Friday, September 30, 2016
It is a long time since this blog has had an entry about cookery books and their history. Indeed, it is too long since this blog has had an entry about anything and, really, it is time that was corrected.
So, cookery books, their history and the history of food that they describe. Readers (if there are any left) will recall that I find the history of food and historic recipes quite fascinating and often read cookery books and books about cooks and cookery writers for pleasure. Recently I was thinking that books which provide interesting background to the food and recipes fall into three very obvious categories: books that is a pleasure to read but one never cooks from and I have to admit all of Elizabeth David's books are in that category, books that are interesting merely for their recipes, and the third and best category of all, the ones that are a pleasure to read and whose recipes one tries out and uses over and over again.
One such book is George Lang's The Cuisine of Hungary that gives a fascinating history of food in Hungary, talks of the various regional specialities and customs surrounding them. And when one has read all that one can cook the food. My own copy has sadly become a badly stained collection of pages that seem to fall out whenever I pick up the volume to cook or bake something from it.
Another rather surprising book in that category is Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, edited by Hilary Spurling. It is a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century recipes put together by Lady Fettiplace in the early years of the latter and handed down in the family till it arrived in the hands of John Spurling who handed it over to his wife. It is a fascinating piece of social history based on those receipts and marginalia but I have cooked a good deal from it.
The various preserves and marmalades I can now do more or less without bothering to consult the recipes and have long ago understood how to make different coloured ones from the same fruit without adding food colouring. But I can also recommend A Tart of Spinage (Spinach Tart) for the month of January in which the filling is flavoured with cinnamon, currants and rose water, all very typical of the age but it works well. As for the ale and sherry pancakes with or without the addition of apples, they are out of this world. Should you be keeping Lent, these will set you up for the fasting period.
Elisabeth Ayrton's The Cookery of England, I believe, will fall into the third category as well. I have just finished reading it with great interest. She has collected traditional recipes of various parts of England (she has also another book about England's regional food) and of various period from both published and unpublished sources. As it happens, the publication of cookery books has been of importance in England since the sixteenth century and women authors produced notable examples from an early period. Ms Ayrton has also looked at domestic accounts of a few large houses to calculate how much was used of what ingredient and how much was bought from outside.
This is not as detailed a books as Hilary Spurling's, which concentrates on the cooking and distilling of just one household for a century or so. Ms Ayrton ranges further geographically and historically, having as her aim, the need to show that English food was not always bad or uninteresting. The book was first published in 1974 when this still seemed a rather outlandish idea. Since then, as we know, people have been rediscovering traditional English food and updating it to more modern tastes. We have Elisabeth Ayrton and Hilary Spurling (as well as Elizabeth David and sundry others) to thank for that interest and development.
Meanwhile, there are some interesting fish soups, an eighteenth century recipe of celery in cream as well as an intriguing hot cucumber in cream to try. And that is before I get to the glory of English cooking: pies and cakes.