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I have just been given a copy of an old well used copy of Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book. [Like many books of its time it is undated but an advertisement in its opening pages for Lemco Beef Extract “the beef in a 1lb jar of LEMCO would cost 40/- at “War Prices” suggests it may date to WWI.

Image I always imagined Isabella Beeton as an older woman, rather plump and an excellent experienced housekeeper and cook. But in reality she was nothing like I imagined. Isabella Beeton was born Isabella Mary Mayson in 1836. She married married Samuel Beeton who published magazines and books (including the English edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin)and was the as its cookery writer for   The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine from 1857 onwards. It appears that she and Sam had already envisaged a book Mrs Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management.

But Mrs Beeton didn’t know the first thing about cookery according to Kathryn Hughes author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. Many (most) of her recipes are simply lifted from other cooks and changed slightly to create a hybrid text.

Isabella died, aged 29 of Peritonitis and Puerperal Fever in 1965 six days after delivering a second son. She was most likely infected with Syphilis which she contracted from Sam. He continued to revise and publish her books.

I find the Beeton Books interesting but since discovering that Isabella’s recipes were copied and that she only wrote for a few years I am not a great fan of her work.

But the book I have been given comes with marginalia and that’s what I love about it. Inserted between two pages is a hand written recipe for Thick Gingerbread and it looks delicious with treacle, brown sugar, ginger and candied peel, scones with currants  “if liked” . There is part of a page ripped from the Evening Standard on May 23 1838 (another clue as to its age) for recipes you can try on your return from an Italian holiday: Escalopes Milanese:  veal escalopes crumbed with a mix of breadcrumbs and parmesan then fried in olive oil and served with spaghetti stirred though with a tomato ham, mushroom and tongue sauce; Boiled Fish a l’Italienne, boiled with a bouquet garni then each person puts olive oil and lemon onto their piece once plated;  and Sauce Genovese made with basil parmesan, garlic, butter and seasonings ground together with a mortar and pestle.

The book is falling apart. The binding on its spine has worn away and without it the pages are loose. I will pop it in an oven bag which is an appropriate way to protect and archive books. But I am going to make the gingerbread!Image