A trifling thing

Today’s The Kitchen Cabinet comes from Audley End in Essex. It’s a house I know well, having pretty much lived there during the second year of my PhD. I led a crack team of costumed interpreters working in the service wing for 5 years, during which time we gutted, plucked, pounded, strained, chopped, cut and boiled more food than I thought possible. The team is still going strong, and Audley remains, along with Hampton Court, one of the very few places you can see professional live cookery and interact with the cooks. It’s all set in 1881, and the team is fully in character, providing a way into the history of that period which is both engaging and accessible, while being underpinned by very rigorous research. I won’t go on about it, but I am quite proud of the whole thing.

Inevitably, as we were recording at Audley, the show had a rather Victorian feel. My contribution was a trifle. I loathe trifle. It’s a texture thing (soggy cake, the ear wax of beelzebub), and a taste thing (sherry, the spit of beelzebub). I have hideous childhood memories of trifles with tinned fruit.(The pears! The grit! The syrup! The ik!), custard powder and squirty cream. It’s like a Proustian nightmare. But trifle was asked for, and trifle I did.

If anyone out there reaaaally likes trifle, there is an excellent book on the subject*, filled with more recipes than you could ever desire. It also covers the history of the dish, and the variants on the theme, such as tipsy cake. (Still cake. Still soggy). Essentially it’s an 18th thing, terribly British, and part of a general elaboration of British cuisine in that period – pies, puddings, cakes, roasts etc. The first few recipes which appeared in print were more along the lines of fools, and the name certainly relates to the other meaning of trifle, as in a trifling thing, a flitting moment etc etc. I’ve cooked come of the early trifles which we would recognise as proper forerunners of the ghastly thing we know today. One of Hannah Glasse’s recipes** (she’s widely credited as being the first author to put a modernish trifle into print), involves almost-set jelly (at that point a sort of citrusy, wine flavour), into which hard, probably almond flavour, biscuits are plunged. Then the usual custard and then cream. I can see the point of this one. The biscuits stay hard, the jelly is wine and not sherry, the custard is fine and, OK, whipped cream isn’t a favourite, but were I a Georgian, I’d put whipt syllabub on top and that is a delight. After that though, in recipe development terms, it all goes downhill. Did I mention the soggy cake?

In celebration of the low regard in which I hold trifle, and because I wanted something 1880s ish to fit with Audley, I eventually went for fabulously named The Queen of Trifles, from Garrett’s Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (c1890). The author was a trifle-obsessive, lauding them as being ‘exceptionally English dishes…held in very poor esteem by the foreign pastry cook, who probably attaches some greater importance to the name than is necessary’. He included 12 sweet trifle recipes and a savoury trifle which sounds much more my kind of thing. The savoury one involves cooked veal or poultry, reheated in a mushroom sauce, and served in hollowed out bread boats, fried in lard. It’s not really a trifle in any sense of the word, even I admit. Hey ho. Here’s his Queen of Trifles.

garrett trifle
People should use crystallised ginger more often.

It looked like trifle (I failed to take a picture). Apparently it tasted incredible, and caused Tim Hayward to threaten all sorts of things involving corsets. The audience loved it, and fell upon the bowl like ravening locusts. I tried it, and I liked all of the flavours and could entirely see why people were raving about it but still……soggy…..etc. But different people have differing tastes and that’s what makes food so much fun. If you do want to have a crack at it, and the whole reason for this post is that so many people have requested the recipe, here are my notes on it as done by me.
Reinterpreting The Queen of Trifles for the hurried modern cook:

I put ladyfingers (boudoir biscuits, sponge fingers, call them what you will, but they also tend to go into tiramisu) on the bottom, macaroons for the next layer – or at least, that was the plan. Clearly, had I looked at the recipe before the day I made it, I’d’ve made some Madeira cake, and some proper English macaroons. I didn’t, and so was reduced to chasing round every shop in Ely, trying to find macaroons, as opposed to macarons. Eventually Waitrose sold me some ladyfingers, and some outrageously overpriced and overpackaged almond amaretti (a special pack for Xmas, as opposed to the usual bag you can find at the bottom of the biscuit aisle, curse this time of the year). Whatever. They worked. Most things would. Don’t stress about it.

