Sunday, July 26, 2015

Escaping with Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford and Scottish Pigeon with Gooseberry Sauce

Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford, Photograph by Fox Talbot, 1844

I am going to write about the man responsible for bringing the delicious romantic dream that is Scotland ­ to the world in the 19th century­–– its mythical construct rife with magic and adventure (and the inspiration and foundation for the television show, Outlander –– a seriously guilty pleasure of mine) to put me in the right mood to make fabulous Scottish game birds.  What prompted my highland fling?  –– it’s all about escaping the here and now.

I started thinking about it because of a piece on the news that profiled a kid who would rather play his computer games in his room 24 -7 than walk among men in the real world. He said his cyber-reality was better than the world outside his bedroom. Feckless kids who are neither smart nor agile feel empowered by their online avatar’s talent and skill (which sadly doesn’t translate to the real world as study and practice of the skills would do). It made me reflect on my own predilection for binge-watching which really does immerse you in the world of the story. After hours of watching it is an escape from reality. I wondered how easy it would be to go from bingeing to dangerous obsession (the kid didn’t eat and barely went outside). So far, my bingeing is controllable and, in a way, healthy -- I don't EVER confuse myself with Katniss Everdeen.

We all do long to escape to some degree, don’t we? I know after a grueling job, I can’t wait to ‘veg out’ for a few days on movies and binge-watch TV that I’ve missed – I love diving into other realities and escaping as a way of depressurizing. Then I am ready to go back to doing things I love to do. It’s like a vacation for my brain.

Ivanhoe (1820), set in 1194, is credited for popularizing Medievalism

Even in the 12th century they were yearning to escape to earlier times, lushly colored with the romance of courtly love and knightly courage via stories from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Brittonum. The myths were brought to France by Chrétien de Troyes who then folded the story of Lancelot into the mix. Arthurian Legends soon gripped the imaginations of the ruling/reading class in Britain and Europe. Illiterate country folk were regaled with the adventures of knightly heroes or ancient Celtic warriors by storytellers who traveled from place to place. It is an oral tradition that continues to this day in pockets of British Isles.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) by Sir William Allan, 1844

At the dawn of the 19th century, just as the world was on it’s way to changing utterly with the industrial revolution, this tradition was reborn. Men and women found the romantic world of Sir Walter Scott an irresistible escape from the tedium of their laced up lives. Scott brought the free wild world of the ancient highlands and then the epic adventures of medieval knights to the reading classes –– suddenly the rich were building new castles and even constructing their own ruins to emulate the new ideal! Scott was the first international novelist (he was a favorite of the American Southern aristocracy that helped inspired the Civil War), and pretty much invented the modern history novel -- all because he had his own reason to escape to his imagination -- polio. 
Smailholm Tower

Scott was stricken in 1773 and sent to the Scottish Border area, just north of England, to his grandparent’s farm to help him heal. His Aunt Jenny taught him to read but just as importantly, taught him the old tales in the old voice of Scotland –– those tales and the ruin of the 15th century Smailholm Tower changed his life forever and set him dreaming of what once was and how it could be again in his imagination.

Ossian’s Dream, Ingres 1813

He studied law and became a lawyer, but his passion was the history and tales of Scotland, chivalry and romance. As he toiled at law he wrote poetry, inspired by Ossian’s poems (which were supposedly translated from original ancient texts by James Macpherson in 1760 but whose authenticity is still in doubt – at the very least Macpherson made radical changes to lesser-known ballads of the day, few of which were ever written down). The poem was full of tales of heroic lives, rich with romance – just the thing for a fertile mind like Scott’s and a great escape from his dry law books. Unlike Macpherson, Scott went to real balladeers and listened to their magical stories (using twigs to carve notes for himself so as not to offend the storytellers with scribbling them down – they were oral tales after all and the property of the storyteller).

Illustration from Waverley

I love this stuff and took a course in college called Ballads and Balladry. The professor actually played ancient recordings of Scottish balladeers telling the tales. I particularly remember one terribly old lady – her voice was like rustling paper and yet it could pull you in like a spell -- that voice could be strong and masculine or young and innocent as the tale required. The tales were sometimes spoken, sometimes sung – pure magic. I absolutely can see what pulled Scott in. I can imagine, listening in person around a camp fire with the beasties howling in the shadows, well, it would have been captivating. The talent of the storyteller would send the imagination into hyper-drive. Those tales certainly compelled Scott to put them to paper to share them with the public who could then virtually join him at those campfires (I often wonder if kids today that have had all the heavy imaginative lifting done for them are missing something –– they aren't creating scenes inside their heads as readers and listeners do). Scott’s first collection of border ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, was published in 1802. His popularity exploded soon after.

Abbotsford study  Photo on Trekearth

Abbotsford hall, Photo on Trekearth  

Abbotsford parlor, Photo from Trekearth 

Thanks to the incredible success of his poems and novels like Waverly, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Heart of Midlothian, Scott could afford to build a magnificent house that was to be named Abbotsford. Great men and women from all over Europe –– artists, writers, statesmen, kings and queens, lords and ladies would come there to visit him. The Scottish Baronial style of Balmoral Castle was inspired by Abbotsford.

