Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Uppark, Restoration and 18th Century Cheesecake

Uppark in West Sussex

Last summer I finally visited Uppark –– a place with a grand story to tell that had been on my list for years after reading words like these:

In 1941, architectural historian Christopher Hussey said that the Meade-Fetherstonhaugh family’s ancestral home had an atmosphere, “as delicate and fragrant as the bloom on a grape…. It is the kind of house where you feel that you might look through the window into the life of another age’… its romantic history was suggested and enhanced by the fading and aging of ‘silks and paint impregnated with light streaming in through two score great windows for so long.” It was believed that the “untouched perfection of Uppark” had been like “the bower of Sleeping Beauty for a hundred and twenty years.” It was a great gift from generations of Fetherstonhaugh spinsters and widows who felt they had family tradition and history to uphold and cherish –– the Saloon and Dining Room hadn’t been redecorated since 1815.

Photo NTPL

Then, in 1989 after months of work repairing the roof was coming to an end, a careless workman walked away before checking (as safety protocols required) that nothing was smoldering beneath his job of soldering lead seams–– Uppark went up in flames. It went from puffs of smoke seen at tea break to utter conflagration in no time.

Yet what should have been a total loss was not. I read all about it in a 1997 book that told the dramatic story of why and how the miracle occurred.

Uppark Restored by Christopher Rowell and John Martin Robinson is a favorite book of mine. I’d say it’s a must-have for any designer, architect or old house enthusiast. It sings the praises of the heroic artisans who turned disaster into triumph –– what was learned at Uppark has changed the way restorations are done. On the way, dozens of people learned skills that hadn’t been practiced in nearly two hundred years, new companies were formed and restoration studios created.

Thankfully, though the devastation was overwhelming, on the day of the fire some didn't give up hope –– they acted.

While the flames blazed through the house, The National Trust mustered an army of conservators and staff who, with the Meade-Fetherstonhaugh family and courageous firemen, hauled out nearly all the furniture and art from the main floor. Carpets were rolled up, tapestries tugged down, even wallpaper was stripped from the walls.

Unfortunately, the family’s private rooms on the upper floors and virtually everything in them was completely incinerated but the walls of Uppark withstood the blaze –– even a good deal of paneling and woodwork was spared. The house acted like a chimney.

Geoffrey Preston Photo © NTPL/Paul O’Connor

When the fire was finally out a few days later, Peter Pearce, the man in charge of the restoration (and now head of the amazing Edward James Foundation) remembered, “the house was four feet deep in wet ash and rubble. (It was open to the sky from every ground floor room.) It was gridded in the manner of an archaeological site to record where each cubic metre of ash came from which was then stored in 4000 plastic dustbins, later reused at Windsor Castle, to be put through a giant riddling machine developed by the Ministry of Defense to sift out bomb fragments.” The pieces were organized and then redeployed where possible to their original position to be incorporated into the new work.

Photo from Clivedon Conservation

Master craftsman from Clivedon Conservation  and artists like Geoffrey Preston  did freehand plastering using lime plaster strengthened with hair –– a technique that hadn’t been used in more than a century (today, virtually all work is done with molds using gypsum plaster that dries too quickly for freehand work). A brilliant mix of craftsmanship, science and scholarship created the finished product. The great West Dean Conservation masters played a part too (love, love their blog – a record of what they get up to). 

Because of these techniques, the new stucco ceiling is a masterpiece of old and new, seamlessly joined

Red Drawing room ceiling, detail, NTPL

The red drawing room, NTPL

The red drawing room, NTPL

The Saloon NTPL

The Print room was spared disaster because the prints had been removed for conservation. The prints were returned once the house restoration was completed

The Print Room, NTPL

The Print Room, detail, NTPL

Even the chandeliers were restored. Many of the crystals survived the fall into soft ash and those that were lost were re-blown and cut. The twisted frame was brought back to its original shape

The result is nothing short of a miracle.

Brotheridge Chandeliers, the Red Drawing Room Chandelier

There were also master carvers who replaced what the fire had taken

You can see the new carving against the burned wood

Carpets and draperies were also masterfully repaired so that they still have the patina of age and don’t look new, in keeping with the spirit of the house that Hussey had described so well in 1941.

The Prince Regent’s Bed, NTPL

The textiles for the Regent’s bed took over a year and the patience of a saint to redo but the result is remarkable and fit for the prince that often slept there, requesting for a 1796 visit, “ … my old Bed at Up Park.”

I can tell you the result is astonishing.  The bloom was recreated.

Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, 1776

All of this would not have been possible if it weren’t for the loving ministrations of the Fetherstonhaugh family who had tended the house for over 200 years, acquiring it in 1747.

