Have you met Avis Crocombe? You really should. In the 1880s she was head cook to Lord and Lady Braybrooke at Audley End, a lovely old house near Saffron Walden in Essex. But 180 years after her birth she’s come roaring back to life as an internet sensation.
She was first reinvented 11 years ago by food historian Dr Annie Grey, working with English Heritage, who maintain the house. But she’s personified now by historical interpreter Kathy Hipperson, who portrays her in a series of cookery videos which have gone viral.
Mrs Crocombe is hugely popular in the United States and, as they say, big in Japan. Oddly, she’s less well known in her native country. Check out the videos, they’re very entertaining and more have just been filmed.
In a lovely twist to the tale, Annie and Kathy had been ‘doing’ Mrs Crocombe for about a year, mostly using Eliza Acton’s recipes, when a descendent of the man Avis married happened to visit the house.
He told them he’d been clearing out his attic and had found a book which mentioned Audley End. It turned out to be Mrs Crocombe’s hand-written recipe notes.
They now form the basis of many of the dishes cooked in Audley End’s kitchens and have inspired a cookery book, currently in development, which English Heritage plans to publish in the autumn.
For a sneak preview of one of the recipes, re-interpreted by Annie Grey, zip to the bottom of this post. I haven’t tried it out, but if it’s good enough for Dr Grey, it’s good enough for me.
Kathy is actually one of four Mrs Crocombes who work at the house and if you visit you’ll usually find one of them cooking with the help of a kitchen maid. Pop in and have a chat.
As you can see from the pictures, the service wing alone is worth a visit, but the main house and gardens are a big draw. The stables, service wing and gardens are open now. The main house (please check the website) is open to the public from April 1.
Mrs Crocombe's Chocolate Pudding
“1/2 lb chocolate, 5 oz breadcrumbs, 1/4 lb caster sugar, 1/2 pint milk, 4 eggs & 5 oz butter. Put the chocolate, milk, crumbs and butter in a stewpan to thicken. When quite thick put into a basin. Divide the yolks from the whites & cook the yolks well up with the sugar & add to the other ingredients. Then well whip the whites & add. Mix all slightly, pour into a mould and steam one hour. Serve very hot with cream in a jug. It is very nice cut in slices & eaten cold as well as hot.”
1/2 lb good quality plain chocolate
5 oz breadcrumbs
1/2 pint of milk, full fat or semi-skimmed
5 oz butter
1/4 lb caster sugar
Melt the chocolate with the milk and butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat. Add the breadcrumbs and simmer until thick. Put aside.
Make a custard by bringing the yolks and sugar to the boil, stirring all the time until thick. Add this to the chocolate.
Whip the whites until they form soft peaks and fold into the mixture. Pour into buttered pudding basins, cover the tops with greaseproof paper and foil (or a pudding cloth) and steam until they are hard to the touch. For a 1 pint basin this will take about 45 minutes.
Alternatively, you can bake them in a roasting tin filled with water.