History is served

Visitors to Wallington Food and Craft Festival can take a 250-year culinary step back in time courtesy of the Domestic Goddess of her day, Mary Smith. Jane Hall looks back to a time when women ruled the nation’s great kitchens and Newcastle rivalled London as the food capital of the country

The likes of Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White may hold their share of contemporary culinary aces, but nearly three centuries ago it was women who were cooking their way to gastronomic success.

Some were household names, with their own newspaper columns, best-selling recipe books and fine dining establishments patronised by the rich and famous, and one of the most highly regarded gourmet names of the late-1700s was Mary Smith of Wallington.

Her cookery book, which was published in 1772, ran to four editions over 30 years, and she served food to some of the nation’s most powerful people during her career.

She was sought out by genteel ladies eager to learn household management skills at the hands of one of Georgian Britain’s consummate exponents of all things domestic, and she would have commanded the respect of high society.

Mary was housekeeper to the powerful baronet and MP Sir Walter Calverley-Blackett of Wallington at Cambo, Nothumberland.

Now in the hands of the National Trust, Wallington’s Palladian mansion and grounds today offer a peaceful day out for visitors, but in the 18th Century it was very much at the centre of British political life.

Sir Walter also enjoyed the magnificent Newcastle mansion Anderson Place, which once stood between Grey Street and Market Street and was a prison to Charles I for the year prior to his execution.

It was here that Sir Walter would wine and dine the highest of high society on food prepared by the talented Mary and it may well have been here that she started to write down the recipes that were published in her book, The Complete House-Keeper and Professed Cook Calculated for the Greater Ease and Assistance of Ladies, House-Keepers, Cooks etc, etc.

The long-winded title obviously didn’t put buyers off and it is believed that many thousands of copies would have been in circulation. Today, only seven of the various editions still exist in private collections, one of which is an original at Wallington itself.

The well-thumbed pages and annotated margins of the leather-bound volume is evidence that generations of subsequent cooks at Wallington found the recipes and household advice useful and during the weekend of October 15-16 visitors will have a rare opportunity to see the book during the sixth Wallington Food and Craft Festival.

A selection of Mary’s dishes will also be put on the menu in Wallington’s Clocktower Café.

The book offers a fascinating insight into life on a large estate in the 18th Century. The recipes depend on amounts local produce, much of it from the estate itself, and include spices and luxury ingredients.

There is game in abundance, home-reared pork, beef and lamb, sweet desserts including an early recipe for trifle, tips on preserving, Christmas menus including turkey – an early arrival from the American colonies – and advice dealing with staff.

It is a remarkable snapshot into a time long gone, and for her part, Mary would have commanded great respect.

This was a period when domestic goddesses were revered and women from even the most humble backgrounds could rise to the top. In addition, Newcastle was second only to London in terms of culinary talent.

“In the 18th Century, Newcastle had very close links with London because of the coal trade and Newcastle’s wealth and high society was second only to the capital,” says food historian Peter Bears.

“Newcastle would have been very fashionable and London recipes, spices and wines would have been readily available.”

Recipes from the North East were also making their way to the capital. “Newcastle produced more cookbooks in the 18th Century than any place other than London,” Peter says.

“Mary would have been a very powerful woman, the senior member of the female staff. She would have been a great asset to a big house and Sir Walter would have been much envied by his contemporaries.

“She would have been treated with respect, had a lot of influence, been in close contact with the lady of the house and would have expected to have been taken care of for the rest of her life by her employer.”

Going into service, even for a young middle class girl, would have been considered a good move and while working for Sir Walter Mary is likely to have been present at the great dinners held at Anderson Place.

“She would have been working for Sir Walter at Wallington, but as the housekeeper and an adept cook she would have also worked at Anderson Place,” Peter says.

“At that time it was the largest house in Newcastle and was even reputed to be the finest town house in the country.

“Sir Walter had important political connections, which means Mary must have looked after all the major statesmen of the day and people of means.”

But for her cookbook, Mary wouldn’t even be a footnote in history. Basic facts such as her date of birth and death, where she grew up and what she looked like are all a mystery.

We do, however, know what her tastes in food were and it is a tribute to her that her memory should live on through the recipes she so painstakingly committed to paper 249 years ago.

Festival of food and craft

The joint National Trust, Taste North East and Made in Cumbria Wallington Food and Craft Festival will see 65 food, drink and craft producers descend on Wallington at Cambo, Northumberland.

Former North East Chef of the Year David Kennedy of David Kennedy’s Food Social @ The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle and BBC Masterchef favourite Stacie Stewart from Sunderland will also be appearing at the event.

Other highlights include a children’s food trail and the opportunity to meet visiting alpacas.

Wallington Food and Craft Festival, Cambo, Northumberland, will take place on October 15-16 from 10am-5pm both days. Admission charges to the garden and grounds have been reduced for the weekend to £2 for adults, children go free. Normal admission charges apply to visit the house. For more information see www.tastenortheast.co.uk or www.madeincumbria.co.uk

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