Wednesday, 18 March 2015

For the Love of Old Cookbooks

On a chilly winters night a few weeks ago we had our first East Cork Slow Food event of the year: "How a Love Of Food And Literature Can Bring Your Life In A Different Direction" where eminent food historian Dorothy Cashman kept us riveted and whetted many peoples appetite for food history, old cookbooks and lore that they hadn’t a jot of interest in before.

Dorothy Cashman
Dorothy, herself had almost stumbled into what has now becoming an all absorbing hobby. Good wholesome food and convivial family meals were an important part of her childhood and stirred up as they do for many of us, nostalgic and happy memories.

In 1991 Dorothy decided to take a career break from her air hostess job in Aer Lingus to learn how to cook. After three months here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, her interest in all things gastronomic grew. She found herself intrigued by food history and old cookbooks and became particularly fascinated by the manuscript cookbooks of the great Irish houses. 

Interestingly, relatively little work had been done on this area, it was almost as through it was ‘air brushed’ out of our history. Most cookbooks, including my own Traditional Irish Cooking had concentrated on the food of the poor and middle classes, simple, nourishing and often delicious, but hardly sophisticated food.

However, Dorothy quickly discovered that the clichéd image of traditional Irish food was only part of the story. As in every country, the food depended on the social status and economic situation of the family. The food eaten in many of the great houses was fascinating and reflected the fresh produce of the estate. Fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit from the walled garden, orchards and greenhouses. Game during the season and fish from the local rivers and lakes or a fish pond on the estate. Several houses had a ready supply of squabs from their columbarium and there were many ice houses, some of which are still in existence. The cook, with a few notable exceptions ,was local but often incorporated recipes into their repertoire that the lady of the house had got from friends or had collected on the Grand Tour of Europe.

Fortunately, the lady of the house sometimes recorded the 'receipts' as they were then known into a beautiful bound book in exquisite copper plate handwriting. These manuscript cookbooks are an important social record as well as a deeply personal account of what the family was eating at that point in time. They were never meant to be published or read outside of the family circle so they are invariably written in a casual unguarded style, with the occasional aside or alteration. 


Image from http://www.heritagerecipes.com/

From some of the entries one might deduce that the lady of the house, not herself a cook, was transcribing the cooks receipt as it was relayed to her. The cook, particularly in earlier years, may well have been illiterate and her mistress often had little understanding of quantities or cooking techniques so not all recipes are accurate or can be relied on to work. There’s also the possibility that some cooks didn’t necessarily want to share their secrets!

Dorothy discovered an extensive archive of manuscript cookbooks dating from 1700 to mid/late 1800 in the National Library and has since embarked on a fascinating research project, a journey of discovery where each little clue opens new doors and gives new insights into our traditions and food culture. And the fascinating families who lived in these houses, brought recipes with them from their childhood homes and collected and shared with their friends and neighbouring estates.

Dorothy, stressed that there are still handwritten recipe collections often written in simple copy books in the back of drawers or in a box in the attic in many homes, these are really worth rescuing. They may not be of sufficient interest to be part of the national collection but each is worth saving as a family heirloom.

If you think you have a manuscript cookbook that may be of interest, contact Dorothy Cashman at dorothycashman1@eircom.net.

No comments:

Post a Comment