Although I've been a publicist at Penguin now for nearly seven years as a day job, for a year or more I have been merrily moonlighting, putting together Penguin's Great Food series. There are twenty books in the series, all extracts from some of the sharpest, funniest and most delicious recipes and writing about food from the past four hundred years. The series is parented by Great Ideas (of course) and a six-month stint spent reading old recipe books in the British Library and falling in love with the food, the kitchens and the people who wrote them (most of them, at any rate, Mrs Beeton still scares me stiff).
As social history, recipe books are gold dust. Reading Gervase Markham (1615) whooses us directly into the sculleries and pantries of Wolf Hall; Alexis Soyer (1878) takes us into the kitchen of Florence Nightingale's hospital in the Crimea; Colonel Wyvern's rigorous advice to memsahibs tells us as much about the status anxieties of the Raj as Passage to India. All our cooks and food writers (such as Charles Lamb or Pepys) are informative and engaging people to spend time with. But can you actually cook the recipes? This is what I have been trying to find out over the past few months. The answer is a resounding 'yes'. And sometimes you can also eat the results.
The successes first. Leaving aside Claudia Roden, Alice Waters and Elizabeth David whose fame and influence comes from their recipe followability (as well as their innovation), there are a couple of cookery writers here who inspire total trust. Mrs Beeton, in spite of her alarming advice about rising early and having cold baths, is reliable and there is nothing wrong with her Asparagus Pudding or Ginger Cream. And Eliza Acton (1845) is brilliant because she has clearly cooked everything herself and she includes helpful explanations such as don't overheat the butter or the cake will be too heavy; I love the names she gives her dishes ('Publishers Pudding', she says, can scarcely be made too rich; unlike the 'Poor Author's Pudding'. Hasn't she got that the wrong way round?). Even Gervase Markham, the oldest of the writers here, has some blinding recipes. His suggestions for game and meat, whilst definitely Tudor in taste (all that fruit, spice and meat), are often surprisingly good. Marchpane (cooked marzipan) is one of the most delicious thing on God's earth.
But I've had endless trouble with old recipes for biscuits. I imagine that, without margarine or raising agents, they used to be much harder than we are used to - or else there is a technique for making them edible that is being kept secret from me. So, Tudor knot biscuits were thick white curls like solid dog pooh (yes, sorry, but that's what they looked like), reeking of cheap rosewater. Hannah Glasse (1747) gives a recipe for 'Shrewsbury Cakes' whereas the things I made bore no relation to cake as we know it; they were so rigid my colleagues (who I was forcing to do a rosewater taste test) nearly broke their delicate teeth.
But the worst thing of all has to be one of William Verral's intriguing sounding puds. Ordinarily I love William Verral; his 1749 recipes are lively, full of fruit and vegetable, and eminently cookable. But something went badly wrong with his Strawberry Fritters. Perhaps it was my batter; the temperature of the hot lard (which I thought would give a genuinely historic touch); who knows? The result was hot, fatty, soggy deep fried lumps of red with lines of pale batter following behind like limp frogspawn. It didn't taste as good as that sounds, either.
So, if you want to go for the Great Food experience, roll your own 'haschiche fudge' courtesy of Alice B. Toklas, or follow Alexandre Dumas' recipe for 'Mutton Kidneys, Musketeers' style', pick up a knife and a book and unleash your inner Heston Blumenthal. Otherwise, settle into an armchair with an almond or rose sherbert and imagine yourself in Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Feast, or sip a bumper of claret and enjoy, with Charles Lamb, A Dissertation upon Roast Pig. Either way, you'll have a great time. Bon appetit.