Hannah Glasse: The original domestic goddess

Centuries before Elizabeth David put garlic on our menus, in the days when Mrs Beeton was still a Miss, one book transformed the eating habits of the nation. So why does no one remember Hannah Glasse? Rose Prince reports

She's the first domestic goddess, the queen of the dinner party and the most important cookery writer to know about. No, not Isabella Beeton; not Delia Smith nor Nigella Lawson, but an earlier incarnation of a kitchen trouble-shooter, Hannah Glasse. In the latest of a series of BBC drama-documentaries about cookery writers to emerge, we are told that Glasse's book, The Art Of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (now published as First Catch Your Hare) revolutionised the way the British cook.

But Glasse is not to have first to have this claim made for her. Just this year, an entertaining bio-pic about the life of Elizabeth David claimed David's cookery revolution saw garlic and saffron re-enter cooks' repertoires after a century of blandness. Next, the BBC, is due to give us Fear of Fanny, a drama based on the life of the revolutionary television cook Fanny Cradock. Then another drama, The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton, will tell the story of the Victorian cookery writer who - er - revolutionised the way the British cook. With such an endless queue of kitchen Che Guevaras (and no doubt we will one day sit down to watch Jamie, The Movie) it remains a mystery why such a small proportion of the British are any good in the kitchen. But that's another debate. The real question is whether the early cookery writer deserves the credit given to her by Clarissa Dickson-Wright, the presenter of Hannah Glasse.

Dickson-Wright is a long-serving Glasse fan. Back in 1992 when I worked with her at the bookshop, Books for Cooks, she would extol the 18th-century cookery writer's brilliance at any opportunity. She makes a good case for her claim that Glasse, not Beeton, was the first domestic goddess, saying that Glasse was smart enough to spot a gap in the publishing market for cookbooks.

The historical landscape of the mid-18th century provided this perfect opportunity. With mass migration into the the cities of people looking for better paid work, a new and aspirational middle class burgeoned. Desperate to keep up with the Joneses, they had little trouble pursuing the correct educational course, dressing the part and doing up the house to match. Putting impressive food on the table was, as it always seems to be, the perennial hitch. Without any knowledge of how to cook or instruct servants, and the only cookery books commercially available being written by grand chefs for grand chefs (often still the case with cookery books), they had little resource for serving up a meal for their guests that would be anything other than plain embarrassing.

Into the picture comes Hannah Glasse. She had the perfect credentials for the job she was about to do. Born in 1708, the illegitimate daughter of a prosperous gentleman, and brought up with his family in Hexham, Northumberland, she had witnessed good living and tasted the food of rich country folk. But a bad marriage at the age of 16 to a soldier of fortune, John Glasse, left Hannah living in much-reduced circumstances in London. She began work on The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1746, partly in the spirit of needs must, but also having sharply observed that her project could only succeed. "I believe I have attempted a Branch of Cookery which Nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon ..." she wrote as her introductory line. The book was first published in 1747.

The Art of Cookery's first distinction was simplicity - simple instructions, accessible ingredients, an accent on thrift, easy recipes and practical help with weights and timing. Out went the bewildering text of former cookery books ("pass it off brown" became "fry it brown in some good butter"; "draw him with parsley" became "throw some parsley over him"). Out went French nonsense: no complicated patisserie that an ordinary cook could not hope to cook successfully. Glasse took into account the limitations of the average middle-class kitchen: the small number of staff, the basic cooking equipment, limited funds. She cleverly engineered weights and measures instructions, making them foolproof. In her famous recipe, To Roast a Hare (see opposite page), she suggests "as much thyme as will lie on a six-pence" - a clever means to measure without machinery. If a cookery writer's skill lies in their ability to make their readers feel clever, and not just bossily impose their cleverness on their readers, then Glasse is 100 per cent successful.

Early recipe books, while intriguing, always make one sigh with relief at not having to eat spiced puddings made of minced mutton - as a dessert. The Art of Cookery, on the other hand has an appetising repertoire. Hannah Glasse's soups include those made from crayfish, or from barley, mussels, green peas and almonds; there are 20 different pies (pyes), among them giblet, olive, duck and squab. The venison pasty sounds utterly delicious. You are left in no doubt how to roast any creature, from larks to partridges to mutton. Glasse is very frond of the braise - or ragoo as she dubs it - the ragoo of cauliflowers is infinitely more fascinating than the dull boiled stuff we eat now. The stewed cucumbers are a particular favourite of Dickson-Wright's.

The short ingredients list in each recipe is the ultimate test of the courage of a good food writer. Delia Smith, often guilty of not knowing when to stop in a recipe, could have learned much from Glasse's pared-down style. The sweet things are elegant - you can almost hear the polite gasps of admiration as the lemon tarts, syllabubs and cheesecakes are put upon the table. And added to this is an extraordinary awareness of the next big thing. Glasses's is the first recorded recipe for curry. The recipe - which she likely gleaned from a correspondent in India - asks for only coriander and black pepper. No turmeric or fenugreek, no cardamom or cumin. This is an early curry, but when the recipe is served up on the programme, a table of experts pronounce it delicious.

