Polesden Lacey

polesden-lacey-nt-propertyPolesden Lacey is an Edwardian house, extensively remodeled from an earlier building in 1906 by Architects Charles Mew’s and Arthur Davis, who were also responsible for the Ritz Hotel in London, for Ronald and Margaret Greville. The name ‘Polesden’ is thought to derive from the Old English.

polesden-lacey-the-saloonMargaret Greville was a well-known Edwardian hostess and her collection of fine paintings, furniture, porcelain and silver is displayed in the reception rooms and galleries, as it was at the time of her celebrated house parties. The future George VI and Queen Elizabeth spent part of their honeymoon here in 1923.

rosegarden-pergola-polesden-lacey-1923The first house was built here by 1336, then in 1630 Anthony Rous bought the estate and rebuilt the medieval house. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the poet and playwright, bought the house in 1804.

The house was demolished when Joseph Bonsor bought the estate 1824 and commissioned Thomas Cubitt to build an entirely new house which created the core of the house seen today. Bonsor died in 1835, and the house passed to his son who, in kings-bedroom-polesden-lacey-19231853, sold the estate to Sir Walter Rockcliff Farquhar, who held it until his death in 1902.

The estate was then purchased by Sir Clinton Edward Dawkins, a career civil servant, who commissioned Ambrose Poynter, architect son of Sir Edward Poynter P.R.A., in 1906 to significantly extend Cubitt’s work to create the present house. Sir Clinton, however died shortly after its completion.

mr-and-mrs-ronald-greville-1906Ronald Greville died in 1908 only two years after they had moved to Polesden Lacey. He was aged 46. Margaret continued to entertain lavishly at the house. She also owned a home in London in which she held expensive parties. Over the next 30 years her reputation as a society hostess became established.

The Hall at Polesden Lacey. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von EinsiedelThe current estate comprises 1,400 acres of grounds, including lawns, ancient woodland, landscape walks and a walled rose garden.

chandelier-polesden-lacey-1906 Located on the North Downs at Great Bookham, near Dorking, Surrey, it is currently one of the National Trust’s most popular properties.

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Feast Your Eyes . . . On Mince Pies

home-made-australian-fruitMincemeat, that quintessentially English pie filling consisting of chopped, spiced fruits flavoured with sherry, brandy and to be honest any other booze you may have lying around! Widely popular in the UK, it is traditionally served as pies around Christmas time.

Both America and Australia (the articles in this post tell how to use the excellent dried fruit from Australia that was beginning to arrive in the Britain early in the twentieth century)  lay claim to the boozy delicacy.

But to understand how the mix came to be labelled with the epithet mincemeat we have to take a look at it’s history.

australian-mincemeat The point here is simply that if you didn’t actually grow up with mincemeat, the chances are you’re going to be totally dumbfounded by what it actually is! Logically one would imagine that, by the sound of it,  the main ingredient would actually be meat. And to be perfectly honest about it, that would be true! Mincemeat was originally created as a means of preserving meat, principally mutton, without having to resort to smoking or salting.

From such humble beginnings it became, (on the return of the Crusaders in the 12th century with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg), pimped up into the australian-fruitChristmas staple it is today.

The three spices were symbolic of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi, therefore forging the Christmas link. The spices contain antimicrobial properties that helped to keep the meat through winter, whilst also masking any stale meat flavours. The meat used was normally finely chopped, or minced, which is where the pie got its name.

By the 20th century, beef suet had replaced the meat in the majority of cases and the fruits (apples, dried raisins candied citrus &c) and the alcohol (such as Brandy, Whisky and Sherry) took centre stage. Today, sometimes even the suet is taken out to be replaced with butter to make it vegetarian-friendly.

