Wednesday, December 4, 2013

For the Downton Starved –– England's Lost Houses and Creamy Sweetbreads in Pastry

The first time I saw a room that had been “abducted” from a stately English home and reconstructed in an American museum I was horrified.  I thought it personified the “ugly American" –– stealing old world treasures with new Robber Baron money. The truth wasn't that simple.  Often, there was no villain in the story, often it involved tragedy.

Sure, some stupidly wealthy Americans bought rooms from desperate lords – ripped them out of family houses and carted them away, “Hey, love what you’ve done with the place, what will you take for it?” –– but many individuals and museums came to the rescue when houses were burned and/or about to be demolished for lack of funds or interest. For every Lord Grantham struggling to save Downton and the family heritage, there's a Lord who's sick of all the trouble and crippling expense.

Think of the Cassiobury Staircase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art –– it could have been firewood.

Stairs in the original Cassiobury house, Country Life Photo 1910

The 1922 sale at Cassiobury went on for 10 days with 2,606 items. (by the 6th day, £27,987 had been raised). The Met and Chicago’s Art Institute divided up the Grinling Gibbon’s carvings with Luton Hoo.

The house was demolished in 1927 but not before “300 tons of old oak: 100 very fine old oak beams and 10,000 Tudor period bricks” were removed and sold to build or restore other homes (including a new Cassiobury in Bedford NY). Evidently trade in house parts has its own long tradition beginning at least in 1682 when Nonesuch Palace was stripped for parts. A great article in Country Seat tells the tale of many famous house dismemberments noting that in 1900, Country Life Magazine was listing rooms and parts of rooms available for purchase to add authentic parts to newly constructed Gothic and Tudor palaces. There’s a great book by curator John Harris on the subject of moving the rooms, aptly called –– Moving Rooms (the Guardian wrote about the book HERE).

On top of that a book by John Martin Robinson's poignantly titled, Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates came out last year. It recorded the demise of great estates that were often replaced by office parks, subdivisions,  highways and golf courses.

All this came to light when I got a copy of England's Lost Houses.

I was lost for days. The Guardian said of the book, “‘This grave compilation of Country Life photographs of great houses, burned, stripped, wrecked, demolished and otherwise ruined since 1900 feels like an illustrated supplement to English fiction, high and low, over the same period… Haunting.”

 I loved this book.

Hovingham Hall, 1994 Country Life

No wonder –– the author, Giles Worsley (1961-2006), was an architectural writer, critic and former editor of Country Life. He was also “to the manor born”, being the 2nd son of a Baron and nephew to the Duchess of Kent who grew up in the not too shabby Hovingham Hall. Tragically, he died of cancer at 44. In that short time he accomplished quite a bit. After Eton and Oxford he got his PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art (also attended by Vincent Price who I wrote about HERE). In his short life he wrote prodigiously with fine works on Regency Drawing, Inigo Jones and a highly respected work,  Classical Architecture in Britain: The Heroic Age that I have on my Christmas list.

Hovingham Hall, 1994 Country Life

Hovingham Hall, 1994 Country Life

The Guardian obituary wrote, “Worsley faced his final days without fear or self-pity, with quiet and determined courage and with a gentle, tender solicitude for those he loved. He died far, far too young; but he had accomplished more than many achieve who are granted twice his mortal span. He will be buried today at Hovingham, the place which, along with his forebears and his family, was the abiding inspiration of his wholly admirable life.”

The book is so fine because of his bred-in-the-bone connection to these houses  –– that and his access to the astonishing collection of photos from Country Life’s archives (available online, bless them).

The sad fact is nearly 1/3 of the great houses of England have been destroyed –– some with nary a trace. Since 1900, at least 1,200 homes have been lost –– why?  Worsley wrote,  “The answer seems obvious, at least in folk memory. High taxation, and above all death duties, coupled with the tragic loss of aristocratic heirs in two world wars, forced all too many landed families to sell their estates, leading to a wave of country-house demolitions that could, and should, have been prevented if only the Government had acted sooner.”

