All aquiver for jelly with a top food historian

Peter Brears. PIC: Scott Merrylees
Peter Brears. PIC: Scott Merrylees
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He’s an artist, writer, food historian and wait for it, Britain’s leading authority on jelly. Jill Turton meets Peter Brears.

Taking tea with Peter Brears, England’s foremost food historian, reminds you just what a polymath he is. Over the fireplace of his Victorian terraced house in Headingley, is an oil painting of Kirkstall Abbey, whole and complete as it would have looked in 1152. He painted it, he says, to properly understand the structure of the Abbey.

Behind me is a foot-high trophy with Roman body armour, palm trees and flags that he made to use as a mould for an intricate centrepiece made of sugar. On a table is a plate of cakes: Two kinds of Northumbrian tea bread and an unusual shortbread jam sandwich, the results of some experimental baking for his book, Traditional Food of Northumbria.

In the dining room a bookshelf, at least three feet long, houses the books he has written: The English Country Pottery; The Gentlewoman’s Kitchen; Images of Leeds; Leeds Waterfront Heritage; A Taste of Leeds; All the Kings’ Cooks; Jellies and their Moulds. There are 27 books in all, as well as numerous pamphlets, monographs and forewords.

His kitchen, with its working cast iron Yorkshire range is where he experiments with recipes – Tudor, medieval, Victorian – and where he researched his latest book Traditional Food in Yorkshire (Prospect Books), a much expanded version of the one he published nearly 30 years ago.

It is an awesome piece of scholarship, a definitive work.

“Over the years, you pick up more information,” he says. That information comes from his vast knowledge of Yorkshire and its food, but also from lecturing, ideally to a roomful of elderly ladies. He remembers one such event in Yeadon. “Afterwards they told me how to cook a sheep’s head,” and here he slips into broadest Yorkshire. “Yer cleave it down t’middle and tek out brains and put ’em in a muslin bag and tie it t’pan ’andle, but don’t let it touch t’bottom, otherwise it’ll burn. Then yer tek eyes out, cos it makes it taste right bitter.” Regaining his own gentle voice, he adds: “That’s invaluable information.”

So how does a working class lad from Wakefield who failed his 11-plus become director of both York and Leeds’ City Museums, consultant to the National Trust, English Heritage, the Historic Royal Palaces, winner of numerous prizes including the André Simon award for his book, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, the standard text on the subject, and Britain’s leading authority on jelly, a role he accepts with wry amusement?

Peter Brears was born in Thorpe, between Leeds and Wakefield, in 1944. Aged five he moved to the pit village of Outwood where his mother stayed at home and cooked good, plain wholesome food for the family and his father ran the pit-head baths. A scholarship to Castleford Technical High School then Leeds College of Art taught him engineering, product design, and technical drawing, skills that would become invaluable in his career.

As a boy with an inquiring mind and a love of history he volunteered to work in local museums and on the Sandal Castle archeological dig. He attended extra-mural classes and for fun, hung out with the local smallholder-cum-scrap merchant, a Steptoe figure, with Brears acting as Steptoe’s son, collecting what had become by the 1960s, unwanted mahogany furniture, chaise longues and long case clocks.

His first proper job was Keeper of Folk Life for Hampshire County Council, but it wasn’t long before he was back in Yorkshire and after a brief spell at Shibden Hall in Halifax, he became live-in curator at Clarke Hall, Wakefield, a semi-derelict 17th century merchant’s house that Brears turned into a living history museum where school children in costume could learn about the domestic life of their ancestors.

He furnished it with original artefacts and furniture or else made reproductions so that the children could get a hands-on experience of what life was like 150 years ago. For the many school children who passed through Clarke Hall, it was a memorable experience, cooking, cleaning, gardening, chopping vegetables for soup in the kitchens and turning the spit for the chickens roasting in front of the open fire.

Since no one had created this kind of living museum before, queries about food landed on Brears’s desk and gradually his interest in food history began to develop.

“Food as a topic of social history had not really been covered. There were people who knew everything about pottery and porcelain, but with no idea what it was used for.”

In 1975, after three years at Clarke Hall, Brears was offered his dream job as director of York’s Castle Museum. There he spent four happy years, building up a talented team, increasing visitor numbers and with it the museum’s income. “It was a struggle in many ways, but a very worthwhile one.”

When he first arrived however he found much of the collection in chaos: “The armoury, the finest outside the Tower, was stored in the roof space. The costume collection, one of the finest in the country, was kept in a house on King’s Staithe that flooded every year. There were 18th century Spitalfield’s dresses, 16th century ladies caps, Cloth of Gold purses.” They hired a van and took the whole lot back to the Castle Museum.

The collection took up nearly a whole floor. “There were mounds of clothing 6-8ft high: fans, 18th century silk shoes, black beaded flapper dresses, all sorts. On the second night we noticed it was getting warm. The whole thing was heating up: spontaneous combustion. We broke a hole in the window, brought in dehumidifiers and worked 24 hours a day for a week, drying out the collection to stop it going up.”

In 1979 Brears was head-hunted to become director of Leeds City Museums and once again set about reorganising and cataloguing the long neglected collection.

“Leeds has a fantastic natural history collection, a great classical archeology and ethnographic collection but there was no background about what it was or where it came from.”

Brears went back to the earliest records. “We discovered the polar bear had been brought back by Captain Scoresby, from one of his whaling expeditions and that we had one of the finest mummies in the country, which at that time was totally unknown to Egyptologists.”

He opened Armley’s Industrial Museum and appointed a conservation team to Kirkstall Abbey and all the while he was going home to write about Leeds, food and the daily lives of our forebears illustrating his texts with exquisite drawings, some of them detailed and delightful cut-aways of ancient buildings, giving a secret view of how life was lived inside.

When Brears was ‘let go’ from Leeds City Museum in 1994 under reorganisation, the phones were soon ringing from the likes of English Heritage, the National Trust and the Royal Palaces.

In 1995 he was invited by the Gelatine Manufacturers of Europe, to research ‘the lost status of jellies’ which culminated in the country’s first British Jelly Festival. One hundred jellies from the 1390s to the 1930s were exhibited at Petworth House. Quivering castles and grass eating rabbits, beautiful light refracting reds and milky blancmanges. They delighted the public and led to invitations to put on jelly exhibitions at Harewood House, Syon House and in Dublin for Ireland’s National Jelly Day.

From then on he was in constant demand to lecture exhibit and demonstrate jelly, but five years of it was enough even for an enthusiast like Brears and he moved on, recording, cataloguing and advising on some of the great country houses and historic buildings of Britain.

He has worked on every major country house kitchen in England. He got the kitchens at Hampton Court up and running for the first time since 1737 and every Christmas, for ten years, he and his team demonstrated there, in full Tudor costume, the dishes and the cooking techniques of the 1530s.

At 70, Peter Brears shows no signs of slowing down. He still travels all over the country by public transport, lecturing on food and housekeeping. He continues to write – in long hand at the dining room table.

When he needs a break he turns to his drawing board and makes meticulous drawings to illustrate the text. “That’s the fun, my relaxation,” he says.

Now and again a TV crew turn up and he lights the kitchen range, winds up the meat jack and shows them how our ancestors roasted meat or baked gingerbread. But he’s too shy, too unassuming, too unassertive to become a Simon Sharma or a Lucy Worsley, or possibly, as he sees it, because he’s outside London. Their loss, Yorkshire’s priceless gain.

Traditional Food in Yorkshire, published by Prospect Books, priced £25 is out now.