The Mrs Beeton name has just been bought for pounds 1 million by a Corn ish pie factory. Michael Bateman reveals her tragic life and the secrets of those famous recipes
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The Independent Culture

If Alan Shearer's worth pounds l5 million, Mrs Beeton must be a snip at pounds 1 million. You won't have heard about it, probably, because it was a hush-hush transfer, but maybe it will turn out to be the deal of the century.

As from this week the most famous cookery writer in our history will be turning out in the strip (a royal-blue logo) of a new company named after her. You will find her in Sainsbury's and Asda among the pie shelves this week, but wider fame beckons, and next year you will see Mrs Beeton's cooked dishes appearing in the chill cabinets.

Many attempts have been made over the years to maximise the potential of the greatest name in cookery but, apart from the book titles kept alive by publishers Ward Lock, they have foundered. It's a come-on, yes, but then people see it's only a name, and the products have no special magic. That's usually the way with endorsement. You can sell Star Trek or Star Wars Nibbles or Colas on the back of a publicity hype, but it's a one- off.

So is it a reckless for the Cornish company Ginsters to have bought the Beeton name outright (and in perpetuity) for this staggering sum? Peter Castell, marketing director of the firm, would say not. Ginsters is the largest suppliers in the country of snacks to motorway service stations, the sales underpinned by its core product, Cornish pasties.

So how did it come about? Peter Castell says the company was simply looking to sell more pies. Top-of-the-market pies, with added value (ie more expensive). The sales and marketing team had some brainstorming sessions and came up with the idea of endorsement.

But who should they choose? They could hire the most beautiful woman in Britain to promote their pies and then hear that the boyfriend had been arrested in Hollywood. Exactly. Or a well-known celebrity cook ... whose ex-best friend then reveals all in the Sunday tabloids? That sort of thing. "I mean, what you get with a celebrity, is warts and all," says Mr Castell. Then they thought of Mrs B, paragon of virtue, the upholder of Victorian ethics. A quick research programme confirmed that she was seen as an icon.

"She represents an era associated with wholesomeness, goodness, value, economy, household management," explains Castell. "She was seen to be thrifty, resourceful, cooking what was appropriate, finding cheap ingredients and using them in the best way. She was the Delia Smith of her day. Her cooking was attainable."

But if you pursue the Victorian metaphor too far, he admits, you will begin to realise that it was a bad time for women. "The kitchen was a place of drudgery for many women, dark and sombre. Women were oppressed."

Publisher Ward Lock has in the past licensed the Mrs Beeton name to various manufacturers without making any great demands on quality; there was a mail-order company in Croydon selling rather nice home-made-style jams, jellies, chutneys, cakes and puddings; another in Devon. The Co-op has been selling, until recently, budget-priced cakes under the Mrs Beeton label.

That will end. Now if anyone wants to use the name, they'll have to apply to the Ginsters-owned Mrs Beeton company. "We're only interested in using the name for high-quality products. We are looking to people coming back to buy every week, not once a year. We're thinking of products that a housewife would like to have made at home, fresh, as generous with ingredients as she would expect to use herself." If she had the time.

Its research clearly shows that she hasn't. "There's a lifestyle of husband and wife at work, attending leisure centres, with kids to drop off, work pressures on both partners if one is late back. If only, they think, if only once a week Johnny wasn't off playing sport and had dinner with us." Wouldn't it be wonderful to share slow-cooked family dishes, pies and stews, they think. But what they actually say is: "There's no way we'd have the time to cook them." This is where Mrs Beeton comes in. The dishes have been prepared already and only need reheating.

The man entrusted with interpreting the Mrs Beeton ethic is Ginsters' development chef, a Cornishman by the name of Graham Cornish. It is a task he relishes since his mother, who died last year at the age of 70, cooked from a treasured and battered copy of Mrs Beeton, which be thinks originally belonged to his grandmother who had lived to the grand old age of 93.

Didn't Mr Cornish think Mrs Beeton's recipes a bit out of synch' with today's eating styles?

