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Book review: Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

Book review: Food in England by Dorothy Hartley
Food In England
Dorothy Hartley
Published by Piatkus
Hardback £20

Dorothy Hartley was first published in 1954. She remains eminently readable today.

A lot of game passes through my kitchen, so I was intrigued to read what Dorothy Hartley has to say on the subject. As the eager recipient of a brace of pigeons from my neighbour, I was on the lookout for inspiration- and 'Food In England' didn't disappoint. Trouble was, I lacked the requisite beef, pork, hard boiled eggs and suet to complete the sumptuous pie described!

Harley's a witty, engaging author, far ahead of her time. This book, first published in 1954, remains eminently readable today, and certain parts, such as her sage advice on cooking mackerel- 'on no account boil or it loses all flavour and tastes like a wet pin-cushion'- had me laughing out loud. Practical through and through, tips like re-baking the top crust on fruit pie leftovers to prevent it becoming sodden will earn approval from even the most critical cooks. In economic times like these, 'Food In England' is a must-read- thrifty meals are made from the barest store-cupboard ingredients and not a scrap goes to waste.

Whatever your need, it's probably covered here. With sections on 'Fuels and Fireplaces', 'Some English Kitchens', 'Salting Drying and Preserving', 'Coaching Days', 'The Industrial Revolution' and 'Sundry Household Matters', it's as much a vital piece of social history as it is a cookbook. Fans of Constance Spry will be in safe territory- but Hartley also introduces a wealth of material on Tudor and Victorian food culture, peppered with many an idiosyncratic anecdote.

'Food In England' is also a fantastic proponent of British regional foods, something we're very much in danger of losing nowadays. I like to think I know a lot about UK food history- but this book had me constantly surprised and enlightened. Who knew, for instance, the difference between Coventry Godcakes, Banbury Cakes, Clifton Puffs and Eccles Cakes- and that the latter was originally filled with blackcurrants and mint rather than the dried fruit of today?

Intending to just glance through, I frequently found I'd lost hours reading about subjects as diverse as 'Seaweeds', 'Fungi', and 'Fruits, Herbs, Seeds and Flowers'. Those used to modern, lavishly-photographed books may be put off by the prose-heavy tome, but it's more than accessible and worth a browse for the wonderful line drawings and diagrams alone. A book for anyone who eats, or cooks, or has the slightest passion for food, Food In England has a rightful place in every kitchen across the land.
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19 May 2009
By: Zoe Perrett
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