William aims to serve up a taste of history in St Boswells

William Sitwell - food writer
William Sitwell - food writer

THE earliest recipe for bread discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb, a mention of Vikings buying dried fish before a raid and the first written mention of tomato being used in a recipe.

These were just some of the startling discoveries made by cookery writer William Sitwell as part of his quest to tell the history of food.

The editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine and co-host of the BBC2 series A Question of Taste, has written his first book. Titled “A History of Food in 100 Recipes”, it was published last week and a special launch will be held at The Mainstreet Trading Company book store in St Boswells on Saturday.

William, who has strong links with the Borders – his wife Laura comes from the St Boswells area – will be giving a talk on the 10 recipes that changed the world.

His work is a fascinating and witty journey through history as he picks out the heroes and villains of food history. From the depiction of bread-making in a tomb in Luxor to Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit”, readers will discover amazing stories, inventions, discoveries, food fads and fashions throughout time.

As to William’s cookery credentials, none other than famous chef Marco Pierre White described him as “without doubt one of the great food writers of our day”, urging every serious cook to read the book at least once.

Fellow chef Raymond Blanc said William was the one person he would trust to tell the ultimate story of the history of food.

We all love to eat and most of us have a favourite ingredient or dish. In today’s world we can get the food we want, when we want it – but how many of us really know where our much-loved recipes come from, who invented them and how they were originally cooked?

Those are the mysteries William set out to unravel with his book and as part of his efforts to shine a light on food’s glorious past, he draws on contributions from the likes of Delia Smith, Heston Blumenthal, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver.

His inspiration came after he bought a collection of old cookery books during an auction at Sotheby’s and was struck by how much these early writers were already committed foodies.

“I hired a researcher to help as I had to do the book quite quickly – about 5,000 words a week for six months. So it was very intensive,” William told TheSouthern from his home in Northhamptonshire this week.

He said some of his favourite discoveries included a report of how, when Hernan Cortes, leader of the Spanish conquistadors, met the last great ruler of the Aztecs, Montezuma, he enjoyed a cup of cocoa which was “frothed up”.

“There was also no written recipe for bread prior to the 1600s,” William explained. “But then it came to my attention that in a section of the Bayeux Tapestry, there is an image of William the Conqueror being presented with what is clearly bread.

“Looking at the Vikings, they were too busy burning your house down to bother writing recipes, but I did come across a record of how dried fish had been bought prior to a raid.”

One thing William had been extra keen to find was the first written mention of a tomato being used in a recipe. “I found it in an ancient Neapolitan text in the British Library – the word “pomodoro” – in a recipe about a tomato sauce from 1692. That was really exciting.”

But Saturday’s audience at Mainstreet Trading might be surprised to discover that for a man on first-name terms with many of the world’s greatest chefs, he thinks a lot of modern cookery is now far too complicated and laments how the end of the 19th century, together with two world wars and rationing, destroyed much of Britain’s indigenous food culture.

“And things like the ‘Masterchef’ effect has seen many people trying to be far too complicated in their own cooking at home,” he added. “It takes experience to cook a fresh omelette really well or cook the perfect steak and, personally, I still don’t think there’s anything better than a really well-cooked roast chicken.”