Sunday 12 February 2017


by Antonia Senior

I am a glutton  foodie. I like eating, cooking and reading about food, although the gourmet spirit in me is somewhat crushed these days by the fishfinger-and-bakedbeans carousel of having fussy children.

In all the periods I have written about or researched, one of the most joyful parts has been thinking about the food. My excitement was feverish last term when my eight year old had to prepare food for a Roman feast at school. I reached for my books, lectured her on Apicius and the mis-labelling by history of the Epicureans.

'Can we just make some honeycakes from the internet, Mum?'
'No! What about a stuffed pigeon? Or olive and celery pate? Or smoked fish in vine leaves? Or...'
'Um. Can we just make some honeycakes from the internet?'
'Garum! Let's make garum!'

So we experimented with anchovies and a grape juice reduction, using a recipe from this brilliant book:

The garums was, you will be astonished to hear, utterly grim. We sent it into school (with some honeycakes, of course). The teacher let some of the revolted children try it. One of them knocked it over, and it fell on the carpet, drenching the floor in a pungent fishy mess.

The teacher assures me that the classroom still smells of fish when the radiators are fierce - she is remarkably nice about it.

Alongside the disastrous garum, I have had a few successes - the 17th century meat stuffed cabbage in blackberry sauce thing was lush. The braised cucumber from Rome was surprisingly delicious.

Given my interest, then, I was seriously excited to find myself at Heston Blumenthal's Dinner for my wedding anniversary this month. Dinner serves dishes (at eye-watering prices) which draw on England's rich culinary past. (By the way, Victorians are to blame for the perceived blandness of English food - pre-Victorian cookbooks are absolutely full of interesting recipes and exotic spice.)

Each item on the menu at Dinner comes with the date and source of the recipe that inspired it. I stuck mainly to the seventeenth century - my new book, The Tyrant's Shadow, is set in 1650s London, and I felt I should be loyal.

I started with the Savoury Porridge, with frog's legs, parsley and fennel, from 1660. The source is The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected by William Rabisha.

My rubbish camera phone makes this look a little pond-like. But it was vibrant, and fresh, and unctuous all at the same time. The little froggy bonbons were worth the cover price on their own. The whole thing was a delight - and tasted of hope and joy. It made me think of the date - of 1660. Too much to read into a bowl of porridge, perhaps, but I thought of the wave of joy that year as the King returned. It made me think of the contradictions of the Restoration - of Charles 2 himself, with his lush side and his scientific mind and his ability to balance different factions by always seeming to agree with everyone.

My husband, who was very tolerant about me snapping the food with my phone for this blog and wittering on about the tenuous links between Frog Porridge and the Restoration (I married him for a reason*!), had Salamagundy. This was an eighteenth century concoction of Chicken Oysters, salsify, marrowbones, horseraddish cream and pickled walnuts from The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary by John Nott. I'd love to tell you what it tasted of, but I did not get a chance as he had snaffled it all while I was still working myself into a metaphorical frenzy over the frogs.

This, however, is what it looked like:

The main courses were not quite as mind-blowing - but still amazing. I had Chicken cooked with lettuces from 1670 - the source was The Queen Like Closet by Hannah Wolley.

Crisp-skinned chicken sitting on spiced celeriac, with braised lettuce and extra little shards of chicken skin - and other stuff I couldn't identify but was all delicious. The sauce was an onion emulsion. Reader -  Nandos it was not.

For pudding, I abandoned the 17th century and its Taffety Tart, for the brown bread ice cream with salted caramel, pear and malted yeast (1830, A new system of domestic cookery, by Maria Eliza Rundell). My dedication to my period has its limits, and frankly, for a bit of salted caramel I'd write about the economic detail of the industrial revolution. I don't have a picture - my spoon was at its work before the waiter had left the table...

I would highly recommend Dinner to anyone with a historical interest and a futuristic bank balance...
And if you are in the market for historical foody fiction: The new Blake and Avery thriller from MJ Carter, The Devil's Feast is set in the mythically sumptuous kitchens of the Reform club in 1842. It's wonderful mix of food and murder.

Martine Bailey has written two fabulous books which combine gothic horror with culinary delights - the latest is The Penny Heart.

But the best, richest, most unctuous and glorious writing about food I know is in Philip Kazan's Appetite. Set in fifteenth century Florence, it follows the fortunes of Nino - a chef of rare talent. Atmospheric, macabre, sensuous. If you can't be bothered to get all Heston in the kitchen here is my recipe for the absolutely perfect night in when it's sleety and rainy and cold outside.

Take 1 fire. Stoke into warmth and flame.
Take 1 glass of wine. Must be red. Must be dark. Must be the type to make you a bit trembly and sorrowful tomorrow.
Take 1 plate of very pungent cheeses.
Take Appetite by Philip Kazan.
Muffle children. Banish spouse. Euthenise pets.

Mix. and off you go.....

*Ps. This was our 12th wedding anniversary. At our very first meeting, at a karaoke night in a curry house, I reenacted the battle of Thermopylae with the mango chutney and the mint raita. He knew what he was getting into.....


Susan Price said...

Lovely blog but I want to hear more about that first date! I don't know much about Thermopylae. Did the chutney or raita win? Was their tactical support from the poppadums?

Sue Purkiss said...

Oh, this all sounds just too yummy!

Anonymous said...

Hello Susan! The chutney and raita were the narrow gap through which the Perisan hordes had to advance - the poppadoms, I believe, were the Persians, while a couple of pints of lager stood in for the Spartans and the Thebans. Bless him, it wasn't even our first date, it was practically our first conversation at a mutual friend's birthday! He is a lovely - and patient - man..

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Lara. I now understand so much more about Persian poppadoms and glasses of Spartan. I can also quite see why your husband was taken.

Penny Dolan said...

Delightful post but rather you trying the frog's legs porridge than me. Admiring the Dinner menu from afar - and what an interesting idea Heston's had - and for a touch of time travel, maybe quite cheap?