Pen's Great Food Club

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Dinner with Mr Darcy at Rotunda

Some lovely people at Rotunda Bar and Restaurant in Kings Place, just North of Kings Cross, put on a real Dinner with Mr Darcy last week.  The food was inspired by my favourite Jane Austen dinner of all, the one at the end of Pride and Prejudice where Mrs Bennet is determined to impress her guests of honour, Bingley and Darcy. 

The chef dressed a very fine dinner indeed. And had he not been so modest, he, just like Mrs Bennet would have boasted afterwards:

I think everything has passed off uncommonly well, I assure you. The dinner was as well dressed as any I ever saw. The venison was roasted to a turn — and everybody said, they never saw so fat a haunch. The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucas’s last week; and even Mr. Darcy acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably
well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least.

He recreated Mrs Bennet’s dinner, with some flourishes of his own.  We started with a velvety green pea soup with ham, served on very elegant Georgian-style china. 


This was followed by venison and pheasant pie that would have any Georgian hostess preening herself and satisfy every Georgian sportsman.  We finished our feast with a wobby jelly worthy of the Netherfield Ball and an apple pie that would have had the whole neighbourhood Highbury in ‘Emma’ talking about it for weeks.  

Before every course, I popped up and explained how the food related to the books and talked about dishes, dining and etiquette in Jane Austen.  And, contrary to rumours circulated by Helen Fielding, Mr Darcy has not died, but is alive, tall, handsome and was at Rotunda entertaining the assembled company with passages from Pride and Prejudice.  


At the end of that dinner, Jane and Elizabeth served the tea and coffee (as elder daughters did) and Elizabeth is mortified that there is no seat near her for Darcy; he receives his coffee and walks away to another part of the room.  Our Mr Darcy disappeared for as short while too.  Before he brought back his coffee cup, as the book’s Mr Darcy did, those with good hearing might have heard a splash in the canal outside…



Mr Darcy - Henry Steedman

Head Chef - Nicky Foley

Director – Cedric Chervet

Producer – Emma Williams

Screenplay - Jane Austen

Based on an original idea by Geraldine D’Amico

Other parts played by Margaret Bluman, John Burke, Isabelle de Cat and Dr Tony, Diana Gerald, Beth Macdougall, Ian Macdougall, Stewart McGillivray, Alison Samuels, Richard Samuels, Glenn Smyth, Sally Powell, Miranda Vogler-Koss and Dr Belinda. 

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A Georgian hedgehog (with Tudor influences)


These little fellas have waddled their way into Dinner With Mr Darcy - my book of recipes inspired by the novels and letters of Jane Austen - thanks to that great cookbook writer of the eighteenth-century, Hannah Glasse.  She gives two recipes  To make a Hedge-Hog - both slightly peculiar, thick custards of egg yolks, cream,  butter and ground almonds.  Like the hen’s nest in the last post, it would have been just the thing for the ball at Netherfield (I like to think).  However,  I couldn’t get it to work well enough to form a hedgehog shape when I tried, so I feel back on that old Tudor favourite, marchpane.   The simplest recipe in the world; ground almonds, icing sugar, flower water - or even just orange juice. The spines are flaked almonds; the eyes are currants.  I like making little ones which you can bake for a few minutes to get that crispy, chewy outside.   It’s lots of fun doing it with children who will make all sort of ingenious bunny rabbits, chunky flowers, loveable but lumpy moggies and lopsided people. 

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A Hen’s Nest

I made this hen’s nest when I was working out the modern-day recipe for Dinner with Mr Darcy.  The original is from Mrs Raffald who gave lots of instructions for complicated designs in flummery - a sort of creamy jelly - and calf’s foot jelly, including the famously wobbly Solomon’s Temple.  This hen’s nest is a bit sturdier; the flummery is set in hollowed out eggs; the straw is made from long thin strips of lemon rind; and we have the luxury of using packs of gelatine rather than “a gang of calves feet” to set our jellies. Jellies were served at balls in Jane Austen’s day (Mrs Norris snaffles the “supernumery jellies” after the Mansfield Park ball; and I like to think it graced the table at the Netherfield Ball in P&P!) and it is a lovely thing made with white wine or champagne; clean tasting and slightly alcoholic.  Or, if you aren’t throwing a ball any time soon, you could make it for a children’s party with elderflower cordial (and kids might prefer fruit string to lemon rind).

