Cambridge chef Alex Rushmer revisits some recipes of yesteryear, discovering the eating habits of our ancestors
Reading old recipes is a window to another age. There aren’t many historical documents that tell us so much, in so few words, about something that affected so many people on a daily basis. History is often portrayed in terms of wars, politics, diplomatic relations and broad social change, but none of these happen in a vacuum. Nor did they happen every day. Cooking – and eating – on the other hand, most certainly did.
Casting an eye over the preferences of our forebears is an interesting activity. And from an increasing temporal distance, it’s easy to dismiss the tastes and techniques of bygone eras as being inferior to our own. The medieval cook’s generous (overzealous?) use of sweetness and spice in savoury, meat-based recipes is at odds with the current vogue for deep, umami, savoury flavours. We gaze in awe at the voracious capacity of our Edwardian ancestors’ ability to guzzle down impossible quantities of rich food, laden with butter, cream and animal fats and proteins.
But, perhaps the one change that I am most aware of, is how attitudes to cooking vegetables have altered over the last few decades. Isabella Beeton, in her book of household management, gives several-hundred recipes for vegetable-based dishes, from simple boiled preparations, to those requiring a significant degree of skill, knowledge and equipment. One common theme that runs through them all, though, is just how long budding chefs were advised to cook them for.
This winter is about cooking the Mrs Beeton way
In the 19th century, asparagus spears were cooked in salted water at a gentle boil for 20 minutes, broccoli for 30 minutes and carrots for up to 90 minutes (or ‘until tender’, suggesting that a Victorian assessment of tenderness was different to our own).
Contemporary cuisine encourages freshness and rapid cooking, particularly of green vegetables, which, ideally, should retain some bite and their vivid, chlorophyll-laden colour. It’s not uncommon, when reminiscing about school meals, that overcooked vegetables are remembered as the unpleasant counterpoint to the delights of steamed sponge cake and pink custard. Yin and yang in perfect balance.
Recently, though, my personal pendulum has been nudged back towards the Victorian age – with good reason and pleasing results. It began with a Food52 recipe by Roy Finamore, titled ‘Broccoli cooked forever’. This resulted in a delightful, spoonable, sauce-like substance that went through the unpleasant cruciferous stage of overcooked brassica-funk and emerged tender and rich at the other side, backed by a support crew of garlic, chilli, anchovies and plenty of olive oil. I tried a similar technique with leafy greens (cavolo nero and kale) and the result was an utter joy: deep and umami-flavoured leaves cooked in olive oil until beyond tender, and then given a jolt of energy from some finely grated garlic during the last few moments of cooking.
Root vegetables, too, benefit from such an approach: judicious application of fat and seasoning, and then a gentle cook until they fall apart under the timid pressure of an adventurous spoon. Of course, there will always be a place at the table for plants that have barely had the chance to realise they’ve been plucked from the ground before they get munched, but for me, this winter is about cooking them the Mrs Beeton way.