July 17, 2013

Calf’s head hash, and other recipes: librarian discovers 300 year old cook book


Calf’s Head Hash: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

A librarian at Westminster Council’s Archives Centre has discovered a 300 year old book of recipes which she believes has not been opened for more than 100 years. Judith Finnamore, who works on local studies at the centre, found a collection of recipes compiled over the period of 1690 to 1830 and passed down from mothers to daughters – and all beautifully handwritten.

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies provides new insight into British culinary history, and reveals the popular recipes used daily in the home. Now Finnamore and her colleagues have begun trying out these recipes themselves, thus turning the compendium of recipes into its modern-day counterpart, a food blog.  Writing on the blog, Finnamore says,

This remarkable manuscript contains hand-written recipes from the early 1700s to the mid 19th century, covering one of the most exciting periods of development in the English kitchen. It is a time of technological innovation and of  evolving tastes, as the price of exotic imports fell with the ever-widening reach of British trading routes.

Finnamore also admires the skills of these cooks, whose identity is still unknown, and their relationship with the food they cooked:

There are also parallels with today’s ‘slow food’ movement. Kitchens drew largely on seasonal, locally-sourced produce, and as far as possible used food produced in their own smallholdings and gardens. The compilers of this Cookbook make their own cheese from freshly drawn milk, fearlessly stuff calves heads, and demonstrate considerable skill in butchery. They appear deeply connected with the food they eat and where it comes from.

The culinary craft of these periods includes many ingredients and combinations of flavours that one wouldn’t necessarily think to try today. A sweet spinach tart, Calf’s head hash (the first step, naturally, is to ‘boil the head’) and ‘Veal Kidney Florentine’ are only some of recipes attempted by the bloggers. In other posts, Finnamore and fellow writers use the recipes as a starting point to trace the history of food and its preparation and cooking in the British home.

For those who like recipes with a historical bite, Melville House’s vegetarian cookbook, The Duke’s Table, published earlier this year, also has its origins in history. Compiled in 1930, it was written by Enrico Alliata, an Italian Duke, who so believed in vegetarianism that he converted every classic Italian dish into a delectable vegetarian delight. What’s more, the Duke’s recipes also have their origins in the Italian Food Movement, a movement which was as political as it was culinary. The slow food movement was a way for workers to enjoy the same long lunch breaks as their bosses, and thus gain better working conditions. Better food, better rights.

And there isn’t a cow heel in sight.



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.