Friday, 21 May 2010

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat

I mentioned in my Horace Walpole post that I'd picked up a copy of Horace Walpole's Cat by Christopher Frayling, which has turned out to be a very elegantly written, very entertaining, read (see left). For those who don't know the story, some time in 1747, poor Selima the cat, who lived with Horace Walpole at his home in Arlington Street (this was before he moved to his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill), got up on the rim of a large Chinese porcelain tub containing goldfish, fell in, and drowned.

Walpole was, understandably, upset and wrote to his close friend, the poet Thomas Gray, asking if he would compose some sort of epitaph for the unfortunate creature. Gray replied saying that he couldn't begin to grieve properly until he knew which cat Walpole was referring to (his other cat was called either Zara, after the heroine of Voltaire's The Tragedy of Zara or Zama, nobody seems sure which). Once the identity of the cat had been cleared up, Gray enclosed the first draft of the poem that would become Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat (see full text below). 'There's a poem for you,' said Gray, 'it is rather too long for an epitaph'.

Apart from Frayling's expert biographical slant on the poem and his analysis of it in terms of 18th-century culture, another joy of Horace Walpole's Catare the huge reproductions of Richard Bentley's quite wonderful engravings. There's a full reprint of Bentley's (pictured left) explanation of his Frontispiece which just as much of a mock-heroic masterpiece as the poem itself. Witness 'the cat standing on the brim of the tub... Two cariatides of a river god stopping his ears to her cries, and Destiny cutting the nine threads of life... At the bottom are mice enjoying themselves on the prospect of the cat's death; a lyre and a pallet.' Fantastic stuff.

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,
Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes.

'TWAS on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dy'd
The azure flowers, that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclin'd,
Gaz'd on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar'd;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw, and purr'd applause.

Still had she gaz'd: but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple, to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulph between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil'd)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguil'd,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry watery God,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd:
Nor cruel Tom, or Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv'd,
Know, one false step is ne'er retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

PS: Horace Walpole's Catalso explores Christopher Smart's For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry as well as Dr Johnson and his cats; follow the links above to see previous blog posts from me on these topics. And the cat in the frame, above, is my own cat, Boris.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington except the engraving of the Richard Bentley portrait, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A Georgian Supper at Darwin's House

The Parlour, Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, Christmas 2009

Well, I hang my head in shame for taking so long to tell you about a dinner for Erasmus Darwin's birthday that we attended on 12th December 2009 but better later than never! The Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield (above) is a wonderful museum and was originally Darwin's home between 1758 and 1781. Regular readers of this blog will know about the pleasant herb garden at the back - tucked away from view behind the Cathedral Close - and, of course, Erasmus Bunny who lives at the back of Lichfield Cathedral Bookshop. The garden is a fitting memorial to Darwin, whose interest in plants contributed to our understanding of many biological processes, including photosynthesis.

For those unfamiliar with Erasmus Darwin's life and work, he was born at Elston, five miles southwest of Newark in Nottinghamshire, and he worked as a physician, first in Lichfield and later in Derby. He was a remarkable man with an endless curiosity about the world and his influence was far-reaching. He investigated topics such as physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, plant growth, nutrition and biology; he was also a keen poet whose 1792 work Botanic Garden was much admired by the Romantic poets, particularly Coleridge. As a member of the Lunar Society, he joined with friends such as Mathew Boulton, Joseph Priestley and James Watt to develop and promote Birmingham’s new industrial technology, and - perhaps most importantly - his thoughts on evolutionary biology were the catalyst for his grandson, Charles Darwin’s, famous treatise on natural selection, On the Origin of Species.

Not a great deal is known about the house during Darwin’s residence, though it’s clear that he was responsible for the way it looks today. Having qualified as a doctor in 1756, the 26-year-old Darwin married Mary Howard the following year at St Mary’s Church in Lichfield, and settled into an old half-timbered house at the western end of the Cathedral Close. The building he modified to suit their tastes, turning the back (on Beacon Street) into a grand new façade with Venetian-style windows. The old semi-circular moat around the Close was still visible at this time, so Darwin built a bridge of shallow steps and Chinese paling from his front door to the pavement, clearing the bottom to make a terrace planted with lilac and roses.

Yet unlike Lichfield's other major 18th-century attraction, the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Darwin’s house was derelict 15 years ago and - thanks to the support of Darwin scholar Dr Desmond King-Hele and Gordon Cook (now Chairman of the Erasmus Darwin Foundation) - opened as a museum in 1999 with donations from, among others, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Development Fund. Last year it marked its tenth anniversary with a refurbishment of several rooms, while Darwin’s birthday on December 12th was celebrated with a six-course supper of classic Georgian dishes (a fine tribute to a man whose motto was ‘eat or be eaten’).

