Recipes were gathered over thirty years of living and cooking and travelling in remote places, and the pen-and-ink illustrations are by the author.
From the introduction to both editions: 'European peasant cookery is immensely old. It has evolved, tried and tested, over hundreds - perhaps thousands - of years. Throughout its existence the patiently-gathered hard-won knowledge it incorporates has been passed on orally. Like all orally-transmitted traditions it is only as strong as the last link in the chain of communication. Today our predominantly urban-dwelling, industrialised population is obliged to rely on increasingly mechanised methods of food production: the standard American hot-dog now looks like something a chicken laid from an alternative orifice; it is difficult to associate the bread-roll which enloses it with the great grey millstones turned by the harnessed power of water or wind which formerly ground the main ingredient into flour; or the mustard which spices it with the seed of those pretty yellow-blossomed flowers which bloomed in ancient meadows. The home-cook is inevitably distanced from the primary products of field and barnyard, dairy, piggery and kitchen garden - and the checks and balances of season and economy have disappeared. Most peasant meals would have been (and still are in those communities which survive) structured around a single dominant ingredient at a single moment - when the new peas were at their best, the pig had just been slaughtered, the hens were laying particularly prolifically.
For that reason I have arranged this book around ingredients rather than in the more normal soup-fish-meat-sweet divisions. This reflects the central importance of the raw materials - that in the peasant world, the "real" world of climate and season, of mountain and plain, forest, meadow, and shoreline, with all their changing patterns and rhythms, it was not possible simply to go out and buy an ingredient if it was lacking, and that seasonal abundance was far more likely to dictate the composition of the meal than whim. Most of the recipes, therefore, include suggestions for the completion of the meal of which they are the centerpiece - the suggestions, equally, coming from the same ancient tradition of what was available, excellent to the taste, and nutritionally appropriate.
Apart from those leisurely foundation years spent in wild Spain and rural France, my practical research has taken me into markets and kitchens, larders and vegetable gardens, farms and vineyards, across Europe from the North Cape to the Golden Horn. I have been met everywhere with great courtesy and generosity, although sometimes with surprise that anyone should need to write down things which were so obvious. In those places where the demands of modern life have all but obliterated the traces of the old ways, even the most sophisticated of restaurant chefs still remember with nostalgic pleasure the dishes Mother used to make, and recall their own then-small fingers helping to rub suet or mould dumplings.
Such recipes and methods are best demonstrated...by mothers to daughters, fathers to sons: the moment to pick the plum, the exact brining necessary for a particular ham from a particular pig fattened in a particular oak-wood. Even the ancient earthenware\toupin,\whose curve is precisely right for the beans of Soissons, is perhaps an essential part of the "true" recipe. Yet in the course of my travels I became aware that there can be no definitive recipes, just as there are no definitive mothers and fathers. What I am sure of is that there do exist old and exemplary culinary traditions which are passed on by good cooks, working within the boundaries of their own local produce, from one generation to the next.
They are the "mother-recipes" from which all European cookery springs - whether it be bourgeois or haute cuisine, fast food or fibre diets. For most of us in the western world they are as integral a part of our past, and of what shapes and nourishes us today, as our literature and songs, our paintings and technology.
Beans-and-bones dishes are classic and staple peasant food in all Mediterranean countries. Recipes range from the simple cocidos and ollas of Spain to the stupendous cassoulet of southern France. Small farmers grew, and in many countries still grow, their own preferred variety of beans and chickpeas which would be dried and stored for the winter. A peasant family in Spain rarely has a meal which does not include these vegetables in one form or another. The flavoring bones and bacon often came from home-cured pork. All but the most perishable parts of the family pig were conserved for the larder.
Ritual surrounded the planting of all such important staples, as an Andalucian smallholder, Jesus Peinado, pointed out to Ronald Fraser in 1958:
"There are plenty of crops you can't plant when the moon is waning. The May moon is bad, for example; if you plant beans then they make a mass of stalks and no fruit. You have to plant seedbeds of onions, lettuce, melon and pumpkins with the waning moon as you do vetch and alfalfa. If the latter is planted at any other time the livestock swell up and die when they eat it. That's the truth. I don't know why it is, but everyone here knows it."
