Celebrity Cooks


To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Mrs Beeton, Guildhall Library is currently staging the exhibition Celebrity Cooks: Mrs Beeton and her Contemporaries. As the owners of the largest collection of cookery books in a public library in the UK, we were delighted to be able to tell the story of this extraordinary woman with some of the fascinating items from our collection.

Mrs Beeton was born in 1836 in Milk Street, a couple of minutes from Guildhall Library. At the age of 20 she married Samuel Beeton and immediately became involved in his publishing business, spending four years compiling the information that would make up the Book of Household Management, published in 1861. She died soon after its publication, in 1865 at the age of 28.

In the time since her death her remarkable book has never been out of print, and the name ‘Mrs Beeton’ has become a household name. Many people are unaware that she died at such a young age: her book continued to be re-edited and published with no reference to her death, giving the impression she was still alive and working on various revisions.


This exhibition traces her lasting impact on the world of cooking, including her influence on today’s ‘celebrity cooks.’ We also look at her place in the world of nineteenth-century cooking and two of her contemporaries, Eliza Acton and Alexis Soyer (who were, arguably, better cooks than Mrs Beeton herself, who was really a journalist!).

We also have an exciting accompanying events programme, which will cover different aspects of food history, including the lost world of the Georgian Chocolate House and the history of the English Cookbook, as well as an ‘edible exhibition’, where visitors will have the opportunity to taste sweet dishes through the ages (14 April, 6 – 8pm, £5 per person). While you’re visiting look out for our range of Mrs Beeton merchandise (including a chef duck!).


Want to find out more? Our exhibition is free and open until 17 April. Don’t forget, you can learn more about our food and wine collections any time, without appointment or membership!


Twelfth Night Cake

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank

You may know that Christmas pudding and Christmas cake are part of a tradition that dates back to at least the early Victorian period, think of Dickens’s references to plum pudding in A Christmas Carol, but you may not have realised that both pudding and cake have a far more ancient ancestor – the Twelfth Night Cake. Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th of January, the day before Epiphany, the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi. Traditionally, it is the day on which Christmas decorations are taken down and the day to wassail your apple trees (drink a toast of cider to the trees, and pour cider over their roots).

In Britain, the Twelfth Night Cake was a large rich cake, often with a domed top, iced and decorated with ribbons, paper, tinsel and even sugar figures. A dried bean and a dried pea would be hidden in the cake and the man who found the bean would be the King; the woman who found the pea, Queen. If a woman found the bean, she got to choose the King. If a man found the pea, he got to choose the Queen. Servants were included in the division of the cake and if they got to be Kings or Queens even their masters had to obey. Just as Christmas inherited the traditions of Twelfth Night, Twelfth Night, in turn, had acquired all the role-reversals of the Roman Saturnalia (which was roughly the 17th of December.) The Romans had a tradition of placing a bean inside a cake at Saturnalia, and whoever found it became the master of ceremonies.

In one of his first diary entries Samuel Pepys recorded recorded a party in London on Epiphany night, 6 January 1659/1660: “…to my cousin Stradwick, where, after a good supper, there being there my father, mothers, brothers, and sister, my cousin Scott and his wife, Mr. Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr. Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr. Stradwick was King. After that my wife and I bid adieu and came home, it being still a great frost.” (The Diary of Samuel Pepys: a new and complete transcription / edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews. Vol.1, 1660).tn2In the Victorian era the custom was to buy a set of printed Twelfth Night Characters to accompany your cake. These were small humorous illustrations with a few lines of verse beneath printed on cards or on a sheet ready to be cut out. They were sold in small packets and, according to Hone’s Every-Day Book, “Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace or gross—when genteel they are inane. When humorous, they are vulgar”. The Illustrations shown here are from a set of Twelfth Night Characters published in The Illustrated London News on 1st January 1848.

Hone explains how the characters were used; each of the characters was folded and put into a hat or ‘reticule’ and passed around the party guests. The guests would draw a character, read out the verse and then have to stay in character until midnight.  The verses were meant to be amusing, but prints from the period show some guests taking offence, as if the host had intended some slight on the genuine characters of his guests. (William Hone, The Every-Day Book, 1830 pp. 49-62).

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank published by Thomas Tegg in 1807

The following recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night Cake comes from Guildhall Library’s copy of John Mollard’s The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined (4th edition 1808).  Mollard was proprietor of the London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street.  In an age before chemical raising agents, cakes relied on yeast or beaten eggs to give them a lift, which doubtless also gave these cakes their classic domed top.

Twelfth Night Cake

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

The tradition of the Twelfth Night cake appears to have virtually died out towards the end of the 19th century. Its decorative role shifted to the Christmas cake, whilst the hidden bean or pea transformed into the silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding.  However, in other countries, various cakes are still produced to celebrate Epiphany, King Cake in the southern states of the US, Roscón de Reyes in Spain and some, like the Galette des Rois in France, still contain a ‘fève’ or bean and come with a paper crown for the elected King or Queen.

Peter Ross, Principal Librarian

A history of blancmange

As Guildhall Library prepares to host a panel discussion covering the history of English food and cuisine from Roman Britain to the celebrity chefs of the present-day, this week’s post features a much smaller segment of food history: the history of blancmange…


One of the earliest extant cookery books is The Forme of cury – meaning ‘the proper method of cookery’. It has been attributed to the cooks employed by Richard II and, in its original form, may have been compiled as early as 1390. Of the approximately 200 recipes it contains – many of which are highly coloured – one looks particularly familiar.

