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In the preface of The Gentle Art of Cookery, Mrs Leyel explains what makes her book stand out from the crowd. The most striking of these is the statement that the “recipes are arranged in the only practical way, that is, under their principal ingredients”. 

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that two of my quite recent book reviews have been Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, the arrangement of both of these books being just that, by ingredient. 

This method of organisation of recipes in a book is still considered novel and yet, even in 1925 when The Gentle Art of Cookery was published, Mrs Leyel was attempting to convince her audience that it made sense “because it is more economical to do as the French do; shop first and then arrange the dinner according to what is most plentiful in the market, than to go out and buy what is necessary for a pre-arranged menu.” 

Unusually for a cookery book of the era, the publication contains many unconventional recipes for an English cook of the time as well as a chapter, Arabian Nights, which drew on the influences of her knowledge of Middle Eastern cookery using ingredients such as pistachios, rosewater and pomegranates, which would have been difficult to source but which are quite common today. 

Another surprising inclusion for a book of this period is a whole chapter devoted to children’s cookery. Not just cooking for children but recipes which children can make, on their own or supervised. Mrs Leyel maintained that cooking should be fun, magical and part of a child’s education and she set out to help home cooks get children involved in the kitchen. This is still so relevant today; entire books and TV programmes are dedicated to cooking with and for children. 

Whilst cookery books have come a long way since the days of The Gentle Art of Cookery, with the inclusion of tantalising photography, books introducing us to cuisines from every corner of the planet, and even those explaining how to bring molecular gastronomy to our own home, there is nevertheless a place for the likes of this book in our kitchen. There are still lessons to be learnt and good recipes to follow from these classics. Only time will tell if almost 100 years from now the nation will continue to enjoy the wares of Delia Smith, Nigel Slater and other great cookery book writers of our time in the same way we are rediscovering the books in the Classic Voices in Food series.

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Xavier Marcel Boulestin wasn’t a trained chef but a home cook; he just loved and understood food. Food and cooking were a huge part of his life and he had a great affinity with it as a result of growing up in France, learning to cook and appreciate food from his mother and grandmother. 

As a result, the recipes in Simple French Cooking for English Homes are all about simple, tasty, cheap, family-friendly French food, focussing on making the most of what you’ve got and getting the best out of it – using leftovers to their full potential and minimising waste. Not much of a wonder that it sold to a wide audience and influenced a revival of good food after WWI. 

At the time of publication, his recipes were very unlike what people understood French cooking to be about. He distilled the myths about French food and made it accessible. Among the chapters on soups, sauces, egg dishes, fish, meat, vegetables and sweets, he covers a wide range of dishes many of which are now known to be French classics. There’s even a chapter dedicated to salads, something we English were clearly doing wrong in his opinion! 

Boulestin has quite a distinct style of writing which, when reading the recipes, makes you feel like you’re by his side in the kitchen watching as he cooks. His recipes are concise without much detail, very few timings and no ingredients lists and yet still clear and easy to follow. He appeals to cooks to use taste combined with their instincts and imagination as well as some creativity to produce a good meal rather than follow exact measurements and instructions. 

His recipe for hachis parmentier, for example, simply says “melt a good piece of butter, add parsley, three small onions, or a large one, and shallots all chopped together. When cooked, put in your cold meat (anything leftover from different dishes will do), salt and pepper, stir well and cook for a little while. Butter a fireproof dish, put in your mixture, cover with potato purée and brown in the oven.” What could be simpler? 

Simple French Cooking for English Homes is a lovely book which warrants a place in the Classic Voices in Food series.

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Inspired by recent reads from the Quadrille Classic Voices in Food series and having spotted a few old recipes in Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories whilst doing my Cookery Book Supper Club ‘homework’, I decided to give a couple a go yesterday for our Easter Sunday lunch.

For our main course, breast of lamb Ste- Ménéhould,  the recipe for which appears in the book exactly as it was written in Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, including a reference to the cost of the meat in Harrods (8d a pound).

Breast of lamb is a cheap and often overlooked cut of meat which has seen something of a revival in recent times with many a chef extolling its virtues on cookery shows and in food mags. I’ve come to appreciate the meat again after eating it over the last few months at Flinty Red, the Mi Casa pop up and Abode Manchester, my experiences far removed from my memories of very fatty, stuffed and rolled roast breast of lamb as a child.

