“Just be natural and light-hearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative…”
If you find yourself arranging flowers in mason jars, or pulling to the side of the road to gather picturesque winter weeds, or in any way struggling with a glue gun, thank (or blame) Constance Spry.
She was the Martha Stewart of her day, which was England between the wars and after WW2. She studied a traditional course of nursing and home economics, but built her empire on “floristry,” particularly starting a vogue for simple flowers arranged in atmospheric containers like old water cans or tea-cups. She made elegance accessible and Martha Stewart possible.
Her first foray into food was in 1942, with Come Into the Garden, Cook, a book that encouraged wartime economies by growing your own edible garden and cooking from it. Her culinary masterwork is the one I found in the basement, The Constance Spry Cookery Book, which blends French tradition with English comfort, but still not too far removed from wartime privations. She includes in the opening pages of my 1960 edition, this caveat: “It will be seen that we have used the word butter in a great many of the recipes. This is a policy of perfection and is not intended to indicate that no substitute is ever to be considered.”
This is a friendly, but no-nonsense volume. The appeal here is expertise, not emotion. The recipes march down the page with the one bit of color exuberance reserved for the artfully arranged (naturally) frontispiece.
As a representative of the Cordon Bleu in London, Spry and her partner Rosemary Hume naturally include chapters on “Pieces Froides,” “Rechauffes” (which they describe as a “done-up dish” otherwise known as leftovers), and “Gros Gateaux.” But they also include some comforting thoughts on breakfast, which they write, “should be hot, fresh, and easy to eat.” I could not agree more and their recipe for Savory Drop Scones, “to be made immediately before breakfast,” sound like just the thing.
I also appreciate their thoughts on tea-time. Admittedly nostalgic even at the time of their writing, and honest. “In those days the disposition of a woman’s time made tea-time possible, and the taste for, shall I say, the cosier figure gave no cause for apprehension.” Tea is one thing, the cakes to go with it, quite another. What would Mrs. Spry make of gyms and cleanses?
Spry and Hume also had their own cooking school and its chapter of “Let’s try it” recipes could be a contemporary cookbook on its own (ahem, any interested publishers?). It includes bright dishes like Pear, Melon, and Cucumber Salad, more substantial dishes like Poulet Romarin, and a few adventurous dishes like Qorma, gathered from students. It finishes with desserts like Rum Pie or Gateau Allemand that bring to mind a sleepy and satisfying Sunday lunch.
Their signature dish is Coronation Chicken, a mild chicken curry served at Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation to 300 luncheon guests. It appears to be a very beige dish in recipes that are all over the internet.
And again, like many historic cookbooks, the recipes are sometimes scant on directions but not in ambition. It guides you to take on Braised Venison in a one paragraph recipe. I’ll stick with the Rechauffes.