Browsing the Warburg Library’s shelves for books bearing Elizabeth David’s distinctive bookplate, I felt I had almost too much choice. Should I attempt one of the many gruel recipes in Francatelli’s Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1862)? Or recreate one of the daily Bills of Fare suggested by John Simpson in his Complete System of Cookery (1806), averaging sixteen complex dishes for a single meal?
The book includes one of the earliest known recipes for A Good Scots Haggies. Unwilling to wrestle with unmentionable innards, grate liver or “slit up all the little fat tripes and the rodikin with a pair of scissars,” I decided to skip Scotland’s national dish in favour of the less challenging but intriguingly odd-sounding Egg Pie, a sweet pie of boiled eggs and currants which is flavoured with sugar, cinnamon and rosewater.
Mrs MacIver's instructions are vague. Many ingredients have no measurements and there’s no mention of dish size, cooking time or temperature, all of which I guessed wildly at. The making of the “carved paste”, or decorated pastry lid, isn’t explained at all. I took this to be a strong hint from Mrs MacIver that I should buy my pastry from the nearest supermarket.
The internet came to my rescue by converting gills and pounds to something that made sense to me. Hoping for a more manageable pie, I halved the measured ingredients and experimented with the rest, tasting and tweaking as I went.
After adding cinnamon and rosewater to the finely chopped boiled eggs, I scrawled despairingly in my recipe notes, “Tastes really quite nasty.” Despite the exotic flavourings, the eggs remained stubbornly and overwhelmingly eggy. I slopped the resulting lumpy greige slurry into a dish while my sons helpfully observed that the recipe ought to be renamed Vomit Pie.
Thankfully, once draped in puff pastry and baked for forty minutes, the pie looked and smelt much more enticing. Cutting a slice, I discovered to my astonishment that Vomit Pie was actually quite pleasant. Not, perhaps, something you’d want to make more than once, but certainly edible. Reminiscent of a light, rubbly Eccles cake, the filling was no longer wetly eggy but had become sweet, richly fruited and subtly perfumed with rose and cinnamon.
Mrs McIver, I apologise for ever having doubted you.
Elizabeth David was a British cookery writer, who transformed the nation’s eating habits during the mid-twentieth century. As part of her research into the social history of food David collected cookery books and left her private collection of historical material (234 volumes) to the Warburg Institute Library. The digital collection on the Warburg Digital Library, when complete, will include approximately 150 of these: those which we cannot digitize for copyright reasons can be found in the Library under Banqueting classmark (DCH 250-DCH 540).