Modern Cooking for Private Families

‘To the young housekeepers of England’ is the dedication in a new cookery  book out this month. It’s a mighty 630 page  tome dedicated to English cooking addressed  not to celebrity chefs but to home cooks looking to provide family meals and for entertaining. Across 34 chapters it covers everything from soups and sauces, from eggs to entremets.

The book is Modern Cookery for Private Families, a brand new edition of the 1845 classic written by Eliza Acton, and published by Quadrille, part of a series of reprinted cookery classics to be published throughout the year called Classic Voices in Food. Others in the series are Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book and Marcel Boulestin’s Simple French Cooking for English Homes.

The Series Editor, is the estimable Jill Norman, food writer, editor and literary trusteee of the Elizabeth David estate. She relates that when Modern Cookery was first published it was an ‘immediate and lasting success’ but also ruthlessly plagiarised: ‘Mrs Beeton, who published her Book of Household Management in 1861, two years after Eliza’s death, was to be one of the worst offenders’.

This densely packed book is a real work of scholarship that gives a fascinating peep into the kitchens of Victorian England when Water Souchy was cooked ‘at the regular fish dinners for which Greenwich is celebrated’. There are recipes for calf’s head brawn, boiled swans eggs and roast pintail. She describes compotes of forgotten fruits like bullaces, Siberian crabs, green Mogul plums and Norfolk biffins. But the book is not just a collection of long lost ingredients,  the majority of recipes are very recognisable today. Indeed Jill Norman says that she uses Acton’s recipe for Superlative Red Currant Jelly, her Ingoldsby Christmas Pudding and a Good Sponge Cake.

Yorkshire Pudding is there of course with a rich recipe that calls for six eggs, six heaped tablespoons of flour, a pint of milk and a teaspoon of salt with a method that is perfectly usable. Get the tin very hot on the fire, whisk and strain the eggs, gradually mix them into the flour, ‘then pour in by degrees as much new milk as will reduce the batter to the consistence of rather thin cream … beat the batter briskly and lightly the instant before it is poured into the pan’.  She tells us that ‘in Yorkshire it is made much thinner than in the south’ adding that ‘currents there are sometimes added to it’.

Her only other Yorkshire recipe is for a Yorkshire Ploughman’s salad, an odd concoction  mixing treacle, vinegar and shredded lettuce. I don’t know what the ploughmen were up to but that sounds pretty disgusting to me.

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