As a lover of early and mid-20th century British detective fiction, in particular Agatha Christie, I have often tried to imagine the food and drink referred to in my bedtime reading which normally comprises Agatha's novels. Even when I am feeling lazy or tired, I listen to her audio books.

The recipes here are my interpretations of meals, snacks and drinks that I have encountered during my reading and I am attempting to reproduce these as I imagine they were made during the decade in which the relevant novel was set. Although the majority of the posts are recipes, I will also include descriptions of those ingredients which are not in common use.

Each recipe is written for conventional cooking methods using traditional ingredients. It is also accompanied by a 21st century 'equivalent', including adaptions using more modern equipment such as the Thermomix or techniques such as sous vide. I just love my gadgets! Also I feel that food should have 'attitude' in that it must make you want to eat it again. It has to be full of flavour, which in one sense may seem to contradict the general consensus towards Brtish food at least, during the period in question. This is the challenge I have set myself - to give you traditional
recipes upon which you can build, and at the same time add a suggested modern equivalent which you might like to try anyway.

Saturday, 12 December 2015


The only soup mentioned by name in 'Four and Twenty Blackbirds' was Mulligatawny, although an unspecified thick soup was also referred to.  In the 1989 TV episode however, it became Thick Tomato Soup and because this was a standard soup of the period, it is probable that it would have been on the menu of a very British restaurant such as the Gallant Endeavour.

The earliest extant recipe for tomato soup, appears to be from the USA and was published in The Appledore Cook Book by Maria Paloa (1872), although tomatoes had been used in older soup recipes such as Eliza Acton's Mulligatawny in her Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845).  Campbell's developed a condensed tomato soup in 1897 and it seems that from this time, the soup gradually became more popular.  'Four and Twenty Blackbirds' was first published in 1926 and I have lightly adapted a recipe from the late 1920s, although there appears to be little difference in British recipes for at least the first three-quarters of the 20th century.  It was interesting to compare that of Escoffier in Ma Cuisine (1934) and recipes in basic cookery books that you were given when you bought a new domestic cooker - they were almost identical.  Subsequent recipes in The Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956) and later editions of Good Housekeeping also show little variation.

As far as ingredients are concerned, the main difference between the recipes is what was used as a thickener.  Some recommended cornflour whilst others suggested rice or sago.  I used cornflour, but you can substitute that with one of the other ingredients if you wish.  In some instances we were advised to use cochineal (presumably to make the soup look redder should the tomatoes be somewhat under-ripe) and if you really want to add a few drops of that or other red food colouring, then please do so.  

This takes us to the subject of tomatoes, which really ought be nice and ripe - a rarity amongst shop bought ones.  If you are lucky enough to be able to grow your own or buy from a local nursery then fine.  However, if you are not that fortunate or want to make tomato soup out of season, then I really recommend that you use good quality tinned ones.  Tinned tomatoes have been available since the end of the 19th century and it is likely that they were used for soup since that time in the absence of suitable fresh ones.  Nowadays in the UK, we can get the Italian San Marzano tomatoes in tins.  They are ideal for the following recipes as they are fleshier and less acidic than standard tinned tomatoes, although they are comparatively expensive.

There are two recipes here.  The first is pretty much a standard one that appears in recipe books throughout the 20th century, with the three basic aromatics, plus bacon, herbs, tomatoes and stock.  The second recipe has more depth of flavour because the aromatics are roasted first, has added garlic and a couple of extra ingredients.  It is also mainly cooked in a Thermomix, but you can make it conventionally by following the instructions for the tradtional method after you have roasted the vegetables.  

For vegetarians - use butter and vegetable stock and omit the bacon



  • 30g (1 oz) butter, dripping or lard
  • 1 Spanish onion, peeled and coarsely diced
  • 1 medium carrot, scraped and diced
  • 2-3 stalks celery, diced
  • 60g (2 oz) streaky bacon, diced
  • A pinch of sugar or more (optional but will help to caramelise the vegetables and reduce acidity)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 1 sprig of parsley
  • 2 x 400g (14 oz) tins of whole tomatoes
  • 900mls (1.5 pints) chicken, ham or vegetable stock
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour
  1. Melt the butter, dripping or lard in a heavy bottomed pan over a low heat.
  2. Add the vegetables and bacon and saute until the onions are slightly softened.
  3. Stir in the sugar and cook until the vegetables are beginning to caramelise.
  4. Let it take as long as it needs to do this.
  5. Add the herbs, tomatoes and stock and simmer, covered, for 1-2 hours.
  6. Remove and discard the herbs, rub the soup through a fine sieve and return to the pan.
  7. Take a little of the stock and mix with the cornflour.
  8. Return to the pan and bring to a gentle boil.
  9. Cook for a few minutes and season to taste.
  10. Garnish with croutons and/or a little chopped parsley.


  • Olive oil
  • Salt - I used Pink Himalayan Rock Salt
  • 1 Spanish onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 large carrot, scraped and chopped into four pieces
  • 3 stalks celery, with leaves if possible, chopped into three pieces
  • Several cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
  • 60g (2 oz) streaky bacon or pancetta, diced
  • A teaspoon of sugar (optional but will help to reduce acidity)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 1 sprig of parsley
  • 2 x 400g (14 oz) tins of whole tomatoes (or 800g fresh, ripe tomatoes)
  • 2 tbsps dark soy sauce
  • 2 tbsps balsamic vinegar
  • Approximately 900g (2lbs) chicken, ham or vegetable stock
  • 3 teaspoons cornflour
  • Yoghurt or cream for swirling
  1. In a small roasting tin, pour enough oil to cover the bottom and add a pinch of salt.
  2. Place in the oven and pre-heat to the highest temperature.
  3. When the oven has reached that temperature, add the vegetables, bacon and the garlic to the tin and return to the oven.
  4. Reduce the temperature to 180°C / 350°C / Gas 4 / Fan 160°C.
  5. Roast, turning occasionally, until slightly caramelised.  You will need to remove them as and when they are ready, so check about every 15 minutes.
  6. Transfer the vegetables to the Thermomix bowl 10 seconds / Speed 5.
  7. Add the sugar, herbs, tomatoes, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and stock to the 2 litre mark (about 900 grams / 2lbs) 11 mins / Temp Varoma / Speed Spoon.
  8. Then 80 mins / 90°C / Speed Spoon.
  9. Remove the herbs.
  10. Slake the cornflour in a little of the soup and return to the bowl 1 minute / Speed 5-7-9.
  11. Then 3 minutes / Temp Varoma / Speed 1.
  12. Cook for a further 40 minutes / 100°C / Speed 1 / MC Off, but place internal steaming basket on lid.
  13. Allow to cool slightly then blend 2 minutes / Speed 5-7-9.
  14. Re-heat to 100°C and then serve with some croutons and a swirl of yoghurt or cream.

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