Still with Mrs Beeton, the editor of a recent edition of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Nicola Humble, commented
"Household Management must rank as one of the great unread classics. Everyone has heard of it, a number of people own a copy (often an early twentieth-century edition, much expanded and bearing little relationship to Beeton’s original text), but it is rarely considered as anything other than a culinary curiosity."
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2000)
While I think I’ve never made anything from a Beeton recipe, I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the book many times over the years (and yes, it is an Edwardian version, with colour plates of some incredibly fancy food). But then I shared with my mother the habit of reading cookery books for pleasure rather than use, and still have her reading collection (she didn’t have a using one, while I haven’t quite got to that point). It includes the aforementioned Mrs Beeton, ‘Tante Marie’s French Kitchen’ (even if I never get round to making Gateau St Honoré for my birthday, I’ve imagined it), ‘Continental Cookery for the English Table’ by Edith Siepen (1915) ‘Selfridge’s New Model Cookery’ of 1929 (bring on the Mint Juleps) and the delightfully titled ‘Emelie Waller’s Cookery and Kitchen Book for Slender Purses’ (1935).
Books about food (as opposed to actual cookery books) seem to be rather more usual than they were in my childhood. One recent example I have is Nigel Slater’s ‘Eating for England’ (2007), in which one of the more telling things is his pair of stereotypical lists of British picnic food, then and now: ‘then’ is boiled ham; tongue; salad cream and iceberg lettuce; cress, beetroot, cucumber; bread and butter; lemon barley water, Vimto, Mateus rosé; strawberries and cream; Neapolitan ice-cream. ‘Now’ sounds almost ridiculously decadent, with its chargrilled squid, fresh chillies, rocket; buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomatoes; grilled chicken, olives, lemon, rosemary; focaccia, thin-crust pizza; goats’ cheeses; pannacotta; peaches, melon, raspberries; Prosecco, Pinot Grigio. A bit exaggerated? Sure. But there’s a lot of truth in it, if only that we’re rather used to having all this variety, often at relatively low cost, at any time of the year.
Some of the older examples of books about food strike me as even more remarkable reading, and two by novelists come to mind: Stephen Lister’s ‘Fit for a Bishop: or How to Keep a Fat Priest in Prime Condition’ and Nicolas Freeling’s ‘Kitchen Book’. Lister was bravely writing in the late 1950s, about Mediterranean food, for a UK audience who could buy olive oil only in tiny bottles at the chemist’s, profoundly mistrusted the mere mention of garlic, and had probably never heard of half the foods he mentions – quiche lorraine, anyone? People must have bought it, though, if only as a curiosity, or thinking it was another of his ‘St Monique’ books, as there was a sequel ‘More Fit for a Bishop: How to Maintain Champagne Tastes on a Beer Income’.
While saying that it is not a cookery book, he does include recipes, including an extraordinary-sounding one for a pudding which he tentatively calls Angel’s Whispers and describes as being “coils rather like bedsprings but with a quite different flavour” – basically a batter of egg yolks, evaporated milk and flour, injected in dollops into a pan of smoking hot oil from a syringe, and deep-fried. Edible chemistry, that one, clearly.
Freeling published ‘Kitchen Book’ about twelve years later, when we’d moved on a bit gastronomically, though the British weakness for gimmicky dishes like Chicken Maryland still gave him plenty of scope for satirical comment - and to think we still had the pleasures of baked bean pizza to come...
As usual when reading about the chef’s working life, I really wonder how anybody can stand it at all (Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’, published in 2006, is particularly masochistic in detailing the burns, the cuts, the impossible hours, the abusive bosses). But Freeling’s time in the kitchens of French hotels reads so vividly: the larger than life characters (staff and guests alike), the ingenious way dishes can be constructed from almost nothing (‘rien se perd’), the kitchens and the grandiose buildings, the way the cooks all spoke the kitchen lingua franca called sabir. My favourite chapter describes how in a freak instance they ran out of curry one lunchtime: he asks the Chef Monsieur Bonvalet (sarcastically nicknamed ‘Dad’) if he will declare it unavailable:
“No no – make more – I help”
Might have known – the roast lamb could always be sold again, but when would come another day so golden for making a profit on scraps? Bonepickings were scoured from every corner of the larder, cooks crowded round to Dad’s howls, and the soup-cook’s reserves were raided.
“But I got no more onions”
“Give more colly, va.” He was quartering potatoes with of all things a long ham knife.
“I got no more potatoes”
“Give them rice” screamed Dad. Two boys were sent staggering to the sink with a big pot.
“Come lazy ones, fainéants, fesses d’huitres, no wash off, no put kalt wasser, égouttez, drain and servir like so.”
Curry was served on flat dishes, in soup bowls, in cloche covers; it was war, it was splendid. At three in the afternoon there was rice all over the floor.
“We sell good” said Dad, satisfied for once to his very depths, and bought us all a beer.
Fortunately, during the writing of this blog I have been sustained by lunch of home baked bread and ham, and fourses of coffee and Fudge’s succulent Belgian chocolate florentines…