One of the most interesting things about the two National Trust cookbooks on this extended “Elves’ Shelves” list is the lack of major curry dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala or Balti dishes. In the British countryside, the old ways do appear to remain front and center, as opposed to the more urban areas where curry houses or other cuisines predominate. It’s all about tradition, a word loaded with varying meanings, depending of course on whose tradition you’re talking about.
Truth be told, the recipes in The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book rebuke the common, and misinformed, generalizations about British cookery. Just the other day, I came across a comment on a bookseller’s Web site, where a commentator quipped that British food is, and was, “bland and uninspiring.” Hardly.
So here’s Book #9 – read on:
9. The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book (revised and updated), by Sarah Edington (2010): Another National Trust cookbook, this one with 300 recipes, many sporting the wonderful names given to all types of dishes by cooks and eaters in the past. The introduction makes it clear that “posh” and “homely” recipes coexist side by side in this book, stemming from such sources as the cooks in National Trust restaurants, previous National Trust cookbooks, the author’s personal experience, and British cookbooks published over several centuries.
And the latter source seems to be the root meaning of the word “traditional” in the book’s title. More on that below.
Ms. Edington starts her delicious journey into traditional British cooking with a detailed description of what it is to cook on the legendary AGA cast-iron stove. And, joy of joys, each recipe includes instructions for cooking on the AGA, not that I can ever aspire to owning one. But I can dream, can’t I?
From the very beginning of the book, commencing with the soup chapter, you’ll want to start cooking. The recipe that got my fingers itching is the “Stilton and Onion Soup.” But I actually began with the “Butter Bean and Ham Soup” first, mostly because it reminded me of many similar soups I’ve eaten in the American South where I’ve lived for over 30 years off and on. And I figure that it was many an English woman who made that soup, while remembering home in her new strange world of America, where most households relied on the wife’s labor alone in the kitchen and so on, at least until the birth of several daughters or the acquisition of daughters-in-law. British cuisine played an enormous role in the evolution of American cuisine because of this.
I ran my eye down the Table of Contents: Fish Dishes, Meat Dishes, Savoury Sauces, Vegetables and Side Dishes, Hot Puddings, Cold Puddings, Breads/Teabreads/Scones, Cakes and Biscuits, Jams and Preserves, Drinks, Confectionary. Historical anecdotes and quotes liven up many of the recipes, including “Haslet,” which I learn came from an Old French word, “Hastelet,” meaning “entrails” or “innards,” offal, if you will. Readers seeking recipes for brawn and other forms of offal must look elsewhere, for Ms. Edington recounts the horror she – now a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide – felt at being served such a repulsive textured-and-tasting dish as a child. In a nod to the burgeoning craze for curry, you’ll find “Coronation Chicken” here, with a dollop of curry powder, chopped fresh ginger, and mango chutney, tempered with cool creamy Greek yogurt.
Which brings me to the question of just what “tradition” means when it comes to food. Tradition plays a huge role in just how people assimilate new cuisines and ingredients. Ms. Edington doesn’t actually define the meaning of a “traditional recipe,” but the slant of the book indicates that here it means foods cooked and eaten over centuries with minor changes brought about through time and differing values, ingredients, and the like. A perfect example of this process is Ms. Edington’s recipe for “Toad in the Hole,” on page 109 She’s added cherry tomatoes along with the requisite sausages. The recipe remains essentially the same as it was in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery, only her recipe is for “pigeons in a hole.” The chief technique here is a batter pudding, Yorkshire pudding for all practical purposes, garnished with sausages. The point of all this is to emphasize that although Ms. Edington added the tomatoes, the recipe remains traditional, in the sense that it is essentially the same as perhaps her grandmother might have cooked it.
It is one thing to cook a recipe and another to create an entirely new one.
The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book provides example after example of the recipes that still stand after the passage of centuries. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am on my way to my kitchen to cook “Chicken in Hocchee,” an “adaptation of a medieval/Tudor recipe.” Grapes and mild spices and sugar round out the flavors, along with parsley, sage, and garlic. Very modern. Not “bland and uninspiring.”
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
© 2015 C. Bertelsen