 JMW Turner, Abbotsford 1831
 JMW Turner, Abbotsford 1831
JMW Turner, Abbotsford 1831

JMW Turner, Abbotsford 1831

In 1831, one of my favorite painters, JMW Turner, accompanied Scott on an odyssey following locations in Scott’s 1808 poem Marmion and stayed at Abbotsford where he made studies of the house in pencil in his sketchbook.

A Scene at Abbotsford, Landseer, 1827)

The much beloved animal painter Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) came to Abbotsford to paint Scott’s beloved deerhound, Maida (a male dog named after a famous battle), at the end of the dog's life. Landseer made many sketches and this touching painting. Scott was known for his deep attachment to his dogs (he once cancelled a dinner engagement because a dog had died).

Henry Rayburn portrait of Walter Scott

Many of his portraits and statues included a dog or two.

Statue of Maida, photograph by Fox Talbot

There is a special statue at the entrance to Abbotsford honoring Maida alone – the words are translated, 'Beneath the sculptured form which late you bore, Sleep soundly Maida at your master's door.’

Fox Talbot photograph of area around Abbotsford, 1844

Gate at Abbotsford by Talbot

Early photographer Fox Talbot (who I wrote about HERE) was lured there in 1844 by Scott’s work and captured the area in remarkable photographs that were collected and issued in what was to become the first coffee-table travel book, Sun Pictures in Scotland after Scott’s death – both Turner and Talbot were seduced by the lore and the majesty of the landscape as Scott had been as a boy. I am sure Scott’s storytelling had helped both men see the beauty with an enhanced perception colored by the romance and adventure in Scott’s novels and poetry.

The room where Scott spent his last days, a dining room made into a bed chamber

Scott lived at Abbotsford until he died. He was a great host and I can imagine the evenings in the castle, with the views of the Tweed and the harp playing and stories flying. If you want to escape yourself, most of his books are available to read online.  Hard copies are inexpensive.

Ashestiel by JMW Turner, where many of Scott’s most famous works were written

I found a story in the first of the many volume set of Scott’s Memoirs that supports my assertion about Scott’s prowess as host. It seems Scott’s friends were enchanted by a Scott-led tour of his beloved countryside. They gushed, “It would be idle to tell you how much pleasure and instruction his advice added to a tour.... On our return from the Highlands, at Ashestiel – he had made us promise to visit him, saying that the farm-house had pigeon-holes enough for such of his friends as could live, like him, on Tweed salmon and Forest mutton. …. He carried us one day to Melrose Abbey or Newark – another, to course with mountain greyhounds by Yarrow braes or St. Mary’s Loch, repeating every ballad or legendary tale connected with the scenery – and on a third, we must all go to a farmer’s kirn, or harvest-home, to dance with Border lasses on a barn floor, drink whiskey punch and enter with him into all the gossip and good fellowships of his neighbours, on a complete footing of unrestrained conviviality, equality, and mutual respect.” Scott shared the experience of his Scotland, not just a 2-dimensional postcard tour.

JMW Turner Ashtiel

And his talents for setting a table played upon his pages as well as in his dining room. A magnificent woman named Kay Shaw Nelson wrote about Scott and food in his life and novels, giving a dozen or more examples of food scenes in his books. She said of his personal eating habits, “Scott’s tastes in food were said to be plain and Scottish, and he maintained a lively interest in foods that were grown in his country, regional fare, and is known to have enjoyed the conviviality of fine dining in his home, at clubs, and while traveling. “The Wizard of the North” was familiar with the kitchens of royalty, aristocrats, and crofters.” She noted “ At Abbotsford House in the Borders where the author lived the life of a country magistrate and the landowner, his breakfast, served about nine, is said to have comprised porridge with cream, salmon, fresh or kippered, home-made ham, a pie, or a cold sheep’s head followed by oatcakes, or slices of brown bread spread thick with butter.”

N.M. Price Illustration for Guy Mannering

His novels were stuffed with scenes of dining and drinking and the bounty of Scotland’s fields and streams. That’s where I come into the story. You see, I have in my possession some real Scottish partridges and pigeons from D’Artagnan that I have been dying to make into something great

I am not new to Scottish cuisine. Probably the first cookbook I ever bought was F. Marian McNeill's Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore with Old-time Recipes when I was still in college and fresh from Ballads and Balladry -- I was thoroughly enchanted by the lore. McNeill is a fine historian and she peppers her cookbook liberally with quotes from Scott's novels and a whole slew of rare Scottish tales and bits of literature including much from Meg Dod's cookbook (that I wrote about HERE).

