You have to admire Fanny Craddock’s honesty. While today’s TV cooks unashamedly wallow in a sweet sherry- infused nostalgia when it comes to Christmas preparations, Britain’s original celebrity chef was having none of it.
In her 1968 book written with husband Johnnie and lovingly titled Coping with Christmas, her opening gambit begins: “Let us not delude ourselves, if some preparations are not made in advance, Christmas can be sheer hell for the average wife and mum, especially if she is in for a plague of relations.”
In Craddock’s world, Christmas is not something to be enjoyed, more something to be got through, and her guide to the festive season would have even the most skilled military strategists admiring her precision.
“Many years ago we brought down on our heads a wrath of critics because we said when writing about Christmas preparations, ‘ideally these begin in July with preserved raspberries for our Christmas Buffets’,” she continues.
“On the face of it daft of course... and currently even more so, because today almost every woman is short of time for her standard daily chores. Yet we are still muttering unrepentantly, ‘The raspberry jazz is worth it!’.
“Bitter experience has forced us to accept that in the matter of bulk entertaining life is much easier when advance lists are made and day-by-day or month-by-month forward chores are itemised and date-lined. Then when D-Day for the occasion finds us bleary-eyed and full of dread... we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we are already more than halfway there.”
Those Craddock disciples – and there were legions of them – would have duly started preparing for Christmas in summer, making dried apricot jam, pickling walnuts and starting the festive potpourri. And in August things really started to step up. This was the month when French beans were frozen, when prunes were marinated in port wine and when the first draft of the present list was completed.
September was all about revising the Christmas card list, buying stamps and making mincemeat and by the end of October, the pantry would be home to various jars of Grandma’s Indian Chutney and a stash of fir cones, collected on country walks, were waiting to be made into decorations.
November was similarly not for the faint- hearted. According to Craddock’s breathless guide, this is the time to complete chocolate swan components, check the fairy lights, finish the royal icing penguins and draw up the Christmas dinner menu. In detail.
By December those who had not been forced to lie down in a dark room still had to rustle up batches of basic butter cream, shortbread, stuffed dates, almond paste and coconut ice. In between Craddock suggests packing the potpourri into decorative bowls and making a dental appointment. “Last but not least,” she adds, “rehearse your entire Christmas table and then pack everything away so that you can whip it all out and slip it into place at speed.”
In an attempt to throw a nugget of comfort to harassed housewives, she does admit that not even she ticked every box. “There has never yet been a family Christmas, during which one or other of us has not exclaimed irritably, ‘After all that we never froze the parsley cubes... made the Oxford sauce... got our chocolate leaves done in November’,” she confessed.
“Who even knows what parsley cubes are, but they were clearly important,” says Sarah Prescott, archivist in the special collections department of Leeds University, which is home to the internationally important cookery archive. “Until fairly recently cookbooks weren’t seen as being particularly academically useful, but actually they are a real part of social history. You can tell quite a lot from the recipes themselves, but many of the early cookbooks also contained guides to household management and they really shine a light on the class and social expectations of particular time.”
She’s not wrong. In The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy as well as the various recipes there is also a section on “a certain cure for the bite of a mad dog” and “a receipt against the plague”.
The Cookery Collection is home to 20,000 books spanning more than 500 years. One of the earliest is Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, which was published in 1557 and which includes the first mention of mincemeat as a Christmas food. Not that it always sounds particularly appetising.
“Look at this one,” says Sarah, flicking through The Country Housewife’s Family Companion published in 1750. “This recipe for mincemeat describes how a woman, given spare offal from the lord of Gaddesden Manor’s household, which would sometimes be ‘stinking’, through the ‘negligence of careless servants’, made seasoned mince pies to disguise the taste of the meat.
“That kind of spice meat was the forerunner to the mince pies we know today and what’s really great about this archive is that you can trace the evolution of recipes through the centuries.”
Even the briefest glance through the archives is also enough to know that Heston Blumenthal wasn’t the first to turn food into entertainment. The Fat Duck chef may have pioneered edible wallpaper and made diners listen to the sound of the sea as they tucked into a seafood dish, but long before him was Robert May, the author of The Accomplisht Cook. First published in 1660, it was the first substantial English recipe book to appear after the Restoration and by 1685 had run to five editions.
“As a cook, May had mainly worked for Catholic aristocratic families,” says Sarah. “And in one part of the book he describes an extravagant event – part meal, part performance – which was to be used for ‘festival times’. He talks of elaborate models exploding with gunpowder or pouring with wine and how guests threw eggshells filled with sweet waters. For the finale, live frogs and birds emerge from pies to cause ‘much delight and pleasure to the whole company’.
“It all sounds like good fun, but there is a wider political context. In the final sentence of his book May says: ‘These were formerly the delight of the Nobility, before good House-keeping had left England.’ May was writing in the year of the Restoration, and so the Civil War and interregnum would have been very recent history and events had clearly left him quite a bitter man.”
The Cookery Collection begins with a Babylonian clay tablet and ends with contemporary editions of books by the likes of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater. In between there are rare first editions of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and numerous early 20th century guides to getting the most out of very little.
In 1935, the second edition of Yorkshire Recipes by Yorkshire Housewives was published and as well as the secret to the perfect raspberry fluff and orange cream, it contained details of how to make cow heel jelly. “Good cooking should be of paramount importance to every housewife,” begins the foreword. “No matter in what station of life she may be – whether she be fortunate to have somebody to prepare the meals for her or whether she has all the cooking to do herself. Her primary endeavour should be to produce nourishing and tasty dishes for her household.”
“What is interesting about these pamphlets is a lot of the recipes are incredibly short and they assume a lot of basic knowledge,” says Sarah. “There would have been an expectation that housewives knew how to make pastry or mix a basic batter.”
Another of the highlights of the collection is the volumes of The Vegetarian Messenger, which was founded by the Vegetarian Society in 1851, and had a circulation of 20,000 copies a year during 19th century. In its December 1914 edition as well as a comprehensive selection of animal-free gravies, nut roasts and puddings, it included a lengthy chapter on how horses were faring on the battlefields of the First World War. Not well it turns out. With few skilled veterinary surgeons on the ground, many injured animals were being left for dead while thousands of others were being abandoned due to fatigue and want of food.
“The Vegetarian Society had grown out of health reform, temperance and philanthropic movements of the early 19th century,” says Sarah. “They were really quite a campaigning force, but it’s not exactly full of festive cheer is it?”
Fanny Craddock would no doubt have approved.
A Simple Christmas Pudding from Yorkshire Recipes by Yorkshire Housewives.
• ¼ lb flour • ¼ lb breadcrumbs
• ¼ shredded suet • ¼ lb sultanas
• ¼ currants • 2oz brown sugar
• 2oz candied peel • 1tbsp dark treacle
• 1 dstsp baking powder • 1 carrot, grated
• 2 eggs • 1tsp mixed spice
Mix in the usual way. Put in greased basins, allowing sufficient room for the mixture to swell. Cover with parchment paper and steam for between two-and-a-half and three hours.