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As a teenager, whilst having my first ever breakfast in a French café (tres chic), I was mortified to discover that, not only was there no tea, no toast and no marmite, but that the marmalade I was expected to spread on my baguette was, in fact, apricot jam.  Peu chic after all.

Marmalade always was jam.  Even after the Scots had invented the tart stuff of Seville Oranges, Mrs Beeton (1861) was claiming that marmalades were simply made from firmer fruits such as pineapple, whereas jams were more berryish.  Our first marmalades were a thick quince paste from Portugal, probably the same as Membrillo, and whatever fruit they were made from, they tended to be found on the dessert spread, eaten from little jars with a spoon, or made into blocks and cut into pieces.  Seville Orange Marmalade was eaten as a sweetmeat for a good few years until the English, following their Scottish cousins’ excellent example, started spreading it on toast in the morning.   I still think this is a good idea when you fancy something sweet after dinner and all there is in the cupboard is a jar of blackberry jam or, indeed, homemade marmalade. A spoonful makes an admirable dessert – a sort of private, sticky version of those sophisticated candied orange rinds you can buy at Christmas. 

A quiet addiction to marmalade runs in the family; my Dad used to take a pot of my Mum’s inimitably tangy goo on his overseas trips; and I have had it on toast almost every day of my life, making do with the shop-bought stuff from home supplies ran out.  Until now! I’ve discovered the easy joy of doing it yourself, for which I have to thank a young lady called Miss Debarry.  Although Jane Austen didn’t have much to say in her favour (she was tedious and had bad breath) , she was friends with Jane’s great friend Martha Lloyd and passed onto Martha her ‘receipt’ for ‘Scotch Orange Marmalade’.  I tried it out for my book of recipes inspired by Jane Austen’s novels and letters (publishing this October, since you ask) and liked it so much I made a second batch recently, with some Seville oranges I had stashed away in the freezer. 

The recipe is entirely simple and sensible, with no faffing around with putting pips and pith into muslin bags that so many modern day recipes suggest (don’t bother!  You don’t need to!) .  Just make sure you have no cuts on your fingers and get on with filling the kitchen with that smell and your jam jars with bitter sweetness. 

And enjoy some dessert…


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The Royal Kitchens at Kew

When King George III (he of madness fame) his wife Queen Charlotte and their kids holed up in their cosy palace in Kew, they might have had a comfy, family weekend, but they were unlikely ever to have had a piping hot meal.  All their food was prepared in kitchens eccentrically sited in a sort of outhouse, then wheeled on covered trolleys across the yard and eventually into a rather lovely paneled dining room. 

These kitchens, built in the 1730s by that royal gardener, Frederick Prince of Wales (George II’s father) were closed following Queen Charlotte’s death in 1818.  The various cooking rooms, scullery and culinary offices mouldered gently for two hundred years, with their original boilers and ovens and the sort of massive kitchen furniture – solid tables and dressers – Country Life readers (and me!) hanker after.  Historic Royal Palaces have, to their great credit, persuaded the powers that be at Kew Gardens, to let them take over the building and spend £1.7million conserving and restoring them; on 18th May they will open to the public for the first time. 
Inspired by their new-old kitchens, Kew Palace are hosting a series of Georgian dinners over the summer; for £100 guests are treated to a curated tour of the Palace and dinner in that same lovely dining room.  I was honoured to be invited to a press night to try it out. 

