For those who don’t know her, Fanny Cradock was one of the first ‘celebrity’ cooks in Britain. Her cheese-grater tones, brusque (to say the least) manner and defiantly glamorous appearance (well, she looked like a drag queen) made her a hit on television and in the flesh for over thirty years: she could sell out huge halls, such as the Royal Albert, with her demonstrations.
If you have access to the BBC i-player you can watch Fanny’s Christmas episodes in all their penny-pinching glory. It is quite a shock to see just how grimy and often unsavoury these programmes were – I’ll swear the carving knife she takes to a turkey is rusty! But this was the 1970s, and there is something rather comforting to see someone cooking on tv but not in a pristine, designer clad bubble…it also means I can measure when Christmas is on its way when my Fanny DVD comes out and I’ve seen her set about an unfortunate roast chicken with a pair of secateurs (I kid you not!)
This week I was lucky enough to find a copy of ‘The Sociable Cook’s Book’ by Fanny and her husband, Johnnie, and like other books by the pair, this sometimes reflects this grot – ‘We once found a bluebottle in the ninth layer down of a friend’s drippng jar of extremely uncertain age!’ but you can’t help but notice the contrast between the dirty reality of the television show and Fanny’s defiantly ‘haute cuisine’ attitude in print: Take, for example, the extraordinary six (six!) pages of ‘Very Important Items’ which Fanny recommends for the reader’s store cupboard. Amongst the vast array of delights are ‘domino dots’ (some sort of sugar), rainbow coffee crystals, smoked oysters and an extraordinary range of soups: bird’s nest, green turtle and kangaroo tail to name three.
And Fanny thought of everything: she even includes a ‘handy’ (?) list of stores at which the reader can obtain some of the items she demands you buy: cod’s roe? Fortnum and Mason. Crab meat? Selfridges. Ditto your ‘pompadour fan wafers’, ‘fecule de pomme’ or flaked almonds. Popping to Harrod’s? Then why not pick up some ‘buckling'(?) or overture?
Despite these contradictions, what comes across is that Fanny was a woman fearless in her opinions, like a blast of frosty fresh air from a time when the anodyne hadn’t become the crushing, tiresome norm…
‘The beef for pot-au-feu should not fall about in the pot like an exhausted schoolgirl.’
‘There is no room for flour and water paste inclusion in any casserole or salmi, or we should find ourselves right back with those nauseous ponds – stews which are an abomination.’
…and there are many inadvertently gigglesome lines. Fanny’s list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ contains possibly my favourite paragraph in any cookbook, ever:
‘Do come to terms with the inescapable fact that super cooks have loose wrists and cool hands…do a classic wrist-loosening exercise. All the folk we train do it every morning before starting work…do this slowly gradually increasing speed, sag left wrist, sag right one, until you are rattling your interlocked hands like a pair of castanets. When Fanny was studying to be a violinist many years ago, this was the morning exercise given to her by her master to achieve loose wrists.’
Unfortunately, Fanny’s demeanour was also her downfall, which was swift and fatal: she was judge on an amateur cookery competition in the early 1980s and her response to one cook – lots of face-pulling, the miming of throwing-up and brutal criticism – turned the British public against her and her career was over.
Fanny’s books are historical documents: some recipes are intriguing, some look completely inedible but in the end reveal to us a time when, in Britain, we saw food in a different way and when we didn’t mind (in fact we quite relished) people in the media who had character and attitude and opinion…provided they didn’t go too far, of course!