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
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
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
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
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
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
However the real gem, for me, in this book is the collection of curries that Emma Roberts brought back to
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
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...