Friday, September 24, 2010

Eliza Acton’s “Saunders”, Mashed Potato and Sausage Comfort Food

One of the reasons I have enjoyed meeting food lovers from other countries is that they have expanded my cooking universe exponentially. I have learned about so many new writers and cookbooks that had before only been vaguely recognized names or were completely unknown to me.

1845 Version of Modern Cookery

One of these new figures is Eliza Acton. A food historian I met is writing a biography about her and told me she was a remarkable figure. When I read Acton’s cookbook, I realized what all the fuss was about. About her personally, little is known outside a few facts. As far as I can tell, there are no photographs of Acton, at least none I could find. Aside from Wikipedia, the Tonbridge Historical Society has the most information available on Acton who was one of its famous citizens (I can’t wait for that biography!).

Eliza Acton was the first modern British cookbook writer and she sold 60,000 copies through 40 editions of her 1845 Modern Cookery in All Its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families : In a Series of Receipts, Which Have Been Strictly ... : To Which Are Added Directions for Carving, long before the better-known Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (Oxford World's Classics) (Mrs. Beeton’s book sold a million copies!). This didn’t stop Mrs. Beeton from purloining 150 of Eliza’s recipes for her book without giving Acton credit. Eliza wrote of this in a later edition of Modern Cookery for Private Families, “At the risk of appearing extremely egotistic, I have appended “Author’s Receipt” and “Author’s Original Receipt” to many of the contents of the following pages: but I have done it solely in self-defense, in consequence of the unscrupulous manner in which large portions of my volume have been appropriated by contemporary authors, without the slightest acknowledgement of the source from which they have been derived…. I am suffering at present too severe a penalty for the over-exertion entailed on me by the plan which I adopted for the work, longer to see with perfect composure strangers coolly taking the credit and the profits of my toil.”

The facts, such as they are, are these: Eliza Acton was born in 1799 in Battle, England. She didn’t come from a wealthy family, being the daughter of a brewer and Eliza left Battle to grow up in Ipswich where she ran a school for girls for 4 years to pay her way in the world. After an illness she spent time in France (where there was perhaps an unhappy love affair) before moving to Tonbridge, Kent where she lived with her siblings and her mother who took in borders to make ends meet. There she stayed (although by 1841 she was alone in the house) until after her cookbook was published at which point she moved to London where she remained until her death in 1859.

Eliza began her career in writing with poetry. She is a romantic poet and old fashioned to modern ears. Her book of poetry entitled simply, Poems, was published in 1826. I will share one of them with you… like many in her book, it speaks of lost love, pain and thwarted dreams which sadly may have been Acton’s life:

"Je vis,--mais dans les larmes!"
Such is the heart whose treasur'd store

Of sweet, and early hope is gone:

It withers to revive no more,

Or lives, like thee, in tears alone!

Although well received, it was not a big seller, and her publisher advised her to do a cookery book to increase her income. She realized that there was a dearth of books for novice, middle-class cooks without a covey of servants to take care of them and decided to fill that niche with clearly written recipes and instructions on how to do pretty much anything in the kitchen. Hers was the first kitchen basics book and the first cookery book to list ingredients. Best selling British cook book writer, Delia Smith, said that Acton was “the best writer of recipes in the English language.”

Some of the recipes are named for familiar things in Tonbridge, like a cake named for the street Acton lived on (Bordyke Veal Cake) and some referenced people she admired like Baron Liebig who wrote that bad cooking wasted food (Bavarian Brown Bread). She often gives generous credit for recipes that were given to her by others.

Acton wrote her final book in London in 1857 The English Bread-book that was a history of “panification” (bread-making) as well as many fine recipes. But it also “contained Acton’s strong opinions about adulterated and processed food.” The titles of the first and second chapters tell it all:


Bread—Its Value—Its Wholesomeness—Its faulty Fabrication here – The Waste of it—The Necessity for a more general Knowledge of the Mode of Preparing it—


Government Investigation of Commercial Frauds—Beautiful adaptation of Pure Bread to the Wants of Man—Grievous Social Wrong of Adulteration…Chemical and Medical Testimony to the injurious effects of Alum --

Well, you get the idea! She was really a pioneer in the movement against over-processing and urged homemakers to make good healthy loaves (she made them in crocks not tins) for their family. It’s a fascinating read. Like many authors of the day, Acton also wrote for periodicals, in her case for The Ladies Companion and Charles Dicken’s Household Words (she named a recipe for one of his characters from Martin Chuzzelwit – “Ruth Pinch’s Beefsteak Puddings, a la Dickens” and wrote to tell him so in 1845). Today she is known for her recipes, as well she should be.

