Old sheep are the best sheep


The Kitchen Cabinet is back! YAY. One of the things I most love about doing the show (and there are lots and lots of things to choose from) is the opportunity it gives me to cook things I probably wouldn’t get round to otherwise. (It’s sort of provocation and ‘I dare you’ more than opportunity, actually). For those unfamiliar with the programme (HOW? WHAT? WHY?), the format is a sort of Gardener’s Question Time on LSD, with a series of enthusiastic and up-for-it audiences asking questions to a panel of culinary experts which differs each week. In every episode we cover different topics, linked to the place where we are recording, what’s in season at the time the programme will air, and burning food questions of the day. The questions we answer are submitted by audience members on the night, so we have no idea what we will be responding to until about 2 minutes before we step on stage, but we do get a heads-up on the main subject areas. For me, that means a day or so of intensive research, to find interesting facts, recipes and to create a historical narrative which will act as context to the more immediate questions around how to cook it, build it, eat it or think about it. We also have invited guests from the area in which we record, who usually bring things we can eat (it goes without saying that we are all enthusiastic eaters).

The latest run started last Saturday (the 24th September), with a show from Derry (you can catch up via iPlayer Radio, by downloading the podcast, or by going to the show’s very own website, here). This Saturday we are coming at you from Windsor, and we are talking about Queen Victoria (clearly a fabulous topic upon which it is possibly to wax lyrical for about 5 days), Ragus sugar syrups and mutton. You’ll have to listen to the show to hear its glories, but I promised several audience members that I would post the two recipes I cooked, hence this post.

For those of you who are raising an eyebrow at the thought of mutton, DO NOT DARE. Mutton, in my view, is far superior to its fatty, flaccid offspring, lamb, and has both a better taste and texture. I am not alone in thinking this, and there is a website, fronted by Prince Charles, devoted to its charms. The 19th century definition was that it was meat from a sheep of over 3 years, and the meat of those of 6 years plus was deemed the best. Generally now, sheep meat is lamb until it about a year and a half old, and hogget until it is three ish, and mutton after that. Some butchers only admit to having hogget if you ask them, as they label it as lamb, for lamb sells better. Very few sell mutton and you generally have to order it, or buy it online. It seems silly to me that, since the 1960s, we’ve largely lost the habit of eating baby cow (though veal remains easier to obtain than mutton), but embraced the habit of eating baby sheep (yes, yes, not actual babies: both veal and lamb is usually a year old unless stated otherwise). Lamb is baby food, really, as sweet and tender and juicy as is veal, although it is not quite as different to mutton as veal is to beef. Lamb is delightful to cook with if you need a hefty amount of fat, and don’t mind a bit of insipidity. Lamb chops are delightful, and delicate, and lamb roast is like putting spring in your mouth. If you actually like the flavour of it though, and want something with a tad more texture and bit more life to it, mutton is where it’s at. It’s also, in my view, more versatile than lamb: you can very very slow cook it until it falls apart, you can flash fry the chops (and the kidneys are divine), you can stick it in pies and sausages, and stews and – well. you get the picture.

These recipes are both from books by Charles Elmé Francatelli, who was – briefly – Chief Cook to Queen Victoria before he departed after some murky business involving fisticuffs and the police (also, everyone who worked from him seemed to dislike him). One, The Modern Cook, was aimed at high end chefs working in large establishments, like him. The other, The Cook’s Guide, was more middling sort. Both are good, though the Modern Cook is tediously attached to garnishes of pureed veg and a zillion annoying cross-references. Still, that’s what sold in 1842…

Mutton Pies à la Windsor (Cook’s Guide): 1lb lean loin of mutton, finely minced with a knife; finely chopped mushrooms, parsley, a small amount of shallot, lots and lots of pepper and salt; a little gravy or thick stock. Mix everything together, and put it in small pies (a fairy cake tray is ideal). Pierce the top of each pie and bake for 45mn-1hr in an over at about 160-180. Apparently they are idea for ‘the sportsman’s bag of prog’. (I used a pastry from a Larousse of 1938 – 500g flour, 125g butter, 1 whole small egg, 15g salt).

