This is the quintessential English cookbook. Written in the 1920’s Agnes Jekyll has captured that decade, those years, those days of calm before the storm. Dress in your best flowery, floaty frock (if you are a girl, that is), invite some friends for a Sunday afternoon summer picnic and take this book along. Pack an old-fashioned wicker picnic basket with old-fashioned food (neither crisps nor cola) and transport yourself to a gentler time. Spread the rug on the cool grass and read aloud from Kitchen Essays to the delight of your guests.
Persephone Books have published a most charming volume. The understated grey cover is complemented with lovely endpapers taken from a printed silk, “Clusters of stylised fruits, flowers and shell motifs”. Designed by George Sheringham for Seftons in 1922, the pattern is typical of that era.
Kitchen Essays is, in fact, a compilation of recipes and articles published by The Times of London. They are said to be the first recipes published in that newspaper. Agnes Jekyll was considered as one of the foremost hostesses. Mary Lutyens described her house as “the apogee of opulent comfort and order without grandeur, smelling of pot-pourri, furniture polish and wood smoke”. It has to be noted though that it’s evident that there were, if not a battery of kitchen staff, as least a brace of skilled workers at her disposal.
There are some evocative chapter headings, giving an accurate impression of the style of the book. “In Cook’s Absence”, “A Little Dinner Before the Play”, “A Little Supper After the Play”, “A Winter Shooting-Party Luncheon”, “Food for Artists and Speakers”.
Kitchen Essays has a marvellous peppering of food-related observations. “We cannot both have our cake and eat it, and though to try is as human as to fail, we should at least ascertain what our cake is made of and weigh carefully all its ingredients before deciding which we will do with it.” Another droll quote, from the chapter Luncheon for a Motor Excursion in Winter – “There stands an Inn below the hill, rightly named ‘Pelican’ from its enormous bill.”
Agnes Jekyll penned a good many recipes, some of which are still popular whilst others are very much of her time. Chicken Pilaf, Bread and Butter Pudding and Risotto are all familiar to us and Baked Jam Roly-Poly has even been demonstrated by Chef Mike Robinson on UKTV Food. Syston Iced Pudding, Oeufs à la Crème and Sardines à la Sackville might not be thought of as regulars, chez vous.
There are a few dishes here that will never grace my dinner table, Camembert in Aspic being the most appalling of the bunch, but they are, for the most part, good recipes. Kitchen Essays is a book that you will enjoy for its social commentary and richness. It makes the most perfect bedtime reading and is sure to make its way onto the Christmas list of many a food lover.
Author: Agnes Jekyll
Published by: Persephone Books
ISBN 1 903155 185
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018