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The forgotten kitchen: colour

Categories: History of food

In the latest in her series on cooking methods and foodstuffs that have fallen from favour over the years, food writer and historian Bee Wilson finds inspiration in our historic penchant for food colourings

“But it must have been so beige” is something you often hear people say about historic food. Maybe it’s a problem of cinema. Our imaginations are so saturated with film images, we sometimes struggle to remember that the 1940s—never mind the 1840s—did not actually take place in black-and-white.

Reading cookbooks of the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the things that strikes me is how sensitive they are to colour. The authors praise the scarlet of strawberries and the green of gooseberries. They write of the silvery brightness of herring and the red gills of cod. Mrs Rundell, in 1806, says we should fry fish in oil, if we can afford it, because “butter gives a bad colour”.

Cooks have always been hungry for colour as well as flavour. We eat with our eyes. Hence the surprising number of historic recipes that involve food colourings. Eliza Acton, in 1860, recommends a ‘strong infusion’ of saffron to dye almonds yellow, as a pretty garnish for desserts.

The most ubiquitous food colouring was probably spinach-green. In 1846, the French chef Audot recommended “spinage juice” to stain a white mayonnaise green, for cold fowl. Francatelli, another Victorian chef, added spinach green to an asparagus puree to make it even greener.

Trick the senses
The basic reason for colouring food was the same reason food companies use it today: to trick the senses into believing that what you are eating is fresher and more intensely flavoured than it really is. In Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, ‘Ma’ uses carrot juice to make pale winter butter look rich and yellow.

This was a harmless trick, but sometimes the thirst for colourful food made cooks do desperate and stupid things. The most obvious example is the deliberate use of copper pans to make pickles green, at a time when many did not realise that green copper oxide, however pretty, was toxic. 

18th century recipes for green pickled walnuts advise putting the vinegar in a copper skillet. The acid would oxidise some of the pan’s surface and make the walnuts green. There were terrible cases of poisoning by pickles in Georgian Britain.

A less suicidal approach to colour in the kitchen was to use beetroot to dye pancakes a deep, glorious pink—those daring 1980s chefs who had the brilliant idea of making pink beetroot risotto were not the first to notice that this splendid earthy root could be used as a pigment as much as a vegetable.

Pink pancakes
‘Pink-coloured pancakes’ was a recipe that did the rounds from the 1780s to the 1850s, reproduced verbatim in numerous cookbooks, as was often the case (recipe plagiarism is nothing new). The earliest example I could find was by Richard Briggs in The English Art of Cookery in 1788 (it probably goes back much further).

I love the idea of pink-coloured pancakes. It is so outlandish; so apparently modern. More than 200 years after Richard Briggs thought to pound a beetroot into his pancake batter, beetroot-pink dishes still feel bold.

The cover of Felicity Cloake’s marvellous new The A-Z of Eating features a dish of spaghetti cooked purple in beetroot juice. Meanwhile, A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones has a recipe for beetroot and buckwheat pancakes, which she serves with greens and orange zest. She calls it “a dinner of reds, greens, oranges and golden browns”.

The old sweet way
I decided to try pink pancakes two ways: the modern savoury way, after Anna Jones, and the old sweet way. Briggs’s pancakes consist of a boiled beetroot pounded and mixed with yolks, cream, flour, brandy and nutmeg, fried in butter and served with sugar.

Forget pounding in a mortar—this is where modern technology rescues old recipes. Rather, I blitzed everything up in a hand blender, then cooked the pancakes in batches of three on the griddle, seasoning them with borage rather than the more authentic green angelica.

As appealing as I found the idea of the 18th century pink pancakes, I wasn’t sure about Briggs’s idea of making them sweet and flavouring with brandy and nutmeg. Further, because they contained so little flour (“two large spoonsful”), and so much cream (“three or four spoonsful”), the historic pancakes were very tender and rich, almost custardy. 

In 1829, William Henderson wrote that pink pancakes made a good “corner dish”—a little side dish to be eaten in small quantities alongside many other things; by contrast, the Anna Jones pancakes are more substantial, intended as a full and wholesome meal with goat’s cheese. While both had their charms, to my modern palate, this was by far the better way.

The others are worth reviving, though, as a novelty. If I ever make them again, I’ll serve them with cherries and candied rose petals, for even more pink.

Read Bee’s 21st century recipe for pink pancakes