Eating History

Cooking Research

The longer I linger in the kitchen, the more I feel a sense of identity and belonging.  With every scrap of a recipe saved from an ancient notebook, with every hand-written annotation in a gardening book, every gravy stain and sticky page I feel more and more connected to the unending line of history behind us.  In every kitchen there is a promise of ingenuity and daring that has allowed so many people to embrace cookery with creativity and enthusiasm, to catch the cooking bug.

I have always been drawn to the past and to an age when to learn one had to do.   Before the profusion of Victorian-era cookbooks, cookery was very much the territory of those who were directly involved in the process, no reviews, no blogs, no broad library of cuisine, no provedore, no gourmand.  To cook, you simply had to know what stuff did, what it tasted like, when it was available and what you could do with it.  What an adventure that must have been!

The Medieval to Victorian period was also a time of immense discovery both in terms of food and the world as a whole.  New foodstuffs were coming in from all over the globe. Printing meant that recipes were starting to circulate – from the 14th century Le Viandier de Taillevent right through to those wonderful articles published by Mrs Beeton herself during the Victorian period.  I have drawn on all this culinary history at various times in my life, immersing myself in the minute detail of the everyday lives and loves from the past and the wondrous creations that graced their tables.  It is also the humble foods I find so enchanting, the preserves and pickles, the pasties and pies, the stewed fruits and puddings that bring comfort, luxury and love from the hearth to the home.  I truly love that notion.  I cherish the idea that we all have the power to convey love and comfort through food, that we can teach, inspire and pass on skills almost without trying. Food is the great constant in history, it sustains us, it consoles us, it enriches our lives and allows us to communicate before there are words, and after them.

Every kitchen, however new seems to hold a spirit, a sense of potential and past.  I have a hand-written recipe I found tucked in the back of  a very old copy of The Manchester Cookery Book with the delightful words at the end "Put a cross on the top [of the Irish Soda Bread] or the pixies won't allow it to rise" – I am not above letting pixies in my kitchen.  Sometimes  I feel as if Mrs Beeton herself is peering over my shoulder, no doubt tutting disapprovingly as I throw scraps of dough into the sink or pour myself another tipple while I am waiting for my casserole to complete its culinary journey.  I feel the history of food, that sense of pride and accomplishment that so many of us have experienced as a finished dish glides from plate to mouth with a moistened grin of expectation.  It's not just grand  history though, it's the more domestic and recent also. 

As I was growing up there were always people in our house, there were fancy dress parties, there were friends, there was book-club, and tennis, and breakfast banquets, and Christmas and Halloween parties (before anyone else had them) and casual dinners, and barbeques, cocktail parties and sleepovers, birthday parties, Boxing Day feasts, fondue nights, and picnics.  Every time I cook I evoke these memories and revel in the moment of a mistily remembered bustling kitchen; of my Dad meticulously planning a surprise birthday party for my Mum, of my sister making me a glossy golden birthday-cake, of my mum tottering vivaciously in the kitchen until the wee small hours in preparation for a Christmas feast or just me pottering, making soup and toast.  I remember all these things and though I do not seek to recreate them, I draw on these memories to inject my present and future cooking  with just a smattering of my past.

Home LibraryWithout my parents rather extravagant parties, their exuberant personalities and their unique proficiency in the kitchen, I would never have learned the skills required for feeding hordes of people, for making vast quantities of quiche, for making a Christmas cake that is second to none, not because it is my recipe but because it is the product of that time, that love and that depth of happiness.  From a very early age I was drawn into the kitchen, shown how things worked and given the freedom to cook and explore.  Some of my earliest cooking memories are from well before I could read a recipe, but once I could read – wow!  At primary school I exhausted the little library in no time and have recently reacquainted myself with some of those kids cooking books and they are a blast.

My grandmother passed on to me a number of recipes – Lemon Fluff slice, Date loaf, Christmas Shortbread, Lemon Butter Cake – and I vividly remember watching her beating her cakes by hand, making rice pudding so that the crust seemed to have a life of its own, billowing up through the oven...  By watching her, silently perched on my kitchen chair, resisting the temptation to plunge my fingers into the sticky batter, I absorbed so much.  I have much to be grateful for as so many in our family are passionate about food and have the abilities to back up their passions. 

I remember my aunts, each one of them exquisite cooks, each one with their specialities – Vienna Schnitzel, Scones, Gingerbread houses that defy explanation and far exceed your expectations....   There is also great variety in our cooking.  My father is a vegetarian and has been for longer than I have been alive (so at least a thousand years I guess) and he can create a meal that only at the end of it you realise there was no meat, so wonderful is it on its own.  Conversely my mother, herself an exceptional cook, does not shy away from eating almost anything – at least once!   I was a vegetarian or vegan until I was 22, at which time poor health directed me back to eating beasts.  It was my mum's Chicken Liver Pâté that helped steer me back to health laden as it was with protein and iron.

It is this sort of variety that made my personal cooking journey so informative.  I was, even as a child, transfixed by cooking, by the idea of cooking – even things I didn't like to eat. My Dad can make a curry to strip your paint or a Gin and Tonic that blows your head off, and it is all wonderful.  Every time he returns from a trip we spend long periods huddled together discussing the various fare enjoyed.   For us it is not 'where did you go on holidays?' it is more 'what did you eat, what did you drink...?'  I have brought back from my own holidays many wonderful food memories and experiences.  Sharing a Medieval meat feast in a traditional subterranean restaurant just off the banks of the Vltava River in Prague is something I will never forget – nor will I forget the horrific black pudding from Edinburgh...  yet all of these experiences enhance my own cooking passion and many have ended up here.