Strawberry Shortcake

Food Historian: Cakes

Dr Annie Gray works in and out of costume as a Food Historian. Dr Gray regularly appears on TV and Radio as a Historic Advisor.

If you could write your own job description what would it say?

Love of history required, along with desire to communicate said love to as wide an audience as possible. Cookery skills needed, though strong stomach and fearlessness in the face of hare’s bottoms, maggots, half-rotten vegetables and random animal parts often more vital than actual skill, which you will learn on the job (no-one can teach you most of what you need, apart from people who died hundreds of years ago). Must be shameless, eager to wear stays and able to drive and train stupidly large distances at the drop of a hat. Performance, presentational and research skills vital. Large car a must. Coffee will be provided. Lunch will often not.


What made you want to become a Food Historian?

I fell into it, having always been a keen cook, interested in modern food. I initially did a history degree, then historical archaeology, which introduced me to a broader methodology and set of approaches than straight history. Knowing I wanted to work with the public, and with heritage sites, once I happened upon culinary history as an area, I immediately saw its potential for reaching people and for then exploring wider themes in history through the medium of the food.

During your talk at The Old Chapel Upminster, you focused on Victorian cakes what interests you about this era?

I specialise in the post modern period, so roughly 1600 onwards, but the Victorian is particularly fascinating in food because so many of the themes of modern eating can be traced back – intensive farming, cook’s cheats, cheap food and the impact of poverty – it’s all there.


Why is the Victoria Sponge cake is still as popular today?

It’s a classic British recipe. And, done well, a delight!


What other cakes were popular during the Victorian period?

All sorts, though in some ways there’s a greater variety today (not always as good though). One of my favourites is Agnes Marshall’s Jubilee Tea Cake, which is a very light, flourless sponge topped with a tea glaze and ground nuts. Anyone attending my talk will get a chance to taste it for themselves, as well as take home the recipe.


Can you taste the difference between a historic cake and a modern cake?

Often yes, due to the lack of artificial raising agents.

Modern cooking or historic cooking?

I don’t really see a difference. What we cook now is the historic food of the future, and the past and the present are all continuous.


Do you have a particular cake that you love to make?

There’s a mid-17th century sugar cake recipe in Essex Record Office, intended for dipping into wine at the end of a meal, which is just fabulous.


What's been the highlight of your career so far?

I am a regular panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, which I absolutely adore. I learn loads from the other panellists, and it’s always rather a joy to be in the same room with other people as interested in matters culinary as I am.


Finish this sentence...I love my job because....

Every day is different – and I get to cook, eat, read, visit amazing historic sites, meet hundreds of interested people and talk endlessly on a topic about which I am truly passionate.

Back To Food & Drink