Possessed of a goodly fortune and great taste, The Prince of Wales actually consulted with Lord Fetherstonhaugh  on matters of art and decoration. Perhaps the fine quality and rightness of the rooms was the recipe for immortality. Where other homes went through style changes, Uppark stayed true to the early 19th c vision for it –– at once elegant and warm.

The dining room NTPL

So, how did they eat during the golden age of Uppark?

It is no surprise that the house saw many wonderful parties when the Prince of Wales was a regular guest. Although the ladies of the house would often absent themselves for these male-centric sporting weekends, I discovered a list of food from Lady Fetherstonhaugh for one hundred guests in 1784 at the Jane Austen’s World site :

2 Bucks, a Welsh sheep, a doz. Ducks, – 4 Hams, dozens of pigeons, and Rabbits, Flitches of Bacon, Lobsters and Prawns; a Turtle of 120 lbs; 166 lbs. of Butter, 376 Eggs, 67 Chickens; 23 Pints of Cream, 30 lbs. of Coffee, 10 lbs. of Fine Tea; and three lbs. of common tea. 

41 Port; 7 Brandy; 1 1/2 Hold of strong Beer; while Musicks cost £26 5s 0d and another chef to assist Moget cost £25; another 2 Bucks added cost £11; 2 more sheep cost only £2 10s, and another 2 carp £1 10s 0d. – National Trust, Investigating the 18th Century. p 26

All that food and a very expensive additional French chef to prepare it required a fine kitchen to turn out dinners fit for the Prince of Wales. The kitchen at Uppark does not disappoint, even if it is small compared to the kitchens of great estates. Although done up in the style of the 19th century, I do not think the famous Chef Moget would have felt out of place working there.

Photography is not allowed in the house without prior consent, but I had arranged an early visit through the National Trust and spent a bit of time shooting the just about perfect kitchen – I would be deliriously happy to call it my own (ok,  a modern stove and a fridge might be a good idea –– tucked away in a corner).

When I tried to think of something to make for you that would suit the house, I had to go no further than Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper from 1769. Every time I visit this book I find new wonders.

 Uppark's Dairy, 

detail of dairy tiles

This time, since the dairy was an important element of Uppark's history (70 year old Lord Harry Fetherstonhaugh notoriously married the 18 year old dairymaid, Mary Ann Bullock after hearing her singing),  I thought I would go with Raffald's splendid cheesecake, full of orange peel with a sherry orange sauce -- don't let the crumpet in the heading confuse you, its not a bread. It IS divinely decadent and deliciously boozy –– somewhere between a cheesecake and a dessert soufflé. I am one of those too much is never enough girls so I doubled down on orange and added a bit of Aftelier petitgrain orange essence (her blood orange would be lovely too).  It adds a deep orange-ness to the mix.

Orange Crumpets (makes 6-8 individual cheesecakes)

2 c cream
2 c milk
1/2 tab of rennet or 1/2 t liquid rennet
2 orange's rinds (with as little pith as possible)
8 eggs, beaten
1/4 t nutmeg
pinch salt
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 - 1/3 c sugar to taste (remember the demerara and marmalade add sweetness)
1 or 2 drops Aftelier petitgrain (optional)
butter to grease molds
slices of orange (*cooked in sugar syrup for 20 minutes and baked at 225º for 
1 hour or until dried)  
1/3 c orange marmalade, warmed
1/4 c sherry
Demerara sugar for sprinkling

Warm the milk and cream to 100º, remove from the heat.  Crush the rennet and add to 1 T non-clorinated water and add to the milk-cream mixture, stirring well.  Cover and let sit for at least 1/2 an hour.  The mixture should look like yogurt.  Put a clean piece of muslin or many layers of cheese cloth into boiling water to scald and then squeeze dry.  Put the cloth over a strainer over a bowl. Scoop the cheese gently into the cloth and allow to stand, covered over night.

Preheat oven to 325º

Take the rind and enough water to cover and cook for 20 minutes.  Drain and do it again for another 20 minutes or until it is very tender.  Strain and mash.

Take the eggs, nutmeg, salt lemon and sugar and petitgrain if you are using it and combine with the cheese.

Butter 6-8 molds (I used a large muffin tin about 1/2 c each - they don't rise very much).  Put parchment in bottom and butter that as well.  Pour in the mixture and bake for 20-25 minutes until firm. You can make them smaller (10-12 molds) but then only cook about 15 minutes.

Allow to cool and remove from mold. Pour the sherry over them and let sit a while -- they soak up the sherry.  Plate and add orange slices and spoon marmalade over the top then sprinkle with sugar.

