Churchill’s love of a good breakfast is chronicled by local historian Annie Grey in a book about his cook, Georgina Landemare. Dr Sue Bailey finds out more, and offers some breakfast tip
A brunch of smashed avocado on sourdough toast and an oat milk latte from one of Cambridge’s well-known independent cafes on King Street or Mill Road would have Churchill wondering what the world was coming to. According to Dr Annie Grey, “he was certainly a man who ate the classic British breakfast and he usually started the day with a very weak whisky and soda”.
She adds: “Churchill loved breakfast – he was lucky to have lots of eggs, honey and fresh peaches brought up to 10 Downing Street, even in the middle of second world war rationing, from Chartwell, his country house in Kent. But he also liked cold cuts of meat; he was very much of the Edwardian era.”
Annie was inspired to write this new culinary biography when she spied a forgotten slim volume of recipes written by Churchill’s cook, Georgina Landemare. Annie says, “Georgina’s recipes are as full of flavour as her life, and I’m excited to tell the story of a working-class woman who rose to the very top of her profession. She’s without doubt one of the greatest chefs most people have never heard of.”
Dr Annie Grey specialises in the history of food and dining in Britain and has worked at Audley End among other historical kitchens. She is a historian, writer, speaker and broadcaster, presenting food history documentaries. She is a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet and her first book was about Queen Victoria’s eating habits.
“I have had access to the Churchill family archive, including Georgina’s original manuscript of her recipe book published after the war,” Annie told me. “She destroyed most of her memoirs, which she wrote aged 95 in the 1970s, because her daughter told her no one would be interested in servants’ tales. There is no way that would happen today.”
Annie has produced an intensely researched and fascinating study of a very independent woman. “Georgina was a skilled and intuitive cook for wealthy households, who worked for Churchill throughout the war when she was in her 50s. She was a good example of a woman making her own living at a time when that was rare for women, certainly at the level of society she was cooking for.”
But what about the historic food trends at breakfast? Churchill professed himself to be a beef-and-beer type of breakfast eater, which echoes breakfast in large Tudor households, not a pap-and-porridge one. Dishes such as poached eggs and bacon first make an appearance in the recipe books of the mid-17th century.
By the 18th century, Queen Anne led the fashion of drinking tea for breakfast, preferring the light, refreshing drink to alcoholic beverages, then coffee, chocolate and enriched, brioche-style breads become part of the meal.
By Georgian and Victorian times, breakfast had become an important opportunity for the landed gentry to show off the produce of their estates to their house guests. Aspirational Mrs Beeton-style lavish breakfasts could include game pie, tongue and ham by the middle of the 19th century.
Toast or bread and butter with tea and often bacon was consumed by all classes. Then in the Edwardian period, beans, eggs, black pudding, mushrooms and sausage were added to create the full English; which is still enjoyed today.
But what is a brunch? Victorian writer Guy Beringer first coined the word as a combination of breakfast and lunch, preferably eaten on a Sunday. As he said, “the arguments in favour of brunch are incontestable. In the first place it renders early rising not only unnecessary, but ridiculous. You get up when the world is warm, or at least, when it is not so cold.”
It seems that many Cambridge cafes and restaurants highly approve of Beringer’s viewpoint, but are happy to provide breakfasts and brunches any day of the week. I spoke to Scott Holden, the owner of Scott’s All Day on Mill Road, who said: “Living in New York provided inspiration for our all-day brunch, and we’ve added pancakes to it as well as pizza. The full English is the most popular choice, but we also sell a lot of avocado smash. People appreciate the fact that they can have a bloody mary or a prosecco to create a boozy brunch. We love being part of a great community and creating a wholesome family place to come to, relax in and enjoy.”
This support from regular visitors as well as students is echoed by Wendy Slade, owner of Cafe Abantu on Hobson Street and Adam Hodges, manager and co-owner of The Locker Cafe on King Street. Wendy says, “Cambridge customers expect good food. We have a flexible menu that changes daily and find our focus on minimum waste and local suppliers, plus the popularity of fresh, innovative brunch ideas, keep people coming back. On Saturday, our brunch menu is bigger than our lunch one.”
Adam’s family business meanwhile was inspired by the laid-back Australian cafe scene. “We specialise in good coffee from Hot Numbers’ roastery and simple foods of excellent quality. Elements of the full English are still popular – we do a mix-and-match of the fundamentals with a variation, but our vegan brunch special has been a big hit.”
So, although Valentine’s Day is a Friday this year, enjoy a romantic Saturday at a local brunch cafe. If you want to go for Scandi hygge try Cambridge Cookery School, dazzle with a rooftop view at Six Cambridge or go for the traditional breakfast with a twist of luxury at Parker’s Tavern.