I know better than most that historic recipes are often complex, but many of Acton’s couldn’t be simpler or more deliciously comforting. One such recipe is for a dish called Saunders – why that name I cannot tell you (saunders was sandlewood and a food coloring in the middle ages). It is perfect as a side dish with a roast of meat or fowl and equally good with a salad for a light supper. It can be made with leftovers or from scratch with equally wonderful results. You can also easily change the size of the dish… just divide whatever amount of potatoes you have in half and put the gravied meat in between! It’s a simpler take on shepherd’s pie!

I have made a few small changes but the original is reproduced below so you may follow whichever recipe suits you. Any cooked leftover meat can be used in the meat layer but I used D’Artagnan’s dark and delicious Wild Boar Sausage and it was sensational (and on sale at D'Artagnan's this month!). Acton says you can use uncooked meat for a “superior kind of saunders” but cook the dish for an hour “or something more” to cook the meat.

My ex’s Gran had a cook who was older than dirt (her words). She was born shortly after Acton died (1860’s) and lived into her late 90’s (she might have tipped 100-- I heard she was a little vague about her birth year) but left a legacy of memories of her food. My favorite was her take on mashed potatoes that was still remembered many, many years after she was dead. She added mace to them and that was genius. I was very sorry I never met her to thank her for that tip. I have used mace instead of nutmeg in the recipe because of that and added milk to the mix to cream them up.

Eliza Acton’s ‘Saunders’ Mashed Potato and Sausage Casserole

6 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 T butter
2-3 T cream
1 c milk (use a ½ cup and then add till you reach the desired texture)
1 pound sausage meat, crumbled (I used D”Artagnan’s Wild Boar Sausage!)
2 cups stock reduced to ¾ c or gravy if you have it
1 T cognac (optional)
1 t fresh marjoram (optional)
Salt & Pepper to taste
½ t nutmeg or mace

Boil the potatoes until cooked through and then use a ricer for best texture. Add the butter and cream and the milk, a little at a time (all potatoes are a little different some requiring more and others less) until you get a good creamy texture.

Sauté the sausage in a little oil until done. If your sausage is fatty, drain the excess fat. Add the reduced stock or gravy and stir to blend, scraping up the brown bits. Add cognac and marjoram.

Put half the potatoes in a low casserole and top with the sausage mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and nutmeg or mace. Top with the rest of the potatoes. Bake in a 375º oven for 30 minutes.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday

PS Stay tuned as I write up the amazing Lambapalooza dinner I went to in L.A. last weekend. It was a dinner for the books. I'll let you know as soon as the 'feature article' is finished about this fairytale weekend!


Stella said...

Hey Deana, reading about Eliza Acton here made me kind of sad. Maybe I'm sensitive today, or maybe she just had a hard life. Either way, this post was quite interesting...
Oh, and the wild boar sausage sounds wonderful. I've actually had wild boar ragout before-it was delicious (smile). Oh, and mace in mash potatoes? That's interesting!

Kathy Walker said...

I absolutely love your posts and appreciate all of the research that goes into each one.
Reading about Eliza and her work was fascinating.
I will have to try mace in mashed potatoes, I am curious about the flavor.

Lazaro Cooks said...

I never cease to learn something when I read your posts. wonderful write-up of Eliza Acton.

Love the dish. Wild boar sausage and of course my favorite Yukon gold puree.


SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Another very interesting read, Deana! Eliza certainly didn't hesitate to speak her mind. She must have been a very hard-working woman.

What a wonderful dish of comfort food. I'll have to try mace the next time I make mashed potatoes!

Diane said...

Very interesting post. I am surprised there are no pictures of Eliza anywhere. This looks a good dish for winter. Diane

alison said...

oh,another great post and a dish perfect for a present days!

Velva said...

Awesome post. Food has a way of bringing people together no matter what language they speak or where they live. Food is just that way.

This dish of mashed potatoes and sausage is a wonderful comfort food.

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

Again, love reading your blog-- thanks for another fascinating post!

La Table De Nana said...

You have such resources!Always interesting and new tidbits of cookery info for me..I am still dreaming of trying your quails in puff pastry one day.

The above dish does seem so comforting..

Thank you and have a lovely weekend.

Marjie said...

Is either of these lovely ladies the one about whom a movie was made in the last few years? She was supposed to have pioneered the modern cookbook, but the name escapes me (as does the name of the movie). It must be my "early alzheimers" kicking in right now.

