As you may know – well, anyone who happened to read my article on Blanquette de Veau in The Art of Eating or Seeing Red: the Bittersweet History of the Radish in The Foodie Bugle knows that I am fascinated by the history of a food. How was a dish created, who concocted the very first one, how did it develop over the years? And very old recipes intrigue me even more than modern inspiration. I just have the idea that it was all so much more of a challenge way back when. So needless to say, I was very happy when I saw that Ilva had selected a recipe for September's Bread Baking Babe's challenge that was originally written in 1660.
The recipe for this French Bread was first published in The Accomplished Cook, written by Robert May in 1660 to be republished with slight adaptations in Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Robert May was an Englishman who trained to become a professional chef in France. His training began at the tender age of ten; May's father was chief cook for a certain Lady Dormer at Ascott House and it was she, apparently an epicure who saw the importance of well-trained chefs, who sent the young boy off to Paris to learn to cook. After a five-year training period, Robert returned to London where he served out his apprenticeship, finally returning to Ascott House where he would serve under his own father.
As May wrote "then were those Golden Days wherein were practised the Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery; then was Hospitality esteemed, Neighbourhood preserved, the Poor cherished, and God honoured”.
May eventually became chef in his own right and worked in a total of 13 homes of minor nobility, "suitable" households all, over his lifetime.
In 1660, at the age of 72, Robert May wrote The Accomplisht Cook: Or the Art and Mystery of Cooking, thought to be the first major recipe book to be published in England. Part memoir, part recipes and general technical commentary, May set out to produce a cookbook “wherein the whole ART is revealed in a more easie and perfect Method than hath been publisht in any language”. May wrote in the 1665 edition's introduction:
To all honest and well- intended persons of my profession, and others, this book can not but be acceptable, as it plainly and profitably discovers the mystery of the whole art; for which, though I may be envied by some, that only value their private interests above posterity and the public good; yet, God and my own conscience would not permit me to bury theses, my experiences, with my silver hair in the grave.
But back to the bread. Ilva, the brilliant photographer behind Lucullian Delights as well as my own partner on Plated Stories (thanks to her, PS won the prestigious IACP Best Photo-Based Blog Award 2014) is this month's Hostess with the Mostess and, passionate historian as she is as well, she selected this bread, first coming across the recipe in Ms. David's cookbook. I must say that if this is the recipe as was first published by Chef May, then he did indeed discover the mystery of perfect yeast bread.