If it hadn’t been for a pioneering cook from East Sussex our Christmas dinner might have looked very different.

The humble sprout is the marmite of the vegetable world. But it was ground-breaking local cook Eliza Acton who was the first to include a recipe for Brussel sprouts in her landmark cookbook, Modern Cookery For Private Families.  

And if that wasn’t enough, she is also widely acknowledged as being the first cook to refer to the plum pudding as “Christmas Pudding”!

Festive fare

Christmas is not complete, for many families, without the hearty fruit pudding. It is wheeled out after the main feast often with an accompanying brandy-lighting drama. And love them or loathe them, Brussel sprouts have become as integral to the festive feast as crackers, stuffing, and visiting relatives.

Born in 1799, Eliza Acton was also a poet. However, it was for her cookbook that she achieved widespread popularity. And even though it was first published 175 years ago it is still acclaimed by modern day chefs including Rick Stein. The book was ground-breaking because it introduced  the practice of listing ingredients and giving suggested cooking times.

Battle and Hastings

Although her father was from Hastings and she was born in Battle, Eliza Acton grew up in Suffolk and then moved to France. Returning to England in the mid-1820s she lived in Tonbridge, Kent, and was listed as living with her mother in Hastings in the 1851 census. She died in London in 1859.

She published her cookery book in 1845, aimed at middle class families. It was so popular it remained in print until 1918. Reviewers liked the book. The food writer Alan Davidson considered Modern Cookery to be “among the most elegantly written cookery books ever published”. TV celebrity cook Delia Smith described Acton as “the best cookery writer in the English language”.

So if we’re fortunate enough to be sitting down to a traditional Christmas meal this festive season, we might raise a glass to toast the cook without whom it might taste a little different.