Meet the local author celebrating a 19th century cook from Tonbridge who’s still inspiring today’s foodies…

The team from Corker Outdoor, Award sponsor Jason Varney (Thomson, Snell & Passmore) & Eamonn Holmes

A historical novel about Eliza Acton – described as the first modern cookery writer, and a figure with strong Tonbridge connections – has been written by a member of Tonbridge School’s parent community.

Annabel Abbs’ new work, The Language of Food, the story of Eliza Acton, Britain’s first domestic goddess, was recently published in the UK and is currently being translated into 16 languages. Already released in the US, the book has also been commissioned by CBS to become a TV series.

Eliza who was born in 1799 and died in 1859 was an English food writer and poet who produced one of Britain’s first cookery books aimed at the domestic reader. Entitled Modern Cookery for Private Families, the book introduced the now-universal practice of listing ingredients and giving suggested cooking times for each recipe.

By the time she was in her 20s, Eliza was living in Tonbridge, with very close proximity to the school. She resided at No. 1 Bordyke (now The Priory) with her mother, brother and sisters. Eliza’s Acton’s brother and nephew were pupils at Tonbridge, and her cookery book certainly reflected her roots with titles such as ‘tourte a la Judd’ – a fruit tart named after Sir Andrew Judde, the founder of Tonbridge School. Others included ‘Kentish’ sausage meat, suet pudding and cherry jam; ‘Tonbridge’ brawn, and ‘Bordyke’ veal cake, preserved ham and bread.

Annabel’s new novel is her third. Her debut, The Joyce Girl, won the Impress Prize and was also a Guardian Reader’s Pick, which is currently being adapted for the stage. Her second novel, Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley, was a Times 2018 Book of the Year. She has been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, the Caledonia Novel Award and the Waverton GoodRead Award.

Annabel has a son at Tonbridge, in the Third Year, and her husband also attended the School.

She told the Times: “I found Eliza Acton in an antiquarian collection of cookery books amassed by my mother in law when she was a cookery teacher in the 1950s.

“We inherited the collection when she downsized to a smaller house, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that I started cooking from it. Acton’s recipes and her writing style were head-and-shoulders above that of her peers.”

Annabel added: “I would arrive early at Ferox House to collect Hugo, then nose around the area trying to imagine it in 1837. Sometimes I stayed at The Rose and Crown, which was Acton’s nearest inn, and spent my days retracing the steps she and Ann, her assistant, would have taken as they went to the market, to church or to the asylum in Barming Heath.”

The Tring Book Festival calls The Language of Food “the most thought-provoking and compelling historical novel you’ll read this year”, adding: “Annabel Abbs explores the enduring struggle for female freedom, the complexities of friendship, the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food, while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye. A portrait of Victorian domestic life that is both encompassing and finely detailed.”

Annabel Abbs’ The Language of Food, the story of Eliza Acton, is priced £14.99 and available to buy from all good book shops including Waterstones and also online from Amazon

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