Cooking up a rural fantasy

Food for thought: Mrs Beeton

The frontispiece of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management of 1861 looks uncannily like the photographs on the walls of branches of Fresh 'n' Wild, which show the store's various artisanal and ethical suppliers in their natural habitats. In Mrs Beeton's version, an extended family group clusters around the door of a cottage at harvest time. The men are plump John Bulls. The principal female figure is serving them beer, probably brewed from her own grain. Ducks dabble, hens peck and cows drowse under a tree. The caption says the scene represents "The Free Fair Homes of England"; a time before industrialisation scarred the land, cutting off a generation of urban Britons from the source of their nourishment.

You just know that Mrs Beeton would love to step in to that picture. Her book is saturated with a longing for an agrarian world that had already slipped into extinction but just might, by some enormous effort, be brought back. So, in her instructions for making a syllabub, she suggests mixing up some sugar and nutmeg and then simply squirting the milk from a cow's udder straight into the bowl.

Animals destined for the table are described in their natural habitat with such lulling, lyrical grace that you feel you are watching them from a hot, summer meadow. Mrs Beeton describes how a sheep "indolently and luxuriously chews his cud with closed eyes and blissful satisfaction, only rising when his delicious repast is ended to proceed silently and without emotion to repeat the pleasing process of laying in more provender". Pigs, meanwhile, snuffle in well-kept sties while deer bound through the heather.

Such soft-focus rural fantasy was only possible because Mrs Beeton was a sharp-edged daughter of the industrial age. Her guidelines for domestic bliss have less to do with the farmhouse than the factory. Briskly, she divides the working day into segments and allots each household member a set of tasks that read like a time-and-motion study. The labour is specialised, repetitive, often mechanised. Kitchen equipment is described like industrial plant.

Despite her dewy-eyed gestures to the days when households produced their own butter, eggs, bread and wine, she recommends short-cuts such as commercially bottled sauces. As for baking, she is ambivalent about whether you should even bother to do it. The illustration to "General Observations on Bread, Biscuits and Cakes" may show a pyramid of rustic-looking loaves, yet a few pages later Mrs Beeton writes enthusiastically about a new system for mass-producing bread.

None of this makes her rusticism phony, despite her vision lacking any mention of intensive farming, seasonal unemployment and poverty among the rural working class. What she shares with our own age is a niggling feeling that something about Britain's relationship with its own food supplies had gone badly wrong. But what that "something" was exactly, and whether it was too high a price to pay for convenience, safety and comfort, was something she hardly considered. Whirling not so much like a dervish, more a cog in an intricate machine, she pressed on, determined to finish her 1,112 pages in record time. "The Fair Free Homes of England" remained a lovely, compensating dream.

Kathryn Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton will be published in October by 4th Estate