Thursday, October 4, 2012

Penshurst Place, Tall Tales and Filet Otherways with Orange and Rose

I felt a throb of sympathetic connection with Elizabeth Warren this week when I heard what she said about undocumented family histories:

“When I was a little girl, I learned about my family's heritage the same way everyone else does -- from my parents and grandparents.

“My mother, grandmother, and aunts were open about my family's Native American heritage, and I never had any reason to doubt them.”

Most of what I knew about a quarter of my heritage came from a grade school memory and barely an hour spent with my grandfather –– making him uncomfortable with my cub-reporter questions. For decades the story seemed pretty nebulous.  How would I stand up to a grilling?

My grandfather was a classic reserved WASP –– he wasn’t warm and cuddly or a big talker and certainly didn’t talk about his family history( I was terribly fond of him). I vaguely knew that his family came from the East, that my great grandfather had been a judge (we still have a very cool old gavel), that my very feisty great-grandmother HATED the Midwest and shot Indians off the back porch and that my grandfather’s brother had been a sensitive artist who committed suicide.  His brother's painting of a melancholy, Dante-esque “dark wood where the straight way was lost” kind of forest hung in my grandparent’s living room as a constant reminder of his lost brother yet my grandfather wouldn’t speak of him (I never knew him as he died after WWI –– I can't help but think the family disconnect was because of the tragedy). I might never have known much more about that history if a teacher of mine (and DAR member) hadn’t assigned me to research my family and report about it.

To accomplish my assignment, I sat my grandfather down and took up my notebook and asked him about his family.  That afternoon I found out that I had a Revolutionary War General in my past as well as towns and counties and streets named after a few of my ancestors in Eastern cities (for years I didn’t remember what state – it was always “in the East”). There was also some vague relationship to a famous English family although we had been in America "forever".  I remember the teacher was terribly impressed.

This all stayed wrapped in tissue paper in my brain until after my grandfather had passed away.  I unwrapped a tiny memory of that history when I found a 1713 engraving of  Francisa Sidney (in most places spelled Frances) and sort of adopted her as a hero as she was a brave champion of learning (founding a college at Cambridge) and a brilliant, well-read woman in the style of Elizabeth I and Bess Hardwicke –– I was thrilled that there seemed to be an ancient connection, albeit a nebulous one. The engraving still sits above my desk.  

When my ex and I decided to get a house upstate, the door to my family history was finally flung full open as we toured around the ‘Southern Tier” looking for a place after a friend had gotten a house up there.  Suddenly I looked at a map and found those towns and streets with my family names and as I toured the area I even found statues honoring my Revolutionary War ancestor.

It was great fun discovering my heritage on the hoof.  When my parents died 3 years ago, I came across a fragile document, written in a fine, feathery 19th century hand detailing and verifying most of what I remembered of my family tree.  Eureka.

Still, there was one piece of the puzzle that was hanging like a bad participle.  What about the Sidney connection? 

Penshurst Place 1907

For years I tried to visit Penshurst Place, the ancestral home of the Sidney family.  Every time I was in England SOMETHING happened to keep me from going till last year.  I finally got to walk the hallowed Sidney halls but also found out the sad truth.  My ancestor wasn’t a titled Sidney that had run away to America for love or to find adventure –– well at least not one from the right side of the blanket.  Most likely it was a servant who had appropriated the name when he started a new life in a new country or a poor distant relation of the illustrious family (a few Sidneys came to the New World in the mid-17th century, landing in Virginia but not from the Penshurst Place branch of the family that I could see). Maybe I waited so long to find this out because I was fond of the myth. 

My youthful daydream of hobnobbing with the Sidney family was not to be.  I had based this hope on the experience of a friend with a very unusual and ancient English name who had mentioned it to the docent on the house tour when she visited England for the first time. This wasn’t a cozy cottage, by the way –– it was one of the great stately homes of England.  The docent had her wait when the tour was over, disappeared for a while and on her return, offered my friend an invitation to tea with the family in the private quarters.  She got to see amazing things, found the ancestor who had left England to go to America on the family tree and was treated like, well, a long lost relative.

