Vintage Feast: Fine English Cookery by Michael Smith

Locked down and with not much to do except cook, I decided to revive my neglected “neglected cookbooks” series with Michael Smith’s Fine English Cookery, published in 1973. Mine’s a paperback reissue from 1998.

Long post, but comes with a recipe worth trying at the end, so scroll on if you just want that!

Michael Smith was a trained chef and restaurateur who was also a broadcaster. His book, while clearly treading the same ground as Jane Grigson’s great English Food, is a reflection of that. Jane herself wrote, “Of the many books on our food, his is my favourite, the one I use most.” Yet the two books have surprisingly few dishes in common, since Smith’s is biased towards restaurant food or at least dishes aimed more at dinner parties than family meals. He does draw on historical recipes, from the eighteenth century onwards but yes, this book reflects how the British middle classes ate and entertained in the 1970s!

The book has a simple structure: soups, “a medley of savoury and vegetable dishes”, principal dishes, puddings, sauces, salads. The soup chapter starts, to my surprise, with a chilled almond soup which immediately makes me think of the Spanish ajo blanco. No garlic or olive oil in this though; it’s simply chicken stock, flaked almonds, nut oil, and cream, thickened with flour. The puddings chapter is rather special too, with some delicious sounding baked puddings and tarts and, of course, a proper recipe for sherry trifle (no jelly).

In a spirit of adventure, I browsed the more unusual soups. Mushroom and mustard soup sounds interesting. But I was stopped in my tracks by chilled pineapple and curry soup. Curiosity got the better of me. It specified a fresh pineapple, but I was not about to waste one by cooking it in chicken stock and liquidising it, so I bought a tin. Other ingredients: curry powder, mango chutney, courgettes, onions, lemon juice. Served with cream swirled into it.

Verdict: it looked like snot. And the taste was pretty strange, flavours battling each other. It wasn’t disgusting, but I certainly won’t be making it again.

Main course: beef olives. I haven’t made these for decades. In the past I used an Italian recipe, with a stuffing featuring lemon zest, pine nuts, and sultanas, and a sumptuous slow-cooked tomato-based sauce. This version had a thoroughly English stuffing: yes, lemon zest featured, but with breadcrumbs, butter, and cooked ham. The sauce was a triumph though; rich with mushrooms, carrots, red wine and port. The only thing wrong with it was that there wasn’t enough of it. I’d halved the recipe but I think I should have made the full quantity of sauce. I have to say it deserves its reputation as a classic dinner party dish: yes, it’s a bit of a faff but it can be prepared entirely in advance, and it looks so much posher than a stew with the same ingredients would. I think the Italian version is superior though.

Pudding: I decided to try Maids of Honour, little tarts allegedly enjoyed by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Richmond. I believe the traditional version of these tarts has curd cheese in it. This one doesn’t; the filling is basically frangipane, similar to Bakewell tart, with a layer of quince jelly in the bottom. They were delicious, albeit too sweet; I’ll reduce the sugar next time. A flaky, crisp pastry case, filling that’s squidgy in the middle (possibly a bit underbaked) and crisp around the edges. Of the recipes I’ve tried from this book, this is the only one I’d make again. Good enough to serve to guests: recipe below.

Maids of Honour

250 g plain flour
150 g butter
2 tsp icing sugar
1 egg yolk mixed with 3-4 tbsp cold water

Note: this made more pastry than I needed for my tarts, but I used deep tins with quite a lot of filling. Michael Smith makes a single large tart, but I thought small ones would be more attractive as well as more traditional.

60-100 g of caster sugar*
60 g unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks
1 heaped tsp self-raising flour (or use plain flour and a pinch of baking powder)
3 tbs thick cream
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
125 g ground almonds
Quince jelly or preserve

* The recipe specifies 100 g of sugar. This made the filling far too sweet for our taste, so I will reduce it to maybe 60 g next time.

Make the pastry by sifting flour and sugar together and cutting/rubbing in the butter. Mix in the egg yolk and water to make a crumbly dough, then tip onto a work surface and press together into a soft dough, without overworking. Put in a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Roll the pastry thinly and line small tins. I used muffin tins to make deep tarts; the quantity of filling here made nine, with some pastry left over, but you could use shallower tins and probably get a dozen. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan).

For the filling, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the small amount of flour, then the egg yolks one at a time, mixing thoroughly. Stir in the ground almonds and lemon zest; the mixture will be stiff and rather lumpy. Now loosen it by stirring in the cream.

Put a thin layer (about a teaspoon) of quince jelly in the bottom of each tart, then add a dollop of filling, smoothing the top with a palette knife. Don’t fill right to the top as it will rise.

Bake for 20-25 minutes till the pastry is cooked and the tarts are a good golden colour on top. Leave in the tins for a few minutes, then carefully remove to a wire rack. The filling will probably collapse in the centre as it cools, but this is OK. You can sprinkle with icing sugar to serve if you want; I didn’t think it was necessary.

4 thoughts to “Vintage Feast: Fine English Cookery by Michael Smith”

  1. I’m always happy to see a neglected cookbooks post – it reminds me of books I’ve neglected for no good reason. That’s not a classic maids of honour recipe but that’s not something I worry about. It does sound delicious. I was definitely not middle class in the 1970s and early 1980s but Michael Smith always seemed interesting to me at the time for being prepared to break some rules and create some strange combinations. I’ve never tried pineapple and curry but I still sometimes make a soup with his combination of plums and tomatoes.

  2. Hi Phil, yes I can imagine plums and tomatoes working well. I once had a tomato and cherry gazpacho in Malaga which was excellent. On the other hand I ended up binning the rest of the pineapple and curry soup, having decided on second tasting that actually yes, it was vile.

    I may revive the Italian cookbook with the beef olive recipe in it for my next neglected cookbook.

  3. You have reminded me that I used to make beef olives a lot in the 80’s and 90’s. It was my favourite dish for entertaining in the days when we lived in a nice, solid, middle class house that was everything I aspired to. My cup ranneth over.
    Maids of honour were something my mum made a dozen of every weekend, to keep the kids tummies from rumbling on coming in from the school bus, and dad in packed lunches. Of course, in my pre-middle class existence his packed lunches were called snap, taken to work every day in his snap bag.
    I might just have to make both dishes now!

  4. Hi Jean
    Yes, they were dead posh, weren’t they? Funnily enough I got the Italian book out and made the beef olives from that the other day, and they weren’t as good as I remembered. That is, the sauce was fabulous, the olives themselves pretty dull. Our tastes have changed over the years.

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