On my last visit to London I gave in to temptation (if that sounds in anyway as if I tried to resist temptation it's misleading) and visited the Persephone book shop in search of cook books. Specifically the latest one, Ambrose Heath's 'The Country Life Cookbook'.
My love of old cookbooks is a thing apart from my love of new cookbooks. New/ contemporary ones are for cooking from, old - or more specifically reprinted ones in this case - are for reading. This particular book has an excellent introduction by Simon Hopkinson which touches on why that is for me. Older cookbooks, certainly the majority I've seen anyway, tend to be light in instructions. For someone bought up on detailed instructions that can be intimidating. I consider myself a reasonably confidant cook but my knowledge is patchy at best. Armed with precise orders I'll have a go, but describe an oven as slack or sharp and I begin to worry. It's not that Heath is vague, it's just that he's clearly writing for people who know what they're about, 1937 was after all still a time when employing a cook would not have seemed an outrageous luxury.
However even in 1937 things weren't what they used to be so Heath is also writing with a view to the servant problem. These, he contends, are recipes which won't tax the time or ingenuity of your cook, as proof they're all things he's made himself.
There's another reason why I find myself primarily reading these books rather than cooking from them, tastes have changed somewhat over time and so a lot of what I find in these books doesn't especially appeal. Lettuce A L'Etouffee may be delightful, but I'm not sure I'm willing to stew one for 45 minutes with onions, sugar, butter and a bouquet garni to find out, and as for the next recipe 'Brazilian Pudding'... It starts with the optimistic statement that "Even those who do not like tapioca will not despise this version of it." Tripes A La Dauphinoise says it "demands a bottle of wine and a little brandy" some may feel that's a good place to stop (I'm not a fan of tripe but actually this recipe does sound good).
To be fair to Mr Heath and the 1930's cook I was specifically looking for things I thought might horrify my travel companion when I found those recipes. The book is also full of things we would like along with some very useful information and a fascinating insight into pre war kitchens.
'The Country Life Cookbook' is also part gardening book, working on the reasonable assumption that the country housewife will have a garden (and also a gardener) there is advice as to what needs to be done in any given month with a view to keeping a varied table. It's obviously a seasonal guide as well - in the 1930's there was no other option but it's something I'm a bit evangelical about so the table of seasonal fruit and veg at the back is really handy.
The insight bit comes in the list of ingredients. It doesn't really surprise me how well stocked the 1930's kitchen was with spices. It's interesting to see lots of mentions of garlic and olive oil - a reminder that pre and post war food were very different, however what really surprises me is how many herbs are mentioned. It shouldn't really, but then how many of us now have access to a really comprehensive selection of fresh herbs? When I have access to a garden they tend to be what I plant, mostly because I have romantic ideas about it, and I'm an easy sell for any herb based cookbook which encourages me to use them, but even so I don't cook with them half as much as I'd like to. At home in a provincial city my options are limited - this feels like a part of our food heritage that's still a little neglected.
Finally the real charm of this book is Heath himself. He's delightful to read; chatty and informative but always concise, full of enthusiasms, and with a delightful turn of phrase this really is a book to be enjoyed at leisure. It would make a perfect stocking filler or general gift for anyone of a foody turn of mind, or as in my case a very useful self indulgence.