A Book of Historical Recipes, by Sara Paston-Williams, published in the U.K. by The National Trust.
If you enjoyed Sara Paston-Williams piece on the National Trust’s Historical Recipe Project you will undoubtedly love A Book of Historical Recipes, her compilation of popular dishes from Britain’s past. This slender paperback is a handy distillation of her much larger earlier work, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating, published by the National Trust in 1993.
Along with a good quantity of historical recipes, Williams presents a general introduction to five periods of British culinary history in five separate chapters: Medieval and Early Tudor Food, Elizabethan Food, Stuart Food, Georgian Food, and Victorian and Edwardian Food. These introductions provide the perfect prelude to the recipes that follow; Williams explains in detail the social and cultural background to each period and how these factors influenced what was eaten and why. She also describes the development of cooking technology throughout the centuries and how it influenced food preparation.
Each recipe is accompanied by historical references drawn from a number of sources, including original recipe books and manuscripts. Williams retains the archaic spellings and language, allowing these cooks from the past to speak to us in their own tongue. ‘To Fry Parsnips,’ Elizabeth Birkett advises us in her commonplace book from 1699, ‘Let the parsnips be first tender boyled, and if they be thick cleave them, being peeled, then strew a little bit Cinamon on them and put them to steep in little Sack ffry [sic] them in a little butter.’ Williams follows each quote with some commentary, providing late- 20th-century readers with the necessary background. ‘Parsnips,’ Williams explains, ‘like carrots, skirrets and sweet potatoes, were popular.’
I was pleasantly surprised to find that in addition to such quaint recipes as ‘Potted Hare’ and ‘Scotch Collops with Forcemeat Balls’, I was actually able to find several historical recipes that I could actually imagine myself preparing. The Georgian recipe for ‘Creamy Macaroni Cheese’, for instance, is in fact basically the same as my mother’s old standby that I’ve been relying on for years (with the notable exception of a teaspoon of dried English mustard which sounds to me like a delicious addition). Another recipe for ‘Chocolate Cream’, which calls for a quarter-pint of real double cream, was enough to make my mouth water.
As with all books published by the National Trust, this one is copiously illustrated with photographs of the National Trust properties from which the recipes were drawn as well as period paintings and illustrations. Although all the recipes contain both U.S. and metric measurements, a handy U.S. conversion table at the back of the book is an added bonus.
For the historian who loves to eat or the gastronome with an interest in history, this delightful book makes the perfect gift any time of the year.
Leigh Ann Berry