Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Gentle Art of Cookery – Mrs C.F Leyel and Miss Olga Hartley

This is part of the classic voices in food series that Quadrille are producing (I quite fancy the Eliza Acton as well) and the first thing you notice about it is what a lovely looking book it is. Christmas tree green, scarlet, and silver with lovely creamy pages - it’s the scarlet coloured page edges that are really doing it for me though. After I’d got over how pretty the book was I read a bit about the authors, Hilda Leyel was an expert herbalist, set up the Culpeper shops and the Herb Society in 1927. Olga Hartley was her assistant as well as a suffragist journalist and author; both women sound fascinating but its Hilda’s voice and tastes that shape the book.

 ‘The Gentle Art of Cookery’ was written in 1925 but feels startlingly modern which says a lot about the cyclical nature of food fashions and perhaps even more about the vision that Hilda had. She veers towards the vegetarian, champion’s seasonal food (although that’s not unusual for the 1920’s) and has a penchant for exotic ingredients and cooking with flowers (in fact many of my own kitchen pre occupations). There is a menu plan for an Arabian night which appeals to me, the memory of a Middle Eastern banquet at my friend Mary’s house in the summer is still fresh, it’s wonderful food for sharing and talking over.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time dipping in and out of this book – I’ve been meaning to write about it for weeks – and really like it, it feels different and imaginative as well as being interesting for the history, but I have to agree (a little begrudgingly) with the introduction. This isn’t a book for inexperienced cooks (Hilda also says this) the recipe’s are given with the same sort of brevity that can make Elizabeth David (by the by this was one of David’s first cook books and she apparently remembered it with gratitude and affection) so frustrating to cook from if, like me and Julian Barnes, you’re a pedant in the kitchen. There are good idea’s aplenty, many of them far ahead of their time (a chapter on cooking for and with children is something I’m not used to seeing but also really liked) but there’s also a lot that’s very much of its period – lot’s of gelatine based creams – and some which call for truly terrifying quantities of things. One recipe calls for a peck of primroses; that’s a unit of volume equal to two gallons/nine litres, or basically a LOT of primroses, so good to read about it, maybe not for making.

I do however fancy mixing up some wassail; 6 pints of beer, 4 glasses of sherry, sugar, lemon and nutmeg, 4 slices of toast – leave to stand for 3 hours, bottle and drink within a few days. I have no idea what the toast is for or would do to the drink (or who I would get to drink it) but it sounds intriguing, as does the Rumfustian... 

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