Tea and History

The Victorian tea on Sunday afternoons at London’s V&A Museum is served on custom Burleigh china.

This article appeared in the December/January issue of CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC.                 But here I can share more pictures!

London’s Victoria & Albert Museum was established for edification and immersion. The sculpture hall’s reproductions of classical statues was created for students of drawing and sculpture, and in all the galleries you will still find students intent over their sketchpads.

Today visitors can immerse themselves in decorative arts from around the world and through time, crafted in silver, ceramics, photography, textiles and more, but sooner or later, like the peckish duchess who invented it, you will want tea. And the immersion can continue at the museum’s Victorian Tea, offered on Sunday afternoons, when the linens and good china come out.

Sigh…

In fact, the V&A was the world’s first museum to offer a café in 1856, at first in temporary Tudor-styles rooms that a leading newspaper described as “hideously ugly,” and by the 1860s in three grand, artist-designed and decorated rooms. The center Gamble room is the largest and is covered in majolica tiles colored yellow, burnt orange, and cream, with a ceiling of ornately enameled metal sheets. The materials are bright, dazzling, but also practical—fire-resistant, easy to clean and didn’t absorb odors.

To the right is the Poynter room, finished in dark wood and blue and white Dutch-style tiles, painted by female students at the National Art Training School. Originally, it was a grill room, serving substantial meals, including jugged hare, steak pudding, and seasonal tarts. A “second class,” budget-conscious menu offered veal cutlets for 10 pence and buns and sponge cake for one pence.

It was also the preferred dining spot of artist, Edward Byrne-Jones, who helped his colleague William Morris design the third room, where the Victorian Tea is offered. When hired, Morris was relatively unknown and had just started his firm. The room is decorated in his medievalist Arts and Crafts style, done in mossy green paneling and covered in gilded panels of entwined fruits and vegetables, with murals of maidens at their domestic chores. Like the museum’s collection, the rooms are learning tools, each representing a different design theory.

Anchovy and pansy is a remarkably good combination.

The Victorian Tea’s menu was created by food historian Tasha Marks, of AVM Curiosities, her firm, which explores food as an art and immersive experience. The menu includes five savory and five sweet items based on 19th century recipes from Mrs. Beeton, Mary Allen, and A.B. Marshall, some slightly tweaked for modern palates. Choices include Mrs. Beeton’s cucumber sandwich as well as a Nasturtium Open Sandwich that features fresh anchovy. Marks points out that Victorians really liked fishy flavors. From the era of empire, an Indian ham sandwich uses chutney from a Mary Allen recipe.

It wouldn’t be tea without them.

Marks continues, “On the sweet side we have fruit scones, which weren’t exactly a fixture on the menu in the Victorian era—they came slightly later—but you can’t have an afternoon tea without them!” Likewise, tea choices include the traditional Earl Grey as well as English Breakfast, which became popular in the 1930s.

The immersion experience extends to the table settings—Burleigh china specially designed for the service and mixed flatware that look like lesser pieces from the museum’s collection.

Fortified and refreshed, visitors can head upstairs to examine the silver collection’s many pieces devoted to tea. In fact, 18th century inventories showed that English households owned twice as many tea wares as coffee utensils. And as always, table service was an opportunity to show taste and wealth. More than an earthenware mug, a tea service of porcelain and silver might include candlesticks, a salver tray, tea caddies, and more.

It’s lovely to see the artifacts in their cases, but perhaps even lovelier to see them spread out on a tea table for you.

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Cookie Swap

Half the fun of cookie swap (for me) is coming up with the invitation. This year I was inspired by the best.

How’d I do? (I had help from my photoshop expert)

 

Wish you all could come!

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It’s Indian Pudding Season, Motherf***ers

McSweeneys and Colin Nissan, please don’t sue me.

slow and sweet in the oven

Ok, there’s no need to get aggressive, but I continue to believe that this dessert has not gotten its due. And while we mark Thanksgiving with a huge basin of this mess, it’s a perfectly good winter recipe–ingredients off the pantry shelves and a low and slow oven. The recipe below makes a reasonable amount–not huge Durgin Park quantities–and all you need is a good netflix, then be careful not to drip ice cream on the couch.

Indian Pudding at Home

4 cups of whole milk, 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, 1/4 cup molasses, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 egg, vanilla ice cream

Scald two cups of the milk in an 8-inch skillet and slowly pour in the cornmeal, stirring to break up the lumps. Simmer over low heat until thickened. Remove from the heat and set aside until it’s warm.

Stir in the molasses, sugar, salt, egg, and one half cup of the remaining milk. Cover the skillet and bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring in a half cup of milk every half hour (more or less milk and more or less time, depending on your oven). The pudding should be thick but not solid.

Serve warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Fasting and Feasting, The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray

Patience Gray dug in. She lived the life she wrote about–austere on Mediterranean islands–and connected the foodways she found to myth, history, and art. I return to her iconic book, Honey From a Weed for insight and example. I pull out her first work, the elegant little pocket book, Plats du Jour, whenever I’m feeling the need for nostalgic comfort.  In this revealing biography, Federman finds the story of a unique and uncompromising woman.

This review appeared in CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC. You don’t have to be local to keep up with our explorations!

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Mastering Stocks and Broths

Mastering Stocks and Broths by Rachael S. Mamane, Chelsea Green Publishing 2017, hardback $35.00, 429 pages

Of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and strictest attention.

Escoffier

I used throw chicken scraps and vegetable peelings in a pot, boil it, do a bit of skimming, and then feel very virtuous about making stock. What a tyro I was!

