I am moving house in a few weeks. One of the most challenging tasks has been the books. Even after serious culling there are still several hundred. I very briefly contemplated donating my food library to some institution—for about five minutes that is… Maybe later, after my death. But I wonder if anyone will want it, or will the digitisation of information have made a collection of much-thumbed, post-it noted, out-of-print, sometimes stained cookery books of little value to anyone?
It is not uncommon to hear people expound on how pointless cookery books are now that we have the Internet overflowing with information, universally available and free of charge. The internet is great for a quick fact-check (although it is very likely that there will be conflicting information), but it can never entrance me and keep me reading on and on, as I do when I browse a favourite book or make a new discovery.
In enjoying my books I appreciate the style and the story as much as a recipe. An author has to convince me of her authority, she has to delight me with her use of language, she has to interest me in the context of an individual recipe, she has to leave me with a desire to cook that dish as soon as I can, and even better if she makes me smile.
I want to know more about the trails and chance connections that have led my heroes and heroines to discover or experience delicious and sometimes unexpected dishes or ingredients. Or to discover new stories from unfamiliar lands, or to reinforce my interest in the pleasures of fresh food presented simply and in good company. Or to follow through memoir and recollection the important moments in the lives of those I admire.
Which brings me neatly to The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, which held me entranced throughout Easter.
What an extraordinary work this is, and what an exceptional group of people. I have several friends who have read volume after volume chronicling the lives of the Bells, the Woolfs, the Nicholsons and others, as well as the novels and essays by the Bloomsbury writers themselves. Other than knowing a little about Virginia Woolf’s suicide and other dramatic incidents in the Bloomsbury sagas, and having visited the garden at Sissinghurst twice, I knew very little else about the Bloomsbury group.
The author herself states that the Bloomsbury group seems to have been thoroughly investigated from almost every angle, other than the subject of this delightful book—the kitchen, the pantry, the dining table and the picnic spot. From the outset it is clear that many of the recipes included are impressionistic at best, in many cases it was not the mistress or master of the household who was the cook in prewar and between-the-wars Britain. Shooting parties bring back grouse and partridge and pheasant to be long-cooked and mostly put into pies. There are superficial echoes of Downton Abbey in the descriptions of life in country houses.
But the real fascination of the book lies in vividly evoking the social scene where a group of hugely talented writers, economists, poets and painters gathered at all sorts of tables, at all times of the day and night, to discuss with wit and eloquence and to flout every social more of their age. Everything was to be challenged, everything was to be re-assessed, be it clothing, manners, sexual conventions, religion or politics. A ménage à trois brought not even a raised eyebrow; homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual members of the large Bloomsbury circle came together, drifted apart, entertained each other, wrote and painted prolifically, produced children, and yet there was surprise when one of the group declared that she knew how to scramble eggs. A good deal of wine and champagne was drunk.
This is a very dense book and there are just so many fascinating characters who make brief or not-so-brief appearances that I was constantly tempted to head off on a side-path and found myself in danger of being lost in the tangle of families, friends, liaisons and generations. There was T.S. Eliot, known as ‘Tom’, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, economist and eventual founder of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and his Russian ballerina wife, Lydia Lopokova. There was painter Augustus John living the bohemian life of a free spirit in a series of caravans and tents. The book mentions the ground-breaking Hogarth Press owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, that published the work of Sigmund Freud, amongst many other significant titles. The book is lavishly illustrated with many beautiful paintings, including the sumptuous still lifes of Vanessa Bell and works by Duncan Grant.
There are some dishes that sound lovely, especially what Molly Keane would describe as ‘nursery food’—rice puddings, savouries such as mushrooms with anchovy cream (I shall try this), egg dishes, simple fish dishes cooked with cream, biscuits and fruit puddings. I intend to bake a seed cake, and a ginger cake, called A Winter Cake, just to see if they do in fact work. And from Mrs Dalloway’s dinner party I will try the re-created Gateau de pommes, layers and layers of sweet eating apples cooked slowly with a little lemon peel until the apples all coalesce and are turned into a basin, to be ‘smothered’ with cream and spikes of almonds when cold and turned out. There was a tug of memory for me in reading of the excursions made by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in their new motorcar (acquired in 1928) as they motored to the south of France, stopping to enjoy picnics on the way. I was reminded of similarly happy picnics I have had, drinking wine from a paper cup and discovering a squid pie near to the town of Sète.
The subtitle of the book is Recipes for Life, Love and Art. The author writes that the determination of the Bloomsbury group to live as independent thinkers, writers and artists has inspired all who live in pursuit of truth, honesty and social freedom.
So this is what I have been reading.
Stephanie Alexander is a cook, restaurateur and food writer. She has published several recipe books, and in 2012 published a memoir, A Cook’s Life. She is now devoted to the not-for-profit Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, that provides primary school children with programs on how to ‘grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal food’.