From commode to à la Mode

I found a tatty little cookbook called Cakes and Confections à la Mode sitting outside a secondhand bookshop on Lewes High St the other week. As an impulsive purchaser of curious books, it wasn’t until I got home that I realised quite how interesting this little volume and its author, Mrs de Salis, actually is.

Mrs Harriet Anne de Salis was a popular Victorian cookery writer whose continental pretensions and love for expensive ingredients made her the Nigelissima of her day. Not much has been written about her, but I found an interesting entry about de Salis on Cooks Info, from which I gather she found writing, and love, quite late in life. Her first known published work is a world history of kissing, which suggests she might have been a bit saucy to boot. An extract of Kissing; its origin and species was published anonymously in St James’s Magazine in 1871, when de Salis was 42. It seems her new-found interest might have been informed by her courtship, for the following year Harriet Ann Bainbridge married William John Salis, a clerk at the War Office five years her junior. Presumably Harriet added the ‘de’ to her married name for the same reason she added ‘à la Mode’ to her English book titles.

The couple were living in Kensington in 1886 when Harriet applied for a patent for a ‘folding watertight commode’. Perhaps her invention was inspired by the necessities of her ailing mother, who died that year. It was an eventful time, for she also published the first of her cookery books, Savouries à la Mode, with Longman’s Green & Co. In the preface, however, de Salis gives just a vague reason for her foray into cookery writing. ‘I have been persuaded by my friends to publish a small book,’ she writes.

I don’t know what happened to the commode, but the cookbook was a hit. By the following year, Savouries à la Mode was in its sixth edition and its follow-up, Entrées a la Mode, its third. De Salis went on to write fourteen titles in the à la Mode series, on topics like kitchen gardening, Drinks, National Viands and Oysters, which she cooks over one hundred different ways. The Scotsman endorsed the series as, ‘Those excellent cookery books that have made Mrs de Salis an authority in every kitchen that has any pretensions to high art.’ But along with popular appeal, often comes ridicule. Journalist Sir Henry Lucy, writing as The Baron de Book-Worms in Punch, humorously chastised de Salis for including recipes for lobster, duck and ‘Rumpsteak à la bonne bouche’ in her book Tempting Dishes For Small Incomes.

It is my daughter’s first birthday next week, so what better excuse to try out a few of Mrs de Salis’s Confections? I am currently choosing a suitable recipe or two, which is quite a task, because the instructions are brief, and in what seems to be de Salis’s style, some of her inventions call for as many as twenty eggs. I am avoiding Hunter’s Nuts because the ingredients include ground ammonia. I think I’m out of time for Angelica, which requires you to ‘take an angelica plant in April’, boil until tender, scrape it, dry it and then bring a rich sugar syrup to the boil and pour it over the plant until absorbed, twice a day, for a week. So my shortlist currently includes Moniatillo – a Cuban recipe made with sweet potato, White Gingerbread, Pistachio Cake and Orange Biscuits. Watch this space, of course, because my adventures with Mrs de Salis will soon be posted up here for all to see.

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