Georgian diners would have trooped into their dining room to find the many dishes of the first course already symmetrically laid out on the table, cooling their heels.  Our courses were served to us (in the style that became fashionable in late Georgian and Victorian times);  the first one – cold pea and asparagus veloute – was perhaps a deliberate nod to the problems of serving hot food.  We think of historic food as being meat and pie heavy, but the Georgians loved these vegetables (although they may have overdosed them with ‘butter sauce’) and the wealthy could eat hot-housed versions over a long season (just as we do with our air-freighted Peruvian asparagus and Kenyan peas).  A course of potted mackerel, preserved by plugging the fish with a layer of melted butter, felt reassuringly C18th (although the crispy breads were distinctly contemporary Mediterranean).  The chef, coming on for a brief curtain call at the end, explained that he had cooked the lamb shoulder for the main course authentically; boiled in water rather than stock, with celery, carrot and onions, for 4-5 hours; adding nothing else.  It was honest and tasty; and I liked the arch description of its accompanying ‘sweet white potato pudding’ (ie mash). 

There were three desserts of beautifully contrasting shapes, colours and textures; a deep purple summer fruit jelly and whole orange filled with orange ice, were both (as Jane Austen might say) elegant.  I was unsure about the third, an inauthentically solid Chocolate Cream; chocolate was taken only in liquid form until the mid nineteenth century; but clearly none of my fellow diners, licking their pudding spoons clean, cared a hoot whether it was anachronistic or not. 
It was a very elegant occasion and an elegant dinner and I didn’t, as predicted by a colleague, develop gout overnight.

The Royal Kitchens at Kew are open from 18th May, 2012

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What Shall We Have for Dinner by Catherine Dickens

A hot day at the end of September last year found me in a rather nice kitchen in Shepherd’s Bush with a lovely home economist called Yasmin.  We had the morning to prepare two Dickensian dishes; a huge Twelfth Night cake (which the wonderful Yasmin had already cooked to a recipe I found in Dr Kitchiner’s 1823 book, The Cook’s Oracle); plus a Charles Dickens favourite; a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters taken from Catherine Dickens’ book of menus and recipe What Shall We Have for Dinner, which we were to prepare and cook that morning, and then prepare again on set.  After that, Sue Perkins and a BBC crew were turning up to film our bit about Catherine Dickens and the part that her little book of food played in her, ultimately, very sad life. 

Stuffing a leg of mutton with oysters and sweet herbs, is a sheepy-smelling, iodine-y, herby pleasure, although of course all those little bits of stuffing escaping as you try and truss it up with string, just served to remind me that, I’m never really in control in the kitchen.  I was definitely NOT in control of the oven which, set to maximum and fan, was puffing and blowing all its hot air out of the broken seal at the top of the door.  Mutton carpaccio, not being a Victorian speciality, Yasmin and I moved it onto the hob where it simmered happily away…

Then, eventually, we were in place at the kitchen table (my hands hidden beneath lest anyone see them shaking), cameras rolling, wired for sound, everyone quietly confident… only not quite quiet enough, the sound engineer explained, because everyone could hear my heart thudding through the microphone taped to my chest. 

But I was the expert here, so I started fumbling around with bits of dead sheep and oysters as Sue Perkins, with dismaying professionalism, rapidly chuff-chuffed her knife through a pile of herbs.  As we stuffed the leg between us, cameras on, I became aware the “here’s one we made earlier” mutton on the hob behind us was simmering itself dry… dryer… nearly burnt…  Plated up it was dark brown and dry.  Blame the Victorians; they overcooked everything. 

I was never claiming to be a top chef, of course, but here was my chance to show how much I knew about food history, answering questions such as:  “Might Catherine’s menus have contributed to her weight gain?” And I was off, launching into all I had ever read or thought about nineteenth-century dining culture, Italian cream, Victorian ladies who lunch, cheese savouries, dinner a la Russe or a la Francaise, cabinet pudding, corsetry, marrow bone toast, vegetable consumption, suet dumplings, Dickens and the politicisation of hunger… I was wondering whether I could shove in a reference to Charles Lamb A Dissertation upon Roast Pig or Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor as I came to a halt.  There was a silence.  “I think,” the producer said gently, “the way to start the answer would be: “Yes”.

But in the end it was a huge plateful of fun (although with a good side helping of stress –you can never forget that camera or that microphone), as we wobbled around with the oysters and put the bean for the king, the pea for the queen and the rag for the slut into the Twelfth Cake.  It ended up being about four minutes of what turned out to be a brilliant and eye-opening programme about Charles and Catherine Dickens’ unhappy marriage.   