He disagrees. Everyone loves the old favourites. They just don't have time to make them. For this reason it has been decided to kick off with steak and kidney pudding, Aberdeen Angus steak pie, and roast-chicken and mushroom pie. The quality will depend on selection of best chuck meat from Aberdeen Angus suckling herds (BSE-free), hung 14 days, hand-cut rather than machine-cut, cooked in real stock, not stock cubes. The chicken will be roasted, and only natural gravy will be used, no stock cubes or flour or cornflour thickening.

Below we give Mrs Beeton's original recipe for steak and kidney pudding. We say Mrs Beeton's recipe, but she doesn't actually claim the recipes to be her own, though she says she did cook all 1,500.

Mr Cornish has been researching the remarkably brief life of the renowned lady who died at the age of 28. She was eldest of 21 children, most of her brothers and sisters being those of her step-father, Henry Dorling, a man who became the clerk of Epsom racecourse, where he used to install his family in the grandstand. She seems to have been responsible for household management, nursing the family when they were sick, and doing some cooking. She took her pastry lessons from an Epsom baker.

Bella, as she was known, was 19 when she married a young publisher, Samuel Beeton, who first made his name publishing Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the first anti-slavery novel. Samuel achieved many firsts; he launched The Sporting Life and The Boys' Own Paper.

Their honeymoon consisted of a tour of European bookshops and printers in Europe (Bella's own stepfather had started as a printer), and on their return she became closely involved in the launch of the first woman's monthly, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, as general editor, covering cookery and fashion.

Bella, who had been to finishing school in Heidelberg and spoke German and French, translated fashion articles from Paris, which led to another first; offering readers ready-cut paper patterns of the latest designs by post (and, undeterred by the Siege of Paris, fashion updates were obtained by balloon).

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was first published as a part- work in 1859. It was born of the mass of contributions to the magazine and Mrs B acknowledges this in the introduction to the first edition: "In the matter of recipes I am indebted to many correspondents of The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine who have obligingly placed at my disposal their formulae for many preparations. A large private circle has also rendered me considerable service. A diligent study of the works of the best modern writers was also necessary for the faithful fulfilment of my task. Friends in England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany have also materially aided me." The work clearly hoovers up the best of cookery writers who preceded her, such as Eliza Acton and the Reform Club's famous French chef, Alexis Soyer.

But it is nevertheless a truly staggering achievement. And the work broke much new ground, not least in the first use of colour illustrations in a cookery book. As she puts it: "The colour plates are a novelty not without value."

Mrs Beeton also created the modern, precise form of presenting recipes. She was first to list the ingredients at the top (Eliza Acton had been, in 1845, the first person to separate out the ingredients from the method, listing them at the end). Mrs B was also first to give precise cooking times, and to cost out the ingredients. She was dedicated to the notions of both health and economy, recommending bulk buying. "A daily supply is a daily waste," she pronounced.

Mrs Beeton died very young, a few days after the birth of her fourth son. Samuel Beeton is said to have never recovered from his loss and eventually he lost control of his publishing business. According to the food historian Clarissa Dickson-Wright, his publishing competitors bankrupted him, using a process that is now illegal of buying up all his debts and then presenting him with them to him as one bill. A bill he could never pay.

It wasn't Mrs Beeton's cookery book that they were after, but his highly profitable magazines and newspapers. However, it is Mrs Beeton's cookery book that endures as a monument to the name of Beeton. Publishers Ward Lock, now taken over by Cassells, has lost count of the millions of books sold in her name, but new editions still continue to roll off the presses. Two more more titles are out this month, Mrs Beeton's Concise Book of Cookery, pounds 18.99, from which we take Mrs B's recipe for steak and kidney pudding, and Mrs Beeton's Christmas Menus, pounds 15.99.

If you still can't be bothered to make your own, you can now get one at Sainsbury's or ASDA, for pounds 3 50. If you hurry, you might even get one at the launch price of pounds 2 99.


The original recipe was contributed by a lady who lived in Sussex, a county which in those days was renowned for its wonderful savoury puddings. Prepared in a dish it would have contained more meat and ox kidney. Onion was not added and the suet pastry was mixed with milk. Apart from these variations, however, this dish has survived generations of changing tastes.

