The original 17th c. Knole sofa
You may ask, why is a sofa the first thing you see on a food blog? Well….
Before I began writing about food I spent 20 years as a film designer and furniture plays a part in that life… a rather big part. Added to that, I have been an antique lover most of my life, buying my first piece when I was 16 (it was a small, late 17th c cabinet on stand that I still own –– referred to as ‘baby monster’ because of its long legs, carved with pagan designs that always made it look like it could walk away if it wanted to!). Some pieces just speak to me… like the Knole sofa.
I have dreamed of owning a Knole sofa forever it seems, since the first time I laid eyes on a 19th century beauty with an 18th century tapestry back when I was still a teenager.
a 19th c. version of what I had in mind for myself with finials and cords from Lucy Johnson, Burford, England
I came close to getting one once, a real giant of a thing from an old Park Avenue palace –– but the realization that I could not get it into my 5th floor loft via the elevator-from-hell or the twisty stairs left only the odious crane option (discussed before vis-à-vis a giant AGA stove)… so, no sofa –– sigh.
I finally saw the holy grail of Knole sofas at Knole Castle a few weeks ago. Odd thing is, I could have sworn I’d seen ‘the original’ before –– in my brain it was a soft green and quite long. The surprise was that the real McCoy was tiny and red and the design was definitely a prototype of what was to come. The lovely finials and cords that I thought were original to the classic Knole sofa were a later addition –– but no matter –– here I was, feet away from the origin of my hearts desire. And I felt the love in so many ways.
Let’s be fair, there is so much more to Knole than the little red sofa, and I enjoyed every inch of the place. The house holds centuries of acquisitions but the happy circumstance of the 3rd Earl being the King’s chamberlain in the 17th century and a marriage to Frances Cranfield (Frances’ father Lionel, Earl of Middlesex had been treasurer to James the 1st) by the 5th Earl led to an enormous transfer of discarded royal furnishings. Many came from Copt Hall to Knole (Copt hall is now a beautiful ruin). The permission to take the royal goodies was a perk of the positions and many great pieces came as part of the deal. These fine core pieces give a strong spine and heart to the interior landscape of the place.
Knole by Derry Moore, 1985
Make no mistake, because of a family’s distinctive personality and evolution, Knole is one of the great houses of England. It’s not just about having pots of money. There is a spirit that you feel here, forged in the culture of the Tudors and the Renaissance that lives within the walls and animates the spaces. I love the confidence and the sense of quiet exuberance in the house’s decorations. The National Trust book on the house quotes Vita Sackville-West when she said that Knole “has a deep inward gaiety of some very old woman who has always been beautiful, who has had many lovers and seen many generations come and go…. It is above all, an English home…. It has the tone of England: it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky.” If I may say, Vita nailed it.
As those who visit here often know, this blog is as much about people, places, decoration and time as it is about food and they are wholly integrated in my mind. Culture informs the kitchen, doesn’t it? I’d like to think of history as part of the environment of the eating experience –– from food to plate to place to personality to time. Think of it as another kind of terroir… the ground from which the cuisine springs. Knole Palace is a great repository of history, art, architecture and furniture thanks to the remarkable Sackville family who has lived there for centuries and lives there still.
Thomas Sackville 1st Earl of Dorset (1536-1608)
Thomas Sackville leased Knole beginning in 1570, and purchased it in 1605. Sackville began making glorious improvements and additions to the dilapidated house using the finest royal craftsmen in 1604. The house was already hundreds of years old when Sackville’s renovations began. The estate was begun in the reign of King John (1166-1216), bought in 1456 by Cardinal Bourchier (the oldest remaining parts of the house are from his tenancy) and ran through a few famous owners including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I before it fell into Sackville’s hands. It has 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards–– for this reason it is called a calendar house. You really can’t conceive how big it is even when you are there.
Early 18th c view of Knole
1922 photograph from Vita Sackville-West’s book on the house Knole and the Sackvilles
even my wide angle lens can’t contain it!
There’s a lot to love about the house… beginning with the famous staircase and the notorious life-size statue of the 3rd Duke’s nude mistress Giovanna Baccelli at its base.
The staircase is a great favorite of mine. I am a huge fan of grisaille. I can imagine colorfully costumed guests and hosts being beautifully set off against the quiet grays and beiges as they descend the stairs –– even with the ebullient design of the paint patterns, the whimsical trompe-l’oeil stair railing echoing the real one –– it would provide an elegant background –– the architecture’s twists and turns are more visually arresting and idiosyncratic than a grand wide path that was soon to become the fashion for staircases. I love the reveals of the angles. Derry Moore captures the staircase beautifully (once again, I encourage you to buy his book, In House his photos are inspirational… you can glimpse them on his website ).
Giovanna Baccelli, the dancer/mistress of the 3rd Duke of Dorset 1949 Photograph
I do love the grand public rooms but here the bedrooms really captured my heart… quiet elegance and subtle tones … I was crazy about them.
