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