Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury, and the art of making exceedingly good cakes

Ilka Heale peruses the Library's cookery books.

"A good dinner is of great importance to good talk," Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own. "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
Detail from a 19th century cookery book by orangebrompton. Re-used under a Creative Commons licence.
On the top floor of the Morrell Library, you'll find the Library's small cookery section at Z 41.5. But you won't find any books by Delia or Jamie there, rather facsimile editions of 18th and 19th century cookbooks amongst other books on cooking and food, including Curries and other Indian dishes by the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand, and Beans: a history by Ken Albala (a history of beans from around the world, which includes a few recipes. Check out the recipe on page 185 for 'Pinto bean fruit cake' and yes, the first ingredient is two cups of well-cooked pinto beans!).

Then there's this gem about the Bloomsbury Group: The Bloomsbury cookbook : recipes for life, love and art [London: Thames & Hudson 2014]. Part cookbook, part social and cultural history, it includes over 170 recipes taken from diaries or letters.

The Bloomsbury Group was the name given to an influential group of English writers, philosophers and artists who frequently met during the first half of the 20th century in the Bloomsbury district of London, the area around the British Museum. The group fostered a fresh and creative way of living that encouraged debate - debate which took place, more often than not, across the dining table.

These gatherings were organised by Thoby Stephen and his sisters Vanessa Bell (a Post-impressionist painter whose granddaughter, Cressida Bell, also illustrated this book) and the writer Virginia Woolf. They were attended by Stephen's Cambridge friends Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey (whose favourite meal was rice pudding which he insisted on eating everyday!) and John Maynard Keynes. Well-known names today, they formed the nucleus of the group at the time.

Here's a sample from the book, featuring a recipe for chocolate biscuits which comes from Fry's Chocolate Recipes. The painting is by Roger Fry, art critic and Post-impressionist painter. He became part of the Bloomsbury Group in 1910 and was a direct descendant of the J.S. Fry chocolate dynasty.

Pages 48-9 from The Bloomsbury cookbook : recipes for life, love and art [London : Thames & Hudson 2014] by Jans Ondaatje Rolls. The painting 'Still life with biscuit tin and pots 1918' is by Roger Fry - the original is in the Walker Art Gallery.

You can find Library books on the artists of The Bloomsbury Group among the York Art Gallery gift collection and if you want to know more about the group in general, just search the Library catalogue for both print and electronic resources.

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