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Burns Night with a bang


Haggis is probably one of the oldest dishes from these islands (perhaps excepting mammoth carpaccio); it is thought that the Romans brought over the recipe, or as near as damn it.   Their army, with carefully-thought through provisioning that could be carried and eaten on the march, must have been the BC equivalent to the Yanks with tinned food in the Great War.   Nobody seems to know when it sealed its reputation as a Scottish dish, but it pops up in the earliest English cookery.  Dorothy Hartley in Food in England gives a 1300 recipe for it, involving a pluck, tallow and womb, and if this isn’t offputting enough, a picture showing “pluck boiling, with wind pipe hung out.”  There is a similar recipe, recorded by one of Richard II’s cooks in the earliest surviving English cookbook, The Form of Cury (cookery) from 1390.

I was inspired to make haggis for this Burns Night, for rather more prosaic reasons than historical enquiry; I was itching to try out a recipe in Jamie’s Great Britain; the Burns Night supper at our local was oversubscribed; and I thought it would impress my Scottish boyfriend. 

Jamie’s recipe is long but unthreatening; the pluck, tallow and tripe are replaced by nothing more unusual than liver, kidneys and heart.  By the time you add the spices – allspice, cloves and black pepper – it has that definably “warm-reeking” haggis smell.   When you add the toasted oatflakes, it starts to bubble and makes hilarious farty noises like a child trying to annoy the grown-ups; and this mixture of meat and cereal is probably the only relic we have of that pre-potato staple, pottage.  Gervase Markham, in a chapter called “On the Excellency of oats”  praises them for meat pottage and goes onto recommend mixing them with blood and liver which “maketh that pudding which is called the haggas or haggus” (The English Housewife, 1615). 

Jamie keeps it as a stew or covers it with neaps and tatties as a pie.  This, however, wouldn’t have served for the tradition of reading Burns ‘To a Haggis’ and plunging the knife into it “Trenching your gushing entrails bright” so that the insides, “warm-reeking, rich!” come oozing out. 

I found natural haggis ‘caps’ from a wonderful company called , which was established by the owner’s German grandfather who was appalled by soggily cased British sausages.  The casings arrived, packed and salted, in the post.  Desalting in a bowl of water they turned out to be intestines, sealed at one end, like alarmingly large condoms.  Packing them with haggis mix and tying the ends with string turned out to be easy, so long as you are not put off by the slight slime and smell (or the holes in my jumper).


 Just one yielded up a white, wormy sausage enormous enough for eight of us (with enough leftover mixture for the faint hearted which might include myself).  

I set it to boil gently and set about the neeps and tatties and putting out those other Scottish delicacies for pudding, Orkney cheddar and those iconic Glaswegians, Tunnocks caramel wafers .  As it bubbled away, the casing expanded gently, promising a pleasing Burns moment… and then burst with a loud bang.  By the time I got to it I had a pan full of runny haggis mixture, with a huge condom waving apologetically around. 

Some of the remaining mixture stuffed in the spare casing and boiled for a few minutes made for an instant, poppable (if not sufficiently cooked to be quite hygienic) haggis balloon, though.  Our Burns night experience was saved. 

The eight varieties of malt whisky – and the eight varieties of Scottish accents employed to read Burns poems – helped too. 

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A Real Tudor Minced Pie



Mince pies, appropriately for Christmas, are food of the gods.  Deep, dark, sticky, sweet; all those zippy currants; that flavoursome suet that we try not to think about… The suet, of course, is a hangover from the original mince pies that were made with meat.  Gervase Markham’s 1615 recipe calls for mutton; but could also be made with beef or veal.  It is very simple; mix together meat, dried fruit and spices and put “into a coffin, or into diverse coffins”.  It is not as sinister as it sounds; a coffin was simply a box. 

We think of pies as rather homely food; but no grand C16th or C17th feast would have been complete without them.   They would have been made with complex moulds to appear in all sorts of shapes, each beautifully decorated with pastry shapes and patterns which shame the occasional little star-shaped mince-pie top we get today.  A huge “Grete Pie” or “Yorkshire Pie” is where that idea for a bird-within-a-bird comes and it might have been made with different coloured stuffings between the birds to make a beautiful pattern when it was cut.