The two-part cooking process of this recipe appealed to me since it would surely result in a succulent and tasty piece of meat and ample opportunity to render most of the fat. The lamb is first braised in water with carrot, onion and herbs for a couple of hours (I chose parsley stalks, a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf as it’s what I had to hand and threw in some peppercorns for extra punch). The bones are removed and the meat is left to cool under a weight, after which it’s easy to trim off some of the remaining skin and fat if you wish. The lamb is then sliced, brushed with mustard before being egg and breadcrumbed and cooked for a second time.

Served with a sharp mustard vinaigrette with plenty of parsley, it was a lovely Easter treat. Breast of lamb Ste- Ménéhould is one of those fantastic dishes which shows that a little can go a long way and that, with a little time and imagination, it’s more than possible to eat like a king on a budget.

For dessert I chose to make lemon surprise pudding. This pudding, of which Simon says he never tires, comes from the Four Seasons Cookery Book by Margaret Costa, once owner of a restaurant called Lacy’s in London. This being a recipe for a self-saucing pudding, the surprise for my unsuspecting dinner guest would be found when digging the spoon into the pudding; under the sponge there’d be a delicious creamy lemon sauce.

As the cook, I received two surprises! Firstly, the raw mixture is nothing like anything I’ve come across before and as I was combining the ingredients I was incredulous that this ‘slop’ could turn into a delicious dessert. I would surely need a miracle to deliver the final surprise but I kept my faith in the recipe!

The zesty wafts coming from the oven were encouraging. I was hopeful that we’d have a refreshing dessert to finish the meal. 

SURPRISE!

The surprise was jaw-dropping! Underneath the lemon scented curdled mess was a pool of lemon flavoured water. The pudding was an unmitigated disaster and it was time to raid the fridge for chocolate!

Disappointed and annoyed at the results, I questioned myself and the recipe. I’m not a regular pudding maker so perhaps it was my inexperience showing through? Had I mis-read something? Had I mixed the ingredients in the wrong way? No, I had followed the short and simple recipe to the letter.

A quick Google this morning to see if there was perhaps a typo in the recipe (15g of flour couldn’t be right?) led to this amusing Simply Clare blog post on the subject of lemon surprise pudding. I’m not alone. Her experience and those of the numerous people posting comments reflected my own. If only I’d found this before attempting the recipe!

There’s a lesson to be learnt from my homework. Breathing a new lease of life into old recipes so that we can continue to enjoy our culinary past for generations to come should be encouraged but it’s vitally important to thoroughly test a recipe before it’s published.  

Never one to be defeated, I’m going to try to rectify the recipe and return it’s true element of surprise. Until that time, lemon surprise pudding is a heritage recipe I won’t be passing onto my children and grandchildren!

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Classic Voices in Food is a new series of cookery books from publisher Quadrille. The nostalgic series rediscovers great cookery writers and heroes from as far back as the nineteenth century and is aimed at modern day cookery enthusiasts looking for a taste of times gone by. 

Publications which have been unavailable for decades, except to those ruthless collectors dropping lucky in a charity or second hand book shop, are being respectfully re-issued, unabridged, and given a new lease of life. Many are still relevant today and with interest in good food continually growing this series lets us revisit the books which started the food writing trend.  

The first two titles in the series launching this Spring are Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book and Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families. The next two titles, Simple French Cooking for English Homes and The Gentle Art of Cookery, will be launching in September.

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Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book was first published in English in 1938. Simone Prunier quickly became THE authority on fish cookery in England. She opened her restaurant in London in 1934 where she gained a reputation for cooking impressive and innovative fish and shellfish dishes. 

The book is mainly a collection of recipes from her father, Emile Prunier, himself a renowned restaurateur in Paris, who shortly before his death had collated his recipes and prepared an outline for a book, but failed to publish it before he passed away. His business partner, Michel Bouzy, was the first to publish Emile’s collection of recipes in 1929; Simone’s Fish Cookery Book is a revised version of that publication. 

‘If Madame Prunier has her way, English people will soon become much more “fish-conscious”, and by asking for cheaper and more unfamiliar fishes will soon find that a demand is created.’ Ambrose Heath, original editor of Fish Cookery. 

It is sad to think that what Madame Prunier was hoping to achieve from publishing the book is still a battle for fishermen and chefs today. The chapter on salt-water fish starts with the editor’s introduction ‘She has always been a little puzzled why it is we cannot as a rule get fishes such as Bass, Gurnard, Sea-bream and so on in the fishmonger’s shop, and I am inclined to think that the reason is that even if we were to see them there we should neither recognise them nor know what to do with them if we bought them.’ Whilst a wider range of fish is more readily available in our shops today, it is probably still true that people do not recognise nor know how to cook many of them. 

