Annie Gray

1st May 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noémie Reijnen

1st May 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noémie Reijnen

The food historian Annie Gray, a regular on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, lives in a modern semi-detached house on the outskirts of Ely, north of Cambridge. This peaceful suburban milieu – fitted kitchens, light-filled conservatories, Volvo estates parked outside – is where you’d least expect to find an academic whose day job has involved eating sheep’s brains, gutting hares and resurrecting dishes from as far back as Tudor times.

On closer inspection, however, it becomes obvious that this is no ordinary household. The signs are everywhere: the esoteric kitchen tools, the great stacks of old cookbooks. The smoking cabinet in the back garden where Annie has been known to cure Bath chaps and venison heart – she opens it when we visit to reveal a brace of pheasants. And the actual sign on the study door that reads: “Annie’s Historical Grotto: Welcome to chaos”. We daren’t venture inside.

In one way the mix of old and new here makes sense, because Annie doesn’t like to draw lines between past and present when it comes to cooking. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as historic food in many ways, it’s just food,” she says in her typically matter-of-fact way. “If a recipe’s good, then it’s good.” The dishes she cooks for us, rooted in centuries-old traditions, are both extremely good: a suet pudding rolled up with veal sausage meat, and a chocolate water ice made using a pre-electrical technique that proves quicker than modern methods. We also get to taste Annie’s heady homemade basil wine.

Once you get her going, Annie’s outpouring of knowledge becomes torrential. It was impossible to cut the following interview without losing swathes of fascinating material so we decided, what the hell, let’s just keep it all in. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as we loved writing it.

Continued below...

What got you interested in food history?

It was quite a gradual process. My undergraduate degree was modern history at Oxford and I found that very “great white men in politics”. I was quite offput. I worked for a bit in marketing and absolutely hated it, then went back and did a Masters in historical archaeology, which is the archaeology of the world post-1600. It was brilliant, really tangible. You’re looking at the world as lived as opposed to the world as written, so you’re dealing a lot with women and the working classes, that kind of thing. And stuff about food. I was a keen cook anyway. I’d spent three years in France when I was 16…

Three culinary years?

Very. I went out there as a girl who lived on microwaved meals and came back as a girl who bought a pasta machine for my university room and had people over for roast pheasant. So I was obsessed with food, but when I discovered you could study it and intellectualise it, I thought, this is brilliant. While doing my PhD, I got a job with a costume company that works with places like Hampton Court Palace. I started running a team in costume at Audley End1 – dealing with the public, cooking Victorian food in real time – and everything sort of snowballed. So now I do loads of different things. Effectively I’ve made a hobby into a career. More than that, I’ve discovered tastes and flavours that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

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What kinds of tastes and flavours?

Some will be familiar. For example I love veal2 and there are a lot more recipes for veal in the past. Today if you’re looking for a veal recipe you almost always end up with an Italian cookbook in your hand, but we used to consume quite a lot of it because it was quite a prestigious meat. And some of the flavours – especially 18th-century flavours – for veal are great: capers, lemon juice, anchovies, white wine, not a tomato in sight, and you get this beautiful light veal stew that is just divine.
A lot of ice cream flavours in the past are much better than modern ice cream. Parmesan ice cream I do a lot3. I’ve started serving it as a starter because if you serve it at the end of the meal people get quite freaked out. But as a starter with melon and parma ham and a bit of cracked black pepper, suddenly it’s the most amazing outré thing they’ve ever tasted. If you take historic flavours and work out how to fit them into the modern way of eating, I think the flavours and the tastes are just as applicable.

People ask me when I’m in costume, wouldn’t you love to live in the past? No! Never! I’m a woman! Medicine! Women’s rights! Politics! No!

Cooking at home, do you draw a distinction between historic and modern food?

No. We mix them freely, completely freely. I don’t think there’s any such thing as historic food in many ways, it’s just food. If a recipe’s good, then it’s good. A lot of my work is about saying, do it. Don’t think about it as a weird historic curio, because these things just taste good. And don’t think of this technique as something that’s irrelevant, because sometimes the historic methods work better than modern methods4.
That’s probably why historic cookery suits me as well, because there’s very little indication of times, temperatures, amounts. It’s much easier if you’re a winging-it cook to get on with historical recipes – if you’re confident enough to make an educated guess and you don’t mind the occasional failure.

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Are you that winging-it cook?

Yeah I’ve always winged it.

But you own loads of cookbooks. When you have a recipe in front of you, do you follow it to the letter?

