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.