Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Curry From the British Raj

This is an article that I’ve been meaning to write up for many, many years but for various reasons have never previously got around to.

The most influential and greatest cookery book of the 19th Century was not, as many people think, Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management. And it is not, as many others think, Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, although it is perhaps interesting to note that Beeton and Acton agree on so many fundamentals you’d have thought that Mrs B copied, wholesale, the earlier work of Mrs A.

The truth is that both women gleefully and extensively based their works on that of an earlier author. By the time Eliza Acton's first book appeared on the scene in 1845 there had already been a ‘modern’ cookery book in wide circulation in Great Britain for many years. The most reprinted edition of Acton’s book is actually the much expanded 1855 edition, so her work can't even be considered really complete until that time - and it wasn’t until 1859 that Beeton’s recipes started to be published in periodicals, with her first book appearing in 1861 - a full sixteen years after Acton's book first appeared - and sixty years after the book that both drew so much from.

In fact, the author of the book that fundamentally influenced Acton, Beeton and cookery in general so much had been dead for over 30 years by the time Beeton's book was published and some seventeen years before Acton's. And five years before Acton's first cookery book appeared, that original book was a more globalised and multinational collection of food than arguably any other of the century to follow – a collection of recipes that spanned British puddings, stews and pies, French classic cuisine, dishes from across Europe and which then reached out to include Jewish, Arab, Indian and Malay recipes.

What, then, was this seminal, mostly forgotten, work?

‘A New System of Domestic Cookery’ by ‘A Lady’, was actually the work of Mrs. Maria Rundell, described by her vengeful publisher, John Murray, as ‘the sister of the eminent jeweller of Ludgate Hill’. Murray was vengeful because she’d made his life hell for years, and at the same time was Mike Oldfield to his Richard Branson – the success of Rundell’s book established Murray’s publishing company, but Maria Rundell was a frustrating, demanding and generally pernickety old stick: by all accounts an almost impossible character. Murray's revenge was to add a note to the foreword correcting Maria Rundell's claim that she had no profit by the book, with an ironical note that she had been persuaded to accept an emolument by her publisher.

By the time Eliza Acton’s book was published, Maria Rundell’s was in its 69th edition – including major additions and improvements that had been made to the book five years earlier by its editor, the writer, traveller and editor Emma Roberts.

In 1828, aged 83, Maria Rundell died in Lausanne but her book continued to be highly popular, publishing editions until the 1880s. She, therefore, can be considered the most influential figure in 19th century cookery - and therefore on 20th century cookery - in Britain.

Not Beeton and not Acton.

But for me, it’s not Rundell who is the most fascinating character in the history of this uniquely important book. It’s Roberts.

Emma Roberts was quintessentially Victorian. Born near Leeds into a military family in 1794, Roberts travelled to India in 1828 on the death of her mother in order to live with her sister. Her time saw her stationed in Agra, Cawnpore and other stations in upper India. At the time when British attitudes in India were changing from the assimilation and respect of informal Empire into the more stratified and distantly intolerant superiority that helped to provoke the great Indian Mutiny, Roberts’ journals on life in India defended the ‘natives’ and drew enlightening sketches of life in India for a wide audience at home. By 1831, Roberts’ sister had died and she moved to Calcutta to become the editor of The Oriental Observer. A year later, her health broken by overwork, she returned to England.

For the next ten years Emma Roberts wrote articles for The Asiatic Journal and dedicated herself to the massive job of editing Rundell’s ‘A New System of Domestic Cookery’, with the addition of some nine hundred new recipes (‘receipts’ in the language of the day) to what was already widely recognised as the definitive lexicon of modern cookery. The 64th edition, edited and additionalised by Emma Roberts and published in 1840, was reprinted annually due to demand until the 69th edition of 1846.

Which is the edition I have. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

Emma Roberts only barely survived the publication of the book: by September 1840 she had died at Pune (then Poonah) having travelled back out to India in 1839. She was widely mourned back in Great Britain; her poetry, books and articles had won her a wide audience. And her death probably deprived India of a much-needed positive influence at the time: she had intended to devote herself to improving the lot of Indian women with a scheme to provide education and employment for them. It was not to be.

Emma Roberts’ contribution to Rundell’s cookery book rounds what stands today as a magical piece of Victoriana. It contains recipes for things like pies made with 24 brace of pheasant, along with hints and tips for ‘cookery for the poor’, including ‘…a thing called a brewis which is thus made:- cut a very thick upper crust of bread and put it into the pot where salt beef is boiling and near ready; it will attract some of the fat and when swelled out will be no unpalatable dish to those who rarely taste meat.’

Indeed. Oh, lucky poor. The reference does inform the moral climate that was to react so poorly to the poor of Ireland a few years later when the famine hit. The language of the book alone is a treat. And it’s not useless stuff by any means: the trifle recipe is one of many in this book that I took to using and still use today.

However the real gem, for me, in this book is the collection of curries that Emma Roberts brought back to England with her. The King of Oudh’s Curry (given to Emma in person by the King's Khansamar, if you don't mind); Country Captain; Kicharee (kedjeree); Dopeaza Curry, Lord Clive’s Curry and Dumpokht (‘the dish mentioned in the Arabian Nights as the kid stuffed with pistachios’) are just some of the very real Indian recipes that adorned the tables of retired, red-faced and whiskery colonels as they told endless stories of the baking plains and hill-station shenanigans.

These are truly Indian curries, boiling hot and laced with grated fresh spices, ginger and garlic. Why on earth they were lost to us and how ‘curry’ in Britain came to mean a bland meat stew made with Sharwood’s curry powder is another story.

Here’s one of them: a culinary voice from 150 years ago, that of Emma herself. See what you think. I'll do her trifle for you before Christmas, too. It's a wow...

The Bankshall Curry

No comments: