English Heritage’s series of online cookery videos ‘The Victorian Way’ is an unlikely YouTube sensation. Who could have predicted that a historic interpreter dressed as a Victorian-era cook called Avis Crocombe making cucumber ice cream would have attracted millions of viewers?
The runaway success of the series, filmed at Audley End House in Essex, spawned a cookery book, How to Cook the Victorian Way With Mrs Crocombe, published last year by English Heritage and written by Dr Annie Gray and Andrew Hann – and we’re thrilled to welcome the book to ckbk.
So much more than a self-contained cookbook, it’s a route in to discovering food and food history. Watch the YouTube videos and follow the links, and you can easily explore other recipes on that book and related recipes, including similar recipes in contemporary cookbooks. It’s a brilliant way of linking past and present, through the medium of food.
Food historian Annie Gray was instrumental in bringing the series and the cookbook to life. She gives a behind-the-scenes look at the project, and tells how she and the English Heritage team brought Avis Crocombe, an unlikely culinary icon, to 21st-century life.
By Annie Gray
In 2008 English Heritage opened a multi-million pound renovation and reinterpretation of the service wing at Audley End House and Gardens in Essex. As part of this project, a team of professional costumed interpreters inhabited the various spaces – laundry, dairy, service yard and kitchen – on selected weekends and holidays.
We provided an experience both immersive and highly tailored, to the site, to the year (1881) and to each individual or group who chose to interact with us. We played real people, drawn from the census of that year, and backed up with genealogical research as well as very detailed primary research on domestic service, food and working class lives at the time.
A year later, Bob Stride, a descendant of the cook we portrayed as part of the project, contacted English Heritage with the offer of a manuscript recipe book he had in the back of a drawer. It had belonged to ‘our’ cook, a woman called Avis Crocombe, and dated to around 1870-1910, the very era when she worked at Audley End.
Avis wasn’t well known. She wasn’t a cookery book writer, she wasn’t even a recipe writer – most of her recipes are, like those in so many of our own personal collections – copied from other sources. She was pretty ordinary, apart from (and it is quite a big ‘apart from’) being the cook in a country house belonging to a baron. Most titled families employed men: more prestigious, more expensive and reputed to be better at the intricate French dishes most aristocrats wanted on their table.
When the book was donated, we rejoiced. It enabled us to see that our assumptions about the kind of food Avis was cooking were right, and we happily added some of her recipes to our repertoire, cooking them in front of the public and using them to interpret the history of the house and its servants in a wider context.
Fast-forward a few years. English Heritage is now a charity, and online content is becoming more and more important in reaching as wide an audience as possible, especially via YouTube. English Heritage has a set of clear values, underpinned by ‘authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun’.
One particular YouTube video is outperforming all the others and ticks all of the values boxes, and so they decide to commission more. The historical interpreter who is in the video, Kathy Hipperson, now runs the team at Audley, and plays Avis Crocombe. With such a significant body of research and recipes already established, Avis becomes the key figure through which to reach out through the medium of cooking videos. And, slowly but surely, a quiet sensation is born.
The Victorian Way recipe book would not exist without the videos. But the videos would not exist without the live team at Audley End, without Bob Stride’s donation of the manuscript book, and without a small but dedicated team at English Heritage. It also wouldn’t exist without our massive and highly engaged YouTube audience, whose comments and questions have all been integral to writing the text that accompanies the recipes and the essays that contextualise them.
Updating historic recipes for a modern audience is a balancing act. It’s easy to use them as a vague base and go a bit wild, but that wouldn’t be true to the values of English Heritage.
It’s also easy to cook them as written and accept them even if they are a bit, well, bland. In choosing the recipes, and in adapting them for modern use, we wanted to pick a robust selection of dishes that would paint a picture of Avis Crocombe’s kitchen and the range of foods she would have cooked. But we also wanted them to have appeal to the modern cook. We did – deliberately – include a few to shock, to challenge or to spark conversations. We also broadened the scope well beyond the manuscript, which is limited – few vegetable dishes, lots of cake, far more recipes for ginger beer than anyone could ever need.
Having the book on ckbk is an extra bonus. It means readers can see at a glance where Avis drew her recipes from, and explore the books we know she had at the click of a mouse.
It means I get to introduce you to other books I know to be good, and which when we started the project were far more difficult to get hold of. It means you can see both the beautiful pictures we commissioned for the book, and the various renditions of dishes cooked by our readers (if you cook one, tag @EnglishHeritage and @ckbk on your social media posts, so we can pick them up and link them through).
Above all else, it helps to show that historic food still has a real purpose. I’d argue food isn’t historic, anyway, it’s just food. Recipes aren’t old, they are just timeless (or outdated, but that can happen as easily with something from five years ago as 500).
We’ve been surprised and delighted by how many people have used the book not just as a curio or a cool thing from one of their favourite YouTube series, but as a book to cook from every day or at weekends, or whenever they fancy it. I hope you enjoy it too.
Find all the recipes from How to Cook the Victorian Way with Mrs Crocombe by Annie Gray and Andrew Hann on ckbk.
Many of the recipes on ckbk from How to Cook the Victorian Way have YouTube videos embedded, so you can watch Katherine Hipperson, in character as Avis Crocombe, bringing these Victorian recipes to life.
You can find all of Mrs Crocombe’s videos on the English Heritage YouTube channel.