Despite many transformations over the centuries mince pies are still a popular Christmas item with British bakeries notching up sales of up to 40m mince pies over the Christmas period. Despite the high volume sales of the commercial bakeries, it is agreed upon that homemade product is always the better option. The ingredients list can be long, but the end result is well worth it.

economical-cookery-aUnfortunately, most people have never tasted a true old-fashioned mincemeat pie (also called mince pie). The flavour of real mincemeat pie is closer to a Middle Eastern dish with its mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Mincemeat developed as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking some 500 years ago in England, where mince pies are still considered an essential accompaniment to holiday dinners just like the traditional plum pudding.

This pie is a remnant of a medieval tradition of spiced meat dishes, usually mutton, that have survived because of its association with Christmas.

economical-cookery-cThese pies, as part of the Christmas table have long been an English custom. (The term mincers in cockney rhyming slang derives from mince pies  and means eyes!)

Today, we are accustomed to eating mince pies as a dessert, but actually “minced” pie and its follow-up “mincemeat pie” began as a main course dish with more meat than fruit (a mixture of meat, dried fruits, and spices).  As fruits and spices became more plentiful in the 17th century, the spiciness of the pies increased accordingly.

The mince pie was originally made in an oblong casings (coffin, cofyne or manger shaped), with a place for the Christ Child to be placed on top. The pies are traditionally quite small and even today it is thought to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (ending with Epiphany, the 6th of January).

australian-fruit-bOver the years the size and shape of the pie has gradually changed from oblong to round, and the meat content has gradually been reduced until the pies are now simply filled with a mixture of suet, spices and dried fruit, previously steeped in brandy.

In 1413, King Henry V of England served a mincemeat pie at his coronation while King Henry VIII liked his Christmas pie to be a main-dish pie filled with proper mincemeat.

A 16th century cookery book that also includes some account of domestic life, cookery and feasts in Tudor days, was called:

harvest-home-1a A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye, declarynge what maner of  meates be beste in season, for al times in the yere, and how they ought to be dressed, and  serued at the table, bothe for fleshe dayes, and fyshe dayes

has a recipe for a pie that sounds a lot like a modern day mincemeat pie:

To make Pyes – Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth pepper and salte, and a lyttle saffron to coloure it, suet or marrow a good quantite, a lyttle vyneger, prumes, greate raysins and dates, take thefattest of the broathe of powdred beyfe, and yf you wyll have paest royall, take butter and yolkes of egges and so tempre the flowre to make the paeste.

In the1588 Good Hous-Wiues Treasurie by Edward Allde, meats were still cut up to be eaten with a spoon and combined with fruits and heavy spices.  Typical was his recipe for Minst Pye which used practically the same ingredients that go into the modern version.

harvest-home-1bIn  1657 Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the self-proclaimed Lord Protector of England from 1649 until 1658, detested Christmas, proclaiming it a pagan holiday (one not sanctioned by the Bible that promoted gluttony and drunkenness).  Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Council abolished Christmas on December 22, 1657.  In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, any food being cooked for a Christmas celebration.  Cromwell considered pies as a guilty, forbidden pleasure and so the pie was banned. King Charles II (1630-1685) restored Christmas when he ascended the throne in 1660.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, mince pies, sometimes known as shred or secrets pies, were made in eccentric shapes.  Maybe this was done to originally hide the fact that these were actually mince pies which were banned during the Christmas celebration in England, and possibly the tradition just continued for many years

mince-pie_1956In 1659, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan influence crossed the Atlantic to the British Colonies there, and many New England towns went so far as to actually ban mincemeat pies at Christmas time.  Christmas was actually banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681 and those caught celebrating it were fined.

The Quaker Elizabeth Ellicott Lea explained in her book called Domestic Cookery, published in 1853 that:  “Where persons have a large family, and workmen on a farm, these pies are very useful.”  By useful, she meant that the pies could be baked in large numbers, and more importantly, during cold weather, they could be kept for as long as two months.  The mincemeat could be made ahead and kept even longer.

In the late 19th century, in those communities that existed to hunt whale, mince pies were even produced using whale mincemeat.

