Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Posh Food

A while ago I read an article, in a 1930s edition of Good Housekeeping Magazine, by Florence White. Florence White was Britain's first professional food writer and her most famous book (and indeed one of my favourite cookbooks) Good Things in England, which was first published by the English Folk Cookery Association, is now reprinted by Persephone Books. Anyway, in this article Florence White interviews the servants of the great and the good of 1930s Britain to find out what kind of food the rulers of the Empire liked to eat. She found that there was a resounding inclination towards simple, good food; plain English cookery well made from excellent local produce and nicely cooked. Prime Ministers, Lords, Bishops, MPs and captains of industry all preferred roast beef, steak, chops, roast potatoes, a good vegetables to any Escoffier-like confection. At tea they enjoyed ham sandwiches, plain fruit cake and good quality tea, they eschewed the fancy. She came to the conclusion that they enjoyed this kind of food because they were brought up on vast, self-sufficient country estates, where the food was plain because it was the very best and needed no cream sauce or aspic to make it any better.

Interestingly, Maria Floris, in her wonderfully comprehensive book on baking,
Bakery, states that when she provided the baked goods for 10 Downing Street, Winston Churchill's secretary told her that his favourite pastry was the humble jam tart.

"She told me that it was his favourite pastry. It was a very plain pastry but it had to be perfect."

Now, this doesn't really surprise me. First, I suppose there is something comforting for a person under extreme pressure to eat food from their nursery childhoods. Chops, fruit cake, egg custard and jam tarts, speak of a roaring fire and the comfort of nanny. Secondly, the rich and the powerful have the opportunity to eat any kind of elaborate food, perhaps they choose the simple as a reaction to their jaded palates (reflecting jaded lifestyles)? However, my inclination is to agree with Florence White, these men chose plain food because it was always good. Jam tarts are good, in fact I agree with Winnie, they're much nicer that ├ęclairs, in fact they're nicer than any creamy concoction, if the pastry is good, if the jam is excellent (home-made) and of course for Churchill jam tarts would always have been first rate. There is a lovely democracy to all of this. We can all eat an excellent jam tart, fruit cake or pork chop, if we take the time to choose good produce and cook it well, this takes skill and not money, and I am of the opinion that good cooks are not born, they are made; through patience and practise.

It is also interesting to note that in the 1920s the aristocracy learnt to cook. The combination of the "servant crisis", wealthy women rejecting the pampered lifestyles of their mothers, and aristocratic girls moving away from home and getting jobs in cities meant that for the first time in generations (perhaps not since the 17th-mid 18th century) the very rich took an interest in what went on in their kitchens. In 1922 Lady Agnes Jekyll published Kitchen Essays, taken from a series of cookery articles she wrote for The Times. I have a 1960s copy of this book, with extra recipes and a nice introduction by Lady Jekylls' daughter, Lady Freyberg, however, and as ever, the wonderful Persephone Books have reprinted this classic. The book does contain the kind of recipes suitable for elegant entertaining, there's a lovely recipe for a white chocolate mousse which I will try when the next special occasion crops up, but amidst the menu French are the country house classics so beloved of Churchill, Lloyd George and Baldwin. Here's Jekyll's recipe for fruit cake, I haven't made it, but I think the sour cream (a very unusual addition to an English cake) would make it quite a moist fruit cake.

Guards Cake
1 pound plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
8 ounces of butter
8 ounces of sugar
1 pound of stoned rasins
8 ounces of candied peel
2 eggs
1/4 pint sour cream

Sieve flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, raisins and candied peel. Make a well in the centre and add beaten eggs. Add sufficient sour cream to form a dropping consistency. Mix well and pour into a greased and lined 9-10 inch square or round cake tin. Bake in a moderate oven, 350 or Gas Mark 4, until firm to the touch - about 1 1/2 -2 hours.

Do you know that some social historians think that the increasing democratisation/modernisation of the English aristocracy may have been due to the large number of wealthy American socialites marrying into old (and perhaps slightly impoverished Lordly families) during the late Victorian/early Edwardian period? On that note, and to finish, here is an extract from The American Hostess Cookbook, which provides a fascinating insight into the table-fare of the rich and powerful of post-war America. Each recipe/menu in the book is preceded with a small biography of its author. Enjoy!

Mrs. Dorothy Byron Lane, Ocean City, Maryland, wife of Governor William Preston Lane, Jr., of Maryland was educated at Hannah More Academy, Dana Hall, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and is active in various Women's Clubs and organizations. Her hobbies embrace gardening, music and golf. She has two daughters - Dorothy Byron Lane, Vassar '46, and Jean Cartwright Lane, Vassar '49. Mrs. Lane is an Episcopalian and a Democrat.

Mrs. Lane's

Oyster Cocktail
Celery Olives
Diamond Black Terrapin - Maryland Beaten Biscuits
Wild Duck - Currant Jelly
French String Beans
Wild Rice
Hearts of Lettuce - French Dressing - Thin Slice of Maryland Ham
Frozen Decorated Meringues filled with Bisque Ice Cream
Nuts and Mints


Anonymous said...

Eee, thas nowt like a good jam tart. Homemade shortbread is delicious too.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post! I read recently on another blog (can't remember whose) about how their husband's face lit up when his wife decided to make more pies, stews etc, as well as all the ultra-healthy stuff she had been serving up. She said he almost looked relieved. I find the same in this menfolk go into raptures over a good ol' meat pie or an apple crumble. Simple, wholesome meals truly are the best!

Seraphim said...

Oh, I do agree that simple food is often best... as Tina mentioned, a partner's face when they have just bitten into a good bit of fruitcake or an apple pie is all the evidence needed!

Angela said...

Hi - I have just tagged you - please check my blog!

Gumbo Lily said...

~We can all eat an excellent jam tart, fruit cake or pork chop, if we take the time to choose good produce and cook it well, this takes skill and not money, and I am of the opinion that good cooks are not born, they are made; through patience and practise.~

Amen! A friend brought me grape jam from his own grapes and said, "You just can't buy jam like this," and he's right.


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah

Mmmmm, shortbread (said Homer Simpson-style).

Hi Tina
Your dead right. I've noticed that men really do prefer homely too. Of course, I prefer the butler to serve me smoked salmon on a silver platter...

Hi Seraphim
My husband prefers fruitcake or tea loaf to anything else I bake!

Hi Angela
Your wish is my command.

Hi Jody
I'd love to have a go at grape jam. There's a pub we go to and they have a really ancient vine growing over an old stable block. They do nothing with the little bunches of grapes which appear. I'm always tempted to ask the landlord if I can have a bag to make grape jelly. I know you share my jamming obsession, this is why I'm telling you this!lol!