In theory the first time. But I grew up changing recipes habitually because a lot of my family, including me, are allergic to onions. So if you grow up instinctively exchanging onions for celery and mushrooms, you don’t end up with that same reverence for recipes. So I always think recipes are a guideline, always filtered through experience and personal taste and equipment and what you’re getting on the day. I’ll follow it the first time, just so I can get a handle on what the book’s like and what its tells are, because each author has different tells.

It seems like an interesting time to be researching historic British food, because we seem to be rediscovering how great it was.

Yeah.

My very crude understanding is that the 20th century has driven a big wedge between the British and their food history.

It really comes down to rationing. Edwardian food is appalling in many ways but there’s still some really good stuff around. During World War I there’s rationing and food shortages. We’re just about recovering when the Depression hits. A lot of food is lost in the inter-war period – a lot of vegetables in particular that were eaten by the Victorians go out5.
Then we have 14 years of rationing. It’s not just the fact that people can’t get hold of ingredients: it’s the knock-on effect from not teaching the next generation. You might become quite inventive with your carrots and eking out fat, but whether you’ve learned to cook really good food is a different matter. And then just as we recovered from that, in comes America and the waves of convenience food. And women are going out to work and there’s much less time. Then in the 70s you have the feminist movement, which is obviously brilliant but it leads to nobody knowing how to cook – and I would argue that men and women should all learn to cook. It’s a fundamental life skill.
So I would say really from about 1930 onwards it’s a steady and sad decline. To the point that now people say there’s no such thing as British cuisine, which is bollocks! There is a huge renaissance going on within British food, but I think it’s very much at a middle-class level. You only have to look at any headline about food poverty and working-class diets to realise that there’s a huge gap6.

If you had to choose an era from the past to live and eat in…

Oh, now! Only ever now! Because now we’ve got everything that was in the past and more. If it’s a question of going back for a day and having a meal, I’d choose the late 18th century. But to actually live in the past? No! Never! I’m a woman! Medicine! Women’s rights! Politics! No!

Why the late 18th century?

At that point you’ve got British cuisine developing a clear identity, so things like pies and puddings and cakes, which the French don’t have words for, are really developing. You’ve got most of the ingredients of the modern world in place, things like chilli and chocolate and tea, but the flavours are still really interesting: it’s far enough removed from the modern day that it’d be a real joy to the palate, but close enough that it wouldn’t be weird. You’re talking rich people’s cuisine, obviously.

“Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery is the single best cookbook ever. It’s brilliant. Mrs Beeton nicked all her recipes out of it.”
Annie on her favourite cookbooks – see Pantry

What would you be eating on that day?

I’d be having a three-course meal with cheese. I would start with soup and fish and then fancy “made” dishes7 on my table, probably four or five, and I would obviously try one of each but only small amounts. So I might have mutton chops with a sauce, or veal stew or potato pudding, or maybe a pie, or a small slow-cooked joint.
Then all of that would be taken away and the handsome footman would lay out the table for my second course. Being a woman I’d be at the end that has the chicken on it. The man at the other end would have hare in front of him, but it’s alright because I can pick and choose what I want. There’d be a lot of roast meats – very lovely, all spit-roasted rather than baked in an oven – so I’d try some of those. On the table as well would be vegetables, probably cardoons8, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, peas. And also the sweet dishes would be on the table at the same time. So one of my favourites, plum pudding, a mark of Britishness9, and maybe some blancmange or jelly.
Then all of that goes away and in comes my cheese course. And then after that would be dessert which is just palate cleansing, so I’d look for hothouse fruit, probably a pineapple on the table. It’s said that if a man has four horses, they produce enough manure to produce two pineapples every month of the year. If my host is rich enough he probably has hothouses and there might be nectarines too – if you’re rich enough, you don’t eat in season. And there’d probably be some ice creams on the table as well, water ices, hopefully a nice boozy sorbet.
After that I’d go off and have a cup of tea with the fellow ladies. Dinner would have been at 4 or 5 so we’d play music for the rest of the afternoon, maybe do some readings, and then I’d wander home in the gloaming to have a supper of cheese on toast.

You’ve thought this through, haven’t you?

Yeah, I’m slightly obsessed with it. Oh, and everyone’s really trolleyed because there’s lots of booze.

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What kind of booze?

Wine if you’re rich enough, beer if you’re not. The gents will be sitting there getting buggered on punch and missing the chamber pot which is concealed behind the sideboard – there are pictures: we all know it happens.

The further back you go in history, do the flavours become more alien to our modern palate?

