Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine, by William Carew Hazlitt

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Introductory

Man has been distinguished from other animals in various ways; but perhaps there is no particular in which he exhibits so marked a difference from the rest of creation — not even in the prehensile faculty resident in his hand — as in the objection to raw food, meat, and vegetables. He approximates to his inferior contemporaries only in the matter of fruit, salads, and oysters, not to mention wild-duck. He entertains no sympathy with the cannibal, who judges the flavour of his enemy improved by temporary commitment to a subterranean larder; yet, to be sure, he keeps his grouse and his venison till it approaches the condition of spoon-meat.

It naturally ensues, from the absence or scantiness of explicit or systematic information connected with the opening stages of such inquiries as the present, that the student is compelled to draw his own inferences from indirect or unwitting allusion; but so long as conjecture and hypothesis are not too freely indulged, this class of evidence is, as a rule, tolerably trustworthy, and is, moreover, open to verification.

When we pass from an examination of the state of the question as regarded Cookery in very early times among us, before an even more valuable art — that of Printing — was discovered, we shall find ourselves face to face with a rich and long chronological series of books on the Mystery, the titles and fore-fronts of which are often not without a kind of fragrance and goût.

As the space allotted to me is limited, and as the sketch left by Warner of the convivial habits and household arrangements of the Saxons or Normans in this island, as well as of the monastic institutions, is more copious than any which I could offer, it may be best to refer simply to his elaborate preface. But it may be pointed out generally that the establishment of the Norman sway not only purged of some of their Anglo-Danish barbarism the tables of the nobility and the higher classes, but did much to spread among the poor a thriftier manipulation of the articles of food by a resort to broths, messes, and hot-pots. In the poorer districts, in Normandy as well as in Brittany, Duke William would probably find very little alteration in the mode of preparing victuals from that which was in use in his day, eight hundred years ago, if (like another Arthur) he should return among his ancient compatriots; but in his adopted country he would see that there had been a considerable revolt from the common saucepan — not to add from the pseudo-Arthurian bag-pudding; and that the English artisan, if he could get a rump-steak or a leg of mutton once a week, was content to starve on the other six days.

Those who desire to be more amply informed of the domestic economy of the ancient court, and to study the minutiae, into which I am precluded from entering, can easily gratify themselves in the pages of “The Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household,” 1790; “The Northumberland Household Book;” and the various printed volumes of “Privy Purse Expenses” of royal and great personages, including “The Household Roll of Bishop Swinfield (1289-90).”

The late Mr. Green, in his “History of the English People” (1880-3, 4 vols. 8vo), does not seem to have concerned himself about the kitchens or gardens of the nation which he undertook to describe. Yet, what conspicuous elements these have been in our social and domestic progress, and what civilising factors!

To a proper and accurate appreciation of the cookery of ancient times among ourselves, a knowledge of its condition in other more or less neighbouring countries, and of the surrounding influences and conditions which marked the dawn of the art in England, and its slow transition to a luxurious excess, would be in strictness necessary; but I am tempted to refer the reader to an admirable series of papers which appeared on this subject in Barker’s “Domestic Architecture,” and were collected in 1861, under the title of “Our English Home: its Early History and Progress.” In this little volume the author, who does not give his name, has drawn together in a succinct compass the collateral information which will help to render the following pages more luminous and interesting. An essay might be written on the appointments of the table only, their introduction, development, and multiplication.

The history and antiquities of the Culinary Art among the Greeks are handled with his usual care and skill by M.J.A. St. John in his “Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece,” 1842; and in the Biblia or Hebrew Scriptures we get an indirect insight into the method of cooking from the forms of sacrifice.

The earliest legend which remains to us of Hellenic gastronomy is associated with cannibalism. It is the story of Pelops — an episode almost pre-Homeric, where a certain rudimentary knowledge of dressing flesh, and even of disguising its real nature, is implied in the tale, as it descends to us; and the next in order of times is perhaps the familiar passage in the Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus and his companions in the cave of Polyphemus. Here, again, we are introduced to a rude society of cave-dwellers, who eat human flesh, if not as an habitual diet, yet not only without reluctance, but with relish and enjoyment.