In 1955 alone, 38 houses were demolished. Depressed agricultural markets, fires, wars and profligacy also contributed to the demise of the great English house.

Rufford Abbey ruins today

People often put up quite a fight to save them but houses like Rufford Abbey lost in the end –– it was mostly demolished in 1956. The “Town and Country Planning Act” of 1947 could not save it (it began listing important properties and required them to announce demolition plans but their funds went to new developement). First estimates were a post-war fortune –– £60,000 for repairs –– but the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (founded by William Morris in 1877) thought the figure could be as little as an emergency £400 with £11,750 to take care of the worst of the problems.

The house was certainly worth of saving. For one, it was ancient –– the oldest part of the house dated from 1146. For another, it was in a great location in the heart of Sherwood Forest. Because of that, after the abbey’s dissolution in 1536,  Rufford was used as a hunting lodge for hundreds of years. The downside was that it was huge, rambling because of centuries of add-ons and in terrible shape. In the end, the government wouldn't spend the money to save a wreck that was too far gone.  Postwar rebuilding took precedence over saving old houses.

Rufford Abbey, before being demolished 1956
Rufford Abbey exterior

Famous architect Anthony Salvin (who I wrote about HERE) carried out renovations in the mid 19th century (he specialized in Tudor-ish renovations) but that upgrade wasn't enough. The Saville family used it infrequently and sold it before WWII (during which it was used as a base for civil defense). The medieval and some of the 17th century parts of the house attached to them were saved (and still can be seen today) but the rest fell to the wrecking ball. It was a great tragedy.

Rufford Abbey Interior, Country Life, 1903
Rufford Abbey Interior, Country Life, 1903

Rufford Abbey Interior, Country Life, 1903

Although never in danger of demolition, the Downton Abbey house, 
Highclere,  has had to struggle to stay afloat and in family hands. With an annual maintenance cost in the many millions, its future looked dim until the overwhelming success of the television program brought fame and fortune (they were set to sell off land to pay expenses, upper rooms in the house were falling apart). Estates supported by hefty fortunes are more secure because of additional attractions, like a game park at Longleat and thriving stores and restaurants at Chatsworth that lure tourists who in turn pour fresh money into the ancient family coffers. House tours alone would not give as plump a revenue stream. Now many of the great houses are owned by various trusts with the proviso that the family can stay there.  Most families can no longer afford to maintain them on their own.

It wasn’t until the “Town and Country Planning Act” of 1968 that the destruction came to an end (the previous 1947 act had no “teeth” and insufficient funds to pay for repairs). After that, owners had to seek permission to demolish their holdings and often aid could be found to repair or to bring it into the National Trust, English Heritage or other such organizations. Light was shone on the issue too with a remarkable 'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974. People became aware of the plight of the old houses and money was raised both publicly and privately to do something about it.

I think it is a fine thing that house visits can be thought of as fun and enlightening – unlike say a family visit to a theme park. Instead of padding a corporation’s bottom line you contribute to maintaining and restoring national history.  It is heartening that a few hundred years from now, our legacy will not only be ruins of shoddy housing and plastic toys (although sad if that is all that will ever be produced from now on –– almost all of our great modern architecture will not survive for centuries).

The end of the book has a graveyard of demolished houses listing their date of death –– it's remarkably moving. That many families lost their heritage or died out contributes to the sense of loss and sadness one has when reading it. There are 60 or so houses in the book.  Many of the stories are fascinating –– here are a few of the Lost Houses to whet your appetite:

Park Hall in Shropshire was destroyed by fire in 1918:

Park Hall

Park Hall, Country Life 1905

Park Hall, Country Life 1905

Nuthall Temple, one of the finest Rococo interiors in Britain, went up in flames in 1929

Nuthall Temple, Country Life, 1923

Nuthall Temple, Country Life, 1923

Beaudesert had a sour fate.

Its young owner, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey was known as “the dancing Marquess. His mad ways and incredible spending habits went through a huge fortune in a few years throwing insane parties for his pals like Oscar Wilde and buying a king’s ransom in jewels for his fanciful self-adornment. He died at 30 in 1905 but his enormous debts (£544,000 – more like £30,000,000. today) left the ancient family’s finances in tatters. The house was sold for debts and demolished in 1935 after the fittings had been sold.

Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey

All that remains of Beaudesert ––

Weald Hall was featured in Country Life 3 times in 1897, 1905 and 1914. The house was owned by the Tower family from 1759 until it was demolished in 1951 –– the owner wanted to move to a sunnier clime. Originally a Tudor house, part of it had been remodeled in the early 18th century and then the dining room was done by Robert Adam in 1778. Worsley noted (but did not show) that the first 2 Country Life features showed a thoroughly Tudor house with no hint of its Georgian character. The last, 1914 showing, had no hint of its Tudor past.

Weald Hall 1914 Country Life
Weald Hall 1914 Country Life

Weald Hall 1914 Country Life

You will just have to buy the book to see more but for all of you who love history and houses, this is the book for you.

What to make to honor the old world? I decided to make something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. It’s an Old World dish that has fallen out of fashion but used to be on many a fine dinner table, –– sweetbreads in pastry.  It’s one of those recipes I tried eating at a very fancy French restaurant when I was young, it seemed terribly brave and sophisticated. The waiter's fractured-French/English explanation of what part of the cow it was eluded me but one part of the description stayed with me and still holds true –– imagine a scallop that’s not from the sea. Don’t be afraid of them. Although they take a bit of work –– they need to be soaked and weighed down the day before to get the sublime texture – after that they cook in a minute. You will be amazed at the result.  I got incredible sweetbreads from my friends at D'Artagnan –– they are the best.

My recipe was inspired by many great 19th century chefs from Escoffier to Queen Victoria's own chef, Francatelli (he did a recipe with the creamed and fried sweetbreads together sweetly titled Epigramme of Sweetbreads).  To add another recipe to my D'Artagnan sauce series, I thought I would use an Allemande sauce (velouté with a cream and egg yolk liason) for my base and add truffles for added luxury. The savory sautéed mushrooms add a great counterpoint to the creamy dish. Although you can buy puff pastry, you can make my favorite recipe with duck fat for added flavor.

Remember, sweetbreads do not keep.  Get them frozen or make them soon after you get them.

The end result –– delicately textured sweetbreads perfumed with truffle and madeira in a crisp pastry. After some prep (the pastry, sweetbreads and sauces can be made the day before), it can be thrown together in no time for a dinner party.  It doesn't get better than this.

For a toast, a special cocktail, perfect for the holiday –– a warm pomegranate drink with a creamy, honeyed frankincense froth using Aftelier Frankinsence essence. The result is brilliant and tastes like Christmas.

Sweetbreads Vol-au-vent, serves 6-8

1 pound D'Artagnan sweetbreads (recipe follows)
2 T D'Artagnan truffle butter or butter
1/4 c chopped mushrooms
1 large shallot, chopped
s&p to taste
1/2 t thyme
2 - 3 T madeira ( I used Rare Wine Company's Boston Bual with a little 1903 D'Oliveira Bual at the end -wow)
2 c Allemande sauce (recipe follows)
sliced D'Artagnan truffles (optional)
1 egg, beaten
1 c breadcrumbs (seasoned with thyme, s&p, cayenne)
1/4 c clarified butter
sauteéd mushrooms  (recipe follows)

Divide the sweetbreads.  Take the largest pieces (about 1/3) and keep for frying. Chop the rest into small-ish pieces (unless you are making large pastries and it doesn't matter).

Heat the butter in a skillet and add the shallot and chopped mushrooms.  Sauté till cooked and add the smaller sweetbread pieces. Cook for a few minutes and add the thyme and madeira.   Add the Allemande sauce and warm -- do not boil or the egg will curdle.  Keep covered and warm.

Take the larger pieces of sweetbread and dip in egg.  Roll in bread crumbs.  Dip in some of the clarified butter and roll in breadcrumbs again.  Fry in the clarified butter till brown.

