IN DAYS gone by, if the head of a rural household in Worcestershire died, the remaining family members would sing to their beehives.

This is one of the more unusual rituals discovered by historian and writer Emma Kay, while researching her latest book More Than A Sauce – Worcestershire’s Culinary History.

In our 21 century lives this practice might sound somewhat strange, but two or three centuries ago keeping bees and producing honey was a common and very important activity in rural Worcestershire.

Emma, who was born and brought up in Worcester, spent about six months researching the county’s culinary past, as well as some of its current food industry gems.

She unearthed many curious and fascinating facts – some of which came as huge surprises.

“One of the things I discovered that surprised me was just how big a name Worcestershire had for its honey. I found lots of old pictures of people standing next to their apiaries and there were so many superstitions around honey in Worcestershire,” she said.

“If the head of the household died, there was a big fear the bees would fly off and they had rituals of singing to the hives and other rituals to keep the bees. You can find a lot of references to Worcestershire honey in the records.”

The 47-year-old author and historian, who now lives in Cirencester, is passionate about food history but her enthusiasm for the subject has only risen to the fore in recent years.

After going to Bishop Perowne School and then onto Worcester Sixth form College, she did a degree in history , gained a postgraduate certificate in Roman Archaeology, an MA in Heritage Interpretation and diploma in Cultural Heritage Management.

She worked as a museum professional for more than 15 years at major institutions like The British Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the University of Bath. But then her interest broadened to envelop culinary history.

It all started when someone gave her some classic dinnerware. She said: “About 15 years ago, someone gave me an old Denby Ware set called Greenwheat from the 1950s and from that I started picking up other bits and pieces.”

She now has more than 300 pieces of kitchenalia – or kitchen objects – dating from the 18th century to the 1950s. In 2012 she founded the Museum of Kitchenalia, which is in fact her own collection. The earliest item is a papier-mâchâ tea tray from the late 1700s.

She is a member of the Guild of Food Writers and has written a number of articles about the history of cooking and dining in the popular press and also does talks about the history of the British kitchen from the 18th to the 20th century.

Her trip down memory lane to her native county turned into a voyage of discovery, a chance to relive some of her early years and rekindled her enthusiasm for Worcestershire’s culinary heritage while bemoaning the lack of recognition for some truly excellent and inspirational products currently being created by many dedicated small food businesses.

“I have been writing for years, have been a collector of kitchenalia for years and was born in Worcester. I always wanted to write a culinary history of Worcester and Worcestershire,” she said.

“I have always put Worcestershire on a par with Kent. Both are similarly lush and fertile and sadly over the years Kent has taken over that pole position.

“Worcestershire does not put itself out there enough to present what it does. It is a bit of a hidden secret to produce wonderful things and should be really proud. That is enough reason to want to do the book.”

She added: “I was actually surprised about how much is going on that nobody is talking about. There are these wonderful little breweries and Astley Vineyard which are using traditional methods and they are maintaining the environment.

“They are aware of the environmentally friendly ways of producing what they make and are going back to time old ways of doing things and maintaining the land. It is keeping on the theme of Worcestershire as a big market garden.

“The county does not promote itself to the extent it should. It is very sad. It is my home county and I have a huge affection for it.”

Her research took her all over Worcestershire from the Vale of Evesham to Tenbury Wells, where she found a little known recipe for Tenbury Pie.

“I found an amazing recipe which I only found published in one other place from an anonymous writer in the 1700s. A housekeeper from Tenbury wrote about Tenbury pies. It was made with ox tongue and suet but didn’t have a lid.” She has included a number of old local recipes in the book.

She also discovered the connection between Redditch and fishing. “I had no idea there was such a massive connection to fishing in Worcestershire. Redditch was the biggest manufacturer of fish hooks in the world in the early 1800s. It was famous right up until the early 1900s.

“They invented the Redditch scale which is the first formalised scale of hook sizes and people use it today.”

Emma also came across a number of words which have fallen out of favour but were regularly used in the past. There is a whole chapter in the book on customs and traditions, including words like “tiddlywink” – an early name for a small pub; “toffy” – a malt liquor; “puff-crumb” – a small piece pinched out of a freshly baked loaf and “spriglings” – an under-sized portion.

The work for the book turned out to be a bit of a family affair as her husband Nick took photographs and they travelled around the county with their young son, who was shown some of the places from Emma’s youth.

Her own childhood experiences of eating out with her family ranged from meals at the Pack Horse in St Nicholas Street, Worcester – one of the Berni Inn chain of steak houses; Sunday lunches at the Gifford Hotel restaurant and the occasional entertaining family adventure to the celebrated Croque en Bouche in Malvern Wells.

Emma concluded: “I have hugely fond memories of my first taste of Indian Food which was in Worcester and my first alcoholic drink. It was wonderful to go back and I would not mind going back again.

“I just hope the book makes people a bit more aware of Worcestershire and it culinary history. They need to be showcased.”

More Than A Sauce is published on March 15 and another new book by her, Dining with the Victorians – a Delicious History, is being published on the same day.

To find out more about her collection of kitchenalia visit