A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #4

Elizabeth David presents yet another example of how British culinary sensibilities influenced American cuisine. None other than Alice Waters attributes her love of terroir to Elizabeth David’s work, citing the cover of Ms. David’s French Provincial Cooking as representing how she wanted food to be. And thus Chez Panisse was born. The rest is history, as they say.

On to book #4:


4. Spices, Salt, and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, by Elizabeth David (1970): Granted, Ms. Waters didn’t choose one of Ms. David’s British-oriented books as a model, but she could have, with pretty much the same end result.

E.D., as she is commonly called, grew up in England as the child of an M.P., with all the trappings of the British upper class. After much travel, floundering, and a failed marriage to Lt. Colonel Anthony David in wartime Egypt, Ms. David (née Gwynne) returned to England and began writing cookery books.

Please remember that Britain suffered through FOURTEEN years of rationing related to World War II. Ms. David remembered the “Before” part of the picture, which was, truthfully, affected by the social and economic repercussions of World War I. British food took a hit as much as did St. Paul’s.

Ms. David’s first cookery book, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), launched her career. By 1970, apparently drained by the intense work of testing recipes for her previous books, she discovered a rather scholarly bent in her nature and produced Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, its unwieldy title a bit of a mouthful and not a terrific match with the contents.  Many people today dismiss E.D., claiming her scholarship to be faulty or spotty at best. But nevertheless she was one of the pioneers in the field of culinary and food history, along with Reay Tannahill and Alan Davidson.

This book emphasizes the long history of spicing in English cookery, a bit of a surprise to the naysayers who view English food as bland, boiled, and boring. A liking for the hotness of mustard and pepper testifies to a trait of the English palate long before the first chile pepper landed in London!

A little known fact about E.D. is that her great-great-great-grandfather John Carels, a Dutchman, apparently fathered children by a Sumatran ranee – whose name not known. E. D.’s mother Stella, the daughter of Matthew White, 1st Viscount Ridley, cemented E.D.’s place in the British upper class.  The long-running British connection to overseas trade in the Far East underlies Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen; in fact, E.D. states, in 1970, that for nearly 2000 years, “English cookery has been extremely spice conscious, not surprisingly to anyone in the least familiar with the history of the spice trade in Europe … .”

And thus she starts off Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen by quoting that paragon of English herbal lore, Mrs. C. F. Leyel, who described the beginnings of British grocers as being “descended from the pepperers of Sopers Lane and the spicers of Cheap, who amalgamated in 1345 … .”

Regardless of your feelings about E.D., a few days in her company via Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen results in a vicarious enjoyment of the wild adventures that led E. D. to the kitchen. The sensuousness of the sun-drenched lands of her young adulthood permeates nearly every page, especially in chapters such as the charming chapter appropriately called “The Colonel’s Sauce Cupboard.”

I find it prophetic, if that’s the right word, that Englishwomen such as Ms. David, Ms. Hartley, and Ms. White examined food history as a topic worthy of serious study, long before the topic became the thing. Women, denied the public sphere, took to the pen.

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


16 thoughts on “A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #4

  1. Loving your choices and the suspense as your list unfolds. Wondering where you’re going to go when it gets contemporary– Nigel/ Nigella / Jamie (whose British book is GREAT) ????? I personally find Gary Rhodes really useful too…. Time will tell……

    Liked by 1 person

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