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The stories and recipes behind our great foodie traditions

Greek-style lamb traybake PAGE 114
HELENA LANG HEAD OF CONTENT ‘My first cookbooks were written by inspiring British women who wanted to improve the way we cooked and ate – Delia, Nigella and Two Fat Ladies, I’m looking at you! On the following pages, we celebrate these women, their predecessors and the modern women now carrying the torch.’


To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we’re celebrating just some of the many British female cooks who have inspired, guided and taught hundreds of home cooks through the decades.

Just imagine. The neighbours are coming to dinner and you’re keen to impress. You are a modern hostess, and have chosen the menu from your new cookbook: a fine carrot soup to start, followed by beef steaks à la Française, with apple Charlotte for dessert.

Having checked that all is in hand, you change into your best satin gown, complete with bustle and waist-nipping corset. This, you see, is 1845 and the cookbook in question is Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton, who is keen to address ‘the young housekeepers of England’.

Ms Acton may not be as famous as her Victorian counterpart Mrs Beeton, but her classic recipes are still hailed by experts as some of the best. Not least, she is responsible for the way we follow recipes with a detailed method and cooking times separated from the list of weighed ingredients: this was a completely different approach to previously published cookbooks.

‘The earlier collections of “receipts” were private household books for the well-to-do housewife, with instructions passed down from mother to daughter, and to their cooks,’ explains Pen Vogler, food historian and author of Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain (Atlantic Books, £22). ‘When cookery books – aimed at the “gentlewoman” – were first published for wider use, it was not without controversy: the authors had to justify why they were daring to share the trade secrets of professional chefs with all and sundry.’

Nevertheless, the likes of Hannah Woolley, the first published ‘authoress’ of a cookbook (The Gentlewoman’s Companion, 1670), forged ahead, arguing it was her duty to guide any woman – ‘from the lady at the court to the cook maid in the country’ – in the art of cooking. She was to prove a pioneer.


In the decades that followed, home cooks found reassurance and learned skills from such culinary bibles. But the second world war brought with it rationing, and the need for an imaginative approach to producing nourishing meals. Marguerite Patten, a cheery home economist from the Ministry of Food, proved a saviour with her BBC Radio show, ‘Kitchen Front’, which explained to a legion of h

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