Downside’s Georgian cookbook is a feast in its own right


Downside Abbey has just produced a handsome and unusual volume, recently discovered in its archives: titled Bristol Georgian Cookbook and available from their website.

It includes “over 100 original everyday recipes, written c.1793”, originally from a Bristol merchant’s household. (Mind you, some of them would not be considered “everyday” now: Calves Head Turtle Fashion, White Hog Pudding and Fricassee of Pigs Feet and Ears strike me as outside the common run of kitchen fare.)

In his foreword, the Prior, Dom Leo Maidlow Davis, reminds the reader that St Benedict “took food and drink very seriously, as any civilised person should.” This makes me want to know more about the Benedictine Community at Downside and its attitude to the pleasures of the table. Dom Christopher Calascione answers my questions.

I ask him what are the common dishes enjoyed by the monks and he tells me that they always have a Sunday roast, “using the cheaper types of joint”; there is also a soup supper on Wednesdays and Fridays; fish and chips at Friday lunchtime; salad options and cold option are available; variations of fruit salad and “a sweet course at lunch only four days a week.”

All this sounds both healthy and nutritious. I note from the book that the Community only has a single daily meal in Lent. Fr Christopher explains that “unlike more strictly contemplative order, our fasting routines are relatively modest.” This might include a “rarity of cakes and teacakes.” He describes the monks “poverty level” rather intriguingly: a former novice master defined it, especially in Lent, as that of “a struggling businessman.”

Although St Benedict allowed for wine as a standard issue at meals, “the Downside practice is to have it or ale or cider only on the more important feast-days. I am also told that “all meals are in silence all the year round, with readings usually from Scripture, except on major feast days.”

Have the monks been allowed to enjoy some of the recipes in the book? I learn that they enjoyed “trying the Sally Lunn buns when we took part in a taste test in Bath” and that “the senior pupils of Downside School’s Fine Dining Society have also been recreating the recipes, making jumbals, pancakes and more.” He comments, “It’s been great fun.”

Dom Christopher also explains to me that in his role as Guest Master, he is responsible for all matters relating to hospitality, including food and drink, within the Monastery. Originally from Malta, he emphasises that “his Mediterranean heritage ensures a high standard of expectation!” It seems that he never trained as a cook but “trained” as a “discriminating consumer at his family’s table, and later, before becoming a monk, as a widely-travelled businessman, by sampling a reasonable standard of European hotels and restaurants.”

What is Fr Christopher’s own favourite recipe from the book? He is unhesitating: “I would recommend the Sally Lunn bun to anybody.”

As the word “jumbals” has been mentioned above, I should explain to readers that they are made from three-quarters of a pound of flour, half a pound of sugar, 2 oz butter, 2 eggs and a teaspoon of ginger. I am relieved to see that the quantities are, as one would expect, in old measures and I plan to try them out myself. They illustrate the book’s cover and look very tasty.