Put simply, this book is the first and last word on absolutely everything to do with traditional English (and British) cooking.
I sought it out after a reference to it in, of all things, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. That small reference was enough to entice me, but did not prepare me for the sheer scale of Hartley’s work.
Published in 1954, it’s a magnum opus that’s as much about cookery as it is about history, and traditional country life. For example, the food chapters commence with a description of the fuels and fireplaces used in different regional areas, and how this determined kitchen layouts and cookery styles.
Alongside the chapters you’d expect – meat, fish, vegetables – there’s also chapters on how to conduct yourself at a medieval feast, organise an Elizabethan household and prepare for a long sea voyage.
It is endlessly fascinating.
Hartley’s extensive research and loving devotion to recording traditional ways of living is evident throughout. It’s not just the what, but the how and the why, told simply and beautifully. Take this description of a convent kitchen, where Hartley was educated:
It had a high ceiling and a sense of space and peace. The wooden tables were scoured as white as bone, scrubbed along the grain with sharp river sand and whitening. The wide range shone like satin; the steel fender and stands were rubbed bright with emery cloth. In the wintry sunshine brass pans and silver discovers glittered on the cream plaster walls.
Recipes abound, some as they were recorded historically (“…mynce oynouns and fry hem, and do therto salt and ale and boil it and do thyn haddock in plates and the curiey above and gif forth.”) but most in semi-modernised forms. I can’t say that dozens of them have made it into my weeknight meal routines – being generally bereft of calves’ heads, calf-head sized pots and family members willing to eat calves’ heads – but even those with a simple or modern approach to cooking will find at least a few they want to sample.