I mentioned Willie Fowler’s Countryman’s Cooking the other day and I’d like to return to the subject of cookery books. I love them. I can sit down and read a good cookery book with the same pleasure as I’d get from reading a good novel. The optimum word there is ‘good’ – a good cookery book should tell a story, rather than just being a list of ingredients or a set of instructions. I don’t just want to know what to do; I want to know why I am doing it, who has done it before, and where they did it. I want history, geography, folklore, gossip and, above all, I want to be entertained. It’s the difference between eating to live and living to eat. I can eat plain rice and beans, or I can have spice, savours and seasoning too. I want the cookery and the book.
An early cookery book in English is The Forme of Cury (The Form of Cooking – Cury is from the French cuire – ‘to cook’, and has nothing to do with curry), a manuscript roll from the late 14th Century. There are other manuscript cookery ‘books’ from slightly after The Forme of Cury, and that fascination lies in what people were eating five hundred years ago, and how they prepared it.
This is a page transliterating a menu from the marriage feast of Henry IV in 1403, from a manuscript from about 1430. It is a feast for a King, admittedly, but from it, we find among the following served: - Pike, Lampreys, Bream, Eels, Chicken boiled, Pig in Sage, Venison Broth, Jelly, and Strawberries. And I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because I’m sick of hearing it. Spices were very, very expensive in the Middle Ages and were most definitely not used cover the taste of tainted meat. If you could afford spices, you could certainly afford fresh meat, and you would not waste pricey spices on dodgy meat.
There was a fuss a few years ago when Delia Smith included an entry for boiled eggs in one of her books. In 1699, a book called The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened had the following recipe for boiled eggs;
- A CERTAIN and infallible method to boil new-laid Eggs to sup up, and yet that they have the white turned to milk, is thus: Break a very little hole, at the bigger end of the shell, and put it into the water, whiles it boileth. Let it remain boiling, whiles your Pulse beateth two hundred stroaks. Then take it out immediately, and you will find it of an exact temper.
So that’s how to time your egg.
Kenelm Digby’s Closet was never really written to be published, it was for his own personal use, and was published by his son and his steward after his death. What is astonishing is the vast array of ingredients Digby used, from herbs and spices, flowers, roots, fruits, nuts, seeds and wines, to grains, meats, honeys and vinegars.
Another view of the bewildering diversity of foods enjoyed in the past can be seen from this title page from the Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter (1802). Stews, hashes, ragouts, pastries, pies, jellies, syllabubs and creams – in a book for the frugal housewife; what on earth did the affluent housewife serve up? In 1747, Hannah Glasse published The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, a work that became the standard reference work at the time, but if any work comes to the mind as the standard cookery book, it must be Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
First published in parts, the book was published in 1861, and, as the title suggests, it is a manual for the running of a Victorian household, but as such a large part of it is taken up recipes, it is often popularly known as Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook. The very name Mrs Beeton brings to mind the typical Victorian matron, a large, jolly woman with her grey hair in a bun, all bust and bustle. In fact, Isabella Beeton was twenty-one years old when she started to write her book, and died from puerperal fever the day after the birth of her fourth child, aged merely twenty-eight.
One lovely aspect of Mrs Beeton’s is the illustrations, giving us a first-hand picture of Victorian luxury. From the same time, and openly plagarised by Mrs Beeton, was Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845), which was the first cookery book to list the ingredients at the start of each recipe and to give cooking times, something that is now standard in almost every cookery book. I mentioned that I like more than just recipes in a book, and I’d like to mention two books that do this.
The first is Curry and Rice on Forty Plates by George Francklin Atkinson, which isn’t actually a recipe book, but the recollections of a British Army officer in India, but a fascinating read – the forty plates are actually the forty illustrated plates in the book. The other is a cookery book I bought in 1977, Harvey Day’s The Complete Book of Curries.
It was first published in 1958, but revised a couple of times. In these tinternet days, you might be able to find a copy somewhere, and you will not be disappointed if you buy one. It’s an amazing book, mixing the clubbishness of a retired Army major with the expertise of a true chef. At one point Day laments that he cannot produce a ‘traditional’ Indian cookery book, saying,
“ …they were indeed comprehensive, including invaluable hints on such matters as Diarrhoea in Cows; Condition Powder for Horses; To Keep Posts from Decay; To Judge the Height of a Tree by Trigonometry; Mother Shipton’s Prophecy; and how to buy food – ‘Coffee should be bought in bushels; salt should be bought by maunds (80 lbs); and coriander, mustard seed, cummin seed and fenugreek should be fresh and new and free from weevils”.
Then he peppers his book with all sorts of tips and stories and advice. It was incredibly exotic back in the seventies – I tried for years to buy lemon grass, but there was none to be had then, even for ready money. The recipes were strange; you won’t find recipes for Corned Beef Bhurta or Brain Bhajias in modern cookery books. Neither will you find such opinions as,
“Generally speaking, the English don’t make good cooks. Not because the culinary art is beyond them, for when the English turn their hands to anything, there are few of any race who excel them. Except, perhaps, the Scots”.