Mutton cutlets with chestnut purée (Modern Cook): season the cutlets, egg them with a pastry brush dipped in the yolk, dip in breadcrumbs, then in melted butter, then in breadcrumbs again. Fry in very hot clarified butter. Serve with a chestnut purée made by simmering (previously cooked, peeled and probably in a tin chestnuts) in a bit of very good chicken or beef stock for 15-20mn, then adding a scant tsp of sugar, nutmeg and 1/2 pt of cream. Reduce this little lot on the stove and blitz or mash. Add a knob of butter just before serving.


The Kitchen Cabinet, Be in the Audience
Francatelli’s Modern Cook
Francatelli’s Cook’s Guide
Graig Farm Mutton (amazing)
The Smiling Sheep (wherein I have just obtained 10yo mutton and am very very excited)

The dinner detective

Gosh, I’m back! Soz, I’m working on a book, and it turns out to be even more work than a PhD. However, it also turns out to be the most fun I can possibly have, and, with only two months to go until I submit the manuscript, I am already having mild conniptions at the thought of being bookless in the autumn. However, it probably will mean more time to add to this occasional blog, and almost certainly many of those posts will be shamelessly self-promotional and you’ll all learn way more about Queen Victoria than you ever wanted to – and if you don’t, then BUY MY BOOK (getting into it already). (You can’t actually BUY MY BOOK yet anyway, but it should be out late spring next year, so you might be able to pre-order it at some stage). Trust me, I will be tweeting about it like a broken record.

In a sort of vaguely linked-to-the-book, but largely fortuitous scenario, I have been working with Historic Royal Palaces and the University of Reading on their soon-to-be-over (sorry – but it is re-running at the end of the year) FutureLearn MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – free and lovely educational courses on all manner of things, run through the Open University’s latest platform). It’s called A History of Royal Food and Feasting, and covers off the food (obvs) of some of the monarchs associated with the palaces run by HRP. My ‘bit’, apart from being generally helpful with recipes and such like, was the Victorian section, which I had great fun with, doing some writing, some videos, and wincing every time the video of me making a cake came on (I have dreadful hair in it). One of the more challenging moments was coming up with 5 minutes worth of material on Victoria’s 17th birthday dinner, which was held at Kensington Palace in 1836 during the first visit of Prince Albert to the UK (he was ill, and had to come home early from the ball which followed the dinner – Victoria was terribly sad, but still stayed out partying until 2.30am). The challenge, one which learners on the course have remarked upon, is that we know quite literally nothing about it.

It would be nice if the young princess had given us a menu or even a hint at the dishes for her birthday meal but, as is pretty characteristic, in her journal for the day she merely says, ‘at 7, we dined‘. The dinner wasn’t the focus of the evening anyway – that was the ball (and her presents, but still). The journals of Queen Victoria are, on the face of it, an amazing resource for anyone studying her and her reign, and indeed, they are – but the early ones were written with the audience of her mother in mind, and the later ones were edited to hell and back by her daughter Beatrice who took out many of the everyday things her mother talked about – names of servants, for example. They are selective, and do not always give the details that the avid researcher is looking for, as is exactly the case here. When using them, they do have to be read with other sources, and, when it comes to food, those sources are not always obvious. Not only that but, while you might assume that royal record-keeping was meticulous, things do get lost over the years, and records might be destroyed. For Victoria’s childhood, which includes this birthday dinner, the household wasn’t part of the main royal establishment, which means that both the keeping and the preservation of records were not subject to the same rigour as they were at, say, Windsor. When Victoria became Queen, her menus were carefully written into dining ledgers, which detail what she ate, and sometimes the quantities of meat in specific dishes. The run is not complete though, and doesn’t include all of the palaces, so even then it’s impossible to say what she ate throughout her whole life. The supply books for the palaces give a bit more detail, or rather, different detail, and sometimes the newspapers of the time feature an article or two with a tiny glimpse of the food. But it’s still hard to decipher exactly what was eaten on any given day, and that’s with good record-keeping. While there are accounts of some of the festivities at Kensington in newspapers, this one escaped comment, and the other records don’t exist for the 17th birthday meal, because all of the records of life at Kensington were destroyed by Victoria’s mother’s Comptroller (and general villain of the piece), John Conroy, and his successor, in an attempt to hide the rather blatant fraud he’d been practising on her for much of the time he occupied that position.