The likes of Rick Stein and Mitch Tonks, and more recently Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver with the fish fight campaign, continue the fish heritage the Prunier family brought to English home cooks. Times have changed but much of what Prunier was encouraging people to do back in 1938 is no different to what chefs are shouting from the seashores and fishing boats now. 

She includes recipes for herring, mackerel, whiting, gurnard; inexpensive fish at the time which were, until she included them on the restaurant menu, neglected by her well-off clientele. It is these same fish which are being championed now as sustainable and affordable alternatives to cod, tuna and salmon on which we’ve got ourselves hooked. 

Much the same as Mitch Tonks in his Fish cookbook and more recently with his Eat Fish iPhone app, Madame Prunier gives heaps of sound advice on buying fresh fish and shellfish, basic rules for cooking them and help with what to serve with them. 

Buy it fresh, cook it quick, keep it simple, though by all means adorn the fish with a classic sauce, for which there are plenty of recipes in the book. She, as Mitch is saying today, proclaimed that all you need is a bit of knowledge and a little experience and fish really is nothing to be frightened of. 

In addition to the advice and information, sauces and accompaniments, a note on pairing wine with fish and original illustrations, there are hundreds of recipes for hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, soups, fresh-water, salt-water and shellfish as well as turtle (now illegal), frogs and snails. Many of the recipes are timeless classics widely found on menus today. They are concise, descriptive and elegantly written, making the simplest of dishes sound decadent. The chapter introductions are personal, simple accounts and musings as well as frank and sometimes humorous observations. 

Except for the style of writing, definitely a sign of the times, this book would not be out of place on book shelves alongside modern works from Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson or even Raymond Blanc. The re-publication of Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book in the Classic Voices in Food series has given the Prunier family a new stage from which to passionately encourage us all to embrace the fruits of the sea.

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Eliza Acton has been described as the first modern cookery writer, preceding Mrs Beeton by sixteen years. After trying her hand at teaching and writing poetry, she was encouraged by her publisher to turn her attention to something more practical; cookery writing. 

Modern Cookery for Private Families was first published 1845 and was an immediate success. The book remained popular for many years and was republished countless times. It wasn’t until the publication of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management that the success of the book started to dwindle. Modern Cookery however remained influential for many cookery book writers; Elizabeth David, Delia Smith and Mrs Beeton included. 

Modern Cookery made history, being the first cookery book to give detailed preparation and cooking instructions, to list ingredients with the exact quantities required and to discuss issues which may arise during the preparation of a dish along with advice on how to fix them. The book is filled with recipes she had quite clearly cooked and tested herself time and time again. She spoke from a wealth of experience. 

Her recipes were aimed at her peers; ordinary, middle-class, home cooks. At the time some of her audience may well have had staff, a maid or a cook, but Eliza made it possible for them to help out with grocery shopping, meal planning or step into the kitchen on such occasions when the staff weren’t available. Her book taught women how to provide their families with nutritious and tasty home-cooked meals.   

Modern Cookery for Private Families has stood the test of time and is well deserved of republication in the Classic Voices in Food series. The theme of the book resonates with the plight of many a modern British household. She argued that processed food, shop-bought bread, and the lost art of ‘preparing good, wholesome, palatable’ food was the cause of countless health problems and malnutrition. They may be different foods in question (fast food, microwavable ready meals or chocolate bars) and new health issues, such as obesity and heart disease, but it’s the same story. As a nation, we’ve forgotten how to cook, eat well and be healthy. 

In this book Eliza proves that you don’t have to be rich to eat good food. Understanding ingredients, knowing the best way to cook them, working with cheap ingredients and not wasting food can provide a far richer and wider range of meals than a few mistreated expensive ingredients. Just look now at the trend for cheap cuts of meat, eating in season when produce is abundant and therefore economical to buy, and the cries from influential food writers and chefs to get creative with leftovers, produce stocks from chicken carcasses and to make a little go a long way. In fact, it is traditional recipes for many of these ingredients from books like Modern Cookery which are today being re-invigorated by chefs, food writers and home cooks alike. 

This tome has 32 chapters covering everything from soups to baked puddings via souflles, curry and pickles. It’s a classic family cookery book full of wonderful traditional recipes which should be part of everyone’s cook book collection.

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