Beans can provide treats as well as staple meals. Eliza Putnam Heaton observed the roasting of chickpeas at the fair of Sant' Alfio in Sicily in 1908:
"On the other side of the narrow way there bally-hooed three or four vendors of roasted "ciceri", the chick-peas of Cicero's family name, and squash seeds, peanuts, dried chestnuts and roasted beans ... On a circle of lava stones rested a deep iron pan over a fire of vine cuttings. In the pan was sand, which she stirred with a wooden shovel until it came to the right heat; then she turned in her peas, stirred briskly till they began to pop, and then with bundles of rags lifted the pan - it was patched, for I counted, with nine pieces of iron nailed on - and turned the sand through a sieve into another big pan, delivering the hot peas to her husband, who acted as salesman."
Preparation: 30 minutes
Cooking: 1 1/2 - 3 hours
500g/1 lb chickpeas or white beans
1/2 chicken, jointed
2 soft chorizos or morcilla (black pudding)
A thick slice tocino (salted pork belly, though streaky bacon will do)
1 or 2 short lengths serrano ham-bone
1 head of garlic
2 dried red peppers or 1 tablespoon pimenton
A handful of shredded greens - spinach, chard, spring greens, cabbage
Utensils: You will need a large heavy cooking pot with a lid.
Put the chickpeas or beans to soak in fresh water for 3-4 hours at least - overnight is best. Wipe over and lightly salt the chicken joints. Slice the morcilla into short lengths, cut off the rind from the pork belly or bacon and cut the rind into squares. Cube the tocino or bacon, and deseed the red peppers. Do not peel the garlics, but hold the whole head in a flame to char the covering and roast the cloves a little - releasing and enhancing its flavor.
Drain the chickpeas or beans and put them in a heavy stew with enough cold water to cover generously (the beans should be well submerged), the ham bone, the whole garlic head, and the peppers or paprika (or fresh red pepper, seeded and sliced). Bring all to the boil, lid loosely and then turn it down to simmer. Pulses are variable in the length of time they take to soften - they can take anything from 1 1/2 hours to 3 hours. When they are soft but still firm - this should take about an hour - put in thechorizos or morcilla, well pricked, and the chicken joints. After another hour - about 30 minutes before the end add the potatoes.When the potatoes are almost tender, stir in the greens. Taste and add salt (the tocino will have contributed to the saltiness). Finish with the olive oil. The dish can be as soupy or dry as you please.
Serve the cocido in deep plates with plenty of fresh bread. Accompany with a salad of sliced tomatoes, or a crisp green lettuce dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, and salt. Red wine, rough and young, will aid digestion.
SUGGESTIONS: Possible inclusions are red amd green peppers, leeks, tomatoes, potatoes, beef, pork - and the golden unborn eggs to be found inside the cavity of an old hen past her lay.
LEFTOVERS: Fry the leftover beans with their juice in a little oil - keep going steadily until all the liquid evaporates and the base forms a deliciously crisp crust. Stir the crust in several times and continue to fry until the mixture is dry and crumbly. This trick works with all bean stews (the Mexicans call it a refrito ), and the result is quite delicious, particularly if served with a fried egg per person and a fresh tomato sauce spiked with a little chilli.
In the US, European Peasant Cookery is published as The Old World Kitchen. Above is the new cover for the Melville House edition published in 2014.
