Inspirational Food Historian


Dorothy Hartley. Photo by Ron Thomson.

Dorothy Hartley (1893- 1985) was a very interesting woman and her book Food in England qualifies her as a top-notch food heroine.

She was born in Skipton, Yorkshire where her father Rev. Hartley was the headmaster at the local grammar school.  She went to Nottingham Art School but the First World War interrupted her training and she worked in a munitions factory for a while.  After the War she worked as an art teacher.  In 1933 she settled in Froncysyllte, North East Wales and lived there until her death at the age of 92.

Her interest in social history resulted in several books but the best (in my opinion) is Food in England, which was first published in 1954.  It is a big book, packed full of information about food history and highly readable.  It includes, for example, instructions on how to smoke and salt a ham, descriptions of various breeds of cattle, a text on Medieval table manners and a discussion of the causes of malnutrition during the Industrial Revolution.  All the way through the book she includes recipes, illustrations and puts food into its historical and social context.   Her definition of “English” is rather elastic and there are plenty of references to Irish, Scottish and Welsh food.

I bought my copy of Miss Hartley’s book this summer and it has taught me everything I need to know about blackberries.  On page 427 is a drawing is of a blackberry cluster along with her useful observations about the fruit.  She tells us that the fruit at the tip of the clusters ripen first.  These are soft, juicy and best eaten raw.  The next ones to ripen are better cooked in puddings or made into jams.  As the season progresses the fruit at the rear of the cluster ripens and the proportion of pulp to seed reduces.  These later berries should be cooked with apples, if eaten at all.  I love her carefully researched practical guidance and I love that her last book was published when she was 86.  There is time for me yet!

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