My dreams on that front were slightly battered but not completely broken  –– it’s a cool family with amazing history and I got to see a fabulous house that I had been wanting to see forever. 

I was much saddened that photographs were not allowed in the house. It’s great to have professional photos of houses to look at, but my eyes follow their own paths and some things that I find fascinating are not visible in large photos.  I’m sure many of you feel the same way when you tour houses.  I did get a few splendid snaps of the exterior.  It was a perfect day, all in all.


Flag Garden

Idyllic views abound

Sidney symbol, the Porcupine – a modern creation

My favorite place inside the house is the most ancient and one of finest examples of 14th-century architecture extant.  Although many great halls had fire pits in the center of the room, the great hall at Penshurst Place still has its pit and uses it for special occasions (well ventilated, I hope – the original opening in the roof was capped centuries ago).

The pair of 20’ trestle tables are original to the room and the oldest tables of that type known to exist.  I tried to find a close-up of the tables but could not… just the texture of the wood of the table top is a work of art.  Originally the servants sat at these tables and the lords of the manor sat at a table set on the dais at the end of the hall.

Most of the lovely interior photos are by Will Pryce from Country Life , some are taken from a book  that I got at Penshurst. The exterior photos are mine.

The Baron’s Hall (CL)

1915 Photograph of The Baron’s Hall

The hall is 62’ x 49’ and rises to a dizzying 60 feet covered by a magnificent chestnut ceiling with life-sized figures of peasants and workers decorating the braces.



Penshurst Book

Although something had been on the site since at least the 12th century, the bones of the house we see now was built in 1341 by Sir John de Pulteney ) and thought to have been built by the architect and carpenter of King Edward III   (William de Ramsey III and William Hurley), not a surprise since t he relationship with the king was strong –– he was beholden to the terribly rich Pulteney who had shared his wealth with the crown when needed. 

Lots of crenelation

That same year a license was issued to crenelate the house – more for show than for defense. Crenelations are those square notched ‘teeth’ on the top of walls ( I love crenelation –– the word and the technique).  Back in the day you had to ask permission from the crown to add defense-enabling details to your house. 

Curtain walls and turrets were added by the new occupant, John Devereux as a true defense measure (to protect against peasant revolts and foreign invasions) in 1380.

After Devereux, the house was passed on to John, Duke of Bedford then to the Duke of Gloucester then the Duke of Buckingham  who hosted a bash to end all bashes for Henry VIII in 1519, spending an astonishing £2,500 (£1.2 million in todays money) on the event.  That didn’t do him much good.  Henry saw him as a threat and had “proud Buckingham” beheaded in 1521.

The Sidney family took over the estate in 1552 thanks to a grant by Edward VI  (1537-53)  – a gift to his tutor, William Sidney (it was said that Edward died in the arms of William’s son Henry who had been Edward’s constant companion). It has remained in the family for 450 years with new additions through the centuries.

Penshurst Book

The Queen Elizabeth Room –another favorite of mine (Penshurst Book)

The fabulous furniture of the Queen Elizabeth Room – the Queen held court there when she was at the house.


I love this

Upper Long Gallery built in 1601(cl)

Neo Jacobean library in President’s Tower (CL)

The Tapestry Room (CL)

Vaulted Octagon and ground floor corridor (CL)

The Paneled Room in the base of a tower by the Baron’s Hall with a magnificent bed (Penshurst Book)

The Page’s Room  —a 19th century concept to show off the family’s 17th and 18th century porcelain collection (CL)

The remarkable family china on display in the Solar/Dining Room (Penshurst Book)

The Solar/State Dining Room  -- the withdrawing room of the Medieval house

With a history as long as this one, my path was wide open for a dish to share with you that might have been served at Penshurst Place. For me, choosing food to suit a place is like choosing elements for a movie set … you use your imagination to make a connection to the place and the time and the characters (after tons of research).  What could I imagine being eaten at that table?

