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.

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Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book

Belgian bun cake: Margaret Costa's Four Seasons

Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book has always lived in the reserve collection. I honestly don’t know why. Nigel Slater himself says: ‘If I had to choose only one book to cook from for the rest of my life it would be this one.’ Picking it up and starting to read, I instantly saw that she and I were of the same mind. The preface begins:

Professional chefs are notoriously bad at giving recipes for domestic kitchens. They are unable to think in small quantities for a start, they are maddeningly vague about times and temperatures, they use words which create total, unreasoning panic in the mind of the ordinary cook: déglacer, dégorger, tomber, revenir, beurre manié — no wonder we lose our heads.

Even the words we think we recognise — blend, beat, sieve — all mean something different to them because they use different equipment. And then they are used to having things to hand. “Garnish with truffles,” they cry, “cook in clarified butter, stuff with a duxelles, finish with a spoonful of hollandaise.” “The sauce? Oh, just a simple jus lié with the addition of a little demi-glace.”

She sums up everything I don’t like about 99% of cookbooks by professional chefs (the Roux brothers are a very honourable exception). And she was married to a chef! I like her introduction to the canapé section too:

Just listen to the next big party you go to: a party where there are enough nice little things to eat has a warm, contented sound, a sort of purr, quite different from the harsh, strident noise where there’s nothing but alcohol and cigarette smoke.

I’d love to go to a party catered by her; her “nice little things to eat” are all mouth-watering, and most are easy to do.

Four Seasons cookbook

It’s a wide-ranging book, organised roughly by season (some dishes can be cooked all the year round though) — and within each season by theme. So Winter for example includes chapters like Christmas Classics, Party Pieces, Comforting Breakfasts, Winter Soups, Cooking with Wine (a sign of the 1970s that you had to have a special chapter for this!), Proper Puddings, Marmalade … Costa is from the same school as Jane Grigson: erudition worn lightly, with unpretentious yet elegant and classic dishes covering the whole range from dinner parties through everyday meals to preserves and bread baking. Perhaps part of the reason I don’t use this book more is precisely because Jane Grigson is my first port of call when I’m looking for this type of book.

Again like those traditional writers (Grigson, Elizabeth David, Patience Grey) this is a book you can read for sheer pleasure, even if you don’t cook a thing from it. The party pieces, the “proper puddings”, and the preserving chapters are the highlight of the book for me. So this post isn’t exactly a vintage feast, just a sampling of a couple of items from the book (which now sprouts a forest of bookdarts heralding future cooking sessions).

I have never cooked chutney in my life, apart from a brief and fairly successful flirtation with mango chutney. This is possibly due to traumatic memories of a house reeking of vinegar from top to bottom when my mother was engaged in her annual days-long chutney-making session, during which the rest of the family would move out to the garden for the duration. So it’s perhaps surprising that the first recipe I chose from here was the tomato and red pepper chutney, from the very comprehensive preserving chapter. Partly because I bought a big bag of peppers from the market for 3 euros, partly inspired by the chutney-making fervour displayed at the Cottage Smallholder forum.

Costa doesn’t weigh you down with instructions — she just tells you to mince or chop everything up, put it in a pan with the vinegar, sugar, and spices, and “simmer till thick”. The suggested 2 hours’ simmering stretched to 5 hours; I think my simmer must have been too low. But it did eventually acquire a jammy consistency, and I decided this was good enough. Into the jars it went, looking very convincingly like chutney. Verdict in a month or so, when it’s matured! Meanwhile, all the windows are open to eliminate the vinegar smell.

While that was bubbling away, I made some Belgian bun cake, because I’d made some lemon curd a couple of days ago. This is basically a rich brioche dough, spread with lemon curd and sprinkled with candied peel and currants, rolled up and baked. It turns out like a lemony panettone, best eaten while still slightly warm and fragrant from the oven. Delicious, and I already have plans for a very luxurious bread and butter pudding with part of it.

I won’t give the recipe for the chutney here, because I’m waiting to see how it turns out. But here’s my version of the Belgian brioche.
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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.
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Vintage feasts: Josceline Dimbleby

rabbit liver pate

I hadn’t originally planned to include Josceline in my celebration of 1980s-and-older cookbooks. But then I was reminded of her by Maggie. It made me realise that apart from one of my favourite old standbys, her fusion of blanquette and goulash, I hadn’t cooked any of her recipes for absolutely ages. Maggie says “Thirty years ago, way before Nigella, we had a ‘posh’ cook in the guise of Josceline Dimbleby. She is a great, innovative cook and I can’t understand why she isn’t more widely known and more highly regarded”.

