We are thrilled to be able to welcome Danielle Bond, Communications officer, for City of York Council to our blog and Dr Annie Gray, food historian and lecturer who has been recreating historic recipes for Georgian gem York Mansion House. We will now hand you over to Danielle to tell you more.
Dr Annie Gray leans over the brick chafing stove posing for photos with two woodcocks tightly gripped in her hands as little droplets of blood spatter on the ground. One thing that becomes quickly apparent when meeting Annie Gray is her passion for what she does and the constant question from people who surround her ‘are you squeamish?’ for reasons you can well understand.
She wasn’t able to get a chance to cook in the York Mansion House kitchen just yet as its completion has been slightly delayed, but the bones of this Georgian kitchen are there with a roasting spit, a chafing stove (used for warming and pictured above) and a wood burning oven. The Georgian kitchen is one of the most exciting restoration projects and will help to illustrate three centuries of cooking and eating in the house and interpret and explore the lives of those who have worked there. This is a fully restored 18th century kitchen using original artefacts and architectural features: any modern recreations are made in the traditional manner, including bricks handmade from local clay.
As we watch Annie finish preparing her historic recipes she pauses to peel open her beautifully covered, recently released book ‘The Greedy Queen’. The fantastic images of Queen Victoria’s dresses include her petite wedding dress and then a notably larger dress, clearly showing the aptness of the book’s title. Annie smiles delightedly, eyes sparkling and reads a passage about her favourite dish – the hundred guinea dish, a ghoulish-sounding monstrosity including, most notably, turtle heads arranged to look as though they are vomiting skewers of sweetbreads.
“Oh I think it sounds wonderful,” she says exuberantly to my grimacing face.
We step into a room prepared for filming and silence falls. I look across to see beef alamode sat ready to be cooked with bacon artfully needled throughout the rump as the smell of fresh garlic pierces the air. A whole nutmeg is smashed in an enviable brass pestle and mortar and a lovely copper bowl used for egg mixing is pulled in to the shot from the side.
“The copper egg mixing bowl was a vital part of the 18th century kitchen,” Annie exclaims. “if you want to replicate how the copper bowl stiffens the eggs you have to add a bit of lemon juice.”
Her love of food and history is not lost on anyone who meets her and it makes the whole experience just plain fun to watch.
I had the opportunity to sit down with her and ask a few questions as well:
1. Danielle Bond: What drew you to the history of food?
Dr Annie Gray: I have always loved history, and I’ve been a keen cook (and eater) since I lived in France when I was 16. In 2003 I did an MA in historical archaeology at the University of York, as part of which we studied food and the rituals around it, and I realised that I could combine both of my passions. I knew I wanted to work with museums and heritage sites and within the field of public history, so I was looking for a field which had the potential for wide public engagement. Everyone eats, and everyone eventually admits to an opinion on food, so it’s a great way to bring people in and then use it to explore wider historical themes.
2. Danielle Bond: What do you find intriguing about the York Mansion House kitchen?
Dr Annie Gray: It’s been fascinating working with Mansion House from the very beginning of the Opening Doors project. Watching the layers of time being progressively peeled back from a kitchen which has been in use from the 18th century to the present day is a really special and quite unique opportunity.
3. Danielle Bond: Why have you chosen the recipes of Beef alamode and woodcocks specifically?
Dr Annie Gray: We’ve used a menu from 1789, so we know these dishes were cooked at the Mansion House, and woodcock bones were found in the course of archaeological work in the courtyard.
4. Danielle Bond: What is your favourite piece in the York Mansion House kitchen and why?
Dr Annie Gray: The spit, which is a 19th century addition. Spit roasting was so prestigious in the past, and yet now it’s almost completely lost. I know from working in country houses with spits that as an object it’ll be really interesting for visitors, but more than that, it was the sole object which remained in the kitchen to give a hint of its past when I first looked round them over five years ago.
5. How do you think a kitchen and food can give us a unique view on history?
Dr Annie Gray: Food is a universal: we all eat, and we do it a lot. It’s the one thing we all have in common, and yet we all do it so differently. Through food we can gain insights into class, and beliefs, and lives as lived, not merely as reported. There’s a growing realisation that history isn’t all about men with guns charging across the world, but is made up of little moments, and countless people whose names we may never even know. Food helps us get beyond the stuff so many of us were taught at school and into the grimy, violent and unbelievably exciting underbelly of the past.
Here’s to more cooking and history from Annie Gray, I’m looking forward to seeing her first cooking experience in the York Mansion House’s kitchen.
I am so excited for this Georgian gem in the heart of York to re-open after its extensive and careful restoration with Richard Pollitt, Mansion House curator at the helm. The Opening Doors Restoration project for York Mansion House was made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, funding from City of York Council and a variety of grants and generous donations totalling £2.3 million. The project improves the visitor experience by beautifully restoring this unique piece of York’s architectural and civic history, allowing more people than ever to enjoy it.