Hard to find but worth it for Anglophiles
by Michelle Auerbach Brode
he main reason I read cookbooks is not for the recipes. I read them to see how people live. The authors are interesting, for sure, but the whole culture that made the authors and the world they inhabit--that's what I want to taste from any cookbook. Margaret Costa has a beautiful world. She has a graceful way with food and a relationship with cooking that is thorough, precise, and flexible. Her Four Seasons Cookery Book creates a world of charming and delightful--and very English--enjoyment.
Admittedly, I am an Anglophile. I have read about Mongolian cooking, cooking in Buddhist monasteries, cooking in the wine country in California. None of this is soothing like British nursery food. Welsh rarebit by the fire and a good Beatrix Potter book. Or better yet, roly poly pudding and, well, any English novel. I don't know if it is the declining empire thing I find so fascinating or the deep sense of history. No one I went to cooking school with can believe how obsessed I am with English food. "You would never eat a pigeon or an eel," I am told. True. People do, though, and this I find fascinating.
"The Four Seasons Cookery Book" was first published in the 1970's, the end of a culinary dark age and the beginning of the enlightenment that brought us not only ethnic food but also regional cuisine. The same was true in the United Kingdom. Margaret Costa gathered in her meticulous mind the best of British food. This is not fancy stuff, nor is it a glance backwards at an old-fashioned life. It is good ingredients simply and lovingly prepared.
The very first recipe in "The Four Seasons Cookery Book" starts with "Pancakes are really ridiculously easy to make..." This sold me. I want to live in this world, even just for the time I am reading the cookbook. I overcame the whole sections devoted to foods we can't get in Colorado, elderberries and gooseberries for starters. I slipped into Costa's utterly smooth belief that if you use the best foods from each season you will create food worth eating. This is not a new idea. Costa just describes it so well. The book is arranged by season. Costa uses seasonal food for the sake of flavor (and as a bit of a balm for the soul). You cannot find great strawberries in February, for example. You get very expensive wool socks dyed red, shoved in a small box and shipped halfway around the world.
This is a classical British cookbook. Many of the concoctions that Margaret Costa brings to us are for things Americans have never heard of. Syllabubs (whipped cream and fruit desserts) for example. Don't get culture shock from the names. Read the ingredients and the directions and be transported.
The experience is akin to being an exchange student. You are visiting a civilized and well-fed country and you can bring back as much of the culture as you'd like. Costa will teach you to make the perfect omelet, butcher your own turkey, make tomato soup, and bake yeast breads. Everything is in there from cooking jams and preserves to a section on offal and the use of organ meats. Costa clearly describes the use of fresh herbs, the use of spirits in cooking, and yes, even pigeons.
Finally, Margaret Costa is a wonderful writer. Her introduction includes a poignant description of her relationship with her chef husband. It sets a sweet and intimate tone for the rest of the book. Her food writing is crystal clear and free of ego and pretense. Short of Beatrix Potter there is nothing more quintessentially British. Restrained, decorous but alive and gripping.
This book is hard to find. Your options are to use the links here, which go to Amazon's UK site, or call Kitchen Arts and Letters Bookstore in New York City (212-876-5550). (Tell them we sent you. They won't care, but do it anyway.) Oh, and the other problem is that the measurements are weight instead of volume measures. This is so much more precise, but if it bothers you or you don't own a kitchen scale, beware. These two problems aside, "The Four Seasons Cookery Book" is sublime and Margaret Costa is a great ambassador for British food and the idea of seasonal cookery no matter where you are or what you like to eat.
Michelle Auerbach Brode was a professional chef. Now she is much happier cooking at home for her family and talking about food incessantly. If you need to talk to her about food or anything else she can be reached at Michelle.Brode@pobox.com.
If you don't have a kitchen scale, consider buying one; if you like European or British cookbooks, it's a necessity, it really is a more accurate way to measure ingredients, and it's a great tool for homeschoolers! I (Lynn) have an analog one that measures up to 30 lbs that I use for canning. Here's a bunch currently available at Amazon.