Serves six

fat for greasing

150g/5oz ox kidneys

575g/11 4lb stewing steak, trimmed and cut into 1cm/12in cubes

1 onion, chopped

45ml/3 tablespoons plain flour

5ml/1 tablespoon salt

1.25ml/1 4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

45ml/3 tablespoons beef stock or water

For the suet crust pastry:

225g/8oz self-raising flour

2.5ml/1 2 teaspoon salt

100g/4oz shredded beef suet

Grease a 1.1 litre (2 pints) pudding basin. Make the pastry. Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir in the suet and add cold water (about 150ml/1 4 pint) to make a firm dough. Wash kidneys and remove the membrane and white core. Cut into 2.5cm (1in) chunks. In a bowl, mix beef cubes, kidney and onion with flour, salt and pepper.

Set aside one quarter of the pastry to use for the lid. Roll out the remaining pastry on a lightly floured surface to a round 1cm (1 2in) larger than the rim of the prepared basin. The pastry should be about 5mm (14in) thick. Then press the pastry round well into the basin.

Half fill the lined basin with the steak mixture, add the stock, then spoon in the rest of the meat. Roll out the reserved pastry to make a lid. Put the lid on the pudding, tucking its edges down around the meat. Dampen the top edge of the lid. Cut a large piece of greaseproof paper, fold a pleat in it and grease it. Cover the pudding with the pleated paper, top with pleated foil and tie down securely.

Prepare a steamer or half fill a large saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Put the pudding in the perforated part of the steamer or stand it on an old saucer or plate in the saucepan of boiling water. The water should come halfway up the sides of the basin. Cover the pan tightly and steam the pudding over boiling water for about five hours, topping up the steamer or pan with boiling water frequently to prevent it from boiling dry.

You can serve the pudding from straight from the basin. Fold a clean tea-towel or large table napkin in half or thirds, then wrap it neatly around the side and up to the rim of the basin. You can serve beef gravy with the pudding.

Pressure-cooker tip: to save time, the steak and kidney mixture may be precooked with 300ml (12 pint) of beef stock. Cook it in a pressure cooker, allowing 15 minutes at 15lb pressure. Cool the mixture and then fill the pastry-lined pudding basin, using only enough of the gravy to half cover the meat. Steam gently without weights for 10 minutes and then bring to 5lb pressure and cook for another 35 minutes. Reduce the pressure slowly. Reheat the remaining gravy and add more salt and pepper to taste if required, then pour it into the pudding through a hole which you will need to cut in the crust.


Ingredients: 2lbs (900g) rump-steak, two kidneys, seasoning to taste of salt and black pepper, suet crust made with milk (see previous suet- crust pastry), in the proportion of 6oz (175g) of suet to each 1lb (450g) of flour.

Mode: Procure some tender rump-steak (that which has been hung a little time) and divide it into pieces about an inch square, and cut each kidney into eight pieces. Line the dish with crust made with suet and flour in the above proportion, leaving a small piece of crust to overlap the edge. Then cover the bottom with a portion of the steak and a few pieces of kidney; season with salt and pepper (some add a little flour to thicken the gravy, but it is not necessary), and then add another layer of steak, kidney and seasoning.

Proceed in this manner until the dish is full, when pour in sufficient water to come within 2in of the top of the basin. Moisten the edges of the crust, cover the pudding over, press the two crusts together, that the gravy may not escape and turn over the overhanging paste. Wring out a cloth in hot water, flour it and tie up the pudding. Put it into boiling water and let it boil for at least four hours. If the water begins to diminish, always replenish, with some hot in a jug, as the pudding should be kept covered all the time and not allowed to stop boiling.

When the cloth is removed, cut out a round piece in the top of the crust to prevent the pudding bursting, and send it to table in the basin, whether in an ornamental dish or with a napkin pinned round it. Serve quickly.

Time: for a pudding with 2lbs (900g) of steak and two kidneys allow four hours

Average cost: three shillings

Sufficient for: eight persons

Seasonable: all the year, especially suitable in winter after a hard day's hunting or other sport.