I’m a lucky girl, and I don’t mean to gloat but I feel really, really lucky. My husband bought me the dearest most treasured gift recently; just because………no other reason than ‘you just have to have it!’ I had spied the 18th century cookery book in the local auction house web listings, but had purposely turned a blind eye to it as it had a reasonable reserve and we are being financially drained by teeth, car and house repairs at the mo! The following day we had to visit the auction room to view another item and my curious mind and foodie soul got the better of me. I decided that as this book was in the very same room as me it was a fantastic opportunity to actually handle such a thing and peek at the wonders inside – so I asked to view! A very unassuming worn brown leather-bound book secured with an elastic band was placed before me. I carefully removed the elastic band and opened the book to reveal that the front cover along with the front page had become detached and they clung to each other with the last functioning piece of Sellotape from an old repair.
I knew the book was old, but to see the beautiful script of Elizabeth Payne and the date March 13:1759, then in the same hand ‘Elizabeth Smith This Book no.6 1775’ (had she got married?) with some scrawly Elizabeths thereafter dotted about made these fragile pages come alive for me.
I randomly opened the text and came upon recipes for rice pudding, grateful pudding……..bread pudding! The recipes read well once I understood ‘f’ was sometimes an ‘s’, and I was charmed by the author’s voice and felt an intimacy with her which was totally unexpected. I felt a woman to woman connection going on! Clear instructions and words: ‘add if you please’ or ‘you may add biscuit in the room of bread if you like better’. I don’t know why I should have been surprised but I was comforted by the familiarity of the recipes; I think we accept that our heritage dishes have been cooked for the last 100 or so years but to see them spanning back 267 years – the book was first published in 1747 – was enchanting.
What fascinated me more, the recipes were quite sophisticated and more akin to our current wave of embellishing traditional dishes. It seems our food had been dulled down by the Victorians and wartime rationing, but thankfully we have found our way back! Crème Pudding fragrant and spicy with mace, nutmeg, orange flower and rose water andthe ‘al dente’ we have enjoyed for the last 20 years was already addressed:
‘most people spoil garden things by over boiling them. All things that are green should have a little crispness for if they are over boiled they neither have sweetness or beauty.’
I was at the counter for a long time. My husband took a note of the lot number! That evening I did some research on the book, ‘The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by A Lady.’ I found the lady to be a Hannah Glasse and she had only been verified as the true author in the last century as before it was thought a woman could never write such a book! Well she did, and it was for the purpose of ‘instructing the lower sort’ (oh gosh – she spoke to me!) There is the most delightful address in the opening chapter ‘To the Reader’ which explains:
‘If I have not wrote in the high, polite stile, I hope I shall be forgiven; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way. The great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.’
Glasse believed she was writing a revolutionary ‘receipt’ book that every servant who could read would understand. She also intended it to be a useful tool for the lady of the house in instructing her servants.
‘I shall say no more, only hope my book will answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.’
I also learned this was a fourth edition (1751) which marked a change in fortune for Glasse. She actually went bankrupt and had to sell the rights of her book, so these copies were the last ones to be graced by her signature! Hannah Glasse is worthy of her own posting, but this is the story of acquisition so on with the tale. Auctions are a scary business as you only need one other interested buyer and you suddenly find yourself in a bidding war. Auction catalogues are published online so it is you against anyone else in the world that has the same desire for the object you want! Though the porter at the auction house believed there had been little interest in the book I knew this was only foot traffic in the actual rooms, and my research had shown me that this book – even in this condition – could be worth several hundred pounds, so I assumed others may have spotted it. We were getting nervous! Auction day came and after a long wait our lot came up. We had agreed to go up to £100. The bidding began on the high side of the £80 reserve; we bid, there was an online bid, we bid…….silence and then the gavel came down! It was ours, up to our very limit! So now the adventures begin. I have read recipe books for as long as I can remember but now I find I am in possession of a pivotal cookery book with lashings of history, charm and practical advice – I am in foodie heaven! It was hard to move for the rest of the afternoon as I immersed myself in the 18th century kitchen and earmarked recipes to try and ones to avoid! This will be a gift that keeps on giving and a treasure to pass on at the end of my life. Now I am left pondering a thought……….do I sign the book? What would you do?
I have captured some images from the book below for you to enjoy!
Past owners have left their mark in the book leaving me to ponder do I leave my own?
The Art of Cookery was not only a recipe book but also manual for daily life including: directions for the sick, for captains of ships, distilling, how to market and a cure for the bite of a mad dog!
Some of the recipes are less appealing!
The peck is an ancient measurement which is equivalent to 2 gallons or 16pints or 8.81litres! The recipes yield large quantities to feed the household.
A recipe for ‘Currey the Indian way’ was an unexpected find!
Do you have any special or lucky vintage discoveries you can share? Please add them in the comments or get in touch anytime we’d love to hear from you.