Food For Friends a new cookbook with an old-fashioned flavour

How would a dish created 200 years ago taste today? That's a question that motivated Lesley Simpson when she delved into the archives at Down County Museum to come up with a collection of recipes, some old, some new, some with intriguing names – Dolly's chocolate eclair's anyone? Portavo biscuits perhaps? Gail Bell got a taste of what's on offer

The cookery books date from the 19th and 20th centuries, says former keeper of collections at Down County Museum Lesley Simpson

OLD fashioned gingerbread and "big lumps of sugar" for grating may not immediately spring to mind for inclusion in any modern recipe book, but Lesley Simpson can smell an appealing whiff of nostalgia from across a kitchen table.

For the retired keeper of collections at Down County Museum in Downpatrick, appreciating ancient treasure is as instinctive as baking her mother's Christmas pudding – which is included in The Friends of Down County Museum group's new fundraising Food for Friends recipe book which launched – complete with edible samples – recently.

The Killinchy woman, who edited the book and volunteers as secretary of the 'Friend's group, hit on the idea to include historic recipes for the compilation as a means to enhance the museum connection and provide "a real link between past and present".

"About five years ago, committee members had an idea to raise funds with a cookbook, but I thought it would be a bit different to include some from the museum's own collection of old cookery books," she says.

"I was fascinated by the old recipes which give a remarkable insight into how our cooking and eating habits have changed during the last 200 years. The cookery books at the museum date from the 19th and 20th centuries, so you can see how the war years and rationing affected what ended up on family dinner tables.

Lesley Simpson, on right, in her Killinchy garden with fellow Friend of Down County Museum Moira Concannon, who helped proofread and test out recipes for Food for Friends Picture: Mal McCann

"You couldn't just pop into the supermarket and buy a bottle of Worcester sauce – although there is a recipe to make it yourself – and sugar came in big lumps which then had to be grated. Everything took so much longer, as you had to work with what was available and what wasn't.

"On the other hand, some dishes are remarkably similar to those we currently cook and buy, such as a curry recipe uncovered from the 19th century, and a traditional cottage pie which is still a staple in households across Northern Ireland today."

The earliest recipe, dated 1829, is for mincemeat, but it was a recipe for gingerbread which went unexpectedly awry for Mrs Simpson, who tried it out – with unexpected results.

One of the old handwritten recipes included in Food For Friends. "Some dishes are remarkably similar to those we currently cook." The earliest dates from 1829

"We decided to test out some of the old recipes and I thought I would attempt to make gingerbread," she says. "Unfortunately, the oven temperature and cooking time had not been included in the handwritten recipe, so we looked at modern recipes and gauged it from that.

"But something was lost in translation and the gingerbread turned out as hard as a brick. It did soften, with time, although I would say it is very heavy on the treacle and may be too strong for modern tastes."

After spending 28 years working at what was formerly Downpatrick's gaol, the erstwhile Yorkshire woman, who studied archaeology at Queen's University Belfast, maintained her links through the Friends of Down County Museum which was set up in 1987 to support the museum through various fundraising initiatives.

Although time-consuming and, at times, demanding, editing the book has been an enjoyable chore, she says, with the aim to raise in excess of £2,000 to keep the museum alive for the next generation.

Cottage Interior, a watercolour from the Down County Museum collection by William James Watson, illustrates Food for Friends

"I loved working at the museum and, as keeper of collections, my work was wide-ranging," Lesley recalls. "There were 9,000 years of history under one roof, from historic paintings and old medical items to more contemporary attractions.

"Ever since I went to a museum in Yorkshire as a small child with my grandfather, the feeling has been the same – I don't know what it is about museums, but the smells, the silence and the atmosphere all fascinate me."

She retired three years ago but couldn't quite break free from the old gaol – which opened in 1796 and housed thousands of prisoners until its closure in 1830 – now channelling her interest through the 100-plus-strong Friends group which raises funds for a range of museum projects, including exhibitions and lectures.

Designed by April Sky Designs and printed by W&G Baird Ltd, Food for Friends caters for all tastes, with tried and tested modern favourites contributed by members of the group – such as Dolly's chocolate eclairs and Yorkshire parkin – sitting alongside a gluten-free section and recipes for historic ginger cakes.

"It was important to get a balance, so while we had a good number of recipes for favourite trifles and scones, we had trouble finding anyone with a good fish dish," Lesley adds. "The main thing was keeping it simple and making sure we hadn't left out vital ingredients – or instructions like the temperature for the oven.

"My personal favourite is one for pear and almond tart but there are many delicious recipes, from easy-peasy apple cake to a cross between trifle and Eton Mess – entitled A Trifle Messy – and apple jam.

"The book is a great collection of old favourites with new twists on tested dishes. At a cost of £10, we hope it makes a great Christmas present."

:: Food for Friends can be purchased at Down County Museum, Downpatrick; all proceeds go towards museum projects.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access

Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: