Dorothy Hartley's Food in England and a fabulous documentary

Dorothy Hartley's
Food in England
It goes without saying that I have loved food all my life. I have loved history for nearly as long. I still remember my light bulb moment when at the age of four, I was plonked down in front of an afternoon television programme, which in the old days was all Open University educational programming. I sat completely mesmerised in front of a documentary about underwater archaeology and have been hooked on history ever since. It took me much longer to put the two passions of food and history together, but since my late 20s I have been following the trail of what we eat, how and why and have savoured every minute of it.

What I could never get my mind around was how derided English cookery was, and not just in Britain! It didn't make any sense that an entire nation of people would deliberately go out of their way to eat awful food or even that a people could collectively have an awful sense of taste. Of course, this didn't make sense at all, and I decided to get to the bottom of it.

What brings food history alive are some writers who can combine the two subjects in a real and compelling way. There are two books which are essential reading for anyone who has an interest in the history of English food. One is Florence White's Good Things in England, a collection of regional family recipes that were in danger of being lost to a modern world, and the other book, possibly one that is more important is Dorothy Hartley's seminal Food in England: A complete guide to the food that makes us who we are.

This post comes with a call to action, the fabulous social historian Lucy Worsley has had a documentary Food in England: The Lost World of Dorothy Hartley on BBC4 and it is still available to watch on i-player for another 4 days. Lucy Worsley has travelled around England and Wales, following in Dorothy Hartley's footsteps to find out more about her life and amazing work.

Dorothy Hartley was born in 1893 in Skipton, Yorkshire. She was a historian, obsessed with Tudor England, and an accomplished illustrator. But Dorothy Hartley, like Florence White, had a fear, that if old English recipes and techniques were not recorded, then they would be lost for ever; that industrialisation and commercialisation of food and farming would lead to a whole wealth of lost knowledge. Fortunately for us, she travelled around the country, recording a food world that no longer exists, a vanished world - a time before refrigeration or plastic wrap.

This is not a traditional history book - you won't find any sources or references, although there is an interesting bibliography. It is full of a detailed history of food in England from the middle ages to the middle of the 20th century. Nor is this a traditional recipe book: there are recipes, but not all of them are referenced and others are in their original English. This is not all English classics for roasts to roly-poly or Hindle Wakes to hot pot, although though there in here too. There are also many recipes that reference Britain's almost piratical ability to steal ingredients from other cuisines and adapt them to our own, largely as a result of trade and colonialism. There's a really interesting 14th century recipe called crypspey which is essentially crispy fried noodles. There is also a really good spicy sauce called rajah to be used on steaks, which reflects Britain's Indian experience.

Then there is something called Rabbit Mumbled, a stew of old rabbits which includes onions, parsley, apples and cider, or another for crisp fried artichokes, a winning accompaniment for a Sunday roast. They all sound very gastropub.

There are a couple of oddities too and some which just wouldn't suit our modern tastes, nor our sensibilities. Muggety Pie drew my eye - that is until I read the ingredients and a description. It is made with a calve's umbilical cord, and an old agricultural worker described it as "all jelly soft it was". Ugh!

However, it is full of anecdotes, delightful illustrations, seasonal wisdom and food lore. There is a lot of information not just on the techniques of cooking but on the tools too. This is not the food of the aristocracy or the rich, just ordinary people. By talking to people, whether farmers, rural workers or fisherman, and their wives, Dorothy Hartley was able to draw their utensils too.

One of anecdotes goes as follows:

There is a witchcraft story, vouched for down west, that one old marsh mother having moved up-country to Swindon, her dutiful grandson, a driver on the railway, stopped and left a bucket of elvers at her cottage. The old woman rejoiced loudly in broad Somerset speech, and set the bucket of elvers on to cook, causing a cry of "Witchcraft!" For she was "seen to take a pail of clear water and set it upon the fire, murmuring incantations and behold! half an hour later she was enjoying a hot fish dinner", and her black cat said it was fish too! (The elvers are invisible in clear water.)

Apparently, Miss Hartley was something of an eccentric; she liked doing her housework while naked. Well good for her! I love this book; it is full of charm and I urge you to get your hands on a copy and your teeth into the beautifully written prose. Yes this book is quaint, even cosy, but it is full of Dorothy Hartley's knowledge and dry humour - an absolute delight.

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