Stay Calm with Elizabeth David


Elizabeth David.  Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

Elizabeth David. Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

“If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.”   From Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003) edited by Jill Norman, p.11.

Hooray for Elizabeth David (1913-1992).  I love her for wanting to go against the grain and, in the current frenzy of Christmas preparations, the quote above is a refreshing reminder that the simple pleasures are often the best.

Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) is often cited as the book that began to transform British cookery after the Second World War.  My Mum had a copy and I am sure we ate better because of it.   If that was the only book she wrote, it would be enough for her to qualify as a food heroine but she produced many other beautifully research books that are written in a way that makes you want to taste the food she describes.  My favourites are Summer Cooking (1955), English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) and The Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices (1994).

She knew her own mind and, although I know that she often spent Christmas with her sister’s family, I suspect that sometimes she did get her wish and retired to bed with a glass of champagne.  To find out more about her character and her rather adventurous life read Lisa Chaney’s biography Elizabeth David or the one by Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table.

Advertisements

Now We’re Cooking With Gas!


Marie “Jenny” Fleurot and William Sugg the day before their wedding in 1871. Image from http://www.williamsugghistory.co.uk.

The first gas cookers went on sale during the 1830s and while there were some early adopters, for example, the kitchens at the Reform Club were fitted with gas cookers as early as 1838, most people carried on using solid fuel ranges. I am proposing Marie Jenny Sugg (1850-1919) as a food heroine for her promotion of gas cookery.

In 1890, when Mrs Sugg ‘s book, The Art of Cooking by Gas, was published gas cookers had become more common but the author felt that readers needed a bit of reassurance about the advantages of cooking with gas. In the introduction she wrote, … the economy of cooking by properly regulated gas is beyond question: and this economy is realized not only in the fuel saved but on the food itself, the nutritive properties of which are fully developed without waste. The cleanliness and convenience of gas as a fuel and the saving in time and labour, need only be once understood to be thoroughly appreciated, and those who adopt gas in the kitchen will find themselves free from all that trouble, dirt, and uncertainty in working which attend a coal kitchener.” (p.7)

Mrs Sugg’s promotion of gas cookers was far from disinterested. She had married into a family that ran a firm specializing in gas lighting, heating and cooking. Rather excitingly, Mrs Sugg met her husband, William Sugg (1832-1907), while he was visiting France on business during the Siege of Paris. The marriage produced 12 children and, after the birth of the last one, a cookery book.

Their great-grandson has set up a very informative website about the history of William Sugg & Co and for a more general history of the gas industry there is the Gas Museum in Leicester.

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!

18th century cookery writer in jail


The Fleet Prison where Hannah Glasse was taken in July 1757. Image from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days / Wikimedia Commons.

Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) was responsible for producing one of the most popular 18th century cook books, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.   It remained in print for nearly a century and it is back in print today thanks to Prospect Books, which publishes a facsimile of the 1747 edition.The Art of Cookery covered everything an 18thcentury cook ought to know, from roasting and boiling to pies, puddings and preserves.  The book also contains some surprising recipes such as how to “Make curry the Indian Way” and ketchup that will last 20 years!

This is one of her recipe for parsnips,

“They should be boiled in a great deal of water, and when you find that they are soft (which you will know by running a fork into them) take them up, and carefully scrape all the dirt off them, and then with a knife scrape them all fine, throwing away the sticky parts; then put them into a saucepan with some milk, and stir them over the fire till they are thick.  Take great care they don’t burn, and add a good piece of butter and a little salt, and when the butter is melted sent them to table.”

When Hannah was born in London her mother and father were not married, at least not to each other.  Nevertheless Hannah was given her father’s name, Allgood, and was absorbed into his Northumberland family.   At the age of 16 she moved to London and promptly married an Irishman called John Glasse.

If her husband had been a better provider it is possible that Hannah would never have written The Art of Cookery.  She had some money from her father but this was not enough to avoid financial worries, especially as her family grew.  She gave birth to ten (or possibly eleven) children, although only five survived into adulthood.  Selling subscriptions for the cook book was just one of Hannah’s money making ventures.

For a while it was looking good.  Hannah and one of her daughters were running a shop in a smart part of London but Hannah had borrowed heavily and, in 1754, she went bankrupt with a debt of over £10,000 pounds.  To help sort things out she sold the copyright of The Art of Cookery.  A few years later Hannah was in financial trouble again and this time she ended up in debtors’ prison.  First the Marshalsea Prison and later the Fleet Prison.  There is some uncertainty over what exactly happened to Hannah after that.  We know that she went on to produce two more books, The Servants Directory and The Compleat Confectioner, but it isn’t clear whether she wrote these while in prison or having got out of jail.

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.