The proofs of the pudding

A chef's cookbooks are stars of Sotheby's first foodie sale. Will Mosimann's ex libris work the same magic as Elizabeth David's name did last year, asks Tiffany Daneff
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The Independent Culture
EVERY celebrity chef worth his or her salt has published a cookery book, or several. Though packed with luscious colour photographs and plump with recipes and "personal" tips from the maestros, they mainly read as if they have been through a food processor: palatable, digestible but with nothing substantial to chew on. They are not a patch on the individual, fervent hymns to food by the likes of Elizabeth David and Edouarde de Pomiane. These are just as at home on a bedside table as they are on the kitchen shelf.

Books of this latter variety are the star attractions at Sotheby's first ever foodie sale, which takes place later this week. Many are from a collection formed by Anton Mosimann. Soth-eby's is no doubt hoping that the celebrated chef's ex libris plates at the front of each book will work the same magic as last year's sale of items from Elizabeth David's kitchen. Epicureans flocked to Phillips' auction rooms to buy rolling-pins and breadboards touched by her floured hands. Prue Leith paid top whack - pounds 1,200 for the kitchen table - while another devotee spent pounds 450 on a pot containing a few wooden spoons.

Mosimann is also selling a prodigious quantity of copper fish kettles and pans, wooden chopping blocks, stoves and pewter moulds (many of which have come from the hotel kitchens where he worked), and thousands of old menus, prints and paintings. But it is the books that form the most interesting part of the sale. Sandwiched between marbled leather and well-worn vellum are some genuine treasures. There is a first-edition Escoffier, and a 1709 edition of Apicius, the celebrated Roman gourmet, but best of all an assortment of British books dating from the 17th to the19th centuries, written by gentleman polymaths and aspiring middle-class housekeepers.

One typical example is Andrew Combe's The Physiology of Digestion (estimate pounds 200-pounds 250), written in the 1830s. His main concern wasn't the cooking of food, but when and how to eat it. (His conclusion? When hungry, and in moderation.) He chides those who go to the pastry cook at midday and have no appetite for lunch, allows a farmer who has been out all day to eat more than "men of fashion who frequent assemblies till three or four in the morning", and warns the weak of the dangers of tea and coffee: "Literary men, artists and actors, and other public performers who are subjected at times to great intellectual or moral excitement, also suffer very frequently from the abuse of tea or coffee."

Combe gently mocks those who are prone to greed and excess, making you realise how little people's excuses have changed: "If they feel uneasy after a heavy meal, it is not we who are to blame for having eaten it. No! it is the fish which lies heavy on the stomach, or the stomach which is unfortunately at war with soup, or potatoes, or some other well-relished article. We have nothing to do with the mischief."

Until the late 18th century, it was men who dominated the scene, both as professional cooks and as writers, often telling women how to run the home. Dr William Kitchiner, author in 1829 of The Housekeeper's Oracle; or, Art of Domestic Management (pounds 250-pounds 300), shown in the frontispiece as an earnest type with receding hairline, cautions the housewife to choose her "tradespeople" (his politically correct word, not mine) carefully. He rails against the habit of eating fish out of season, advises serving dinner when the food is ready - regardless of whether or not all your guests have arrived - and advocates keeping cheese in the cellar where it is important to "brush its coat once or twice a week". When toasting it, you should use only fresh cheese, he advises: "Rotten cheese toasted is the very ne plus ultra of Haut Gout, and only eatable by the thoroughbred Gourmand, in the most inverted state of his jaded appetite."

But for all his puritanism (he is against the idea of wine for the under- 40s, for example), Kitchiner is capable of delightful flights of fancy. On the subject of puddings: "The Head of Man is like a Pudding. What is Poetry but a Pudding of Words?"

By comparison, the women who appear as published authors are down-to- earth. Elizabeth Raffald, former housekeeper to Lady Warburton, was - judging by her stout bosom - a woman who would brook no nonsense. She ran a catering business, a domestic agency and had lots of children. In The Experienced English Housekeeper, written "for the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers and Cooks" in 1769 (pounds 200-pounds 250), she gives a recipe for what must have been the first instant soup. This entails reducing three legs of veal, one of beef and half a ham with butter, anchovies, mace, celery and carrots until you are left with a slab of cake, like a giant stock cube. On a long journey, this could be reconstituted by adding boiling water.

These books, like their modern equivalents, are magnificently illustrated: castellated jellies; intricate diagrams of pipes, funnels and jugs used for distillation; salvers piled with princely lobsters; and anatomical drawings showing how to carve everything that moves, from a thrush to a pig. Carving was highly esteemed. "It was regarded by our fathers," says Grimod de la Reyniere in 1803, "as essential as a good education is among the well born and rich." Thrush, quail and bunting all succumbed to the knife, as did the pike, richly described as "le brochet - cet Atilla des rivieres et etangs" ("this Atilla of the rivers and lakes").

It was only in the 1840s, though, that the modern recipe - characterised by its list of carefully weighed ingredients, followed by the method - came into use. Before that, quantities were roughly given and the process described rather like a story.

"The further back you go," says cookery historian Michelle Berriedale- Johnson, author of the British Museum Cookbook (British Museum pounds 4.99), "the vaguer these recipes get." In similar fashion, today's chefs don't work with measures but use their eye and experience. But in spite of their imprecision, ancient recipes can still be followed. Anton Mosimann says he based many of his traditional English dishes at the Dorchester on ideas from early cookbooks. "But," he says, "I always made them lighter, using less butter, cream and sugar than they said."

Medieval recipes call for what appear to be huge lists of ingredients. "This," says Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, "is because they were often difficult to get, so the recipe would suggest alternatives." It also seems that everything was heavily spiced. In fact, the cooks of the day had to use large quantities as the spices would have lost much of their potency by the time they had arrived from the East.

Undoubtedly the finest book in the sale (though not one of Mosimann's) is a 180-page, vellum-bound collection of recipes handwritten in a neat, cursive script by Katharina Elisa Harrington. Started when she was a girl in 1672, it is filled with recipes for cakes, broths, jellies, pies and meat dishes as well as puddings, pickles, wines and preserves. There are also recipes for traditional remedies. One, for treating dropsy, involved laying a flannel soaked in the boiled urine of a 12-year-old boy on a woman's stomach. (To cure a man, you needed to mix the urine from a boy and a girl.)

Each recipe is given a heading: "My Aunte Fountains way to make an excellent Sacke Poset", or "My Aunte Pigotts Way to make cheesecakes most excellent". On the front page you can see where Katherina and her friend practised their signatures. It's a charming book, full of life. This is Katharina's recipe for Carp Pie:

"Take your carpe and scald it and take out the Blood and filth within them then Rube it with Salt and Season it with Sinimund nuttmeges Ginger and Maice put in a few Curranc a lettell lime Shred: Good store of Butter Bouth within and without the Carpe Let it bee Baking tow howers then open it and put in Sume Vargise [verjuice or vinegar] and Sugar into it and Soe Serve It to Table."

! Sotheby's 'Sale of Food and Drink' takes place at 10.30am on Thursday 12 October, at 34/35 New Bond Street, London W1A 2AA (0171-493 8080).