It’s more to do with lack of ingredients. You get New World ingredients coming over in the 17th century, so tea, coffee, chocolate, chilli, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes. As a preference, I wouldn’t really want to be in a period where I can’t have a cup of tea. How would you survive? It’s not so much that they’re alien but in the Tudor period there’s a lot more mixing of sweet and savoury, so for example a Victorian mince meat tart would be a third sugar if a Tudor woman made it – so much sweeter and more rich. The medieval period is very Persian in terms of flavours because they’re very much influenced by the Crusades and what’s coming back tends to be rice, pine nuts, prunes, galangal, ginger, those kind of flavours that we would today associate with Ottolenghi – very medieval.

That’s funny. Would you say that the more you research the past, the more you realise there’s nothing new in the present?

Yeah a lot has been done before. Even foams. We had a big foam craze a few years ago, but there was a thing in the 17th century called whipped syllabub where you whip single cream and booze and you get froth…

My mother used to make it at home. That was my first introduction to alcohol.

And what an introduction! I haven’t yet met anyone who doesn’t like it, because it’s booze and cream and sugar. But it’s a froth, and that disappearing in the mouth that froths do that’s meant to be so innovative, you think, well it goes back 500 years. But there are new things, of course there are. Some of the stuff you’d eat at the Fat Duck especially, hot and cold mixtures together in the same mouthful and things that have been done with modern gelling agents, that’s very different.

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How does your research feed into your everyday home life?

Ah it’s terrible, I don’t really have a life outside work, it’s all the same. In terms of what we cook, you’ll see a complete and utter bastardised mixture of everything, so one night we’ll do an 18th-century beef stew but with rice. I eat quite a lot of beans and pulses and I often do a historic sauce with them, but I might just chuck in some chillies and za’atar, which I’ve got in the back of the cupboard because I too bought the Ottolenghi cookbook and I can’t get rid of the bloody stuff. One of my go-to cookbooks is Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets, which I use a lot. But I also use Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery an awful lot, from 1845, so everything is mixed together. To me it’s just food, whether the recipe is written in 1845 or 1945 or 2015.

I have yet to find any comprehensive or convincing argument for vegetarianism. In fact I’m fairly anti

Do you have a fallback dish?

My other half works relatively long hours so our standard weeknight supper is probably fried fish and beans. Or Waitrose do these incredible veal burgers with parmesan.

Is your partner a good cook?

Yes he is. He uses a lot of recipe books. When I met him he was vegetarian. Which is unfortunate because I wasn’t.

And had no intention of becoming?

No, and I was very interested in food, so while I utterly agree with and subscribe to the view that we should eat less meat, especially in the West, I have yet to find any comprehensive or convincing argument for vegetarianism. In fact I’m fairly anti.

Really?

Yeah, because I think if you actually care about animals, which tends to be the main argument, the only way you can put pressure on business and on the food chain to improve the lot of animals is by eating it. So if you choose to only buy free-range chicken, then you’re making a manifest difference to the marketplace. But if you just don’t eat it, you’re basically saying I don’t give a shit. So for example with my veal eating I will only source ethically farmed veal. I try to buy only sustainably fished fish. I love trout, which can be farmed without any problems for the environment. I like offal – I’ve taught myself to like offal…

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Was that a struggle?

Growing up we never ate it, so I had to make a start with Victorian recipes and work my way up. It would be a bit pathetic to be a food historian and not eat offal.

Have you had to overcome squeamishness about other things as well?

Yes. The first time I had to stick my hand up a hare’s arse, I was mildly squeamish. But I’ve got over most things. Gouging out a hare’s eyes, yeah whatever. Skinning a pig’s head, interesting – it’s anatomically interesting. If you can look at it from that point of view. And I think it’s wrong to be squeamish about these things because (a) our grandparents ate them – partly because they didn’t have a choice and partly because they realised there was good in them. And (b) we can’t just eat the nice bits of meat in the world going forward. We just can’t. It infuriates me when you see packaged chicken in the supermarket and it’s just breasts and stuff. Eat every bit of it! It’s much more sustainable and much more affordable that way. I’d like to see more people engage with the ethics around all forms of eating, not just meat, but engage properly, not just have a knee-jerk reaction, which I think is the case with an awful lot of what’s going on in the world.

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Do you still have a threshold beyond which you’re unwilling to go?

I’m yet to find it. The sheep’s head curry I thought would break me. It broke my friend who was working with me at the time. I made her make the brain croquettes and, I have to say, she wasn’t my best friend for a while. It’s more about the smell actually. Male hares stink in the oven and singing the hair off lamb’s ears… there are points where you’re like, really? I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. There are some things I don’t enjoy eating – pig’s offal tends to be very strong, for example – but that doesn’t mean I won’t eat it, I just prefer lamb or mutton or veal or beef.