So where do we start? We know a little about the household in general: they had a French cook, probably a man called Chevassot, as a cook of that name started work in the Royal Household on the day of Victoria’s succession, and he almost certainly had male help, as well as female help, for there are references to male cooks as well as maids in the inventories drawn up after Victoria moved out. The kitchen in 1836 was reasonable, for the Duchess of Kent (Victoria’s mother) had managed, after years of wrangling, to have a new kitchen built in her apartments, replacing the old kitchen which was still that built by William III (it was converted into a chapel). Plans for this new kitchen exist in the Royal Collection, so we can see what was in it – probably – assuming it was built as planned. It included a roasting range, ovens, steam-heated hot closet and chafing stoves, among other fixtures. We can also make assumptions about dishes which would have been served based on a couple of inventories, including one of the Duke of Kent’s kitchen before his death in 1819, which lists jelly moulds, ice cream making equipment and various pans, dariole moulds etc, which help to build up a general idea of what could have been cooked. His crockery lists are included in the same volume. We know as well that the dinner would have been served à la Française, as that was the prevailing style at the time, and, as an aristocratic meal designed to show off to visitors, it almost certainly consisted of a first course of two types of soup, two fish, four entrees, possibly with a remove dish or two replacing the soup or fish before diners dug into the entrees, and then a second course of game, vegetables in a sauce, sweet puddings, fruit tarts and patisserie, ending with dessert of fresh fruit and ices.

We do not know, and never will know, what the menu was. But – to me- that’s part of the fun. One of the joys of the book has been teasing out information and weaving it together like a jigsaw with half the pieces missing to form a fairly good – but never entirely exact – picture of the whole. Gaps are good, gaps are interesting, gaps make the writer and the reader work together as one. Certainly the comments from learners on the HRP course have indicated that they are engaging with the material and the challenges of historical research, and that they are forming their own opinions based on the available evidence. OK, some people are citing wikipedia at each other (grrrr), but in general there’s a real spirit of curiosity as they get to grips with things which, let’s face it,  are unusual in the current media environment: experts, admitting they don’t know for sure, but showing solid evidence to enhance understanding for all. I suppose that some learners may have expected simple facts and figures, but history (and, indeed, life) doesn’t really work like that. Engaging with the process is at least as important as finding out the stuff (more, really, for the facts are largely irrelevant in many ways – though my advice is not to try and argue that in your first year of an undergraduate history course as it leads to nastiness). That said, stuff can be enlightening, and at the very least, every learner was encouraged to practice what the course preached, and cook and eat historic recipes as well.

The course will run again later in 2016: click here to register interest.

Press release here about THE BOOK, which was shortlisted for the Jane Grigson Trust Award earlier this year (amazing: was most chuffed).


It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend. If you are not hanging up the bunting and getting in the booze, then you are missing out, in my view. Especially at the moment, watching all the mud-slinging of the Brexit/Bremain stuff, I sort of despair. I adore Eurovision. Always have. To me, it’s a chance to celebrate all the good things about Europe – cultural diversity, shared experiences, and, above all, a sense of massive fun. In the UK, we tend to look toward America for our foreign music, and I still remember the shock and mild horror when I realised that French radio played a lot of French music – and Spanish, and German, and whatever was popular in the European club scene at the time. Eventually I came to enjoy it, and I still listen to as much French music as I do English, I suspect. I shan’t rehearse all the reasons why Eurovision is BRILLIANT here, (though I shall direct you to this radio show with by the Swedish Ambassador, which is very good), but suffice to say that, while the top-rated songs are generally genuinely good (not always- I’m looking at YOU very bad Polish butter-makers in 2014 – terrible, terrible technique), it’s the mixture of great – average – dire and sheer WTF which makes the whole evening such a joy.

