Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton

The Best of Eliza Acton

It was Eliza who inspired me to try the vintage feast idea in the first place, so I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. The official “challenge” is over, but I like these old cookbooks so much that I have decided to continue an occasional series.

The book I have is an old Penguin, The Best of Eliza Acton, published in 1968, edited by Elizabeth Ray and with a foreword by … who else? Elizabeth David. You can’t read much Elizabeth David without discovering that she and Eliza are kindred spirits. Jane Grigson drew on Acton heavily for her English Food, and both she and David clearly thought more highly of Eliza than of the better-known Mrs Beeton.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in 1845, when Eliza was 46, and stayed in print for over 50 years. This 350-page paperback holds only a fraction of the hundreds of brief, precise recipes the original book must have contained. Her crisp prose, sharp asides, and succinct instructions that assume the reader is already a competent cook cannot fail to recall Elizabeth David, so it’s hardly surprising the latter admired her so much : “Over and over again,” she writes, “I have marvelled at the illuminating and decisive qualities of Miss Acton’s recipes.” Discussing the fact that Acton was eclipsed by later inferior writers, David suggests that it was because she was “a child of the eighteenth century …. living in the manner and writing of a style of English domestic life already doomed.” And she concludes, “Temporary eclipse has often been the fate of great innovators. In a way it is posterity’s compliment to genius.” And similarly, when the Jamies and Nigellas of this world have been and gone, Elizabeth David will still be with us.

So after all that, what about the food? I was spoilt for choice here. All sorts of things tempted me: fried potato ribbons, which sound very much like rather fantastical potato crisps, cut in long spirals; jumbles; cheesecake with no cheese in it; the famous cabinet pudding. In the end I went for a very simple menu.

To start: carrot soup. Eliza has two basic recipes for this, but follows them with a recipe for a variation: “Buchanan carrot soup (Excellent)”. With that recommendation, how could I not try it? It was delicious, deep orange with a zing from the curry powder, making it much more successful than Ruth Lowinsky’s bland 20th-century version. My only criticism was that I don’t particularly like the texture of cooked rice in my soup; when I reheated the leftovers for lunch, I liquidised it. Next up: Chicken Burdwan, which with a few adjustments could well become a regular standby for using up leftover roast chicken, and is an “Indian” dish that would certainly appeal to French people. It’s a feast of 18th-century flavours.

For dessert, I found the potato pudding irresistible. Years ago we were served a dessert of tiny dishes of impossibly smooth potato puree flavoured with vanilla at my then-favourite restaurant, Les Feuillants in Céret (sadly now gone). It was fantastic, and potatoes are my favourite vegetable, so I was certainly prepared to try another potato dessert. Of course it was nothing like that creamy dish at les Feuillants, but it did seem strangely familiar. After a couple of spoonfuls I realised it was very like the bottom part of a Queen of Puddings. So next time I want to make Q of P and don’t have any stale bread, I might use potatoes instead.

All of these were dishes I’d happily make again, so this is the best vintage feast so far. My adapted recipes for all three follow.

Buchanan carrot soup
600 g carrots
30 g butter
1 litre chicken or beef stock
1 heaped tsp curry powder (or 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper)
60 g cooked rice

Scrape the carrots and cut into thick slices. Melt the butter in a large pan and add the carrots; then cover and cook really slowly for an hour, shaking the pan from time to time. The carrots should not brown or stick. In true 19th-century fashion I did this on top of the woodburner.

Add the stock and simmer for another half hour. Liquidise till smooth. Then add the curry powder and cooked rice, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Liquidise again if, like me, you don’t like the texture of the rice. Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve.

Chicken Burdwan
Lefotver roast chicken (I used about half a small chicken)
1 small onion or a large shallot, finely chopped
25 g butter
1 tsp flour
pinch cayenne (I used pimentón picante as that’s what I have these days)
1 tbsp anchovy essence, or a couple of tinned anchovies, very finely chopped
1 wineglass of Madeira (I used some sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry, another magic Spanish ingredient)
1 tsp chilli sherry (Eliza says a tablespoon, but my Scotch Bonnet chilli sherry is so strong I didn’t dare)
black pepper
Juice of 1 lime or 1/2 lemon (optional)

Cut up the chicken into bite-sized pieces, removing skin. Melt the butter and gently soften the onion or shallot. Then add the flour and stir for a minute to blend before adding the anchovies and a wineglass of water. Bring to the boil, stirring, then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Stir in the Madeira/PX and chilli sherry, then add the chicken and heat gently just long enough to warm it through. Taste it and add black pepper and/or lemon juice to taste. Serve with rice pilaff and chutney.

Potato pudding

Eliza Acton's potato pudding

This is served hot with whatever jam or preserve you have; I used some home-made apricot jam. Eliza says you can serve it on its own cold as a cake, but I’m not sure I’d like that; it’s a bit stodgy and would be rather dull without the jam, which complements it really well.

500 g floury potatoes
75 g butter
120 g sugar
5 small eggs
pinch salt
grated zest of 1 lemon
good-quality not-too-sweet jam, e.g. redcurrant, apricot, greengage

Preheat the oven to 170 C. Boil the potatoes till soft and drain them very well. They need to be mashed very thoroughly but lightly while hot; I put them through the potato ricer, which is perfect for this. Beat in all the other ingredients except the jam. Pour into a well-buttered soufflé dish or cake tin. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, till the cake is set in the centre. Turn out of the tin or dish, cut into wedges, and serve with the jam. Or use it as the basis of a Queen of Puddings (in which case you’d use only the yolks of the eggs, saving the whites for the meringue, and reduce the other quantities by about half).

2 thoughts to “Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton”

  1. What a good idea to show those old recipes to new generations! Your book dating from 1968, how did you get it? Is it and heritage from mom or grandma? I will definitely try the potato pudding perfect for diner!

  2. erm. I can assure you that I am old enough to remember 1968. Although I bought this book some years later, in a secondhand bookshop!

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