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Mistresses MacIver and Dabdoub Nasser Shake Hands

The air is brim with a refreshing pungency from sweet cicely blooms bursting along the road banks. Rattling, I race off the tarmac on my 1946 moss-green Copenhagen, past the old ford, past the farm cottage and out-buildings, down the pot-holed, plum-line Roman road. To my right I am less than a peltast’s shot from the Strageath Flavian Roman marching camp; a broccoli field one year, swathes of wheat the next. In a cloud of dry late spring dust, I arrive at the gillie’s brittle wood hut on the raised bank of the River Earn. In the lower pool there are sluggish grilse in the summer; good grayling in the winter.

Twenty metres high on the steep bank across the water perches the white gable end of Innerpeffray Library, beaming through the sycamore canopies – a pearl mounted in the ribbon sweep of Strathearn. I drag my dinghy from its stash between the bank and the field and rest my bicycle in its place. I adjust my canvas shoulder-bag, push out into the upper fast pool, and paddle to an eddy shaded by an orbed willow on the opposite bank. Ted, a past library custodian, reckoned I was the first person to row across the rapids for a read since 1939, when the ferry service a few yards up stream from Cobblehaugh Cottage was stopped.

Why this antiquated route? The longer road from my home in Muthill, though very beautiful, dips and winds through oilseed rape and battery hen barracks. I object to both; most of all, their odours are similarly rancid and stifling, only too intense when cycling. And besides, my less conventional route, if not eccentric, is the more poetic approach.

Why did I come? Books: the sweet must-smell of leather binding; brittle pages with contents that leave me feeling richly satiated. Specifically, antiquarian works relating to the matter of food: recipes, incidental literary references, fantastic monastic pseudo-scientific treatises on herbs, beasties and fowls, agricultural practices, and quack medical innovations.

Cookery and Pastry as Practiced by Mrs MacIver, A New Edition by Susanna MacIver (Edinburgh, London: 1789), looks promising for its range, from apothecary madness, to charming turns of phrase:

Take a pound of hartshorn shavings, nine ounces of eringo root, three ounces of isinglass, of chopin of bruised snails, …two vipers, or four ounces of the powder of them, …two Scotch pints of water, …a mutchkin of Rhenish wine, half a pound of brown sugar-candy, the juice of two Seville oranges, the whites of three eggs… (Jelly for a Consumption); and, potch some eggs very nicely; …earn some new milk; press the whey

I find a recipe that catches my attention: Spices, Proper to be mixed with any kind of seasoning. I take notes. This appears to be a rather ubiquitous ingredient, being applied to soups for pigeon, hare, leek, onion, and pease; roast cod head; codling with ale and lemon zest; stewed sole; parton (crab) pies; potted eels; potted herring; beef a-la-mode; forced meet balls. Sun streams through the east window. Hot pine boards and honey-coloured book bindings mingle in aromatic melodies.

Enough for the day, I pack my pencils and emboss my notebook entry with the Innerpeffray Mortuary Society’s emblem.

On my way back to the boat, I munch on a ramson flower head. This wild garlic blooms in profusion around the library grounds. White crowns in green grounds. I pick more to make my ramson fritters in tempura batter when I get home – if they survive the scramble down the bank and the boat journey in my pockets. I gather some sweet cicely leaves, too. This sweet herb is reasonably thought to have been introduced by the Romans to the Romano-British kitchen garden. Its profusion in proximity to an area historically defined by a profound Roman presence perhaps bears testimony to this. A tomato salad with fronds of sweet cicely haloing a crown of ramsom flowers, drizzled with a light olive oil is heavenly.

Cycling back through the green fields and hedgerows to my rural pile, I wonder how I might apply this spice mix myself. I’ve tested other ‘kitchen pepper’ recipes – similarly from 18th and 19th century cookery books – but they seem a bit harsh on the palate. I don’t see any reason to doubt that these ubiquitous kitchen peppers owe their genesis to some formulæ of fifteenth century cookery manuscripts: poudyr Lumbard, or poudyr fort. Mrs MacIver, however, proves to have struck the perfect balance. Can it be adapted beyond providing her recipes with the MacIver idiosyncrasy? I remember Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s Classic Palestinian Cookery, and a rather splendid recipe she gives for a very simple and hearty meat and pea stew, Yakhnet bazela, made with either beef or lamb. Back in the kitchen, I try the culinary cultural cross over. …It works perfectly, and as a species of adaptation it is a completely outstanding dish served with either mashed potatoes with a pinch of dried sage, or parsnip pureed with lashings of butter. Mistresses MacIver and Nasser, shake hands.


