A friend recently leant me a couple of old cookery books she picked up rummaging second hand shops in Kennington Sarf London. She is one of those annoying people who seem to be just browsing but always comes away with something rare or special.
There are no glossy pictures in these books, in fact no pictures at all, no oven temperature charts, conversion tables, trendy chapter headings or suggested Spotify playlists. These books score zero on the coffee table scale and yet I found myself reading both of them from cover to cover and then started digging out a few I had on the shelf at home.
The first was Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Cookery (1991)…not that long ago…. Through reminiscences of her childhood she charts the changing trends and fads in town and country dining between the wars. Big yawn, not for a minute.
The world of the professional chef had already been permanently changed with the publishing of Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire in 1903, over 5000 recipes and still in use today, although every restaurant kitchen had a copy this was not for dinner party cooks or hostesses. Boxer pays tribute to the society darlings, Nancy Astor, Jessica Mitford “it took the butler 6 minutes to walk from the kitchen to the dining room at Chatsworth” then comes Boulestin and many more leading on to Constance Spry (1942) and Elizabeth David (1950) and they pave the way for Robert Carrier, Jane Grigson, our Delia, and the road to Saturday Kitchen and home cooking as we know it today.
Her recipes are scattered with anecdotes and lots of name-dropping, but it’s soooooo readable. Potted shrimp sandwiches, Yeah, “I remember these from Goodwood races”, the picnic section closes with a recipe for sloe gin. Look a little deeper and there’s water biscuits here too.
The second book was Countryman’s Cooking by W.M.W Fowler (1965).
What a guy, totally outspoken, views on everything, not a trained chef or cook opens with “This book is written for men. Men who, through choice or circumstance, live on their own, so that they can give a small dinner party and at the same time remain on speaking terms with their friends”
He goes on to totally equip your bachelor kitchen including how many butchers hooks you will need (6 by the way), gives no-nonsense easy to follow instruction on butchery, the preparation and cooking of furred and feathered game, hunting, shooting, fishing and lots more. He doesn’t do desserts, probably just as well, and closes with a full page of instructions for perfect Brussels Sprouts; the back cover has his recipe for beer and a great quote “my weak will is one of my most prized possessions”.
Having read these very quickly I found myself sorting through the shelves at home, so pleased to find my grandmothers cook book Olio Cookbook (1918) with a forward to mothers and housekeepers, tips on everything, vegetarian recipes, how to harden a newly enamelled bath, oxtail jelly, pickled lemons
931 Cucumber should always be sliced first from the thick end……we know now.
Not a book, a DIY manual for life. There is nothing the modern housewife/househusband can’t make or fix armed with a copy of this!
And saving the best till last…when learning my trade cooking in Paris in 1981 I was asked to make a Foie Gras Terrine for a friend to take to the family celebrations for St Sylvestre. He thanked me with a copy of Le Nouveau Cuisinier Royal & Bourgois (1720) by Paul Prudhome.
Written in old French and sometimes quite difficult to read these guys were cooking everything we have today Crayfish & Asparagus, Ris de Veau aux Truffes and Partridge with Morel mushrooms and Cognac.
These books are real gems and we have all got them at home, have a look on your bookshelves, the boxes in the loft, ask your Nan!
So what’s changed?……Take a short trip in the time machine…….you wake up to Heston’s Snail Porridge and deep fried Mars bars. How do they do that?
Modern cookbooks look great, lots of arty photos, you flip through, maybe try a couple of recipes, but why are they always just a bit too complicated and it never looks anything like the illustration, so it goes back on the coffee table….yeah I’ve got the new Jamiepollenstebulifrenchlaundry cookbook…its great.
Nice quote from Prue Leith recently “Clever Chefs? They’ve lost the plot”
Post script. Most of the things I grumble about have got nothing to do with chefs. I have spent my entire life in the kitchen and have been very fortunate to meet and work with the most amazing, dedicated, talented and lovely people on the planet. They work stupid hours in bloody hot kitchens creating absolutely delicious food that some moron covers in ketchup and then slags off on Tripadvisor….. Its marketing, publishers, sales, branding, image rights, Tah dah and all that chews me off. I think I’ll stop there!