Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool: Book of Simple English Food by Jenny Baker

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Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool: Book of Simple English Food by Jenny Baker

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Category: Cookery
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Collection of English regional and national recipes gathered in the manner of foreign cookery explorations, with lots of interesting background information, anecdotes, hints and tips. The recipes include old favourites as well as unusual and forgotten dishes and the book is fun to read as well as cook from, even if modelled sometimes bit obviously on the Jane Grigson's 'English Food' (but I preferred this one!).
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 1998
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571172970

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I like reading cookbooks, even ones from which I rarely use recipes. Some of them I read for sheer fun, some for general inspiration, some to get a feel for a cookery of a particular style or area. As you might gather from that, I like cookbooks with a lot of extra text and commentary and I am not very keen on large-format coffee-table cookbooks with lovely photographs, point-by-point recipes in large type and a massive price tag.

The book I am writing about was bought in bargain-priced bookshop in Lewisham shopping centre for the whole of £2 (paperback) some time in 1999 and now it's in three pieces, devoid of front cover and generously splattered with all kinds of ingredients.

I didn't just read it, I cooked from it, possibly more than from any other cookbook I have in my possession and I have probably used this book for most of the English dishes I learned to cook since I acquired a British husband (he does like Polish food, but exploring British cooking tradition has been an adventure for me too).

The most similar book I can think of is likely to be Jane Grigson's English Food. In fact, when I recently bought the Grigson book I had a feeling of slight deja-vu, not that they are so very alike, but the general spirit and feel of both is similar. In fact I suspect that Jenny Baker has modelled her book to some degree on the Grigson book, not to the extent of plagiarising it of course; and it might put some Grigson's fans off.

In her own words, the idea for the book occurred to the author while she was researching her two regional French cookery books - to write a book about English cuisine as if it was a foreign one being discovered. The idea certainly worked for me (for whom the English cooking was definitely foreign) and I loved the final product.

It's not a big doorstopper and it will not, generally, teach basic or advanced cookery techniques, but it contains excellent recipes with wonderful introductions - it is definitely one of these cookbooks that you might enjoy reading as well as cooking from. There is some general guidance too, particularly in the chapters concerned with meat roasting and jam making.

On of the features of the book that might be considered either a major charm or a big disadvantage is the fact that it's divided into unusual sections based on style or ingredients rather than a course/type of dish you normally get in cookbooks.

We have section on 'Flavour' which contains chapters like 'Dash of Alcohol' but also 'That Roast' where roasting instructions sit together with bread sauce, stuffings and gravy recipes. There are 'Autumn and Winter Matters' (my favourite section) which have chapters on 'Almonds and Dried Fruits' , 'Oranges and Lemons', 'Roots' and so on. Each section has its own preface and so does each chapter (subsection) and each recipe has its own comment as well. These can range from personal memories of the author to sources she used or the possible origins of the recipe or history of the dish and even its wider sociocultural context; and are always entertaining and enlightening.

On roasting a goose she says:

"On quarter days the squire expected his tenants to bring him a present as well as the rent. At Christmas it would be a capon, a castrated cock fattened for the table, while on Lady day (25 March) it might be fish. On Midsummer's Day, 24 June, the offering would be a fowl or two and on Michaelmas Day, 29 September, it would be a stubble goose. A stubble goose was a green goose, so called because it had fed all summer on pastures, and then additionally been fattened by feeding on the stubble of the harvested wheat and barley. Tradition has it that green geese are served with sorrel and bilberry sauce, whereas stubble geese were eaten with one of apples, onions and barberries. Other traditions have the goose stuffed with either sage and onion or prunes."

Such slightly whimsical structure makes for lovely reading but also means that you have to use the index to find the recipe you need. Luckily the index is well compiled and anyway, after a while you will have a rough idea of where particular recipe might sit.

And now for the recipes which are, after all, the most important part of any cookbook. There are a lot of well-known dishes here - if you learned cooking from your mother, you will probably know many of them, but to me "Kettle Broth... " was a perfect source of recipes for pretty much every 'traditional' or 'standard' British dish I had a need to make (except for Chicken Tikka Masaala, of course). It has everything from bread pudding to Christmas cake to mincemeat to suet pastry to mint sauce to sage and onion stuffing. Jenny Baker uses a lot of traditional countryside recipes especially from the West country (where her own roots are), but also uses old English cookery books from before the Victorian decline by the likes of Eliza Acton and Hannah Glasse and adds her own modernising touches; the modern classics of Elisabeth David and Jane Grigson are also listed in her bibliography.

The style of recipes would be best described as quality home cooking: nothing overtly fancy but good ingredients and a nice selection of spices, herbs and some alcohols to flavour and enhance well-tried and carefully selected dishes. Jenny Baker is committed to quality of her dishes, but not obsessively evangelical about details like for example exact following of quantities.

As I said, I have cooked from this book numerous times and I honestly cannot remember a single instance of something that wasn't good or didn't taste right. I did produce one not especially wonderful Christmas pudding, but I tend to think that it was my haphazard approach to the process that was to blame rather than the recipe.

Is there anything I personally dislike about the book? No, not really. It certainly is not a book for vegetarians nor members of the missionary cult of so called 'healthy eating'. My (mostly atrophied) ethical-consumer side would welcome a bit more about sourcing the food we cook, as apart from obviously preferring locally sourced, fresh ingredients Jenny Baker doesn't devote much space to things like sustainability, free-range farming and similar issues. She does make relevant recommendations, though, for example when on roast turkey she says "... unfortunately, when factory farmed, it has hardly any flavour and tends to dryness. The solution is to go for a free-range bird like the Bronze or Norfolk Black. It will be more expensive but is well worth it for that one festive day of the year."

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, I have no idea why it doesn't seem to have been reprinted since 1997 (perhaps the author needs a cookery programme on television?) but it certainly is worth a look for anybody who is interested in British cooking while has not that much experience of practising it - for the interest and fun factor I would choose that over Delia Smith any time (she's so boooooring), while I would consider her recipes and attitudes more approachable and less frightening for a beginner than Miss Grigson or David.

If you like that you would probably like Jane Grison's English Food or Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. If you'd like some French food, have a look at My Little French Kitchen by Rachel Khoo.

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