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The British Library and Delia Smith celebrate the Golden Age of British Cookery

With the help of Britain's favourite cook, who has often spoken of the debt she owes to the great cookery writers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, the British Library has created a unique exhibition from its collection of influential cookery books from the golden period of British cookery.

Modern Cookery - Eliza Acton
Advice on roasting coffee, taken from the book adopted by BBC Books for Delia Smith, Eliza Acton's
Modern Cookery

The exhibition, Eating In: The Delia Collection, has been co-curated by Delia Smith, and runs from Friday 27th February until Tuesday 25th May 2004.

As a young cook, Delia spent hours in the British Museum reading room re-discovering traditional recipes, such as those of Nineteenth century writer Eliza Acton, and honing her techniques. Earlier this year, to celebrate her thirty years with the BBC, her publisher BBC Books adopted Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery (1846) from the collection on her behalf as part of the Library's Adopt-a-book scheme (see image on right).

The exhibition will be on display in the entrance hall of the British Library and is open to the public free of charge. Visiting hours are:

Monday :
- 6.00pm
Tuesday :
- 8.00pm
Wednesday :
- 6.00pm
Thursday :
- 6.00pm
Friday :
- 6.00pm
Saturday :
- 5.00pm
Sunday :
- 5.00pm

The collection is timed to coincide with the publication of the two new titles in The Delia Collection:

The Delia Collection - Pork   The Delia Collection - Italian
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The Delia Interview:

Delia has huge affection for the British Museum Reading Room, which she visited regularly for 18 months as a young cook, researching traditional English recipes including those of her favourite cookery writer, Eliza Acton. She spent the morning at the British Library recently to record some of her thoughts for the British Library Sound Archive, and to provide captions for the exhibition of 18th and 19th century cookery books that she is co-curating. It opens for four months from 27th February 2004 (see attached Press Release). While there, she talked to the British Library's food expert, Dr Polly Russell, about her early days as a cookery writer, and her love of British produce and cuisine.

Could you talk about your previous connection to the British Library and how that came about?

I was working in a little French restaurant in London and one day I was talking to one of the customers, who was an historian, and I said to him "I'm desperate to learn to cook". He said "if you look into your history books, you will find that the British were cooking better than any other country in the world in the 18th century" and said I could get a ticket to go into the Reading Room at the British Museum. So I did that and I found it was quite easy and quite amazing that I could actually walk into this beautiful library and book a little desk and then go and ask for these books to be delivered.

Can you summarise what these books taught you?

I acquired a wonderful grounding in cookery and also some really good recipes. I collected about four little exercise books full of these recipes. At that time I'd moved on from the restaurant and was preparing food for private dinner parties, and sometimes I would ask the people if they would mind trying out an 18th century meal, which they were happy to do.

What do you admire so much about 19th century writers such as Eliza Acton?

I think it was the best period when we had the best ingredients and the best produce because we live in a group of islands that's able to produce it all. We still have, to this day, fantastic produce. Eliza Acton has an awful lot of really good advice. I think she's the best writer of recipes in the English language and I've learnt many things from her. I think she had an understanding and a simplicity and the older I get, the more simplicity appeals.

How would you describe what home cookery is to you?

To me, home cooking is always a hundred times better than anything you can have in a restaurant. The only place you can find good British cooking is in the home. You can't have a good steak and kidney pudding in a restaurant, which I think is one of the great delicacies. To me, cooking at home is the essence of British cooking.

These books, like the Hannah Glasse and Eliza Acton, emphasise how food is part of life's great pleasures but there's also this undercurrent about health.

If you were Eliza Acton, or Hannah Glasse, you had square meals, but you didn't have the chocolate bars and bags of crisps that we have now. So really, if you were to go back and take all that away, in fact we were healthier. I don't advocate using double cream every day and I don't advocate having a chicken plastered in butter every day, but when I do cook a chicken, I want butter on it! I believe obesity problems come mainly from an addiction to sugar, so although I love puddings and I love sweet things, at home we've had a tradition of only having anything sweet at the weekends, but then having something really fantastic. We need sweet things in life so long as it's not over-emphasised.

Produced with the kind permission of the BBC 2004

Today the food industry spends a great deal of research and development resources on improving food taste and nutritional value. Recent trends in the food industry include plant-based and non-GMO products, which may qualify for a R&D tax credit to save companies money.

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