Almost nothing is known about the creators of the Begbrook Manuscript (AC 1420). It was purchased in the nineteenth century by the collector Daniel Parsons (1811-1887), and his collection was probably given to the Downside Abbey Archives and Library in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The manuscript was found by fortunate coincidence in the course of major renovation work in 2015 and published as facsimile edition in 2017, titled Downside Abbey Discovers: Bristol Georgian Cookbook. It is bound in leather, presumably cheap sheepskin, and consists of 140 pages of handmade paper. The first handwriting in the book, which may also be the oldest hand and dates to 1793, reflects the use of a goose quill, while the later hands wrote with a steel pen. Although it claims to be part of the ‘Begbrook Kitchen Library’ on the inside cover, no further volumes have been found.
The collaborative aspect of the manuscript cookery book can be seen through the various hands penning the recipes as well as the names of individuals provided. Despite this, it was planned rather than ‘grown’: it is a clearly structured memory aid for the cook, created to facilitate the use of the recipes. A more in depth discussion of the manuscript can be found here.
The Begbrook MS offers a number of insights into the manuscript practices of the time, and one recipe in particular seems to be a ‘missing link’ to the origins of ‘New College Puddings.’ This traditional dish named for the Oxford college appears in the 1901 book New College by Hastings Rashdall and Robert Sangster Rait, among other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century printed sources. On her blog The Old Foodie, Janet Clarkson raises the question of whether the recipe given in New College might actually be “the real original from the college kitchen archives,” given that the wording suggests a “significantly earlier” version. To do so, she compares Rashdall and Rait’s recipe with the recipes ‘College Puddings’ from William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle (1830, page 395) and ‘To make New-College Puddings’ from Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1736, 7th edition; the recipe from the 9th edition, page 118 can be found here). Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifry from 1764 gives the recipe almost verbatim. The 1901 version of the recipe reads:
New Colledge Puddings.
For one duzon take a penny halfe penny white bread and grate it an put to that halfe a pound of beefe suett minced small half a pound of curantes one nutmeg and salt and as much creame and eggs as will make it almost as stiffe as past then make you in the fashon of an egg, then lay them into the dish that you bake them in one by one with a quarter of a pound of butter melted in the bottom, then set them over a cleare charcole fire and cover them, when they are browne, turne them till they are browne all over, then dishe them into a cleane dishe, for yr sause take sack, suger, rosewater and butter, pour this over yr puddings and scrape over fine suger and serve them to the table.[i]
While carrying out the initial transcription of the recipes in the Begbrook MS during a summer work placement shortly after its discovery, I noticed that recipe number 123 on pages 121 and 122 reads very similarly to that of Rashdall and Rait:
New College Puddings
For one Dozen Take two penny Loafs grated, 1/2 a lb of Currants, 1/2 a lb of Beef Suet, minced small – half a Nutmeg a little Salt a quarter of a lb of Sugar, 4 Eggs, orange or Rose Water, a little Wine & Cream as much as will make it as stiff as Paste Them then mix it well together and make them up in the Shape of an Egg Then put a 1/4 of a lb of Butter in a Stew Pan and lay Them round The Bottom, cover them and Set them over a moderate fire let them Stew gently or fry Them when brown on one Side turn Them Till they are entirely brown Then Dish Them melt Butter with Wine and Sugar and pour over Them
Not only do the instructions and ingredients sound very similar (except the sauce, which seems to be rather simple in the manuscript), but the Begbrook MS also bears the note “This receipt from The Cook of New College” at the end of the recipe. Clarkson’s suggestion that the recipe from New College is not only much older than 1901, but also – if not an original from the archives – at least a dish which was prepared the college rather often, seems to be supported by this find. Due to the similarity of the versions from New College and Begbrook MS, we can infer that the recipe in this form was cooked for the residents of the college and not just taken from earlier printed sources.
[i] Hastings Rashdall, Robert Sangster Rait, New College (Oxford: Robinson, 1901), p. 244