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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

A Woman's Work

Our lock-down trawl of the family bookshelves unearthed a few gems that I didn't know we owned, including a copy of Mrs Beaton's Cookery Book. Published in 1936, at a time when the servant population was diminishing and would - with the outbreak of the Second World War - diminish even further, the book is something of a revelation to a twenty-first-century cook. Suggestions for delicious meals include:

Brain Fritters. Combine pig's brains with liquid butter, chopped onion and parsley - first cutting the well-washed brains into 'neat pieces' - before searing in hot frying-fat.

Pig's Ears. Soak for five hours, then simmer gently in stock for a further one and a half hours. Dip in seasoned breadcrumbs and bake for half an hour. Four pig's ears should be sufficient for two or three persons.

Pigs Feet and Ears Fricassed. Instructions not dissimilar to above, but here the feet should be cut into neat pieces and the ears cut into strips. Preparation time about two and a half hours.

For those with strong stomachs, there is also a recipe for Boiled Pigs Head, requiring the removal of the hair, eyes, snout and brains, with the head then being soaked in brine and drained daily for six days ahead of your proposed meal. On the day required, it is then simmered gently for about three and a half hours.

A suitable accompaniment to one of the above might be Boiled Brussels Sprouts. Allow one-and-a-half pounds for four people and boil for a full fifteen minutes.

And, to finish the meal, how about a Boiled Bread Pudding, with familiar enough ingredients, but requiring three hours in a steamer on top of the stove?

With so many hours required in the kitchen with the above, state-of-the-art labour-saving devices were coming onto the market - though photographs of early washing machines look reminiscent of instruments from a medieval dungeon.

And the equivalents of the present-day Dyson look little better.

What entertained me most about the book, however, were Mrs Beeton's housewifely hints. For example, to get raw onion smells from a kitchen knife, you are advised to take it outside and plunge it repeatedly into the earth - always remembering to wash it before attacking your next pig's head. That surely must have had the neighbours talking.

When cooking mushrooms, for safety's sake place a clean sixpence in the vessel in which they are being cooked. If the silver shows the least discoloration the mushrooms are unfit for use.

When boiling mushrooms, put a small onion with them. If there is any poison in the mussels the onion will turn black. If good, the onion will retain its natural colour and will not taint the mussels in any way.

A box of quicklime (you would naturally have supplies of this to hand) placed in a cupboard will entirely absorb any damp smells.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his study of married life, entitled 'A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus', makes his heroine say "Mrs Beeton must have been the finest housekeeper in the world. Therefore, Mr Beeton must have been the happiest and most comfortable man". Having studied this book, which advocates large servings of fatty pork accompanied by overcooked sprouts and followed by boiled puddings, I rather suspect he must have been one persistently plagued with indigestion...

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