Armchair Time Travel: Wyvern’s Curry for Anglo-Indian Ex-Pats; A Glimpse of the 16th Century by Way of Its Cookbooks

Culinary Jottings for Madras aims to help the Victorian memsahib
run a British kitchen in India–but indigenous ingredients keep
sneaking into the recipes. Image from Amazon.

A couple of years ago Ced and Gil gave me a book that was almost as good as a trip to India.

It was a reprint of Culinary Jottings for Madras, written by “Wyvern,” a.k.a. Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert, an Indian Army officer who penned cooking articles for the Madras Athenaeum and Daily Newsin the 1870’s. Its subtitle—“A Treatise in 30 Chapters on Reformed Cookery for Anglo-Indian Exiles”—says it all.

The book—a facsimile of the 1885 edition complete with antiquated typeface and decorative flourishes—drops the reader right into the world of clueless, long-suffering Victorian memsahibs, whose biggest challenge, after the voyage from England, was to run a household, especially the kitchen, in a strange country with “native” cooks who might well “boil the pate de fois gras and ice the asparagus.”

Wyvern comes to the rescue, showing the reader how to “to put nice little dinners on your table” under arduous conditions. But it’s hard to imagine eating such throat-clogging Victorian food—and so much of it—in the heat and humidity of India. There are recipes for “beefsteak and oyster pie” and breaded veal cutlets “larded with strips of fat bacon;” mutton appears often. Party menus have a “continental” gloss, featuring entrees such as entrecote de boeuf a la Chateaubriand, served with French beans and potatoes, and blanquette de volaille, a “well-fed chicken” in a rich, creamy sauce with “button mushrooms, a few oysters trimmed free of their beards, a few slices of truffle….”

It all made me feel faint.

Wyvern tries to work around the culinary obstacles encountered in India—if you want real butter, plan to have the cow milked right at your front door—but what’s fascinating is the way that Indian ingredients creep into the most European dishes. He makes “capital salads” with “young brinjals” (eggplant), and “bandecai” (okra), boiled and served on ice with mayonnaise or an oil and vinegar dressing. On the menu for “A Little Home Dinner,” he recommends an entree of “Ragout de Pomfret” or butterfish, seasoned with peppercorns and a blade of mace, garnished with “little bits of red chillis.” On the same menu we find “podolong-cai au jus” or snake vegetable, chopped , boiled and “heated up in a good brown gravy….A dust of grated cheese over each piece may be given without fear.”

Unfortunately, as Leslie Forbes notes in her introduction, curry and other indigenous dishes had fallen out of favor by the time Culinary Jottings was published, as ex-pat housewives strove to serve purely British and continental cuisine while in India. Still it is amazing to read Wyvern’s extremely detailed recipe for what today would be a decade’s worth of curry powder. It was ground from 20 pounds of spices, including turmeric, coriander seed, “cummin” seed, poppy seed, fenugreek, dry ginger, mustard seed, dried chillies, and black “pepper corns.“ He’s careful to note that the coriander and fenugreek seed should be “roasted like coffee berries” and that the powder should be carefully sifted after grinding.

The ensuing discussion of chicken curry comes with elaborate instructions for the cook: How to make a wet curry paste by pounding yet more spices and herbs such as lemon grass and green coriander into a spoonful of the powder, how to extract coconut milk and when to add it to the dish (late in the cooking process), the sautéing of the chicken pieces in fat before marinating and then simmering them in the liquid curry blend.

It all sounds so delicious that I’m trying to reduce the master recipe to a reasonable quarter-pound so that I can give it a try.

If Culinary Jottings for Madras offers a culinary snapshot of ex-pat life under the British Raj, I’ve been equally entranced by another book that offers a chance to time-travel through the kitchens of Europe.

The Cookbook Library lets us peek into kitchens, royal and
otherwise, from the 15th through the 19th centuries.
Image from University of California Press.

