“Mrs. Beeton: Soups and Sides” by Isabella Beeton and Gerard Baker

“Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management”, published by Samuel Beeton in 1861, changed forever the way the middle classes of the United Kingdom and the British Empire cooked, bringing to them thousands of recipes written in a simple manner with Ingredients, Mode (Method), Time, Seasonable From and Average Cost listed.

The work has been in print in some form or another since then and here the publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and author Gerard Baker have attempted to re-create or bring up to date a few of the original recipes. I find it strange that a book entitled Soups contains only eight recipes whereas Mrs. Beeton listed over one hundred and fifty. Also, these recipes are greatly altered where, in some cases, there need only be minor adjustments made.

Take, for instance, “Chestnut and Celeriac Soup”, where there is a somewhat complicated process needing not only celeriac and chestnuts but also leek, onion, bay, thyme, milk and cream. I turned to the original recipe requiring only a good stock, chestnuts, cream and seasoning. Today we do not need to cook and peel the chestnuts, a laborious task at the best of times so, snipping the corner of a vacuumed pack of chestnuts I emptied them into a pan of chicken stock and cooked them until they were really soft then whizzed with a hand blender, strained the mixture into a clean pan added the cream and adjusted the seasoning. So simple but the result was sublime.

No mention is made as to why “Portable Soup” is so called (it was for army kitchens and ships’ galleys mainly) and we are given the incredibly time and heat consuming task of making a stock from trotters, knuckles, shin of beef, vegetables etc. and reducing it down to a jelly from which various soups can be made. In my own copy of Household Management the final line of the Mode states “This can now be purchased cheaper than it can be made at home” Quite.

The Sides section of this book is divided into Salads and Starters, Boiled and Braised Vegetables and Grilled and Roasted Vegetables. Here, again, original recipes are changed beyond all recognition such as “Eggs Baked with Cream and Tarragon” is a dish in its own right but is supposed to be another variation of Beeton’s poached eggs with cream which are very simple. In the latter recipe, fresh eggs are poached, laid on a dish and napped with a sauce of seasoned cream, boiled quickly with added dabs of butter melted into it making a simple poached egg into something rich and utterly delicious.

“Potato and Cream Gratin” is nothing more than the obligatory Gratin Dauphinoise which must be in practically every cookery book published since the 1960’s and here is used to substitute Beeton’s “A German method of cooking potatoes”.  This is unusual in that thin ribbons of potato are gently cooked in a slightly thickened stock with added vinegar taking only 10 to 15 minutes to cook and which would be a perfect side dish to serve with rich casseroles, venison stews or jugged hare and the like. Why not print the original recipe?

There is some useful advice in a section of “Stock and Sauces” and a glossary of cooking terms but in general the book really does leave much to be desired.

This is one of a series of six titles for which the total cost amounts to nearly £60.00 and if the others are of the same ilk I would suggest it would be less expensive to go online and seek out either the facsimile of the first edition of 1861 published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1968 or the enlarged edition published by the Chancellor Press, London 1994 and 1997, as both of these will give you an entrée into the world of Mrs. Beeton. From the thousands of recipes given, you can try for yourself to bring them up to date with modern methods and ingredients. You will be surprised and, hopefully, delighted at just how easy this can be.

Further Reading

Weidenfeld and Nicolson: www.orionbooks.co.uk

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