All images: Persephone Books – supplied.
Author: Melody Menu
Down Gower Street which turns into Bloomsbury Street, past the back end of the British Museum, right at Russell Square onto Southampton Row, through dreary hospital-lined Great Ormond Street, right again and follow it down until you’re there, 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.
I first stumbled upon Persephone Books through an Internet search of bookshops in Soho and was instantly inspired by the premise – a publishing house and bookshop dedicated to reprinting lost novels and books mostly by women from the early to mid-twentieth century. I then found Persephone again days later in the book I was reading at the time, ‘Flaneuse’ by Lauren Elkin, as she relates Bloomsbury’s literary origins. While it certainly wasn’t Soho as I’d initially searched, serendipity would have that it was only a short walk from where I was staying and I was eager to make a visit.
The shop was airy and bright, and hummed with a gentle and inspiring electricity. Pot plants dotted the perimeter of the shop, adding splashes of colour and life, while lampshades and teapots gave it a homely English feel. Each of the one hundred and twenty Persephone ‘originals’ wrapped in their demure grey covers were displayed alongside their unique bookmarks, a proud array of colourful patterns and fabrics that also line the endpapers of their corresponding paperbacks. I instantly gravitated to one title, Good Things In England, the endpaper and bookmark a sunny yellow 1930s pattern, taken from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s curtains.
The book’s author, Florence White, turned out to be England’s first freelance food journalist who trained at the Paris School For Chefs, but whose heart undoubtedly belonged to English cookery. Her classic compendium Good Things In England is a veritable encyclopaedia of all things English cooking and eating, at once a collection of recipes and an instructional text on almost every method of cooking of any sauce, herb, vegetable or animal imaginable at the time. Originally published in 1932, this book isn’t merely an archaic tome relating fanciful foodstuffs and other edible curiosities throughout history – although these are definitely present – but a resource of enlivening and inspired recipes that just beg to be attempted in the here and now.
“The recipes (or receipts as they used to be called) are here. Not only directions for devilling bones, but also for serving marrow bones; not to mention marrow served on toast as Queen Victoria enjoyed it, or made into a pudding as they still serve it on the border.’ – Florence White, Good Things In England, p. 10
From a cavalcade of condiments and chutneys to nettle soup; stewed eels to pig’s head brawn; bilberry pies to Belvoir Castle buns; the recipes are fascinating in their composition, educational in their context, and paint a picture of exceedingly economical and sustainable cookery. The recipes offered up in this book from a whole host of experts and laypeople passing on much-loved family traditions waste next to nothing; take into account good nutrition; are infused with all manner of aromatic herbs; and essentially bear all the hallmarks of modern cuisine as we know it today.
While it may be easy to romanticise the past – cooking over open flames (albeit out of necessity) and the whimsical way the language unfurls from the page aside, the eyebrow-raising and concerning also make an appearance. It is in the subtext that White’s motives for such a book become questionable, stating that ‘English cookery to-day is not what it should be’, not only out of neglect, but also through traditional English food being cooked by foreign chefs ‘who, however good they may be in their own particular line cannot be expected to excel in preparing another nation’s dishes.’ Hmm. The irony here comes from the preceding paragraph which states ‘another good English luncheon dish is curry, especially prawn, or fish curry of the Malay type.’ This only serves to highlight how food, like language, does not occur in a vacuum and is the result of so many years of vibrant and inclusive cross-cultural exchange.
Good Things In England is as much a cookbook as it is an intriguing snapshot of an earlier era – one so far removed from our own and yet also bearing all the forbears of modern English cookery. In this way, it is a cornerstone of English cookery as well as a testament to the inspiring minds at Persephone Books for unearthing such a multifaceted masterpiece. As White herself says, ‘England does not know her wealth.’