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Time-honoured advice from a fully restored family heirloom

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 09:07 17/12/2011

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Denise Irvine

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OPINION: She arrived home at exactly this time last year, looking very grand after serious cosmetic surgery. Since then, she has been the queen of our bookshelves, her distinctive claret-coloured leather spine neatly supporting her full frame.

Our bookcase queen is otherwise known as Mrs B or, to use her full title, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, the famous guide by Isabella Beeton to running a household in Victorian Britain.

My copy belonged to my grandmother, Winifred Gilfillan. It passed to my Aunt Joan, then my cousin Mac, and now it has come into my care.

By the time I took delivery of it a couple of years ago, Mrs B had fallen into disrepair. Her spine had come apart, understandable in a book the size of a small doorstep. (It is 2056 pages – the spine had a lot of work to do.)

There had been several amateur attempts at patching with duct tape. These hadn't worked and had done more damage. So I did some research, found a well-regarded book restorer in Takapuna, and lugged Mrs B to Auckland for consultation.

The expert examined the corpse and sent an eye-watering quote for her resurrection. I needed a lie-down while I thought about it.

My husband Bill helpfully provided the justification: "You'd spend this on your car if something went wrong," he said. "And that's only a hunk of tin. This is a family treasure."

So Mrs B stayed in Auckland for many months and eventually came back in fine form. I thought my guilty secret over the cost would remain in-house, but our eldest son picked the book up from the restorers and he casually looked at the invoice tucked inside.

"It's my Christmas treat to myself," I said defensively, when he gently raised an eyebrow.

It's more than that, though. I love the fact that previous generations of my family have handled this text, cooked delicious meals from it, and undoubtedly delved into fascinating peripheral stuff such as how to loosen screws when rusted into wood, how to treat suffocation, sunstroke and perforating wounds, how to roast a lark or a thrush, and how to properly care for invalids.

Tucked into the book are little signposts from the past, one being my grandmother's handwritten recipe for "chili beer". It contains 13 bird's eye chilis, and would probably blow your head off.

However, it is part of Mrs B's history, along with various other culinary notes, and a series of silverfish bait cards designed to deter the nibbling of pages. (These did not work.)

Our edition was published in 1906, so this is an updated and enlarged tome issued more than 40 years after Beeton's original book appeared in 1861.

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Her prodigious work has celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. It was considered to be the first book to show recipes in the style still used today, with the ingredients listed at the start. It was published to wide acclaim and outstanding sales.

Beeton offers a wealth of domestic advice, from stain removal to training the servants, as well as hundreds of recipes.

Her first chapter is devoted entirely to The Mistress, and in this instance, she does not mean an ill-advised lover. Beeton's mistress is the wife-household manager whose functions she says, in a rallying call, "resemble those of the general of an army or the manager of a great business concern".

AS I write this column on a Sunday evening, my own modern-day household management is taking place in the form of a decadent Christmas pudding steaming gently on the stove.

This is not Mrs Beeton's recipe, so I have not had to "skin the suet and chop it finely", as per her instructions for Christmas Pudding (Rich).

My recipe is an old favourite with the no-frills title of Never Fail Christmas Pudding. What it lacks in a fancy name, it makes up for with lashings of dried fruit and alcohol among the ingredients.

Nowadays, it's hard to even find the few hours it takes to steam a pudding or slowly bake a Christmas cake, but some of Beeton's culinary triumphs would have taken at least a week of preparation: her specimen menu for a December dinner for eight people includes royal soup, baked filleted brill, mutton cutlets, braised turkey and tongue, roast quail, salad, Christmas pudding, apple fool and cream, caviar on toast, and side dishes of beans and potatoes with the turkey.

Such detail and excess aside, the good thing is that most of us still continue the cycles of celebration and traditions that Beeton clearly embraced, albeit in shorter and more casual form.

My rich pudding will be served today at the annual Irvine family Christmas bash, always held a week ahead of the big day.

It is a four-generation gathering, a precious afternoon of good food and good company. You can't ask for much more than that, no matter what century you come from.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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