John Fothergill (1876 – 1957) by Augustus John in 1906 1939 photograph
I am exceedingly fond of eccentrics. The word eccentric is a Middle English word according to the dictionary. It comes from Medieval Latin eccentricus, which is from the Greek ekkentros (ex out of + kentron center). Synonyms are "bizarre, bizarro, cranky, crazy, curious, odd, erratic, far-out, funky, funny, kinky, kooky (also kookie), offbeat, off-kilter, off-the-wall, outlandish, out-of-the-way, outré, peculiar, quaint, queer, queerish, quirky, remarkable, rum [chiefly British], screwy, spaced-out, strange, wacky (also whacky), way-out, weird, weirdo, wild".
It’s probably a good thing that I feel this way about the type because, let’s face it, I’ve been a bit eccentric most of my life and am ripening comfortably into a full-blown example as I mature. Not the 50-cats-in-a-studio-apartment variety but rather the distinctive style version of Eccentricus-maximus –– more quirky than wearing-a-shroud-to-the-drugstore bizarre.
Self-portrait of Charles Paget Wade
I shared Charles Wade and his idiosyncratically curated Snowshill Manor with you last year and was surprised at the interest he generated. Those who see the world through rather different lenses fascinate the 'centrics' of the world.
This year, I have another gentleman to introduce you to, he’s another delectable original -- probably the first English gentleman innkeeper by choice and not inheritance.
John Fothergill was a legend and his search for perfection in the food and ambience of his hotel, the Spread Eagle in Thame, England was captured in his 1931 book, An Innkeeper's Diary. Unlike Wade, Mr. Fothergill loved food, not just decoration.
Nothing in Fothergill’s background led him to become an Innkeeper – not even close. John Fothergill was born in 1876 to a prosperous family that had been around since a Norman Baron named George Fothergill was granted land by William the Conqueror.
He was a brilliant man with creditable bona fides in multiple fields. He ran a gallery at Oxford, wrote about drawing for the Encyclopedia and chummed around with leading artists and writers of the day like Augustus John and Walter Sickert as well as Oscar Wilde before and after prison. He was also something of an expert on archaeology having spent many years on digs in Greece with E.P. Warren (who held an idealized view of homosexual relationships as seen in the infamous Warren Cup) as well as being the author of a respected translation of Emanuel Löwy’s The Rendering of Nature in Greek Art (Die Naturwiedergabe in der älteren griechischen Kunst).
The Spread Eagle in the 1920s
Apparently he was good at everything he did but was never satisfied enough to stay at one thing for very long. At the ripe old age of 46, he said, “ I found that I must do something for a living, so I was counseled to take an inn.” In Who’s Who he described himself as ‘Pioneer Amateur Innkeeper’. Hilary Rubenstein, author of The Good Hotel Guide, observed in his introduction to An Innkeeper's Diary that today half the small innkeepers in Britain have escaped from other fields. I have stayed in many inns run by such fugitives of the high-pressure grind in my time and must say, former TV executives and lawyers make excellent innkeepers and are gracious hosts who take a very personal interest in the care of their guests. Many see it as very natural second chapters in their lives.
To explain his own curious path, Fothergill thought destiny played a part, “To explain the success or failure of people I have always thought that each man is his own clairvoyant: foreseeing his future, whether a success, muddle or failure, he makes for it with no digression. In my own case, in this Inn, for instance, I can look back on certain wise decisions taken or things done (even the very taking of it) that are now so in harmony with the present state of the place, which since I had no materials or experience to go upon, must have been a consistent series of flukes unless explained by clairvoyance.” It was as if all the things he had done and people he had known gave him the skills to be brilliant at creating a marvelous place. He felt that as an innkeeper, “... I might still be myself and give to others something of what I had acquired before making this clean-cut departure from the past.”
He was justly proud of what he had created, and its word of mouth success, “It may be vanity or pride that presents decent people shouting out their wares, or it may be merely confidence in the good wine and bush adage, or it may be that one is primarily and always preoccupied with doing the thing and having no time or mood to advertise it. Finally, with regards to advertising, I feel that each decent person who comes here feels more or less, or ought to feel, that it is his own discovery or property, and that for him to see it publicly advertised would be to put him off and me seem disloyal to him.” He saw The Spread Eagle as a delicious secret to be shared among those who could see its charms, not the general public. He REALLY didn’t care for the general public.
The famous sign painted by Dora Carrington.
Because of that, Fothergill had an extremely idiosyncratic idea of what being a host entailed – he could be perfectly beastly to people he felt weren’t right for his establishment. An article in Vanity Fair explained, “John Fothergill, the celebrated landlord of the Spread Eagle Inn in the Oxfordshire town of Thame (pronounced “Tame”), would sometimes add an unspecified charge of a few pounds to the bill. If any of his guests queried it, they would be gruffly told that it was “Face Money.”
