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.

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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.

The Poor Live off Bread, Jam and Tea


Maud Pember Reeves. Image from http://www.nzine.co.nz.

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves (1865-1953) was a landmark book. It described how the “respectable” working poor lived and, in doing so, provided evidence to support arguments for child benefit and school meals.

The book, first published in 1913, was based on four years of research by the Fabian Women’s Group.  This group set out to investigate the impact of nutrition on the health of mothers and their children because it was known that a greater proportion of the babies born in poor areas died compared to those born in wealthier areas.   Each week the Fabian women visited homes in Lambeth, a poor part of London, and interviewed working class mothers.  The notebooks recording these visits are held by the LSE library.

The research looked at families with a weekly wage of between 18 and 26 shillings and revealed how little money was left for food once the rent and other necessities had been covered.  Even in cases where the husband brought home his entire wage (rather than spending most it down the pub or elsewhere) and where the mother was deemed a “good manager” the meals provided inadequate nutrition.

“Bread…is their chief food.  It is cheap; they like it; it comes into the house ready cooked; it is always at hand, and needs no plate and spoon.” [1]

The book challenged some conventional views of poverty.  It rejected what Maud described as the “gospel of porridge”.  It explained to well-meaning middle-class philanthropists that although porridge might be the cheapest and most nutritious breakfast it is not a sensible option if you live in two rooms without a stove, the only saucepan you have is burnt and / or your children don’t like it.

Maud was brought up in New Zealand and moved to Britain with her husband when he became New Zealand’s Agent-General.  In London Maud was active in left-wing politics and the Fabian Women’s Group was started at a meeting in her home. During the First World War she worked in the Ministry of Food as the Director of the Education and Propaganda but she withdrew from public life after the death of her son on active duty in 1917.

A century after the book was published I think it is time to go back to Lambeth and re-do this research.

[1] Round About a Pound a Week, edition published by Virago Press in 1997,  p.97

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.

German Scientist Discovers Junk Food


Frederick (or Friedrich) Accum (1769-1838) was a German chemist who wrote about the adulteration of food.

Frederick trained as an apothecary in Germany before coming to London in 1793 and where threw himself into the scientific scene.   He established himself as freelance researcher, lecturer and purveyor of chemical equipment.   He worked on various projects, for example experiments with gas lighting, and, for a time, he was employed as Humphry Davy’s assistant.

In 1820 he published, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons,  which explained that much of the food and drink being sold was not what it claimed to be.  The book sold out very quickly.  Some of the practices revealed were fraudulent, e.g. selling roasted peas and beans as coffee, while others were downright dangerous, e.g. the use of poisonous chemicals, such as lead, copper and mercury, to enhance the colour wine and sweets.  As well as describing the problem and explaining how to test for adulterants, the brave (of foolhardy) Frederick published the names and addresses of traders convicted of adulteration.  This made him some powerful enemies and, probably, lead to his public disgrace.

Shortly after the publication of his book Frederick was accused of vandalising books from Royal Institution’s library.  This might have been a set up but he was found guilty and in 1821 he fled to Germany where he worked as a teacher.

18th century housekeeper does it all


A portrait of Elizabeth Raffald printed in 1782, the year after her death.

Elizabeth Raffald (1733-1781) is a food heroine for writing The Experience English Housekeeper, a practical 18th century cookery book.  She was one of those amazing women who did everything, making the rest of us look like lazy slatterns.  And, in between all the work, Elizabeth gave birth to between 6 and 15 children (the records are vague and sources differ).

The Experienced English Housekeeper was first printed in 1769 and reprinted many times during the next 60 or so years.  The book gives recipes for all sorts of things, from Yorkshire goose pie and spun sugar webs to cherry brandy and pickled walnuts.   It also gives instructions on how to lay a table out for a party.  In the introduction, Elizabeth explains that she had worked for 15 years as a housekeeper in “great and worthy families” and the book was dedicated to her last employer Lady Elisabeth Warburton of Arley Hall, Cheshire.  It was at Arley Hall that she met John Raffald, the head gardener who became her husband.

Soon after marrying the Raffalds moved to Manchester where Elizabeth set up several businesses.  She established herself as a confectioner, supplying the newly rich of Manchester with the fancy goods they needed for entertaining in style, for example, table decorations and cakes, as well as the kind of things you’d find in a delicatessen, like potted meats, lemon preserves, mushroom ketchup and anchovies.   Realising that her customers needed servants she set up servant exchange and, in 1772, she compiled the first directory for the growing city of Manchester, which included an alphabetical list of tradesmen.

Later the Raffalds made the short move to Salford where they ran an inn called King’s Head and a coffee-house.  They had some financial difficulties but their creditors only really moved in after Elizabeth’s sudden death in 1781.  She was survived by her husband, just three of her children and, of course, her cookery book.