Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dennis Sever’s House, London and Victorian Apple Fritters with Caramel Ice Cream

Living Room of the Dennis Sever’s House, London, James Brittain photo
The Presidential election is still weeks away and I am drowning in political posturing and unpleasantness.  Honestly, I am sick to death of the tenor of the discourse and wish the candidates, their campaigns and the media would act with some grace and dignity so it wouldn’t feel like I’m watching a feeding frenzy in the piranha pool 24/7. 

When I get sick to death of the world, my imagination looks for an escape and mine came as if by magic when I found a handwritten yellow post-it that a lovely British producer had given me a few months ago.  It had 3 words ––  “Dennis Sever’s House”.  As she wrote she asked if I knew of it and said it was right up my alley –– it certainly was. This was the second time Sever’s House had knocked at my door and the time was right for sharing it with you.  Dennis Sever’s House  is a cure for the gashlycrumb times if ever there was one.

Dennis Severs was born in California, but as a child he had a vision; "Down deep I always believed that one day I would travel past picture frames and into the marinated glow of a warmer, more mellow and more romantic light. There was one such light in particular, one that I saw in the combination of old varnish and paint, and that appealed to me as my ideal. By the age of 11, it was identified as English."

Photos from the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life 1977

Severs moved to England in 1967 after he graduated from High School and began his immersion into the Victorian lifestyle by buying himself a landau and a much loved horse named Meklenburgh to drive lucky folks around London.  This lasted until his stable was bought out to make way for new construction.  Undaunted he bought the house on Folgate Street in Spitalfields  and never looked back.

A wonderful 1999 obituary in the Guardian quoted Severs saying he didn’t just want to renovate the Spitalfields house but wanted “to bring it to life as my home. With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house's 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room's soul.

"Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time."

I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in Mr. Severs when I read in the Guardian article that Severs  “… felt able to summon up past eras not through history books, but through empathy with objects and places, to tell a fictional, true story "aimed at those who want to make sense of the whole picture of being alive".

Photos from James Brittain

The result?  A historian said a walk through the door began  "a magical mystery tour which dazzles the visitor with a succession of scenes more crowded with memorable incident than the mere facsimile of what passes in the museums as a period room". Painter David Hockney described the house as one of the world's greatest works of opera.

The motto of the house is Aut Visum Aut Non (You either see it or you don't).

18 Folgate Street was a decayed 1724 terrace house when Severs found it in a rather notorious part of East London known for Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd.  Spitalfields (short for hospital fields) had a short renaissance in the 18th century with an influx of the silk trade to the neighborhood – this where all these great houses were built (the area had had its ups and downs for hundreds of years, Christopher Marlowe had lived there in the 16th century).  When the silk trade waned, the neighborhood became notorious for filth, poverty, debauchery and crime.  Part of Spitalfields was leveled after the Jack the Ripper affair in an attempt to clean the suppurating wound it had become.  It really didn’t help. The plague of poverty continued till recently when again a renaissance has taken over the neighborhood.

Slowly but surely and with enormous creativity and passion, Severs built up the rooms of his house.

Photos from The Gentle Author of Spitalfield's Life
I had forgotten that I had seen bits of the house before in an amazing blog called Spitalfield’s Life  that wrote about and showed the tile work in the house that had been done by the late Simon Pettets.  The tiles looked ancient but were newly made and full of whimsy since they captured the local personalities of the neighborhood, often anachronistically.  When I read this blog I sent links to a million friends because I thought it was so wonderful –– friends sent it out to other friends and I actually got notes from people I didn’t know to thank me for sharing it!  That’s the magic of Dennis Severs house.  I discovered the tiles are only a part of the story when I went to their website and read articles about the place.  

This is the same passion for the drama of place that gave us the screamingly innovative Sleep No More version of Macbeth –– an interactive play performed in a decoratively nuanced, multi-roomed space in which the audience walks through the rooms to take part in the scenes instead of sitting in a seat –– it was a huge hit because the audience became one with the story.  Dennis Severs House draws you in in much the same way.  I think we all want to step through the looking glass every once in a while.

To share his delight in his home with others Severs opened his treasure to the public and even invented a family to occupy it to make people feel the experience more profoundly as they related to the “inhabitants’ within their home.  Although never seen, the Jervis family of silk merchants seem as if they just left the room one enters, their perfume lingers in the air and the food on the table is still warm and fragrant.  Tasks have just been finished or are in the midst of being accomplished.

The house charts the trajectory of the inhabitants from the well-polished and provisioned golden days of the 18th century to the grim lives of poor attic tenants in the mid-19th century ––  complete with dust, ragged clothes, broken crockery, holes in the ceiling and a note explaining the family has gone to William IV’s 1837 funeral accompanied by the faint sound of church bells ringing (there is a delicate soundtrack to the house –– silent viewing is encouraged that you may hear it).  There is a fire in the kitchen and food and flowers on the table, there are scents and sounds in the house. Windows are closed to the outside world and candles and fireplaces provide light so the magic of being transported to the past is preserved.