Do you travel a lot?

I go to France a lot. I lived there for three years so I go back quite a bit.

On The Menu

Dinner with Annie Gray
Ely, February 2015

To eat:

Veal roly-poly pudding »
Chocolate water ice »

To drink:

Kusmi tea (Tsarevna blend: black tea, spices, orange)
Basil wine

You mentioned earlier that something happened in France that turned you into an adventurous eater…

France happened. My parents were going through quite a messy divorce and my dad, who worked at Nestlé, got offered a job in France. When they were going through their messy divorce, it was microwave meals. If it took more than three minutes it was like, oh my god what is this. But you know, I was 16 and growing up in Norwich. So France turned me. I boarded with a French family during the week to be at school and the mother would cook three-course meals every night at 8 o’clock. She cooked an omelette once. For me an omelette had been this rubbery thing that bounced, but she cooked this thing that was fluffy and buttery – the secret obviously was that she used two pounds of butter – but I thought my god this isn’t omelette. It was an epiphany moment.
Plus myself and my father didn’t have a lot of money so cooking was a hobby at the weekends – we bought a French cookbook and worked our way through it. So it was kind of a bonding experience I suppose.

Where were you?

I was in Paris during the week and just north of Paris at the weekends, in Beauvais. But we go back and stay in gites in different regions of France. I’d love to say I travel really widely across the globe, but I love France. When I do travel though, I go out of my way to experience interesting foods. I was eating wallaby two ways when I was in Australia. It tastes like hare.

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Do you travel around Britain a lot?

Yeah. I lecture for a group called NADFAS10. They’re all over the place so I do a lot of travelling, both by car and train. I do quite a bit of consultancy with the National Trust as well, teaching their volunteers how to work with food with the public. It’s brilliant, you get to go and work in these wonderful houses.

Do you get to stay in any of them?

Sometimes. Attingham Park11 was magic. I feel very privileged. I was taxpayer-funded for my PhD so I do feel it’s quite important to give something back. So yes I’m making a living from it but I’m also promoting the cause of food history. I don’t want to be the only person who’s going, this is really good. It’s a bit like a zombie apocalypse. I’m the zombie and I’m spreading it to everybody else, only with less brain-eating… Actually I’m not sure if there is less brain-eating.

For more about Annie, check out her website. Oh, and she’s on Twitter too…

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  1. An early 17th-century country house in Essex renowned as one of the finest Jacobean houses in England
  2. Annie makes a point of saying that she buys the ethically farmed rose veal from ex-dairy calves
  3. A digression: “I was in France recently at a Michelin-starred restaurant and parmesan ice cream was on the menu. I talked to the waiter about it and he said, ‘Our chef invented it last year’. I was like, ‘No it’s in a recipe book in 1896’. It was a really interesting conversation because the French have much less of a conception of food history, because they’re still doing it – there’s much more continuity.”

  4. Annie adds: “But there’s no point using them just for the sake of it. For example: pushing cucumber through a sieve to make cucumber soup when you can put it in a blender. I’ve tried both, just to check that there’s no point, and there isn’t.”
  5. Annie elaborates: They disappear partly because they are difficult to grow and in the 30s a lot of country house gardens are converted to market gardens. So you’re not going to grow sea kale or Chinese artichokes because why would you? You’re going to grow potatoes and carrots.
  6. Annie adds: “It’s ever been thus in some ways. You look back at the late 19th-century in particular: ‘People don’t know how to cook’, ‘We should write cookbooks for the poor’. ‘Oh they should all be doing sheep’s head curries for five hours’, which is not realistic when people are going out to work and don’t have any cooking facilities at home. All these things are the same.”
  7. “A dish of food prepared from several ingredients (as meat, vegetables, and herbs)”, according to Merriam-Webster.
  8. I ask what a cardoon is and Annie points at a tall stalk in her garden, sunflower-high, with a dead head on top. “It’s related to the globe artichoke. You strip off the leaf bit and peel off the waxy coating on the stalk and then you cook the stalk. It tastes like cat’s pee, or at least mine did, but I think that’s because the cat actually peed on them. I wasn’t keen, but then I’m not keen on that bitter endive flavour.”

  9. “Now we call it Christmas pudding and only eat it once a year and eat it in the wrong place at dinner and people don’t like it because they don’t understand you’re supposed to have a chunk of Christmas pudding with your roast beef.”
  10. National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies
  11. A country house in Shropshire built in 1785

Posted 1st May 2015

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noémie Reijnen

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