Sampling British recipes - and history

Britain today is the home of some remarkably good and innovative cooking that shows the influences of classic French, nouvelle, Mediterranean, and other cuisines, and, most notably, a brilliantly successful revival of the best of Britain's native traditions. Cookbook author Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, a frequent contributor to Gourmet magazine, has collected recipes from some of the most talented chefs at hotels, restaurants, and inns from London to Inverness, from such experienced ``pioneers'' as the Dorchester's Anton Mosimann and Francis Coulson of Sharrow Bay and from the younger chefs who are continuing to turn the countryside into a field of Epicurean delights. From the Tables of Britain (Evans, New York, 322 pp., $19.95) features 250 recipes for appetizers, soups, fish, vegetables, salads, meat, poultry, game, and desserts, which Ortiz has adapted for the American home kitchen. These recipes emphasize subtlety, novelty, and a concern for dishes that are healthful as well as enticing. Even the most ambitious of today's British hoteliers seldom have to run their own dairies, or prepare their own soaps, toothpastes, and preserves. Such, however, were the concerns of country householders in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Hilary Spurling, a critic and biographer of Ivy Compton Burnett, came across a remarkable book, dated 1604, that had been in her husband's family. For the past 10 years, Spurling has been cooking from the handwritten recipes in this book. And now, in Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking (Viking, New York, 250 pp., $22.50), she has selected some 200 ``receipts,'' which she reproduces in the original quaint spellings along with her own modern translations and comments. Here is everything the 17th-century woman needed to know about how to make ``a fine cheese''; how to ``pickle samphire''; prepare mutton, chicken, nourishing broths, herbal medicines, syrups, poultices, pies, preserves, jellies, creams, puddings, custards, and syllabubs! This book is a treasure: a model of sound research, a source of still useful recipes, and a marvelous way for readers to experience the texture and quality of daily life in the early 17th-century English countryside. Lady Fettiplace's book is an exceptional find, and Spurling has done an outstanding job with it.

Tea, that symbol of English coziness and domesticity, was first consumed in China and began to be popular in Britain only in the mid-17th century. By 1887, tea from India and Ceylon finally overtook China tea. The story of the British planters who established plantations in Assam and Ceylon in the last century is the subject of a large, handsomely illustrated, curiously old-fashioned book, The Pioneers: 1825-1900: The Early British Tea and Coffee Planters and Their Way of Life, by John Weatherstone (Quiller Press, London, distributed by Salem House, Topsfield, Mass., 224 pp., $40). The author, a former tea planter who left Ceylon (as he prefers to call what is now Sri Lanka) before its nationalization of plantations in 1975, paints a colorful, hair-raising picture of the dashing early days, when enterprising young Britons braved fevers, cobras, pythons, elephants, tigers, and loneliness to make their fortunes in the distant jungles.

British fondness for animals and love of the countryside permeate the life and work of Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-duck, and other enduring children's favorites. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller, and Countrywoman, by Judy Taylor (Frederick Warne, London, distributed by Viking Penguin, 224 pp., $24.95), is a beautifully illustrated biography, featuring photographs (some by Beatrix's father, a keen amateur cameraman) as well as sketches, drawings, and paintings that demonstrate Beatrix's gentle, carefully observant, and delicately faithful approach in capturing the charms of animal and plant life.

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