The English could never catch a break in the kitchen.
Why, as early as 1759, in A Complete System of Cookery, an innkeeper/author named Will Verral sniffed at the ragtag equipment that passed for a batterie de cuisine in even upper-class English households. Stir in the English and French antagonisms brought about by long enmity, and you have indeed a fine kettle of fish.
Here’s what our Will said to the cook in one such establishment, he being hired to cater for a large party, he being a publican with his family’s White Hart Inn. It reads like a skit on Saturday Night Live, with Will Ferrell winking and quipping:
Pray, Nanny, says I, where do you place your stewpans, and the other things you make use of in the cooking way?
La, Sir, says she, that is all we have (pointing to one poor solitary stewpan, as one might call it,) but no more fit for use than a wooden hand-dish.
Ump, says I to myself, how’s this to be? A surgeon may as well attempt to make an incision with a pair of sheers, or open a vein with an oyster-knife, as for me to pretend to get his dinner without proper tools to do it; here’s another stewpan, soup-pot, and any one thing else that is useful; there’s what they call a frying pan indeed, but black as my hat, and a handle long enough to obstruct half the passage of the kitchen.
Verral, you learn as you turn to the title page of his A Complete System of Cookery (1759), spent time — likely two and a half years — as the sous chef of “the celebrated Mr. de St.- Clouet, sometime since Cook to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle.”
A few days after the dinner he served in spite of Nanny’s “poor solitary saucepan,” Verral ran into the gentleman at whose house he’d cooked:
Will, says he, why here you have made a strange racket at our house. My maid talks of nothing but you; what a pretty dinner you sent to table, and so easy, that it seemed no more trouble to you than for her to make a Welch rabbit [sic]; but says, that if she had such a set of kitchen goods as yours, and a little of your instructions, she could do it all very well.
Verral then proceeds to describe how the English noble kitchen might attain the heights of gastronomical bliss afforded by following in the footsteps of French chef M. de St.-Clouet. Of course, he’s a bit apprehensive about what Clouet might say:
What my friend Clouet will say when he hears of this rash adventure of mine [publishing the cookbook] I cannot guess; but this I’m sure of, he’ll be my voucher that it is all authentic.
Although Verral’s book never enjoyed the popular acclaim handed to Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, A Complete System of Cookery affords a glimpse of the types of dishes that led Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, to plead like a spurned lover for the return of his chef, the remarkable M. Pierre de St.-Clouet. And poet Thomas Gray annotated his copy of Verral’s book, several of the comments associated with fish recipes.
One of the reasons for the lack of popularity might lie in the English preference for heavier food, but also in the acrimonious reviews skewering Will’s book. Here’s a portion of one, illustrating the differences of social class inherent in the Whig preference for French cooks and others servants:
WITH respect to this performance, we wish it may not be said or thought, that more is meant than meets the ear. It is intitled, A Complete System of Cookery; but, what if it should prove A Complete System of Politics, aye, and of damnable politics, considering the present critical situation of affairs! If not a system of politics, at least, it may be supposed to be a political system trumped up in favour of our inveterate enemies the French. Nay, the author forgets himself so far as even to own, in the preface, that his chief end is to shew the whole and simple art of the most modern and best French cookery. Ah, ha ! master William Verral, have we caught you tripping? We wish there may not be some Jesuitical ingredients in this French cookery. If there is any thing of that sort in the oven, we hope you have had no finger in the pye. In frying political pancakes, Will, you may chance to burn your knuckles, unless you turn cat-in-pan, or, according to the conjectures of some learned antiquarians, cake-in-pan; or, as others will have it χατα παγ. You have made a fine kettle of fish, truly, in that (shall we call it political) conference with Nanny. (The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature, Volume 8, 1759, p. 284.)
Plus ça change, c’est la même chose! Everything stays the same, when it comes to human nature, jealousy, and pique!
And speaking of fish, here is a list of some of the fish recipes Will included in his tome:
Turbot in the Italian Way
Pike with Forcemeat and Caper Sauce
Carps Done in the Court Fashion
Matelotte of Carps
Fricasee of Eels, with Champagne or Rhenish Wine
Soles with Forcemeat, Sauce of Minced Herbs
Salmon in Slices Mr. Clouet’s Fashion, with Crawfish Sauce, or Prawns
Fillets of Soles, with Herbs in a Brown Sauce
Fillets of Whitings Marinaded, and Fry’d with Parsley
Fricasee of Tench, with Whitings Livers
Fillets of Mackerel, with Fennel and Gooseberries
Broiled Weavers, with Bay Leaves, with Sauce Pouvrade
Grudgeons en Gratin, with Livers of Whitings
Crawfish, with the Spawn or Eggs of a Lobster
Forcemeat of Lobster in the Shells
Attelets of Oysters, with Clear Gravy, Broiled
Anchovies, with Parmesan Cheese (Des anchois au parmesan)
Fry some bits of bread about the length of an anchovy in good oil or butter, lay the half of an anchovy, with the bone upon each bit, and strew over them some Parmesan cheese grated fine, and colour them nicely in an oven, or with a salamander, squeeze the juice of an orange or lemon, and pile them up in your dish and send them to the table.
This seems to be but a trifling thing, but I never saw it come whole from the table.
That’s our Will for you!
© 2011 C. Bertelsen