GoLondon explained,  “It is difficult to describe but you do feel you are in a different time inside the House. There are ten rooms to explore and each looks like a real home, with full domestic trappings. You need to be willing to meet it halfway as a visit here is about using all of your senses and discovering for yourself. No one tells you which room you are in but you need to look around and work out who lives there. It's dark inside - remember it is only lit by candlelight - but there are plenty of clues to help you find out more about the family.”

Photos from James Brittain

Since the house uses food to help tell the story of the Jervis family, I thought I would offer a recently discovered dish that might have been served there. 

When I wrote about Edith Wharton, I enjoyed reading her mother’s favorite Francatelli cookbook and found some gorgeous recipes.  Francatelli learned to cook with no less than Carême in France, was Queen Victoria’s chef, cooked at the legendary Reform Club kitchen and wrote some fine cookbooks (I’ll write more about him soon). 

A recipe caught my eye because it was so unusual and sounded amazing.  It was a fritter batter with ale and orange liqueur coating apples marinated in cognac and orange rind and it sounded divine and perfect for apple dunking.  I served it with my new favorite ice cream recipe (that I have made many, many times since I first shared it with you as a layer of an ice cream bombe HERE–– I am crazy about this ice cream) but they would be great with cheese or even as a side to a pork roast. The fritters are  boozy, wonderfully so.  You will love snacking on them.  Although best hot, they are good at room temperature.  I couldn’t help but rename them tipsy fritters because when they are fresh they pack quite an alcoholic punch.

Tipsy Apple Fritters

1 large crisp apple (like Granny Smith), sliced, cored and peeled ( I had about 16 pieces)
2 oz brandy
2 T sugar
rind of 1 orange, grated


1 c flour, sifted
2 1/2 to 3 T curacao or grand marnier or triple sec (to your taste)
pinch of salt
1 oz melted butter
1/3 c bitter ale
1 egg white, beaten till stiff

oil or lard for deep frying.
Powder sugar or sanding sugar for dusting

Take the sliced apples and marinate them for a few hours in the brandy, sugar and orange rind, stirring occasionally.

Combine the flour, grand marnier, salt, butter and ale.  Stir well to combine.   Fold the egg white into the batter.

Dry the apple slices* and then dunk the apple pieces into the batter one by one and put into the oil (2 forks seem to work best for this –– drip off as much batter as possible while keeping them covered, this takes a few practice pieces but then it goes fairly easily).  Fry till crisp and golden and put on paper towels.  Sprinkle with sugar and serve with caramel ice cream.

PS I made my first batch with more Grand Marnier and in lard and the second batch with less liqueur and in oil... both were great.  The lard version was gutsier.

*If you don't dry the apples they are boozier and make wild creatures since the batter slips and slides on them

Caramel Benedictine Ice Cream  (with a little help from Epicurious)

1 ¼ c sugar
2 ¼ c heavy cream
½ to 1 t flaky sea salt
½ t vanilla
1 c whole milk
3 large eggs.
1-2 T Benedictine

Heat 1 c sugar in skillet, stirring till it melts.  Then stop and let it turn to dark amber… do not overcook, it turns quickly.  If you are using a cast iron skillet it will retain heat.  Add  1 ¼ c cream slowly, stirring.  Add the salt and vanilla.

Bring milk, the rest of the cream and ¼ cup sugar just to a boil. Whisk eggs and pour the hot milk in a stream.  Pour back into a saucepan and heat to 170º over low heat.  Strain.  Add to cooled caramel and Benedictine and chill 3 hours. Put in an ice cream maker… it will still be a soft ice cream.

This time I cooked the caramel a bit less than usual.  I liked the darker one better... slightly bitter, but that is up to you.

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pam said...

Oh my gosh, I would so love to visit that house! How amazingly wonderful! And speaking of amazingly wonderful - your apple fritters sound so too!!

Anonymous said...

Ice cream was definitely something that was missing in Jr's apple fritters LOL We should have done a matcha one for the Japanese fusion but it was a total last minute thing literally last night :) Your tipsy apple fritters sound amazing! I can't wait to show the post to Jr. tonight!

Faith said...

What a spectacular house! I love how he slept in each room to truly discover the room's soul...I wonder if the inspiration for each room came to him as a dream.

The apple fritters are gorgeous! This is just the sort of thing I crave on a crisp fall day. :)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

What an incredible house. I love places like this where you can immerse yourself in the history and the "spirits" of the house. And what a wonderful sense of theater, to create a story within this house. While somewhat different, I had a similar experience at a house in Charleston, South Carolina, which hasn't been touched since the Civil War. You could just sense the history at play.

Marjie said...

The house pictures remind me of a series I just watched through Netflix: Berkeley Square, about 3 families and their nannies in London at about that time. The houses remind me of Dennis' house. (It was a nice escape from the political BS we're drowning in these days). Your ice cream sounds great, but I think I should keep the boozy apple fritters from the little boys.

La Table De Nana said...

