Meet the Victorian cook who’s a YouTube star
electricity, include roly-poly pudding, Christmas gin punch and even a Victorian take on curry. One video, which shows how to make cucumber ice cream (earthy, yet refreshing, with a glug of brandy), even beat that of a strawberry ice cream recipe posted online by Jamie Oliver (who hails from nearby Clavering), with 1.6million views to his 1.4million.
This month, visitors will be able to join Avis Crocombe and her kitchen maids as they prepare real seasonal dishes around the table, with ingredients from the working kitchen gardens, and using her original pots and pans.
Of course, this isn’t the real Mrs Crocombe – she has been brought to life by historical re-interpreter Kathy Hipperson. The viral videos and the success of the kitchen demonstrations have delighted Dr Andrew Hann, English Heritage historian for country houses, and Annie Gray, a food historian who adapted the recipes.
The way we consume history is changing, explains Dr Hann. “Country houses used to be cordoned off to visitors,” he says. “It was all about being wowed by the grand interiors and fine furniture, but now people want the grit, to know what it was really like to live there, and to empathise with the likes of ordinary people.
“Most people’s ancestors weren’t aristocrats; they’re more likely to have been farmers or servants.”
This is in evidence at Audley End, not only downstairs in the kitchen, but also in the nursery upstairs, where younger visitors can play with a Victorian doll’s house, fancy dress, flower presses and a rocking horse.
While the historic house was preparing to put on an interactive exhibition of the cook, her original cookbook – which Dr Hann describes as “gold dust” – was discovered in a drawer by her great-great-nephew.
A talented cook and a career woman of her day, some of Mrs Crocombe’s recipes are adapted from those of renowned cooks of the period such as Eliza Acton and Agnes Marshall, while others are original. Hipperson and the rest of the “servants” will return in December, to illustrate how Christmas was celebrated in the Victorian way.
It’s a fascinating medium through which to learn about the history of the service wing, to uncover the often-untold but crucial stories of the real people hidden behind the scenes of British stately homes.
It may also spark inspiration to bake Mrs Crocombe’s Victoria sponge, perhaps in an electric oven rather than over coals, or her damson cheese, and set off to explore the rest of Audley End’s other richly restored layers of history.
A Jacobean mansion rebuilt by Thomas Howard between 1605-1614, it was Audley End that James I famously remarked to be too grand for a king, though fitting for a Lord Treasurer (before Howard was convicted of corruption, extortion, embezzlement and bribery).
With an opulent crimson 18th century great drawing room and gardens designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, it’s not a bad day out, either.
Avis Crocombe, as played by Kathy Hipperson, was a cook in the 19th century at Audley End in Essex, below