I am head down writing chapters of A Greedy Queen like a demon at the moment, so I shall make the rest of this post pithy. Here’re my favourite songs, and, as the point of this blog is to muse in a historically meaningful way, some suggestions of what to cook to celebrate them in a suitably ye olde way:

Austria: OK, I LIKE THIS SONG. How about Kaiser-Schmarn, from Countess Morphy’s Recipes of All Nations? It’s a pancake on LSD – 1/2lb of flour, 1/2 pint of cream, sugar, eggs, raisins, salt and butter. I ate a modern version last year while on the Great Austria Trip and it was immense. Countess Morphy is also immense, as she’s a fake Countess, and wrote what is, in my view, one of the best cookery books of the 20th century. In an amazing departure from every academic norm ever, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry, which has been edited by a crack team based around the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore is one of only about ten accurate food history articles on the web.

France: Inevitably. I am the only person I know who liked Twin Twin’s Moustache. For France we can delve into the 18th century, as high end cooking was all French influenced at that stage. I’d like to offer up wine chocolate, published in John Nutt’s Cook’s Dictionary of 1726. The French drank a lot of chocolate, and this one has booze in, which you tend to need about halfway through the first song. Anyway, take a pint of sherry, or a pint and a half of red port, four ounces and a half of chocolate, six ounces of fine sugar, and half an ounce of white starch, or fine flour; mix, dissolve, and boil all these as before. But, if your chocolate be with sugar, take double the quantity of chocolate, and half the quantity of sugar; and so in all. I use rice flour as the starch and it’s divine.

Belgium: She’s a sort of foil-clad Kylie. Fun. Go for Brussels Biscuits, which were Princess Victoria’s favourite snack when she was recovering from illness in 1835. Essentially they are a rusk made of brioche dough. Additive. If you seriously want to try them, ping me a comment and I can send the recipe. It’s going in the book…..

Australia: good on the Australians for taking it seriously enough to send a really good song, and being undecided enough to only send her with only half a dress. We’ll plump for an 1880s Beeton recipe, which I suspect no-one ever cooked: parrot pie. It’s the same as pigeon pie (steak, egg, bird), so clearly adapted for a hypothetical Antipodean audience (or possibly just friends and family at home) based on existing recipes, and decorated in the same way with feet sticking out of the lid except….feathers. Love it. It’s as flamboyant and unreal as the whole contest.

parrot pie beeton 88
Can also be made with parakeets.

I should probably admit that my actual menu for my own evening with friends is not exactly this. It’s entirely modern, unusually for me, and rather random. I’ve got recipes representing the UK (Kay Plunkett-Hogg’s Xinjang Lamb), Sweden (Swedes are involved in about half of the entries, so it’s kind of broad – Bronte Aurell’s Cinnamon Buns), France (Pierre Hermé’s excruciatingly complicated macarons),and Israel except also France (taboulé, which I learnt to cook in Paris). I have Austrian, Spanish and French wines though…and German, British and Belgian beers.

Music should be enjoyable, right? (NOT YOU, GEORGIA), and so should food. A winning combination. Here’s to Eurovision, 2016!



A glorious day at Osborne House

This year’s series of James Martin: Home Comforts has started on BBC1. It’s on every afternoon, and repeated on Saturdays. There are 15 episodes, each of which has a food history slot, which either feature myself or Ivan Day. I’ve had a few requests for the recipes from episode 2, so as usual I’m putting them here. The clip is on the BBC website, so if you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, and all will become clear.

For episode 2 I was at Swiss Cottage, part of the Osborne House estate on the Isle of Wight (it’s now run by English Heritage). It was built in 1853-4 as a playhouse for Victoria and Albert’s growing brood of children. Modelled on the idea of a Swiss chalet, it had a kitchen and a scullery, and, upstairs, a sitting room, museum room and dressing room. The children also had a garden, with individual plots where they were taught to grow fruit and veg, which were then bought from them at market rates by the Prince Consort. Later the museum room was expanded, to fill a separate building, and there was also a potting shed and various buildings housing animals. It was tenanted by a housekeeper, Mrs Warne, and her husband, who looked after the garden when they children weren’t there. Mrs Warne is the most likely candidate for the children’s cookery teacher, and they had a great deal of affection for her.

