector Somerset around 1549 and somehow just never got returned. (The one book they do have they had to buy back some years ago.)
Not a lot happened for the next 300 years until, in the mid 1820s, the Corporation of London decided that the City needed a library which would consist mainly of books about London and its history. Since then it has continued to grow, moving finally to its present home designed by Sir Giles Scott in 1974 in the west wing of the Guildhall.
The cookery collection grew with the library but was given a major boost by the bequest of the André Simon collection in the 1970s and then, a little later, by the aquisition of Elizabeth David’s library and a number of smaller collections such as those of my old friend Christopher Driver, for many years editor of the Good Food Guide. This means that although they do have many 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century cookbooks, they have a particularly fine collection of 20th century ones – including all the very early editions (1950s) of the Good Food Guide, edited by Raymond Postage who, I discovered, was a resident of the iconic 1930s experiment into city living for young professionals, the Lawn Road Flats, just down the road from our offices.
Peter Ross has used his unrivalled access to all these lovely books to pull together his own offering, the The Curious Cookbook – Viper Soup, Badger Ham, Stewed Sparrows and 100 more historic recipes. This is a delightful little collection with which to while away a grey November afternoon and apart from the above, includes recipes for Whore’s Farts (a fritter…), artifical asses’ milk made from bruised snails, a dishful of snow (created from whisked egg whites) and, from the 1940s, freshly roasted asparagus coffee….. However, I could not see, but maybe I missed it, one of my own favourite ‘curiosities’, from Sir Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies (c. 1600):
‘How beef may be carried at sea without that strong and violent impression of salt which is usually purchased by long and extreme powdering (salting).
Let all the blood be first well gotten out of the beef by leaving the same for nine or ten days in our usual brine, then barrel up all the pieces in vessels full of holes, and fastening them with ropes at the stern of the ship, and so dragging them through the salt sea water (which by his infinite change and succession of water will suffer no putrefaction, as I suppose) you may happily find your beef both sweet and savoury when you come to spend (eat) the same.’
Peter Ross’s book can be bought at the Guildhall (£12) or from Amazon here. With the exception of The British Museum Cookbook and Food Fit for Phaorahs (still both on sale at the British Museum) all my other historical cookery books are now out of print although I suspect copies can also be tracked down via Amazon.