Peter Brears: At home I like very plain food

Peter Brears.
Peter Brears.
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Peter Brears’ dad was a pit bath manager, he is a historical food expert who ran Leeds Museum. Jayne Dawson meets him.

Peter Brears, 70, is a former director of Leeds City Museums and an expert on the history of food who has written many books on the subject, including Traditional Food in Yorkshire. He also recreates kitchens of the past in country houses. He lives in Headingley, Leeds.

My first job was going was going out on the pony and cart with Billy who did house clearances. Lots of people were changing their houses for the first time. We would break up lovely grandfather clocks and pile up beautiful old chaise longue with oak and mahagony surrounds for bonfire night.

The best advice I ever received was to follow your instincts. You couldn’t have predicted I would go into the work I did. I was ill a lot as a youngster and failed my 11-plus. I went to the local secondary school and the headmaster told us it was intended to put lads down the pit. But I began volunteering in museums and I eventually got a job in one.

My guilty pleasure is Skipton pork pies. They are eaten hot so you have to know how to do it. It’s a drink and nibble procedure with the jacket off and the tie over the shoulder. Leaning over a bin helps too.

My pet hate is stone cladding, rendering or paint on the exterior of houses. Leeds has some very good-looking terraces but then just one person alters the front of their house and it ruins the look of the whole street.

I would love to meet the seventeenth century cook Robert May, who was one of the best country house cooks of the period. He wrote a book called The Accomplish’t Cook which looks to us a bit like a computer manual. It’s very technical. He made marvellous showpieces like huge castles made out of pastry. I have recreated some of his work and I would like to talk to him about his life.

My favourite weekend would be spent with friends. I am a bachelor but I have three godchildren and am honorary uncle to eight or nine at least. I do regret not having children of my own but I suppose the work got in the way of relationships.

My advice to my teenage self would be to just go for what you can go for. At that time I did see my future in blue collar work. I did not think there was any possibility of my hobby turning into my profession. But I was lucky to be born at a time when that became possible.

I have no virtual life. I don’t even do email. Because I have wide-ranging knowledge I am the first port of call for people who want information, so it would mean I never got any work done. Someone has just contacted me to ask if I know when the first live kangaroo was seen in Yorkshire. I can probably find out.

My philosophy on life is just to keep going, don’t think about it too much. That wastes an awful lot of time.

I couldn’t live without my sight. The visual is very important to me. I love walking around seeing things, it is my main source of pleasure and surprise. Too many people walk along looking at a phone.

I honestly don’t think I have cried since childhood. It is a man thing and a generational thing. you just don’t. I don’t think my way is particularly good but it is just the way I am, I have had friends for fifty years who have never opened up to me about anything private, nor me to them.

My most embarassing moment? I burned down my boss’s shed while trying to smoke wasps out of a nest in there.

Josh, aged five, told me this joke: Why did the banana go to the doctor? He wasn’t peeling very well.

It might surprise people to that not only do I not drive but I have never lived in a household with a car.

At home I like very plain food. if I have company or I am demonstrating It is a different ball game.

When I left my job as head of Leeds museums I began writing food books. Food is a fascinating part of social history. I introduced re-enactment in Hampton Court Palace. I gave demonstrations of historical recipes there for many years.

My childhood was not particularly happy. My dad had what was then called shell shock. It made him more aggressive. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and they would tell stories about the past. That began my love of history.

My first kiss was with Margaret after school when I was about 14.

I have never been musical and I can’t remember my first record. I did like The Beatles. Who didn’t?

The best thing about Leeds is that , and I mean this is a good way, you can soon be out if it and in the countryside.

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