Lost World, By Dorothy Hartley

Revisiting an England of bad coffee, clogs and clotted cream

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The Independent Culture

The best-known work of Dorothy Hartley (1893-1985) is Food in England, a sprawling, profoundly informed, self-illustrated celebration of our demotic cuisine. Published in 1954 and never out of print, this foodie Bible ranges from the everyday – "Poached eggs are… served on hot buttered toast (pepper-and-salt the toast also)" – to such treats as pigs' ears and whelk fritters.

It is stuffed with unexpected historical detail. We learn, for example, that horseradish was grown around landing stages to provide an antidote for seasickness and that the medieval cauldron was used for the simultaneous cooking of a number of items in separate containers rather than one vast stew.

Hartley's restless, ceaselessly curious life is celebrated in a BBC4 documentary with Lucy Worsley next Tuesday. Coincidentally – or more probably not – this collection of Hartley's rural rambles for the Daily Sketch between 1933-1936 has appeared for the first time.

Lost World describes an England that must have been as almost alien to most of her readers as it is to us. Hartley invites us to take an interest in topics ranging from whitewash, which she notes is applied over the roofs in Anglesey "like a bald-headed man who doesn't know when to leave off washing his face", to thatching, clogs, ploughing and peg-making.

The food articles that constitute around half the book reveal any number of sad disappearances ("there is hardly a small seaside town in England where they can't boil you a serving of shrimps") but also a few advances: "Nowhere, not anywhere in England's country, have I ever had a good cup of coffee."

Three-quarters of a century before the British food revival, Hartley was wonderfully enlightened about the quality of our cheese ("A good Wensleydale made in late spring when the cows are at grass is perfect") and we could still take her advice on cream: "In the North and East eat raw cream, in the South and West, eat it clotted." For anyone planning to make toffee apples, she offers a vital tip: "Only the smallest apples must be used or you don't get enough toffee."