My jam was confit de cidre, and my crystallised fruit a heady mixture of ginger, pineapple and glacé cherries. I’m not a masochist, so I bought ready ground almonds. And used 2/3 of the eggs as et were a tad smaller back in the day.

Half of the amounts in the recipe here makes a pretty decent sized trifle, by the way….

*Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson, 2001, Trifle. Republished 2009 by Prospect Books. A must for trifle lovers.

**Hannah Glasse, 1760, The Complete Confectioner. The earliest printed version was in her The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 4th edition, 1751.

For more The Kitchen Cabinet action, the webpage is here. And to be in the audience for future episodes, click here.

Lovely, lovely basil

About 5 years ago, M and I visited Lyon, the self-proclaimed gastronomic capital of France (along with a few other places). Altogether a grand place to sally around for a few days, for me one of the highlights was a restaurant which advertised that it specialised in la cuisine de nos ancêtres. Clearly, this was like a flame to my moth, so we booked – and in booking ended up in a conversation with the chef-patron, who was a medievalist (and I get going around 1650). Long ish story, brilliant outcome – when we rocked up a couple of evenings later, he’d done me my own menu, going as late as he felt happy with in terms of his experience of historic cookery. This wasn’t just ‘inspired by’ either – although the place offered a modern (well, standard French) menu, most of it was cooked on chafing stoves and over a wood fire, or spit-roasted. Pant-wettingly exciting to a food historian, anyway.

The point of that preamble is that as part of this rather unique meal (I can find no trace of the restaurant online now, and fear it has since disappeared, along with its scholarly and brilliant chef that night), included as an apéro, basil wine.

Basil wine may sound a bit odd. It probably is a bit odd, if you only ever drink kir or beer before a meal. But it was absolutely divine. I love basil anyway, and this was slightly honeyed (not too much – honey, ik), palette-cleansing and appetite whetting all at once. I drank, I loved, I asked where you could get it….and of course he’d made his own.

Cue about three years of obsessing. Eventually, perusing Maria Rundell, I found a recipe for clary wine. And this is where I and books diverge. Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as historic cookery, there’s just cookery. And there should be no surprise that some old recipes taste good, because some new recipes taste good. And some, old and new, don’t. And tastes change. And, a crucial point for the study of cookery in the past, recipe books don’t tell us everything. If I were to pick a load of recipes books off your shelf, would I truly get a picture of how you eat? Even if you’ve annotated the recipes you’ve done (and many people don’t), I’d never pick up all the recipes you cook and which aren’t in those books – the instinctive ones, the ones you don’t need to look up, and the ones which have moved so far from how they were originally written that no one would guess how they started. Recipe books are great! But they can only ever be a starting point and a way of generalising about experience, past and present. A recipe is a snapshot – kind of realistic, but always filtered through the viewer’s personal experience, by which I mean, in this instance, likes, dislikes, what’s in the cupboard…. There is quite simply no guarantee anyone, ever, actually cooked any recipe written in any cookery book unless you have cast iron proof to the contrary. And then they may have changed it next time they cooked it.

All that is simply justification for my total bastardisation of Rundell’s recipe in the name of wanting basil wine. Mainly, purists will doubtless point out, that fact that pretty much all herbal wines use flowers, not leaves. Yeah, well, I had leaves, ok. And I had to scale it down. A lot. So, Annie’s mash up of what is probably a very nice recipe is as follows:

4pt water – 1.5lb sugar – 2fl oz yeast – 12fl oz  basil leaves. Later – 4fl oz brandy. I take a pint to be the old pint, I.e. 16fl oz, and yes, that is a liquid measurement for dry leaves. Don’t pack them in too tightly. And yes, I use about a third of a tsp, maybe half as I’m a bit crap at measuring, of powdered yeast, with a little lukewarm water.

All you do is simmer the water and sugar together to make a weak syrup and leave to cool completely. Stick this in a demi-john and add the yeast and basil leaves, no need to tear or chop. Put one of those plastic corks with a thing with water in it on top to keep out nasties and allow bubbles to escape as it ferments (I’m sure there’s a technical term). Leave for a bit – I did 2 weeks the first time, two months the second and I can’t remember the last batch. Eventually it will stop bubbling. Strain the liquid off into a big bowl/bucket and discard the basil (see – if you’d’ve chopped it, it would be a total arse to get out of your demi-john now). Add the brandy. Bottle – kilner style bottles are safest as two of my batches underwent secondary fermentation and became basil champagne. Leave for 4 months.