Here, I see myself walking through the time of the 2nd Earl of Leister in the mid 16th Century when I offer up a stunning preparation for filet mignon (although it would work with any good steak).  The recipe comes under the heading “To Roast a Fillet of Beef” and follows as the second method…  titled “Otherways” Not a sterling heading but what a dish.

Before there were tomatoes for barbeque style sauces there were ‘otherways’ to get the sweet and sour flavor that we crave with meat.  In the mid-17th century, in his brilliant cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook (1660) chef Robert May (I wrote about him HERE used flavored vinegars for the punch… but they were refined, floral vinegars that are easy to copy today.  The result is a delicious filet –– this is seriously sexy beef with the dark sorcery of subtle perfume to the elegant sauce.  Although I didn’t grill it, it would be delicious done that way, basted in butter with a drip pan.  A little smoked salt adds that flavor to the meat.  A second preparation titled equally inauspiciously “or thus” had the filet stuffed with herbs, beets and ‘spinage’ and I decided to serve my beautiful filet on a bed of them instead of using it to stuff the meat.  I used individual filets but a large roast of the whole filet was the way it was originally done.  All in all, a dish fit for meal at Penshurst Place.

To Roast a Filet of Beef “otherways” from the Accomplisht Cook

2 filets of beef
1 T rose-vinegar *
¼ c red wine
1 T elder-vinegar, strained **
pinch of cloves, nutmeg cinnamon, ginger, coriander, fennel seed
Smoked Salt and Pepper to taste

3 T butter
juice of orange ( if you use lemon the sauce will be very sour… I liked orange best)

2 Beets, sliced
1- 2 cups cooked spinach as you would like
loose herbs, strewn artfully (parsley, thyme, savory, marjoram)

Marinate the filets for an hour in the vinegars, wine and spices with salt and pepper.

Heat a skillet till hot (cast iron is good).  Add 1T butter and the steaks and sear, browning well on all sides (I turn them with a tongs – depending on the thickness of the filet, you may want to do the sides as well as top and bottom if they are quite thick).  I cooked mine RARE so when it was browned it was done. Leave it in the pan a little longer for Medium – sautéing more than searing. 

When they are done, remove them to a warmed plate and cover lightly.  Add the rest of the butter and the orange juice and strained marinade to taste (if you want texture and a stronger flavor, don’t strain).  Reduce a little and pour over the steaks on a bed of beets and spinach.

*Rose Vinegar
½ cup white wine vinegar
1-2 t rosewater or 1 drop Aftelier rose essence (available HERE)

½ c white wine vinegar
1 t elderflower tea or one tea bag*

Steep the elderflowers in vinegar for a few hours.  I just left mine in and strained it when I needed to use it

Elderflower tea is available at health food stores… make sure you get only elderflowers and not tea with elderflowers – elderflowers are delicious and good for you.  I tried making it using fresh elderflowers but frankly liked the tea version better.

Both vinegars are delicious on salads… especially fruit salads.  I can't recommend Aftelier's Rose enough... it makes everything better.  You really should add her products (there are many HERE like bergamot, jasmine and lemongrass -- all the real deal) to your cooking arsenal... REALLY!!


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Deana:
What an intriguing labyrinth of detail family ancestry is and you do sound to have had great fun in tracing yours. Such a pity, however, that a titled connection to Penshurst Place was not forthcoming. It is a wonderful house and it would certainly have made great dinner party gossip to talk of one's connection to it.

As a complete aside, we are the only Hattatts remaining in the UK. We have to admit to being rather lax in tracing our ancestral lineage, only knowing of several Hattatts being buried in the church in Broughton, Hampshire. However, having read your account, perhaps we should now look into it all more closely....who knows what one may find?