Those of you who read this blog know how much I love Aftelier essences like the petitgrain I use in the cheesecake.  They spring from the wonderful and amazing Mandy Aftel.  She has a book out and the critics are raving.  Some great Lost Past Remembered recipes are inside.

I'm writing about the book next week because it's great and you will love it  -- food and scent have had a fierce and abiding relationship since the beginning of time.

You can order it  Here at Amazon:  Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

La Belle Créole, a Famous beauty and Her Favorite Spicy Stew, Cuban Ajiaco

Mercedes Cruz y Montalvo, Countess of Merlin (1789-1852)

Maria de las Mercedes Josepha Teresa Bárbara Luisa de Jesus Santa Cruz y Montalvo, the Countess Merlin, was born on February 6, 1789 in Havana, Cuba.

Beauty, talent, charm and good breeding combined with the dramatic vagaries of the Napoleonic war to thrust her into a life of great fame in the early 19th century only to be nearly forgotten today –– until now.

Author Alina Garcia-Lapuerta has long enjoyed reading early 19th century journalism and literature. A few years ago she became aware that Countess Merlin's name was reoccurring in much of what she read. So much so that Garcia – Lapuerta wondered that the spirit of Baron Munchausen  could have been at afoot.

In a video for her book, La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris, the author reflected, “When I started looking into her life, I found what I thought almost were too many exaggerations –– she knew too many famous people, she had been in too many interesting places at just, at certain tumultuous times and I just thought, it can’t all be true. There must be some exaggeration here. So I decided that the only thing to do was to go back from the beginning and look in the archives, look in the letters and her memoirs and in other places to really find the true Mercedes –– and once I did so I was just completely captivated by her and I had to do this project.”

Garcia-Lapuerta's passion for the subject is palpable. After I read her marvelous La Belle Créole I can admit, Mercedes reached across time and seduced me too –– her story reads like a great romance novel.

Mercedes grew up without her parents but in a loving, multi-family, multi-generational extended family. Rich and titled, her mother and father ran off to Europe to tend to business interests and advance their social standing –– leaving baby Mercedes in the care of her mother’s grandmother, Luisa Herrera y Chacón. Mercedes remembered her as having, “…snow white hair gracefully rolled up and pinned in braids exposing a perfectly formed brow and angelically sweet blue eyes. Her fine and delicate features revealed her entire soul by an ineffable expression of calm and habitual benevolence….” It was very fortunate she ended up with her mother’s side of the family. Garcia-Lapuerta noted they had “forward-looking … attitudes [that] would steep her earliest childhood days in openness, affection, and freedom that laid the foundations for her attitudes and beliefs.”

Mercedes father joined her in Cuba in her early teens in 1796. He proceeded to spoil her terribly before taking her away to Europe to join her mother.

Teresa Montalvo y O’Farrill, Countess Jeruco

Mercedes came by her charm and social skills naturally. Her mother, Teresa Montalvo y O’Farrill, Countess Jeruco was a splendid combination of Spanish aristocrat and upstart Irish (the O’Farrills). Mercedes described Teresa as beautiful and “uniting all the natural charms which heaven in its generosity can bestow upon a mere mortal.” Her father, Joaquin was a whirlwind of energy who said, “our time here was too short to lose any of it with sleep.” He evidently was never without a pot of coffee at his side. Mercedes said of him, “ Spoiled by his good star and by nature, he wished to live much in a short time and because of it he neither feared fate nor illness; he had always been happy, and nature had endowed him with a prodigious strength.” His drive paid off –– he was appointed a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the Spanish court in 1789 and got his commission in 1794.

Teresa was known for her splendid Tertulias (social gatherings with musical and artistic overtones – like the French salon) even before Mercedes joined her. Garcia-Lapuerta wrote, “Their lavish entertainment attracted notice and comments for many decades. They had style and taste, and their musical soirées included the best instrumental and singing artists of the time….Teresa became an effective networker and flourished as a popular hostess.”

There was a good deal of rumor that Teresa was a mistress of Joseph Bonaparte, the French king of Spain. Bonaparte graciously provided Mercedes’ dowry (her father had died unexpectedly in 1807) as the family money was tied up for decades in his testamentaría (“the legal process of executing the deceased’s will”).

Mercedes was much courted in Madrid when she came of age –– the exotic Cuban beauty intrigued European men even as Spain became a prize tossed between members of the Bonaparte family in a world gone mad with war. Napoleon’s brother Joseph took control of Spain and French military men and diplomats flooded Madrid –– it was an uneasy occupation.

