Jellied fish

I inherited a book from my father-in-law, The Congo Cookery Book by Claire E. Willets… this is what i wrote about it some time ago:

In 1942, a book was published and “All profits from the sale of this book will be devoted to ‘The British Women’s War Fund’; it was written by Claire E Willets and published by the Baptist Mission Press, Bolobo, Haut Congo, Congo Belge, for Usines Textiles de Léopoldville, Cong Belge, or ‘Utexleo’ as it was also known. The book was ‘The Congo Cookery Book’ and it is full of fascinating recipes for the Europeans who lived in West Africa at the time, but it is incredibly dated, referring in terms which are no longer acceptable to the Congolese people who were servants to the Belgian rulers and their officials.

Looking down the index which is at the front of the book opposite an advert for Hardy Taxis of Kinshasa, most of the items are what you might expect from any cookery book; the fruit recipes include those for cashew apple, carambola, Brazil cherries, maracoudja, pai pai and star apple. On the next page which continues the index, there is a section on ‘things useful to know’, including substitutes for cooking utensils, stains and home nursing of fever. This page is opposite an advert for Nogueira et Cie, a general provision stores and also European Outfitters. This company boasts of being founded in 1912 and having thirty years experience in native trade goods…  Interestingly the company also has two floating stores, the ships S/W Beira, and S/W Zaire.

There are all sort of interesting little nuggets as you flip through the book… the fact you should mince hippo and buffalo meat twice because it is tough; “if wanted for a meal in  a hurry, the cook can kill a young fowl and cook it at once…”; Leg of Antelope – “skin and remove foot…”; to make ‘mock fish’ take 1 unripe pai pai, butter, milk, gelatine, onion juice and anchovy essence… I think not, I think I can do without mock fish!

I don’t know how old Ms Willets was when she wrote the book, but it is mentioned in the introduction that she has been in the tropics for thirty years. We are so used to international travel, quick and cheap air flights, glimpses into other worlds through film, TV and above all the internet, it is easy to forget that seventy years ago travel would have been difficult, domestic technology primitive, and most of the women who would be using this book would have come the thousands of miles from Europe to a totally alien place and probably in total ignorance of what to expect.

Looking at the book again it seems sad somehow but perhaps understandable that those administrators who were in the Congo – and no doubt in other colonised countries,  tried to live a traditional British life, with items on their menu such as Cornish pasties, toad in the hole and steak and kidney pudding. They did make use of local meat, fruits and other produce, but the tone of the book is definitely ‘home thoughts from abroad. Some of the recipes are so strange I can’t imagine anyone even making them, let alone serving them for dinner…

Jellied fish

  • raw white fish, cooked in salted water and left to cool
  • 5 tbsp vinegar
  • 5 tbsp water
  • 1 lime or lemon, sliced
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 2 leaves gelatine
  • 1 each clove and bayleaf
  • salt, pepper, nutmeg
  1. boil water, vinegar, clove, bayleaf, salt, pepper, nutmeg
  2. add gelatine and stir until dissolved
  3. add lemon/lime and onion
  4. pour over fish and leave to set

Boiled fish, a jelly made from vinegar and water, raw slices of onion and a lemon or lime, one single teeny-weeny clove and a lonely bayleaf, oh and the extra flavour of salt, pepper and nutmeg. Is this just me, or is this a really unpleasant and weird combination, and who would even want a jelly with cold fish? No thanks!!

Snow Capped Mountains

I’m not exactly sure when the traditional pattern was set for British dining, with a starter, a main and a dessert… certainly even in lees well-off families having  soup with bread before the main meal – a soup which could be made from scraps or leftovers or the cheapest and most available vegetables, would fill the family up so they would need less of the meat or fish or whatever the more expensive principal of the meal should be. In some areas the batter pudding (Yorkshire pudding) was served first with gravy, and again the idea was to be a filler Sometimes the pudding would have been cooked beneath the roasting meat, catching all the lovely flavoursome drips so no gravy would have been necessary.

With the main course, filling the family up would be the aim, and as cheaply as possible, hence puddings and pies and lots of vegetables and a small amount of meat or fish, often the cheapest cuts, or with cheap meat added to the ‘better’ quality, as in steak and kidney pies and puddings!