So YOU:-) I would have never known of him without you...your photos are perfectly edible..:-) that ice cream...:-)

Barbara said...

That house is right up my alley. And yes, what a perfect way to slip through the looking glass to escape. Imagination can go wild and what fun it would be.
I'm smiling about your fritters because I had decided to make pumpkin fritters for the Garden Club meeting here next month. But while boozy apple fritters are out of the question for a morning coffee, I'm sure going to make these this fall.
Love those tiles!!

Fresh Local and Best said...

I'm debating which one sounds more amazing the fritters or the ice cream. It's a good thing that you don't have to choose between the two.

That house is opulence personified.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Oh what an incredible man and such gentle, observant and sensitive dedication he had! Thank you for taking us to his house, I'd love to visit one day. As for this dessert, I have a weakness for fritters-absolutely! :) said...

I so enjoyed the post. I always look forward to seeing them. I would be all over this dish.

Joan Nova said...

Boozy fritters and caramel ice cream sounds like a dessert I'd splurge the calories for. Nice entry for the challenge.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I too can't wait for election season to be OVER with. I'm sick of it all!
I've always wanted to visit this charming house after seeing it talked about for some time now -just the environment created is a work of art.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Love your writing, Deana! I think you could find yourself quite happy in England's past also :) Gashlycrumb times - wonderful and so true!

This is a such a delicious dessert and so perfect for the season. I have to try to make this -boozy apples and all!

Linda said...

Deana...what a lovely post! Oh my.... the apple fritters and ice cream look amazing. Of course as always...i adore that plate!

Julia @ said...

Your historical photos are amazing! So are the fritters that got my attention at FoodGawker.

Chris Lawson said...

A quite brilliant post, Deana. Thank you!

Ashley said...

As a history buff I would LOVE to stay at that house ;) And those fritters look so good!!

Lori Lynn said...

Hi Deana ~ I glanced at your beautiful post earlier, but came back now, having more time to ponder and savor...
1. I vote for the boozy wild fritters!
2. Do you plan to visit? I would absolutely love to.
3. You rocked the makeover like no other.
4. Your food photos GLOW!

Sarah said...

The caramel ice cream pulled me in! Oh my it is so decadent. I love that recipe for fruit fritters. Great idea to add the curacao. I will have to try this recipe.

Evelyne CulturEatz said...

This house sounds like a magical and mystical place....with a hint of wonderful madness. I am so intrigued and would love to visit. Living museums, if you will, are my favorites. And you fritters fit perfectly with the spirit of this place. So intriguing and libatous sweet treat.

Ken Albala said...

What an incredible place. I've never heard of it. Next time I'm in England, a must. LOVE Francatelli too! K

Tasty Trix said...

Wow. Just wow. I really really want to visit this house! I think I could get lost in there for hours ... or days. Thank you for writing about this, because I didn't know about it. And of course I love your tipsy fritters!

Diane said...

What a beautiful house, thanks for all the info about it.
I am hooked on the idea of Caramel Benedictine Ice Cream, wow that sounds good :-) Take care Diane

Lazaro Cooks said...

You are the real deal my friend. This is truly apple goodness. Of course you had me at tipsy...=)

El said...

Of course I love this- you made dessert. I'd love to eat it in that big velvet bed!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

YIKES.....this recipe is fabulous Deana, I remember this ice cream recipe and OH is it ever a must-make for me. I had been making MANGO and VANILLA ice cream this summer. You would have been proud of me!

I AGREE WITH YOU ABOUT ALL THIS CAMPAIGNING CRAP! Excuse me! But that is what it is....I say, let's get on with some fun and creative thinking and I love turning back the pages of history to see what people were valuing in these days that you usher us into. Food, FASHION, TASTE and a bit more dignity is what I think many people had on their minds. No one or no era was ever or will be perfect, but at least life looked a lot more pleasant in these days.

I just wish that the things like simple, organic and natural foods were more MARKETABLE. That goes for ART as well.....but in these times, people settle for the cheap and empty foods to feed their appetites. You at least bring back important recipes that show us what people had, how they used it, what it all meant and most of all, WHAT THEY VALUED. Thank you.

AND thank you for visiting me.....I don't know if you know it or not, but I resigned from my teaching position last April, finishing up the school year in June. I am now signed up as a French substitute teacher, which is a well-needed commodity in my district. I am trying to make a go at selling my art. However, it is so discouraging out there to find that starving artists have to spend money they do not have to advertise, travel to shows and also, long gone are the days you as an artist could just ask a local merchant to sell your know you know the scene....gotta give them your web link, they look at photos of your stuff, then they give you the schpiel that they have buyers that go to shows to buy the goods.....THE paper moon is crumbling, and that is what my post was about.

YES! I saw Hugo and I LOVE that innocent attempt at making film...and that goes perfectly with my thoughts on my post....I entered in naively as a child, I have come out a bit wiser, but you know what?

I do believe in paper moons.

LOVE! Anita

angela@spinachtiger said...

A great combination. Caramel and apples, classic, but in keeping with your point of view.