Hannah Glasse was the original domestic godess who found fame and fortune with her recipes for low-cost fine dining. Jane Hall pays tribute to the North countrywoman - and reveals how her trademark dishes are being brought back to life 260 years on.
TENS of thousands of cookbooks are destined to be bought as presents over the coming month.
Food – or at least its cooking – has never been more popular with the TV schedules reflecting the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for the subject.
This week alone Heston Blumenthal, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, James Martin, Gordon Ramsey and Nigella Lawson have all been imparting their culinary wisdom.
But while millions of us will have tuned in and salivated over Blumenthal’s perfect fish pie, few will ever bother to recreate this traditional dish brought up-to-date.
Indeed, statistics show that only two recipes out of any new book are attempted. Queen of gastro-porn Nigella Lawson may be as admired for her heaving bosom and seductive curves as for her sticky toffee pudding’s charming style, but she has had no more luck in coaxing the nation back into the kitchen than her celebrity colleagues.
It was an altogether different story 260 years ago, however, when the illegitimate offspring of a Northumberland gentleman lawyer put pen to paper and found herself at the head of a an 18th century culinary revolution.
Mother of nine Hannah Glasse only wrote The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy to stave off bankruptcy. But this seminal work from the original domestic goddess was to remain at the top of the bestseller list for 125 years – despite attempts at the time to undermine its authority.
In male-dominated Georgian England, it was assumed a woman couldn’t have written such an eloquent and well-organised work. Leading literary figure Dr Samuel Johnson famously said of Hannah’s effort: “Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cookery.” He promised to write the best collection of recipes ever; he never got around to it.
The plain and easy instructions for low-cost fine dining outlined in The Art of Cooking, swiftly reformed cuisine for the 18th century professional classes. From puddings boiled in the guts of slaughtered animals to turtle dressed the West Indian way (there’s nothing mock about the latter, using as it does a real turtle laid on its back overnight lest it make a bid for freedom), The Art of Cooking paints not only a fascinating portrait of a businesswoman who saved her family’s fortunes, but who unwittingly made a key contribution to the creation of modern food.
For Hannah is credited with committing to print the earliest recipe for Indian curry in an English cookbook. Asian food was becoming popular in Britain during the 18th century, reflecting the tastes developed by the employees of the East India Company.
Hannah’s success in what was an already overcrowded cookery book market, is a remarkable story. The daughter of Isaac Allgood of Hexham and an Irish widow, Mrs Hannah Reynolds, she was born in London in 1708. Her father was already married, but this didn’t impede his liaison with Mrs Reynolds, and two more children were born, this time in Northumberland.
Hannah’s mother – whom she describes as a “wicked wretch” – seems to have been ‘put aside’ by Isaac in 1714. Hannah junior was then absorbed into the main Allgood household.
In 1724, aged 16, she moved to London to live with her grandmother. By this time her stepmother had died and her father was unwell.
Like many seduced by the bright lights of the capital, Hannah seems to have gone off the rails, and in August 1724 secretly married by special licence John Glasse, a subaltern on half-pay. When the union came to light a month later, Hannah’s grandmother immediately turned her out and the new Mr and Mrs Glasse were forced to move to rooms above a chemist’s shop in the Haymarket.
By all accounts John Glasse was a feckless and penniless man. It was through financial necessity rather than an obsession with the culinary arts that Hannah decided to write The Art of Cookery at the age of 39. Her ever-growing family needed money to support it – and Hannah saw no reason why she couldn’t be the one to bring home the bacon.
Fortuitously she saw the gap in the market for a book that met the practical needs and constraints of a middle class kitchen. And having fallen on hard times herself, she was in a unique position to teach the professional classes about fine dining on a budget. She was not a professional cook, however, her expertise lying in dressmaking. Yet when The Art of Cookery was published it was an instant success. Equally popular with ladies of the house and domestic cooks and servants, it would go on to be reprinted in no less than 26 editions – and is still available today.
The book was intended as an instruction manual for servants: “the lower sort,” as she called them.
During the 1700s there was a fashion for books of this kind, which were designed to save the lady of the house from the tedious duty of instructing her kitchen maids. As Hannah said, the book should “improve the Servants and save the Ladies a great deal of Trouble.”