In Orlando, Virginia Woolfe said of the Venetian ambassador’s bedroom “ The room… shone like a shell that has lain at the bottom of the sea for centuries and has been crusted over and painted a million tints by the water, it was rose and yellow, green and sand colored. It was frail as a shell, as iridescent and as empty.”
Lady Betty Germain’s Bedroom, late 17th c with a very important carpet of the same vintage – it was my favorite.
The Kings Room, 17th C. (the bed curtains once had a brilliant red lining that disintegrated and was lost – 13 years were spent restoring the rest of glorious fabric)
So, after all this, how did they eat?
The original dining room… now ballroom
The ‘family’ dining room, with the gorgeous mermaid frieze of masterful carvings by William Portington, has become the Ballroom but the Great Hall is a pretty spectacular venue for dining and had been used for large dinners since the house was built. It has seen banquets we can only imagine.
The Great Hall from 1920’s watercolor in Historic English Interiors
The Knole booklet, published by The National Trust, recounts directives for a 3 July, 1636 banquet:
“To perfume the room often in the meal with orange flower water upon a hot pan. To have fresh bowls in every corner and flowers tied upon them, and sweet briar, stock, gilly-flowers, pinks, wall-flowers and any other sweet flowers in glasses and pots in every window and chimney.”
The menu for the banquet involved 2 courses of 33 dishes each!
Knole’s banquet inspired me to go with a recipe from May’s Accomplisht Cook since May would have been active in the kitchen in 1636. I can imagine the Sackvilles and their guests loving May’s dishes and imagine further that something like them would have been served at that very banquet.
This is the last 17th century recipe I’m going to share for a while, but it’s a doozy – really does befit one the grandest houses in England. I’ve been eyeing the recipe for the pie crust called Paste Royale for sometime… I really wanted to know what it tasted like and finally took the plunge. Although it can be made with rosewater, I used my favorite rose from Aftelier. It also had ambergris and saffron…. it was divinely good… just by itself… even raw! It perfumes your mouth when you eat it. You can do it without the exotic ambergris, of course, but I wanted to try it with all the bells and whistles just this once. I encourage you to try it too. The meat is delicious with the delicate acidity of the verjus and the sweetness of reduced orange (although from what I understand, oranges of the day were not sweet). The saffron makes the crust nearly glow a warm gold … it is really a dish for a King … or at the least a Duke!
Steak Pies the French Way inspired by The Accomplisht Cook
½ pound filet mignon, NY strip or rib-eye—any well-marbled meat, cubed and partially frozen
½ t nutmeg
½ t salt
½ t pepper
½ pound ground lamb
¼ cup combination of parsley, marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme, hyssop, pennyroyal, marigold leaves chopped
2 T raisins
12 sage leaves
2 egg yolks or 1 egg
2 T cream
1/3 c bread crumbs
2 T suet, lard or butter
½ c verjuice
1 c orange juice, reduced to ½ c
Season steak with pepper nutmeg and salt and allow to rest
Add chopped parsley, marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme hyssop, pennyroyal, marigold leaves, raisins and egg yolks, cream, bread crumbs to the lamb and blend. Make into meat balls.
Brown the meat and then the meatballs.
Heat the oven to 375º
Cool and put them, put the beef back in the freezer for ½ an hour to keep the meat from overcooking and then put them both in the pie. Add the verjuice to the pan juices and pour over the meat in the pie.
Cover with crust lid. I tried to make the pie free standing and the butter crust didn’t have the stability of the suet crust I had used for chewetts. I recommend putting it into an 8” removable bottom pan to give support or put a role of foil around it in a larger round pan. You could fit the lid on the pie or do it as I have done leaving open spaces… you will need to pour the orange juice into the pie so however you do it you need to have large vents to pour the juice
Bake the pie for 45 minutes. Fry sage leaves in butter. Carefully remove the top (if it attached) and add the sage leaves and orange juice
1 ½ c white flour
½ c wholewheat flour
2 T ground almonds (put the saffron with the almonds to blend)
hefty pinch of saffron—rounded ¼ teaspoon?
1 t salt
2 t sugar
10 T butter, frozen
1/8 t cinnamon
pea sized piece ambergris, grated (optional) you can get it at Ambergris Co. NZ
2 drops Aftelier rose absolute or 2 t rosewater
¼ c cream
1 egg yolk
up to ¼ c water
Put the first ingredients in a food processor and pulse till roughly blended. Add the cream and egg yolk and pulse. Add enough water to make the mass come together (I like to do this with a fork, removing the blade… more control that way). Grab 8 or so fist fulls and place on well-floured parchment. Smear each one flat and stack. Press into a round and refrigerate for a few hours.
* Sadly, no photographs are allowed inside the house so I couldn’t chronicle the million gorgeous details that I saw that were lost in the big, overview photographs that I found – even if they were great photos. All the interior photos are from Knole literature, magazines or books.