A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #3

Mr. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles follows Ms. Hartley’s work in a logical sequence, for both traveled the length of the land to get the story and record a lifestyle diminished a little each and every day. In addition, Mr. Bailey’s book points out visually a number of English culinary-related traits that still underlie the American psyche: meat cookery, pie-making, pickling and preserving, hunting, and fishing.

And so now we have book #3, one that exemplifies what happens when cookbooks become the product of a hive mind – Time-Life, one that presents the facts in a certain, perhaps selective way.

Book #3:


3. The Cooking of the British Isles, by Adrian Bailey (1969): How apt to follow Dorothy Hartley’s opus with life-long Londoner Adrian’s Bailey’s contribution to Time-Life’s unprecedented Foods of the World series. Actually, Mr. Bailey is Ms. Hartley biographer and worked with Lucy Worsley on that aforementioned BBC Four program, now also a book – Lost World, England 1933-1936.

But we are talking now about Mr. Bailey’s book, aren’t we? Mr. Bailey’s food creds also include being the son of hotelier and much travel throughout England after WWII. As with most of the Time-Life books in this series, The Cooking of the British Isles covers vast amounts of territory in approximately 200 pages. Chapters take on headings such as “Breakfast to Rouse Sluggards from Sleep” to “Blessed He That Invented Pudding,” sandwiching “A Nation of Beefeaters’ and “Riches in Gardens and Hedgerows.” A small spiral-bound recipe booklet accompanies this hardcover book, allowing the cook to stain pages to his or her heart’s content.

As in the case of Ms. Hartley, Mr. Bailey is something of an artist, his work livening up the margins of the book. Spatterings of history appear throughout the book, and we learn via a quote from chronicler Thomas Tusser of 1557 that no English garden was complete at the time without at least 40 different herbs. Mr. Bailey’s prose evokes the people and their lives, and although the book appeared nearly 50 years ago, it’s telling that it emphasizes – no surprise, really – “home grown” and a suspicion of imported food (“you never know where it’s been!”). But it’s the photographs that differentiate this book from the previous two. Candid shots mixed in with studio shots portray an increasingly lost world, in much the same vein as the White and Hartley books, only more visual. You catch a glimpse of the class system, and the vast changes wrought by changes in agriculture over the centuries as well. It’s the sheep, you know.

The recipes, too, offer taste memories long forgotten: Horseradish Sauce, not the tinned version; Veal-and-Ham Pie, plump in its golden crust; and, appropriately, Christmas Cake slathered with meringue icing. No fan of fruitcake, I’ll turn to the plum pudding recipe here, thank you. But nevertheless, you’ll find many of your favorites, too, as you turn the pages and savor food that’s endured and evolved for centuries.

Some, however, might even suggest that that that “lost world” never really existed, that as Nika Hazelton once said when discussing these books, “travelogues into culinary fairylands, where food is always interesting, appetizing, fresh, well-cooked, and well-served. They remind me of Disneyland: charming and often irresistible combinations of nostalgia and phantasy, where all is the way we would like it to be, with no nasty surprises lurking around dirty corners.” Other critics of the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks series raise the question of authenticity, inclusiveness, and  authority. All valid criticisms at a time when world cuisines were just beginning to come alive in the collective American mind. But books such as Adrian Bailey’s certainly helped to raise awareness of those other cuisines. The Cooking of the British Isles is, to my mind, one of the more authentic – whatever that really means – offerings in this classic series, written as it was by an Englishman with some chops.

If you love stories and cooking, tea and cakes, The Cooking of the British Isles will spark those passions of yours, no matter what your politics.

Check out all of the books in this series:

1. Florence White’s Good Things in England

2. Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England

3. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles

4. Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen

5. Jane Grigson’s Good Things

6. Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book

7. Jane Grigson’s English Food

8. Laura Mason’s The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook

9. Sarah Edington’s The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book

10. Brian Yarvin’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast

11. Mary-Anne Boermans’s Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers 

12. Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston

13. Mary Gwynn’s The WI Cookbook

Millers cabin Smithfield crop

© 2015 C. Bertelsen



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