DCSIMG

The historian with a taste for the flavour of times past

Peter Brears recreates food from the past, and plans the restoration of the kitchens and dining rooms of noble houses and castles.

Peter Brears lives in exactly the kind of house you'd expect.

The Victorian terrace is lined with books on food history, industrial history, history in general, art and cookery.

Pictures of historic Yorkshire buildings line the walls, and the wallpaper is late 19th century via Laura Ashley. A 1970s sofa upholstered in a William Morris print sits alongside a perfect home-made plastic model of the pre-1660s St Paul's Cathedral (without the famous dome that came with the post-Great Fire of London rebuild), battered copper kettles and a wooden merchant's trunk.

The unprepossessing kitchen gives away nothing of the quirky creations that regularly emerge from it, confections that capture the way we used to eat in the days when, for some, dining was more to do with artistry and ostentation than fuelling any kind of hard graft.

Never mind that most of dishes are actually made of painted icing sugar or plastic.

At a drawing board in what may also be the dining room, Brears's technical instruments temporarily rest on the leather-topped table. Work in progress is the faithful recreation of the dining-room in a grand Georgian house in Shropshire.

On a smaller table are what appear to be a startlingly colourful collection of cakes, pastries, bonbons and biscuits, all iced in the same wild strawberry shade and delicately piped with contrasting decoration.

It's all fakery. The strawberry gateau, iced Savoy sponges and Genoese glaces have all been made of moulded plastic, as have the "glazed pears" next to them. They're recreations of typical tea party fare as served up in a grand English house circa 1900.

Peter makes the moulds himself, having researched to the nth degree the dining habits, recipes, cooking techniques and day books kept in such houses.

Combining this with his wider knowledge of food fashions and fads through centuries of British cooking, and his study of social conventions and table manners, he is able to bring back to life the feeling of a Victorian afternoon tea for modern-day visitors to a great house.

Peter Brears is one of Britain's leading food historians. Formerly director of York's Castle Museum and for 15 years director of Leeds City Museums, he has carried out research projects at many historic venues, including Hampton Court Palace, Belvoir Castle, Petworth and Harewood House, where he often designs seasonal food events.

Much in demand across the UK, he works with organisations that include Historic Royal Palaces, the National Trust, English Heritage, and many museums and historic private houses. His prolific writing includes The Gentlewoman's Kitchen, Traditional Food in Yorkshire,The Complete Housekeeper and The Book of Carving.

His is highly specialised work, and there are only one or two historians in the country who are as skilled and knowledgeable.

Peter Brears began volunteering in museums as a secondary schoolboy, living then in the pit village of Outwood near Wakefield. His dad was a colliery baths supervisor.

Peter left school at 13, did an engineering apprenticeship at technical college, then studied industrial design at Leeds College of Art, before finding jobs first at a museum in Hampshire, then as keeper at Clarke Hall, Wakefield.

There, he worked on the recreation of a fully-functioning 1680 house as an educational museum for children. Everything from fireplaces and a Yorkshire range to looms and the dairy had to be researched, built and made to work as of old.

Later, as director of York Castle Museum, he built visitor numbers up to 500,000 a year and led the country's only profit-making council museum. In Leeds, his work included redesigning many galleries, rehousing the stored collections, opening the city's the Industrial Museum, running exhibitions, setting up the first conservation team for Kirkstall Abbey, and publishing The Illustrated History of Leeds.

"Alongside my museum work, I researched food history and was asked to do many projects around the country. This would bring in extra income for us in Leeds," says Peter.

"One reason my work with the history of food was increasingly in demand was that, in the 1980s, there was a movement towards showing kitchens and dining rooms in great houses and museums as they actually would have looked when in use.

"So, instead of simply viewing soup tureens and silver cutlery in glass cabinets, they were laid out on tables and shown as they would actually have been used. It's much more natural and far more interesting for the visitor to see a properly set table, decorated appropriately and with items of food that would have been eaten at that time.

"However, places like the Victoria and Albert Museum still have the porcelain in the porcelain department and the cutlery in the silverware department in the old way. It's not too gripping for the public, is it?"

Brears left his job at Leeds Museums, "after a clear-out of everyone with any knowledge… they wanted managers instead."

When word got out that he was available, the phone started ringing – and hasn't stopped since.

The many projects he juggles include recreating recipes and actual meals, commissioning pottery, and researching and designing the restoration of period kitchens and dining rooms, from pots and pans to wallpaper, furniture and glassware.

He mounts demonstrations of cooking from any period. At Kensington Palace Brears organised the current display of royal porcelain and silverware. He helps to put the past back together when fire, flood or simple bad taste have ruined the original.

One of his more quirky recent projects was the recreation of an 1830s galley kitchen on the SS Great Britain, the world's first great ocean-going liner, rescued by enthusiasts and refurbished with Lottery funding and now an award-winning visitor attraction in Bristol.

"It was a hugely enjoyable six months' work," says Peter. "There were no pictures of the original galley, and everything had rotted away or been lost during the many years the ship was abandoned on the Falkland Islands.

"I started by finding the earliest available plans of the ship, accounts of who supplied equipment, and details of where similar equipment had been used, as well as reading up the general literature on shipping of the time. I found out, for instance, that stoves had to have frames and hanging gridirons to deal with the swaying of the ship."

Current work on Attingham Park in Shropshire, setting up a table as it would have been presented in around 1814 by the then owner, the Ambassador to Italy, includes decorative vases made of sugar. Pyramids of artificial fruit, ham and sausages mocked up in marzipan, and 60-odd other dishes will also be concocted.

Brears is a regular contributor to York's annual Festival of Food and Drink. This year he has researched and masterminded a glittering banquet inspired by one held in August 1789 in honour of the Prince of Wales at the city's Mansion House.

Out to impress, the Corporation gave the profligate and feckless heir to George III the freedom of the city and laid on an extravagant spread cooked by a French chef brought up from London. The lavish menu used the most exotic and expensive ingredients available – including three pineapples.

At 50 a head, guests at the black-tie version at the Mansion House will be guided through the manners and mores of Georgian dining by Peter Brears, as they feast on a host of dishes that include hot pea soup, stewed cod, picked mushrooms, soused herring, minced lamb pies, Indian burdwan stew, beef olives with forcemeat and prune stuffing and Mrs Barnardo's syllabub.

No marzipan or plastic here, then. "No, everything's for real. I don't cook the food, but in everything I do I make and try the original first. In attempting to recreate a banquet of this size, you have to use a very good specialist caterer (in this case Diana Naish's company At Home), and you have to tailor recipes from the past to suit both modern palates and the available budget.

"In Georgian times a banquet involved course or 'removes' of dozens of items all laid out at once, buffet-style. As with much of our food from the past, there was a high quality of taste that came from slow cooking and a great deal of thought and planning.

"There's a lot we can learn

from food in the past, as today we tend to buy convenient, mass-produced ingredients which have to be injected with flavour from a cube.

"I mean, how many people under 50 actually know what

'an old boiler' is? A lot is lost because we no longer know how to cook as previous generations did."

The Georgian Prince of Wales Dinner will be held at York's Mansion House on Thursday, September 27 at 7.30pm, price 50. Information and Ticket line: 01904 466687 www.yorkfestivaloffoodanddrink.com

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page