The event that precipitated this custom was a Sunday tea for 39. Here Fothergill moaned, “I noticed they were almost all ill-shaped, ugly or ill-dressed. I came into the office and complained at having to work for such people at 1s. 2d. a head. Charles Neilson said, “That’s easy – put up a notice, ‘Buy our masks at 1s. each or pay 6d. extra.’ So I went in and told Phyllis to charge 6d. face-money each for the worst cases. Thus for the first time in history seven people without knowing have left an inn having paid 6d. each for not being beautiful. Surely this was a more praiseworthy action than the usual one of charging people extra because they are beautiful, well bred and dressed?”
Although the Spread Eagle barely broke even because of his terribly high standards and habit of tossing away customers and organizations that would have improved his bank balance, he was terribly successful at creating a sort of private club of people who came together like ingredients for a great dish or notes for a piece of music. It’s doubtful anyone had done this before. He orchestrated his clientele to create a harmony that benefited those lucky enough to be part of the composition. It brought joy to the cook-composer-personality director as well.
“I said that hotels like this, the Beetle and Wedge, Philip Sainsbury’s, and perhaps others and mine had no competitors or comparisons, simply because they are expressions of different individualities and, as such, are not for universal appreciation. This Inn, fourteen crooked miles from a town, has been created in four years out of none of those factors that are the making of hotels that otherwise could never have existed for a day, not golf no shooting, hunting, riverside, seaside, climate, landscape, main road, nor jazz and cocktails - I have used only food, wine, furniture and people with which to express myself in the language of Innkeeping.”
Fothergill wasn’t just a snob or the place wouldn’t have been so loved –– he was terribly witty and charming when the spirit moved him. Those he liked he treated splendidly in many ways –– and not just because they had money or power. A poor spinster with lovely manners would be treated beautifully, a boorish plutocrat with a grand car would be ignored. Great manners were held in very high regard. Many of the wonderful minds of the day were huge fans of the place –– writers, scholars and artists as well as theater folk flocked to be fed and tended to (it was very close to Oxford after all). When they were well behaved they, as well as bright students from the colleges, would be welcomed.
Note to a friend by Waugh on Spread Eagle note paper.
Many people 'got it'. John Gielgud said there was, “… no hotel in England that approached this within measurable distance”. Evelyn Waugh inscribed a copy of his Decline and Fall to ‘Oxford’s only civilizing influence’ when he gave it to Fothergill.
The Inn was even immortalized in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh had Anthony Blanche take Charles Ryder to dinner where they had Spread Eagle’s famous Mavrodaphne Trifle, “We are going to Thame.... There is a delightful hotel there, which luckily doesn’t appeal to the Bullingdon [a play on the name of a raucous club at Oxford].”
It wasn't just good manners, a slightly starchy moral code was followed as well. Fothergill was very strict about youthful dalliances –– they were not allowed. In fact if a lad came in with a lower-class lass just for a drink and a meal let alone a room, he was encouraged to take his trade elsewhere; he was not tolerant of older, un-married couple's galavanting either (he did turn a blind eye to some unconventional relationships, H.G. Welles and Rebecca West were allowed to stay without reproach from management). Fothergill had strict standards and keeping true to them is what made Spread Eagle special.
It wasn’t just people and food, Fothergill also cared deeply about the way the Inn looked and felt and even how it was scented (he used “dried rosemary, lavender and the pine needles of last year’s Christmas tree”). The quality of the furnishings and tableware for an Inn was astonishing. He emptied the furniture and crockery that had come with the Inn (he was grossly overcharged £1400 for them as part of buying the place – he only got £85 for the lot when he sold them at auction), and replaced the junk with high quality antiques. In describing an Oxford luncheon he gave a sketch of the fine old decorations, “We had them in the little dining-room on the big round Regency table with a strip of rosewood and brass inlay near the edge…. They had green handled and silver pistol-handled knives and forks with prongs four, three and even two. … They ate on a Pinkston Bourbon sprig service with a few courses on Ming plates and Crown Derby. The Provost had coffee for himself and neighbours in a services of early Ginori on a superb boat-shaped brass bound gallery tray; the others had a Queen Anne coffee-pot and old Worcester.” Can you imagine such dinnerware at an inn?
Room #7, which saw H.G. Wells and Rebecca West as occupants in 1927
Tall people were much loved and even merited a measuring wall that chronicled extraordinary heights. Here they were marked for posterity and the tallest was rewarded after years of measuring (a Lt. Huxham was the winner at 6’11 and 3-16ths).
