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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

To Roast a Fat Cygnet

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas FEBRUARY. 01, 2021

[183-365] 31st. January 2021- Yes, still raining, so indoors again. I seem to have a mania for collecting cookbooks so here we are. A post about recipe books. I am including a recipe or should I say receipt or two later on but I don't recommend trying them as it might end up with a prison sentence.

I have featured one or two books from my collection as a source of interesting material to mull over. Some of the older cookbooks are very revealing of the customs and social circumstances of the times when they were written.

Somewhere still packed in a box after our move over a year ago is a small book which reveals everything in it's title alone, "The One Maid Book of Cookery", if I can unearth it at some point I will do a bit about it. It is not exactly a self-help book for housewives reduced to the ignominious position of having only one maid as I presume it is more concerned with getting the most out of that maid. I suppose getting your sole maid to do all the work is a form of self-help though, thinking about it.

Ignominious - deserving or causing public disgrace or shame. late Middle English: from French ignominieux, or Latin ignominiosus

This jolly image below is the frontispiece of Cooking from the Commonwealth by Robin Howe. The Commonwealth is the institution that replaced The British Empire, a sort of voluntary Empire if you will.

I should add, all of my books have been acquired in charity shops or from online bulk second hand book sellers so the average cost of one of my books is between £2 and £3 about $4 US. If being posted, that includes postage too. The majority came from Amazon second hand where they cost 50 pence plus postage bringing them out to about £3.50. I don't want any of you thinking I am some sort of cookbook millionaire.

Having said that I have since discovered that some are now collectors items and have increased in value. A couple even arrived signed by the chef concerned. They are in my book safe so don't even think about it. My book safe is a safe for putting valuable books inside and the safe looks like a book, only a cheap book, just to confuse you. It's a book in book's clothing.

This reminds me of a funny story. I had friends who moved into a house and one of the double electric sockets never worked. They put up with it for a year or so until they needed some other work doing and said to the electrician, can you have a look at that socket too because it's never worked. They obviously never plugged anything into it when it didn't work. The electrician called them in to the room about half an hour later and showed them the inside of the socket. Empty. Because it was a safe not a socket. A safe in socket's clothing. Now that they know it is a safe and put a few small valuables in it, the huge irony is that they worry about how secure it is. So to make it look more convincing they do plug something into it.

Robin Howe is Mrs. Howe, way ahead of her time, with a gender non-specific name, and she is apparently well travelled throughout The Commonwealth.

Apart from collecting the recipes on her travels "Others have come from an army of willing correspondents and (with a very few exceptions too exotic to transplant) have been tested by Mrs. Howe."

Had I been alive in 1958 I would have insisted Mrs. Howe produce a sequel dedicated to "the recipes too exotic to print", it could have been sold in plain brown wrappers. The mind boggles. What could they have been? I'm guessing they were recipes we now buy ready created, from the chiller counter, with a film cover, a brightly coloured picture of the finished meal on the wrapper, not unlike the book cover below, and some microwave instructions.

The recipes are indexed by Commonwealth Country so this is also a geography lesson around all of the red bits of the map that Britain used to govern. So having been warned about the "too exotic", I scanned the countries for an "exotic" one, I had to put Mrs. Howes hat on to do it because nowhere is exotic anymore. So I method acted Mrs. Howe for a minute, the hat is really comfy and wide brimmed because exotic means sun. Noel Coward did sing that only "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun" so I'm guessing that applied to Mrs Howe too. The hat is made of straw and in pale blue with a ribbon tied around it which flutters behind me/her in the exotic spice laden winds of the South Seas in my/her catamaran hollowed out from a tree.

I/Mrs Howe, decide on Fiji so I flip to Fiji and the Neighbouring Islands. None of them have names apparently. I am fairly certain that any Mrs. Howe in 1958 would have considered Fiji to be exotic.

Imagine my surprise when I discover I actually have been taken over by the ghost of Mrs. Howe. Her first line under Fiji is, " For most people the real exotic South Sea Island cooking....... I'm not making this up, I think I might be the reincarnation of Mrs. Howe. Trouble is she gives up too easily and has already thrown in the towel because "most of the ingredients are not found outside the tropics and are not exportable", where has she been? Oh I forgot she's in 1958, fair enough.

So to her Fiji recipe.

"Not a soup for everyday-even though it is simple to make, with only one main ingredient: The Beche de Mer, which must be freshly gathered........ gather them you must arm yourself with a sharp knife and a basket, and take a walk across the reefs, a walk most of us would like to make. require ten Beche-de-mer each ten inches long. When you spot one, grasp it firmly and swiftly cut it across the middle. With one strike the creature is dead, or it should be."