The Phagetica of Ennius, of which fragments remain, seems to be the most ancient treatise of the kind in Roman literature. It is supposed to relate an account of edible fishes; but in a complete state the work may very well have amounted to a general Manual on the subject. In relation even to Homer, the Phagetica is comparatively modern, following the Odyssey at a distance of some six centuries; and in the interval it is extremely likely that anthropophagy had become rarer among the Greeks, and that if they still continued to be cooking animals, they were relinquishing the practice of cooking one another.

Mr. Ferguson, again, has built on Athenaeus and other authorities a highly valuable paper on “The Formation of the Palate,” and the late Mr. Coote, in the forty-first volume of “Archaeologia,” has a second on the “Cuisine Bourgeoise” of ancient Rome. These two essays, with the “Fairfax Inventories” communicated to the forty-eighth volume of the “Archaeologia” by Mr. Peacock, cover much of the ground which had been scarcely traversed before by any scientific English inquirer. The importance of an insight into the culinary economy of the Romans lies in the obligations under which the more western nations of Europe are to it for nearly all that they at first knew upon the subject. The Romans, on their part, were borrowers in this, as in other, sciences from Greece, where the arts of cookery and medicine were associated, and were studied by physicians of the greatest eminence; and to Greece these mysteries found their way from Oriental sources. But the school of cookery which the Romans introduced into Britain was gradually superseded in large measure by one more agreeable to the climate and physical demands of the people; and the free use of animal food, which was probably never a leading feature in the diet of the Italians as a community, and may be treated as an incidence of imperial luxury, proved not merely innocuous, but actually beneficial to a more northerly race.

So little is to be collected — in the shape of direct testimony, next to nothing — of the domestic life of the Britons — that it is only by conjecture that one arrives at the conclusion that the original diet of our countrymen consisted of vegetables, wild fruit, the honey of wild bees — which is still extensively used in this country — a coarse sort of bread, and milk. The latter was evidently treated as a very precious article of consumption, and its value was enhanced by the absence of oil and the apparent want of butter. Mr. Ferguson supposes, from some remains of newly-born calves, that our ancestors sacrificed the young of the cow rather than submit to a loss of the milk; but it was, on the contrary, an early superstition, and may be, on obvious grounds, a fact, that the presence of the young increased the yield in the mother, and that the removal of the calf was detrimental. The Italian invaders augmented and enriched the fare, without, perhaps, materially altering its character; and the first decided reformation in the mode of living here was doubtless achieved by the Saxon and Danish settlers; for those in the south, who had migrated hither from the Low Countries, ate little flesh, and indeed, as to certain animals, cherished, according to Caesar, religious scruples against it.

It was to the hunting tribes, who came to us from regions even bleaker and more exacting than our own, that the southern counties owed the taste for venison and a call for some nourishment more sustaining than farinaceous substances, green stuff and milk, as well as a gradual dissipation of the prejudice against the hare, the goose, and the hen as articles of food, which the “Commentaries” record. It is characteristic of the nature of our nationality, however, that while the Anglo-Saxons and their successors refused to confine themselves to the fare which was more or less adequate to the purposes of archaic pastoral life in this island, they by no means renounced their partiality for farm and garden produce, but by a fusion of culinary tastes and experiences akin to fusion of race and blood, laid the basis of the splendid cuisine of the Plantagenet and Tudor periods. Our cookery is, like our tongue, an amalgam.

But the Roman historian saw little or nothing of our country except those portions which lay along or near the southern coast; the rest of his narrative was founded on hearsay; and he admits that the people in the interior — those beyond the range of his personal knowledge, more particularly the northern tribes and the Scots — were flesh-eaters, by which he probably intends, not consumers of cattle, but of the venison, game, and fish which abounded in their forests and rivers. The various parts of this country were in Caesar’s day, and very long after, more distinct from each other for all purposes of communication and intercourse than we are now from Spain or from Switzerland; and the foreign influences which affected the South Britons made no mark on those petty states which lay at a distance, and whose diet was governed by purely local conditions. The dwellers northward were by nature hunters and fishermen, and became only by Act of Parliament poachers, smugglers, and illicit distillers; the province of the male portion of the family was to find food for the rest; and a pair of spurs laid on an empty trencher was well understood by the goodman as a token that the larder was empty and replenishable.