But the modern day mincemeat pie contains no meat, definitely no whale, sometimes no suet, sometimes no alcohol, and is nothing more than a wimpy salute to the manly, meaty pie of mincemeat history. Henry VIII must be spinning in his grave!

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Take Ripe Quinces . . .

quinceThe Quince is a fruit of ancient origin. The Roman cookbook of Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery recipes compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD gives recipes for stewing quince with honey and leek.

Historically, marmalade was made from quince (the English word ‘marmalade’ comes from the Portuguese word marmelada, meaning ‘quince preparation’ and is used to describe quince cheese or quince jam : ‘marmelo = quince’)

quinces-stewed-with-leeks-apiciusNowadays, a marmalade is defined as a jellied fruit product that holds suspended within it all or part of the fruit pulp and the sliced peel. It is prepared from pulpy fruits, preferably those that contain pectin. Citrus fruits are especially desirable because of patina-de-cydoneis-apiciustheir flavour and pectin content. They are gorgeous cooked, and make the most beautiful rose-coloured jam, loaded with natural pectin, so there’s no need to add any during the making.

 Quince are a rather an odd fruit. They look like a cross between an apple and a pear, and as such seem inviting to eat. But take a bite of one picked from the tree and the sour, astringent taste will make your mouth curl up in disbelief.

Ripe quince have a strong, floral fragrance, very close to roses. For best results use quince that are ripe and rose scented. When choosing what quince to pick or buy, smell the bottom of the fruit.

It should have a strong floral fragrance. If not, it’s not fully ripe.

quince-marmalade-greekjelly-potjelly-2nd-boilreducing-slowlyQuince cheese, also known as dulce de membrillo in Spanish, is a sweet, thick, jelly made of the pulp of the quince fruit.

Quince cheese is a common confection in several countries, where it goes by first-boilbottled-marmaladeother names, such as carne de membrillo or ate de membrillo in Spanish, marmelada in Portuguese, marmelo in Galician, codonyat in Catalan, cotognata in Italian, birsalma sajt or birsalma zselé in Hungarian and membrilyo in Tagalog. In Australia, it is known as quince paste. The taste is sweet but slightly astringent, and it is similar in quince-marmaladeconsistency, flavour and use to guava cheese.

It is sold in squares or blocks, then cut into thin slices and spread over toasted bread or sandwiches, plain or with cheese, often served for breakfast or as a snack, with cheese or to stuff pastries.

The Pastafrola, a sweet tart common in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, is usually filled with quince paste. In Argentina and Uruguay, the dulce de membrillo is also a popular dessert, eaten with cheese,

dulce-de-membrilloIn the Philippines the dessert is known as membrilyo, even if it is made of guava, since quince is unavailable in the former Spanish colony. It is a traditional part of the nochebuena served on Christmas Eve.

In French  quince paste or pâte de coing is part of the Provence Christmas traditions, a part of the thirteen desserts, that are the traditional dessert foods used to celebrating Christmas the region.

In Serbia, Hungary (where it’s called birsalma sajt) and continental Croatia, quince cheese is an often prepared sweet and is named kitn(i)kes, derived from German ‘Quittenkäse’ Also a New England specialty of the 18th century, it required all-day boiling to achieve a solidified state, similar to the French cotignac.

Péter Melius Juhász, the Hungarian botanist, mentioned quince cheese as early as 1578 as a fruit preparation with medical benefits.

Quince are available in October and November in the Northern Hemisphere.

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Honey, Spice & All Things Nice

Honey and Gingerhoney-spice-ring have long been considered staples of the ‘cold weather’ tea-table.

Although the cost of spices in general has dropped considerably during the last century, they are still seen as a luxury, even today.

As such they are used mainly in festive foods for special occasions such as Birthdays, Weddings, Christmas and Easter!

Here are a couple of interesting  recipes from a ‘Farmhouse Kitchen’ cookbook from the eighties.