We've both got summery weather back, at least for a few days, but soon this comforting dish will seem perfect!

Ken Albala said...

Deana, The name saunders really is a mystery, but I may have a possible clue. Sanders is also short for Alexanders. Smyrnium olustratum, a celery like plant, whose roots might have been the original in the dish, here made with potatoes. Just a guess. Ken

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing woman! I had heard of her name but didn't realise all that she has done for cooking. Again this is why I look forward to every entry in your blog Deana. To learn all about people like this! :D

Linda said...

What an interesting post Deana...and the dish looks absolutely delicious!
Perfect for fall...comfort food for sure!

Faith said...

I have a real love affair with historical cookbooks. ;) Thanks for introducing me to Eliza, sounds like she was an amazing lady! Lovely casserole!

Anonymous said...

A fascinating read, and the mashed potato sausage casserole looks amazing, a must try!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

This is really interesting. I've heard of Eliza, but knew very little about her, especially how she was an early advocate of "whole foods." The casserole of potatoes and sausage is the ultimate comfort food.

sophia said...

Wow. Thank you for introducing Eliza to me in such an intriguing way. Her casserole sealed the deal. I'm now a fan, I love researching on fascinating people like her, esp if it's a foodie. Now I'm learning wonderful new things from YOU!

Barbara said...

Gosh, I've heard (or read) Acton's name before. But where?? So I knew a teeny bit about her...nothing more. Fascinating post, Deana.
Sounds like she nailed Mrs. Beeton. "Purloining" recipes has been going on a long time.....

Love this dish and yes, it is a simpler take on my favorite Shepherd's Pie. Super that you used the wild boar sausage. Going over there now to look into it.

(Hmmmm. Could Saunders have been a relative or male friend who particularly liked this dish? I only thought of it because I have a cousin named Saunders.)

tasteofbeirut said...

Had you presented a sausage and mashed potato plate, I would have thought" Oh, so what!" but with such an interesting bio of such a remarkable woman now I am fascinated; I want to check out mace (need to find out what it is called in French too) and will definitely add it to mashed potatoes next time!

Unknown said...

I always learn something when I come here :), you have one of the most inspiring foodie blogs on the net daaaaaaahling.
*kisses* HH

Chef Dennis Littley said...

hi Deana
thank you for introducing us to Eliza, she sold a lot of books even by today's least I would be happy with that many! So much information, it is just amazing to see where we have come from, food history is such an important part of who we are and how we developed....
thank you so much for all you do, and for such a wonderful recipe....I do love potatoes!! sausage is just an added bonus!

chow and chatter said...

great post so well written and researched love great British grub

Sue said...

What a great dish for this dismal cold autumn we are having! I love old cookery books too - though I have learnt never to lend them out. I had a brilliant one, coverless and battered but much loved, by a Marchioness which I loaned to a chef and never saw again :-(

Magic of Spice said...

Stunning post as always...and gorgeous mashed potato dish :)

MaryMoh said...

Always love a good mash. Yours looks very delicious. I have to learn. Thanks very much for sharing.

El said...

This is such an amazing story. I was not aware of Acton. Thanks for sharing your research with us and the lovely dish!

Emily said...

Lovely photos and such an inspiring story. I love the idea of a cookery book written by a poet. I'm tempted to hunt out copies of her books if the recipes are simple and as good as this one. I'm always amazed how you find such wonderful historical links and figures.

Clarity said...

Deana, thank you for the new take on Shepherd's Pie, which I don't like that much but think I might enjoy this :) Thinking to substitute with a fatty lamb sausage as that is robust.

As for Eliza, how awful that she got pinched by that woman. On modern cooks, Delia is the biggest "creditor" of recipes I know, either through kindness or suit avoidance, but still. Eliza, I salute you.

You take lovely pictures.

Fresh Local and Best said...

I am going to have to find D'Artagan's wild boar sausage, it sounds so good! Also what a great tip! I've would have never thought of adding mace to mashed potatoes. It sounds like something I would definitely enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Okay , just made this dish with Dartagnan's pork/duck sausage and added some duck confit to the mix. Rosemary instead of marjoram because of the duck. Steamed green beans on the side--plenty of unctious fattines in this dish. My husband and son cleaned multiple plates in short order. This was surprisingly complex, and really really delicious. Thank you for the historical research .
Cook from Chicago.

Anonymous said...

Deana, The name saunders really is a mystery, but I may have a possible clue. Sanders is also short for Alexanders. Smyrnium olustratum, a celery like plant, whose roots might have been the original in the dish, here made with potatoes. Just a guess. Ken