Me neither! I first encountered her via a book picked up in a second hand shop for 50p, entitled Taste of Dreams. It was a good introduction, highlighting her creative, unusual approach, with dishes that are often titivated to within an inch of their lives presentation-wise (the water-lily timbale is a shocker, a flat cake of carrots and avocado wrapped in spinach and surrounded by chicory leaves like petals ). Maybe we can blame the 1980s for that. But she often shows real flair in combinations of ingredients and, especially, textures; Middle-Eastern influences are omnipresent since she spent part of her youth there.

Later, I occasionally picked up the little 50p cookbooks with my shopping in Sainsbury’s, and the most tattered and food-stained one I have is Josceline’s A Traveller’s Tastes. Nearly every recipe in this book is a winner, but for this vintage feast I decided to give myself maximum flexibility by using The Josceline Dimbleby Collection, a Sainsbury’s omnibus of recipes from several of those little books. And it turns out that my choice of author is apposite after all, because after a long break, during which all of her books have gone out of print, she has very recently published a new book: Orchards in the Oasis: Travels, Food and Memories.

I think the dishes I chose for this meal are fairly representative, if short on the Middle-Eastern element. Josceline does tend towards “posh dinner party” food, but there are some family-friendly recipes too. Browsing through the book, I realised that I’d never actually made my own chicken liver pâté, so that seemed a good choice as a starter, especially her “mild” version with orange juice, cream, and chopped almonds in it. I was somewhat peeved, then, to discover that the supermarket was clean out of chicken livers, but recovered by buying a tub of rabbit livers instead. This could only improve it; rabbit liver is gorgeous. My confidence was well-placed; it was delicious served with thin, crispy toast, and so easy to make that I will definitely do it again as an easy dinner-party starter; see recipe below.

I continued the bunny theme with a “rabbit in the orchard” pie; classic flavours of rabbit, cider, mustard and cream, with apples, mushrooms, and tarragon added. The recipe has a Josceline signature to it: no onions. I think she must have an onion-hater in the family, because a lot of her recipes lack them where you would expect to see them. It’s ages since I made one of these very English meat-and-sauce filled pies. Despite my care in decorating the pastry, it looked terrible when it was dished up; the runny beige sauce looked really unappetising. It did taste good though, and we liked the way the juices had soaked into the bottom of the thick pastry lid; yum!

Josceline is very fond of fancy desserts. I chose one featuring one of her favourite ingredients, dried apricots. Here, they are poached and then covered with a “caramel cloud” of vanilla cheesecake and a brûlée topping. I had a bit of a problem with the topping; she suggests sprinkling sugar over the top of the cheesecake, caramelising it under the grill, and then putting it in the fridge for several hours. Surefire recipe for soggy caramel. It seemed to me that sprinkling sugar on the uneven top and trying to burn it wasn’t going to work that well anyway. So I ended up making caramel in a pan and pouring it over the cheesecake once it had been chilled. This worked, although it was a bit thick in places. But it was another dish that looked a total mess when served. Definitely a candidate for small individual dishes. But the taste wasn’t exceptional, so I wouldn’t make it again. I find you do have to be selective with Josceline Dimbleby recipes; sometimes she’s too creative for her own good, and they certainly aren’t foolproof the way Delia Smith ones are. But when she gets it right (as in the paprika-flavoured blanquette), they work really well.
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Vintage Feasts: Good Food on a Budget, by Georgina Horley

chicken fricassee

Sorry about the slight hiatus in this series. Somehow, while I was living in rural Spain, I had no desire to cook meals from elderly English cookbooks. Tapas and very simple food were the order of the day.

This book is another tattered old favourite from my student days, with a really unappetising stew of some sort on the cover. Several pages fell out when I took it off the shelf. Georgina Horley is another no-nonsense type in the Delia mould, except she doesn’t spell things out in such detail. It was first published in 1969, and the recipes are very traditional English food, with a few foreign touches due to the author’s background as a Cordon Bleu instructor.

I found it invaluable when I was learning to cook, because it’s organised by month and focuses on fresh ingredients that are good and cheap (in the UK) in that month. It really helped me learn what to buy when, and how best to use cheap cuts of meat. It also has a section of “foundation recipes” at the front. This is where I learned to make bechamel sauce, pancake batter, pastry, scones, marmalade … other sections cover basic skills like filleting fish and sharpening knives, growing vegetables and herbs, making jam, and planning a kitchen. It really is a compendium of useful culinary information even if many of the actual recipes are dated.

As for the recipes, the most food-splattered page is Gertie Goslin’s Brown Stew. We used to eat this a lot; a dark, spicy beef stew enriched with pickled walnuts that tasted better as it aged, so was made in large quantities. I also fondly remember Madam Rigot’s Burgundian Potatoes, a dish of potatoes slowly simmered in milk until it was thick and creamy.

