6 February, 2010

Vintage feasts: Spices, salts and aromatics in the English kitchen

Elizabeth David: Spices, salts and aromatics in the English kitchen

After last month’s blandfest, it seemed apposite to turn to Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, published in 1970, for this month’s cookbook challenge. She points out that England has a long history in the spice trade, reflected in cooking from the Middle Ages onwards: “we took to spiced food with an enthusiasm which seems to have been almost equal to that shown by the Romans at the height of their preoccupation with the luxuries of living. A study of English recipes of the fifteenth century leaves one with the impression that to the cook the spices were a good deal more important than the food itself.”

First a word about the book. I am a huge fan of Elizabeth David, no matter how unfashionable she has become, and practically every modern British cookery writer owes a debt to her (often uncknowledged). Her French Provincial Cooking is required reading for any English speaker who wants to learn to cook classic French food. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and she happily assumes intelligence and competence on the part of her readers. But Spices, Salt and Aromatics… is not one of her best books. It’s bitty, parts of it cobbled together from a number of previously published articles, and not very coherent as a result. It’s hard to figure out, for example, what a recipe for paella is doing in a book ostensibly about English food! But that being said, this is Elizabeth David. Of course there are good things here, and masses of interesting snippets of information. The chapter on spices and condiments is inimitable David: a combination of the academic and the personal. Using old recipe books as sources, she dragged many worthwhile recipes from oblivion and played her part in making people realise that English food was not without its own merits. Like all her books, it’s one you can read for pleasure as well as cook from.

Oh, and the cover art is gorgeous! The back cover tells us:

De Heem’s painting shows a seventeenth-century version of a Lombard crustade or pie, a survival from the fourteenth century, when such pies were common to the tables of the rich in Italy, France, England, the Low Countries, and Germany. This one, as the artist made plain by placing a dish of prawns in the foreground of his composition, was a fish day pie. The medley of dried and fresh fruit, almonds and pine kernels, probably concealed the main filling of fish, perhaps salmon and eel, or haddock and codling, ground to a paste with apples and pears, and ginger, cinnamon, cloves and mace.

When the pie was baked the top crust was lifted, a mixture of cream and egg yolks, or for fish days a cream of almonds, was poured in. The cover was then replaced and, surmounted with its decorative cluster of pears, cored, filled with sugar and sweet spices, the pie was returned to the oven until the custard or cream had thickened.

Recipes for Lombard or “lumber” pies survived in English cookery books, virtually unchanged, until well into the eighteenth century.

Everything about these paragraphs, the precision, the careful use of phrasing and detail, the casual erudition, tells me they were written by Elizabeth David herself, not some Penguin editor.

coriander mushrooms

So to the meal. Unlike last month’s it soared high on the effort versus results scale, requiring only about half an hour’s “hands-on” time. The starter, coriander mushrooms, was so simple it was hardly a recipe at all. Toss your quartered mushrooms in lemon juice, heat some olive oil and sizzle some crushed coriander seeds in it. Then add the mushrooms, a couple of bay leaves,salt and pepper, saute for a minute, then cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Turn out into a dish, season with more lemon juice and olive oil, done. You could eat this hot; I let it cool and served it as a room-temperature salad. Make sure you have some bread to soak up the juices. This dish didn’t seem old-fashioned at all; a triumph of simplicity and natural flavours (it would no doubt be better with more interesting, i.e. wild, mushrooms!).

pork roasted with oranges

The main course was equally timeless; a slow-roast joint of pork with sliced oranges and a glug of Noilly Prat. I’m sure Elizabeth David expected a traditional British pork roast, with fat; in France pork roasts are always sold boned, every scrap of skin and fat trimmed off, rolled, and neatly tied. So the breadcrumb crust didn’t really come off (not enough fat). But the seasonings (garlic, rosemary, herbes de Provence, finely chopped and pressed into the surface of the joint) worked well with the orange, and it was really tasty. As for effort, I put it in the oven, basted it after 30 minutes or so, then went out for an aperitif, returning an hour and a half later. We had cinnamon-flavoured apple sauce with it, but only because a glut of apples meant I’d just made a big panful.

For pudding, I made a cream cheese and honey pie. I cheated here and used ready-made pastry (well, I had been out drinking). It was very like Yorkshire curd tart; she specified “double cream cheese”, so I used mascarpone, flavoured with acacia honey, lemon zest and cinnamon. Method: whizz all filling ingredients together, pour into pastry case, put into oven, done. Very delicately flavoured and best eaten lukewarm or cold.

cream cheese and honey pie

I was glad I’d picked this book up; I’d got out of the habit of my Elizabeth David books, and this meal reminded me how her strengths are in such simple, classic combinations. No follower of fashion, she knew what she liked. Again, “things taste of what they are”, but the subtle use of complementary seasonings makes all the difference. And it was so quick and easy to put together. I’ve only ever cooked a handful of recipes from this book, but I’ll certainly do some more.

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