Put the creamed sweetbreads in the cases.  Top with some truffle slices. Put the sauteed mushrooms on the plate with the fried sweetbreads and some of the sauce if you would like and serve.


1 lb sweetbreads
1 t salt

Soak the sweetbreads for an hour in water and drain well (some people like to do this in milk -- if so rinse them well before proceeding).

Put sweetbreads in water to cover.  Heat water to a bare simmer.  Turn off the heat and let the smaller piece of sweetbread stay in for 5-7 minutes and the larger one 10 - 15 minutes (check to see if they are ready - don't let them get rubbery).  Remove and cool.  Take the transparent membranes off the sweetbread (you can see the technique on the first 10 minutes of this video on YouTube). Put the sweetbreads on a plate, put another plate on top of it and weigh it down with heavy cans or bricks.  Refrigerate over night.


3 T butter
3 T flour (sifted)
2 cup warm stock (chicken, duck or traditionally veal)
s&p to taste

Melt the butter, add the flour and stir over a low heat to cook the flour.  Do not let it color.  Add the stock slowly, stirring constantly.  When it is all mixed in, cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.

Allemande Sauce

2 cups Velouté
1/4 c heavy cream
1 egg yolk
small squeeze lemon juice to taste

Combine the cream and egg.  Pour some of the warm velouté into the egg mixture and then pour that back into the rest of the velouté

Sauteéd Mushrooms

About 1 cup, sliced mixed mushrooms (D'Artagnan has a great mix HERE
1-2 T D'Artagnan truffle butter or butter
2-3 T demi-glace
pinch of thyme
splash of cognac
small squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the mushrooms in the butter.  Add the rest of the ingredients.

Puff Paste with Duck Fat (this is enough for 12-16 shells, you can half the recipe or freeze what's left)

Butter layer

1 lb + 3 ½ T (510g) cold unsalted butter (I love Irish butter for this)
2 t (10 ml Lemon juice
1 c (130g) bread flour
pinch of salt


3 c (400 g) bread flour (freeze it)
3 ½ T (55g) duck fatfrozen)
1- 1 1/2 t Salt
1 c cold water (start with 3/4 and add as needed, you may not need a whole cup)

egg wash

Mix the butter and the flour and lemon and salt into a paste, make a 6” square and chill on wax paper till firm

Make the dough as you would pasta, knead very sparingly and refrigerate.

Make the dough into a rectangle and put the butter in the center in a diamond... fold the dough around it like an envelope, bringing the 4 outer points to the center of the butter.   If it’s hot, chill. Otherwise roll it to a rectangle and fold it like a brochure and chill ½ an hour. Roll it out to a rectangle again and do it again 5 times, resting for 45 minutes to an hour in the fridge each time.

I left mine overnight after the last turn and rolled it out the next day. After cutting my rounds, I put it back in the fridge for an hour

Then you are ready to go!!!

Preheat the oven to 425º. Cut 3 1/2-inch rounds from the pastry. Cut a 2-inch circle in the center of each round. Do not twist and turn the dough. If you do you will lose your loft on the pastry. The cleaner the movement, the higher the pastry will rise.  Collect the rest of the pastry and roll out.  Cut
another round to match the first. Paint the bottom round with egg wash and prick with a fork.  Put the ring on top, matching the pattern if it has one.  Put egg wash on top of pastry being very careful not to spill it over the side –– it will keep the pastry from rising.

Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 10 minutes with a buttered piece of parchment on top of the pastries—this helps them rise straight… don’t ask me how. Remove the top parchment and continue to bake 10 - 15 more minutes after turning the heat down to 375º or until puffed and golden.  Put on a rack and put back in the oven with the heat off and the door ajar.  This dries them out nicely.

*There's a great site with a tutorial on making vol-au-vents HERE

Warm Pomegranate Rum Cup for 4

1/2 c cream
2 T honey
10 - 12 drops Aftelier Frankincense essence or to taste
4 oz dark rum
2 cups pomegranate juice, warmed

Whip the cream.  Add the frankincense to a dish and then add the cream the honey –– do this to taste.  You can start with 4 or 5. I liked 12, it is not overpowering. Add the rum to the pomegranate juice. Put the cream on top of warm pomegranate juice and serve.

