A poet who wrote a cook book


Eliza Acton (1799-1859) wrote some excellent cook books in the mid-19th century and she has a lot of fans amongst modern chefy types.   Unfortunately she must have been publicity shy because I can’t find a picture of her.

The daughter of a brewer she was born in Battle, Sussex but grew up in Ipswich, Suffolk.  As a young woman she was sent to France for her health, where she probably had an unhappy love affair.  Certainly her book of poems, published in 1826, contained a number about unrequited love.

Her publisher suggested that instead of more poetry she ought to write something more practical.  After years of work the book she produced, Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845, was immensely popular.  She wrote for people like herself, that is to say middle class but of modest means.   Her biggest innovation was to list the ingredients needed in a recipe, something that is standard practice today.  The recipes she gives are sensible and the instructions clear.  It is no coincidence that Delia Smith wrote the forward in a recent biography of Eliza Acton. 

Modern Cookery for Private Families gives recipes for all sorts of cooking and, despite Eliza’s warning of the health risks of eating too much rich food, she includes a chapter on cakes but in the introduction she vents her disapproval,

“Amongst those which have the worst effects are almond, and plum pound cakes, as they are called; all varieties of the brioche and such others as contain a large quantity of butter and eggs.   The least objectionable are simple buns, biscuits, yeast and sponge cakes, and meringues; these last being extremely light and delicate, and made of white of egg and sugar only, are really not unwholesome.”

Having earned a decent amount from her writing Eliza moved to Hampstead where she worked on her last book, The English Bread Book, which was published in 1857.  This was a more scholarly work in which she advocates making bread at home to avoid the adulterated loaves on sale.  It didn’t have the same popular appeal as her earlier work but it too has passed the test of time.  It is fairly easy to get copies of her books and they are definitely worth reading and cooking from.

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