There are new books on all subjects, of which it is comparatively easy within a moderate compass to afford an intelligible, perhaps even a sufficient, account. But there are others which I, for my part, hesitate to touch, and which do not seem to be amenable to the law of selection. “Studies in Nidderland,” by Mr. Joseph Lucas, is one of these. It was a labour of love, and it is full of records of singular survivals to our time of archaisms of all descriptions, culinary and gardening utensils not forgotten. There is one point, which I may perhaps advert to, and it is the square of wood with a handle, which the folk in that part of Yorkshire employed, in lieu of the ladle, for stirring, and the stone ovens for baking, which, the author tells us, occur also in a part of Surrey. But the volume should be read as a whole. We have of such too few.

Under the name of a Roman epicure, Coelius Apicius, has come down to us what may be accepted as the most ancient European “Book of Cookery.” I think that the idea widely entertained as to this work having proceeded from the pen of a man, after whom it was christened, has no more substantial basis than a theory would have that the “Arabian Nights” were composed by Haroun al Raschid. Warner, in the introduction to his “Antiquitates Culinariae,” 1791, adduces as a specimen of the rest two receipts from this collection, shewing how the Roman cook of the Apician epoch was wont to dress a hog’s paunch, and to manufacture sauce for a boiled chicken. Of the three persons who bore the name, it seems to be thought most likely that the one who lived under Trajan was the true godfather of the Culinary Manual.

One of Massinger’s characters (Holdfast) in the “City Madam,” 1658, is made to charge the gourmets of his time with all the sins of extravagance perpetrated in their most luxurious and fantastic epoch. The object was to amuse the audience; but in England no “court gluttony,” much less country Christmas, ever saw buttered eggs which had cost £30, or pies of carps’ tongues, or pheasants drenched with ambergris, or sauce for a peacock made of the gravy of three fat wethers, or sucking pigs at twenty marks each.

Both Apicius and our Joe Miller died within £80,000 of being beggars — Miller something the nigher to that goal; and there was this community of insincerity also, that neither really wrote the books which carry their names. Miller could not make a joke or understand one when anybody else made it. His Roman foregoer, who would certainly never have gone for his dinner to Clare Market, relished good dishes, even if he could not cook them.

It appears not unlikely that the Romish clergy, whose monastic vows committed them to a secluded life, were thus led to seek some compensation for the loss of other worldly pleasures in those of the table; and that, when one considers the luxury of the old abbeys, one ought to recollect at the same time, that it was perhaps in this case as it was in regard to letters and the arts, and that we are under a certain amount of obligation to the monks for modifying the barbarism of the table, and encouraging a study of gastronomy.

There are more ways to fame than even Horace suspected. The road to immortality is not one but manifold. A man can but do what he can. As the poet writes and the painter fills with his inspiration the mute and void canvas, so doth the Cook his part. There was formerly apopular work in France entitled “Le Cuisinier Royal,” by MM. Viard and Fouret, who describe themselves as “Hommes de Bouche.” The twelfth edition lies before me, a thick octavo volume, dated 1825. The title-page is succeeded by an anonymous address to the reader, at the foot of which occurs a peremptory warning to pilferers of dishes or parts thereof; in other words, to piratical invaders of the copyright of Monsieur Barba. There is a preface equally unclaimed by signatures or initials, but as it is in the singular number the two hommes de bouche can scarcely have written it; perchance it was M. Barba aforesaid, lord-proprietor of these not-to-be-touched treasures; but anyhow the writer had a very solemn feeling of the debt which he had conferred on society by making the contents public for the twelfth time, and he concludes with a mixture of sentiments, which it is very difficult to define: “Dans la paix de ma conscience, non moins que dans l’orgueil d’avoir si honorablement rempli cette importante mission, je m’ecrierai avec le poete des gourmands et des amoureux:

“Exegi monumentum aere perennius

Non omnis moriar.”*

* “In the peace of my conscience, not less than the pride of having so honorably filled this important mission, I exclaimed with the poet of gourmands and lovers:

I have erected a monument more enduring than bronze

I shall not die completely.

Horace, Ode 3:30

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william_carew/h431o/introduction.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42