Potions to Fight Diseases, Thick Cream Cheese: Historical Cookbooks to Be Up For Auction

A collection of antiquarian cookery books will be offered as part of Bonhams’ Fine Books and Manuscripts sale, which will take place on August 19 in London.

The collection was assembled over nearly 40 years by English hotelier Ruth Watson, who is best known for presenting the television programs “The Hotel Inspector” and “Country House Rescue.”

Although many assume that eating healthy food on a budget is a modern preoccupation, the historical cookery books on offer at Bonhams prove otherwise.

“Time and again while I was cataloguing this wonderful historic collection, I was struck by the number of references to economy, frugality and health and the parallels with our own times. The role of food, not only in keeping well but in warding off disease and aiding recovery, is a constant theme. Some of the suggestions may strike us as outlandish, but others are a good deal more sensible than the fad diets of today,” Bonhams senior book specialist Simon Roberts commented.

This is notably the case for a 1595 edition of “Castell of Health,” in which scholar Thomas Elyot gives advice about the effects of different foods and diets “so that English men and women may understand and regulate their health accordingly.”

The historical book, estimated to fetch up to £3,000 (around $3,928), also contributed to popularizing the theory of the four humors and complexions in Britain.

Elsewhere, an 18th-century collection of handwritten recipes features an eclectic variety of culinary and medicinal recipes.

Among them is a concoction of herbs and spices, mithridate, treacle and aquavita, which was thought to be “good against the common plague, but also against the sweating sickness, the small pox, measles and surfeits.”

While several of the cookbooks on sale advocate for healthy eating habits, others include less diet-friendly recipes that have not stood the test of time.

That is the case of a manuscript recipe book kept by the Croft family of Stillington Hall in Yorkshire, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries.

The book, expected to sell for up to £3,000 (around $3,928), features “Mrs Haslers receipt for a thick cream cheese,” which involved taking “the mornings milk of 7 cows & the nights cream of 7 cows.”

It is likely that Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne sampled some of the dishes in the recipe book, as he was a good friend of the Crofts and often dined with them.

According to Bonhams, Thomas Croft is widely recognised as having saved the manuscript of Sterne’s masterpiece, “Tristram Shandy,” from certain destruction after a hearty dinner.

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