A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #8

There is, as you may have noticed, a huge gap time-wise between the first seven books on this list and the last six. That’s because there’s a time period where you see the beginning of the cult of the modern celebrity chef/cook, with a tremendous focus on innovations and experimentation in recipes and, well, celebrity.

Television. Italian food. Cakes and cupcakes. Italian food. Diners and dives. Grilling.  Italian food. Sushi.

That’s not to say that the players in the celebrity game didn’t know their food – they did, and do, but there was not as much emphasis on culinary history as in the recent past, although the very cookbooks and other “artifacts” testify to changes in Britain’s overall culinary history.  So, by way of paraphrasing the London Tube warning signs, “[Stay Calm and] Mind the Gap.”

Moving on to book #8:


8. The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook, by Laura Mason (2009):

Rare is the book, especially a cookbook, that conjures up the delights of a rainy English day, one that ends in a lovely tea in front of an electric fire, the smell of wet wool and roses mingling in the air as you blow softly at the steaming tea in your almost-translucent china cup. The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook is one of those books.

The National Trust oversees many historical properties throughout Britain, preserving both the physical landmarks and the human history that intertwine in those places. With 150 restaurants and tea rooms  attached to these marvelous historic properties, serving as many 8 million visitors a year, The Trust indeed carries a lot of clout when it comes to the culinary arts, both past and present.

The 200 recipes in this book by Laura Mason, author of The Taste of Britain and Food Culture in Great Britain (among others), emphasize the regionality and ensuing culinary diversity of the British Isles. In the Introduction, Ms. Mason states that the book “celebrates two things: the tradition of farmhouse cookery, and the link between landscape and food,” particularly the tenants who farmed for The National Trust.

The crisis created by the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic galvanized The National Trust into creating this cookbook. Their initial requests for recipes from the tenants resulted in a deluge and so The Trust counted on Ms. Mason to sort it out. Which she did, quite admirably, without the overwhelming patina of nostalgia that coats many attempts to discuss farming these days. What ensued is a practical book, highly accessible to cooks of varying experience.

Ms. Mason mentions the inspirational work done by Florence White , the W.I., and Mrs. Arthur Webb, a writer for Farmers Weekly, who based her articles on her travels throughout the country during the 1930s, in much the same way that Dorothy Hartley did. Arranged by meals, the book breaks up a typical farming day into the dishes eaten at different times of the day – soups, hearty meals, light meals, teatime, puddings, with forays into sauces, sides, vegetables, jams, preserves, and drinks. Within each of these general categories, you’ll find brief conversations  (essays, really) covering the food of the various regions of Britain, from Wales to the Borders. Old-fashioned-style food photography make this book a very different one from the previous books on this list. Many recipes boast a full color photograph. Or, at the very least, a charming line drawing will catch your eye.

Cornish Potato Cakes. Tiesen Nionod (potato gratin).  Champ. Green Pea Pancakes. Pickled Red Cabbage. Devon Whitepot. Bakewell Pudding. Salt Duck. Devilled Chicken.

Doesn’t that recipe list make you want to jump up and get that skillet out of the cupboard?

One criticism of the book that I must mention is that it would be nice to see comparative recipes from old cookbooks, to gauge how much things have changed over the years. Even though chutneys and lamb rogan josh figure in the recipe offerings, the chutneys reflect the long tradition of English confits, as it were. And the absence of many curry recipes is interesting, given that the media claims that Tikka Masala is fast showing up Fish-and-Chips as Britain’s national dish. Yet curry houses are on the decline, according to a 2015 article in The Guardian. With The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook, it seems clear that tradition is alive and well, too. It’s one thing to eat curry out/in a restaurant or as take-out, another to cook it yourself, don’t you think? All this raises the question of just how much dietary change British people might have tolerated in their kitchens in India and in the New World, where the housewife often did not do her own cooking. However, that is work for a future scholar. Just for the record, the cream scones on page 230 – “originally given by Florence White” – look, and taste, suspiciously like Southern biscuits … .

At the end of The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook, in keeping with modern concerns about land and farming,  Ms. Mason treats you to a brief discussion of the future of English farming in the 21st century, pointing out that The National Trust controls 250,000 hectares of land throughout the British Isles.  The Trust farms 80% of that property to produce food with the labor of 1500 tenant farmers.

Ms. Mason has done a lovely job of reaching the goals of The Trust for this book, as well as stimulating my desire to step into the kitchen and grab a mixing bowl. First on the list of recipes tried was Singin’ Hinnie. (p. 267). And that reminds me: I just love these recipes with their sometimes unusual, if not outright odd, names!

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


12 thoughts on “A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #8

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