Christophe Antoine Merlin

The man that won her heart was a French general, Christophe Antoine Merlin. They fell in love quickly, even though he was chosen for her by her mother and was twice her age. They were married on October 31, 1809. The first years of their marriage were happy ones but not all roses and ribbons. France lost Spain along with everything else and the French had to leave the country in a hurry. Merlin had supported Napoleon so was persona non grata in France as well when the monarchy was restored. His commissions and appointments were few and far between and he only just escaped a treason sentence for his associations.

When the French occupation ended, Merlin’s money and property was forfeit in Spain. Mercedes money was and would be tied up in decades of litigation following her father’s death so the Merlins were in rather reduced circumstances when they arrived in France –– but not for long. Mercedes was a brilliant strategist. What she lacked in gold, she made up for in talent and wit. She made sure her family lived comfortably if not extravagantly. She studied voice and became a famous amateur soprano – attracting Chopin, Liszt and other great talents to her salons (she improvised Spanish songs at the piano with Chopin).
La Malibran (1808-36)

She also took to writing and earned an income with books about Cuba and even biographies like a well-received history of her friend ‘La Malibran’ –– Rossini’s diva who died too young at the height of her fame.

Even though the Merlin’s diminished circumstances wouldn’t have allowed for a grand hôtel particulaire (a private townhouse), Mercedes friends, the very wealthy Count and Countess de Lariboisière shared their mansion at 40 rue de Bondy from 1818 to 1831 with the Merlins. When the de Lariboisières moved to an even finer house at 58 rue de Bondy, the Merlins remained their guests.

It’s no wonder the Lariboisières loved having Mercedes with them. They could have a front row seat to a salon filled with the brightest talent in Paris –– writers, artists and musicians.

Alexandre Dumas was undoubtedly describing Countess Merlin when he wrote in Pauline:

“There was a tremendous crush in the ballroom; during a momentary pause, the Comtesse M took me by the arm and to escape the stifling heat, carried me to the card room; there was also a curious inspection to be made as all the artistic, literary and political celebrities of the day were there… Madame M identified them each with a charming complacency, accompanying each name with a comment such as was often envied by the wittiest society chronicler…. The ball was interrupted. Liszt sat down at the piano… The effect was magical; the sounds floated in the air like vapor.”

Mercedes was a true femme du monde. Madrid’s paper, El Heraldo captured her magic perfectly:

“To achieve fame in Paris… is the easiest thing in the world… for one hour, for two, for half a day…{to achieve it] for a week, that is phenomenal. Paris… always needs to be devouring something…. Nonetheless, as we have said, Madame the Countess Merlin is one of the few privileged beings who maintain in Paris a constant and fixed value, one of those persons who everyone knows and appreciates, even if only by name… but how, you may ask? How has a foreign lady… who has not published any masterpieces, nor possess one of those fabulous fortunes… who is not a celebrated artist… been able to conquer such a unique position.”

Garcia-Lapuerta believed that “ Mercedes united the more obvious gifts of beauty, good birth, and culture with the talents of the artist, the attractions of a witty hostess, and the elegance and stylishness of a trendsetter, along with the nurturing soul of a patroness of the arts.”

It was a glorious time to be a taste-setter when she arrived in Paris. The clothes were sublime and such a relief after centuries of imprisonment in corsets and voluminous skirts.

Sadly, the revolution did not last and hoop skirts and stays returned in all their fussy, bonneted glory.

Countess Merlin didn't only inhabit the dazzling sphere of Parisian society, she made a triumphal trip back to Havana in 1840, and recorded it in a popular book that is still well respected today for its portrayal of the city in those years.

She continued to write and entertain as she entered the last years of her life but her circumstances became more humble and she moved to the country to save on the expenses of town.

 She stayed in her daughter’s husband’s 15th century castle in Dissay for a time and later in a small rented place of her own. She lived out the rest of her life with many friends who never forgot the legendary hostess.

Just as I began reading about Mercedes, my friend Mandy Aftel at Aftelier Perfumes released a new perfume that seemed to conjure my impression of Mercedes and her time magnificently. I don’t normally share perfumes here, but for some reason when I read about Mercedes I thought of her surrounded by a cloud of scent like Liszt’s music floating on the air. The way Mandy described the perfume, Palimpsest seemed to fit the bill perfectly:

"Leafing through dozens of volumes, some more than a century old, I felt as though I had stumbled into a secret old world of scent, whose story can still be read, in whispers and traces, beneath the story of the world we know.... I wanted to capture the richness that you feel when you experience the past as alive in the present, creating the gorgeous complexity of life." Palimpsest " allows you to experience the past in the present and the present in the past; in a whiff, it undoes the structure of time...."