Mrs MacIver’s Spices, Proper to be mixed with any kind of seasoning

(Metric equivalent inserted)

Take an ounce [25g] of black and an ounce [25g] of Jamaica pepper [allspice berries], two drop of cloves, and two or three nutmegs; beat them into a powder, and mix them all together, and put them in a box or bottle, so as they catch no air; and then you have them ready for seasoning any kind of sauce.

Place all the spices together in an electric grinder and process them to a fine powder. I take two drop of cloves to mean two cloves; I add three. I use two nutmegs; though it is an idea to partially crush them before processing with the other ingredients. Jarring the spice is as good as any box or bottle.



Serves 4

1lb lamb or beef, diced 1 large onion  2 tsp MacIver Spice 1lb fresh or frozen peas (thawed)  

In a stewing-pot, brown the meat in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil; reserve on a plate. Thinly slice the onion and brown for 3–4 minutes in another tablespoon of oil. Return the meat. Add the MacIver Spice and enough water to cover the contents of the pot. Bring to simmering point and place the lid over the stew. Simmer for just over an hour, or until the meat is sufficiently tender. Add the peas and simmer for a further 15 minutes, uncovered. Season with salt.

This fair is normally served with a variety of rice, but potato mashed with lots of butter and a good pinch of dried sage I think is an excellent accompaniment. It is also very hearty if served with parsnip pureed with lots of butter.


This recipe makes splendid use of the MacIver Spice; and it seems perfectly natural to combine the spice mix with tomato, since it shares the inclusion of spice similar to another Palestinian recipe offered by Dabdoub Nasser, Kallayet banadoura – tomato and garlic with pepper and allspice.

Simply hew the tomatoes in half and place on some tin foil, cut-side up. Drizzle a little olive oil over each tomato, and season each with salt and a generous pinch of MacIver Spice – about ¼ teaspoon. Place under a hot grill for five minutes. Remove from the grill and allow the tomatoes to cool 2 minutes. This is a splendid breakfast option for its substance, and the spice mix is surprisingly subtle.



Mrs MacIver offers a simple recipe for forced-meat balls using her spice mix, which is diverse in its adaptation for beef, pork, veal or mutton. Mix the minced meat with egg and season with salt and the spice mix. Roll into balls, dust with flour, and fry until browned.

However, a serious omission with many cookery writers of yore is their vagueness in the context of quantity; it seems to be something of a tradition, or authors relied on readers’ kitchen a priori. And though Mrs MacIver was fastidious enough to preface her book with a weights and measures conversion table to make her volume universal, she is no exception to the omission of quantities in the main body of many of her recipes. Ever your kitchen aide, I recommend the following ratios for serving four people:

  400g Aberdeen Angus beef, minced ½ tsp chilli flakes (optional for extra bight) a small handful of parsley, finely chopped    4 tsp MacIver Spice ½ tsp sea salt flour for dusting  

Place the minced meat with the MacIver Spice, optional chilli, parsley and salt in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Using a teaspoon, scoop enough of the mix to roll into small balls between the palms of your hands. Roll in flour to give a light dusting and fry in two tablespoons of olive oil for 6 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden brown.


Mrs MacIver’s To roast Salmon method requires a whole silvery beast, buttered and seasoned with salt and powdered with her mixed spice. But adapting this recipe to elegantly spice salmon fillet is a good idea.

1x150g salmon fillets per person MacIver Spice1 tbsp groundnut oil  

Dust the salmon fillets with a generous amount of MacIver Spice, and season with sea salt. Add the groundnut oil to a large frying pan and cook the fish, flesh-side down, 3–4 minutes. Turn the fillets, and repeat the cooking on the skin-side. Rest the fish pieces on a tray in a warm oven for 5 minutes. Dust with finely chopped parsley and serve.


Susanna MacIver, Cookery and Pastry, As Taught and Practised by Mrs MacIver: teacher of those arts in Edinburgh. A New Edition (London: C. Elliot & T. Kay; Edinburgh: C. Eliot, 1789).

Dabdoub Nasser, Classic Palestinian Cookery (London: Saqi Books, 2001), pp. 62 – 64, p.102.

Steven Dp Richardson

This article first appeared in Petits Propos Culinaire: PPC96 (June 2012), pp. 66-71, many thanks to the author and to Prospect Books for the permission to reproduce it here.