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Clarissa Dickson Wright and the Art of Medieval Food

 

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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.

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Dash Barber as the young King Richard II in “Clarissa and the King’s Cookbook”

“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.

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Clarissa Dickson Wright at the British Library with the original Forme of Cury


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.

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“I give this heavy weight off my head, and this unwieldly sceptre from my hand”

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.

pears

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.

 

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Goose with Sauce Madame


*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.  Both are available on Amazon:

A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Clarissa’s England:  A Gamely Gallop through the English Counties

 

 

 

 

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An obituary

Here is the BBC’s official post about Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, who died last Friday. However, his permanent legacy includes these Powerpoint presentations, originally devised so that he can still educate you about Richard, his life, family and era when he first became unwell enough to do so in person. Alternatively, this is the East Anglian Daily Times’ take.

Image: Riikka.

A truncated reign and a truncated monarch

Right at the start of this series, Helen Castor (left) takes a black marker pen and illustrates the cause of the 1553 crisis on a large sheet of paper. Beginning with Henry VII, very few of his legitimate male descendants were alive at the start of that year – eliminating the obvious illegitimate cases, we have Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, aged seven (a Catholic in Scotland) and Edward VI, aged fifteen, whose health took a turn for the worse at that time. There were, however, nine healthy legitimate female descendants: Lady Margaret Douglas, Mary Stewart who was Lady Margaret’s niece of ten and already crowned in Scotland (but living as a Queen consort in France), Henry VIII’s two bastardised, but included by law, daughters Mary and Elizabeth, Lady Frances Grey (nee’ Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk in suo jure) and her three daughters Jane, Catherine and Mary together with Frances’ niece Lady Margaret Clifford. In short, the “Tudor” male line was on the propinquity of its termination, although a medical explanation for this was not given.

In the first programme, Castor showed how Edward’s “devise for my succession” developed during that fateful year. First, he hopes that one of the Protestant Grey sisters will have a male heir to succeed him with Frances as the new King’s grandmother and Regent. Then his illness accelerated and there are crossings out on the devise, such that “the Lady Jane’s heires male” becomes “the Lady Jane AND HER heires male”, in the hope that he will live long enough for Parliament to enact this document and supersede Henry VIII’s own legislation, which named the Catholic Mary as heir after Edward, although the Greys would be preferred to the Stewarts. On the left is the “Streatham Portrait“, previously thought to have been of Jane, but not commissioned until half a century later.

During the first half of 1553, Lady Jane was married to Lord Guildford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland who was Lord Protector at the time. Lady Catherine Grey also married, as did Guildford’s sisters, one to Lord Henry Hastings, later Earl of Huntingdon. In the event, fate overtook Edward’s plans and his devise, as letters patent, had no legal status at his death on 6 July. Darnley’s claim as the last “Tudor” male was to be ignored and England was to have a Queen Regent, as Northumberland took his son and new daughter-in-law from Bradgate in Leicestershire, via Sion House to the Royal Apartments in the Tower for her reign to be proclaimed on 10 July, although Jane took the fateful decision that her husband was to be created Duke of Clarence and not King.

In the second programme, Castor explains how the Privy Council erred by sending Northumberland to East Anglia to arrest Mary, removing the realm’s best military commander from the capital, where the professional soldiers and their weapons were. Mary moved from Kenninghall in Norfolk to Framlingham Castle to strengthen her position and gathered support from those who still adhered to her Catholic faith and who had “known” her from afar for her whole life. There was to be no arrest of Mary, nor was there to be a pitched battle as Henry VIII’s first-born child outmanoeuvred Northumberland, at his Cambridge base, in order to march upon London.

