A couple of years ago my mum presented me with a dog-eared copy of 'Mrs Beeton's Everyday Cookery and Housekeeping Book' dated 1894. I was a very excited recipient, not least because I would finally get to see what all the fuss with the legendary Mrs B was about, but also because I saw it as a surefire way to make my fortune. In my mind I was guaranteed a spot as the next Julie Powell. I would follow in her footsteps, cook my way through all 1000+ pages of recipes and merrily blog my journey, gaining squillions of fans as I did so. Before I knew it Warner Bros would be knocking on my door begging for movie rights and Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock would be fighting over who would get to play the character of yours truly.
Unfortunately this was before I had taken a good look at the revered recipes inside. I had imagined a glorious anthology of timeless classics which would make everyone's mouth water just as Julia Child's had done. Instead I opened the book at page 91 and was faced with my first obstacle - 'Calf's Head, Moulded' - closely followed by 'Calf's Head, To Carve'. Ohh my giddy aunt. I'm not even going to share the full instructions with you as they would turn even the strongest stomachs, even without the diagram which contains FAR too much information. As to serving suggestions however, 'the eye and the flesh round are favourite morsels with many, and should be given to those at the table who are known to be the greatest connoisseurs. On a separate dish there is always served the tongue and brains and each guest should be asked to take some of these'. I can just picture the rush at our family dinner table over that, along with boiled marrow bones, whole sparrows or roast leveret (baby hare) for that matter, washed down with a generous glass of egg wine! Egads!
It's not just the ingredients which proved challenging - I mean what on earth is 'flead' and where do I get it to make my flead crust? - it was the instructions themselves that were so lacking I wondered upon reading the recipes if I would ever actually be able to complete ANY of them. For example 'as much honey as will flavour the mixture nicely' or 'sufficient pounded sugar to sweeten', I mean how long is a piece of string? And how hot is 'a good oven' temperature? Dodgy quantities aside though, I love all the old fashioned terms. For example, to make beef curry one needs 'a few slices of tolerably lean cold roast beef' and you can be assured that when you go to make any one of the many cake recipes that you'll know exactly what it's for, such as 'Nice Useful Cake' and 'Common Cake, Suitable for sending to Children at School'.
Mrs Beeton was nothing if not organised bless her, and should I ever be able to make any of her recipes I will never have to worry about what to cook for dinner thanks to her handy menu planner, with such gems as Lark Pie and Roast Ptarmigan topping the billing, complete with French translation if I really want to impress the household! The parts I love best however which are a real joy to read are the chapters on household management, which recommends everything from the best time to serve meals to cultivating a good relationship between mistress and servant. Speaking of which, I wish I'd had dear old Mrs Beeton's book around when my kids were small. Not that I wish them to be servants you understand, but they would have been experts at setting the table and cleaning their rooms from a much earlier age!
All things considered though I feel I must admit defeat. Alas I will NOT be following in the footsteps of Julie Powell a la Julie and Julia, instead I have been resoundingly beaten by Beeton. Mind you upon learning that the poor woman contracted syphilis from her husband and died at just 28 I have decided that I would rather be me, servants or no servants. And besides, as it turns out I can't even make an old fashioned steamed from the modern day Edmonds cookery book! Full of nostalgia for the yummy, sticky golden syrup puddings my mum used to make me, I was keen to share this childhood memory with my boys. The recipe was easy enough, it was tying the blasted string around the bowl to keep the foil lid on which proved most challenging! By the time I had got it to stay put and refrain from ricocheting off the bottom of the bowl the air in the kitchen was a brilliant shade of blue but I did it and triumphantly popped it into the biggest pot that I had.
Well, I figured that was what I was supposed to do; to be honest the Edmonds people were about as clear with their instructions as Mrs Beeton. It said the recipe was for a 'steamed pudding' but it didn't actually tell you HOW to steam it. I had no idea whether I was supposed to bring the water to a boil before plopping the pudding in and let it simmer, or chuck it in and bring it all to the boil or what! Still, it looked alright to me as it bubbled away and before I knew it, the cooking time was done. Or so I thought. Upon excitedly removing the foil I was gutted to find just a big brown gooey mess - a bit like when you make bread and you're waiting for the yeast to rise. 'Stuff this, I'll finish it off in the microwave!' I said huffily. Five minutes later it was done. It looked and felt like a concrete brick and the syrup, which I remember being all warm and drizzly on top of the pudding had all evaporated IN to the pudding and was dry as a bone. On the positive side the kids had never eaten it before so didn't know what they were missing and attacked it with their usual enthusiasm. Even so, from now on I'll be sticking to Aunt Betty's!
TODAY I LEARNED: That progress is sometimes a very good thing!