Thursday 26 January 2012

Eliza Acton, The First Domestic Goddess

Eliza Acton, The First Domestic Goddess

I will admit, that if I have a cookery heroine, it is Hannah Glasse, who wrote and cooked during the middle of the 18th Century and had her volume, The Art of Cookery published in 1747. But next on that list has to be Eliza Acton, who wrote her Modern Cookery in 1845.

Acton's book was the model on which later writers (most notably Mrs Beeton and Francatelli) based their cookery books (indeed 150 of Acton's recipes find their way into Beeton's book).

Eliza Acton was one of the first modern writers to direct her recipes at the ordinary family (by which read the servants of middle class and lower middle class families) rather than at professional chefs.

But what makes her book stand out is the readability of the prose and that the list of ingredients and cookig times are separated out of the main text and presented at the end of the recipe. She created the template for the way that modern recipes are presented.

Of course, not all the recipes are hers, she gathered them from friends and acquaintances and presented these in her books as well. But what comes out of the writing and the presentation is that she actually tested and tasted all these recipes and she comments on which ones she particularly thinks are good, expressing this in brackets next to the recipe itself. All in a very understated and English way, of course.

Her book remained in print until 1915 and there are now new faximile editions available as well. But what I cannot unserstand is why this remarkable cookery writer is not so well know. Most people have heard of Mrs Beeton, but few have heard of Eliza Acton.

She was born on the 17th of April, 1799 in Battle, Sussex. She was the eldes of the five children of Elizabeth Mercer and John Acton. She always seemed determined to make her own way in the world and at the age of seventeen, she and a friend opened a school for girls in Claydon, near Ipswich which remained open for four years. Her health was always precarious, and it seems that at the school's closure she travelled to France. She may have travelled for her health and there may have been an unhappy love-affair when she was in France (which is hinted at in her poetry).

What she certainly did was to fall in love with French foods and French food preparation methods. In 1826 she published her volume of poetry, entitled Poems. But Longman, her publisher rejected her second volume of poetry and suggested she try something else, perhaps a cookery book. Eliza seems to have taken the advice to heart and she spent over a decade testing and improving recipes. This led to her Modern Cookery, published in 1845. This was so successful, that a second edition was published that same year, as well as an ammended volume for the American market.

There are many who claim that this is the best cookery book in the English language. It is certainly a seminal volume, and all the other contenders to the title, Mrs Beeton, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson all owe a debt (which most of them acknowledge) to Eliza Acton.

I have a rather precious copy of th 1865 edition in my collection. But what I find truly astonishing is that the text is not available on the web (there is a poorly scanned PDF in Google Books). So, I have decided, as part of my site, Celtnet Recipes' aim to put historic and ancient cookery texts on the web, to add Eliza Acton's volume to the texts already on the site.

Currently you can read a brief Biography of Eliza Acton, and the work to digitize the text has begun. You can find the text of Modern Cookery, with everything uploaded so far at: Text of Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery.

Below is an example recipe from Eliza Acton's book, with a modern redaction.

(Original Receipts.)

     Mix well together ten ounces of fine wheaten flour, and six of flour of rice (or rice ground to powder), the grated rind of a lemon, and three-quarters of an ounce of ginger : pour nearly boiling upon these a pound of treacle, five ounces of fresh butter, and five of sugar, melted together in a saucepan; beat the mixture, which will be almost a batter, with a wooden spoon, and when quite smooth leave it until its is perfectly cold, then add to it five ounces of grated cocoa-nut, and when it is thoroughly blended with the other ingredients, lay the paste in small heaps upon a buttered tin, and bake them in a very slow oven from half to three-quarters of an hour.
     Flour, 10 oz.; ground rice, 6 oz.; rind of 1 lemon; ginger, 3/4 oz.; treacle, 1 lb.; sugar, 5 oz.; butter, 5 oz.; cocoa-nut, 5 oz. : 1/2 to 3/4 hour.
     Or: Flour, 1/2 lb.; ground rice, 1/2 lb.; ginger, 3/4 oz.; rind of 1 lemon; butter, 5 oz,; sugar, 5 oz.; treacle, 1 lb.; cocoa-nut 6 1/2 oz.
     Obs.—The cakes made by them are excellent.

Modern Redaction:

300g plain flour
180g rice flour
finely-grated zest of 1 lemon
25g ground ginger
500ml treacle (molasses)
150g sugar
150g butter
150g freshly-grated coconut

Mix together the flours, lemon zest and ground ginger in a heat-proof bowl.

Combine the treacle, sugar and butter in a saucepan. Heat gently until the ingredients have melted and combined then increase the heat slightly and bring almost to the boil.

Take off the heat them pour over the dry ingredients. Beat well with a wooden spoon unil completely combined and smooth. Set aside to cool completely then work in the grated coconut.

Line a baking tray with greaseproof (waxed) paper and drop the batter by the heaped tablespoons onto it, mounding then slightly (allow room to spread whilst cooking).

Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 160°C and bake for about 40 minutes, or unti done through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before serving.

I hope you enjoyed this recipe. You can learn more about Eliza Acton on the Celtnet Recipes aite, as well as seeing more of her recipes (in original as well as redacted form on the Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery pages.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Popular Posts