JP McMahon: In defence of old cookbooks
Flicking through a 1949 book, what struck was how modern the recipes seemed
The simplicity of the recipes attests to a great respect for the reader
I love the smell of old cookbooks. That musty nuttiness as you raise them to your nose. Turning page after crinkled page, their rough edges caressing your fingertips. Is this solely a phenomenon of our digital age? The fact that we start to miss things only after they are gone. Are cookbooks a thing of the past? Can they compete with the vast tracts of recipes ready to be found with the simple movement of our fingertips over the keyboard?
If anything, the material aspects of cookbooks, particularly as they age over time, is what gives them life. One such book that I found recently offered to me a refreshing window into the past and by consequence a reflection on how we cook now. A Calendar of Food and Wine, published in 1949, provides its reader with a collection of monthly foodstuffs in season, and detailed recipes and wines to accompany them.
Though some aspects of the book appear very dated, such as “Eggs in aspic”, several were so contemporary that I immediately took to sketching some down to use in our restaurant, Aniar. “Blackberry and beetroot chutney” seemed the perfect condiment to accompany our Irish farmhouse cheese platter. What I loved about the way these recipes were written was that they seem crafted to suit the home cook. Their simplicity attests to a great respect for the reader. Perhaps the big difference is the heavily spiced character of the chutney, which has mace, ginger and curry powder, peppercorns, mustard and cayenne: just to taste! In my own version, I choose to leave these spices out and allow the natural flavour of the beetroot and blackberries.
Combine 450g of blackberries and beetroot in a pot with 100g of chopped apples and onions, and two bay leaves. Add 200ml malt vinegar and 200g brown sugar. Bring to the boil and then simmer the lot until, as the writer notes, “cooked and suitably thick. Pout into jars and cover and cool.” We preserve so little in our daily lives. This autumn get out there and make a few jars of something. It’ll save you having to buy Christmas presents.