It is easy to imagine cookbooks being the preserve of the last few decades following the massive success of chefs and their books such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Mary Berry to name a few. However, food and its preparation have always been of interest to people and over the centuries chefs have sought to bring their recipes and wisdom to a wider audience.

One of the world’s outstanding collections of cookery books is currently on display at the University of Leeds and although I am unable to visit it in person I am happy to bring part of the exhibition of ‘Cooks and their Books’ alive for you (and me) through four of the fantastic books currently on exhibition.

1024px-ScappiThe oldest cookery book dates back 1570 when Michelangelo was still completing the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel in Venice. Not far away a chef named Bartolomeo Scappi (c.1500-1577) was a cook for several cardinals at the Vatican and during this time he wrote his monumental treatise on the art of cookery. Entitled ‘Opera dell’arte del cucinare’, his book (pictured above) was first and foremost intended as an aid to his apprentice, Giovanni and this was the first time that a cookery book included clear instructions and techniques, both in written form and through illustrations.

In the thousand or so recipes Scappi managed to merge medieval tastes with those from the upcoming New World; for example, he included sugar in his cooking (and this featured as a pizza topping with pine nuts and rosewater).

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Another tome of cookery was published in 1730 in London. ‘The Complete Practical Cook’ was written by Charles Carter, a chef to leading soldiers and diplomats serving Queen Anne serving in Europe, including, Berlin, Hanover, Spain and Portugal.


The book features many unique elements including sixty engraved table settings which were Carter’s pride and joy.  The volume itself is set in chapters following the order in which dishes were usually consumed at dinner and therefore the comprehensive index proved especially useful and necessary.

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The recipes, numbering about five hundred in total, were all accompanied by a glossary of terms used which was another new and practical addition to recipe books of the time.  Charles Carter believed that cookery was an art form and claimed to be able ‘in no mean way…surpass a French Cook.’

TX719_C27c2v1Whilst Carter believed that the art of cooking should be more recognised and rewarded, Antonin Carême (1784-1833) turned the craft of cooking into a fine art. Working in Paris during the early nineteenth century he prospered after his inauspicious start of being abandoned by his parents at the age of ten. From starting out in his childhood as a kitchen boy, he worked his way up to becoming one of the top patisserie (confectionaries) in Paris. In 1828, Carême, who served such famous leaders as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander, published his hugely influential cookbook ‘Le Patissier Royal Parisien’.


It was a feast of ‘showstopper’ recipes showing the grandiose ‘high art’ of cookery including the famous pièces montées. These elaborate constructions were formed into monumental centrepieces of temples, ancient ruins, pyramids created out of foodstuffs including sugar, marzipan and pastries. Carême is recognised as one of the first internationally renowned celebrity chefs!

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isabella-beeton-1Mrs Beeton (1836-1865) is a byword for good cooking and household management – and a copy of her book is found in many homes in the UK (including ours since my husband owns a copy).  Originally published in 1861 when it sold an extraordinary 60,000 copies, Isabella Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’ is still in print today (although revised and enlarged).


First Edition Cover

It was a ground-breaking comprehensive and influential book for the new middle-class in the Victorian era, extolling the values of hard work, thrift and cleanliness. The book included not only some 1,700 recipes for every day and special events (with additional information about the dishes as well as copious illustrations) but also provided information for running of a household, managing servants, raising children, looking after the sick and legal matters.

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Mrs Beeton was an unusual cookbook publisher as she was not a chef herself rather she worked as a journalist, editor and writer. During her short life, she compiled and edited on behalf of her husband before dying from puerperal fever aged 28. She left behind a legacy which has spanned three centuries – a truly remarkable feat.

These are only a snapshot of the books available to see at the exhibition and of the entire collection of over 2,000 cookbooks. Which one was your favourite? Or perhaps you have your own special cookbook? Perhaps one passed down over the years? What is your favourite aspect of the book, the recipe to which you always return? As always I look forward to your comments. Happy Reading, Cooking & Baking! 

* ‘A recipe has no soul. You as the cook must bring soul to the recipe.’ Thomas Keller

Sources: University of Leeds, alumni magazine & Wikipedia.