Next time you’re leafing through that well-thumbed copy of Juvenal’s Sixteen Satires in the downstairs loo, take another look at Satire V. In it, a cruel host consumes exquisite crayfish and lampreys whilst forcing his guests to eat “grey-mottled river-pike, born and bred in the Tiber, bloated with sewage”. Now there’s an idea for a themed dinner party – a Roman banquet, where you recline on a banquette eating “suckling pig à la Flaccus” and your fellow diners have to make do with “boiled peas à la Vitellius”.

Well, thanks to English Heritage’s range of miniature historical cook-books, you can do just that. Sadly, there’s no recipe in Roman Cookery for effluent-reared Tiberian pike, but there are plenty of other delicacies to satiate your Classical appetite. Should you wish to emulate Henry VIII (or, failing that, Charles Laughton) and eat boiled capons with your hands, then a brief perusal of Tudor Cookery will give you the wherewithal; if the Prince Regent Diet Plan – incredibly rich food for the incredibly rich – is more to your taste, try Georgian Cookery. In fact, the series traces the culinary delights of this country right the way from cavemen times (Prehistoric Cookery) to World War II (Ration Book Cookery), and supplies back-ground material on the period in question alongside the inevitable recipes. There are paintings, woodcuts, photos of English Heritage types in costume, and extracts from contemporary texts. This means that we are treated to such humorously spelt gems as this method for making apple fritters from Stuart Cookery: “Take good ale, make yt bloud warme, put to yt some fine wheatne flower, the yelkes of 4 or 5 egges…” (The rest of this “receipt” is a secret known only to Stuart chefs – or those who buy the book.)

There is much entertainment to be had from browsing through these petite volumes and marvelling at the strange diets of the people of the past; it is debatable, however, that any of these foodstuffs will become firm favourites in the kitchen. At least during World War II, people had an excuse for eating such dreadful rubbish, what with all that rationing going on and the U-boats preventing imported food from reaching these shores. But nowadays we are unlikely to want to make (for example) mock clotted cream using dried milk, given that real cream is readily available. And the foodstuffs of the other timezones are scarcely more appealing: witness such delicious concoctions as dried pea purée with sprouts (Medieval Cookery), sweet cubes of jellied milk (Tudor Cookery) and calf’s-foot jelly (Victorian Cookery). It seems that LP Hartley was right when he wrote that “the past is a foreign country” – they eat dodgy food there.

First published in World of Interiors issue 272. Reproduced with permission.

Recipes and History

(English Heritage)

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