I have no idea how alcoholic it is, but I get fairly happy after two glasses…..

Here, for reference, is the original.

Maria Rundell, 1818 edition

Gin (and cake)

Plug-time. I have a talk coming up at Kew Palace on June 20th called Gin & Cake. It does, pretty much, what it says on the tin. I spend about 45 minutes taking you through the history of gin, which is often fairly sordid, and remarkably free of my usual anatomical gags. Indeed, when writing the thing, I found it a topic quite devoid of laughs.

As a hardened gin drinker, I was aware, in the back of my mind, of its darker history. Like every British schoolchild, we ‘did’ Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street at some point (presumably between the voyages of discovery and endless, endless, hours of Corn Laws which is most of what I remember from pre-GCSE history classes. I knew that gin was demonised, polarised as part of 17th and 18th century class and gender dialogues, and I knew, if I thought hard enough about it, that it must have been rehabilitated sometime in the 19th century. Otherwise, wherefore all those pictures of grinning Englishmen and women wearing far too much clothing while supping on a G&T on immaculate lawns in Singapore, Hong Kong and India. When I started researching gin properly, however, both the vitriol of its detractors, and the desperate need of its drinkers, was striking. Gin was blamed for every conceivable social ill, especially (of course) the ruination of the flower of English womanhood. It was taxed, it was legislated against, it was, in effect, outlawed. But it outlasted all the attempts to prise consumers away from it, and onto more suitable drinks: beer, ale and, though itself disliked in some circles, tea.

Clearly, people getting blotto and falling out of their clothing, vomiting, putting themselves and others in danger is not a new phenomenon. Neither are warnings against the evils of drink which somehow cross the line into public entertainment (witness all those REAL POLICE, and FRIDAY NIGHT ON THE STREETS style TV programmes). We’re shamed, appalled, and fascinated in equal measure, as much in 1715 and in 2015.

Gin, however, has changed. It’s fashionable. You can visit gin distilleries run by bearded hipsters who can reel off the names of more obscure botanicals than they’ve had hot dinners. But it’s still edgy. James Bond drinks gin (admittedly as a cocktail). It’s an acquired taste, disliked by most adolescent drinkers, at least. It’s still got a certain something. (Not tonic, round my way, as I stopped drinking tonic with it once the usual 18th century corruption of my palette kicked in, and now I drink gin neat, which can get me strange looks). I suppose the whys and wherefores of that are what I eventually set out to explore in my talk.

The cake bit of Gin & Cake is a completely different thing. The history of cake, though, is not without controversy, mainly due to its frivolous nature: cake is not a staple food; we don’t need cake in our diets. As early as 1845 Eliza Acton was calling it ‘sweet poison’, and sniffily refusing to give many recipes for cake (a shame for cake-likers, as she’s one of the best pre-1900 authors I can think of). But cake hasn’t (yet) been blamed for murder, or beatings, or riots. Who knows – the current demonisation of sugar echos that of gin in the 17th century in some ways. In both cases, there’s a level of black and white thinking which allows for very little middle ground for the occasional consumer.

Anyway, the talk is on Gin and Cake, and, as usual, I aim to entertain and educate in fairly equal measure. Last time I gave the talk (last year), it sold out, which was nice, and I had the most mixed audience I’ve  ever seen. Absolute gin fanatics rubbing shoulders with interested in history teetotallers. Young and old, men and women – etc. It was great to see so many people coming together through a love of the past (or, possibly, drawn because of the samples of gin and cake of an historic persuasion, included in the format of the talk). Hey ho.

Link to Kew Palace talks site is here.

NB: I’m doing a sort of mini-residency at Kew this summer:
Gin and Cake (20th June)
Flatulence & Phlegm: on Georgian salads and herbs (2nd July)
Spice Night (8th August)
Abusing Hot Liquors: tea, coffee and chocolate (3rd Sept)
All will include samples.