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Of Hare & Rabbit

first-catch-your-hare-by-john-doylea-hareThe eating of hares and rabbits has a venerable history in Europe.

Greeks, Germans, Spaniards and Britons love rabbits and hares, as do Italians in certain regions. Most of the recipes in modern usage have their roots deep in those European traditions.

a-cute-bunnyOften maligned as ‘poor people’s food’ both rabbits and hares can make better eating than some of the larger game. Rabbits are typically tender and of a perfect eating size, one will serve a person nicely, although you can split one rabbit between two people if needs must!

mediterranean-cookery-hare-and-rabbit-imageDespite their cute and fluffy appearance, rabbits are a long overlooked source of sustainable meat. One of the primary differences that set rabbit apart from other meats is that it is one of the only animals we are prepared to eat here in the UK that is also kept as a domestic pet. I mean, who on earth wants to tuck in to Fluffy’s baby sister?

To anyone weaned on Watership Down and the Easter Bunny the very thought is mediterranean-cookery-lievre-a-la-royale-1going to be subject to a fair degree of horrified reluctance.

Hares on the other hand are not so cuddly. Larger, up to 12 lb in weight, one will serve four easily. Hares have the darker, stronger flavoured meat both are served braised by long tradition. Not having been domesticated and unlike rabbits they live in small groups and nest above ground as opposed to complex warrens of the rabbit.

The number of wild rabbits in the UK is estimated at around 50 m while hare numbers tend to hover somewhere around 4 m.

mediterranean-cookery-lievre-a-la-royale-2It should be a foregone conclusion then, that with such numbers and the common knowledge of their over-enthusiastic breeding, rabbit is a meat should be on the menu far more frequently despite the sentimental affection for the bunny.

A wild rabbit in the UK will eat more grass than a sheep, and hares can consume up to three times as much. Given a good combination of herbs and seasonings these wild animals have a subtle gaminess not at all in the ‘tastes like chicken’ category whilst hare is always wild. (about getting caught most probably!)

In England it is the brown hare that we occasionally see in mediterranean-cookery-lievre-a-la-royale-3good butchers, but in Scotland you will often find the blue or mountain hare.

Traditionally, hare should be hung undrawn; guts still inside, for seven to ten days to enhance its flavour and to tenderize the meat.

However, speaking to several chefs*, it appears this can make the meat somewhat overwhelming and so it is usually hung with its insides removed.

One of the main problems cooks face with rabbit and hare is that they both dry out rather quickly. Braising is the preferred method by the traditionalist, as is their inclusion mediterranean-cookery-lievre-a-la-royale-4in pies and casseroles. Their use in stews is also a most noble way of preparing those cute little buck-toothed bunnies!

mediterranean-foodMyself, being an unrepentant, dyed in the wool traditionalist, trained as a cook in the classical style, go along here with the recipe for lièvre à la Royale (right) that Elizabeth David gives in her 1950’s volume, A Book Of Mediterranean Food.

It is just pleasing to note that unlike the current breed of ‘celebrity chefs’ she has not added her own unique twist and claimed it as her own, purely for royalty purposes of course, but recounts it as written by Senator Couteaux in his mediterranean-cookery-lievre-a-la-royale-5Parisian Le Temps newspaper column of fifty years earlier!

*It is, and always be, my contention that there is only one chef in the kitchen, the chief cook, the man, or woman, in charge. All the others are cooks of differing levels of knowledge and experience who, pulling together under their leader produce well-presented and highly edible food. Anyone can call themself a chef but it doesn’t follow that they can cook!

To outrageously misquote the late Lady Thatcher ‘If you have to tell people you’re a chef, you aint!’

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A Very English Pudding

bb1Summer pudding or summer fruit pudding is an English dessert made of sliced white bread, layered in a deep bowl with fruit and fruit juice. It is left to soak overnight and turned out onto a plate.