More from the introduction to both editions, US and UK:
The limitations imposed by a single pot, a single heat source, local produce, and little or no access to imports, are all characteristic of peasant cooking and give it its particular identity. But in no sense does this mean that the ingredients were necessarily poor or inferior: salmon, oysters, crayfish, snails, excellent cheeses, superb truffles and funghi, and an abundant poultry and game larder were all available to local communities. Even the most sophisticated delicacies such as foie gras from the favourite table-bird of the peasantry, the goose, were as likely to be found in a French peasant's larder as in the kitchen of the Sun King. Each generation in a community might throw up perhaps one particularly inspired cook, whose innovations would be added to the repertoire of the immediate area. This has led to variations of local dishes which are peculiar to an individual neighbourhood and whose merits are fiercely contested - there are dozens of different recipes for the making of a Spanish paella, for instance, each dependent on the local ingredients. There is, however, an underlying philosophy which governs all the recipes for a particular dish, and an understanding of this allows the cook to experiment and adapt the recipe to her own local produce.
The peasant larder varied according to climate and conditions. In northern Europe, Scandinavia, Scotland and northern Germany make good use of their sea coasts: salted, sometimes smoked, and pickled fish, including salmon, were and are important items of the region's diet, as is dried meat. Barley, oats and rye are the chief cereal crops. Central Europe is rich in wheat and dairy produce: cheese, bacon, potatoes, vegetables and the fruit of the vine are all plentiful, and this is reflected in the peasant cookery of Germany, Austria, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and northern France. The Mediterranean region, in particular Spain, Portugal, southern France, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia, has the advantage of olive oil, abundant vineyards and citrus fruit to add to good supplies of fish from the long coastline, as well as a temperate climate for the growing of a great many varieties of vegetables.
The ideal of peasant life is probably most nearly represented by the philosophy of the rural Spanish revolutionaries of the 1920's: communal, supportive, and hardworking, yet allowing the individual enough dignity, freedom, and leisure to develop intellectually and physically. A most difficult ideal to achieve. All those who have had first-hand experience of peasant existence hark back to the fundamental issue - survival. In the peasant world, the work is perpetual and the living is hard. Yet most insist that the way of life has its own rewards in the satisfaction of tasks well completed, of responsibilities to the land properly discharged. The earth must be husbanded, coaxed, and cared for, it cannot be exploited or it will take swift revenge. The old peasant kitchen habits of frugality were part of that husbandry - making stock out of bones, pickling and salting in times of glut, stocking the larder, using diet to care for the sick and the elderly, making good food out of few and simple ingredients.
This concern was reflected in real terms in the life-expectancy of the peasantry such as that of England in feudal times who, having survived the dangerous childhood years, were likely to live longer and in better health than their overlord who dined daily on large quantities of meat and fine white bread. The ordinary diet of the famously long-lived Georgians, listed by F.P. Armitage in 1922, is quintessential peasant food - black bread, rice, wheat cakes, beans, raw green vegetables, cheese, milk both fresh and soured, and fish, salted, smoked and dried. In poor communities which could not afford doctors, good health was clearly essential to survival, and country-dwellers became extremely knowledgeable about the adjustments in diet necessary for those who were ill, or to combat seasonal maladies. Winter food was well-balanced for the winter months. Store-cupboards were stocked to restore seasonal imbalance. Traditional prejudices about what should be served with what were based on sound and practical grounds of health. If any one phrase can summarize the peasant cuisine it is precisely that - good health.
"The diet of the European population at the beginning of modern times," says Diedrich Saafeld, writing of pre-1585 Europe in The Struggle to Survive, "can generally be described as simple and nourishing: it consisted chiefly of the natural products of the countryside. The population was still relatively undifferentiated. It is not easy to find records of preparation and meals, but ingredients are listed. This simplicity held until the middle of the 17th century, when improved communications meant items such as grain and such stores could be transported."
Polenta alla contadina
Cornmeal porridge (Italy)
A cornmeal porridge - polenta - traditionally takes the place of pasta in certain parts of northern Ital, particularly Friuli and Carnia. It's eaten either plain with a little olive oil and grated cheese, or with a sauce of the kind suitable for pasta. A coarse-grind is best for a soft-cooked polenta to be served as it is; while fine-ground cornmeal cooks to a firm, smooth paste better suited to the process of frying or grilling. This version is from Carnia, where the prefer a white cornmeal to the golden. It is usual to serve it with radishes or pickled turnips and frico - grated hard cheese fried to a crisp little pancake in olive oil, or simply toasted in a dry pan till the cheese melts to form a thin biscuit.
