Barbecued otter, sautéed tortoise, sparrows on toast and live frog pie – a new publication from the British Library reveals weird and wonderful recipes throughout history

The Curious Cookbook, by Peter Ross (c) British Library Board

From the frugal to the fantastical, The Curious Cookbook: Viper Soup, Badger Ham, Stewed Sparrows & 100 More Historic Recipes contains some of the most unusual recipes from historic cookery books, from the Middle Ages to the Second World War.

Collected by subject expert, Peter Ross, the book includes recipes from the earliest manuscript and printed cookery books in the English language and takes the reader through the lavish gastronomic spectacles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the austerity of the Victorian kitchen and the imaginative ration-book cookery of wartime 1940s Britain.

In this cookbook there is far more to food than just taste. Some of the most outlandish recipes, such as a pastry stag that ‘bleeds’ and pies containing live frogs, were clearly designed to dazzle guests.

Other recipes reveal the seemingly limitless appetite for all manner of birds and animals. From barbecued otter and sautéed tortoise to kangaroo soup, roast peacock and sparrows on toast, neither common nor exotic species were safe from the adventurous cook.

The titles of some recipes give little away as to their actual contents, but bunny hugs, bosom caresser and whore’s farts (mutton pancakes, an egg-based cocktail and deep-fried fritters respectively) do show the fun that could be had with naming recipes.

To our delicate modern palates, dishes such as chopped brain fritters, cod’s head and shoulders, imitation entrails and fishy mince pies may not appeal, but there is no denying the ingenuity of other creations, including ketchup that will last you twenty years, portable soup and even a cure for the plague.

Peter Ross, Principal Librarian at the Guildhall Library, says: “I have always loved learning about what we ate in the past: it tells us about how people lived in a way that almost nothing else can. Researching the book I looked at thousands of recipes from the medieval period to the Second World War; some were alarming or curious, and many showed the inventiveness, sophistication and daring of generations of British cooks.”

Through dozens of carefully selected recipes, combined with an engaging and informative commentary, the book offers an engrossing, if not always tantalising, insight into what our ancestors ate.

Peter Ross is the Principal Librarian at the Guildhall Library, London, where he is in charge of the largest collection of historical cookery books, of any UK public library.

Notes to Editors:

The Curious Cookbook: Viper Soup, Badger Ham, Stewed Sparrows & 100 More Historic Recipes is published by the British Library on 23 May 2012, price £14.95 / ISBN 9780712358637 / 210 x 149 mm / 176 pages

The book is available from the British Library Shop (tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7735 / e-mail: bl-bookshop@bl.uk) and online at www.bl.uk/shop as well as other bookshops throughout the UK.

For more information contact:


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  



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