So desserts…  fruit grown in the garden, preserved in a variety of ways, and again in pies, puddings and tarts to make the tasty stuff spread as far as possible. using eggs – maybe from chickens in the garden, to make custards and soufflés and meringues, all made mealtimes more interesting and enjoyable.

When British people went abroad, they took their dining customs with them, trying to recreate as well as they could exactly what they would have eaten back in ‘Blighty’ although this may see strange now.

In the recipe book my father-in-law brought back from east Africa where he had served during the war, ‘The Congo Cookery Book’ by Mrs Willett, I came across this recipe for Snow Capped Mountains:

Take 2 cups Fruit pulp. This can be either diced ripe Mango, ripe but firm Pai Pai, Cour de Bœuf, Pineapple, or almost ay other Fruit. For Mango or Pai Pai, cover the fruit with 2 tablespoons Ginger (Congo) Syrup and chill if possible for ½ an hour (covered to retain the ginger flavour).

Make a rather thick custard of:-
3 tablespoons corn flour, 1½ cups milk and the yolk of two eggs, beaten in when the corn flour is cooked but still boiling hot. Cool and chill. beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and when the custard is thoroughly cold,put the fruit on a dish in a high pile, pour the custard over it and top with the beaten whites with sugar (fine white Congo) folded in t the last moment.

When eggs are scarce, make the custard without egg yolks, colour with a little cochineal and top with whipped cream or thick milk whipped and thickened with a little gelatine dissolved in it. (See “Substitutes” for “Cochineal” and “Cream”.)

I looked up ‘Substitutes and Equivalents’ which is introduced by ‘All who have lived in the bush know there are times when one has to think of a Substitute for some ingredient…’ For cochineal they recommend he water from cooking beetroot with a squeeze of lemon, and cream involves corn flour, sugar, milk and butter… or just do without? I suppose it gave a taste of home, and I guess many of the women did not necessarily choose to be there, but went with their husbands who were ‘serving’ overseas..

So dated…

In 1942, a book was published and “All profits from the sale of this book will be devoted to The British Women’s War Fund’; it was written by Claire E Willets and published by the Baptist Mission Press, Bolobo, Haut Congo, Congo Belge, for Usines Textiles de Léopoldville, Cong Belge, or ‘Utexleo’ as it was also known. The book was ‘The Congo Cookery Book’ and it is full of fascinating recipes for the Europeans who lived in West Africa at the time, but it is incredibly dated, referring in terms which are no longer acceptable to the Congolese people who were servants to the Belgian rulers and their officials.

Looking down the index which is at the front of the book opposite an advert for Hardy Taxis of Kinshasa, most of the items are what you might expect from any cookery book; the fruit recipes include those for cashew apple, carambola, Brazil cherries, maracoudja, pai pai and star apple. On the next page which continues the index, there is a section on ‘things useful to know’, including substitutes for cooking utensils, stains and home nursing of fever. This page is opposite an advert for Nogueira et Cie, a general provision stores and also European Outfitters. This company boasts of being founded in 1912 and having thirty years experience in native trade goods…  Interestingly the company also has two floating stores, the ships S/W Beira, and S/W Zaire.

There are all sort of interesting little nuggets as you flip through the book… the fact you should mince hippo and buffalo meat twice because it is tough; “if wanted for a meal in  a hurry, the cook can kill a young fowl and cook it at once…”; Leg of Antelope – “skin and remove foot…”; to make ‘mock fish’ take 1 unripe pai pai, butter, milk, gelatine, onion juice and anchovy essence… I think not, I think I can do without mock fish!

I don’t know how old Ms Willets was when she wrote the book, but it is mentioned in the introduction that she has been in the tropics for thirty years. We are so used to international travel, quick and cheap air flights, glimpses into other worlds through film, TV and above all the internet, it is easy to forget that seventy years ago travel would have been difficult, domestic technology primitive, and most of the women who would be using this book would have come the thousands of miles from Europe to a totally alien place and probably in total ignorance of what to expect.