Quantity: Serves 6 people
Cooking: 40 minutes
1 litre/1 1/2 pints water
250g/8 oz coarse-ground white cornmeal (polenta)
1 tablespoon salt
Bring the water to the boil in a roomy saucepan. Trickle in the polenta from your hand, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon with the other hand. Make sure the mixture is smooth and press out any lumps with the back of the spoon. The process is much like making oatmeal-porridge. Add the salt, bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let it bubble gently for 30-40 minutes, stirring regulary to avoid sticking. Add a little boiling water if it looks too thick.
When the mixture is soft and smooth and comes away from the sides of the pan, it's done. Serve with a well-flavoured sauce - anything suitable for pasta is appropriate, particularly if it includes mushrooms. Pass round a grater and a generous hunk of hard cheese, grana - parmesan, pecorino - for people to add their own.
To serve with grilled meat, make the polenta as above, but using fine-ground instead of coarse cornmeal. When the polenta is cooked to a soft porridge, pour it into a lightly-oiled gratin dish - the layer should be the thickness of your finger. Leave to cool. When firm, use a wet knife to cut it into squares, arrange these on a grill pan, brush with olive oil and grill till crisp and brown, then turn and grill the other side. Or fry gently in a little olive oil - careful when you turn the pieces, they crumble easily and can lose their crisp coating. Practice makes perfect.
The Romanians treat cornmeal porridge - mamaliga - as if it were bread, turning it out onto a wooden board and cutting it into slices with a string. It's always served on its own.
Quantity: Serves 6
Time. Cooking: 40 minutes
250g/8 oz coarse-ground cornmeal
1 litre/1 1/2 pints water
1 tablespoon salt
50g/2 oz butter
Although the traditional way of cooking polenta is by stirring the meal into boiling water, as in Italy. It is however more easily made if you mix the meal with a little cold water first, and then stir the liquid into the rest of the cold water in a roomy saucepan. Bring to the boil, bubble up for a moment, then beat in the butter. Bubble the mixture up again, turn down the heat and stir over a low heat for 30-40 minutes, until the cornmeal is a thick, soft porridge. Serve it on its own, with sour cream handed separately.
Pour a shallow layer into a buttered gratin dish, dot with more butter and bake in a hot oven, 425F, for 10 minutes, till brown and bubbling. Spoon on soured cream and serve immediately.
Or fry a few handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs in butter and drop in spoonfuls of the mamaliga, shaking them around to coat.
For oven-baked mamaliga, prepare as above, then spread a layer as thick as your finger in a gratin dish. Cover with a layer of grated cheese. Top with another layer of mamaliga and another of cheese. Continue until it is all used up, finishing with mamaliga. Dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven, 350F, for 20-25 minutes, until topped with a crisp golden crust.
* Or allow to set till firm, then cut into fingers or squares and fry in a little oil, like bread-fingers, till crisp - a non-stick pan makes the task easier. Good with a juicy civet - venison or wild boar cooked with plenty of wild mushrooms and red wine and thickened with blood (failing this, a square or two of bitter chocolate, unsweetened for preference, will do the trick).
Some reviews on first UK publication:
"This book is a treasure; a work shining with honest, scholarship, joy and workaday good sense. It may well come to be seen, like the first appearance of Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Cooking, as a blessed landmark in our culinary tides." Sybille Bedford, The Field.
"Far and away the most interesting book published... for a decade. The smell of no-nonsense good food envelops every page. Prue Leith, Guardian.
"The best at describing the cuisine of the necessary... Filled with hard-to-find gems. Worth building a new bookcase for." Mark Bittman. New York Times (Oct. 1999, describing the best cookbooks of the century and including The Old World Kitchen).
More recent reviews:
Tom Parker Bowles, Mail
on Sunday (24.10.14): "This is one
of the great cookbooks of all time.
