Born in Thorne, bred in Outwood and with a career steeped in the social history of Yorkshire, Peter Brears is a man of many parts; food historian, author, artist and technical drawer, an engineer and the world’s leading expert on jelly. Naturally he is one of our food heroes.
Author of 27 books with titles that include Traditional Food in Yorkshire; A Taste of Leeds; Images of Leeds; Leeds Waterfront Heritage; All the King’s Cooks and numerous monographs and pamphlets, all of which have been painstakingly researched, written in long hand, and illustrated by him at his dining room table.
At 70 he is still hard at work and spends his time, writing, drawing and lecturing on food and housekeeping and in the interest of research he’s been known to hail a taxi from Leeds Market with a couple of pigs heads in a carrier bag, part of his research into historic recipes.
For a lad who failed his 11+ he’s done pretty well. He gained a scholarship to Castleford Tech followed by Leeds College of Art where he learned engineering, product design and technical drawing. But history was his first love and one of his proudest achievements is the creation of Clarke Hall, near Wakefield as a living history museum where children could have hands-on experience of life in the 17th century.
Later he was appointed curator of York’s Castle Museum and then Leeds City Museum. Today he advises and works for English Heritage, the National Trust and the Royal Palaces. For a decade he lit the fires of Hampton Court Palace kitchens each Christmas (which until Brears arrived, hadn’t been lit since 1737) and in full costume cooked and baked like the Tudors.
In the 90s he was invited by the Gelatine Manufacturers of Europe no less to restore ‘the lost status of jellies’. He did so with knobs on, putting on an exhibition of 100 jellies at Petworth House with examples of jellies from the 1390s to the 1930s: milk jellies, blancmanges, quivering towers, jewel colours, sweet jellies and savoury jellies, jellies within jellies, jellies with fruit in and fruit with jellies in, even the traditional birthday rabbit jelly nibbling on jelly ‘grass’. It so delighted visitors that Brears spent the next five years lecturing and demonstrating the art and history of the jelly, becoming ‘the jelly expert’ with exhibitions at Harewood House, Syon House and for National Jelly Day in Ireland.
Besides hugely admiring Bears and his work as a food historian, I’m rather proud to know him a little. He was our neighbour for many years when we lived a few doors away in the listed, Victorian, Woodbine Terrace in Headingley with its rather special communal garden. On bonfire night Peter would bring trays of traditional gingerbread pigs to share and for our summer garden party one of his special jellies. We miss them still.
This is an edited version of a longer article that appeared in the Yorkshire Post
Peter Brears will be presenting a paper at the 30th Leeds Food Symposium on 25 April 2015 at the Friends Meeting House, Friargate, York on the theme of The Domestic Dairy