Clarissa Dickson Wright and the Art of Medieval Food
The late Clarissa Dickson Wright is known to the English-speaking countries of the world as one of The Two Fat Ladies – the middle-aged motorcycling cooks who zipped around the English, Welsh and Irish countryside, one at the wheel of a Triumph Thunderbird, the other stuffed into the sidecar wearing what appeared to be a Biggles pilot helmet. Jennifer Paterson, the elder, learned to cook in Benghazi and London as a saucy au pair for the upper classes. After she tired of minding the kiddies, she appeared as a regular on the British Candid Camera and as the cook for the Spectator Magazine’s weekly lunches. She was fired from the Spectator when she chucked all the kitchen crockery out of an upper floor window because the accountants left dirty tea cups in the sink. Her culinary talents must have been formidable because she was retained long after she had tickled Enoch Powell’s bald spot during one lunch while girlishly cooing “koochie koo!” at the thunderstruck MP. Hospitalized in 1999 and told she had a month or so to live, she was asked if she wanted to speak with a social worker. “No,” she boomed, “I’m watching a Fred Astaire film.”
Clarissa Dickson Wright, although as insouciant as her other half, was a different kettle of medieval fish. Born to an Australian heiress and the Queen’s surgeon, Arthur Dickson Wright, she grew up in London amid the upper classes of Scotland, Ireland, England and Oz. Both her parents were connoisseurs of fine food and drink and during a time of strict food rationing her father was importing pigeon from the Middle East and caviar from Iran. In this lavish environment, Clarissa learned to appreciate beautifully prepared food and drink but choose the law as her profession. At 21, she became the youngest person called to the bar, working as a barrister at the Inns of Court. Those who have read her hilarious and chagrined autobiographies “Spilling the Beans” and “Riffling Through My Drawers,” know that upon her beloved mother’s death, she collapsed into a sybaritic existence that decimated the family fortune and landed her penniless and drunk in a London jail with only Saki’s short stories as company. Once sober, she rebuilt her life around food and its preparation, employed as a cook in private homes and as manageress of the well-known shop in Portobello Road called “Books for Cooks.” In 1996, she and Jennifer came under the eagle eye of a sharp-witted BBC producer who decided to pair the women in a television program centered around their many talents. These included Paterson’s basso profundo singing style, cocktail-shaking and motorcycling skills. Dickson Wright brought her sharp wit and extensive knowledge of the history of English food. “Two Fat Ladies” became an instant hit that was sadly cut short after its fourth season when Jennifer was struck down by cancer.
Dickson Wright, happily, went on to a solo television career bringing her knowledge of not only food but of country life to the British Isles. Unfortunately, the programs were not available to Americans until fans of Clarissa uploaded them onto You Tube. Two wonderful shows – 2008’s “Clarissa Dickson Wright and the King’s Cookbook” and 2014’s “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” – are there for the viewing. Both explore the long history of cooking in England and push back against notions of bland food prepared by a garlic-phobic nation. She makes a grand case that English food during the 14th Century achieved an artistic level that could rival France.
“The King’s Cookbook” takes us into the world of Richard II (1367-1400) and his lavish lifestyle at table. Deep within the British Library, we are shown the original Forme of Cury (translation: Method of Cooking), Richard’s compilation of 196 recipes complete with food stains and marginalia. We are shown directions for making blancmange (originally made with capon), salad (with nary a piece of lettuce in sight) and blubbery roasted porpoise. We learn that he employed over 300 kitchen staff. These included saucers, milkers, boners, choppers, spit boy, roasters and scribes who sat in a vestibule writing down “receipts.” All of them (with the exception of the scribes) were half naked because of the intense heat. They struggled mightily under the aegis of the Master Chef who sat upon a throne in the kitchen overseeing the work. They were expected to maintain rigid sanitary conditions. In an extension of these rules – which would benefit most Waffle Houses in the USA – he demanded his guests be provided with spoons and napkins and prohibited them from eating with fingers or belching, farting and fighting. In an interesting aside, Clarissa notes that while medieval cooking compilations do not include vegetable recipes, they were always included in meals and feasts. Herbs and vegetables were foraged in the wild and/or grown in private kitchen gardens. They were simply picked daily without much thought to recording how they were used. In the program “Lunch,” we see a lamb pottage (“in a pot”) being cooked over an open fire by docents and volunteers in medieval dress. As they peer into the bubbling pot, Clarissa laments today’s lack of available mutton which was once so popular and has lost favor among modern people because of its gaminess.* We are also disabused of that most pernicious notion of the medieval era that expensive and rare imported spices were used to cover up the smell and taste of rotten meat. Nothing could be further from the truth as several historians interviewed note with vehemence. Medieval cooks, like our modern chefs, knew how to use ingredients economically and intelligently. As they point out, only chilies would have disguised the taste of bad meat and they had not yet been imported from the Americas.
