Roasted badger and raisin wine: historical cookbooks reveal surprising recipes

Broadcaster Ruth Watson’s archive, spanning centuries, is up for auction, revealing some radically different tastes – and some startlingly similar ones

The perennial British argument over the best way to make a cup of tea dates back to at least the 17th century, when a cookbook warned that “the water is to remain upon it no longer than whiles you can say the Miserere Psalm very leisurely”.

Published in 1677, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt also contains at least 50 recipes for making metheglin, a type of mead made with herbs and spices, as well as ones for stepony, a raisin wine; bragot, an ale flavoured with honey and spices; and a somewhat less tempting tea made with eggs.

The 350-year-old volume is part of a large collection of antiquarian cookbooks owned by Ruth Watson, presenter of television programmes The Hotel Inspector and Country House Rescue, which are due to be sold at Bonhams in London on 19 August.

Watson put the collection together over nearly 40 years, and it also includes a handwritten recipe and household book kept by the Croft family of Stillington Hall in Yorkshire, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. The Crofts recorded family recipes including directions for preserving a whole pineapple, making raisin wine , as well as “Mrs Haslers receipt for a thick cream cheese”, which involved taking “the mornings milk of 7 cows & the nights cream of 7 cows”.

T Hall’s The Queen’s Royal Cookery, from 1713, valued at between £700-900.
Ruth Watson’s copy of T Hall’s The Queen’s Royal Cookery, from 1713. Photograph: Bonhams

In a rare edition of an early US cookbook, from 1830, the author advocates the use of American ingredients such as cranberries, corn, turkeys and watermelon, rather than the “English, French and Italian methods of rendering things indigestible”.

“These evils are attempted to be avoided. Good republican dishes and garnishing, proper to fill an every day bill of fare, from the condition of the poorest to the richest individual, have been principally aimed at,” notes the author of the lengthily titled The Cook Not Mad, or Rational Cookery; Being a Collection of Original and Selected Receipts, Embracing not only the Art of Curing Various Kinds of Meats and Vegetables for Future Use, but of Cooking, in its General Acceptation, to the Taste, Habits, and Degrees of Luxury, Prevalent with the American Publick, in Town and Country ... together with Sundry Miscellaneous Kinds of Information, of Importance to Housekeepers in General.

Watson’s books show that even hundreds of years ago, diets were the rage. Thomas Elgyot’s 16th-century Castell of Health gave advice about the effects of different foods and diets “whereby every man may knowe the state of his owne body”. And one 18th-century collection of handwritten recipes includes a “powder for the teeth to fasten them and make them white”, and a concoction of herbs and spices, mithridate, treacle and aqua vitae, billed as “good against the common plague, but also against the sweating sickness, the small pox, measles and surfeits”.

Bonhams said the books showed that “many of the things we assume are quite modern – cookery schools, restaurant guides, Portuguese pasteis de nata available in England – have actually been around for ages, from the 1700s”.

Bonhams senior book specialist Simon Roberts said: “Time and again while I was cataloguing this wonderful historic collection, I was struck by the number of references to economy, frugality and health and the parallels with our own times. The role of food, not only in keeping well but in warding off disease and aiding recovery, is a constant theme. Some of the suggestions may strike us as outlandish, but others are a good deal more sensible than the fad diets of today.”

Ruth Watson
‘We simply don’t boil vegetables for a day before we eat them’ ... Ruth Watson. Photograph: Bonhams

Some dishes are less tempting, with a gammon of roasted badger and a viper soup featuring in one 18th-century book, while a 1653 collection of medical recipes recommends that convulsions are to be treated with the dung of a peacock, and jaundice with powdered earthworms.

Watson said she had never cooked directly from the books but that she had “always been very interested in how they link with food we eat today, and where they don’t”.

“We simply don’t boil vegetables for a day before we eat them. But foodstuffs we would now consider perhaps exotic, like salsify, they were using regularly. They were importing parmesan and what they called raisins of the sun and all kinds of food we regard as fairly specialist,” said Watson, who with her husband, David, ran the country house hotel Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk for many years and is now the owner of the newly opened Watson and Walpole restaurant in the same county.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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