The dessert was most popular from the late 19th to the early 20th century.  It first appears in print with its current name in 1904, but identical recipes for ‘hydropathic pudding’ and ‘Malvern pudding’ from as far back as 1868 have been found.

summer-pudding-14Making summer pudding is much easier if the bread is somewhat stale. This helps the fruit juices soak through the bread, which makes the pudding more pleasant. Summer pudding can be served with cream.

summer-pudding-1The fruits typically used in summer pudding are raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants, and blackberries. Less commonly used are tayberries, loganberries, cherries and blueberries.

Today, 29th September is Michaelmas Day, traditionally the last day of the harvest season is the feast day of Saint Michael the summer-pudding-2Archangel, the patron saint of the sea, of boats and boatmen, of horses and horsemen. He was also the Angel who hurled Lucifer from heaven for his treachery.

Originally the harvest began on 1st August and was called Lammas, or ‘loaf Mass’ where farmers made bread summer-pudding-4from the new wheat crop and gave them to their own church.

This custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and currently the festival is at the end of the season, near Michaelmas Day.

summer-pudding-7Folklore in England holds that the devil stamps on bramble bushes or as they say in some areas, spits on them. Therefore one must not pick blackberries after Michaelmas.

The reason for this belief has ancient origins. It was said that the devil was kicked out of heaven on St Michael’s Feast Day, but as summer-pudding-8he fell from the skies, he landed in a bramble bush! He cursed the fruit of that prickly plant, scorching them with his fiery breath, stamping on them, spitting on them and generally making them unsuitable for human consumption.

hampshire-summer-puddingLegend suggests he renews his curse every Michaelmas day and so no more blackberries can be gathered beyond today!

See here for further details!

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Poppy Goes Blackberrying

bb3It’s that time of year again! The hedgerows groan under the weight of the trailing, blackberry laden brambles while higher in the branches you will find both elderberry and sloe.

Poppy and I have a number of preferred locations in the area for such activities and this is the Queen Elizabeth Forest, which along with its ‘over-the-road’ adjunct of Park Wood, are ones that we frequent all year dsc00536round for pleasantly sun dappled summer afternoons, wet muddy winter ones and the all too infrequent snow filled ones.

Either way it’s a good place to be, to spend a few hours of meandering thoughtfulness amid the madness. To be quite honest it has been a calm refuge of peace, tranquillity and thick black mud for me and several generations of my dogs, of which there have been far too many to many to name here.

dsc00535But be that as it may! Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’ (right) is one of the great twentieth-century poems of disappointment, epitomising that moment when we realise that nothing will ever live up to our expectations.

bb5Heaney uses the act of picking blackberries to explore his theme. First he focuses on the picking of the blackberries, the experience of the picking of them, the eating of them, and the taking of them them dsc00537home.

It then reflects on the subsequent sense of disappointment when the hoarded blackberries are found to have fermented and there is a fungus growing on the fruit.

It encapsulates the realisation that this would always happen: soon after the berries had been picked, they would go rotten. Growing up is about reconciling ourselves to the realities of the world, and ‘Blackberry Picking’ addresses this theme.

dsc00538It’s a rite of passage that we all experience akin to the realisation that there is no such thing as the tooth fairy or, even more depressingly, Santa Claus. It pinpoints the precise moment when our clear and sunny skies of hope cloud over with disillusionment.

The taste of the blackberries, juicy, voluptuous and sweet, is a sensual experience, much like a first kiss: a thrill that, after which, there is no other.

Indeed, the fruit-picking calls to mind the biblical story from the Book of Genesis, that loss of paradise brought on when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. In doing so they gained worldly knowledge but lost their innocence.

dsc00534Ironically, nowhere in the bible is it written that the fruit of the forbidden tree is the apple. So why could it not have been the blackberry?

Apropos of nothing in particular, a further post detailing what to actually do with the harvest of today will follow shortly, well, by Michaelmas at the very least!

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