The third episode begins with a naval mutiny ensuring that Mary had some artillery to enforce her claimand the Privy Council officially dethroning Jane. Mary took the Tower, Jane, Guildford and their fathers became prisoners and Mary was proclaimed. For Jane, there could be no return to her earlier life at Bradgate. Except for Northumberland, there was to be no trial until November and even then Jane, Guildford and Suffolk had their sentences of death suspended – until Thomas Wyatt rebelled in the Protestant interest in mid-January, in protest at Mary’s plans to marry Phillip II. Mary then signed the three death warrants, the teenage couple went to the block on February 12th and Jane’s father eleven days later. Cranmer, who had been part of her Privy Council, was attainted and deprived but lived to face Mary’s further wrath at a later date. Darnley married the other Queen Mary and was killed a year or two later in his own realm. For nearly fifty years from that July day when Edward VI’s eyes closed for the last time, England had no male claimant descended from Henry VII and the throne was disputed solely by Queens Regnant.

Castor concludes by pointing out that Jane, proclaimed Queen by the Privy Council who had served Edward VI, should be reckoned as a real monarch of England, even though she had been illegally proclaimed and then dethroned. In some ways, her turbulent final year taught her cousin Elizabeth a valuable lesson – not to take a husband, especially as the most likely such candidate was her fellow survivor: Lord Guildford Dudley’s younger brother, Robert.

On the right is Paul Delaroche’s highly inaccurate painting of Jane’s end, painted as late as 1834. His version of her execution takes place indoors but we know that she died on Tower Green, as did most beheaded women.

For those of us more focused on the fifteenth century, we will be familiar with the concepts of a king Edward whose death was not announced for several days whilst a faction sought to establish control (1483) and of prisoners being executed to clear the way for a Spanish marriage (1499).

Interesting roots

“Who do you think you are?” has returned and the third episode of the new series (20 July) featured Clare Balding. After last year’s programmes , this one and this other recent one, it is no surprise that tracing this racing presenter’s royal ancestry is a little easier.

Clare’s great-grandmother was Lady Victoria (hence the middle name) Stanley, who married, secondly, Sir Malcolm Bullock. This links her to the Earls of Derby, the first of whom was that Thomas, Lord Stanley who liked watching battles, although they were not broadcast live in his time. In particular, the 17th Earl married Lady Alice Montagu, who shared “Tudor” descent such that Ferdinando (5th Earl, 1559-94) was regarded as a hypothetical Catholic claimant after Mary of Scotland’s execution. Unsurprisingly, the Derby, one of the events she has often presented, was named for an ancestor (the 12th Earl, above right) from 1780.

Additionally, her uncle is William Hastings-Bass, the 17th Earl of Huntingdon and once the Queen’s trainer, connecting her to the marriage between Francis (2nd Earl, tomb in Ashby de la Zouch to the left) and Catherine Pole, thus to George, Duke of Clarence and Edward III.

I would rather have heard the Huntingdon line mentioned than so much about her Dutch-American forebears at the end.

Views over the site of Stoke Field….

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Oh, the penalty of working my way through the documentaries available on BBC iPlayer! I keep finding little nuggets of Ricardian interest. Tonight I chose “Crossing England in a Punt: River of Dreams”, the title of which is rather self-explanatory. Explorer Tom Fort punts his way from the birth of the River Trent in Staffordshire to its mouth in the Humber Estuary. Imagine how I sat up when right at the beginning, in the trailer, I spotted a portrait of Henry Tudor . What had he to do with the Trent, I wondered?

Then – ha! Of course. The Trent passes the site of Stoke Field, 1487, when the Earl of Lincoln’s Yorkists were defeated by Henry’s forces. Well, by the Earl of Oxford, actually, Henry didn’t arrive until it was virtually over.

The programme commenced, and was very enjoyable and interesting, but you can imagine how I was filled with eager anticipation when mention was made of Staythorpe Power Station. The Yorkist rebels under John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, and the banners of the so-called Lambert Simnel, were believed to have camped at Staythorpe before the battle, crossing the Trent in the early morning. Surely Tom Fort would mention the battle? After all, he’d mentioned Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Vikings. But no, not a word.

