This month the fans and followers of the Cookbook Guru are looking at ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management‘, first published in 1861 and re-printed many times since then. The book makes fascinating reading and is available online in its original form. The first section of the book provides insight into household management during Victorian times and the remainder, the bulk of the book, records recipes and seasonal approaches to ingredients.
Many aspects of this work surprised me. Firstly, her approach to recording recipes and the indexing is quite modern. In this sense, Mrs Beeton paved the way for later seminal recipe dictionaries. Secondly, Mrs Beeton was only 21 at the time of publication, and would have been too young to acquire this depth of knowledge and wisdom, as well as the cooking experience required for such a tome. A little digging reveals that most of the recipes in the book were copied from elsewhere. One thinks of Mrs Beeton as a matriarchal, stern, and pragmatic Victorian woman so it is surprising to find that she was so young, dying at the age of 28 after childbirth complications. Her story makes intriguing reading.
Thirdly, the book struck many familiar chords and transported me back to the tastes, flavours and cooking of my childhood, back to the land of English and Irish food, with its economical stews, meats and puddings. It is a land I rarely visit now, dominated as I am by the food of Italy and Asia. My taste buds are Mediterranean, my location is closer to Asia than anywhere else, but my genetic food memory is still intact. Reading Mrs Beeton has brought on a deep sense of nostalgia and pining for the comfort foods of my past. It is a winter sensitivity and one that I am prepared to indulge in when the wind howls outside and the sun is too shy to appear.
Growing up in suburban Melbourne in a time when Anglo food was the only food known to us, we had our own Mrs Beeton living next door. Mrs Ferguson or ‘Ferga’ for short, a prim and pragmatic woman, with a tight perm and an eagerness to chat, was wonderful source of budgetary advice for my young mother in the 1950s. Ferga introduced her to the economical principles of Mrs Beeton, ie, that every meal should have a cost per person and that everyday meals should have a firm budget. My Nanny ( along with Pop) lived in a bungalow in our backyard, due to her health problems. She was also a kind of Mrs Beeton. She was a great cook, using plenty of lard in her puddings and making beautiful barley soups, scones and other treats. She was round, affectionate, and fairly un- Victorian in manner. I used to go on shopping errands for her- mainly to purchase a packet or two of Turf or Craven-A cigarettes. The smokes didn’t help her health!
Below- My Nanny in dance costume, around 1910.
As a child, one of my favourite spreads was Anchovy Paste. The brand Pecks comes to mind. It was cheap and pink and came in a tiny jar. It made a welcome change from Vegemite or jam. The thought of this fishy paste bounced back into my life as I read Mrs Beeton’s amusing words on the topic:
“When some delicate zest,” says a work just issued on the adulterations of trade, “is required to make the plain English breakfast more palatable, many people are in the habit of indulging in what they imagine to be anchovies. These fish are preserved in a kind of pickling-bottle, carefully corked down, and surrounded by a red-looking liquor, resembling in appearance diluted clay. The price is moderate, one shilling only being demanded for the luxury. When these anchovies are what is termed potted, it implies that the fish have been pounded into the consistency of a paste, and then placed in flat pots, somewhat similar in shape to those used for pomatum. This paste is usually eaten spread upon toast, and is said to form an excellent bonne bouche, which enables gentlemen at wine-parties to enjoy their port with redoubled gusto. Unfortunately, in six cases out of ten, the only portion of these preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed…. All the samples of anchovy paste, analyzed by different medical men, have been found to be highly and vividly coloured with very large quantities of bole Armenian.” The anchovy itself, when imported, is of a dark dead colour, and it is to make it a bright “handsome-looking sauce” that this red earth is used.”*
So now for some real Anchovy Paste. A simple little recipe which I plan to freeze and use on my return from Asia in two months time. I will pop it on some bruschetta, or let it melt over a fine fish, or perhaps stir it through a bowl of pasta.
Mrs Beeton’s Anchovy paste
227. INGREDIENTS.—2 dozen anchovies, 1/2 lb. of fresh butter.
Mode.—Wash the anchovies thoroughly; bone and dry them, and pound them in a mortar to a paste. Mix the butter gradually with them, and rub the whole through a sieve. Put it by in small pots for use, and carefully exclude the air with a bladder, as it soon changes the colour of anchovies, besides spoiling them.
Average cost for this quantity, 2s.
POTTED ANCHOVIES are made in the same way, by adding pounded mace, cayenne, and nutmeg to taste.
My Version of Anchovy Paste
- 24 fillets of anchovies.
- 125 gr butter
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped.
- chopped herbs to taste
Pound the anchovies and garlic in a mortar and pestle, then incorporate the butter ( or whizz in a food processor). Roll the paste into logs. Use some now ( yum) or section off into segments and roll in foil, then wrap in plastic zip lock bags, label and freeze for later.
Average cost for this quantity in 2014. $1.25.
I buy anchovies in bulk at $10.00 for a large tin of 720 gr. ( you can never have too many anchovies). I used unsalted butter at around $1.60 per 250 grams. Mrs Beeton would not approve of the addition of garlic but she would like my budgeting approach.
Thanks Leah for the chance to indulge in these memories and for bringing this book to our attention.
* As I am following a web copy, my referencing is imprecise with regard to page numbers of quoted text. Apologies to the academically inclined.