Meg Merrilies

From Scott’s novel, Guy Mannering (1815), McNeill told the tale of Meg Merrilies gypsy stew,  "It was in fact  the savour of a goodly stew, composed of fowls, hares, partridges and moor-game, boiled in a large mess with potatoes, onions, and leeks, and from the size of the cauldron, appeared to be prepared for half a dozen people at least. 'So ye have naethin' a' day?' said Meg, heaving a large portion of this mess into a brown dish, and strewing it savorily with salt and pepper.  'Nothing', answered the dominie, 'scelestissima! - that is - gudewife!' Hae then', said she, placing the dish before him; 'there's what will warm your heart ....Theres been mony a moonlight watch to bring a' that trade thegither,' continues Meg; 'the folks that are to eat that dinner thought little o' your game-laws.'"

Meg Merrilies and her stew from Guy Mannering

Hard not to be a bit in love with Meg Merrilies, isn't it (after a walking tour in Guy Mannering country John Keats certainly was –– he wrote a gorgeous poem about her HERE)? I felt the colorful scene, spiced with a bit of larceny just begged me to use my little birds as an homage to Walter Scott, but it being summer, I was not quite in the mood for a stew (this simple game stew even crossed the channel, dressed up as Potage a la Meg Merrilies de Derncleugh!).

The lovely Meg Dod cookbook, inspired by Scott himself, has some fabulous ideas for roasting native birds – traditional Scottish recipes from the 19th century. McNeill and Dod both describe cooking grouse tied with heather dipped in Scotch -- I borrowed the idea for my pigeon (I would have used heather but I had none –– I really want to try it now).

Meg Dod has a smashing gooseberry sauce to serve with them . It is a perfect counterpoint to the rich dark flesh of a bird that forages on heather and berries from Scotland’s heaths. They are spectacularly flavorful. Close your eyes and dream of the Scotland of Highlander Rob Roy, heather scented moors and craggy ruins -- yup, I'm there.

Scotch-Scented Pigeon with Gooseberry Sauce (Serves 2)

2 Scottish Wood Pigeons from D’Artagnan
2 T Scotch (I used Lagavulin, a very peaty Islay single malt)
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
2 large D’Artagnan foie gras cubes (I love these great frozen cubes. I just chop off what I need and thaw so I always have foie gras around) or use the liver in the birds
salt and pepper
4 T butter
¼ to 1/3c gooseberry elderflower jam (you can use blueberry if you can't find gooseberry)
¼ c fresh gooseberries (optional - - can use blueberry)
2 t heather honey (optional)
1 – 2 T elderflower vinegar*
1 carrot, cut into sticks

Remove the birds from the fridge and dry them off. Pull the heart and liver out of the birds and reserve. Cover and let them warm up for about ½ an hour, then salt and pepper the exterior and interior and put a bay leaf in each bird’s cavity. Sprinkle a bit of the Scotch into each bird.

Preheat oven to 475º. Put 2 T butter in a pan and brown the pigeons (put most of your effort toward the bottom of the bird since this takes longer to cook ––  gently brown the breast –– 90% of the meat is in the breast so you don't want to overcook the rich dark meat). Let them cool a bit as you lightly salt and then sauté the foie gras or bird's liver in the pan for a few moments. Put the foie gras or the bird's liver in the birds with a few gooseberries if you have them or just some of the jam. Add the thyme.

Melt the rest of the butter and add the rest of the Scotch in a small bowl. Lay the carrot sticks down and place the birds on them in the pan. Brush some of the Scotch butter on the birds and put in the oven.

Cook for 10 minutes, brushing with the butter after 5 minutes.

While the birds are cooking, put the rest of the jam, honey and the berries in a sauce pan. Add the vinegar to taste and warm. Pour in the rest of the Scotch butter and reserve.

Take the birds from the oven and let rest covered for 5-10 minutes (eat the delicious carrot sticks as you wait or serve with the birds). Serve with the sauce and don't forget to scoop the foie gras and berry stuffing out of the bird!

* just take some white wine vinegar and either add a bit of dried elderflowers (tea or loose herbs if you can find them) or some St. Germain Liqueur.

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

John Fothergill, The Spread Eagle and Mavrodaphne Trifle

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.

Evelyn Waugh

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….”

Sitting room

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.

To find something to make from Mr. Fothergill’s repertory, I found a charming little 80-page book of his issued during WWII, John Fothergill's cookery book.

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)
Fried oysters
Drobed beef (I don't have a clue what drobed means)
Allmand Flumry
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.

Now, what to make??

The recipes that stick out in the book are the ubiquitous joints of meat that seem to have been always at the ready,  but the melodiously sounding Mavrodapne Trifle of Brideshead Revisited  fame stood out and was much lauded in the book.  I thought I would kick it old-world and add a bit of bay to the custard (I found it done in an 18th century cookbook) and cherries to the mix since it's cherry season.  The result is luxurious and subtle.  The bay in the custard speaks beautifully to the Greek wine which is very port like (and with a high alcohol content).  The rich Porto Moniz Verdelho Special Reserve Madeira in the custard adds gravitas to the young dessert wine. The combination is intoxicating in more ways than one (it is very boozy).  I've made a small trifle, there's enough cake to do 2 or one large (you can freeze the cake for another one later).

Mavrodaphne Trifle

“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

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

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.

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