A couple of weeks ago, in my first article for this column, I mentioned that I wanted to make this column about more than just recipes and restaurant reviews. I want to share with you different aspects of food. This week I thought I’d write something more on the historical side of cookery.
One of the ways my interest in food manifests itself is in collecting antique cookbooks. Over the coming months I’m going to write more on the collection and the interesting and peculiar things it contains but, in this article, I shall give you some background on why I collect. I shall then finish with a recipe for turtle. It comes from a book published in 1773 and gives an insight into the food of the time and dishes you’ll no longer find on your table (unless you’re the judge of Vietnam’s Masterchef, where a contestant created a bit of a storm recently by serving one; I think the real complaint was more about the manner in which she dispatched the poor creature than the fact she served it).
I have a collection of antique cookbooks. Well actually I have a collection of cookbooks in general, numbering well into three figures, to say nothing of the recipes I’ve written down or taken from magazines and newspapers. Of my cookbooks about 50 or so are from the 1980s or earlier, but my pride and joy are my antique books. These fall into three categories: those published during the first half of the 20th century (mostly 1930s and earlier), those published during the second half of the 19th century and finally those published in the 18th century, the oldest of which dates from 1732.
I’m often asked three questions when I tell people that I collect antique cookbooks: Why? What’s the point? Do you cook from them? To answer the last question first, it’s a no, I don’t cook from them. While I’m interested in trying many of the dishes, some are quite time consuming and I rarely have the patience to cook anything that takes longer than about an hour, unless it’s a slow roast. More importantly, many of the dishes are just versions of what we eat today. The key difference is that we are able to substitute ingredients that we have easy access to thanks to modern growing techniques and transportation, but were unavailable when the books were written.
One of the queerer items is a printing from an academic journal of the use of the crane as a food in Britain, published in the 1790s
A perfect example of this is chillies. Many of my antique cookbooks contain recipes for curries, something that I and many find strange at first. However, when you consider they were published following the start of British trade with India through the East India Company or during the time of the Raj, it’s unsurprising. In almost none of the recipes do the authors call for chillies, as you would expect them to today; instead they call for copious amounts of cayenne pepper. The other problem is that the cooking times can be overly long for some ingredients, leaving them destroyed by the process; the one that leaves me most agog is the instruction to boil potatoes for one hour.
This, of course, not unreasonably begs the first two questions: why collect and what’s the point? The answer to both is that I’m a collector. This sounds like a poor attempt to dodge the questions by giving an ambiguous answer, but a fellow collector will know precisely what I mean. Its like a bug, this desire to own something that relates to an interest of yours, something that few others have, and something with the feel of time, that has survived against the odds.
It never fails to amaze me that some of my books have seen the reigns of every British monarch since George II, the loss of America as a colony and its birth as a sovereign state, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the formation of the modern political system of international relations, the rise and fall of the British Empire, both world wars, the rise of communism and its collapse shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and they are still going strong. In that context, it’s hard to imagine why, as a lover of books, food and history I wouldn’t collect them.
The fact is they are fascinating objects, especially the older books, which have some beautiful hand engraved and hand printed fold outs of table plans, showing where dishes should go, and cooking apparatus. One of the queerer items is a printing from an academic journal of an academic presentation on the use of the crane as a food in Britain, published in the 1790s. The presentation was given by Samuel Pegge who was responsible for the republication of one of the oldest cookery books (or, I believe, a scroll in this case) in existence: The Forme of Cury by the chef to King Richard II.
The over spicing of dishes in the 1700s reduces as the cost of spices reduces, so that using them in dishes is no longer a status symbol
Written in the 14th century, it records the dishes and their recipes prepared for the royal table. Then there’s a pirated copy from the 1850s of Hanna Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery and Edwardian guides to the best places to eat in London and the Continent. Amongst the rare books in the collection is a slim cardboard covered book, about 4mm thick, which is a cookbook for merchant seamen. Published in 1894, it outlines how to store live animals on ship, how to butcher them and then prepare them, and is a remarkable survival if you consider the time it has spent at sea and the damage water could have done to it.
When you look at the collection as a whole, something becomes clear: there are only a certain number of recipes in the world and most dishes we eat are variations of them, in the same way that there are five mother sauces in classic French cuisine and all others are variations of them. Be it a recipe from the 1700s or a version from today; at its heart it is the same. Of course you do notice changing tastes. Some offal and meats, like faggots and widgeon, start to disappear and, as access to new ingredients and markets open up, a wider selection of flavours is served, moving from very English in the 1700s to more French-focused in the 1800s and early 1900s, onto more Mediterranean flavours in the 20th century, followed by Asian (especially Far Eastern) a little later.
But, in the main, the changes that you see happening through the decades relate to accompanying ingredients and cooking methods, not to the base dishes. The over spicing of dishes in the 1700s reduces as the cost of spices reduces, so that using them in dishes is no longer a status symbol. Ingredients that could never have been dreamed of when many of these books were written can now be found not in specialist shops but your local supermarket. We have gone from taking hours to prepare just the simplest of dishes to producing delicious meals in less than an hour, thanks to modern food preparing tools, cooking methods and preserving/cooling apparatus.
As our lives have changed so has the richness of our dishes. Today we prefer lighter dishes with fewer ingredients; previously it was about heavy cream and butter-laden recipes and, before that, about complexity and expense. One aspect I doubt has changed is that, while today we may have endless numbers of recipes at our fingertips, both online and on our bookshelves, most of us (including myself) tend to have a repertoire of no more than about 25 dishes that we prepare regularly for a period of time before getting bored and changing to new ones or going back to those we haven’t cooked in a while. This I think on the whole is a shame. Yes it is good that we are cooking for ourselves rather than eating endless ready meals prepared in minutes in the microwave, but it means that our meals can become stayed and boring and we’re not making the full use of the sheer range of ingredients at our disposal.
Obviously I don’t recommend actually trying to make this dish but hopefully it amuses you, as it does me
There is one further observation I’d like to make and that’s with regard to how the authors of cook books have changed over the years, a change that reflects, and in part explains, the changes in dishes I have already outlined. Cookery books prior to the early 19th century were written by housekeepers and head chefs of large stately manors owned by the rich and nobility. As such, the books contain the lavish and expensive dishes expected on the tables of such houses, and were used by the resident cooks, not the owners. As the middle class began to emerge, cook books were written by both chefs and middle class women so as to instruct women setting up home for the first time how to do so and provide the recipes for them to give the cook to prepare.
The intention was to help the lady of the house develop polite tastes and run a house in a way that mirrored that of the upper classes but on a less grand budget and scale (which is why, before their large scale reduction in cost, spices started to be used in lesser quantities in dishes). Mrs Beeton is of course the most famous of these writers. By the 20th century, her book was still very much in vogue but books specialising, for example, in just lunch recipes or breakfast dishes also began to emerge. Their authors tend to be male and non-professional chefs, by which I mean they are keen cooks and good at it but their profession is teaching or writing about cookery and food, not working in kitchens or running households.
In future articles I will look at specific books and dishes but I hope that, for now, this gives an idea of how our cooking at home has both changed and not changed over 300 years, and has whetted your appetite for further forays into the history of food and home dining. Anyway, bellow is the recipe for dressing a turtle, replicated just as it appears. This recipe comes from the 1773 third edition of Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English House-keeper, which was first published in 1769.
The author was for many years the housekeeper to Lady Elizabeth Warburton. As was the style of the time, it is writen as one long instruction with no list of ingredients. The practice of listing the ingredients at the start of a recipe did not become common until the latter half of the early 1800s, and it was later still that the instructions were written as numbered steps and stages rather than as a single block of text for the whole recipe. Obviously I don’t recommend actually trying to make this dish but hopefully this recipe both helps to illustrate some of my points in this article as well as simply amusing you, as it does me
To dress a TURTLE of a hundred Weight
Cut off the head, take care of the blood, and take off the bottom shell, then cut off the meat that grows to it, (which is the callepy or fowl) take out the hearts, livers, and lights, and put by themselves, take out the bones and the flesh out of the back shell (which is the callepash) cut the fleshy part into pieces, about two inches square, but leave the fat part, which looks green, (it is called the monsieur) rub it first with salt, and wash it in several waters to make it come clean, then put in the pieces that you took out, with three bottles of Madeira wine, and four quarts of strong veal gravy, a lemon cut into slices, a bundle of sweet herbs, a tea spoonful n Chyan, six anchovies washed and picked clean, a quarter of an ounce of beaten mace, a tea spoonful of mushroom powder, and half a pint of essence of ham if you have it, lay over it a coarse paste, set it in the oven for three hours; when it comes out take off the lid and scum off the fat, and brown it with a salamander. This is the bottom dish.