As ever with Luard, the anecdotes and history are eloquent and
Prima (Aug 2013) Reader Laura Mark's 'Secret Weapon': "Elisabeth Luard's European Peasant Cookery is my bible: I base all my casseroles on her recipe for Spanish bean soup."
Carolyn Hart, Telegraph Magazine (24.11.07): "It is the little-documented, earthy cooking of Eastern Europe that interests Luard the most...and gives this well-designed reprint its unique character."
Paul Levy, The Observer (13.1.08): "It's a joy to have a revised edition...the dishes are robust, hearty and always made from locally available ingredients. Delicious."
Lucy Lethbridge, The Tablet (8.12.07): "I love this book. First published over 20 years ago, it has a poetry quite its own. You can smell the woodsmoke and the blood pudding....We learn about history, topography, agriculture, climate, families, religion, trade. I can't think of a better book to get for Christmas."
Caroline Stacey, The
Independent (1.7.06). EPC is listed
no. 22 among The Information's 50 Best Cookbooks as "a rich source of culinary
history and culture and of dishes to feed a family [that] pays homage to the
food of the people who live off the land."
Bruce Poole, Caterer and Hotelkeeper (17.2.05): A superb book...absorbing, illuminating and beautifully written...choc-a-block with wholesome and thoroughly toothsome recipes, but it is the confluence of historical narrative, culinary insight and phenomenal research which makes this such a monumental work. This is precisely the kind of non-nonsense and scrumptious tucker which makes it such a joy from a revered and renowned writer about whom I knew very little, but, for me, this book has catapulted her into the pantheon of great food writers. It is, quite simply, a classic. All chefs should read the brilliantly concise introduction to the cookery of the countryside as opposed to the bourgeois cookery of the town.
Magnus Linklater, The Times (commenting on CJD outbreak and its repercussions on Burns' Night supper): "The best recipe [for haggis] is to be found in Elisabeth Luard's European Peasant Cookery."
Matthew Fort, Guardian (20.11.04) "This [Grub Street] reprint puts most of this year's outpourings in the shade, such is its range, passion, erudition and downright deliciousness."
Mark Bittman, New York Times (13.10.99): "No quick read-through can distinguish the great from the merely good. Instead, a cookbook is a lot like other pieces of kitchen equipment: it needs to be used for months, maybe years, before you know that it truly is...indispensible. Worth building a new bookcase for: The Old World Kitchen by Elisabeth Luard is the best at describing "the cuisine of the necessary" in European peasant life. Filled with hard to find gems."
Shona Crawford Poole, Daily Telegraph (17.2.94): In the eight years since first published, the relevance of this book has grown. A modern classic for every serious cook.
Derek Cooper, Scotland on Sunday (4.12.94): To go with the 13-part tv series The Rich Tradition, you will need at your elbow Elisabeth Luard's unrivalled chronicle of European Peasant Cookery. A magic book this, full of perceptive insights into what real food is all about. Reading this and watching the TV series could seriously alter your life.
Mary Norwak, Home and Country (Feb 1995): Elisabeth Luard has just presented a marvellous tv series from her book, European Peasant Cookery, recipes from 25 countries reflecting a great array of home cooking which is prepared for health, taste and nutrition, the fruit of hard-won experience over the centuries.
Craig Brown, The Times (1991): "My current favourite, Elisabeth Luard's European Peasant Cookery, unlike so many, seems to work every time."
Wendy Rowland, Literary Review (1987): "Rather than recipes, this book is really about food - form, matter and intention fuse and ooze with near tangible smells, colours and tastes, giving sensuous glimpses of someone else's past experiences which sweep one, drooling enthusiastically, towards both future grand feasts and simple little supper schemes...This well-written book really has taken all Europe as its province: it is clearly the fruit of living, eating and cooking...one can see the swallowtails on the wisteria in Provence and feel the cold wind on a Hebridean potato patch. Recipes are clear but not too doctrinaire, with suggested variations, accompaniments and merry schemes for leftovers...."
For more recipes and stories, order European Peasant Cookery (UK) or The Old World Kitchen (US):