European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

17 May 2024

Continental cookbooks

From 17 May to 3 June 2024, the British Library celebrates its sixth Food Season, with a range of events that highlight the stories, the politics, and the people behind how and why we eat. While practical in their intent, cookbooks offer fascinating insights into the time and place of their production. The British Library’s rich collection of cookbooks provides an engaging way to trace evolving attitudes and tastes that have shaped cuisines and cultures. To mark this year's food season, today’s blog features a selection of some of our favorite cookbooks within the European Collections at the British Library. Bon appetit!

Kuharske Bukve

The first cookbook in Slovene was printed in 1799 as “the beginning of the Slovene cuisine”. It was compiled and edited by Valentin Vodnik, a Slovene poet and journalist. He translated recipes mainly from a variety of German cookery writers and titled his book Kuharske Βukve (Cook Books).

The title page of Kuharske bukve with an illustration of a nude figure stirring a pot.

Facsimile reprint of Valentin Vodnik’s 1799 work, Kuharske Βukve (Lublin, 1999) YF.2012.a.5. The original can be seen in the Slovene Digital Library.

The book comprises Vodnik’s introduction on healthy food and translations of 300 recipes arranged in 22 sections: soups; vegetable, meat and poultry dishes; sauces; egg and dairy dishes, fish and seafood dishes; cakes, drinks, etc. Each recipe has a title in Slovene culinary terminology.

This cookbook was printed at a time of important activities to further advance the Slovene language and was also significant for Slovene culinary practice. In his introduction Vodnik posed the questions: “Why would we steal words? Isn't the Slovenian language quite capable?” He stated the basic rules of healthy eating and asserted that “everything from which dishes are cooked must be healthy, and the cooking method must also be healthy”.

Frontispiece showing an image of a two cooks in a kitchen

Frontispiece of Vodnik’s cookbook with the inscription “Good food for hungry people”

Selected by Milan Grba, Lead Curator of South-East European Collections


History on Our Plate: Recipes from America’s Dutch Past for Today’s Cooks

In History on Our Plate, Peter G. Rose describes how some of today’s favourite American staples, such as coleslaw and cookies were introduced by Dutch settlers.

Image showing the cover of 'History on Our Plate'. Cover design features Etende Vrouw (1647), an oil painting by Hendrick Martenszoon Sough that depicts a woman tasting something from a jug with a spoon

Cover of Peter G. Rose, History on Our Plate: Recipes from America’s Dutch Past for Today’s Cooks (Syracuse, 2019). YK.2021.a.586.

Rose takes inspiration from the earliest (anonymously) published cooking book in the Dutch language: De Verstandige Kock (‘The Sensible Cook’), which also includes De Hollandtse slacht-tydt (‘The Dutch Butchering time’) as well as De verstandige confituurmaker, (‘The Sensible Confectioner’). This highly rated book was often sent to Dutch settlers by their relatives back in the Netherlands.

Title page of De Verstandige Kock showing image of a two cooks working in a period kitchen

The title page of De Verstandige Kock (Amsterdam: Marcus Doornick, 1669) 441.b.21.(7.)

Other sources he uses are manuscript (so unpublished) cooking books, written by American / Dutch women. Around 2011 a database was set up to digitise some of these handwritten recipe books, the ‘Manuscript Cookbooks Survey’. Now we can all try out centuries old Dutch /American recipes!

Selected by Marja Kingma, Curator of Dutch Language Collections


Hodēgos mageirikēs kai zacharoplastikēs, aka Tselementes

Authored by chef Nikolaos Tselementes, the 1926 Hodēgos mageirikēs kai zacharoplastikēs was Greece’s first complete cookery book that triggered the modernisation of Greek cuisine with the introduction of European components such as béchamel sauce. The book was so influential that the surname Tselementes is used as a synonym for a cookbook to the present day.

