Eliza Acton – Victorian recipe creator


Never mind Mrs Beeton, Eliza Acton was the real force behind the modernisation and codification of the English Victorian kitchen. In fact, she moans in the preface to the revised version of her book, ‘Modern Cookery for private families’ that many people have been stealing her recipes, and she has taken great pains to note where the recipe is original to the Author, so that people may know these have been stolen from her when they appear in other texts. This is a not-so-oblique reference to Mrs Beeton, and others, who took her recipes for their own text. At more than 600 closely-typed pages, it is a comprehensive work, although unlike Mrs Beeton’s volume, it is restricted to cooking, and doesn’t deal with other areas of household economy like illnesses and servants.

She was among the first to list ingredients separately to the method, and to give reasonably clear instructions of how to make the dishes, without assuming very much previous knowledge of the cook. She apologises that the detailed explanations and observations she has given for each recipe mean that she can’t fit in as many recipes as other books can. Despite this, she fits in hundreds of recipes in the 34 chapters of the book, covering areas as diverse as Forcemeats, Curries, Pickles, Confectionary and Bread. In my calendar of cookbooks for this year, February’s allocation was Eliza Acton’s ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’, first published in 1845, and reprinted by Quadrille as one of their ‘Classic Voices in Food’. Although one thing and another means I haven’t made anything from it yet, I’ve enjoyed browsing through it, and thought I would share some of my impressions.

Victorians had some funny ideas about health and eating, but Eliza Acton was ahead of her time in many respects. She thought home-prepared food that was nourishing was essential to be productive at work and to build health. She didn’t like the adulteration that was so common in those decades, and thought it important that every household knew how to prepare simple, economical dishes, rather than having to buy them in. She liked French cooking, plain English dishes, Indian curries, Jewish meals and included recipes for them all.

Although the popular caricature of Victorian cooking is a passion for boiling vegetables until they are thoroughly soft to make them more digestible, Eliza Acton does not seem to advocate boiling everything to death. She is often at pains to say that meat should be heated very gently. A recipe for buttered carrots advises that the carrots can be sliced and then boiled, or cooked whole before being sliced – the latter being the slower method, but the one that best preserves the flavour. I am intrigued to try this method.

Lemons are threaded throughout the book’s recipes, often added to butters and sauces, as well as zest being used in forcemeats and wherever breadcrumbs are needed. Likewise, herbs, particularly chopped parsley, are often used in quantity. This gives an impression of a much livelier cuisine that we are used to thinking of. It perhaps also conveys some of the French sensibility which was thought of as the height of sophisticated cuisine, and which Eliza observed first-hand while living in France.

Breadcrumbs are employed all over the place. A delicious sounding recipe for roast chicken calls for the bird to be stuffed with a basic forcemeat (flavoured breadcrumbs), then drizzled with butter and coated with breadcrumbs. This sounds like an early version of crispy fried chicken. She notes that gravy should not be poured over the bird when it is prepared in this way – too right.

Forcemeats play an important role in many recipes. I always thought of these as being based on sausagemeat or pork, but of course, it just means stuffing. The most basic versions in the book contain simply breadcrumbs, lemon zest, butter, and herbs. Some add pounded ham, oysters or mushrooms.

An absence I noted is that there are very few recipes for minced meats. Modern cookery handbooks would lean heavily on the packet of minced beef to produce pies, chillis, pasta sauce and so forth. The only recipe for minced beef appears to be those for ‘collops’, where it is cooked in a little gravy. There is a leftover beef pie, where the cooked meat (“that which is least done is best for the purpose”) is chopped, seasoned, mixed with gravy and topped with an “inch-thick layer of bread-crumbs” moistened with plenty of clarified butter. Sounds pretty good, and not unlike a cottage pie.

Eliza Acton - cakes

The thing I found odd when looking through the text was that there were relatively few recipes for cakes compared to modern texts. Perhaps not too surprising given that sugar was only just becoming affordable for everyday use. There was a major tradition of puddings, and of yeasted buns and breads with dried fruit. But cakes as we think of them don’t have much space devoted to them.

Cakes like fruit cake or Dundee cake that we think of as being very old English recipes are actually more recent. They rely on imported sugar, being produced in Caribbean plantations by slaves, as well as imported dried fruits and spices that would be unloaded at docks like those in London where you can still find traces of those imports in the street names.

A pound cake made with huge quantities of butter and eggs as well as sugar, and with a great deal of manual labour, was a real luxury product. Imagine making a fruit cake where you had to remove seeds and stalks, and wash and dry the raisins. Where you had to break down the sugar loaf into a powder before you could combine it. Where you might want to dry the flour out in a low oven to ensure it wasn’t carrying a lot of water that might throw off the weight. The amount of effort needed, never mind the cost, made sure this was firmly into special treat territory.

I wanted to make some spiced, fruited buns from Eliza Acton, but her recipe is so completely vague, it seemed impossible. In the end, I went instead for Elizabeth David’s in ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery‘. The results from that are coming in another post soon.

4 comments on “Eliza Acton – Victorian recipe creator

  1. Emilia says:

    I don’t want to sound rude, it’s not my intention, but fruitcakes exist before the advent of refined sugar. They already existed in the Middle Ages, when honey was used.

    • Louise Marston says:

      Hi Emilia,
      You’re not being rude at all! You’re right about the medieval origins of these cakes, but I guess I meant that the sort of recipe we now think of as a standard Christmas cake needs refined sugar, and so is a more recent thing.

  2. Lois says:

    Great post! I am such an admirer of Eliza, such a pity she has been eclipsed by Mrs Beeton, who actually took most of her recipes from Eliza! I love the way she writes too!

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