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.
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of England (she has also another book about England's regional food) and of various period from both published and unpublished sources.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.
One could argue that this has little to do with conservative history except that the government of this country in 1939 was Conservative under a Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who had to lead the country into war, something that he had tried to avoid. By summer 1939 he knew that was a lost cause but he still tried to win some time and, who knew, perhaps ....
Everyone knows about September 1, 1939 when the German army crossed into Poland, September 3, when Britain declared war followed by a reluctant France as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. But how many people know about the next step in Poland: the country's invasion from the east by the Soviet army on September 17 just as Stalin and Hitler had agreed. Here is the photograph that sums it all up: a German and a Soviet officer shaking hands. One can see the about to be dismembered body of Poland between them:
Write my Spectator article. At 11 am (a bad hour) Vita comes to tell me that Russia has invaded Poland and is striking towards Vilna We are so dumbfounded by this news that there is a wave of despair over Sissinghurst. I do not think the Russians will go beyond her old frontier [sic] or wish to declare war on us. But of course it is a terrific blow and makes our victory even more uncertain.He then makes a series of analytical points and predictions most of which are wrong though some not. I love those diaries dearly and Nicolson's other writings but the man was often an ass. Did he not gather from Maisky what the agreement between Hitler and Stalin might have been about?
Chips Channon was not surprised. He had never liked the Bolsheviks, considering them, if anything worse than the Nazis. He was also PPS to Rab Butler at the Foreign Office at the time and may have had more accurate information about events than Nicolson. On the whole Chips managed to get fairly accurate information in or out of his lowly office. His published entry for September 17 reads:
A glorious September day in Kelvedon where I bathed in the pool, and then in a bath towel rang up the FO to be told the grim news that the Russians had definitely invaded Poland. Now the Nazis and the Bolsheviks have combined to destroy civilization and the outlook for the world looks ghastly.The detail about him being in his bath towel when he hears the fateful news is priceless but the phrase "had definitely invaded" would indicate that something of the kind was expected.
On October 10 Chips wrote:
Russia helps herself to a new country every day and no-one minds. It is only German crimes that raise indignation in the minds of the English.Well, why not? German crimes should raise indignation but it might have been useful if Russian (or, to be precise, Soviet) crimes had also been noted then and later. I am now reading David Satter's book about the bloody end of the Yeltsin era and the even more bloody rise of Putin to absolute power with a couple of invasions on the way, not to mention two horrendous wars in Chechnya, and the same cry can be uttered: no-one minds. Or, at least, very few people then or now.