The cover of Nikolaos Tselemetes' cookbook, bearing only his surname and an illustration of the head of a chef in blue on a black background

The cover of the 1976 edition Nikolaos Tselementes, Hodēgos mageirikēs kai zacharoplastikēs (Athens, 1976) X.622/2509.

Despite its revolutionising elements, the book reflected the reality of what was still a male-dominated Greek society. In its first few pages, it featured the ‘Decalogue to the Ladies’, an outdated and anti-feminist text written by Carmen Sylva (real name Elisabeth of Wied, first Queen of Romania), which urges the woman - housewife to serve only as queen in the kitchen, act as servant to her husband, and be obliged always to agree with, obey, flatter him and, above all, respect his mother whom he had loved first!

A page with instructions to women from the 'Decalogue to the Ladies' in Greek. On the left there is an illustration of an attractive woman in a red strapless dress standing behind a man sat on a chair with her arms on his shoulders

The ‘Decalogue to the Ladies’ at the start of Tselementes’s cookbook from the 1976 edition.

Selected by Lydia Georgiadou, Curator of Modern Greek Collections


La cucina futurista

Here is a cookbook you can’t live without. Marinetti’s 1932 Futurist Cookbook challenges the perception of Italian cuisine: everything is subverted, from the order of the courses to the scandalous rejection of pasta. The recipes suggested were actually prepared during ‘futurist’ banquets, gatherings resembling performance art where everything, from the crockery to the sound, was created on purpose. Despite being a satirical work, the application of modern science and technology to gastronomy suggested in the book (ozone generators, UV lamps, nutrient-dense powders) is an innovative element that anticipates today’s molecular cuisine. What never changes is the pleasure of hosting and sitting at the table, sharing a meal and enjoying conviviality.

Tan cover of La cucina futurista with red print for the author, title and publishing info.

The cover of F.T. Marinetti and Fillìa, La cucina futurista (Italy, 1932) Cup.408.ww.45.

Selected by Valentina Mirabella, Curator of Romance Collections


Forbidden cuisine: a book about delicious prison food

Lapitsiĭ is a pen name of Andrey Sannikov, a Belarusian oppositionist and a champion of human rights, who stepped into the arena of the 2010 presidential elections, challenging the entrenched power of Alexander Lukashenko. The aftermath of that fateful election was nothing short of a whirlwind: Sannikov found himself imprisoned, a captive of his convictions, after taking part in a demonstration organised by the opposition. The walls closed in, and for 16 months, his voice was silenced, but his spirit remained unbroken.

Cover of 'Zapreshchennaia kukhnia' with a photograph of a bowl of food and the view through a prison cell door

Cover of Zapreshchennaia kukhnia: Kniga o vkusnoĭ tiuremnoĭ pishche (Warsaw, 2023) YF.2023.a.24545

In the depths of captivity, Sannikov grappled with the stark reality of losing more than just his physical freedom. The very act of choosing what to eat — a simple, everyday privilege — was dictated by others. Hunger became a harsh reminder of his constrained existence, a tool used to bend the will of the incarcerated. Food, often bland and scarce, became a canvas for creativity. In the face of deprivation, inmates concocted imaginative variations of borscht, herring beneath a fur coat salad, and layered birthday cakes. For them, ‘cooking is a territory of freedom,’ a small triumph of choice and creativity amid confinement.

Photograph of a prison cell with a table set for a meal

A prison cell with a table set for a meal, illustration from Zapreshchennaia kukhnia

And so emerged Zapreshchennaia kukhnia: Kniga o vkusnoĭ tiuremnoĭ pishche (‘Forbidden cuisine: a book about delicious prison food’) —a symbol of resilience and defiance. Beyond a mere meal, food became an act of rebellion, an assertion of their humanity. In these culinary creations, born out of necessity and ingenuity, lay the embodiment of the most imaginative and delicious declaration of independence.

Photograph of potatoes and potato soup with a recipe

Potato soup from Zapreshchennaia kukhnia.

Selected by Olga Topol, Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections