The twenty books in our forthcoming series GREAT FOOD are the love-children of an affair with old cookery books that began in the British Library last year. Here I fell in love with the way that these recipes gave a matchlessly evocative insight into the kitchens and domestic lives of such different forebears, from Tudor ‘smoar’d coney’ and preserved rose-petals to an Raj-era Colonel’s directions for ‘Mulligatunny’, and a Michigan doctor’s magpie-like accumulation of recipes for Buffalo Cakes and Indian Pudding.
It was a shout-it-from-the-rooftops kind of love (which doesn’t go down well in the British Library) so, instead of disturbing my fellow readers, when I came back to Penguin after my sabbatical, I suggested to the Penguin Press MD that we publish them in the Great Ideas format, for everybody else to love too. OK, he said, Off you go (I paraphrase somewhat). So with the guidance, help and some flavourful additions from the fabulous editorial Masterchef Helen Conford, some expert chopping, slicing and filleting from Nikki Lee, Emily Hill, Caroline Elliker and Jessica Harrison in the editorial department, deliciously rounded off with cover designer Coralie Bickford-Smith’s exquisite confections, in April 2011 we will be ready to serve up a 20-course banquet of GREAT FOOD.
Some of the books are tasters from the best-known of our cooks and food writers. Mrs Beeton and Elizabeth David are both here, of course, along with the brilliant Eliza Acton and Hannah Glasse (described by Clarissa Dickson Wright as ‘The First Domestic Goddess’).
Some of these books aim to reintroduce the forgotten cooks of the past. Alexis Soyer was an amazing celebrity chef who constructed Heston Blumenthal-ish elaborate feasts before becoming fired by a reformist zeal. THE CHEF AT WAR describes how he took himself off to the Crimea to make sure the men serving on the front line and Florence Nightingale’s patients in the hospitals were properly fed. Gervase Markham was the Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall of the Tudor period who, with wit and warmth (and occasional bossiness) guided the ‘Compleat Housewife’ through husbanding, growing, malting and cooking everything her household would need in THE WELL-KEPT KITCHEN. The gorgeous Italian, Pellegrino Artusi, like Delia Smith, tells the Italian housewife, ‘don’t be afraid – just get on with it – I’ll show you how’ and some of his most entertaining recipes are here in EXCITING FOOD FOR SOUTHERN TYPES.
And some of the books in GREAT FOOD are, simply, wonderful food writing. The diarist Samuel Pepys guilelessly honest records of his impressive calorific consumption (and the after effects) are here in THE JOYS OF EXCESS. Alexandre Dumas, best-known for The Three Musketeers of course, wrote an equally dashing Dictionnaire de Cuisine. And, my favourite, the essayist Charles Lamb, writes so wittily and affectingly about hunger. Read A DISSERTATION UPON ROAST PIG AND OTHER ESSAYS for the conflicts of a hungry schoolboy who doesn’t know whether he should share his cake or not; and meet the bachelor dinner party guest whose close-to-erotic desire for roast meat offends his hostess who thinks he should be politely admiring her children rather than scoffing the remains of the joint.
The books can all be read for sheer joy and for their historical insight. But can they be cooked from? There is no guarantee that all these writers have actually cooked the dishes they describe; the oldest recipes are notoriously inexact; there are no grammes, no Gas Mark 5, quantities seem huge and there seem to be twice as many eggs as you’d expect (hens have only recently been bred to lay such unnaturally huge eggs, poor things). And tastes have changed. When a recent guest of mine politely put a mostly-uneaten ‘Gumbril’ (a rose-water flavoured biscuit) to the side of his plate, was it because I had made it wrongly, or would the original have been that hard and tasted that weird?
I thought, over the next few months, I would cook at least one dish or meal inspired by each book, and, with notes from my brave tasting colleagues, report back.