Sunday, January 12, 2014

"What a goofy niche!" -- and thoughts on Downton Abbey

If no one minds, I will start with the random thoughts. Dear things, I have seen two or three episodes, and I regret to say I am not impressed with the famous Downton Abbey. Apart from the beautiful clothes on beautiful people, and the tart amusing short speeches given Maggie Smith, I see nothing much going on. The four leading women characters seem barely to interact, even though they are meant to be mother and grown daughters. (The actresses' ages seem all wrong, too.) There is no real feeling between the earl and his countess. And what actually happens as the stories play out? The eldest daughter, Mary, ought to marry Matthew but doesn't, and cries when he leaves. Then he comes back and leaves again, and she cries. The nice valet, Mr. Bates, mysteriously and nobly leaves his lordship's service. Then he comes back, and then he nobly leaves again. His fiancée cries. The aforementioned countess and mother of the three grown daughters slips on a bar of soap while miraculously pregnant again, and miscarries. (Why not a banana peel?) Just when some major plot is brewing, servants overhear all the right things and go to the earl with revelations that still the brewing. Chauffeurs confess undying love to the daughters of the house, because "times are changing." Then they leave. The daughters look stunned, and cry. World War I breaks out, and the men go to fight -- well, drink tea -- in incredibly clean and tidy trenches.

And so on. One hates to cavil. But it is small wonder that when Maggie Smith sweeps in with her furs and her hat, and glares that they must all buck up because "Great-Aunt Roberta loaded the guns at Lucknow," -- the show comes alive, and we start to enjoy ourselves.

Speaking of enjoying ourselves, and thoroughly, it seems that one of the sources for Downton Abbey is the fascinating book To Marry an English Lord, first published -- mercy, how time flies -- twenty-three years ago by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (Workman Publishing, New York, 1989). I can be smug about it, since I bought it then and so actually own what is now an out of print copy, complete with beautiful cover art all done in a motif of pink and gray marble edged in bright green. But you must go out and get your own copy too. It is wonderfully entertaining. Buried in the sidebar of page 147 -- and the picture- and anecdote-crammed book does look as though it were designed on-line even in those pre-internet days -- is a menu for a Spring Luncheon on "the Vanderbilts' first yacht, the Alva." On a certain April 2 (in what year? sometime before 1895, by which time the Vanderbilts divorced and the Alva sank off Martha's Vineyard), someone wrote in a quick, loose, but nicely legible hand that lunch would be eggs à la Aurore, lobster, tournedos [very thin-cut tenderloin steak] and marrow, potatoes, spinach, asparagus and "Sce. Hollandaise," chicken and watercress, salad, "crèpes aux confitures [a confection or sweetmeat, Webster says]," cheese, dessert, and café. 

It sounds lovely. Only, what -- no wines? Speaking further of enjoying ourselves, thoroughly, do take a look at the book review blog maintained now by Carol Wallace, one of To Marry an English Lord's authors. She calls it Book Group of One ("too cranky for the real thing") and she is at present pounding her way beautifully through all twenty-odd novels of the great Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I must read more than just the first one.

It so happens that on my Kindle I also have a cookbook hailing from about the Downton Abbey/Marry an English Lord era. It's called The Cook's Decameron, and was written by a Mrs.W. G. Waters in 1901. Our authoress here frames her two hundred-plus Italian recipes in a story, by which we understand that ten English friends of an Italian lady, the widowed Marchesa di Sant'Andrea, have all lost the services of their respective cooks at once; and so, commiserating with one another in the Marchesa's London apartments, where they have forgathered to cancel invitations and make new dinner plans, they agree to her idea to bring them to a country retreat for a few weeks and give them cooking lessons. Ten friends cooking for ten days will end up producing at least a hundred recipes. Hence, the nice little tribute to Boccacio's fourteenth-century Decameron.

I wonder whether Mrs. W. G. Waters simply liked this quaint frame for her recipes, or whether in proper Downton Abbey days, an Italian cookbook for English readers was considered outré enough to require some sort of slightly strained literary pedigree. Regardless, she puts two other, practical reasons for her book. She says, first, that Italian cooking should be a welcome change since most English people never eat non-English food unless they travel, in which case they stick to Europe, big hotels, and big cities, and therefore eat only poor imitation French fare. And second, she says the recipes she will present are valuable especially for the use they make of inexpensive but good ingredients, such as variety meats and vegetables. Certainly from The Cook's Decameron you will quickly learn the Italian for sweetbreads (animelle), and calves' brains (cervello), should you wish either to try them or avoid them.

Shall we think about making something fairly easy and familiar, like one of her desserts? This is "No. 212, Crema rappresa (Coffee Cream)." No mollycoddling of her readers for her -- no measured ingredients or to-the-minute instructions. It's 1901, and you and your Cook (Mrs. Waters thanks her own devoted Mrs. Mitchell in the preface) are understood to be already fairly competent. Hop to:
Ingredients: Coffee, cream, eggs, sugar, butter. Bruise five ounces of freshly roasted Mocha coffee, and add it to three-quarters of a pint of boiling cream; cover the saucepan, let it simmer for twenty minutes, then pass through a bit of fine muslin. In the meantime mix the yolks of ten eggs and two whole eggs with eight ounces of castor [superfine] sugar and a glass of cream; add the coffee cream to this and pass the whole through a fine sieve into a buttered mould. Steam in a bain-marie [double boiler] for rather more than an hour, but do not let the water boil; then put the cream on ice for about an hour, and before serving turn it out on a dish and pour some cream flavoured with stick vanilla round it.
Way back, when we titled this post " 'What a goofy niche!' -- and other random thoughts," we said we would start with random thoughts. Now for the goofy niche. Would you believe I had to smile in glassy-eyed perplexity when a customer said just that to me, as he marveled at a new line of wines? They are called the Pairings Collection, and come from the ancient ("depuis 1725") French company Barton & Guestier. The charming labels tell you, I think, all you need to know about what foods might pair nicely with these five new wines. You might, for instance, try this below, to accompany lobster and shrimp.

There is also a "Chops & Burgers" red Bordeaux, a "Salmon & Trout" white Bordeaux, a "Chicken & Turkey" Côtes du Rhône and a "Crackers & Cheese" Beaujolais. "Food pairing just got easier," as the website says. The marketing idea is as clever as can be and the wines are pleasant for the $9.99 price tag. Nevertheless my customer looked twice at the stack of wines in the aisle, seemed to stagger, and then walked toward me, chuckling and shaking his head. "Who would think of that?" he asked, gesturing backwards. He seemed not at all sarcastic but truly at a loss. "What a goofy niche! I mean, in my opinion."

I kept on with the smile and the glassy-eyed stare. Yes, who would think of pairing wine with food? He went away. If I were a character played by Maggie Smith I might have thought of something tart to say, about the guns at Lucknow perhaps. 

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