England's First Celebrity Chef

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Astonishingly this kitchen interior where Robert May would have worked survived the disastrous fire that destroyed most of Cowdray House in 1793.

In the mid 17th century Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague was a member of the establishment. He was England’s Ambassador to Rome and a Knight of The Garter. His country estate was Cowdray House, west Sussex.

As befitted his position in the mid 1630’s he employed as his cook a certain Robert May. Having trained in England and France as a young man, May worked for a succession of English Catholic patrons until the Civil War. In its aftermath, he published The Accomplished Cook, Or the Art and Mystery of cooking. Compiled at a time when most cooks jealously guarded the secrets of their profession, this was the first substantial recipe book to be published in England.

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Robert May, Chef de Cuisine
img895.jpg Recipes from yesteryear.


Robert May in the introduction to his “Accomplished Cook,” 1665 says:
To all honest and well- intended persons of my profession, and others, this book can not but be acceptable, as it plainly and profitably discovers the mystery of the whole art; for which, though I may be envied by some, that only value their private interests above posterity and the public good; yet,(he adds) God and my own conscience would not permit me to bury theses, my experiences, with my silver hair in the grave.

Other commentaries from this time go thus:

The greatest care should be taken by the man of fashion, that his cook’s health be preserved: one hundredth part of the attention usually bestowed upon his hounds and his horse, will suffice, to regulate this cooks system.

The Cleft Chef

In 1606, whilst living at Duddeston Hall, and before the construction of Aston Hall, Sir Thomas was particularly proud of his cook. This cook, he claimed, could make a feast fit for a king at a moment's notice. One day he was out hunting with his friends, and decided to put the cook to the test. A runner was sent ahead, warning the cook that a party was arriving, and that he should prepare a feast for them. The cook was not up to the task, and Sir Thomas arrived home to an empty table. Sir Thomas' reaction to this sight was described by one William Ascrick:

'Sir Thomas tooke a cleever and hytt hys cooke with the same cleever .. and clave hys heade that the one side thereof fell upone one of his shoulders, and the other syde on the other shoulder..'

Acknowledgements: Violet Designs; Country Life; BBC.
The Accomplished Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cooking: Reprint available at Amazon.