What type of person was not encouraged to visit aside from youths of easy virtue? Members of commercial trade and their too familiar handshaking custom and pretty much any organization or group that arrived in the much loathed ‘charabanc’ (an early bus) was not welcome and for good reason. The charabanc belched out ill-behaved louts who drank too much, spent too little and ruined the atmosphere of the Spread Eagle (their custom was a holdover from the previous owners).
Another bête noire for Fothergill was the stranger who came to use the loo and didn’t thank anyone for the use of it. It truly steamed Fothergill, “If a stranger uses the telephone and the w.c., then looks around the garden and asks to be shown the dining room because he’s heard that it’s see-worthy, and then out of kindness or patronizingly orders a drink at the market price and sits with it before your fire for 1 ½ hours till his bus comes (his sole purpose in coming at all), and has said neither ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ he has paid nothing for those other things and amenities which cost the owner money and labour. They can only be paid for by charm of manner as they would in a private house….”
His regret was that The Spread Eagle would not be able to live on as tangible art or books could do –– evanescent, it could only exist in the memory of those who had been there. He once mused, “People praise me for running an individual and yet decent place. To me there is no secret in it, though others might not be able to do it so well. It’s only hard work and a lot of thinking, and sticking convincedly to a policy once rather blindly formulated. But I’m discontented. Our Inn cannot hang on the walls of galleries or be read in winter evenings 200 years hence for others to enjoy as we have enjoyed it.”
What of the food? The Inn was a legend for the quality of its kitchen, run by Fothergill who did much of the cooking himself. He felt there were 3 kinds of cooking and defined them in the book:
Three Kinds of Cooking
I define three kinds of kitchen:
(i) The French, where the food doesn’t taste of what it is, or ought to be , but tastes good:
(ii) English hotel, where the food, when even it is food, doesn’t taste of anything, or tastes badly:
(iii) Our kitchen, and the true American, where the food is food, tastes of it, and tastes good.
“When I took this shop, I thought round for all the things I had found best wherever I’d been and sent for them. So Kate pays regular bills for foodstuff in Athens, France, Norway, Jaffa and Italy. And of English things we have daily from three bakers three different kinds of bread made from flours that I have forced upon them, besides the breads we make ourselves, cheese from East Harptree, salt from Malden, mustard from Leighton Buzzard, sausages, after a romantic search all over England, from Glenthorn in Thame…. Real food is a surprise, and simply because the gastric juices fly out to it, whilst they hold back aching at the aromalessness of synthetic, poor or adulterated products. Surely this is better than buying all of your stuff from an ‘Hotel Purveyor’, making out your quantities required on a big list – butter, coffee, coal, caviar, paraffin, all tasting the same and all wrapped up in Marie Stopes paper, even the coal.”
But food isn't just ingredients, each dish tells a story and has a bit of the heart of the creator in it, “I have to force myself to believe that about two hours working at the food myself in the kitchen before dinner and seeing to the helping on each plate must tell the tale to the eater of it, unless I am an imbecile, and that a steady increase of people even in bad times is a proof that our efforts are successful. But meals fail at times from beginning to end and sometimes the supersmart come from London expecting Boulestin.” See, failure happens to the best of us, even at Fothergill’s Inn. For anyone who cooks by instinct and inspiration and not rote, things can and do gang aft agley (often go awry) but then when inspiration takes flight the result is wonder on the old Worcester.
The book include dishes that were made in both his Inns(he left Spread Eagle in 1934 for the Three Swans in Harborough where he stayed until retirement in 1952). His recipes are simple and good albeit often more suggestions than recipes – many evolved over time. He was probably encouraged to write them down by grateful guests. He said the cookbook was “ a collection of known recipes with my own modifications and way of preparing them and a number of original dishes and sauces that I have produced during twenty years of middle–pocket Innkeeping – it is a repertory with one character throughout, manifest in a preference for strong flavor and colour, practicality and economy; and in its little regard for the conventional use and treatment of materials and guest.” Yes, he did make mauve sauces and dyed things bright green. Imagine the plates that would have flown from the kitchen with that amazing dishware and those colors.
Early on, he looked at ancient cookbooks for inspiration (any of you who read the blog know how the 17th century loved color in their food! so perhaps that’s where he got the idea). A whole meal was constructed from Anne Blencowe’s 1694 home cookery book:
Pease soup (but done in the superfluously elaborate way of all old recipes)
Drobed beef (I don't have a clue what drobed means)
Lady Gage Surfett water (‘so strong as to fill a common chamber potte in 12 hours)
He was also a great champion of fine English produce, meats and fish. His attitude was very modern for the time when tinned food was served in the best houses and restaurant kitchens. Fothergill abhorred the practice.
