Those who think British cooking started in 1990 do their predecessors an injustice. There have always been good cooks and a few years after the second world war, and after a decade of rationing and hardship, a generation of Brits rediscovered the joys of good eating with great enthusiasm.
Many of the names of that era – the likes of Philip Harben (“the first TV chef”, it is sometimes claimed), George Perry-Smith and even Robert Carrier are close to being forgotten – and others such as Elizabeth David are not necessarily enjoying the stellar reputation they once had. One such figure who survives, at least by virtue of one brilliant cookbook, is Margaret Costa.
The author of the Four Seasons Cookery Book came to school in England in the 1930s, went to Oxford and entered government service during the war. She spent most of her life in a small flat in Soho in the company of three husbands (consecutively, I should stress), the last of whom, Bill Lacy, was a chef. They opened Lacy’s restaurant in Whitfield Street, where they had much acclaim but a precarious business life and were forced to close after 10 years. Their fortunes declined further and Margaret was suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease when Anne Dolamore of Grub Street had the good sense to republish her great book in the 1990s.
Soho in the 1950s and 1960s was a magnet for people who enjoyed good food. It not only had a great many restaurants – Italian, French, Hungarian, German and even English – but a terrific range of food shops, largely there to service those restaurants. Although too posh actually to live in Soho, Elizabeth David constantly mentioned Soho shops (Lina Stores and Richards in Brewer Street, Camisa and Roche in Old Compton Street) as being the only places where many essential ingredients could be found. These specialist shops, in tandem with a lively vegetable market in Rupert Street, made the area something of a gastronomic oasis. It’s clear that this cosmopolitan profusion informed Margaret Costa’s repertoire. Her food is eclectic – recipes can be classically French, Italian or English but all have a directness and freshness about them that is liberating.
Trawling through the Four Seasons Cookery Book, I came across the recipe below. It is delightfully simple, the sort of pudding one can knock up during a single episode of The Archers, probably sitting at the kitchen table with a preprandial glass to hand, and I am keen not to burden my readers with excessive labour in the holiday season. However, the real point of the recipe is that it is counterintuitive to me to mix two fruits such as a greengage and an apricot. Any fruit as pure and delightful as a greengage or an apricot should surely be prepared without complication. So the theory goes – and yet the two fruits work exceptionally well together here, each accentuating the flavour of the other. In cooking, empirical experience always trumps theory.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Baked greengages, apricot sauce
Should you find some little mirabelles, they would work every bit as well as the greengages, if a little fiddly to prepare. Do not be shy of making a lot of the apricot sauce. It can be an excellent base for a mousse, fool or, if you’re feeling ambitious, a soufflé. Serves 6.
200g apricots (or 100g dried)
50g caster sugar
6 slices pain de campagne or similar
30g unsalted butter
• Halve the apricots, cover with cold water and bring to a simmer. Stew very gently until completely soft. Blend the fruit in a processor or liquidiser. Add the grated zest of the lemon, half the sugar and a tablespoon or two of the cooking liquor and blend again to a smooth paste. Return to its pan and keep warm.
• Butter the slices of bread and then cut off the crusts to produce neat squares or rectangles. Halve the greengages, remove the stones and place them skin side down on the bread. Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the greengages and bake them in a medium hot oven (180C) for 20-25 minutes until the toasts are crisp and the fruit soft and beginning to caramelise. Serve hot or warm with a good spoonful of the apricot sauce for each toast.