As I mentioned in my last post, Food for Pleasure was published in 1950, when Britain was still subject to rationing, albeit less drastic than during the war. It’s actually an anthology; Ruth Lowinsky chose recipes from books published from 1866 to 1942, including some of her own. So it’s even more old-fashioned than it sounds! “Pre-war cookery books,” she says, “must not be thought obsolete: their recipes, even when modified, offer incomparably better results than the frightening suggestions devised to suit the times by the misplaced ingenuity of the Ministry of Food.”
Just to encourage us, she adds, “Do not throw up your hands in histrionic despair when inferior ingredients result in a dish that falls short of your old, exacting standards”. With true British sangfroid, she urges us to make do and mend. “You must have forgotten how good things taste when cooked in butter. Continue to forget, and use instead margarine or margarine mixed with lard.” Those were the days!
Then she gives us some suggested menus, with quaint titles such as Luncheons for guests on whom a special effort is not wasted (cold mousse of eggs, duck with turnips, purée à la Jane); A dinner to please your husband who has invited business friends and wants to impress them (Batavia frappé, chicken à la king, salade andalouse, raspberry ice); Little dinners for the girl who lives alone and has a guest (Eggs à la bonne femme, boeuf Stroganoff, camembert in aspic – whaaaaat??).
As for the recipes, there was no Delia in those days. No glossy photos, and usually there are no quantities of anything, except for cake or pastry recipes – just a list of ingredients. The author assumes you already know how to cook from scratch, so most recipes are very short, with just basic instructions. Though indubitably British, they are also very foreign to modern tastes; there were quite a few I read several times and just couldn’t visualise what they would be like (on the other hand, it’s perhaps a good thing that I can’t imagine what camembert in aspic is like). A dish called panna consisting of cooked spinach, hard-boiled eggs, sardines, anchovies, and butter, all pounded together, sieved, spread out on a tray, and then cut into rounds and served on ice had me scratching my head too.
Apart from aberrations like these, it’s clear that in general British food in the 1950s was much blander than modern food. Or to put it another way, “things taste of what they are,” as Curnonsky famously said. Very few herbs and spices are used, and certainly no Asian ingredients. Naturally there are a few mild curries, and other dishes are given a bit of zing with nothing more exotic than mustard, anchovies, horseradish, or chutney.
So, something simple for pre-dinner nibbles: Parmesan fingers, courtesy of Mrs Winston Churchill, no less. Very easy to make: you just cut some stale white bread into finger-sized pieces, soak them in cream as if you were making pain perdu without the eggs, and then roll them in a mixture of finely grated Parmesan and black pepper. In the spirit of wartime substitution, you can use Gruyère or Cheddar instead. Then arrange on a greased baking sheet and bake in a hot oven for about 15 minutes, turning once, until both sides are nicely browned. I used not-very-stale sourdough baguette, whereas I think the recipe assumes factory-made white sliced, so my “fingers” came out looking rather messy. But they were very good eaten piping hot, creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside. I’d do these again.
Then cream of carrot soup. This is a prime example of 1950s blandness. It was a lovely pale apricot colour, and tasted of carrots. Which is OK I suppose, but nowadays you would have to perk it up with coriander, ginger, or orange.
Looks appetizing, doesn’t it?
The geography of the dish I chose for the main course seemed a bit amiss. Brazilian Stew (or Goulash, in Hungary) it said. Well, they are both foreign I suppose. It wasn’t much like any goulash I’ve ever had, because there was no paprika in it, at all. It’s basically a very British beef stew, with winter vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onion, a turnip), tomatoes, and beef, which for some reason is dipped in vinegar before adding it. I think this might be considered to be an adequate substitute for wine. No other liquid at all, except what comes out of the ingredients themselves.
It’s supposed to stew “at the back of the fire” for three to four hours, so I put my big cast-iron cocotte on top of the woodburner, pouring some cold water into the concave lid so that what liquid there was inside would condense and drip back down onto the meat. Result: lots of excellent gravy. Again, I think it could be enlivened with some more seasonings: a smidgin more vinegar, some Worcester sauce – heck, you could even put paprika in it and call it goulash!
Pudding: with 1950s English cuisine, it had to be jelly. Well, soufflé froid au caramel actually. This must be a pre-war recipe as it is rather extravagant with eggs. It is made in the same way as you would make zabaglione, only without the marsala – whisking eggs and sugar over hot water until thick and creamy. Then some caramel and gelatine are added and you pour it into a soufflé dish to set. Unfortunately my dish was a bit big, so I couldn’t do the paper collar thing to make it look as if it had risen above the top of the dish. Instead I just put it in the fridge and hoped for the best. It tasted good, except that it separated as it set, so I ended up with a dense caramelly bottom layer and a fluffy top layer. If I made it again, I would do it in individual moulds as it looked a total mess once it was dished out.
All in all we enjoyed this meal; nothing was startlingly good, but it was plain, wholesome stuff, made with ingredients that are all cheap and easy to obtain. I can definitely envisage making the Parmesan fingers again; really easy to do with ingredients you are likely to have on hand. My adaptations of the other two recipes follow.