The Cookbook Library, Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers and Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook, traces the evolution of written recipes from cryptic hand-scrawled manuscripts to printed books with measured ingredients and meticulous directions. Written by Anne Willan, founder of La Varenne Cooking School, and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky,with Keri Claflin, it illuminates changing attitudes towards food and cooking from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

The book sprang from a museum-worthy collection which the authors lovingly assembled over 50 years. Cherniavsky is the buyer, a serious bibliophile who sleuthed out numerous rare cookbooks (and books about food) during decades of travel for the World Bank. He is also a serious reader who, as his wife tells it, seems always to have his nose in a book. She give us an amusing glimpse of her husband “squashed in an airplane seat on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco reading Erasmus on the inferior food in German inns in the early 16th century.”

If Cherniavsky is the buyer, then it’s Willan who takes the books into the kitchen and “put[s] them to use.” An accomplished cookbook writer and teacher, she deftly deciphers old recipes, skillfully managing to adapt them for 21st century cooks while staying true to the original cook’s intent.

Sometimes the language is so obscure that it’s hard for an amateur to know what’s what. In Le Viandier (Paris 1392), for instance, the illustrious Taillevent offers a recipe for Hericoq de Mouton, or Haricot of Lamb. As Willan explains, here the term haricot comes not, as we might have imagined, from the French word for bean but from harigoter, a old verb meaning “to chop up.” Her modern update, entitled Spiced Lamb Stew, begins, then, with a boneless leg of lamb, which is cut into pieces, then browned and stewed with spices and herbs. (There is not an haricot anywhere in the recipe.)

I found the chapter on 16th century cookbooks especially intriguing. At the time, the winds of change were blowing through the European kitchen, at least in royal and upper class households. New ways of cooking and eating were inspired by exposure to travel, novel ingredients and “strange habits (using forks!).” Cooking was becoming lighter in Italy and France, while in England there was a new-found appreciation for homegrown fruit and vegetables, and country life. Along the old trade routes that wound through Germany and the Low Countries, cookbooks were published for a savvy international audience and recipes made use of spices and other luxury foods.

L’Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, a handsomely illustrated Italian cookbook first printed in 1570, reflects some of these trends. Scappi was an educated master cook who ran the kitchens for two cardinals and two popes; in his retirement he wrote a book which not only codified the Renaissance kitchen, right down to the knives and ravioli cutters, but also included menus for elaborate meals and over a thousand sophisticated recipes.

Significantly, Willan writes, “the recipes draw ingredients from all over Italy, incorporating the specialties of Milan, Genoa, Lucca, Lombardy, the Piedmont, Rome, Naples, Venice and Sicily, and adding regional tags to products such as rice, oil, Parmesan cheese, and fruits. They also embrace foreign influences, making frequent use of Spanish ingredients like olives and ham, for example, and including Hungarian and French dishes.”

Among the gorgeous illustrations in this chapter is a woodcut from the Opera that shows servants toting hampers of food and drink to the cardinals voting on the 1550 election of Pope Julius III. To prevent messages from being smuggled in, a group of bishops examine each hamper before sending it through a hatch to the Sistine Chapel where the cardinals were anxiously, one imagines, awaiting their supper. Numerous sidebars—such as “Medicine in the Home Kitchen” and “Everyone Loves a Secret,” which explores the growing appetite for novel ingredients and other curiosities—reflect the seductive byways down which the authors traveled in their research.

The chapter includes seven recipes, most especially Scappi’s Torta di Carote, & d’Altre Radiche & Altre Materie, or A Pie of Carrots and of Other Roots and Other Ingredients. Willan notes that the pies of the 16th century more closely resembled our own than they did medieval concoctions in which hard crusts of flour and water were constructed to hold in place “often haphazard” fillings.

In her adaptation, the sumptuous filling not only includes carrots simmered in veal or beef broth but also three cheeses—Parmesan, buffalo mozzarella “standing in for provatura” and farmer cheese or whole-milk ricotta for the “fresh cheese” in the original recipe—as well as eggs, butter and sugar. It is seasoned with fresh mint and marjoram, along with whole tablespoons of nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper and candied orange peel.

We may never know exactly how Scappi’s carrot pie tasted, but in Willan‘s capable hands the sweetness of the filling is balanced by the sharply flavored herbs, the abundant spices and the saltiness of the Parmesan. And it’s clear that the buttery crust, seasoned with rosewater and cinnamon, would be a lot tastier than its medieval forbears.

It’s a dish that seems almost modern, one that I’d like to eat now, but that was first cooked half a millennium ago.


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