The Constance Spry Cookery Book
by Constance Spry, Rosemary Hume
Publisher: Grub Street, Country: UK
ISBN: 9781908117175, Edition: metric, Year: 2011
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Review

Probably the most impressive British post-war cookery compendium is The Constance Spry Cookery Book, first published in 1956. It was reprinted a number of times, and now the publishers Grub Street have produced a handsome metricated version.

A hefty volume weighing in at 2.2 kg, this edition has left the original text untouched except for new metric measures (alongside Imperial measures). The layout has changed, with a nod to Grub Street’s The Complete Robuchon (2008): Recipe titles and ingredients are presented in a coloured, sparse sans serif font, while normal text is a black, slightly smaller serif font.

The Constance Spry Cookery Book was the work of Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, who had both achieved considerable renown before they joined forces in the mid 1940s, eventually owning and running two British cookery schools together. The book is a strong reflection of classic French influenced cooking of the time, with the addition of standard British fare and a little imported diversity. It is a joy to see Irish Stew, Warwickshire Pork Pies, eleven Chutneys and rather a lot of chicken curries alongside Mousseline de Poisson, Brioche, Chou Farci Lorraine and Jambon Braisé Madère. Even some contemporary cooking traditions of North America get a mention.

There are also some odd surprises along the way, not least the Spaghetti à la Bolognese that lacks any meat other than liver!

An additional attraction is that there is just occasionally a little personality sprinkled through these pages, unlike so many other later compendiums (until we reach the egos of the 1990s). Lovers of Elizabeth David’s writings will recognise a similar manner, though a little softer in tone.

The pikelets I remember were only about as thick as pancakes and bigger than either crumpets or muffins. We were not allowed to buy these very often, and I am sure this was because traditionally they were buttered on both sides and this was extravagant. Piled up adn buttered n the way they cannot have been easy to eat very tidily. The memory of them in some remote way makes me think of Mr Chadband, whose unctuous speeches we used almost ot learn by heart for schoolrom mimcry and entertainment.

The new layout of the text is, unfortunately, the thing which most detracts from the whole. With an average line length of, I suspect, just over 20 words, this puts the page design at odds with pretty much every typesetting convention (10-14 words). It is not easy to read.

In addition, most recipe readers do need to skip from instructions to ingredient list and back again, but this is made harder when the font size and weight for the ingredients is noticeably different from the text, as in Grub Street’s design. I found this disappointing for such a well regarded publishing house.

Metrication of the original Imperial measurements follows the common British convention of 1 oz = 25 g, but multiples and fractions of an ounce get rounded in all directions (as is the unpredictable and inconsistent habit of many British publishers), resulting in silliness like 3 oz = 75 g, 3.5 oz = 90 g, 4 oz = 110 g (correct gram values are 85, 99, 113 respectively, so why not round a little better?).

Any book converting measurement systems needs to be checked or processed carefully. It is frustrating to see silly mistakes: “The average weight of [...] a goose’s egg [is] from 225-250g/8-10 oz.” (10 oz is usually converted to 275 g in Britain.)

At least one recipe which used “cup” measures remains unconverted, even though British Imperial recipes haven’t used cups in decades, and they do not exist in British metric. There’s also a recipe that mentions “quarts”, unconverted, alongside others with the typically ambiguous “wineglass”.

Come to think of it, I’m also not sure why the publishers included Imperial measures. I was surprised to see that the book hasn’t just been metricated, but in fact the Imperial measures are also partially “modernised” British ones, where gills become fluid ounces or tablespoons (rounded, then metricated and rounded, just to add to the margin of error) and perhaps other changes have been made.

Seeing a publisher bring an outstanding work of historical value and some contemporary utility to the awareness of contemporary cooks is wonderful, but I think it might have been reasonable to expect a little more contribution to the value of the book: Do ovens now behave in the way they did in the 1950s? Have there been significant changes in basic dairy products, cooking fats, or flours that might need consideration? How does this book reflect the times in which it was written? Given that many younger cooks may not have benefited from the knowledge that would previously have been passed down by mothers or grandmothers, and at least two generation of cooks have no direct knowledge of the cooking conditions of the authors’ period, a simple preface or appendix alerting the contemporary cook to some changes would have been considerate, even if only stated in broad terms. The only “story” to this book is presented briefly on the flaps of the dustjacket. Understanding a work’s context adds to its attraction and use.

Some might argue that the reissuing of a classic with the added value of metrication should leave a reviewer and user satisfied. I would disagree. Book publishers can do better than making a good book less legible and little easier to interpret for modern times than the original. Nostalgia is fun, but utility is a worthy cause too. The Constance Spry Cookery Book is worthy of a place on many serious cooks’ shelves, but I’m inclined to prefer the original (also published by Grub Street).

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Okay
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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The Constance Spry Cookery Book, Constance Spry | 2011 | UK, 4.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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