Cookbook of Unknown Ladies: Historian discovers 300-year-old recipe collection - now, roast sheep’s head, anyone?

  • @SAMuston

If the maxim “know us through our food” still holds water, then not many would care to be on nodding terms with the authors of the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, given that it’s long on recipes using sheep heads and cow heel and short on things like summer salads or posh burgers. But, then again, we ought to make exceptions, it being 300 years old and all.

The handwritten compendium of recipes, which traverses the years 1690 to 1830, was re-discovered by Judith Finnamore, local studies librarian at Westminster Council’s Archives Centre, who believes she was the first to open it in over a century.

Along with volunteers and food historian Annie Gray, Finnamore is now recreating the recipes – and blogging about it as she goes. Although a fine and interesting way to explore culinary history, it isn’t without its problems, says Finnamore. “Eggs are a problem. Some of the recipes call for 30 to be used. But obviously eggs are much bigger today, so Annie has had to help adapt what’s written.

“Some of the recipes are ‘challenging’ for our palates – I mean the sheep’s head dish won’t be for everyone.” Other surprises include “mince pies” with calves tongue in them.

There is also a vast 3lb cake, whose inclusion is puzzling given Finnamore doesn’t think this was used by a cook at some great country pile, but rather that it came from a “place like the Bennett house in Pride and Prejudice”. Which leads us to the question: would Mr Darcy have ever overcome his pride if Elizabeth had been snacking on 3lb cake and calf-tongue mince pies? Hmmm.