Friday, 23 July 2010

Ruthless Inroads on the Butter

One of my favourite books of all time is A Calender of Country Receipts, by Nell Heaton. It was first published in May of 1950 and is full of a post-war optimism and love of simple delights. Heaton takes the idea of a woman working in her "still room" and modernises the gardener and preserver's calender. The book is charming, idiosyncratic and useful. Here's an extract from the foreword.

As the modern housewife spends her leisure far away from the kitchen, there is no virtue in looking for labour for its own sake; she needs a pleasant, workable, well-fitted kitchen-storeroom, or kitchen with storeroom annexe, as beautifully supplied with chattels as her income will allow, and the ability to combine age-old lore with modern practice and thus to take advantage of every season's plenty. Needless to say, such accomplishments as these are an enrichment to herself and all her family.

The book takes you through the gardener's month - what to plant and when to plant it - and then the cook's calender. Each week of the year is prefaced with an appropriate poem and illustration. Her writing style and choice of poetry is charming and idiosyncratic: I can imagine the Provincial Lady or Miss Buncle using, laughing at, and loving this book. I have always been charmed by her instructions for the housewife in in the first week of July. Here they are.

We have mentioned "classic" jams and perhaps, with lemon meringue pie, this may be termed a "classic" sweet:
Make a good shortcake with ruthless inroads on the butter. Take fresh ripe strawberries and mash in a bowl with castor sugar. Fill the shortcake with a good thick layer, place a similar shortcake on top, and cover with cream, the best you can get. Use next day, as strawberry juice must seep into the shortcake.

The book presupposes that one knows automatically how to make a shortcake, and Heaton assumes that a post-war housewife would stinge on the butter, she is right to instruct "ruthless inroads", I made a strawberry shortcake the other day and it was absolutely, wonderfully buttery and good. However, because dear old Nell's receipts are rather scanty on the the old weights and measures front I resorted to the internet and found this lovely recipe.

Other recipes for July include Agrimony Wine, Stoned Cherry Cheese, and Lemon Fig Jam. In the third week of July she quotes this poem:

The lark's long rapture and the yellowing corn,
The household fires and make that circles free
Around the tree-tops; cities, human stress -
The dear familiar thins of earthliness."

...and then suggests that the reader make Cherry Brandy. I've done this and it was very, very nice and knocked the socks off my sloe gin. I shall make some more when I come back from Cornwall. Here's the recipe if you want to give it a go. I shall quote Nell verbatim so you get the full force of her personality.

The majority of recipes prescribe Morello cherries, but any not-over-sweet ones will serve. Wipe and de-stalk them except for the last 1/2 inch of stalk. Weigh them, then put into wide-necked bottles. Do not cram them in, you'll need room for the brandy. Prick each cherry and drop castor sugar evenly in the jars (3 oz to 1 lb of cherries). Fill up with good brandy, cork tightly, seal with wax. Keep for 2 to 3 months.

There's a sense of joyous gratitude of home and hearth which the book exudes, and I suppose this comes from the fact that the war was over and those husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who have come back fit and well, deserve happy homes and a better future. And, importantly, if you have been through the mill and had tough times it's the simple pleasures of good food and lavender scented sheets which make life sweet and pleasurable.

Well, I must be off and pack for my holidays. I shall see you next week, until then, Anon!

PS. Lest you think me a culinary genious I should admit that the photo of the strawberry shortcake above is not mine own. The Domum shortcake was far more messy!


Sue said...

I'm going to have to track down a copy of this book. What beautiful prose. It puts me in mind of Dorothy Hartley's writing in Food In England which was published in 1954 and is a mine of fascinating information and history as well as quite practical recipes.

Thank you for bringing Nell to my attention

Sue x

monix said...

My memories of the early fifties (when I was a mere infant, you understand!) don't include much butter into which to make ruthless inroads, although I do love the sound of that. We had the most disgusting Special Margarine and a tiny ration of butter which my mother saved for a Sunday teatime treat. Perhaps Nell Heaton was a farmer's wife or, better still, a black marketeer? Wherever she got the butter, I like her style.

We are having a very damp time in the West Country at present. I do hope it clears for your visit and that you have a lovely holiday.

Like sunshine in the home said...

I love ye olde booksies. I just bought my eldest a vintage copy of Five Go Adventuring Again. Lol, I have it on my bedside table so that I can gloat over it. :)

My shortbread has so much butter in it I don't make it often as it costs a fortune. I've never made strawberry shortcake, but I have a yen now.

Have a sooper holiday.

Gumbo Lily said...

But you ARE a culinary genius! You made shortcake with extra butter -- genius!

Love the sounds of the book.


Angela said...

I must check out Agrimony Wine, it sounds wonderful.
And I think that while you continue to make splendid shortcake, you cannot complain about having a Ferris-Like-Figure!!
The Lord Delights In Fatness [it says that somewhere in the Bible I think]