She is scornful of the elaborate and extravagant French recipes of the time. “If gentlemen will have French Cooks, they must pay for French Tricks,” she writes, as well as the fanciful language used by other cookery book writers, which she feels confuses servants. “I have not wrote [sic] in the high, polite Stile [sic], I hope I shall be forgiven; for my Intention is to instruct the lower Sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way.
“For example; when I bid them lard a Fowl, if I should bid them lard with large Lardoons, they would not know what I meant: But when I say they must be lard with little Pieces of Bacon, they know what I mean.”
Following the success of The Art of Cookery, Hannah opened a fine clothes shop in London’s Covent Garden. It was a huge gamble – and one that unfortunately didn’t pay off. Her failure outstripped her success and in 1754 she was declared bankrupt, and was forced to sell her only real asset: the copyright for The Art of Cookery.
The book may be 260 years old, but much that Hannah wrote is as relevant today as it was in 1747 (turtles and cures for the plague aside).
More than a century before Mrs Beeton wrote her famous Book of Household Management, Hannah explains how to prepare beef, mutton, lamb, veal and pork, discusses dripping, gravy, par-boiling, fat pans and basting, and uses a range of ingredients including nutmeg, sage, apple sauce and breadcrumbs. She also gives complex directions for spit-roasting a pig.
Now tribute is to be paid to the ‘mother of the dinner party’ on home soil when some of her trademark recipes are recreated as part of a Made in Northumberland Leek, Onion and Heritage day at Woodhorn Colliery in Ashington, next Thursday. The day is the fourth of six events being run by Northumbria Tourism aimed at increasing the range of locally produced goods – including food – offered to visitors to the county.
Thursday’s event for chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers from across Northumberland, will include a visit to the allotment of giant leek and onion grower Bob Bell, in Ashington, as well as a local food heritage talk and the recreation of some of Hannah’s recipes by award-winning chef, Richard Sim.
Hannah didn’t specifically include Northumberland recipes in The Art of Cooking, but she makes use of ingredients that were, and still are, plentiful in the area, including game, beef, lamb, venison and gooseberries.
Richard, executive chef of specialist gourmet food producer, Newcastle-based Fresh Element, is thrilled to have been asked to interpret Hannah’s 18th century fare for a modern day audience.
“I’m very interested in Northumberland recipes and old, traditional foods. I didn’t know Hannah Glasse existed until about four weeks ago, and while her recipes are hard to follow by modern standards, they are fascinating and give a unique insight into 18th century food and life. But the real thing that stands out is how easily Hannah’s recipes translate for a modern audience.
“They make use of quality locally sourced fresh and seasonal ingredients, which is at the heart of what the Made In Northumberland days are about.
The whole point is to get more tourists up here and to get more local food on the menu. By running these events we want people to spread the word about the varied and distinct produce we have on our doorstep and give the visitor a reason to return to Northumberland out of season.
“Leeks and onions are grown in gardens up and down the county. But it all started with gooseberries. People came from far and wide to buy North-East grown gooseberries.
“That is how vegetable shows developed to exhibit the finest, and from there leek and onion showing. Leeks and onions are an important part of Northumberland heritage, yet so many recipes have been forgotten.
“You never see white onion soup on the menu these days or leek dumplings. But both are classic Northern dishes, which is why I will be preparing and cooking them on Thursday alongside one of Hannah’s recipes.
“My big thing is getting people in the industry cooking rather than buying everything in. Tourists want local produce and dishes; they don’t want something they can get everywhere.
“And what could be better on a pub menu on a cold winter’s day than leek dumplings with mutton and mash? Or one of Hannah’s trademark pies or stews using local game?”
Giant Leeks and Onions runs at Woodhorn Colliery, Ashington, on November 29. The event is by invitation only. Contact Helen Spark on email@example.com
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To make a curry the Indian way
Two fowls or rabbits, cut into small pieces
Three or four small onions, peeled and cut very small
Large spoonful of rice
Coriander seeds, browned over the fire in a clear shovel, and beaten to a powder
Teaspoonful of salt
Pint of water
Mix all well together with the meat, put all together in a saucepan or stew pan with a pint of water, let it stew softly till the meat is enough, then put in a piece of fresh butter, about as big as a large walnut, shake it well together, and when it is smooth and of a fine thickness, dish it up, and send it to table; if the sauce is too thick, add a little more water before it is done, and more salt if it wants it.
You are to observe that the sauce must be pretty thick.