We had, of course, eagerly purchased our tickets early on, so as not to miss out on the feasting, and weren't disappointed by the authentic menu which drew heavily on the recipes of that great English cookery writer, Hannah Glasse. Despite Dr Johnson's rather predictable dismissal of female cooks ('No Madam. Women can spin very well, but they cannot make a good book of cookery') the results were absolutely stunning!

I have typed up the full menu so you can appreciate the full extent of the chef's art (see below), but I remember in particular the Christmas Pye which had turkey, goose, chicken and pigeon underneath a great pastry top (pictured above right). The Nasturtium berries and lime in the mashed potato - gathered from Darwin's herb garden - were an amazing combination. Meanwhile the starter (Salmon and scallops preserved in elderflower vinegar) was a clever reference to the Darwin family coat of arms which featured three scallop shells. Erasmus famously added the Latin inscription E Conchis omnia (‘everything from shells’) to demonstrate his belief in evolution, but this offended Canon Seward of Lichfield Cathedral, who claimed in a satirical verse that Darwin ‘renounces his Creator/And forms all sense from senseless matter./Great wizard he! by magic spells/Can all things raise from cockle shells'.

Dessert was a tour de force, and though we were absolutely stuffed, everything cried out to sampled from the plum porrige (a forerunner of Britain's traditional Christmas pudding) to an amazing almond soup (pictured right) and boozy sack posset. With port and kickshaws to follow, it's fair to say that we were pretty full by the end of it! Kickshaws, by the way, are trifling edible things (the word comes from the French quelque chose, literally 'something') and are, I suppose a forerunner of petit fours. Check out the full menu below and marvel at the skill on display!

Dinner At My Home, 12th December 2009.

Salmon Preserved the Jews' Way.
Salmon and scallops preserved in elderflower vinegar, dressed with pickled samphire.

Soup Cressan.

Yorkshire Christmas Pye.
Containing turkey, goose, fowl and pigeon, served with mashed potato with Nasturtium berries and limes; buttered cabbage; ragout of onions; carrots dressed the Dutch way; truffle and Morel sauce.

Plum porrige for Christmas; almond soup with jugged cherries Lady North's way; sack posset.

Preserved fruit and kickshaws.

Potted cheese.

Coffee and sweetmeats.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Monday, 17 May 2010

Word of the Week: Tory

n.s. [A cant term, derived, I suppose, from an Irish word signifying a savage.] One who adheres to the antient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England, as opposed to whig.

The knight is more a tory in the country than the town, because it more advances his interest. ADDISON.

To confound his hated coin, all parties and religions join whigs, tories. SWIFT.

From: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology.

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Georgian Cooking: Stuffed Liberty Turnips

Welcome to my new series on Georgian food and cooking. Each week I'm going to be featuring a recipe or a bit of food history from one of three books: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (the 18th-century's Delia Smith), Benjamin Franklin Book of Recipes(edited by Hilaire Dubourcq) and Lobscouse and Spotted Dog(a gastronomic companion to the novels of Patrick O'Brian by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas). In some cases (if I'm feeling brave enough) I may even try to make the recipes myself (you can already check out my attempt to make French Flummery here).

So to kick off, I give you this recipe for Stuffed Liberty Turnips. In Benjamin Franklin Book of RecipesHilaire Dubourcq has cleverly adapted recipes from the period and combined them with anecdotes about Franklin's life; this one accompanies an entertaining description of a gala, held by Benjamin Franklin at his home, to celebrate the third anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Stuffed Liberty Turnips

8 young turnips
Half a cup diced bacon
Half a cup chopped chives
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup beef stock
Half a cup dry sherry
Half a cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 teaspoons salt

Method: Hollow out the turnips and cook them in boiling water for 10 minutes. Rinse under cold water, dry with a towel and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of salt. Fry the flesh in butter and purée in a food processor. Fry the diced bacon in butter until crispy and blend in the purée with the chopped chives. Pour in the lemon juice and the dry sherry. Mix and season with white pepper and salt. Fill the turnip shells with the purée and arrange them in a well-buttered gratin dish. Pour in the beef stock and coat the turnips with the breadcrumbs. Place the dish in a 400 degree f (gas mark 6) oven and cook for 25 minutes.

And just in case that's not enough turnip for you, here's Hannah Glasse'srecipe for Turnip wine:

Take a good many turnips, pare, slice, and put them in a cyder-press, and press out all the juice very well. To every gallon of juice have three pounds of lump-sugar, have a vessel ready, just big enough to hold the juice, put your sugar into the vessel, and also to every gallon of juice half a pint of brandy. Pour in the juice, and lay something over the bung for a week to see if it works. If it does, you must not bung it down till it has done working; then stop it close for three months, and draw it off in another vessel. When it is fine, bottle it off.

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