The kitchen at Swiss is, apparently, 2/3 size, and therefore suitable for small children. I mildly dispute this, as for me it’s pretty much the perfect height, but I will admit that when average-sized people are in there, it does look a bit reduced. There’s a range, manufactured under Royal Warrant in Belgium, and probably a gift from Victoria’s Uncle Leopold. He was one of the few relatives she had who wasn’t utterly hideous, though he had his moments. There’s a set of chafing stoves, and there’s a fairly fully equipped set of cupboards and a dresser. Most of the prep work would have been done, as is characteristic of Victorian kitchens, on a central table, and there is also a separate scullery.

The children regularly cooked at Swiss, as did some of their children in their turn. However, after Albert’s death in 1861, the Queen increasingly seems to have used Swiss as a convenient place to take tea (reasonable, given all the facilities for preparing it would have been in place), and as an office. It seems to have drifted out of use as a children’s playhouse by the 1890s, and was eventually cleared out and opened to the public in the twentieth century. Along the way, annoyingly for anyone researching it (!) a manuscript book of recipes disappeared from the drawers under the window. It was still there in the early 1930s…..anyone out there got it?

I’ve done a lot of work on Swiss Cottage, and was lucky enough to be a small part of the team behind its recent restoration and reinterpretation. It’s now the focus of an exhibition exploring childhood at Queen Victoria’s Court, and looking in depth at the lives of her nine children. It’s rather brilliant, and certainly adds an extra element to what’s on offer at Osborne. From my perspective, filming this segment felt very fitting. I was probably the first person to cook in the kitchen for about 150 years, and I was cooking dishes (though probably not the specific recipes) which were definitely cooked by the children. It was very special indeed.

Me having a moment of joy

The recipes

The primary references to pancakes and schneemilch don’t contain any clues as to which particular versions of them the children cooked. However, I had to make choices for TV, and I plumped for these. I’ve transcribed, modernised and translated them. Massive thanks to Sophia Wollschlager at the BBC and Georgian cooking guru Marc Hawtree for helping with the German.

Neues auf vieljährige Erfahrung gegründetes Kochbuch, Sophie Armster, 1840

Princess Louise to Prince Albert, 1858, ‘On Saturday we cooked in our kitchen and made some wafers and Schneemilch’.

Ingredients: 10-16 egg whites, 1pt milk, 1pt double cream, 1/4lb white sugar, lemon rind, 3tsp orange flower water, pinch salt.

Method: Whisk 10-16 egg whites (depending on size) to soft peak in a copper bowl. If you don’t have a copper bowl, then all the other possible methods are also entirely fine. Add the other ingredients apart from the cream, and fold them all into the cream. Make thick custard of this mixture. I plonk my copper bowl on pan of water and use it as a Bain Marie, but however you do it, I’m sure it’ll be lovely. Allow to cool, spread on a baking sheet, and cut into lumps to use to make a mountain (the lumps won’t properly set unless they are left overnight, so if you are doing it, as I was, in a few hours, it may be a low mountain). Top with egg yolk custard if you fancy (not least as it uses up all those egg yolks!). Sprinkle with cinnamon and decorate with soft fruit and, for a true Victorian touch, a maidenhair fern.

2015-07-10 19.51.24

Pancakes à la Celestine
The Modern Cook, Charles Elmé Francatelli, 1845

Princess Helena to Prince Albert, 1858: ‘Alice made a pancake yesterday afternoon at the Swiss Cottage. I had none of it as I was out driving with Mama. Arthur told me that after she had finished it she touched it with the dirty charcoal pincers’.

Ingredients: 4oz flour, 4oz caster sugar, 2oz ratifia or amaretti biscuits, orange flower water, 4 egg yolks, 2 whole eggs, 1 pt cream, fine grain salt, butter for frying, apricot or other jam for filling

Method: Crush the ratifias to dust in a bowl with a masher, add the rest of the ingredients, and then the whisked eggs. Fry each pancake in about 2oz of butter. They burn like crazy, split, and are generally an absolute sod, by the way. Extract from pan, spread each pancake with jam, roll up and serve piled in a pyramid.

2015-07-10 19.51.22

Pancakes à la Celestine