Tis the season to give to WIKIPEDIA.  All of us who write use it.  They don't make much money, they do it for love, donate, won't you?  Just click HERE to do it.

Tis the season for giving these great madeiras to your favorite cook, I love this stuff and use them in
everything.  Click HERE or ask for them at your favorite wine merchant.  For something special, I love their vintage madeiras too.  They are magic in food and last forever.

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Barbara said...

(Downton starved! Love that expression!)
It's enough to break your heart, really. So much has been lost, but I certainly understand the whys and wherefors. The expense of upkeep (and deadly death duties) takes a toll. Nice to read something is being done to assist the heirs of these fabulous country homes. Or at least in some cases.
I adore sweetbreads and the simpler the preparation, the better. I don't even need a sauce on mine. You've done them perfectly, Deana.

La Table De Nana said...

I have never tasted sweetbreads..but your presentation is beautiful.

I am wondering at Beau Desert..what the words actually meant?

pam said...

I had no idea! I've got to get that book! I love old houses.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I guess I never realised that the upkeep would be so expensive! Paying millions a year is a huge obligation although these houses are so spectacular. I've never made sweetbreads but I've eaten them. Thanks for the delicious recipe!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

this is just so depressing I could cry -luckily there are still scores of houses standing! I just ordered the book and put a number of the others you mentioned in my wishlist - early christmas for me!

Lucy said...

How the mighty are fallen! Still, so many survive, the chateaus in France are empty, all ransacked and torn apart in the French Revolution, a fate narrowly escaped by the the English aristos time and time again. A decadently rich recipe to enjoy it all with of course. You bring us such treasures, it's always such a pleasure to get lost in them all here.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh my goodness....there is so much to take in, from the stately manors/castles, to the impressive history. I always leave your table satisfied with new understanding of the things I've admired, but never really learned about. And it wasn't until Downton Abby that I learned more about the duties of these "lords" - how I would love to go to England to be able to see the magnificent homes that still stand for they are a work of art, like your FOOD, Deana!

Though the closest I've ever come to sweetbreads was my grandfather's love for calve's head, I appreciate the old world cuisine. You make everything look outstanding, and that puff pastry is one of my favorite things to fill with chicken! Bravo à la cuisinière!

Thank you so much for dropping by and leaving a comment. I wonder what you'll cook up for Christmas? I'm visiting family and we are having our traditional TAMALES! Oh the memories of making them en famille in the good old days of childhood....

PEACE! Anita

Marjie said...

It wasn't your intention, but this book sounds like a perfect birthday gift for my future daughter-in-law, who is also Downton Starved. (She wants my son to make a trek with her to the fabric store one county away for the Downton Abbey fabric collection while they're here for Christmas; he wants her to go with me. I win!) One of the big problems with maintaining those big estates through generations is the estate tax decimating the family fortunes. It is so sad.

Frank said...

What a loss! All of these old manses were beautiful, each in their own way. Glad they finally found a way to stop the destruction.

As for sweetbreads, I love them but they're so darn difficult to find these days. When I was a young, you could still find them, fresh, in butcher shops and even in supermarkets, on occasion. None of that any more. Never that popular, organ meats seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird...

Anonymous said...

In Miami we have this place called Vizcaya. Its not just a room, but a whole mansion bought over from Europe and reconstructed brick by brick in Florida, by the guy of John Deer tractor fame. It is actually quite beautiful and its my favourite Miami tourist attraction. I must have been there about 5 times.
Hope you are having a wonderful weekend.
*kisses* H

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I love looking at all of those splendid homes! So sad that many of them have been lost forever. I can't even imagine trying to keep them heated in winter - brrr!

Your sweetbread recipe would warn any soul! Beautifully presented, Deana.

mandy said...

I love this post Deana, you are a true champion and gracious host for these wonderful lost worlds. And your drink recipe is fantastic, I appreciate such a creative use of my frankincense essence!
xo Mandy