The cynical might suppose that this is a pamphlet or at best a very small volume, being light on both pages and interest. You, my misguided reader, are in for a surprise. The full and rather grandiose title is Food in England – A complete guide to the food that makes us who we are. Perhaps it’s truer to say that these were the foods that made us who we were in 1954, the year of this book’s first publication …and it’s a big book.
Dorothy Hartley, the author, was born in Skipton, Yorkshire in 1892 and died in 1985. She lived for most of her life in Froncysyllte, near Llangollen in Wales, but she travelled extensively around Britain studying rural ways. She is also the author of a six-volume treatise about the Life and Work of the People of England, where she recorded information on trades and crafts that have now almost all gone. This book, however, is perhaps the one that has remained the most popular with the public and food professionals who will still refer to this volume to give historic context to recipes.
This is a weighty tome with a marvellous selection of line illustrations that portray everything from medieval tree pruning to how to construct an outside privy (consult the local authority and a psychiatrist before work commences). I should add that this is the final item in the book so we could consider it the last stop in the food chain.
Food in England is a serious work but written with humour. The language is more poetic than academic (and it’s no worse for that) and it is a book stuffed full of facts. Dorothy Hartley considers the minutiae of food and cooking, and presents the reader with many a revelation. I had not appreciated how much of a part the cooking fuel played in the evolution of recipes. An area where peat was abundant finds dishes that are slow cooked; regions with a good supply of wood have roasts, and although we are all now equipped with the latest gas and/or electric cookers (or Agas if you are a well-heeled cottager) the ancient recipes linger on.
We often hear of the impact of exotic spices and foreign produce on our culinary heritage. Only when America was discovered did we have access to chilli, potatoes, turkeys and MacDonalds, but it had not dawned upon me that food played a part in allowing those voyages in the first place. Food preservation was a huge issue for early mariners and it’s said that more deaths arose from food (or absence thereof) than ever there did from enemy cannon. As voyages became longer the cooks of the expanding empire looked to ancient recipes, potions and cure-alls to provide sailors with life’s necessities, in the shape of lime juice for scurvy and a nice bit of fat for sunburn.
Food in England contains many recipes that are still relevant in our modern times. They are written in a descriptive fashion rather than the list form that is more common in contemporary cookbooks. The recipe for bread by the celebrated cook Elizabeth (Elisa) Acton (17 April 1799 – 13 February 1859) is quite charming. Her method is somewhat different from the usual but I shall try it her way.
This book is almost addictive! I defy anyone to just flick through the pages for a few moments. It’s been a privilege to read and I can understand why Delia Smith has described it as “A must for any keen English cook”. It’s already a classic and it’s good to see this new edition.
Cookbook review: Food in England
Author: Dorothy Hartley
Published by: Piatkus – Little Brown Book
Food history and cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018