Book club: Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food

This week I received an unexpected treat in the post, in the form of a book from my dear friend Harriet. Love books, love cookery books and especially love cookery books that are related to the 1920s so thumbs up, Reuter Hapgood, for ticking all of the boxes.

Let’s take a minute to breathe in the press release:

If you were Wallis Simpson and had a king coming round for supper, what would you have cooked? Or if you had a stunning estate in the country and were throwing a party for all your friends, what might you have served as canapés? Which cocktails would you have sipped?

That’s EXACTLY the kind of thing I spend my time thinking about!

Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food: A Rediscovery of British Food from Before the War was first published in 1993 and is a celebration of English food in the 1920s and 30s – a pretty interesting time for food, actually. At one end of the spectrum you had Edwardian-style dinner parties and stately home nursery teas still very much in abundance, but there was also the added excitement of the American influence (from people like WALLIS!), French influence (from smart society deciding that’s where the best chefs were from) and more exotic influences from the Bloomsbury set who liked to travel, a lot, and bring their new-found tastes back with them.

I haven’t had the chance to make anything from the book yet, but here’s the jist. There’s a really interesting opening section which I have read, which covers a bit of history of the era and how food fits into that. It’s then broken down into sections by courses, with the all-important ‘Picnics and Shooting Lunches’ as well as, obviously, ‘Drinks’. Each of these sections opens with a bit of context about that specific course and how it fitted into life and social occasions, what was popular and why, and who was responsible for its popularity. The answer should always be: Wallis Simpson.

You’ve then got a bunch of recipes, which have been compiled from all sorts of sources ranging from country house cooks’ records, family memories, old issues of things like Vogue and lots and lots of historical recipe books.

As I said, I’ve not had the chance to cook anything just yet, but here’s a delicious-sounding cocktail instead;

Wine Cup

This recipe came from Justerini & Brooks, one of the leading wine merchants in the inter-war years, by appointment to King George VI. Justerini & Brooks were established in the 1750s, and are still going strong. This is a most delicious cup, pale pink in colour. It is slightly too sweet for drinking at a meal, but perfect for a pre-lunch drink, or at a party, on a summer day.The original recipe called for maraschino as well as brandy, but this is very hard to find nowadays, so I leave it out.

1 bottle of good vin rosé

75ml brandy

450ml fizzy lemonade

450ml soda water or sparkling mineral water

a few slices (unpeeled) of green apple, oranges and lemons

a few strips of cucumber peel

Serve very cold.

This isn’t the only book I own that covers historical cooking, and cooking for high-society. Clearly it’s something I do regularly, so I like to stock up. Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food has an utterly fantastic bibliography too, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty more to add to the list. However;

The Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Book is the most famous of this genre, I guess. Famously she opens it with the words, “I haven’t cooked since the war,” but should you fancy salmon gravlax and cheddar terrine with beurre blanc sauce for 48 people, this one’s your best bet. Sticking with Chatsworth, I also love Rachel Green’s Chatsworth Cookery Book which isn’t quite so ridiculous and mostly covers cooking quick and easy meals with seasonal ingredients – but it mentions Chatsworth so it must be a bit fancy, and plenty of the recipes are historical. Finally, another new(ish) addition to my collection: Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll. A Persephone publication, it rounds up Agnes’s recipes and food writing from the 20s with such categories as ‘entertaining bachelors’ and ‘dinner before the theatre’ – a delicious slice of inter-war life, for a certain sector of society anyway.

Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food goes on sale 26 July and will be priced at a very reasonable £20. The above is clearly a review copy, hence the spiral-bind. For your twenty quid you’ll get a lovely hardback.

FUN FACT! Arabella Boxer’s grandson runs Frank’s Campari Bar in Peckham.

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