Cooking makes me anxious. All that time and effort poured into something that could so easily go wrong. Mistake salt for sugar, use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon and not only is your afternoon wasted but everyone goes hungry.
And you serve up your very soul when you dish up a carefully crafted feast only for everyone to say ‘it’s nice, I’m just not very hungry for it’ or ‘actually I don’t like curry/baked pasta/anything that isn’t cured ham’. Brrrrr.
Apart from the great goddess Nigella, whose recipes I treat like commandments (at least they always work. And she has such good hair) I would never pick up a cookbook out of pleasure.
Apart from scrappy handwritten ones belonging to long-dead relatives.
My Grandmother was born in 1913 and died 20 years ago. My Great-Grandmother was born in 1883 and died in 40 years ago. Both kept handwritten recipe books, recently uncovered during a house clearance (don’t get me started on the house clearance).
Grandma was a fantastic cook. She had the arms for baking, the cool hands for pastry, her roast beef is one of my best childhood memory-smells.
I never tasted any of Great-Gran’s cooking; she was, my mother said, a woman who pleased herself. Her idea of a quick supper was to buy a tin of salmon and make fish cakes with it DURING THE WAR.
But she came from an era when printed cookbooks, espcially ones with tried and tested recipes, were a rarity. She also spent two-thirds of her life without an NHS, hence this gem from the back page of her book:
1d Diluted Acepic Acid
1lb Black Treacle
Pour 1 pint boiling water over the treacle and when nearly cold add the ingredients. Bottle and take in spoonsful.
I don’t know what acepic acid is – I think she must have meant citric acid, not acetic acid, or she’d have just put vinegar. Not that you’d care what it was after necking a couple of spoons of this – both Laudanum and Paregoric are tinctures of opium. Not just one dose of a grade one narcotic, but two!
Here’s another, for a bad chest:
Half a pint turpentine
1 oz Rock camphor
Quarter a pint of vinegar
1 egg well beaten
Add the camphor to the turps and shake until dissolved then add the beaten egg, lastly the vinegar. Keep the bottle well corked and label it Poison.
Why bother? It would smell so much no-one would go near it, let alone try to drink it. And don’t, whaever you do, light up a fag to clear your airways after rubbing this on, you’d go up like a Roman candle.
The rest of the recipes are less jaw-dropping, but still fascinating.
There is a plethora of Christmas cake and pudding recipes – everyone must have had their own variation. And so many have an attributions: Parkin (Mrs Hudson’s); Plum Cake (Mrs Arthur’s); Date and Walnut Cake (Mrs Bright); Cocoanut Slices (Grace’s); Crunch (Mrs Bill Wood).
It is a salute to these long-dead women, measuring out flour in teacups and slicing up marg (rarely butter), passing the recipes on on the back of postcards and exercise paper after Grandma admired their bakes at a church fete or a wake.
Instructions can be sort of fluid – ‘Bake in a slow oven’ – no gas marks for the days when Agas and Rayburns were standard and no timings either. Or a recipe for nettle beer stipulates ‘One basket of nettles’. How big a basket? A fancy Little Red Riding Hood type of basket, lined with a spotted handkerchief? Or a massive log basket, hauled over the side of a donkey? How can you know?
The oldest recipe I can find is one for Plum Cake, made with lard, that is attributed to ‘Rothwell’s Mother’. This was Great Gran’s mother-in-law, my Great-Great-Grandmother, who was born in 1856. EIGHTEEN FIFTY-SIX.
Meaning she was probably baking this plum cake at the height of the Victorian era. It must have been be massive – it uses 1lb of lard, 2lb of flour, 1lb of sugar, 1lb of currants, 1lb of sultanas, four eggs, six teaspoons of baking powder and a teaspoon of allspice. Where would you get a bowl, a tin and an oven big enough?
The logistics are incredible – to say nothing of your biceps, after stirring it – but much as I dislike baking, I am tempted to try it. I can’t resist the idea of making – and tasting – something my Great-Great-Grandma made.
And, seeing as Boots doesn’t sell opium anymore, I think I’d better stick to lard.