A curious cookbook

Page from an 1832 cookbook manuscript

1832 cookbook manuscript, author unknown (detail). Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

A mystery manuscript

For some time now I’ve been following Westminster City Archives’ The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies blog. It explores a manuscript cookery book of unknown origin, thought to have been written between 1760 and the 1820s. A team of volunteers have been experimenting with the recipes and researching their relevance in the Georgian and Regency England. It is an interesting project in itself, but I’m very excited by it, as we too, have our ‘mystery’ manuscript cookbook from the 1830s in our collection.

Our manuscript was donated by a gentleman from Sydney’s northern beaches after hearing about our Colonial Gastronomy programs in 2011. He understood the manuscript to have been penned by an English woman residing in, or near, Bath between 1832 and 1836. Its author is unknown, but research has indicated that it may have made its way to Australia when its most recent owner’s family came to New South Wales as assisted immigrants in 1853 – I still have some work to do on this one!

Author unknown

There is no indication as to why entries ceased in 1836 – why did the author abandon her project? illness? time constraints, altered circumstances? mislaid it? relocation? or perhaps she got a more capable cook! We will never know, but it somehow ended up in the colony, and is now held in the Caroline Simpson Library.

The book has been painstakingly compiled, filling 57 pages including a detailed index. I can only imagine the author’s dismay when she realised she’d lost her place, listing pages 16 & 17 before 14 & 15  – how frustrated she’d have been without the magic of cut & paste! Each recipe is attributed with the name of its source, just as you might find in a CWA or community compilation cookbook today; a great many come from Lady Jane James – a prominent member of the local district? copied from her own receipt book, perhaps. By recording each entry’s source, the author adds weight and authority to her receipts, comforted in the knowledge that they have been endorsed by others who we assume she respected in the community, and looked towards for guidance in all matters domestic.

‘Lost’ recipes, forgotten favourites, timeless tastes

Certain recipes, or ‘receipts’ as they were known at the time, have become lost in time – Thatched House Pie (an eighteenth century recipe) is on my list to recreate, with lamb or beef rather than pigeons, but the vermicelli ‘roof’ sounds a delight! Tomatas (tomatoes) were still a novelty and potatoes required special care if they were to be available at Christmas. Domestic crafts extend beyond regular cooking – curing bacon, making yeast and Preserving Lettuce as Ginger, give an idea of seasonal household activity and self-sustainability. In addition to culinary recipes there are receipts for a variety of beverages including British Champagne and Cherry Brandy, medicinal remedies (with particular attention paid to prevention and treatment for cholera and childhood diseases such as  whooping cough) and household substances such as Mucilage of gum arabic, stove blacking and garden pesticides. These were the daily concerns for domestic goddesses in the 1800s, and a reminder that every aisle in the modern supermarket had a domestic crafts equivalent in the early C19th.

Gingerbread ‘cakes’ – a timeless favourite

Not all are receipts are peculiar – try making these ginger bread “cakes” for a taste of history.

Rub ½ lb butter with 1 ½ lb of flour, add 1lb of moist sugar, 2 ½ oz of powdered ginger, a nutmeg grated & a glass of Brandy. Mix the whole together with treacle a quarter of a pound is generally sufficient but in very cold weather a little more is sometimes requisite

This recipe, and a selection of other ‘receipts’ are attributed to a Mrs Findon[?]. With no raising agent they’re more like a ginger-nut biscuit and typical of its time, there are no actual cooking instructions, nor advice about how big the ‘cakes’ should be – presumed 1830s knowledge it would seem. I question the amount of  ginger required – 2.5 oz ginger (70g / 6 tablespoons) would be very intense – which brings us to question the quality and strength of imported spices in the 1830s.

I’ve halved the batch size as the original makes a very large amount, however they do keep well.

Rub 110g butter into 350g flour.
Add to this:
200g brown sugar
1 or 2 tablespoons ground ginger (10-20g according to your taste – 20g gives a strong zing)
1 level teaspoon pre-ground nutmeg


Gently warm 60g treacle (note 60g weight, not 60ml. Substitute golden syrup, though this gives a lesser flavour) and add to it 80 ml brandy.

Mix all ingredients well and form into a biscuit dough – it may seem dry at first, but if you work it with your hands quite well it will become a smoother consistency; add a little more brandy or water if necessary.

Divide the dough into three manageable pieces. Place one batch between two larger sheets of baking paper and roll out to about 5mm thickness. Cut into shapes. Line an oven tray with fresh baking paper and bake a small test batch at 180°C (C160° fan-forced) for about 12 minutes. They should be a light nut-brown and will appear soft, but they harden as they cool. Wait 10 minutes and test one to see if it’s a good texture. Adjust cooking time according to your test batch (more for crunchier, less if too hard) or roll thicker/thinner according to your preference.

Added extras

Several extra recipe slips written in different hands have been inserted into the book over time. All but one of these (a receipt for curing tongues, below) contain recipes for Christmas or ‘Xmas’ Plum Puddings, for which, interestingly, there is no recipe in the manuscript itself. Three are attributed to other people – two say Grandmama’s receipt, the other, Mrs Pocock’s receipt, which reinforce the practices of sharing, exchange and reciprocity that food and festivity engender. One is dated, appropriately, December 25, 1877 presumably after sampling it at Christmas dinner, which gives us the impression that although there were no entries recorded in the manuscript after 1836, it was still at hand some 40 years later.

All this brings me to ponder: what will people of the future make of our domestic recipe collections? – instead of a painstakingly indexed record, mine is a chaotic  assemblage of magazine cuttings and internet printouts, punctuated here and there with a friend’s handwritten contribution or a favourite treat jotted down by one of the children, complete with their primary school spelling of ‘flower’. Quite a treasure now I think of it …