Fin-de-siecle carrot, cabbage and beef stew for changeable seasons

Here in London we swing from chilly, bright mornings to warm, light-filled afternoons, and back into evenings cool enough to make hot water bottles a tempting prospect. Weather like this requires an arsenal of recipes in one’s back pocket, from cool noodle salads for evenings drowsy with humidity to warming recipes that provide ballast against the creeping coldness of a surprisingly crisp spring night.

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So to this recipe. It’s inspired by one I found in a magazine…nothing out of the ordinary there, except that the magazine in question is one from 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was published in the early, rather than high, summer, a reminder that British summers, too, can run to cool. The recipe as it was printed would, I’m sure, confound many stereotypes about British food: it read surprisingly modern with its combination of beef, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and macaroni, a veritable one-pot meal sprightly with tender vegetables. The magazine in question was a penny a week and so accessible to upper-working or lower-middle class women with a bit of extra income, and was most explicitly directed at the kind of woman who had servants, but usually no more than two (a cook and a maid); sometimes the imagined readers’ income could stretch to no more than a charlady (“the woman of the future will even have to scrub” was a particularly cautionary phrase mid-way through the First World War).

I put this together based on some shredded cabbage languishing in the fridge after a recipe called for only half a head and the vague memory of this recipe, buried under the many, many magazines I read for my MA dissertation in the summer of 2014. What I mostly remember is the serialised romances – the mill-girl swapped at birth, the man who loses his arm at Mons – but some of the recipes stood out too. I didn’t have any macaroni in the house so served it with boiled, unpeeled potatoes, but I think the pasta would be a great addition; simmering in the tomato sauce, it will absorb the flavours and add a slip of silky starchiness to the stew, subtly thickening it.

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