Then blanch the fins, cut them off at the first joint, fry the first pinions a fine brown, and put them into a tossing pan with two quarts of stron brown gravy, a lass of red wine, and the blood of the turtle, a large spoonful of lemon pickle, the same of browning, two spoonfuls of mushroom catchup, Chyan and salt, an onion stuck with cloves, and a bunch of sweet herbs; a little before it is enough put in a ounce of morels, the same of truffles, stew then gently over a slow fire for two hours; when they are tender, put them into another tossing pan, thicken you gravy with flower and butter, and strain it upon them, give them a boil, and serve them up. This is a corner dish.
Then take the thick or large part of the fins, blanch them in warm water, and out them in a tossing pan, with three quarts of strong veal gravy, a pint of Madeira wine, half a teaspoonful of Chyan, a little salt, half a lemon, a little beaten mace, a tea spoonful of mushroom powder, and a bunch of sweet herbs; let then stew till quite tender, they will take two hours at least, then take them up into another tossing pan, strain your gravy, and make it pretty thick with flour and butter, then put in a few boiled forcemeat balls, which must be made if the vealy part of you turtle, left out for the purpose; one pint of fresh mushrooms, if you cannot get them pickled ones will do, and eight artichoke bottoms boiled tender, and cut into quarters, shake them over the fire five or six minutes, then put in a half pint of thick cream, with the yolks of six eggs beaten exceedingly well, shake it over the fire again till it looks thick and white, but do not let it boil, dish up your fins whit the balls, mushrooms, and artichoke-bottoms over and round the. This is the top dish.
Then take the chicken part, and cut it like Scotch collops, fry them light brown, then put in a quart of veal gravy, stew them gently a little more than half an hour, and put to it the yolks of four eggs boiled hard, a few morels, a score of oysters, thicken your gravy, it must be neither white nor brown, but a pretty gravy colour, fry some oyster patties and lay round it. This is a corner dish to answer the small fins.
Then take the guts, (which is reckoned the best part of the turtle) rip them open, scrape and wash them exceedingly well, rub them well with salt, wash them through many waters, and cut into pieces two inches long, then scald the maw or paunch, take off the skin, scrape it well, cut it into pieces about half an inch broad and two inches long, put some of the fishy part of the turtle in it, set it over a slow charcoal fire, with two quarts of veal gravy, a pint of Madeira wine, a little mushroom catchup, a few shalots, a little Chyan, half a lemon, and stew them gently four hours till your gravy is almost consumed, then thicken it with flour, mixed with a little veal gravy, put on half an ounce of morels, a few forcemeat ball, made for the fins; dish it up, and brown it the a salamander, or in the oven. This is the corner dish.
Then take the head, shin it and cut it in two pieces, put it into a stew pot with all the bones, hearts, and lights, to a gallon of water, or veal broth, three of four blades of mace, one shalot, a slice of beef beaten to pieces, and a bunch of sweet herbs, set them in a very hot oven, and let it stand an hour at least, when it comes out strain it into a tureen for the middle of the table.
Then take the hearts and lights, chop them very fine, put them in a stew pan, with a pint of good gravy, thicken it and serve it up, lay the head in the middle, fry the liver, lay it round the head upon the lights, garnish with whole slices of lemon. This is the fourth corner dish.
N.B. The first course should be of turtle only, when it is dressed in this manner; but when it is with victuals, it should be in three different dishes, but this way I have often dressed them, and have given great satisfaction. Observe to kill your turtle the night before you want it, or very early next morning, that you may have all your dishes going on at a time, Gravy for a turtle a hundred weight, will take two legs of veal, and two shanks of beef