The food writer Bee Wilson, one of the panel invited to taste Glasse's food, says Glasse's ability to edit a recipe, keeping the essential ingredients, is her strength. "She often seasons with lemon, or herbs - but not to excess," Wilson says. "Her use of spices is much less muddied and confused than in earlier renaissance recipes."

Wilson adds that Glasse's lightness of touch is reminiscent of recent successful books. "The Art of Cookery has a River Cafe Cookbook quality - in fact her excessive use of butter, which can have a lovely clear flavour, can be likened to the liberal dribbling of olive oil in Rogers' and Gray's recipes. The power of the book, though, is the clarity of the writing. She's authoritative but she is also intimate, treating you as an equal," Wilson says.

A perfect book, then; one that deserved the acclaim it received. Glasse, who had until this point struggled to make ends meet (spendthrift husband, five children surviving out of 11) at last became wealthy. She should be justified in claiming glory for her achievement, but the uncomfortable subject of plagiarism raises its head. According to Jennifer Stead, who writes the introduction to the Prospect Books facsimile of the book, Glasse lifted extensively - her source material can be clearly found in previous works by other writers.

Dickson-Wright does not refer to this in her documentary, perhaps sticking to the Glasse defence - it's not what you steal from other books but how you re-write another's words. Jennifer Stead explains Glasse is simply rendering others' words "plain and easy". Plagiarism is rife in cookery writing - and it can be said that you cannot copyright a steak and kidney pie. "You could argue that even if she has plagiarised other work, the way she writes the recipes is still wonderfully clear," Bee Wilson says.

Glasse's wealth and success was not to last. Poor business decisions led eventually to her being declared a bankrupt and being sent to debtors' jail. Before entering the jail she sold the copyright of The Art of Cooking. After her release in 1757, Glasse published two more books: the Servants' Directory and the Compleat Confectioner. Neither was as successful as The Art of Cookery but worse than that is the fact that this woman who made such an extraordinary and valuable contribution to other women's lives was written out of history - both her family's and ours. No image exists of her - the only record is that of her death in 1770, an announcement in the London Gazette.

Compare this to the fanfare accorded to Mrs Beeton's career, and it's easy to see why Dickson-Wright has taken up the Glasse cause. But there is a common factor between the two - and with other successful recipe writers. The lives of Beeton, Glasse, Elizabeth David, Fanny Cradock, Alexis Soyer (soon to be the subject of yet another television programme) and even some contemporary cookery writers, notably Nigella Lawson, share a running seam of tragedy and drama.

Their knowledge of pain and suffering must relate to their ability to choose, for us, food that brings comfort and happiness. And it's not just the girls; every other chef's biography opens either with tales of tragic loss or grumblings of childhood on a sink estate. The hell of a restaurant kitchen introduces the sensual pleasures of good food and no one looks back etc, etc. The unhappiness of others is responsible, then, for some very delicious recipes. Would Nigel Slater, for example, have brought us food so comforting it can lift the soul had he not experienced such sadness in his childhood, documented so touchingly in his autobiographical book, Toast, the Story of a Boy's Hunger?

So Hannah Glasse, faced with financial struggle and mourning the loss of her idyllic Northumbrian childhood in a wealthy household, brings her know-how to cooks. She makes their lives one hundred times better and spawns several generations of well-fed families - she gets little thanks and life dishes her a few more blows. Dickson-Wright, who herself has not had the easiest of lives, is a Glasse-ean cook. I remember her planning a dinner party that would include a dish of roasted veal loin, stuffed with veal kidneys. That's very high class, very Glasse.

Suffer, lady, suffer.

Hannah Glasse is on BBC4 at 9pm on Friday. First Catch Your Hare is published by Prospect Books, priced £20

To Roast a Hare

This is the recipe that inspired the words "First Catch your Hare" - a phrase that doesn't actually appear in The Art of Cookery but for which Hannah Glasse is famous. The clue is in the first line: cas'd means catched (or caught). The "pudding" is a stuffing, the element that lifts this simple country recipe to an elegant dinner party dish for the aspirational 18th-century metropolitan.

Take your Hare when it is cas'd and make pudding; take a quarter of a pound of sewet [suet], and as much crumbs of bread, a little parsley shred fine, and about as much thyme as will rest on a six-pence, when shred; an anchovy, shred small, a very little pepper and salt, some nutmeg , two eggs, a little lemon-peel: mix all this together, and put it into the hare. Sew up the belly, spit it [put on to a spit], and lay it to the fire, which must be a good one. Your dripping pan must be very clean and nice. Put two quarts milk and half a pound of butter into the pan; keep basting it all the while it is roasting with the butter and milk until the whole is used, and your hare will be enough [done]. You may mix the liver in the pudding, if you like it. You must first parboil it, and then chop it fine.

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