It wouldn't dare not be. Never argue with Mrs. Howe, Mr. Howe did try it once, he's on that plate at the back of the display. I almost wanted to Google Beche-de-mer to find out what on earth it is, but then I thought, no, I actually want to visualise something vicious with large teeth that Mrs. Howe had to fight to get a hold of, risking her life in the process. If I Google it and it is just a little sea slug that image will be gone forever.

The soup is followed by the improbably named "Dalo Soup with Lolo" and sorry, but I am now imagining Mr. Howe with a young island girl called Lolo and they have both slipped away to a small beach side café for soup, to get away from Mrs. Howe.

I will finish the Commonwealth section by sticking a pin into the book to see what and more importantly where, I end up. I am in Jamaica and I've now got jetlag because I've just covered about half the planet, this Empire was big.

Cutlass Rolls

I've done a precis of it. One cutlass fish. Fillet it. Two strips. Cut into 6 inch lengths. Rub with salt and pepper and spread with a mix of chopped onion, tomato, chilli and capers. Roll the pieces up and skewer. Fry in boiling oil and serve with a rich brown sauce (no recipe). Helpfully we are told the cutlass fish has a silvery tail and is shaped like a cutlass.

I'm moving on now to "A Book of Scents and Dishes" by Dorothy Allhusen. Probably one of my oldest books and also one that compiles recipes from earlier times. It was published in 1927.

This one is just crammed with little gems. The writing sublime. Downton Abbey eat your heart out.

"I can claim no literary gifts, and I feel this small volume has many imperfections," (not least the way the pages have been separated by a lawn mower by the look of it) "but I hope that, all the same, the information I have gleaned may be of use to young housewives."

In fact browsing further I discover that several of the pages have never been separated so they are untouched by human hand and unseen for nearly 100 years. Maybe in 2027 I should hold a ceremonial hundredth anniversary page separation, to see what is revealed?

Afternoon Tea .....Alexander Pope, with great indignation, refused an invitation of Lady Suffolk, who actually expected him to join her for the great meal of the day at 4pm. To a friend he spoke of the innovation as the beginning of the end! "How could people protest if the young, inflamed by these vicious habits trod the paths of degeneracy?"

On the Art of Tea Making.

The essential point is to be sure that the water really boils, and a locomotive kettle is admirable for the purpose.

On Wine.

There are many lone women in the world, who take pride in their cooking, but there seem to be few who realise that a good dinner can be marred if the wine is not properly decanted.

There is even an image supplied as a warning, of a disappointed man preparing to throw himself bodily out of the window having discerned sediment in his glass.

But here below, I grace this post with the recipe of the day. Turtle Soup, with real Turtle.

Having soaked your dried turtle for three days, you add meat (no detail) lean ham and an old hen or a knuckle of veal. So it's an old hen or a baby cow whichever you fancy. Fourteen quarts of water, which I am staggered to discover is 28 pints, so I have now moved outside and am using an oil drum. An indeterminate quantity of carrot, celery, and onion and three cloves. Three cloves in 28 pints of water?

Simmer till the turtle is tender, nine to ten hours.

So the next time you are watching your favourite soap and fancy a nibble of something, apart from the international legal restrictions on acquiring the main ingredient, you need an oil drum and about four clear days to do it, I'd stick with the Doritos.

Sorry, I haven't finished. Strain through a napkin, pick out the pieces of turtle. After nine hours how can you identify the pieces of turtle? Wash the turtle in some cold water. Just in case there was some hint of flavour left in there. Next day boil it up and add flour, if it is too stiff add stock. Sorry add weak stock. Flavour with (because so far there isn't any) parsley, basil, thyme, marjoram, a few peppercorns, allspice, half a pint of sherry and a small tin of Bellis green fat.

Mmmmmmm delicious.

Skim this soup all the time it is cooking. So that's about five days now.

My main question and I have many is why did a creature that lived it's whole life in salted water need so much soaking and boiling in salted water.

Why spend five days removing the flavour from something and throwing it away to then flavour it with weak stock, and where did the stock come from and why was it weak.

What is Bellis green fat, and why don't I really want to know?

And my main question is this, if I just put some stock, parsley, basil, thyme, marjoram, a few peppercorns, allspice, and half a pint of sherry in an oil drum and warmed it could anyone tell that you left out the five days of turtle boiling?

Other great offerings are.

How to dry Rose-leaves in a most excellent Manner.

Pot Pourri (Best)

Simpler and Cheaper Pot Pourri

14 more Pot Pourri recipes

To Humanise One Pint of Milk

Plain Cake

Marvels (Which I find hard to believe)


To Prevent Butter Tasting of Turnips

To Roast a Fat Cygnet


I forgive you for now assuming I am randomly pressing keys on the keyboard with my eyes shut. I am not.

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