I do not really write about perfume, so forgive my poor stab at capturing what I feel about the scent. Here’s the deal. Palimpsest is an island paradise at once bright and dark. It feels sweet at the same time it is smouldering. The ancient, unknowable deep of ambergris haunts the dark notes of the fragrance (if you follow my blog you KNOW how I love ambergris ). It is divine stuff that is NOTHING like modern department store perfume – you can close your eyes and drop through time for a moment when you wear it – to a Parisian salon during the 1830’s in a sea of Chopin waltzes, silk and ormolu.

Those of us who love food know that it transports as well, doesn’t it? We remember events more clearly when they are linked to a smell or a taste. How many of our favorite memories have the smell of a favorite dish as a powerful marker? Your grandmother may have been linked to the smell of bread, a long lost lover always comes to mind when you smell ripe strawberries – we remember home with the smell of a mother’s special stew or casserole. So it is with the elegant Countess. She may have traveled Europe and dined at the finest tables (it was the time of Carême after all) but when she returned home, fancy French food wasn’t what she wanted.

Author Alina Garcia-Lapuerta discovered this in a passage from Viaje a la Habana (Spanish version of her travel account published 1844), "On the first day [of my visit], my aunt wished to serve me one of the finest dishes from our [French] cuisine, and I, happy and satisfied with a simple ajiaco, told her in a disdainful tone: 'no, no, I do not want that; I have only come to eat creole dishes.' "

I had never heard of ajiaco, but the author was kind enough to send me a recipe, from Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol but modified by her ‘tia Gina’. I made a few more modifications as well but it is close to the original – proportions of meat to vegetable can be altered to taste. It smells rich and satisfying as it bubbles away on the stove. The root vegetable thickening is brilliant and adds creamy texture without calories. There are many layers of flavor and texture to it. It is not the Creole food I am used to at all –– it’s not spicy in the least. It is mild and earthy and perfect for a cool fall day.

Traditional Cuban Ajiaco, Serves 6

½ chicken – cut up into pieces (approximately 1 ½ lbs.)
½ lb. flank steak, cubed
1 lbs. pork pieces or spareribs (I used boneless pork chops)

OPTIONAL: ¼ lb. beef jerky (tasajo) (Tasajo is a traditional ingredient, but many cooks today – including my aunt – leave it out. If you choose to use it, it must be cut into pieces and soaked overnight and cooked with the chicken as directed below).


2 ears of corn, cut into 4 fourths
½ lb. yellow taro root (Malanga) peeled and cut into chunks (I couldn’t get this so used more yucca and sweet potato)
½ lb. cassava (yuca – can be fresh or frozen) peeled and cut into chunks
½ lb. sweet potato (boñiato) peeled and cut into chunks
½ lb. fresh pumpkin (calabaza) peeled and cut into chunks
1 green plantains (unripe) peeled and cut into chunks
1 ripened plantains (starting to turn black) peeled and cut into chunks
sliced beans (optional)
1- lime for recipe plus more for squeezing on top
Salt – to taste


1 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion chopped
2 garlic cloves minced
½ cup tomato puree
*1 small green pepper chopped
Salt – to taste
Black pepper – to taste
½ tsp. cumin
1 tsp. dry oregano or a T or 2 of fresh

* I steamed a poblano and pureed it with 3 T olive oil and drizzled it on the portions instead of including it in the sofrito.


In a deep stock pot, place about 3 ½ quarts of water and the chicken pieces (this is the time to add the beef jerky – previously soaked overnight – if you choose to use it). Bring to a boil and simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until the chicken is almost cooked (the beef jerky will take longer to soften). Add the other meats and simmer for another hour or until all the meats are tender.

While the meats are cooking, make the sofrito and prepare the vegetables except the ripened plantain and the pumpkin. Soak the green plantain pieces in lime juice.

To make the sofrito, heat the oil in a sauté pan and add the onion, garlic and pepper. Sauté until beginning to soften, then add seasoning. Cook a minute more and then add the tomato puree. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.

When the meats are tender, begin adding the vegetables (except ripened plantain and the pumpkin). Add the lime juice used to soak the green plantains. Add the sofrito. Cook for approximately 1 hour at lower heat or until all vegetables are tender. Add the ripened plantains and pumpkin and cook until these are tender (approximately 30 minutes).

Adjust seasoning to taste. Add the beans and cook for a few minutes till cooked through

If you wish to thicken the broth, remove some of the vegetable pieces, puree them and add that back to the stew –– I used about 1/4 of the vegetables.

Serve with lots of lime -- it is fabulous with a good healthy squeeze of lime juice and all that squash, spoon the green pepper puree over the top and sprinkle with fresh oregano.

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