November 30, 2012 7:14 pm

The history cook: The Accomplisht Cook

The contemporary Christmas feast is as nothing compared to a 1660 ‘bill of fare’ – 39 dishes, from roast swan to goose jellies
'The Accomplisht Cook' by Robert May©Nina Mangalanayagam

Robert May wrote his book at 72, after a life spent working as a chef

The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery, Robert May, 1660

If the thought of hosting Christmas fills you with trepidation, be grateful that you don’t have to roast a swan, stuff a kid, make goose jellies, source live frogs or build an exploding pastry castle. These are just some of the Christmas entertainments suggested by Robert May in his 1660 cookery book, The Accomplisht Cook.

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May wrote his book at the age of 72, having spent his life working as a chef for aristocratic families. Served over two courses (39 dishes in total), May’s festive “Bill of Fare” includes pies, roasts, puddings, brawns, custards and jellies. With recipes for dried neats’ (calves’) tongues, stewed broth of mutton marrow bones or a pottage (thick broth) of caponets, much of this menu seems to belong to a distant medieval past. But on closer inspection, the oysters that kick-start May’s feast and the roast turkey stuffed with cloves wouldn’t be out of place at a contemporary Christmas. And though our mince pies do not contain the “eight pounds of beef” in May’s recipe, currants, raisins, nutmeg, mace and cloves are common to both.

The dishes proposed by May for Christmas are less startling than the sheer quantity of food on offer. May’s guests had 20 first courses and 19 second courses to get through. In addition to the aforementioned pies, pottages, puddings and turkey, chefs preparing May’s menu had to cook two capons, a haunch of venison, a leg of lamb, a pig, three brace of partridge, six teal, six woodcocks, a gammon, three pheasant, a swan, a breast of veal, sturgeon, 10 plovers, three ducks, a kid and a chine of beef. The menu does include one salad, or “Grand Sallet” as it was known, but even this contains a whole capon and a breast of lamb or veal.

After more than a decade in which Puritans had dominated public life, the hundreds of recipes and lavish Christmas menu presented in May’s book must have delighted his readership. For the Puritans, the excesses of Christmas, so popular with Catholics, were an affront to religion. Christmas games of chance and food traditions such as stirring the mincemeat for luck were seen as an insult to God’s providence. In a 1656 pamphlet, Hezekiah Woodward denounced Christmas as, “The old Heathens feasting Day, in honour to Saturn their Idol-God … ”

The Puritan parliament that eventually deposed Charles I made various attempts to outlaw Christmas. In 1644, when Christmas day fell on a Wednesday, the last Wednesday of every month was declared a day of penance and fasting. In 1647, all holidays “hithertofore superstitiously used” were banned by law. Shops were forced to stay open and the festive boughs used to decorate churches were ripped down. Cancelling Christmas was not a popular move. Shopkeepers who obeyed the new laws were attacked by rioters; popular songs and plays mocked the Puritans and celebrated Christmas.

Published in the year that the monarchy was restored, May’s book was a reminder of “life before the unhappy and Cruel Disturbences” of Puritan rule. Festive menus are only part of the exuberance and frivolity. An entire chapter details how to entertain guests as the nobility did “before good House-Keeping had left England”. May instructs readers to make a large pastry ship and a separate pastry castle, each complete with cannons and gunpowder. Place these on a table surrounded with eggshells containing scented water. Next to these put a hollow pastry stag filled with claret and speared with an arrow. Beside the stag lay two large pies, one containing live frogs, the other live birds. Invite a lady guest to pull the arrow from the stag so that the claret pours out “as blood runneth out of a wound”. Next, light the gunpowder so the ship and castle fire on each other and then, to “sweeten the stink of powder”, ask the ladies to throw the egg shells at one another. Finally, a guest should lift the lids on the pies so that “the flying Birds, the skipping Frogs … will cause much delight” and make the “Ladies skip and shreek”.

Only very few people in the 17th century would have had the means to replicate May’s Christmas menu, pre-feast japes or recipes, but cookery books, then as now, are only partly read for instruction. Imagining May’s Christmas feast and picturing his pre-dinner diversion is a vicarious domestic fantasy we can all enjoy.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘The Accomplisht Cook’ by kind permission from the British Library collection.

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To Roast a Calves Head with Oysters

Take a Calves head and cleave it, take out the brains and wash them very well with the head, cut out the tongue, and blanch, and parboil the brains, as also the head and tongue; then mince the brains and tongue with a little sage, oysters, marrow, or beef suet very small, mix with it three or four yolks of raw eggs, beaten ginger, pepper, nutmeg, grated bread, salt, and a little sac, this being done, then take the calves head, and fill it with the composition where the brains and tongue lay; binde it up close together, spit it, and stuff it with oysters, compounded with nutmeg, mace, tyme, grated bread, salt, and pepper.

Mix all these with a little vinegar, and the white of an egg, and roul the oysters in it; stuff the head with it as full as you can, and roast it thorowly, setting a dish under it to catch the gravy, wherein let there be oysters, sweet herbs minced, a little white wine and slic’t nutmeg; when the head is roasted, set the dish wherein the sauce is on the coals to stew a little, then put in a piece of butter, the juice of an orange, and salt, beating it up thick together, dish the head, and put the sauce to it, and serve it hot to the table.

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