Robert May – The Accomplisht Cook

In an era when there were few professional cooks in England, let alone overseas-trained chefs, there was Robert May, born in Wing in the late 16th century, and author of The Accomplisht Cook published 1660.

Father Edwarde was the chief cook at Ascott Park, working for the Dormer family, and Robert in his own words was “bred up in this Art”. While the biography that appears in the aforementioned book states he was born in 1588, he was not baptised until 2 April 1592 (Robert son of Edwarde and Joan Mayes). Lady Dormer obviously placed great value in food, and sent young Robert to France to train for five years. Upon his return to England he finished his apprenticeship in London working for Arthur Hollinsworth (cook to the Grocer’s Hall and Star Chamber), then returned to Wing, becoming one of the five cooks reporting to his father at Ascott Park – “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”.

After Lady Dormer’s death Robert moved around the country serving in other “suitable” households. By 1660 he was inspired to pen The Accomplisht Cook, Or The Art & Mystery of Cookery “wherein the whole ART is revealed in a more easie and perfect Method than hath been publisht in any language”. Along with recipes and general technical commentary, the book (at least by its fifth edition in 1685) contained effusive acknowledgements by Robert of his indebtedness to the Persons of great Honour in whose households he had been privileged to serve, assurances to fellow practitioners following in his footsteps that he has “laid open these Experiences as I was most unwilling to hide my Talent, but have ever endeavoured to do good to others”, a brief biography of Robert’s career, and my personal favourite – two poems praising the “Book set forth with such things in’t, as former Ages never saw in Print”.

Tom Jaine, ‘May, Robert (b. 1588? d. in or after 1664), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or, The Art & Mystery of Cookery

Robert May’s book (1685 facsimile edition) was available in recent years but now appears to be out of print, however it can be viewed for free online at Project Gutenberg. To whet your appetite (or maybe not…) here is one of Robert’s suggested seasonal menus – I fear our Wing ag lab ancestors were not quite so well fed!

A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in order

1. A Collar of brawn
2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones
3. A grand Sallet
4. A pottage of caponets
5. A breast of veal in stoffado
6. A boil’d partridge
7. A chine of beef, or surloin roast
8. Minced pies
9. A Jegote of mutton with anchove sauce
10. A made dish of sweetbread
11. A swan roast
12. A pasty of venison
13. A kid with a pudding in his belly
14. A steak pie
15. A hanch of venison roasted
16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves
17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste
18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded
19. Two large capons, one larded
20. A Custard

The second course for the same Mess

Oranges and Lemons
1. A young lamb or kid
2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded
3. A pig souc’t with tongues
4. Three ducks, one larded
5. Three pheasants, 1 larded
6. A Swan Pye
7. Three brace of partridge, three larded
8. Made dish in puff paste
9. Bolonia sausages, and anchoves, mushrooms, and cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish
10. Six teels, three larded
11. A Gommon of Westphalia Bacon
12. Ten plovers, five larded
13. A quince pye, or warden pie
14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded
15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins &c
16. A dish of Larks
17. Six dried neats tongues
18. Sturgeon
19. Powdered Geese