Hope faded as the punt moved on downstream, and I decided that Stoke Field was going to be overlooked. Then, suddenly, there it was. A large chunk of the programme was devoted to the story of the battle, with views over the field. We were shown where the Yorkists took up their positions along a low hill that stretched above the riverbank. When defeat was inevitable, the fleeing Yorkists were so crammed into a gully, pursued by the merciless enemy, that the place ran with blood and is still known as the Red Gutter. Mr Fort didn’t mention Francis Lovell, who is is said to have escaped by swimming his horse across the Trent. Nor the Earl of Lincoln, who was slain in the battle. It is said that Henry had him buried ignominiously and anonymously under a willow tree, with a willow stave through his heart.

So, my friends, if you want to sit in your armchairs and see where the last battle of the Wars of the Roses took place, go to iPlayer and take a look at this documentary. Tom Fort’s words were that it was where the White Rose of York had one final throw of the dice.

Several years ago, when I was researching for chapters of a book that concerned the battle of Stoke Field, I learned that the spring and area of the willow trees where Lincoln, his Landsknecht commander and others were buried so unceremoniously, has now been destroyed to make way for the new A46. There are still pictures of the spring, just before it vanished forever.

For further information about the battle and the area where it took place, the following links are useful:-

https://content.historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/battlefields/stoke.pdf

http://legacy.newarkadvertiser.co.uk/articles/news/Spring-that-ran-red-runs-dry

http://meanderingthroughtime.weebly.com/wars-of-the-roses-blog/battle-of-stoke-16th-june-1487

http://nottsvillages.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/east-stoke.html

Coming up this year:

As you can see, Kit Harrington will soon portray Robert Catesby in a BBC drama about the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby, shot while resisting arrest, was one of 130731-e5cae8c8-18cf-4b66-aa08-3c4ae03e6428the lucky ones. Then again, our folk memory of the seventeenth century is not entirely accurate.

Here it is.

The Black Cat of Kidwelly….

 

The picture left above is from https://tinyurl.com/h3s5pds, the one on the right is from https://blackcatrescue.wordpress.com/tag/black-cat-myth/

Last night I watched a programme in which the family history of the actor Ioan Gruffudd was traced. Rather amusingly, right at the end, he learned he was descended from Edward I, the very king who subjugated Wales. Oh, what a dilemma for a proud Welshman.

However, at one point my attention wandered from Ioan’s very interesting background, because I noticed a black cat badge on the back of a chair in which he was seated for part of the programme. So I searched for ‘the black cat of Kidwelly’, and sure enough, it’s on the town’s coat-of-arms.

I found the following explanation at http://www.kidwelly.gov.uk/Kidw…/kidwelly_history-11133.aspx

“The Black Cat of Kidwelly

“Kidwelly’s Coat of Arms and Official Seal shows a Black Cat. Herein lies the dilemma. The name of the township changed considerably over the centuries. In the ninth century when few people could read and spelling was of little importance, it was called Cetgueli. It was not until the advent of books, newspapers and dictionaries that correct spelling became significant. In the 17th. Century even William Shakespeare, who had more practice than most, spelt his own surname in at least eight different ways!

“In ancient documents, Kidwelly was spelt Cadwely, Catwelli, Kadewely, Keddewelly, Kadwelye, Kedwelle. The “Cat” in “Catwelli” may, however, have just been a misunderstanding about the origin of the word – some even believe that Kidwelly was named after a gentleman named Cattas, whose habits included sleeping in an oak tree in the vicinity!

“Others will affirm that the Town’s mascot was originally an otter. Otters were frequently seen on the river banks surrounding Kidwelly and indeed, one is depicted in a carved memorial in St. Mary’s churchyard. Those who believe the Cat to be the true emblem of Kidwelly, will tell you that the black cat was the first creature seen alive after the great plague hit the town. It was therefore honoured as a symbol of salvation and deliverance and subsequently used as Kidwelly’s heraldic symbol.”

