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…
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
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.
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 www.weschenfelder.co.uk , 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.
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
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 (http://www.churchfarmardeley.co.uk/) 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.
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. http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/editorial/browse/podcasts/podcasts_index.jsp
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.
I have just come in from the garden of my borrowed house with aching arms and the guilt-inducing smell of fermenting apples in my nose. This is not because I am making hooch out there, but rather that I have - too late - been raking up the leming-like apples that threw themselves onto the wet grass one windy day last week. Some of them are rescued and awaiting orders in the kitchen; the others have gone into the green bin where, judging by the speed with which they rot and the look of inebriated smugness on the sluggy faces of my bête noires, they will make fine, sweet compost.
Yesterday, I recorded the Guardian podcast with Kathryn Hughes, the social historian and biographer of Mrs Beeton, who made me laugh by saying that the Victorians hated salad; they were terrified of lettuce and would die rather than eat a raw tomato. Mrs Beeton must have thought that apples, well-boiled and pulverized, were safe, because she does have a recipe for Apple Soup.
This isn’t the sort of thing I would usually inflict on a co-eater, in case it was really horrid. But finding myself long on windfall apples but short on company a week or so ago, I gave it a go. It is probably the simplest recipe in the world. Boil some apples in stock, puree, and add a few spicey and peppery things to give it a kick. And, surprisingly enough, it doesn’t really taste as if it is just a few cookers boiled up in cheat’s chicken stock, but it is its own thing; a tart, fiery soup with a faintly glutinous texture.
It must be incredibly healthy too; but since I’m not I added some Stilton as you see (Wensleydale would be nice too), although this felt rather modern for Mrs Beeton.
I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate recently. And not just because I’ve been suffering from gum infections that have me eyeing up the chocolate box wondering if I could whizz up its nutritious contents into a milk shake. Oliver Thring, who writes for the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog http://bit.ly/qFYdE7 asked me what sort of chocolate recipes there were in Great Food, so I’ve been having a rummage through the sweetie drawer.
Chocolate, I’ve discovered, has had quite an image makeover since it was introduced – as a drink – to England in 1657. We take for granted the association between a bar of even the yuckiest vegetable-fat laden chunks with lusciousness and sensuality. If we think about our ancestors’ culinary enjoyment at all, we might imagine a Black-magic box-shaped hole in the centre of it, as they valiantly got their sweet kicks from candied rose petals or caraway comfits.
But for Pepys, a keen pursuer of sensuous gratification, this new drink was simply healthy and comforting. When he “waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink” on 24th April 1661, his friend gave him his morning draught in chocolate to settle his stomach (The Joys of Excess, p16). Brillat-Savarin, in 1825, promises that drinking chocolate in the morning leads to unfailing health and mitigates against that undesirable condition – losing weight. He interrupts his civilized history of chocolate with the extravagant claim that Spanish ladies of the New World love chocolate to the point of madness, but he certainly doesn’t see this “sensual indulgence” around him in France where, unlike coffee, chocolate “holds no terrors for the fair sex” (The Pleasures of the Table, p59).
Chocolate was first sold in solid form (by Cadbury’s and Fry’s) in the 1840s and it was quickly taken up at fancy dinner parties (Mrs Beeton has it served in an ornamental box on a glass plate). It was probably democratized when chocolate bars were given to soldiers in the First World War (but Shaw’s chocolate cream soldier of 1894 suggests the Swiss already had their own privatized version of chocolate rations). Alexis Soyer includes, in his instructions for cooking for regiments of soldiers, a recipe for cocoa for 80 men (The Chef at War, p101). He makes it with water thickened with arrowroot to give the sort of thick, chocolatey drink you get Italy rather than the chocolate milk we drink now. Similarly, Alice B. Toklas also gives a recipe for hot chocolate, served in bowls to comfort soldiers by the Red Cross Nuns in wartime France.
In the 1920s the high-society Agnes Jekyll describes cocoa nibs (A Little Dinner Before the Play, p51) as having a welcome ‘clean wholesomeness’ and recommends her super-chocolate cake (p23) for guests of robust appetites. (I make this for my talk – it has some unusual ingredients beside chocolate.) Nor does Alice B. Toklas rhapsodise about it; she passes on the recipe for sacher torte from her Austrian cook (Murder in the Kitchen, p18) but she is more interested in his love life than the cake’s chocolatiness. The Macon Cake - the luscious thing that transports her into ecstasies (p58) has mocha, pistachio and kirsch butter cream but chocolate is conspicuous by its absence.
But somehow, between then and now, chocolate acquired its reputation for sensuousness. Depending on who you read, we should thank the scientists who chopped it up and discovered the euphoric, falling-in-love chemical phenylethylamine; or the Aztec women who introduced it to the Conquistadores, or the hedonists who love the way it melts at blood heat on the tongue. The usual culprit for these things, Nigella Lawson, in How to Be A Domestic Goddess, says she doesn’t even particularly like chocolate. Personally I think it’s got something to do with the girl in those Flake adverts from the 80s.
This is from William Verral again, landlord of the White Hart Inn in Lewes in Susses, and a bit of a Jamie Oliver. He trained under a fancy French chef, M. Clouet, and his lovely, fresh recipes burn with a passion to get his compatriots eating ‘garden things’ and not throwing away good food that families ‘would leap mast high at’.
I have had mixed success with Verral - one of my earliest blogs was about the disaster that was his strawberry fritters, but I have been waiting a whole year to make this delicious, fresh sounding mackerel dish.
Only it isn’t really. I can imagine it on a contemporary menu; crisp skinned and oil-rich fish on a sharp slick of gooseberry sauce and aniseedy fennel for feathery elegance. The trouble is, I think, that our tastes have changed so much. It is very common for old recipes to boil or simmer up everything together; here its fish, wine, fennel, green (spring) onions, parsley followed by scalded gooseberries. The fish end up swimming in a thin sauce, bumping into blobs of gooseberries; the skin is stuck on to flesh which is solid, rather than that lovely delicate/meaty texture it gets under the grill. It is all a bit of a big, sweet mess.
Here it is, cooking not very merrily away, in a black pan. William Verral laughs at a neighbour and client who want him to cook a meal to die for in their kitchen, equipped just with “one pan as black as my hat”. Which is essentially what I used here, so maybe it really is the problem with the tools not the workmanship.