THROUGH THE ISINGLASS

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The best-known of all British cookbooks is 150 years old—and full of surprises. Christopher Hirst tries Mrs Beeton’s tastier oddities ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011

Isabella Beeton may have died in 1865, but through numerous posthumous editions of her huge, and hugely popular “Book of Household Managment”, she gained a fame that continues to this day. What set her book apart was its clarity and scope. Containing 1,700 recipes, including 76 soups, 97 sauces and 109 puddings, and much more on topics ranging from dusting to blood-letting, it aimed to turn the reader into a 19th-century domestic goddess.

The ambitious scale of the work explains the famous confessional introduction: “I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.” Beeton was only 25 when the book came out in 1861; she died four years later from puerperal fever contracted during the birth of her fourth child. Like many of today’s cookbooks, the recipes in “Household Management” vary from the wildly aspirational to the parsimonious. Turtle soup (“to make…with less difficulty cut off the head of the turtle the preceding day”) would have been an unlikely dish among her neighbours in Pinner, near London, while turnip soup, based on “nine turnips, four onions, two quarts of stock”, would have found few takers.

Beeton was a hard-pressed journalist rather than a practised cook: her biographer, Kathryn Hughes, says there is no evidence “that Isabella was interested in cooking”. Compiled under pressure of deadline, the recipes were shamelessly purloined from other cookbooks. Beeton’s claim in advertisements for the book that every recipe was tested seems doubtful, judging by her odder instructions. She maintains that large carrots should be boiled for 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours and macaroni for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours. Oddly, her recipe for haricot mutton contains no haricot beans, and she suggests that Brussels sprouts “may be arranged on the dish in the form of a pineapple”. 

On the plus side, “Household Management” is punctuated with background information about food. We learn that black turkey “approaches nearest to the original stock and is esteemed the best”. Beeton’s advice on fresh-cooked lobster could scarcely be bettered for precision. It should have “a stiffness in the tail which, if gently raised, will return with a spring”. Current culinary opinion has come back to her view on butter, “nutritious and…far more easily digested than any other of the oleaginous substances sometimes used in its place”. And the book as a whole provides a magnificent panorama of food in the middle of the 19th century. Along with items that have remained mainstays of British cuisine—rib of beef, pork pie, Welsh rarebit and bread-and-butter pudding (“better for being made about two hours before it is baked”)—there are numerous other recipes that have been forgotten.

My exploration of these produced several dishes that could happily return to dining tables both domestic and commercial. No.1089 Asparagus Pudding (A Delicious Dish) sounded worth a try. It is an egg-and-flour batter with asparagus “peas”—little snippets of asparagus spear. Steamed in a tightly covered basin for two hours, it turned out as a domed, soufflé-like pudding. After obeying Beeton’s strict directions for serving with melted butter (“round but not over the pudding”), I found it light, delicate and deliciously infused with asparagus—though today we would be more likely to have it with a salad than “served with the second course”.

No.1158 Baked Tomatoes (Excellent) lived up to the description. It is merely a deep dish of seasoned sliced tomatoes—much depends on their quality—baked for 20 minutes with a topping of breadcrumbs and molten butter. The crunchy top adds body and interest to the tomatoes. Beeton’s description, “an exceedingly nice accompaniment to all kinds of roast meat”, suggests she actually tried this one, maybe more than once. It has been repeated three times in my house.

No.127 Cucumber Soup involves quartering, de-seeding, slicing thinly, salting “to draw the water from them” (Beeton omits the vital rinsing to remove the salt and subsequent drying), then warming with butter. After 40 minutes’ simmering in stock, the result was a tasty, pale yellow soup with crescent moons of meltingly soft cucumber. The lovely texture would have been lost if this Victorian treat had been subjected to the modern habit of using a blender.

No.1408 Blancmange (A Supper Dish) will be a revelation for anyone with childhood memories of the luridly coloured version based on cornflour. It is, however, more demanding to make. Beeton’s recipe demands isinglass (made from the air-bladders of fish); I substituted gelatine. Incorporating lemon-infused milk and pounded almonds, the recipe involves repeated heating, stirring and straining. I liked Beeton’s suggestion that “any favourite liqueur…very much enhances the flavour of this always favourite dish”. I went for Cointreau. When cold, the infusion is poured into an oiled mould. A few hours later, you are tasting authentic Victorian blancmange. With its delicate tinges of citrus and almonds, it knocks pannacotta into a cocked hat.  

Following this triumph, I decided to brave No.1439 Jaunemange, which shows every sign of being a Victorian joke. If blancmange is white, then it follows that a sibling made yellow with egg yolks will be jaunemange. This curiosity also requires gelatine (for isinglass), white wine and lemon juice. Again, Beeton’s instructions are redolent of a sergeant-major: “Keep stirring the mixture one way until it thickens, but do not allow to boil; then…keep stirring until nearly cold”. After an hour’s stirring one way, the mixture was still liquid, but it set in the fridge. I thought the result was pleasantly tangy, a bit like lemon curd, though my wife was not persuaded. “If someone gave it to me,” she said, “I’d think it was very weird.” We didn’t make it again.   

Christopher Hirst is a food writer and used to be The Weasel in the Independent Magazine. He is the author of "Love Bites". In his last piece for Intelligent Life, "The Belly of the Beast", he experimented with offal.