I indulge in nostalgia, particularly food nostalgia. Nothing is so revealing of a person as their food memories; they allow a deep insight into childhood, travel and values. Food, being one of life’s few constants, is ever present in our shifting lifestyles, remaining a significant marker of era and of our time with loved ones, a punctuation of passing time and changing environments. For me food is so intrinsically associated with love that it’s unavoidably linked to the pain and pleasure of growing older.
When I write I want to write not only about my new endeavours, but also about my own, brief, history with food and how it contributes to my present.
Old books have an allure that is not unacknowledged; the scent, the yellowing pages, the names of previous owners. But when the book in question is a recipe book and it originates from ones own family it is deeply precious and intriguing. I am in possession of my family copy of Mrs Beeton’s book of Household Management and its worn, indented cover and tired, woven hinge is a pleasure to trace with my fingers. I love to read recipe books kept by the women in my family, always a slim, lined notebook covered with paper, adorned in an inky blue hand and speckled with cooking. Handwriting itself has a powerful vulnerability, perhaps I am from a generation where handwriting has become a private, personal activity; extrinsic communication is digital.
Cookery books from my Grandmother’s generation contain recipes that are not only significant from my childhood (and likely hers), but act now as historical documentation of cooking and eating. My Great Aunt’s text book (kindly lent me) from her Home Economics studies was published first edition in 1920 and contains all manner of treasures from the grim (Tripe and Onions) to the comforting (Treacle Scones). What endears me about cook books of this time is how each recipe takes up no more than a brusque third of a page and the ingredients list is simplified to borderline guesswork.
Bretzels (about 20 Bretzels)
1/2 lb flour / 4oz fat / 2 or 3oz sugar / 1 yolk of egg
Rub the fat into the flour, add the sugar, then mix with the yolk. Knead a little. Roll out to 1/4 inch thick. Cut into strips. Roll these between the board and fingers and round off edges. Form into Bretzels shape or fancy knots. Brush with the white of egg and sprinkle with coarsest chopped almonds or nuts. Bake in a moderate oven for about 20 mins.
No pictures, no oven figures, no definitive fat, some sugar. These were recipes aimed at the woman who knew her baking, her textures. No nonsense. My Grandmother makes scones with barely a glance at the quantities and with a subconscious dexterity.
Perhaps more intriguing than the textbook itself is the accompanying notebook in my which my Aunt has inked entries each starting with ‘Demonstration’ and number followed by a subtitle such as ‘Soups’ or ‘Sponges’ and then laboriously written notes on techniques, ‘do’s’and ‘don’ts’. This is culinary student gold dust. I like stroking flour from the spine. I will bake something from these books, perhaps Eccles Cakes or maybe a Jam Roly Poly; it’s not French and it’s not fancy but it’s entirely relevant.