the gentle heart of a recipe: hilda leyel's salad of mint leaves and beans

hilda leyel's salad of mint leaves and beans
Whenever I can, I like to wallow in old cookbooks. It both comforts and relaxes me; I enjoy immersing myself in the food of older times; ferreting out bits of lost knowledge and useful thoughts.

One of my favourite writers is Hilda Leyel, published as the very formal Mrs. C.F. Leyel, who founded the Society of Herbalists in 1927 and launched a chain of herbalist shops, Culpeper. If I was to review any of her books it should really be The Gentle Art of Cookery, which was published in 1925, a book that I suspect was a little ahead of its time, with sections on Flower Recipes and Cooking for Children. I am entranced by an appendix of essential pantry ingredients "The Alchemist's Cupboard" and the chapter entitled "Dishes from The Arabian Nights." (Would it be fanciful of me to think that perhaps Mrs Leyel had a bit of a crush on Rudolph Valentino?)

The recipes themselves are mostly very good and include Provençale aubergines, the "usual way of cooking Red Mullet" and "an Arabian way of cooking Red Mullet," a Chrysanthemum flower salad with artichoke bottoms, potatoes, capers and prawns, as well as more familiar classic recipes such as Sauce Robert, Burnt Cream or Palestine Soup. Unusual for its time, there are as many, if not more, recipes for vegetables and fruit as there are for meat and fish. Seakale and salsify are mentioned. In fact there is an entire section on the use of nuts such as walnuts and chestnuts. I suspect I am never going to attempt Brains Piquante or Crème de Menthe Jelly, although who can tell? There may come a time when deep-fried breaded cucumbers or Épinards au Sucre (a paste of cooked spinach, salt, sugar, lemon zest, macaroons and crushed ratafia biscuits) are the only dishes that will do.

Recently I treated myself to a reissued copy of Hilda Leyel's The Perfect Picnic (at a time, when as a hopelessly English optimist, I thought that we might have a summer and good picnicking weather. Dear god, what on earth was I thinking? This summer was a case of "blink and you'll miss it, where the hell are my galoshes?")

hilda leyel's salad of mint leaves and beans
Published in 1935 and inspired by a picnic on the West Sussex coast, Hilda Leyel's advice on the best picnic recipes includes crab tartlets, pickled peaches, game terrine, fish chowder, pea and ham salad, caramel and nut ice, and polenta and orange cake. (Yes, POLENTA AND ORANGE CAKE in an English recipe book in 1935. Apologies for shouting, but this blew my mind a little.) Anyway, this little book is an enchanting and satisfyingly indulgent read, charmingly illustrated by Kate Bland. Perhaps summer is over this year, but buy a copy and be ready for next year.

Salad of Mint Leaves and Beans

Take some cold French beans and mix with them the inner leaves of small round lettuces with a good deal of the heart on them, and mint leaves, about a third of each. Dress with oil and vinegar and sprinkle with chopped olives and finely chopped hard-boiled eggs.

I adapted Hilda Leyel's recipe a little; largely because I thought that the ratio of mint was a little high. Mint is such a robust herb that it might overwhelm the other more delicate flavours.

Serves 1
Skill level: Easy

cooked green beans
little gem lettuce
green olives, sliced (I used ones stuffed with pimentos; I love their retro vibe and it was what I had in the cupboard!)
1 x hard-boiled egg, finely chopped
mint, finely chopped
salad dressing
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
half tsp Dijon mustard
half tsp runny honey
a generous pinch of salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp vegetable oil


  1. Make the dressing by combining the vinegar with the mustard, honey and a little salt in a small lidded jar. Add the oils. Screw on the lid and shake vigorously until the dressing has emulsified. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Set aside.
  2. Scatter a large plate with little gem lettuce leaves and cooked green beans.
  3. Top with sliced olives, chopped boiled egg and a scattering of chopped mint. (Only you know just how much mint you like!)
  4. Drizzle with a little of the salad dressing.

1 comment:

Bintu @ Recipes From A Pantry said...

The bliss of loosing yourself in a recipe book along with a drink and a delicious bite to eat - especially when you then find a great recipe.