Diane said...

Mmmm that filet of beef sounds good to me.

It is great fun tracing the family tree but I have now had enough! I have taken Nigel's back to the early 1700's and my father's line back to the 1500's. Also did my mother's line back to 1701. Sadly nobody of any great importance as far as I can see and many of them were farmers and paupers!! It was interesting while the enthusiasm lasted.

Have a good day Diane

pam said...

Fascinating as always. I think I'm going to make some rose vinegar.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

yes -love smoked salt on meats!
Such a pity your family wasn't from there but what a house and what a history! I think your photographs are just as good as the ones from country life - your photographs constantly astond me!

La Table De Nana said...

The Rose Vinegar definitely appeals to me also:) What a luscious plating of beef..the beets are so beautiful too.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What an interesting story about your family history, Deana! I started reading last night but I do need to come here with a fresh mind to digest it all :) I'm glad I did.

A beautiful filet recipe! I love beef with spinach and beets and the marinade sounds delicious.

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

What a fascinating story - I love how you tracked every lead to put the bigger narrative together. The beef dish is a perfect symbol of a rich family story.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Good morning my dear Deana!

WELL.....this is making a connection with me. Around our humble family table, I remember hearing great stories of my father's ancestors from Spain and the possible connection to KING PELAYO of Asturias. My mother could also boast a direct connection to the Bourbonnes...yes! We have a photo of her father, my grandfather, in the arms of a Bourbonne (spelling, sorry) prince. Who he was in relation to my family, is questionable...maybe an uncle. But all of this was shared at the dinner table and tales of family gatherings as well are melded into my memory. MY GOODNESS what a hall of history you share with us, and that killer recipe! This is the season to start cooking again, for this summer was more salads and cool soups.

Thank you so much for coming by to comment on my art. It is fun, I don't know how long this season will last that I can actually stay home and make it,but I do intend on preparing my studio to take photos and SEND THEM INTO publications. OH YES. I intend to do so. But this whole adventure is like a good stew; it takes TIME to season and develop.


Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

I too found that oral histories get very confused over time - particularly when there is something that someone wishes to hide . . .

Still its a great springboard for the post and the house tour - which is lovely!

I love the look and the sound of the filet and pointed it out to my hubby who likes to cook from this period and before (his favorite book is Hugh Plat's delights for ladies).

The elderflower vinegar sounds wonderful and I'm looking forward to that as well - thanks for the inspiration!

mandy said...

This recipe looks incredibly tasty Deana, I appreciate such a creative use of my Rose essence! I love the rich history and gorgeous images in your work, and such wonderful personal historical connections!
xo Mandy

Not Quite Nigella said...

That was an amazing read and that house is incredible. I can't believe that Queen Elizabeth held court there. I'd love to know more about my family history :) And that beef with the vinegars? Divine!

Barbara said...

A remarkable post on your family background and Penshurst Place.
My MIL got me interested in geneology as someone in her family researched officially and did the entire family and traced them back to their their roots. (I always promised Tracy I would get her in the DAR as I have proof, but it was complicated at the time, maybe still is, and I never got around to it.)
I tried to do it with my side of the family. Got pretty far with my dad's side, but lost my mother's father's side in Canada. It was fun, but time-consuming.
Love the story and the recipe.

(Packing is a nightmare, as you can imagine.)

Marjie said...

I see you designed your recipe for my carnivores - rare filet. Sounds excellent.

Was your family from Broome County? We owned property there, sold a few years back, and it's really gone downhill since the recession. I know a town with your name on it. It's nice that you've found such great information confirming the stories you remember from your childhood. I had a couple of Revolutionary War soldiers in my background, too. It does make you stand a little taller, doesn't it?

Lora said...

What a great post. Family histories are amazing with their twists and turns. Love the vinegars. Must. Try.