So, on to the menu. I cheated a little bit and transformed her sweet and sour tomato salad (simply sliced tomatoes, salt, and sugar) into tomato tartare. I followed it up with her classic chicken fricassee. This was good, although not as good as the blanquette I normally make; it lacked the all-important kick of a smidgin of curry powder. It might look a bit naff, but I rather liked the border of creamy mashed potato as a change from the plain boiled rice I normally serve with fricassee or blanquette. She also suggested using a border of puff pastry, which I think would be nice too, making a much more elegant dish.

And now dessert. Oh dear. Having some melon in the fridge that needed using up, I decided it would be a good idea to try her melon cooler: ginger-flavoured jelly with bits of melon suspended in it. Some conversion was required, from powdered gelatine to sheets. And ginger ale in “split-sized bottles” was a non-starter. In a perhaps misguided moment of inspiration, I decided to use some of my home-made vin d’orange instead. After all, melon and orange are a good combination.

At first I thought I’d got the gelatine conversion wrong, because it just wouldn’t set. “As jelly starts to set, push melon down evenly through mould,” says Aunty Georgina. Well, I tried, but my melon balls resolutely popped up to the top again. In the end I put the dishes in the fridge, where of course they set before I had a chance to arrange the melon nicely. It looked a fright when I turned it out, and could only exacerbate French people’s phobia of jelly. I quietly ate it myself, without showing it to anyone else. It had tasted dire when I first made it, really sharp and alcoholic, but a night in the fridge seemed to tone it down a bit. So it was edible, but I wouldn’t make it again.

Replacement improvised dessert: affogato. Put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass, pour over a freshly made cup of espresso. Yum! No danger of slipping up here.

scary jelly

Vintage Feasts: Frugal Food

Frugal Food

My choice for April was Delia Smith’s Frugal Food. My paperback, now a tattered mess of food-stained pages, loosely contained in a cover adorned with a photo of a fresh-faced, decidedly unglamorous Delia, cost me 70p in 1974. She actually re-released this book with minor updates in 2008, not long after the publication of her much-reviled How to Cheat at Cooking (a more radical rewrite of her first published book). The new version, undoubtedly brought out to cash in on the recession, was a large-format hardback with full-colour glossy photos, the cover adorned with a cabbage instead of Delia’s face, costing £18. Not exactly a gift to poverty-stricken cooks.

I was a poverty-stricken cook in 1974, a student in London living in bedsits or crowded student flats. This book, along with Jocasta Innes’s excellent Pauper’s Cookbook, was rarely far from the stove, as its condition attests. I probably bought it because I regularly read and used the recipe column she wrote for the Evening Standard; I still have a looseleaf binder with many of Delia’s newspaper recipes pasted into it.

I don’t use the book now – the recipes are rather stodgy and earnest, a bit like Delia’s prose. Still, I thought it was worth getting out again. She had some sound ideas that stood me in good stead in those days – using cider in cooking instead of wine for example – and I still stick a skewer through baked potatoes so that they will cook more quickly. There are a few recipes here that became real favourites: fidget pie, made with scraps from a ham bone begged from the local butcher, rabbit in cider, steak and onions in Guinness, several recipes for offal, and, especially, chilladas – little rissoles made of lentils served with a tomato and chilli sauce (well, in my defence, it was the 70s!). Overall, the recipes aren’t much fun, but they are cheap, filling, and easy to cook.

pork braised in cider with prunes

For my vintage feast, I decided to cook something I couldn’t remember having tried before. As I’m in cider country at the moment, pork braised in cider with prunes seemed like a good choice. It did turn out well, if a bit dry – but I think that’s because I used a pork loin roast, since that was what I had. It would have been better with a fattier –and cheaper! – cut of meat. What little sauce there was tasted excellent, belying its humble origins. It’s a one-pot dish topped with sliced potatoes, but it needs some carrots or a green vegetable with it. To start, we had a simple carrot and leek soup, made with the stock from a pot-roasted chicken.

The choice of puddings was rather limited and uninspiring. I ended up picking spiced apple bread pudding, because I had some apples and some stale bread, but we were underwhelmed. It wasn’t a patch on my classic eggy, rum-flavoured, sultana-studded bread and butter pudding; the apples just made a soggy layer in what should have been a creamy mass of custard-soaked bread.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Delia, but having said that, there are a few of her recipes that I turn to again and again because they are so good, and she can be partly credited for teaching me (and probably millions of other people!) to cook. Her prissy, spell-out-every-detail style is a boon to unconfident cooks. Still, this book is evidently dated, in a way that her Summer Collection (the only one of hers I really like) isn’t – well, not yet anyway! It’s a reminder of how much better and more varied our food has become since then. It’s also a reminder that once upon a time most cookbooks just had recipes in them, not pages of arty photos, and were a lot cheaper!

food-stained Frugal Food
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Vintage Feasts: English Food by Jane Grigson

Stuffed monkey (it's a cake!)

