Regular readers will be aware that I’m a bit of a sucker for old recipe books – the odder, the better. Over Christmas, I was pootling around a second-hand bookshop in Yorkshire, when I came across this fabulously racist dust jacket. Flicking through it, I found some really interesting recipes, and started to wonder. Who was this Countess Morphy? Had she ever met a toque-wearing, pirate-earringed, Indian chef in real life? It was £8.50, so I snapped it up.
A bit of Googling reveals that the author wasn’t a countess at all. Marcelle Azra Hincks, born in 1883, was brought up in New Orleans and moved to England some time in her early twenties. She published a few articles and a slim book on modern and foreign dance, and then reinvented herself as a food specialist, complete with a new pseudonym and made-up title. Calling herself a countess was a stroke of genius; the British love a titled lady, and Recipes of All Nations, published in 1935, sold in huge numbers, remaining in print for decades.
There’s a proud little note in red inside the dust jacket: “This is the book that was consulted by the caterer to the London conference of the United Nations.” The book’s exotic credentials don’t stop there; Countess Morphy has drafted in the help of a Mr SK Cheng of the Shanghai Emporium and Restaurant in London’s Chinatown for her Chinese chapter; the proprietor of a London Greek restaurant and “former chef to members of the Royal Family of Greece” helps with the Greek chapter, and a friend at the Polish Embassy selects his favourite recipes for the Polish section. This book, with chapters on food from Equatorial Guinea (iguana fricassee) to Java, must have been outlandishly exotic in 1930s Britain – it was written more than ten years before Elizabeth David introduced Mediterranean cooking to wide-eyed Britain, at a time when we were all munching miserably on suet and mutton.
Countess Morphy takes us on a tour of classical European cooking; the French chapter is the longest and quite gorgeous, full of dishes enriched with yolks and cream. Alongside all this, though, there’s a pleasingly complete treatment of Scandinavian cookery, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark meriting a chapter each. Eastern Europe is covered in detail too, and the Russian chapter (on which a Madame N Wolkoff from the Russian Tea Room in London consulted) has me salivating – sturgeon with sweet wine and cherries, beef Strogonoff and stuffed grouse with soured cream.
A middle-class upbringing in New Orleans would have seen classical French food as standard, but there’s also a section towards the back of the book, quite distinct from the chapter on American food, devoted to the Creole cookery of New Orleans itself. I’ll leave you with Countess Morphy’s recipe for Creole breakfast fritters and its sadly nostalgic introduction – there’s something of a sense of homesickness in this recipe. These fritters, made from rice and raised with yeast are quite unlike anything I’ve come across before, but they sound delicious.
Calas (Breakfast rice fritters)
These delicious breakfast fritters or cakes were sold by the old Creole negro women, and their familiar and harmonious street cry of “Bel calas, bel calas, tout chauds!” was heard in all the streets of the French quarter at breakfast time. They went their daily round carrying on their heads a covered wooden bowl containing the hot Calas – picturesque figures they must have been, with their brightly coloured bandana tignons or head-dress, their blue check dresses and their spotless white aprons. The negro cooks would dash out to secure the freshly made hot Calas, which were eaten with the morning cup of coffee. The following is the traditional recipe for Calas:
Ingredients: ½ a cup of rice, 3 cups of water, 3 eggs, 3 tablespoons of flour, ½ a cup of sugar, about 1 oz or a little under of yeast, lard or oil.
Method: Put the water in a saucepan, bring to the boil and add the rice. Boil till the rice is very soft and mushy. Remove from the saucepan and, when quite cold, mix with the yeast dissolved in warm water. Set the rice to rise overnight. In the morning, beat the eggs thoroughly, add them to the rice, with the sugar and flour. Beat all well and make into a thick batter. Set aside to rise for another 15 minutes. Have ready a deep frying pan with hot oil or lard, drop into it 1 tablespoon of the mixture at a time, and cook till a light golden colour. When done, remove them from the fat, drain well by placing them on a sieve or in a colander, sprinkle with sugar and serve very hot.