Friday, 23 July 2010

Mrs Beeton's Apple Compote

INGREDIENTS 6 ripe apples, 1 lemon, 1/2 lb. of lump sugar, 1/2 pint of water.

Mode.—Select the apples of a moderate size, peel them, cut them in halves, remove the cores, and rub each piece over with a little lemon. Put the sugar and water together into a lined saucepan, and let them boil until forming a thickish syrup, when lay in the apples with the rind of the lemon cut thin, and the juice of the same. Let the apples simmer till tender; then take them out very carefully, drain them on a sieve, and reduce the syrup by boiling it quickly for a few minutes. When both are cold, arrange the apples neatly on a glass dish, pour over the syrup, and garnish with strips of green angelica or candied citron. Smaller apples may be dressed in the same manner: they should not be divided in half, but peeled and the cores pushed out with a vegetable-cutter.
Time.—10 minutes to boil the sugar and water together; from 15 to 25 minutes to simmer the apples.
Average cost, 6d.
Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons. Seasonable from July to March.

Well, that sounds quite nice, doesn't it? Not Victorian and stodgy at all, and doesn't call for six pints of cream.

"Many people think of cookbooks as beginning with Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management: Abridged edition (Oxford World's Classics) in 1861..." FT July 2010 There have been cookbooks practically since William Caxton invented the printing press. Mrs Beeton's fame is largely the work of her publishing husband, Sam. Mrs B herself cribbed most of her book from printed sources, but she knew how to write instructions that were easy to follow.

In her day, sugar came in loaves, and you hacked off bits as you needed them. She was obsessed with skimming everything, soup in particular. The Victorian ideal was completely clear soup, jelly etc, so the cook had to spend a lot of time skimming and straining liquids through muslin.

Mrs B is known for recipes that call for six eggs and pints of cream - but Isabella had cows and hens in her back garden. That way she was assured a supply of fresh eggs and milk, they were cheap, and she needed to use them up.

Bread, on the other hand, was expensive, even if you made it yourself, and she used a lot of eggs and cream turning every left-over crust into bread pudding.

She's also famous for giving menus for banquets of 16 courses. Of course you weren't meant to eat it all: it was like a buffet or a tasting menu. I'm sure her readers loved it – they could imagine themselves at grand parties. Most of her book is about stretching Sunday's joint of mutton through the week.

Vicarage Mutton
Hot on Sunday
Cold on Monday
Hashed on Tuesday
Minced on Wednesday
Curried on Thursday
Broth on Friday
Cottage Pie Saturday

Kathryn Hughes recently wrote a new biography of Mrs Beeton, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. It's breezily, not to say carelessly, written, and gives a lot of interesting information about Sam and Isabella's magazine (they were the first to include paper patterns for home dressmaking, and used to visit Paris to note the latest fashions). It could have done with some editing and cutting – she is morbidly obsessed with the symptoms of disease.

Isabella Beeton never lived to be the stuffy matron we imagine her. This energetic and pioneering woman journalist died in her late 20s after suffering several miscarriages. None of her children survived early childhood.

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