Last year Quadrille launched the Classic Voices in Food series, where they are republished cookbooks from the past – a reminder that food in Britain before Elizabeth David wasn’t all over-boiled vegetables and tripe. There are four books in total; Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton (1845), The Gentle Art of Cookery by Mrs C.F. Leyel & Miss Olga Hartley (1925), Simple French Cooking for English Homes by X. Marcel Boulestin (1923), and Madame Prunier’s fish cookery book (1938).
This post was meant to be published at the same time as my perusal of my other vintage cookbooks, as usual time got in the way and I handed the pile over to Ed to have a look at.
Firstly all the books are beautiful, facsimile editions with a modern introduction. The covers are beautifully designed, and the set looks most attractive on a bookshelf.
Starting with The Gentle Art of Cookery, as it’s the top of the stack; this book of 750 recipes fills 430 pages, including index and a rather wonderful chapter on “The Alchemist’s Cupboard”, which details all the dry stores a well equipped kitchen should have. The authors seemingly had a particular fancy for the Army and Navy stores, as well as long lost condiments such as Lazenby’s Hervey Sauce.
Like many older cookbook, the recipes are short – this is not a book which takes the cook step by step through each dish, and it doesn’t list ingredients at the start of each recipe. The recipes are divided by chapter; while many of the chapters themes are unsurprising (vegetables, meat, fish, for example), some of the others are more uncommon; chestnuts, “dishes from the Arabian Nights”, Almonds, and Flower Recipes.
Of course, food is as subject to fashion as, well, fashion, and therefore this collection is not at the cutting edge of molecular cuisine. However, a good number of the recipes are worth trying, especially the more traditional dishes.
If selecting a recipe to try and one to avoid, braised pheasant with chestnut puree sounds interesting. As I really can’t stand rabbit, I would avoid all the rabbit recipes as a matter of principle. Probably the hare recipes too.
Simple French Cooking for English Homes by Marcel Boulestin – the first television cook – is a lovely little book (114 pages) giving details of uncomplicated dishes, using (generally) inexpensive ingredients. Like the other books in the series, the recipes are to modern eyes very sparse, with no list of ingredients, and commonly little in the way of measurements used. Also, there are many variations around a basic theme, so for example there are thirteen different omelette recipes.
Admittedly, some of the dishes are, as would be expected, not in line with modern sensibilities. Fried sheep’s brains, for example, is not something I have an urge to try. Three recipes for brains is three too many. But there are plenty of other dishes of interest: a traditional blanquette de veau, for example.
The book isn’t one for novice cooks. Many of the recipes are really just a few notes to remind one about the essentials of a dish. It’s assumed that the cook will already have a feeling for such things as how long a piece of fish takes to cook.
I particularly like the recipe for roast chicken. Simply “Birds should be roasted in front of a clear fire”. Sounds good to me. I’m less sure about the salad of beef and herrings.
Madame Prunier’s fish cookery book is an exhaustive collection of recipes – if it’s not in here, it’s not in the library of classical French fish dishes. After still timely, and very useful chapters on the basics of cooking fish – frying, poaching etc, comes a chapter on sauces. The rest of the book is divided into chapters on hors d’oeuvres, soups, fresh water fish, salt water fish, shellfish, and turtles, frogs and snails. I doubt there’s much call for the recipe for turtle soup nowadays, particularly as the first stage of the recipe is to kill the turtle by decapitating it.
The range of recipes is simply mind-boggling. For example, there are no fewer than one hundred and fifty nine different recipes for sole. Where to start? I quite fancy Sole Edouard, simply because of the name (poached sole filets served on a lobster and truffle salpicon, with mushroom puree, in case you were wondering). One of the results of this concentration of recipes is that each one is really just in shorthand, a few sentences to remind the cook as to what each dish involves, rather than step-by-step instructions, so it’s not one for the faint hearted.
If you only want one book about classical French fish cookery, this is that book. If it’s not in here, it doesn’t exist.
Finally, we come to the oldest book of the collection, Modern Cookery for private families by Eliza Acton, published in 1845, so pre-dating the more well known Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management by sixteen years; in many ways, Modern Cookery was the precursor to Mrs Beeton, and one of the first cookbooks aimed at the housewife, rather than the professional chef. As such, it was intended to be comprehensive; there are 636 pages, each of which contains several recipes, so it’s hard to imagine that much escaped coverage in its 34 chapters. This was also the first cookbook to list ingredients separately from the body of the description. The time that the recipe will take to prepare and cook is also included – as much of a help to modern cooks as it would have been to our Victorian forbears.
The book is stuffed with recipes that are miles away from what is commonly found today. Celery vinegar, lots of mutton recipes, the lady’s sauce (for fish) merely show the range. There are also little jokes throughout – the publisher’s pudding, which can scarcely be made too rich, compared to the poor author’s pudding, or the printer’s pudding. And then there is the elegant economist’s pudding, a way of using up old plum pudding by lining a pudding basin with slices, filling it with custard and cooking.
Were I to choose a favourite recipe from this book, I think that actually I would go for a whole meal. As a classic book, it should be a classic meal: potted shimps, a beef-steak pie all followed by the welcome guest’s own pudding. In contrast, I have little interest in either tapioca or sago soup.
It is hard to give these books a star rating, I love them and find them fascinating to flick through. For someone who cooks and is interested in the history of food, then they are first class. The inexperienced cook used to modern recipe books, step by step instructions and pretty photos could well be disappointed.
Many thanks to Quadrille for the review copies, and apologies for my tardiness. There is finally light at the end of the blog backlog tunnel!