The history cook: The Sainsbury Cookbook series

One of Dimbleby's "uncomplicated but quirky" collections

I’m going to make a bold claim – the moment that Britain changed from a nation that regarded olive oil as a pharmaceutical aid and garlic with deep suspicion, to a country comprised of cooking-obsessed epicureans can be traced to November 1978. This was the date when Sainsbury published a small book called Cooking for Christmas by Josceline Dimbleby, the first in a series of 56 titles published under the Sainsbury Cookbook brand between 1978 and 1994.

Certainly the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were not without food heroes – Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier and Bee Nilson, for instance – but the readers who devoured their books and recipes were the exception not the norm. The start of the Sainsbury series marks the moment when supermarkets realised they had to become gastronomic temples and when culinary capital went mainstream.

Sainsbury swiftly followed Cooking for Christmas with two more titles by Dimbleby – Cooking with Herbs and Spices and Family Meat and Fish Cookery, both published in 1979. Over the next 14 years, the Sainsbury Cookbook series published 10 books by Dimbleby, but she was not the only cookery writer of serious calibre that was recruited. Other authors included Lindsey Bareham, Annie Bell, Claudia Roden, Sophie Grigson, Patricia Lousada, Jane Grigson, Elisabeth Luard, Anne Willan, Muriel Downes and Elizabeth Ortiz Lambert. Food aficionados will recognise these women as being some of the best cookery writers of the past 40 years, who have influenced much of today’s vibrant food scene.

It is notable that most of the series was penned by women whose expertise originated in the domestic rather than professional kitchen. The food, not the author, was the focus. Designed to be practical, portable and inexpensive, they were each about 100 pages, 20cm x 15cm in size and initially priced at 65p. They had sold more than 13 million copies by 1985.

But revenue was only part of their purpose. By 1978, British supermarkets were set to become the most powerful players in shaping the culinary habits of the nation. Technological developments, sophisticated distribution systems and consumer curiosity created the perfect environment for supermarkets to expand their product ranges.

This had been long in the making. In the years that followed the second world war a retailing revolution took place. Women had traditionally relied on specialist shops, but in 1948 Jack Cohen, inspired by food retail in America, opened the first Tesco self-service store in St Albans. By 1967, there were 24,000 such stores in the UK.

Supermarket success was also fuelled by the rise in women working, increased wealth and broadened cultural horizons. Rising prosperity and improved road systems saw an increase in car ownership from 11.5 million vehicles in 1964 to 20 million in 1980, fuelling the move to out-of-town shopping. The change in how people shopped was matched by what they bought. What had been a fairly monotonous national diet was gradually influenced by a rise in the number of migrants to the UK and an increase in foreign holidays.

Dimbleby, in particular, was the mistress of uncomplicated but quirky dishes. A recipe for “chicken baked with honey and ginger” recommends fresh ginger but suggests, if this is not available, that crystallised will work too. “This is not a book of recipes for the cheapest dishes possible,” explains Dimbleby in Family Meat and Fish Cookery, “but of ideas for making cheaper meat and fish into something more special.”

Today, recipes like “avocado and mozzarella”, “chicken baked in yoghurt” and “pork, onion and courgette tart” sound unremarkable, but for consumers at the time the Sainsbury Cookbooks ventured into unknown territory. Patricia Lousada, author of the 1981 Pasta Italian Style, notes that, “Until recently, many British people were familiar with pasta only as a nursery food,” and acknowledges the “difficulty in obtaining” fresh basil.

Sainsbury was not the only retailer attempting to cash in on the new food culture. In 1979 Marks and Spencer launched a range of high-class chilled recipe dishes; the success of these lines spawned the start of an industry worth £1bn every year in the UK. By 1982 food as fashion was so commonplace that Anne Barr, writing in Harpers & Queen, coined the term “foodie”.

You can blame supermarkets for decimating the high street but they have played a crucial part in expanding the culinary horizons of the nation, making fresh ginger and basil readily available and ensuring that we are all “foodies” now.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; “Cooking with Herbs and Spices” by kind permission of the British Library collection

Beef and lentil ‘flan’ (serves six)

150g lentils

500ml milk

1 onion, finely chopped

¼ nutmeg, grated

or ½ tsp ground nutmeg

400g fresh minced beef

50g fresh breadcrumbs

1 level tbs tomato purée

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp French mustard

2 eggs, lightly whisked

50g-75g grated cheese

salt, black pepper

● Put the lentils, milk and onion into a saucepan, bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently, stirring now and then, for 45 mins to 1 hour, until you have a thick and mushy mixture. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

● Season the minced beef. Add the breadcrumbs, purée, garlic, mustard and 1 whisked egg.

● Heat the oven to 180C and grease a 23cm china flan dish. Line the dish with the meat mixture, pressing it right up the sides and above the edge. Add remaining egg to the lentil mixture and spoon it all into the meat casing. Sprinkle cheese on top. Cook for 45–50 mins until the filling has set. Serve with a tomato sauce and a green salad.

From ‘Family Meat and Fish Cookery’, 1979, published by Woodhead Faulkner for J.S. Sainsbury

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