Elizabeth David is for many the Grande Dame of British cooking, although she is more famed for her writings on the cuisine of the Mediterranean at a time when the prospect of many Brits travelling to those sun-drenched climes was slim. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen takes us a little further afield to explore the flavours of the East.
This volume (the latest in a series of Elizabeth David classics from the well-respected publisher, Grub Street) is strewn with references to cinnamon, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, pepper, mace and our own English mustard. She quashes the widely-held misconception that food in England has always been bland. OK, so perhaps that concept is less believed these days, but it endures with Americans in particular.
But even before the advent of Chicken Tikka Masala, we had an appreciation of warming spices from the Orient. It’s been a love affair that started in antiquity and has endured down the centuries. Think of cinnamon in cakes and Victorian punches; remember nutmeg on rice pudding (a personal nutmeg grater was often found amongst the upper-class accoutrements). Something as common as a grind of pepper has enhanced our food for centuries. Wars have been fought and lands seized for the very want of these spices.
In her wonderful book Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, first published in 1970, Elizabeth David reminds us of the importance of spice in English cookery. There have been references to various spices since the very first English cookbooks. The recipes might have been sketchy and designed very much with the cook of a grand house in mind but those spices were there in luxurious abundance. Curry took hold here in the days of the Raj – not perhaps the most authentic of examples but popular nevertheless. The move to spice up Britain started before we even knew what to do with a Vindaloo.
Although first published 40 years ago, this book is still a worthy read. The author remarks more than once that this book is just a taster and not a comprehensive guide, but she has contrived to fill the pages with recipes and histories of spices and seasonings for sauces, salads, fish, meat, rice and vegetables, poultry, desserts, chutneys, pickles, condiments and drinks. Her dishes use a raft of spices, but are mostly straightforward. Perhaps I would counsel that the boar’s head be left to the more experienced cook. (It takes 10lb of stuffing and a pound of truffles. Poach in 6 gallons of water and invite the in-laws round, and there should still be leftovers for sandwiches.) This is just a recipe to illustrate the charm of cooking in the 1840’s. The majority of other dishes are easy to prepare: for example, the recipes for potted cheese are simple and these tangy, spreadable delights are great additions to any cheeseboard.
In her personal life she might have had feet of clay but Elizabeth David remains firmly affixed atop her culinary pedestal. She has offered wisdom to a couple of generations of domestic cooks. Her writing is personal and anecdotal. She points out possible pitfalls and freely admits that she herself has stumbled into many. She gives confidence without being patronising. She once said “Writing doesn’t come easily to me. It gets more and more difficult.” Her books are a testament to her perseverance. They are as unique as she was.
Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen
Author: Elizabeth David
Published by: Grub Street
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018