WEEKEND: ANTIQUES: Cooking Up a Little New Year Nostalgia

The Birmingham Post (England), January 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

WEEKEND: ANTIQUES: Cooking Up a Little New Year Nostalgia


Byline: RICHARD EDMONDS

Cookery books and recipes have a long history dating back through time to the Ancient Egyptians who preserved their culinary ideas on baked clay tablets.

Therefore, it is clear that old cook books, like everything else associated with kitchens in the past, have an increasing value which seems to grow over the years. Perhaps this could be explained by saying that we are a foodie society with mediocre chefs taking on pop star status in a quite undeserved way.

But the fascination of antique cook books is their eccentric recipes which can often be adapted to modern use.

There are exceptions of course, and we can safely dispense with the ones which begin: 'Take 4 dozen eggs, a large hare and 5 pints of fresh cream,' or others which were once tailored for a huge kitchen manned by 20 sweating chefs and numerous varlets with skivvies around to do the messy bits.

Anybody with enough common sense to recognise self-raising from plain flour, has heard by now of Mrs Beeton, Escoffier, Brillat -Savarin and Fanny Farmer (not to be confused with Fanny Craddock the Sloaniest of all the cookery queens).

But there are others. There was, for example, the great Taillevent who flourished around 1359, when a pound of saffron cost as much as a horse and princely banquets were nothing unless a thousand people sat down to enjoy the fun. If Taillevent enjoys some prestige today, it is simply because his name is attached to a restaurant in Paris.

But nothing is new - not even nouvelle cuisine. In 1765 the French writer Voltaire wrote to a friend that he could not abide it. 'My digestion cannot endure nouvelle cuisine. I cannot endure veal sweetbreads drowned in a salty sauce one inch thick. I won't touch ground-up turkey, hare and rabbit, and I don't like spatchcocked pigeon or bread without a crust. As for cooks, I won't stand for their ham glace nor for a superfluity of morels or mushrooms often used to disguise ingredients which are perfectly good in themselves.'

However, all the best cooks during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries collected cookery books, which were much prized and a source of inspiration for the cook who was required to produce novelties to tempt jaded appetites. The famous Swedish chef, Tore Wretman was no exception. Born in 1916 in Lidingo and educated in Stockholm, Wretman worked in Paris at Maxims, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and at Claridges in London returning to Sweden in the 1940s. All this time, Wretman collected cookery books from the great historical periods and when he was training as a chef at Maxims in Paris, these were the things upon which he spent his spare cash, purchasing them from the antiquarian book sellers around the Sorbonne, absorbing and improvising on what he found between their covers. Finally, it was Wretman who was credited with improving Sweden's stodgy cuisine during the period when he ran all the most prestigious restaurants in Stockholm from the Operkalleran to the Rich and the Teatergrillen. His library must have looked like a book banquet when he was still adding to these things but Sotheby's sold his collection in the 1990s and it has not really been equalled since.

As a chef intrigued by the processes of carving meat and poultry, Wretman owned the finelyillustrated 17th century book L'Art de Trancher la Viande et Toute Sortes de Fruits published in Lyons around 1647. The book had 34 engraved plates including many illustrations showing how to cut fruit and vegetables into ornamental shapes. Today, you might expect to pay over pounds 12,000 for it.

Suggestions how to lay out a fruit and vegetable garden are given in Le Parfait Jardinier, which includes illustrations of the domestic gardens once cultivated at Versailles for the Sun King Louis X1V.

Dated 1695 the book is as rare as BrillatSavarin's celebrated Physiologie du Gout which appeared in 30 different editions between 1823 and 1966 obviously at all kinds of prices. …

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