I followed the recipe for A Real Minced Pie that Clarissa Dixon-Wright has worked out A History of English Food (what luxury to be cooking Tudor food with measurements, times and temperatures!).   We met together with the BBC’s Nick Higham, Phil Westerman; producer and camera man at Katharine and Leo’s kitchen in Putney to talk about her book, Great Food, and to taste this famous mince pie for “Meet the Author” on the BBC News Channel. 

The verdict was… “interesting”.  That combination of sweet and savoury is very much an ancestral taste.  It was little disappointingly bland; Clarissa said she had made it with proper, well-hung beef and it had a much deeper flavour.  Najma, her lovely publicist (with the most beautiful nails!) was surely right when she said it would be perkled up with a pickle or two; the cameraman  Phil Westerman took some back to his family and tweeted later that it tasted good cold with a strong blue cheese.  Katharine and Leo (my oldest friend and cousin with whom I am staying and who so cheerfully and generously let it all happen in their kitchen) were more positive that evening, perhaps because we washed it down with a little hippocras; that gingery, spiced wine which makes everything seem brighter and more hopeful. 

Link to BBC Meet the Author here 


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Getting (and staying) fresh with Alice Waters



It was a pretty rotten summer, wasn’t it?  But, judging by the chirpy looking veg in the polytunnels, fields and shop of Church Farm in Ardeley, in Hertfordshire ( none of them seem to have minded the cool and wet.

So, for Food Club, earlier this Autumn, instead of doing Alice B. Toklas’s ludicrous shoulder of mutton recipe (because where would I get either the mutton or the necessary surgical syringe to inject it with cognac?) I turned to Alice Waters for inspiration. 

Founder of the Slow Food Movement with her restaurant, Chez Panisse in San Francisco, Alice Waters’ influence in the States is similar to Elizabeth David’s here.  Her watchwords are local, seasonal and sustainable. The latest writer in the Great Food series, she probably has most in common with the earliest, Gervase Markham for whom food in 1615 was local and seasonal from necessity (and fresh would have been a bonus).  Alice Waters doesn’t feel that revolutionary to me, though as my mum still grows, makes and bakes much of her own food and buys her meat from a local farmer she knows.  But it must have felt radical in 1980s America and, as with so many things Californian, we welcomed it too; it’s just that my Mum – like so many mums – got there first. 

I came away from the Church Farm shop with an enormous, emerald lettuce; tomatoes in an extended family of shapes, colours and sizes; a hilariously knobbly cucumber plus two round ones (which Margaret was convinced were squash until we cut into it and saw the seeds), earth-covered spring onions.   Two days and two unrefridgerated car-journeys later, the tomatoes were squishy, the lettuce was leathery and half the leaves had black patches and the cucumber was getting bendy with exhaustion. 

In Tristram Stuart’s important book on waste in the food industry (called, pithily, WASTE) he tells you simply how to prolong the life of what William Verral calls “garden things”; put herbs in a glass of water in the fridge, for example, and they’ll keep fresh for days.  We have lost a lot in the past four hundred years – flower salads, salmagundi, candied rose petals – but occasionally it’s good for an old die-hard like me to look at the fridge and remember what we’ve gained too.   




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This is a bit of a cheat for a blog as I haven’t cooked up anything except a couple of podcasts.  A little while ago, I was down in Bath with Amanda Foreman who was giving a talk and recording the Blackwells podcast with the lovely George Miller.  Being a multi-tasking sort of chap, he recorded one with me about Great Food at the same time.  It’s up on the website - no. 58.

This one was done for The Guardian, a day after I did a talk at Foyles.  I took in various bits of historic cake and chatted about them with Claire Armitstead and Kathryn Hughes, who was there for - as Claire said - some “intellectual oomph”.  She has so much in some ways I wish I’d just sat there and taken notes…

I think I sound a bit eccentric to be honest; but perhaps that’s because I am.