Kitchen at Three Swans
He said in the cookbook that 200,000 meals had come out of his kitchen at Three Swans, (in 8 years that would be about 500 a week). When I looked at the kitchen pictures I was astonished that a couple of wood-fired Aga’s could do so much. I would expect the kitchen at Spread Eagle was similar in its distinctly un-modern appointments. Fothergill did not eschew modern conveniences entirely, he was an inveterate tinkerer and was forever inventing new contraptions to chop better, drain glasses better and even spread butter on bread faster. There are photos of a few of them in the cookbook -- he was quite proud of his creations.
In the end he wanted to be remembered as having been a good innkeeper, “Let people reading it think perhaps less of me than I really am. And yet, if those who have been here, the lovely and the unlovely too, will think of me as an Innkeeper at best and the best Innkeeper, I am content.” I think he got his wish.
“When I first started innkeeping, looking round for all the good things I’d had abroad, I sent for a load of Mavrodaphne wine that was so delicious in Greece because, I suppose, the only other wine, Rezinata, tasted of violin strings. But, once in England, I found I had no use for it, till, in despair, I put it into the trifle and have used it ever since. It is a very sweet, aromatic sort of malmsey.
“Split a sponge sandwich into three. Spread each slice with raspberry jam, custard and Mavrodaphne. Cover with whipped cream.”
Mavrodaphne Trifle (2 large servings)
Sponge cake* (enough to fill the bottom of your bowl - mine is around 3 cups)
About ¼c Raspberry or cherry jam
Handful of fresh berries if desired, tossed with a little sugar
¼ c Mavrodaphne Wine or decent port (late-bottled is a great deal and delicious)
½ c Cream, whipped with 1T sugar
candied violets for decoration
candied violets for decoration
Slice the browned top off the cake. Pour the wine over it – cakes differ so use enough so it is well moistened but not sodden. Spread the jam over the top of the cake and toss the berries on top if desired. Cover with custard and then cover that with whipped cream. Sprinkle with candied violets.
There is enough cake for a large trifle, just double the custard and the rest of the ingredients.
* recipe follows
There is enough cake for a large trifle, just double the custard and the rest of the ingredients.
* recipe follows
Simple Custard with Bay Leaf
¾ c milk
1 or 2 bay leaves (2 if fresh or small)
2 T cream
2 egg yolks, blended.
1½ to 2 T sugar
1½ t cornstarch
½ t vanilla
1 T madeira ( I used the sublime Porto Moniz Verdelho Special Reserve from Rare Wine Co.)
Heat the milk and cream with the bay leaf. Blend the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the warm milk, stir to blend and then add the milk to the egg yolks. Wisk the rest of the milk into the mixture and pour into a pan (at this point I let it sit for a few minutes, stirring gently from time to time, then I put it to the flame). Stir till thickened over a low to medium heat, be careful not to curdle the eggs (try to stay around 170º-180º - stop shortly after the bubbles start forming on the outside of the pan and you the custard stays put when you run your finger down the center of the spoon). Add the vanilla and stir. Cover with a bit of plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming and cool. Remove the bay leaf and stir to blend. Chill for an hour then add the madeira.
Sponge cake, recipe from Alice Medrich
4 oz. (¾ cup plus 2 Tbs.) unbleached all-purpose flour (use low protein flour if possible)
1 tsp. baking powder
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
⅛ tsp. table salt
¼ cup whole milk
1 oz. (2 Tbs.) unsalted butter, cut into smaller pieces
Take a 8x2-inch square cake pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven, and heat the oven to 350°F.
Whisk the flour and baking powder in a medium bowl.
With an electric mixer (hand-held or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment), beat the eggs, yolks, sugar, vanilla, and salt at high speed until the mixture has tripled in volume and forms a slowly dissolving ribbon when the stopped beater(s) are lifted, 4 to 6 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until very hot but not boiling.
Using a fine-mesh sieve, sift one-third of the flour over the eggs. Fold with a large silicone spatula until the flour is blended into the batter. Repeat with two more batches.
Pour all of the hot milk mixture over the batter and fold gently with the silicone spatula, scraping the batter up from the bottom of the bowl and rotating the bowl, until the milk is incorporated. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly.
Bake until the cake is golden and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Set the pan on a rack to cool. After the cake has cooled completely, run a small knife or offset spatula around the inside of the pan, pressing against the pan to avoid tearing the cake. Invert the pan to remove the cake, and peel off the parchment liner. Turn the cake right side up.