Apparently it's national baking week this week - who new, and where do these things even come from? It does seem like a good excuse for a cake though, or possibly even a whole afternoon tea - something formal feels quite appropriate for Autumn (says she whilst dressed in pyjamas and huge cardigan) and it's certainly cold and damp enough to make a prolonged kitchen session very attractive. It may also be that Arabella Boxer has been having a civilising influence on me; something has certainly inspired a bit of a sort out.
This is another book that's beautiful to look at, the cover and illustrations are by Cressida Bell and she's bought a suitably Bloomsbury feel with her. Her black and white prints decorate the first page of every chapter (they really are charming) and that's it for illustration - which makes a refreshing change; I like to see pictures that show what I'm cooking will ideally look like, but from the days when cookbooks commonly had no pictures we've somehow ended up with books that are more image than substance.
'Arabella Boxer's Book of English Food' is all substance - like a very rich fruit cake. Originally published in 1991 this book has had a timely re-release, my general taste in fiction runs towards mid century, middle class, middle brow, and frequently feminine - this is the perfect compliment to all of those things. Arabella Boxer's early life was spent in a Scottish country house where her American mother had been rather thrown in at the deep end in the 1920's. Post war that country house lifestyle all but vanished from Britain, and 15 years of rationing certainly didn't help make food exciting so it's not surprising that Elizabeth David's Mediterranean descriptions caught the imagination. Boxer argues (and I agree) that this didn't necessarily do us many favours.
What she does in 'English Food' is look at what was going in with food in fashionable circles between the wars. The emphasis tends towards what was being eaten in fairly sophisticated circles, be they social or artistic - generally because these were the people with the interest or means to experiment. In Bloomsbury this might have been because there wasn't enough money to afford a cook so you had to learn to cook instead. At the top of the scale there is Wallis Simpson introducing American habits to British food - but habits which had their roots in a shared culinary past.
It's fascinating, whether I use the recipes for afternoon tea in here or not, the understanding of what this and other meals were all about is invaluable. There are plenty of gossipy anecdotes from Mitfordesque circles which never go amiss, but lightly as it's handled this is a serious book with lots to say. The recipes themselves are a mix of Boxer's own and those culled from contemporary sources, something I particularly like is that she adds her comments and amendments to these in brackets and italics which lets the reader know when something has been amended. This suggests that the recipes have all been checked and used which is reassuring, and from a purely academic point of view it's good to know precisely what is and isn't original.
I'm really delighted with this book, it helps me bring another layer of understanding to many of the books I read which I appreciate, but primarily it's a fascinating and useful thing in itself. For anyone with a love of Persephone books, Virago's modern classics, or similar, you really need this on your shelf.