When I first propped open this massive, and glorious, paean to the history of British food, I came upon “Ryse Of Flessh” (Rice of Flesh). Blumenthal remarks that he had no clue “how early rice had become a part of the English diet. More than a hundred before The Forme of Cury was written, rice was already an entry in the household accounts of Henry III.” That means 1290! Or 317 years before settlers arrived at the site of Jamestown, Virginia. Rice came along with the spices of the global spice trade, and chef Heston Blumenthal thinks he sees risotto in this particular recipe. And so he pursues that idea, the result being more a “Ryse in Potage of Flesh.” All this is to say that rice was a familiar ingredient for the English as they made their way to the New World, long before Carolina Gold sprouted in the soil of South Carolina.
Do indulge yourself with this, a veritable cotillion of food history. For a voyage into the sensuousness of history, here’s book #12:
12. Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal (2013):
Weighing in at 5.2 pounds, this book reminds me a bit of a shimmering illuminated medieval manuscript, decorated with gold leaf and glittering gems. And the dazzling photography evokes Old Master still-lifes, replete with emotions, oozing both nostalgia and awe, wonder that from the sparse words of medieval and Renaissance texts, a master cook today might create some of the same flavors that bedazzled the diners of centuries ago.
But make no mistake. This is not, alas, a book meant for the casual cook. Or even for the most dedicated professional chef, to be honest. It’s value lies in the analyses of the recipes and the expository remarks placing the recipes into the context of their times. The first recipe, as noted, dates from 1390 and the last, 1892. All in all, Mr. Blumenthal – who runs The Fat Duck Restaurant in Bray – dissects, explains, and cooks 28 recipes. The message of these recipes, and their execution, speaks of wealth, vast amounts of it, signaling that indeed throughout most of history, cookbooks tended to reflect upper-class sensibilities. Seeing the visual rendition of these recipes drives that point home. What also becomes very clear is this: In reading the recipe pages – better called mini-pamphlets, with all the necessary components for the final dish – an army of cooks stood behind every dish carried out the kitchen door and into the dining room.
In the section entitled, “Tarte of Strawberies,” taken from A. W.’s A Book of Cookrye (1591), Mr. Blumenthal conveys the 16th-century excitement surrounding the discovery of exotic foods from the New World and from around the globe: “Turkey, pumpkins, vanilla, chocolate, olives, anchovies, globe artichokes, asparagus, apricots, quinces, raspberries, melons, red beetroot, red and green peppers, French beans, kidney beans and potatoes … .” But it was the upsurge in sugar production in the Azores and Canaries that wrought such a huge change in pastry making that concerns the chef.
Harking back to Book #2 on this long list, specifically the discussion of pig ears, I found it prophetic to run across Ms. Glasse’s “To Make a Ragoo of Pigs-Ears” in Mr. Blumenthal’s list of recipes. The thrilling thing about this particular recipe lies not so much in the dish itself as in Mr. Blumenthal’s summary of the change in English agriculture wrought by sheep raising/enclosures and the ensuing decline of the pig. The social-climbing landed gentry clamored for cookbooks and the dishes that would elevate their tables to the level of those of the nobility. Mr. Blumenthal makes an interesting observation about these cookbooks, contrasting those by Mary Kettilby, E. Smith, and other female authors with those by chefs such as Robert May. The women wrote for women, but cooking was becoming more of a “below-stairs” task, suggesting that up to that point (around 1715 or so), the housewife actually laid hands on the stove.
That last comment has great implications for studying the cuisine of England’s American colonies. Housewives owned cookbooks, probably had personal experience with the back-breaking drudgery of hearth cooking, but over time elected to delegate those tasks to indentured servants and slaves. That said, those cooks followed the mistress’s instructions, with the guidelines laid out in these cookbooks or the hand-written cookbooks carefully guarded and passed down from mother to daughter ad infinitum.
Historic Heston provides a lot of food for thought, mulling, and chewing. What an exquisite romp through British food history!
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