Lady Sysonby’s Lover…

“Lady Sysonby’s Cook Book may prove a life belt for the valiant young wives of today who are doing their own cooking and remember, despairingly, the dinner parties, cooks and kitchen maids of their pampered parents.” With these stirring words the reader is introduced to a world where the eponymous author remembers once doing the entire cooking for her husband over a 10 day period. She mentions in her “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book that ” Every recipe has been successfully achieved by my own good plain cooks who have never been chefs…..” so it’s encouraging to know that there’s nothing in the book that can’t be achieved by a group of good plain cooks working in unison. She also mentions in the “Note to  Second Edition” that she was encouraged by her publisher to bring out this new edition when he  mentioned to her that, during the war, his daughter “having not been able to cook an egg” became an excellent cook simply from studying her book! (sic). This interesting little book revealed itself to me recently as I was trawling through my shelves of cookbooks. I think it was one of many that was given to me by my Godmother or by one of her friends. The style of writing and the sentiments expressed may seem inappropriate to our times yet I feel we may have come full circle. Our shops are filled with ready meals and the main thrust of cook books and television cookery programmes is “quick and easy” whilst the new, and fabulously rich, moneytocracy  is creating a far wider divide in society than existed in the era of Lady Sysonby. However,  the  the cares of the chatelaines of our new “aristocracy” are permanently absorbed with the knotty problem of retaining eternal youth which often precludes the possibility of food passing between their own inflated, botoxed lips and, save for well publicised acts of “charity”, certainly excludes any thoughts of the plight of others. We seem to be racing headlong towards another “let them eat…” era which does not bode well for mankind. The current raft of pre Second World War dramas on British television may well have tinted my spectacles with a rosy pink hue, but I have to confess to a liking for the tone and content of her book. There is a similarity with current avalanche of cookery books that employ the most fashionable photographers and include forewords, showering praise, that have been penned  by whichever current literary or culinary idol can be prevailed upon. Oliver Messel, an incredibly accomplished painter, celebrated set designer for Diaghiliev and close friend of the Royal family,  produced these whimsical illustrations, whilst the foreword was written by the novelist Osbert Sitwell.  The recipes were written for a post war world when many ingredients were not available. Seasonal cooking was normal to the grand houses as so much of the food would have been produced by the estate, yet this book does not deal in grand dishes. For the most part it is filled with simple dishes that sound very good but the recipes that charm me have the ability to reflect the Zeitgeist of that era.  The following recipe suggests that one would have enough grouse to hand to rustle up a bowl of minced grouse to have on toast. I love that madness. The character of this book is summed up well in the closing paragraph to Sitwell’s foreword which reads “To conclude, this book is intended for those, not necessarily rich, who want good food and mean to have it.”

About Food,Photography & France

Photographer and film maker living in France. After a long career in London, my wife and I have settled in the Vendee, where we run residential digital photography courses with a strong gastronomic flavour.
This entry was posted in Cooking, Food and Photography, Food photographer, Grouse on toast, Lady Sysonby, lifestyle, photography course, Photography holiday, Toast, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Lady Sysonby’s Lover…

  1. Rachel says:

    I actually saw a grouse once – two (a brace – don’t you love it?) of them actually. Flushed them out when hiking in the Pyrenees and we scared the h*** out of each other! I wonder how they taste…?

    I *do* have a weakness for old cookbooks, and I love this post. I actually speaks to my philosophy – after you’ve eaten most of your grouse for supper, use the leftovers for breakfast (and then, of course, make grouse soup…)! 😉

    Oh, my “inbox” just dinged saying I had a comment from *you*… how funny! Something about wavelengths?

  2. That’s what I’m missing, “good plain cooks”, perhaps a lady’s maid and a Downton Abbey like estate. Yes, I would like that. In lieu of that, I’d like that book, Roger.

  3. Chef Scar says:

    Excellent, Roger! Where’s Mrs. Patmore when she is needed? Several decades ago, on my first trip to London, I had occasion to dine at Wilton’s on Jermyn Street. In addition to turtle soup and Galway oysters, I had the grouse, accompanied, of course, by a fine claret. It was a most unforgettable meal and I felt that I was privileged to be the guest of Lord and Lady Marchmain.

    • What a wonderful memory of Wiltons. I remember in the 70’s the story concerning the son of an illustrious banker who was lunching at Wiltons on the day that he had come out of prison, where he had served several years for fraud. Before his incarceration he had dined daily at Wiltons so he was well known to the Maitre D. There was a group of very gay people at the table next to him who were getting on his nerves. The years in prison had roughened his behaviour and with that in mind he called the Maitre D over and ordered the Stilton. The very ripe Stilton was duly delivered to his table, which he then picked up and deposited on the head of the most annoying member of his neighbouring table. The group naturally reacted furiously and demanded that the young man be ejected. The Maitre D calmly walked up to them and announced in a voice full of gravitas ” I’m afraid Mr.— is allowed to throw the Stilton”. Noblesse oblige!

  4. I do love how our ideas about good food change over time. Those illustrations are priceless.The oldest cookbook we have isn’t very old, only from the 1960s. You’d probably get a kick out of the photography.

  5. ChgoJohn says:

    I do enjoy reading old cookbooks. Sure there are the recipes but the best ones, for my tastes, offer a glimpse into The Times in which they were written, just like Lady Sysonby’s book does — which reminds me. I really must speak to my gamekeeper. There simply are no more grouse about. I wonder if I could substitute skunk? We seem to have many of them in residence, as my dog discovered last Friday night.

  6. Hmm…I’ll have to see if I can find a copy of that book. I like those instructional cookbooks that seem to be staples, like Julia’s “The Art of French Cooking” and Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking”. Thanks for the suggestion!

  7. Michelle says:

    Good points all. And what delightful illustrations.

  8. Dick Polak says:

    Great ! Love it and your comments !

  9. chefconnie says:

    Hilarious. We are all just good plain cooks. Ask any chef and that is usually how they would describe themselves. I love old cookbooks. My husband always finds them in thrift stores and estate sales and brings them home.

  10. Mad Dog says:

    That sounds like a fabulous book – I love the black pig on the cover!

    I think you might also like Countryman’s Cooking by W.M.W. Fowler. The book was originally self published and some years after the author’s death a copy was found in a junk shop and it got published properly. Leslie Phillips read excerpts on Radio 4 a couple of years ago (Book of the Week). It’s very funny plus practical. The author was a Lancaster Bomber pilot, POW in Stalag Luft 3, plus very good cook 😉

  11. wonderful illustrations, and a great post. I’m partial to reading Mrs Beaton every now and then to remind myself of how slack I am at breakfast – not preparing the table, let alone all the dishes for my guests 🙂 But you are right about the seasonal “bent” of the older cookbooks, that’s what was available.

  12. That’s a lovely book. I had to Google translate grouse because I had no idea what it was…
    Beautiful post 🙂

  13. spree says:

    Really fabulous Roger! And I love the illustrations! The book would be worth it for those alone.

  14. ....RaeDi says:

    My favorite old cookbooks are from the deep south… written in English but you would have thought it was another language! Love the cookbook, to live like that… I would have to think twice about it!

  15. I love books like this and have always thought that if I´d been alive at the end of the 19th century or early 20th I´d have had to work for a living and would have loved to have been a cook for a big family! Silly dreams as I know it would have been hard, hard work. I´d have had a “Ruby” (as in the original Upstairs Downstairs) to be my kitchen maid though!

  16. Very funny post, Roger. Another world.
    Squirrels are very plentiful round here. I wonder if one could substitute minced squirrel for grouse?

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