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A lesson in Victorian cooking from Mrs Beeton

PUBLISHED: 15:07 27 September 2012 | UPDATED: 15:07 27 September 2012

Mrs Beeton's cook book

Mrs Beeton's cook book

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The success of chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith goes back to one woman tasting recipes in her Greenhithe kitchen, as Anna Dubuis discovers…

Mrs BeetonMrs Beeton

How to prepare your turtle…” introduces, rumour has it, one of the 900 recipes that make up the most iconic cookery book ever published.

But while Beeton’s Book of Household Management is still heralded in kitchens across Britain, turtle soup is one dish that hasn’t made it through to the updated editions.

Those that have made the grade are the firm favourites; bread and butter pudding and sage and onion stuffing, and the more particular; jugged hare and pig’s head.

With sales of cookery books across the country soaring, part of the nation’s appetite for them is indebted to the young Victorian woman who took it upon herself to pen her culinary inspiration.

Toni MountToni Mount

Few realise it was in Greenhithe that many of these concoctions were first tried and tasted, although, as local historian Toni Mount explains, moving to Kent was a bit hush-hush for Isabella Beeton and husband Samuel.

“Samuel was a bit of a Jack the Lad and loved gambling on the horses. Eventually they had to give up their very nice house in Pinner and move to Greenhithe into a bungalow. It was very chilly and damp in winter.

“Although they said they moved there for Samuel’s health they were trying to cover up for the fact that he lost money.”

From Stone Crossing the couple would travel up to London every day to Samuel’s publishing company where Isabella would work as a secretary.

Commuting to London was very advanced for a Victorian woman and even more unusual was that Isabella would sit with Samuel in the men’s carriage.

She was, Toni describes, “very confident of her own ability and very competent” and when asked by the male commuters to sit with the other women, she “probably would not have moved”.

In 1859, when Isabella was 23 years old and had been married for three years, she started writing articles on cooking and household management which were published monthly in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, one of Samuel’s publications. In 1961 he decided to collate them into her now famous cookbook.

Despite an insistence on running an orderly household, Isabella imagined more for women.

Toni explains: “She was very concerned with the house being run beautifully but on the other hand she says being a good housewife does not necessarily imply abandoning pleasures or amusing recreations. She did not think a wife should be a housewife and nothing else.”

Contrary to popular opinion, not every recipe was created by Isabella. Instead, Toni says the couple put an ad in the magazine for women to send their own recipes and were inundated with them.

Isabella insisted she try every recipe before it went into the magazine, so she and her half-sister Lucy would sit in her kitchen and taste them.

Another misconception is that Mrs Beeton was a wise old woman toiling away into her elderly years. Instead she died in her Greenhithe bungalow aged 28, one week after contracting fever.

In such a short life she compiled a book that survived through time as both a legacy of Victorian Britain and a timeless collection of recipes.

This was of course unknown to the young Isabella.

“I think she realised it was selling well but obviously had no idea it was going to become every housewife’s bible,” added Toni.

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