This is March’s entry in my Cookbook Challenge, but I got a bit behind, because I had so much else to do. The book lay on the coffee table for weeks with a scribbled list of recipes next to it. I’ve had this book so long and used it so much that the copy I have is almost pristine; the first one completely disintegrated and had to be replaced.

First published in 1974 and endlessly reprinted since, it’s a true classic; unlike Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson wears her scholarship lightly and is a comfortable companion in the kitchen, rather than a somewhat alarming and superior presence. Nevertheless, there is a lot of historical information here along with authentic regional recipes from the Middle Ages onwards. It is a reminder of the regional traditions Britain seems to have lost; many recipes here are truly rooted in a place and its local ingredients, and Jane Grigson makes you want to cook them.

So, I love this book (along with Good Things and Grigson’s Fruit and Vegetable books it’s one of my all-time favourite cookbooks). There are already a few Jane Grigson recipes in my blog, including my best-ever pudding, Springfield Pear Cake, and the famous Chinese Yorkshire pudding featured in English Food — a must-try if your Yorkshires always flop.

I’d planned to do something I hadn’t done before, but time was pressing so I ended up plumping for one of my oldest favourites for the main course: pulled and devilled chicken. This is simplicity itself to make, and, says Jane, “there is no better way of using up the Christmas turkey with the glory it deserves.” You can use any poultry though, including pheasant, chicken, or guineafowl. You basically separate the leg and breast meat, tearing it into rough quills. The leg meats is spread with devil sauce, left to marinate, then grilled, while the breast is heated through in a thin, creamy sauce flavoured with lemon. The two are served together, with crispy toast. Don’t do vegetables with it, just serve a salad afterwards.

For the starter, I decided to make individual leek tarts, because I had some puff pastry that needed using up. “I’ve lost my Michelin star!” I wailed as I struggled to prise them out of the tart tins. They looked a bit of a mess on the plate, but they did taste good. I think if I made them again, I wouldn’t use a top crust, and I’d add more cheese (which was supposed to be Wensleydale or Lancashire, but hey, this is rural France — I had to use Gruyère).

For pudding, I’d have liked to make the gorgeous syllabub-topped trifle, but it’s just impossible to make syllabub with French UHT cream, as I have discovered to my cost. This book also has the original sticky toffee pudding, credited to Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay. Then there’s the famous Sussex Pond pudding, heart-attack-on-a-plate stuff. In the end, I made Stuffed Monkey, which isn’t really a pudding, but I liked the name. It’s a very sugary, buttery pastry filled with chopped candied peel and ground almonds stirred into melted butter. As I slid it into the oven I realised the filling was supposed to have an egg yolk in it too. Oops. No wonder it wasn’t very spreadable. Still, the recipe worked despite this, a crisp browned crust surrounding a crumbly filling. It’s very rich even without the egg, so you only need small pieces served with coffee; the peel and almonds give it a Christmassy flavour. Although actually it’s a Jewish recipe, credited to Florence Greenberg.
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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.
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Vintage Feasts: Food for Pleasure

Food for Pleasure, by Ruth Lowinski, pub. 1950

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.

brazilian stew

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.

caramel souffle

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.
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The Cookbook Challenge 2010: Vintage Feasts

Food for Pleasure, by Ruth Lowinski, pub. 1950

Last year’s challenge was a bit of a damp squib insofar as I didn’t get anywhere near cooking all the recipes in Delicious Days. I think it’s just not feasible for me to plan cooking to that extent. But crazily enough I have decided to set myself another challenge that I hope will be more achievable.

I’ve got a little bit bored with Taste and Create and have stopped doing it. But during the 15 months I was doing it, I managed to cook a partner’s recipe once a month. So how difficult can it be to cook a Challenge menu every month?

The theme: vintage feasts. Among my large collection of cookbooks I have quite a few that are over 25 years old, and some that are older than I am. So I’ve decided that every month I’ll pick one of these books and cook a complete meal from it. Most of these will be British food. I’m not going to give a list in advance because I’ll just pick up whichever book I fancy. And that way there is an element of surprise!

For my first effort, I’ve chosen Food for Pleasure by Ruth Lowinsky, published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1950. The jacket copy says:

Food for Pleasure is … a cooking anthology whose recipes have stood the test of time, of taste, and of rationing … Mrs Lowinsky, who is herself a cook of brilliance and resource, makes all these dishes in her own kitchen and can vouch for both their deliciousness and their practicality to-day.

Yep, rationing was still in force in Britain in 1950! This evidently presented a challenge if you wanted to give a refined dinner party, so watch this space to see how Ruth Lowinsky coped with it.