Rachael Mamane, who runs Brooklyn Bouillon, has upped my game. In this book , she incorporates history, science, nutrition, technique, and flavor into a convincing polemic for carefully sourced home cooking.

And I’ve changed my ways. I don’t just throw anything into the pot but think about color and flavor balance. I don’t boil, but gently simmer, starting with the meat and then adding the vegetables. I wait to add salt, letting the simmer first draw out natural salts. And I skim, skim, skim. So now, in my fridge is a jar of light golden chicken broth that tastes like actual not salty box bird, and a jug of whey.

That jug is a testament to Mamane’s thoroughness. She goes through meat, fish, poultry, and vegetable stocks (in carefully flavored-focused options like Basic Tomato Stock, Green Tomato Stock, and Fire-Roasted Tomato Stock), but also covers dairy bases. In the past, when I’ve made ricotta by simmering together milk and buttermilk (a gallon and a quart respectively, and yes, that’s all there is to it), I’ve tossed the whey or at most, used it to water plants. This time I sieved it again, re-canted it into the milk jug and stuck it in the fridge. I’ve already used it to make bread dough and cook vegetables. Mamane suggests using as a base for soups and sauces. I suppose you could also use it too cook grains and pasta. Why let all that protein go down the drain?

You may think that you don’t need all these stocks and broths (stocks are the basic ingredient, broth is the culinary dish you may make with them). After all, you don’t cook like Escoffier building complex flavors from your ingredients. More often than not, it’s a quick stir-fry or bowl of spaghetti. Well, note above the use of whey, but also consider the variety of Mamane’s recipes. You could make a classic Beef Tea or a more up-to-date Turkey Broth with Grapefruit and Fennel to knock out your cold. If your Whole Food sells it, try Hay-Roasted Leg of Lamb with Poached Quince and Sumac Yogurt or, on some empty weekend, a Bouillabaisse Terrine.

Mamane’s approach is  more than just a technical classical approach, but a no-waste, good taste approach that’s worth your attention.

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Turkish Delights, A Cook Book

What is patriotism but the love of food we ate as children.

–Lin Yutang

I’ve used that quote too many times, but it is again appropriate. This book, intended for the “English-speaking housewife” seems like a little bit of culinary patriotism.

It stakes out its ground on the first page, claiming baklava, musakka, and pilaki as strictly Turkish dishes. I know a few yiayias who would loudly differ.

But it does rightly claim “farming delicacies and culinary excellence,” no matter what yiayia says. And in a slim paperback, it efficiently covers a lot of ground, offering translations of Turkish foodstuffs, including fish, notes on Turkish pronunciation, metric conversion tables. The  recipes in chapters run through the meal  from hors d’oeuvres to sweets, as well as chapters on drinks, fruit, and spices and herbs.

But aside from recipes are some revealing cultural assumptions. “The chief items of Turkish hors d’oeuvres are oil dishes such as fried eggplants with tarator or yogurt dressing…”. “Pork has never been in favor, it is offered to Westerners only.” “Mutton, far more tasty than that marketed in Europe or America, is the kind of meat consumed by the majority of people.” It then goes on to describe types of mutton, from a different types of sheep, prepared as rissoles, skewers, and doner kebap.

Plus, I love the cover design–it’s kind of like this one.

 

 

 

 

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Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life

cover

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life by Missy Robbins, Rizzoli 2017, hardback $47.00, 232 pages

The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin to those of a successful tightrope walker; an abiding passion for the task, courage to go out on a limb, and an impeccable sense of balance.  

Bryan Miller

Missy Robbins has figured out a fundamental kitchen truth. Cooking is pretty simple–conceiving a menu, shopping for all the ingredients– that’s the hard part. That’s what takes time and thought.

As a chef, she had everything at her fingertips, a full pantry and a squad of dishwashers. When she took a sabbatical from restaurant kitchens, she discovered the challenges of eating well at home.

And she shares what she learned in  this book with recipes and an approach that allows you to enter into a kind of thoughtless cooking–which is a good thing. You’ll learn to cook by responding to season and instinct, and making something out of what appear to be cabinet nothings.

I appreciate her chapter called “Oh Shit, What Have I Done.” Stepping away from the familiar routine, what we think we should be doing, is challenging and can be disorienting. When Robbins decided she needed a break from the routine of restaurant cooking her first challenge was convincing people she didn’t have a “secret project” in the works. Finally she told a reporter that she planned to travel and write a book–just to have an answer. Initially she explored her New York neighborhood and then ventured to Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, and Hong Kong.  Obviously the book eventually did materialize.

Robbins is similarly honest in all her chapters–about actually cooking in a small (really small) West Village kitchen, about preferring cheese, pasta, and ice cream to vegetables; about gaining and losing weight; about the difficulty of focusing on a career goal. Robbins is introspective, open, and interesting. When thinking  about how she became Italian (after growing up “culturally Jewish”), she writes about making pasta, “It’s mind-blowing how three simple ingredients can be so transporting.”

It’s a description that can apply to most of her book’s recipes; good ingredients combined with attention into mind-blowing flavors. Almond, orange, and celery salad; fettuccine, zucchini, garlicscapes, and lemon; pork chops, nectarines, mustard vinaigrette; tuna, parsley, and chive salsa verde; olive oil cake, candied citrus, whipped cream.

Robbins is a friendly kitchen companion–no judgement and great ideas. Following her lead, with a pesto here, a salsa verde there, and some attention to the endless variations of red sauce your meals can become instinctual and delicious.

 

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