From the kitchen window of Ivan Day’s snug 17th-century farmhouse in the far north of England, snow blankets the bald Cumbrian hills of Lake District National Park.
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“Just look,” he chuckles, “You’re going to have a white Christmas early.” It’s the last time we will mention the weather.
But it’s only the beginning of our concentration on Christmas. Two weeks before perhaps the biggest feast day in the Christian realm, I’ve flown through a hurricane-strength gale and driven white-knuckled for hours on icy rural roads to reach Day, one of England’s most esteemed food historians. Twelve to 15 times each year, he teaches courses in historic cookery, allowing students access to his 17th-century pie molds and 18th-century hearth to recreate repasts of the past. His two-day historic food lessons range from Italian Renaissance cooking (spit-roasted veal and a quince torte made with bone marrow) to Tudor and Early Stuart cookery (herring pie and fruit paste) for a maximum of eight students. But in late November and early December, Christmas is on the table.
At Christmas, as in much of food history, he says, “What you find are the traditions of the aristocracy which filtered down from above. Everybody wanted what Louis XIV was eating.”
The same could be said today. From the bar to the back booths, nostalgia is on the rise in trend-setting restaurants. In Chicago, chef Grant Achatz of Alinea fame recently opened Next restaurant with quarterly menus that channel specific cultures and times, such as Paris circa 1912. In Washington D.C., America Eats Tavern from chef José Andrés prepares Colonial-era recipes. And in London, chef Heston Blumenthal runs Dinner restaurant with a menu composed entirely of dishes from the 14th through 19th centuries, such as savory porridge made with snails.
When chefs or curators, such as those at the Museum of London, need an authority on historic food, they turn to Ivan Day. A self-taught cook, Day has recreated period dishes and table settings for foundations such as the Getty Research Institute and television programs on the Food Network and the BBC. His food, including a larded hare and flummery jellies, is the centerpiece of “English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century,” at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts through January 29, 2012.
Inside his white-washed cottage, just off the frost-covered kitchen garden, a blazing hearth warms the beamed, low-ceilinged workroom ringed in Day’s personal collection of food molds for everything from towering meat pies to single-serving jellies. A cross-section of English collectors and cooks has assembled here including a retired antiques dealer who carries a photo album of recently purchased antique cookware; a university department head and avid pastry maker; a winner of a reality TV cooking show, now teaching nutrition; and a former caterer.
“The earliest Christmas menu that we know is from the 17th century and describes white bread for Christmas,” begins Day. “If you were lowly, that might be your only treat.”
But if you were king in 1660, for the Christmas Day bill of fare, you might enjoy 20 dishes, including mutton broth and stuffed kid, for the first course alone. The second course on a historic menu listed 19 dishes, including “swan pye” or pie made with the waterfowl featuring a taxidermied bird atop the crust.
Our class will survey holiday dishes ranging from a modern-looking composed green salad circa 1660 to a Victorian plum pudding. We will create three meals over the course of two days that combine lessons in art, antiques and technology as much as cooking.