By David Evans, Westminster Archives volunteer
Towards the end of 2012 the Westminster Archives Local Studies Librarian, Judith , asked me to transcribe a fascinating document that we called “The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies” as it was an anonymous hand-written cookery book with recipes from what we took to be the 1760s and others from the first decades of the nineteenth century.
The 1760s date was taken from an entry on one of the covers but we quickly realised that the handwriting, and more especially the spelling, was more like that of the Queen Anne period or even a few years earlier and that the recipes added after these, because of their “modern” spelling and lack of long essses, were much like other known recipes of the early nineteenth century Regency period and were, indeed, from that era.
As for the book’s origins, we took it to be something written up by the cook working in a large household of the times as the amounts shown for many of the dishes, cakes and pastries were prodigious with requirement for a dozen eggs, pounds of butter and pints of cream on occasions.
Later, it was decided to use the cookbook as the basis for a “Cooking Up History” blog which ran from 2013 until 2014. The idea was to recreate some of the recipes in the Archives kitchen and to ask readers for their comments on these and on their own attempts to copy our efforts. It attracted a fair number of followers which we took as a sign of its success.
On a personal basis, my favourite re-creation was our making early eighteenth century Christmas mincemeat using traditional ingredients of the era – including real meat! It was not to everyone’s taste but it was to mine especially as it had given me the chance of experiencing the flavour of something from the reign of Queen Anne.
All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable projects with which I was involved during my time as a volunteer in Westminster Archives but, regretfully, the “unknown ladies” remain unknown…
If you wish to re-visit this project to read the blog and see more photographs of the Cooking Up History project then please visit the blog.