Eliza Acton was a wonderful writer – I often read through her 1845 cookery book, not to find a recipe to use (although I do that too) but to just enjoy what she writes. Her wise observations challenge the idea that English cookery has never been very good and that people didn’t care about what they eat – an idea put around not by ordinary folk who sat down to a good meal prepared with humble ingredients maybe but with skill and imagination, and plenty of extras to add flavour to the dish. But actually, that’s another hobby-horse which I will leave grazing gently in its little pasture, back to Eliza…
It’s ages since we’ve had curry and I’m just looking at the section in Modern Cookery about curries. There’s a general introduction about cooking curries and why English curries might not be quite as good as ‘oriental’, their ‘great superiority‘ is not lack of skill by English cooks, but the fact that our ingredients (including spices) are not ‘fresh and green‘.. She recommends coconut but warns against one which is rancid – considering how long it would take a cargo of coconuts to travel from where they were grown to the port, across the seas and ocean, it’s not surprising that some of them deteriorated.
Spinage, cucumbers, vegetable marrow, tomatoes, acid apples, green gooseberries (seeded) and tamarinds imported in the shell, not preserved – may all, in their season, be added with very good effect.
She is also very particular that rice should be served separately. She has her preferred recipe for home-made curry powder:
Mr Arnott’s currie-powder
- 8 oz turmeric
- 4 oz coriander seed
- 2 oz cummin seed
- 2 oz fœnugreek seed
- 2 oz cayenne, or to taste
- dry, grind, sieve the seeds making sure they are very fresh
There follows different recipes, including Mr Arnott’s own (heart of cabbage, apples, onions, garlic, butter, black pepper, my currie powder, extra cayenne, beef or mutton gravy, roast fowl, rabbit, pork or lamb chops, lobster, calf’s head or ‘anything else you fancy’) Mr Anott, who Eliza quotes, writes in a very modern manner. here he describes cooking rice:
Well! Now for the rice! It should be put into water which should be frequently changed and should remain in for half an hour at least; this both cleans and soaks it. Have your saucepan full of water (the larger the better) and when it boils rapidly, throw the rice in; it will be done in fifteen minutes. Strain it into a dish, wipe the saucepan dry, return the drained rice into it, and put it over a gentle fire for a few minutes, with a cloth over it: every grain will be separate.
This must have been written in the 1830’s or 40’s and yet it is exactly the way I was taught to cook rice by my Pakistani students.
As well as Mr Arnott’s currie, there is Bengal currie which has ginger and cloves as well as the other ingredients, a dry currie which is recommended for prawns, shrimps or lobster, a common Indian currie which looks quite long and complicated with many processes, Selim’s currie (Captain White’s – whoever he was) curried maccaroni, curried eggs, curried sweetbreads (which seem to be a favourite of Eliza’s) curried oysters and curried gravy – which is very popular in chip shops these days! Eliza observes that in India, curds are added to this gravy, possibly, she says because of the lack of ‘sweet’ cream (fresh she means); I wonder if these curds are yoghurt?
I think we’ve always had a taste for hot things, before curry/currie, we enjoyed horseradish, mustard, watercress… yes, I think we’ve always enjoyed food with a little spice!