The louche King Richard continued his wanton ways, taxing and spending his country into anarchy all to please his exquisite palate and discriminating taste. “I will not dismiss one scallion from my kitchen on the grounds that Parliament asked me to, ” he famously sneered, much like a medieval Richard Olney faced with a shipment of bad wine. Of course, as is usually the case with tyrants and run-away budgets, the citizenry was soon fed up and hankering for a change. In 1399, he was brought to heel by the usual aggressive and ambitious upstarts that tended to gather around the edges of powerful Yorkists. In this case, it was Henry Bolingbroke, who after a false promise of freedom confined Richard to Pontefract Castle with neither a napkin nor spoon in sight. He then proceeded to starve the king to death in an ironic execution that mirrored the death several decades later of alcoholic George, Duke of Clarence, who was supposedly drowned in a butt of Malmsey. Mordant Lancastrian wit!
So ended the life of the first foodie king who, at least, never burned a cake unlike a certain predecessor. Instead, he left us with one of the earliest English-language cookbooks in western history which is offered free-of-charge on Kindle.
Two recipes are mentioned in “The King’s Cookbook” from The Forme of Cury. One is Goose Madame or Goose in Sauce Madame. The other is the simple and delicious:
Pears in Red Wine
2 Pears, 2 cups of good red wine, 1/2-1 cup of sugar depending on taste, orange zest, 1 cinnamon stick, star anise (optional).
Cut the bottoms off of peeled pears so that they stand up. Place in a deep saucepan and pour in the red wine. Add all other ingredients and simmer until pears are a deep jewel-like red and easily pierced with a knife. Cool and serve on a white plate with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sweetened ricotta.
The website Coquinaria, devoted to medieval cuisine, has a recipe for Goose Madame in which it is advised that it be served at Christmastime. We are now in the midst of high summer but perhaps it can be tucked away for later in the year or read for pure amazement at the list of ingredients that would delight Yotam Ottolenghi:
Stuff Goose Sauce Madame
1 large goose
For the stuffing: 2-4 tart apples, 2 pears, 2 Tbs. chopped parsley and 1 tsp. of sage and savory, 2 garlic cloves, chopped, 20-30 grapes, skinned.
For the sauce: 1 Tbsp of goose fat, 1 small onion, chopped, 1/2 liter (2 cups) of dark stock, 1/4 cup red wine, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, white breadcrumbs, galingale (or ginger), cinnamon mace, cloves, cubebs (a type of peppercorn), salt to taste, giblets.
Salt to taste
the neck and giblets of the goose
Stuffing prep: Boil the unpeeled apples for an hour in water. Drain and cool. Peel pears, decore them. Cut them in small pieces. Mix in the chopped herbs, garlic and peeled grapes.
Put the stock in a boiling pan, add the giblets. Bring to a boil, let simmer a couple of hours. Strain through a fine sieve.
Sauce: Heat some of the goose fat and fry the onion in it. Add the strained stock and red wine and the bread crumbs. Let this simmer a short while until thickened. Now add the stuffing from the goose, spices and wine vinegar. Bring to the boil once more.
Set the temperature at 180C or 350F. Stuff the goose, secure the filling and place goose on a rack. Baste regularly and after about two to three hours, take it out and let it rest for 10-15 minutes for the juices to redistribute. This can be served whole or sliced with stuffing and sauce.
*One of New York City’s oldest chop houses, Keen’s Steakhouse, no longer serves mutton although it is still advertised. What you smell the minute you enter this wood-paneled old restaurant are giant lamb chops sizzling on the platter.
Both “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner” and “Clarissa and The King’s Cookbook” are available in sections on You Tube.
Recommended reading: all are available on Amazon:
A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright
Clarissa’s England: A Gamely Gallop through the English Counties
Feast Days: Recipes from “The Spectator” by Jennifer Paterson. Miss Paterson follows the Catholic liturgical calendar with recipes and amusing comments on the more eccentric saints of the Church.