The blank maunger recalls that much loathed staple of my childhood birthday parties – blancmange – but in the medieval period, this recipe, literally meaning ‘white food’ consisted of rice and capons with almond milk and ‘almandes fryed in white grece’ and was probably derived from an Arabic dish. This was a blander, less heavily spiced concoction than many medieval dishes and may have been used to tempt the appetite of invalids.


Its transition through the centuries has been charted by C. Anne Wilson, who noted that by Elizabethan times a meatless version existed, made with cream, sugar and rosewater and thickened with egg yolks or beaten egg whites.

Both versions are given in Robert May’s The accomplisht cook, first published in 1660. Wilson thinks that by the 17th century the English were starting to lose interest in this ancient survival of a dish, and that its renaissance started in France with a new approach. A capon or hen and a calves foot were boiled together, and the stock drawn off and strained. Before it set, beaten chickenflesh, rosewater, ground almonds and breadcrumbs were added, creating a thick jelly.


Another version was based on jelly made from hartshorn shavings, coloured with cream and ground almonds, and it was this variant that became 18th century English blancmange. The compleat city and country cook: or, accomplish’d housewife by Charles Carter (2nd edn., 1736) has the following recipe for blemange of isinglass:

Take three Calves-feet and split them, put in a Gallon of Water, two Ounces of Eringo-roots candy’d, two Blades of Mace, one Stick of Cinnamon, boil this until it comes to three Quarts, then strain it off, put in six Ounces of Loaf-sugar, half a Pint of Cream, four Ounces of Almonds pounded very fine and strain’d, a little Rose or Orange Flower Water, then strain very fine into your Dish or Cups, and let it stand until cold; garnish with bitter Almond Bisket.


Carter also has a recipe for blancmange layered in different colours, using saffron, cochineal, syrup of clove-gilly-flowers, spinach juice and pistachio kernels as colouring. Eliza Acton in Modern cookery, in all its branches (14th edn., 1854), similarly uses spinach, cochineal and saffron but also chocolate in her recipe for blamange rubané (striped blancmange).


The final transformation of blancmange came via the Atlantic with the introduction of arrowroot into Britain as a thickening agent. Boiling milk, sweetened and seasoned with cinnamon and lemon peel, was poured on a solution of arrowroot and stirred till it thickened. Put into a blancmange mould, it could then be turned out when ready to be served, making what William Mead described rather uncharitably as a ‘gelatinous composition served with a sweetened sauce’.

All the publications mentioned above can be found at Guildhall Library among our internationally renowned collection of books on food and wine.

Val Hart
Assistant Librarian

If this has whet your appetite, join us for a panel discussion covering the history of English food and cuisine, that also explores the question – why does nobody eat in books?
Wednesday 22nd May, 6pm-8pm
Cost: £5 – includes a glass of wine
Advance booking required on 020 7332 1868 / 020 7332 1870 or via guildhall.library@cityoflondon.gov.uk
Lawrence Norfolk, author of John Saturnall’s Feast (and three previous novels) and Kate Colquhoun, author of Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, will be discussing the history of English food and cuisine from Roman Britain to the celebrity chefs of the present-day as well as addressing that enigmatic question of why nobody ever seems to eat in books. Lawrence’s novel, featuring food and cooking at the heart of the story, is set during the time of England’s Civil War and was inspired by Kate’s book.


New books: The André Simon Food and Drink Awards

IMG_0607Guildhall Library is home to a number of internationally renowned collections of books on food and wine, including the André Simon Collection. This collection is based on the personal library of the late André Simon, the eminent food writer and historian. Simon studied at Guildhall Library as a young man in the early 1900s and was a personal friend of the then Guildhall Librarian.

The André Simon collection was placed here as a result of the writer’s links with the library. It was Hugo Dunn-Meynell, the then Director of the International Wine & Food Society, who facilitated the donation to Guildhall Library where, as Hugo put it, the items ‘could be used in ideal conditions by everyone’.

Each year the short-listed works for the André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards are donated to Guildhall Library and added to this growing collection. There are two categories in the award – food and drink. Judging starts in mid-November and a final decision is not reached until the day of the ceremony – allowing judges plenty of time to try out and reflect upon the recipes.

This year the shortlisted books in the food category were:

Annie Bell’s Baking Bible by Annie Bell (Kyle Books)
Edible Selby by Todd Selby (Abrams)
Following fish by Samanth Subramanian (Atlantic books)
Hoosh by Jason C Anthony (University of Nebraska Press)
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury Books)
Polpo by Russell Norman (Bloomsbury Books)
Sud de France by Caroline Conran (Prospect Books)
The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert (Bloomsbury Books)

The shortlisted books in the drink category were:

Brunello di Montalcino by Kerin O’Keefe (University of California Press)
How to love wine by Eric Asimov (William Morrow)
Pomerol by Neal Martin (Wine-Journal Publishing)
Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín (Manutius)
Wine grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Dr José Vouillamoz (Penguin Books)

The 2012 award was announced at a reception on 14th March 2013, and two Librarians from Guildhall Library were lucky enough to be invited to see the winners declared. Caroline Conran’s Sud de France was the deserving winner in the food category and the comprehensive Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours received the award in the drink category. In the lead up to the announcement of the award we created a colourful display next to our Enquiry Desk of all the shortlisted entries. These have now been added to our collection and are available from our store within twenty minutes of ordering.