I am having dinner in the boardroom of Sotheby’s, and a plate of tortellini is placed before me. I haven’t yet studied the menu so I ask Anton Edelmann, the celebrated chef who has devised the meal and is sitting to my left, to tell me what is inside the delicate parcels of pasta. “Dormice.”
There is a short lull in our conversation, and a number of unsavoury thoughts bubble through my mind, the most disturbing of which is that I have just tucked into my first tortellino, and I am sampling its texture, which is becoming less appealing with each bite. What, really? Edelmann’s features relax into a mischievous smile. No, not really. He has plundered a recipe from a 1541 cookbook, by one Apicius Coelius, but stopped short of using its most notorious ingredient. The “mock dormice” described on the menu tonight is actually rabbit. Sighs of relief all round. We are here to celebrate the cookbooks of the past, a distinguished collection of which is being offered for sale by the auction house on Thursday, but there are limits. What tasted good in the 16th century does not always appeal to the modern palate. I skim down the rest of the menu, happy to see nothing more menacing than peaches.
The collection on offer has been compiled by Stanley J Seeger, an American art and book collector who lives in London and once owned Sutton Place, a Tudor mansion in Surrey. He is best known as a collector of Picasso and Joseph Conrad first editions, but has also amassed cookbooks stretching from the 15th century to the present day.
It is a timely moment for the sale. Looming austerity has refocused gastronomic priorities. Some of London’s most fashionable restaurants are looking to the past for inspiration, promoting the authenticity and frugality of their dishes rather than their opulence, while retro-dining – fish fingers and mushy peas, school dinner puddings – looks ever more appealing in these straitened times.
Though many people think of cookbooks as beginning with Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861, cookbooks were among the first books to be published soon after the invention of printing, although early versions were more concerned with promoting medicinal values than tickling palates. Michael Puff, a professor of medicine from Vienna, brought out a treatise on distillation and the pharmaceutical use of herbs in 1477, saving his most telling piece of advice for his final chapter: half a spoonful of brandy a day, he said, would be sure to ward off ill health. But where food lurks, gluttony is never far behind. Gradually, cookbooks began to address the rituals and etiquette of fine dining, not to mention the rampant appetites of Europe’s aristocracy.
The 300 recipes compiled in 1549 by Cristoforo di Messibugo, Count Palatine at the court of Charles V, include notes on entertainment to accompany feasts, such as Ariosto’s play Cassaria. The first edition offered here is estimated to fetch £15,000.
A 1631 volume on the “Batchelers (sic) Banquet” printed in London is surely worth its £2,000-£3,000 estimate for its subtitle alone: “Wherein is prepared sundry dainty dishes to furnish their tables, curiously drest ... Pleasantly discoursing the variable humours of women, their quicknesse of wits and unsearchable deceits.”
There are also rare monographs on offer. Bernardino Gomez Miedes wrote a whole book on salt in 1572: his shock conclusion was that it was very good for you, as well as possessing mystical qualities. But then there were no Pringles in 1572. His counter-cultural advice is available in a 1605 edition for £1,000-£1,500. There is more home-spun wisdom from a five-volume set from the 17th century, this time on how to prevent drunkenness: “Drink first a good large draught of Sallet Oyl, for that will float upon the wine which you shall drink, and suppress the spirits from ascending into the brain. Also what quantity soever of new milk you drink first, you may well drink thrise as much wine after, without danger of being drunk.”
But we patronise the past at our peril. One of the auction’s star lots (£3,000-£4,000) is Anthelme Brillat Savarin’s Physiologie du Goût of 1826, offering various chemical analyses of the results of food on the body, which can be seen as the precursor of the current craze for molecular cuisine.
Dormice aside, the historical recipes here do not provoke much of a yuck factor, although there is something a little sad about the recipe for “Lapwings with champaign”, from Vincent La Chapelle’s The Modern Cook of 1736. That is partly because it has once more become fashionable for chefs to prize previously unappealing parts of animal carcases, says David Goldthorpe, director of books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.
We finished our dinner with Peaches à la Varenne, named after the 17th-century French patissier. The dish snapped, crackled and popped, bringing to mind a more modern breakfast invention. It was a neat trick, and Edelmann, who was head chef at the Savoy for 21 years, wouldn’t reveal its secret.
He says he would love to travel in a Tardis back to the 18th century to see what those dishes really tasted like. Dormice included? “Sure, why not?”
The ‘Books for Cooks’ auction is on July 15 at Sotheby’s London, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1. An exhibition of the books featured runs from July 11-14; see www.sothebys.com
Real men don’t just eat quiche, they make it
For most of the 20th century, cookbooks appealed to a predominately female readership but now all that is being changed by a new US publishing phenomenon, writes Kirsty Blake-Knox.
The so-called “dude food” movement is reinventing the genre to aim squarely at men. Recent titles include BBQ 25 (Morrow Cookbooks), the follow-up to Serious Barbecue (Hyperion), with recipes printed on wipe-clean pages in a “foolproof field guide format”, and Awesome Recipes and Kitchen Shortcuts (Wiley) by Sam Zien. He promises “no fancy techniques or foo-foo ingredients here ... great food doesn’t have to be a total pain.”
Pushing the macho concept further is Spencer Walker’s Cook to Bang (Griffin), subtitled “The Lay Cook’s Guide to Getting Laid”. It offers numerous recipes with slightly offensive names, which have prompted accusations of misogyny.
“The people who like to read those books don’t really cook – they don’t like cooking, they like bars,” said Joanne Hendricks, a cookbook antiquarian and owner of a specialist bookshop in New York.
But the dude food movement has also spread beyond print. Esquire magazine has a recipe blog called “Eat Like A Man”, while US reality TV show Man v Food is into its third season. Even the effeminate world of cupcakes is not immune. New York’s Butch Bakery, opened by former Wall Street lawyer David Arrick, offers red-blooded delights such as the Jackhammer and the Beer Run. It’s butch meets butter cream.