Robert May was born in 1588 and came from a family of distinguished chefs. At the age of ten he was sent to Paris to continue learning his trade. He then spent seven years as an apprentice in London. Throughout his long life he cooked for many members of the British aristocracy. The Accomplisht Cook was written in 1660 when May was already 72 years old, and in it he shares his experiences and many secrets of his profession.
The book was written in the year of the Restoration, and May wrote that his recipes 'were formerly the delights of the Nobility, before good housekeeping had left England'. His books give directions for many extravagant dishes, including a pastry stag filled with blood-like claret, a tortoise stewed with eggs, nutmeg and sweet herbs, and a 'pudding of swan' made with rose water and lemon peel. They also include an exploding pastry ship with flags, streamers and guns and a pie containing live frogs and birds. In the latter, May describes how the live animals will hop and fly from the pie, thus putting out the candles, and causing the ladies to skip and shriek.
May was aware, however, that many of his readers would have lacked the wealth to afford such luxuries, and so many of the dishes are relatively modest. In the preface to The Accomplisht Cook he writes of his recipes, 'I have so managed them for the general good, that those whose purses cannot reach to the cost of rich dishes, I have descended to their meaner expenses, that they may give ... a handsome and relishing entertainment in all seasons of the year'.
May intersperses English recipes with those from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, and Persia. Although he was clearly indebted to the French masters, he was careful not to overplay their influence, and thus run the risk of offending his English readership. Consequently, in the preface to The Accomplisht Cook he scoffs at the French, writing of how 'by their insinuations, not without enough of ignorance, [they] have bewitcht some of the gallants of our nation with epigram dishes ... their mushroom'd experiences for sauce rather than diet, for the generality howsoever called A-la mode, not so worthy of being taken notice of'.
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