So, the black cat is important to Kidwelly!

To see Ioan’s programme, go to:-

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04lpbn1

How to build a medieval castle….

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If you have not seen the BBC documentary series “Secrets of the Castle”, please give it a whirl. It is about a 20-year project in Burgundy to build/rebuild a medieval castle, using all the materials and skills that would have been available to the original castle-builders. It is being repeated on the Yesterday channel at the moment.

Some of the techniques are absolutely astonishing. The human treadmill on top of a tower raises enormous weights of stone. Ingenious. Many details of medieval life are brought vividly to life, including the women’s tasks in the home. The cooking is simple but nourishing.  Thoroughly recommended viewing for anyone interested in those centuries.

George III revealed

This documentary, presented by Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail, unveils some of our longest-serving King’sgeorgeiii secrets, such as a draft abdication letter after American independence was achieved. It also discusses his health issues in greater detail. Until recently, it was thought that he suffered from porphyria, a physical disease that Mary Stuart carried to her descendants but now it appears that he was afflicted by some form of insanity and was aware of it in the early stages. Hardman tells us that George, as a prolific writer, is likely to have appreciated the many scientific and georgetechtechnological advances that followed his reign.

We are also told how, at the onset of his reign, he micro-managed his royal duties, possibly wearing out his formidable mind. Just like Henry VI, George III had an early attack, in 1782 when his favourite son died and the letter was drafted, but recovered within months, only to lose that mind irrevocably at a later stage. Fortunately, George had several adultoldgeorgeiii sons, the eldest of which could serve as Regent, whilst he stumbled around unaware, either mentally or visually, of his granddaughter Charlotte’s death in childbirth or of her cousin’s birth. At least he knew about the “discovery” of Australia.

Here  is a link to the recently released “Georgian Papers Online”, now part of the Royal Collection and here is Hardman’s original article.

The real site of the Battle of Barnet…?

site-of-battle-of-barnet

The excellent BBC series Digging for Britain, Series 5, the episode concerning the east of Britain, presented by the equally excellent Dr Alice Roberts, contained a section on the Battle of Barnet, 1471.

Why is it that an accepted site for a battle so often proves to be the wrong one? Bosworth is a prime example, of course, but it seems the Battle of Barnet was another. Apparently it has always been thought that the battle took place where the town of Barnet is now, yet there was never any proof. So the discovery of some 15th-century cannon balls in fields outside the town had the local detectors out in force.

Accounts of the battle describe it as having taken place in a hollow in the landscape, and the area of the fields fitted the bill. Standing in the middle and panning his camera around in a circle, one of the searchers showed how the land rose gradually all around. He and his fellows searched and searched, only finding things that might have had nothing to do with the battle, but then (in a style that brought Time Team to life again!) right at the eleventh hour a final detector happened upon something more substantial. They did not know if it was from horse harness or perhaps male clothing, although it was a little heavy for that.

battle-of-barnet

Various other finds convinced them they had found the true site of the battle. But it seemed curious that Edward IV, arriving on the scene with his battle at the end of the day, should choose to place himself in a dip. Surely that would be inviting trouble? Especially as he did not know exactly where the Lancastrian army was situated. But, the Lancastrians didn’t know the exact whereabouts of the Yorkists.

Battle commenced in at dawn, in fog, with the Earl of Warwick, in command of the Lancastrians, firing his cannon where he thought the Yorkists were. But he couldn’t see them because they were low down, and his cannon balls went harmlessly over their heads. Edward, on the other hand, kept his cannon silent, in order not to give his position away.

It became a bloody affair, with the Lancastrians mistaking one of their own, the Earl of Oxford, whose badge was a star, for Edward IV, whose badge was the sun in splendour.  Warwick was killed in the rout that followed.

So, was Edward IV a brilliant tactician in choosing the site he did? Or was it pure chance? We will never know.

See this previous post or this one.

Go here to see some of the programme itself.

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