Down The Hole Again
I may have mentioned once or twice that I have terrible research habits. I’ll be sitting there, innocently writing, or at least trying to write, when some small point or other occurs to me; I go to look it up and, all of a sudden my entire day has vanished, leaving me lost, disoriented, and with a new appreciation of Yixing clay teapots or something. I’d love to say that I’m making an effort to fix this problem, but in all honestly it’s probably getting worse all the time.
It’s not even that I’m a stickler for accuracy and precision. Or rather I am that too, but given that my books are intentionally anachronistic and silly, it really shouldn’t matter when the wheelbarrow was first invented, or whether stepladders existed in eighteenth century Europe. They didn’t, by the way. It’s simply that I can’t help myself: a thought pops up, rabbit-like, and I just have to chase it. And so down the hole I go again. All research is useful of course, if only in a theoretical, one-day-in-the-far-off-future way, but some kinds of research are definitely more useful than others. It’s not always the ones I would expect, either. I keep a stack of books by the side of the bath, to read while I submerge myself in foam. These are carefully selected to give me useful insights and general or specific information that should be helpful while writing. At any time there will probably be one book on the subject of words, or writing; one usefully historical text, and one on a particular aspect of something that I will definitely probably be including in the next book, at some point. And a novel of some kind. Just because. When I find something helpful-looking I mark the page with a chocolate wrapper and move on. Yes of course there are chocolate wrappers in my bathroom. Doesn’t that happen to everyone? It's undeniable that I get a lot of use out of these books, and out of the results of my accidental, day-long researches into whatever tiny point of order happened to rear its twitchy little head, but I suspect that I get as much, or more, out of simply doing things myself. Look at the laundry scene in The Vicar Man, for example. Reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century laundry days taught me a lot. Looking up the uses and effects of carbolic and other soaps, added an additional layer of understanding. Both of these formed a sort of skeleton for the events of that chapter and the following scenes. But what really put the flesh on its bones was the amount of time that I had spent, kneeling over a bathtub after a weekend in a field, hand washing woolens and linens that were, by that point, rather more mud than cloth. I swear one piece simply disintegrated when it came into contact with the soap. No amount of searching, note taking, or cross-referencing, can ever truly convey the reality of an aching back, the way hands redden and dry in the water, the sheer, unbelievable weight of sodden wool. When I read that chapter back, what stands out is not the misunderstandings and the comic back-and-forth, the carefully researched tools, or the unfortunate nature of the bleaching pail: it’s how utterly real the heavy, sweltering, grinding labour feels. And it feels that way because I actually did it. So when I saw an advertisement for The Regency Cook’s Gentle Introduction To Regency Cookery course I jumped at the chance. I’d taken classes about period cookery before — some of the results appear in The Vicar Man — and I’d followed recipes on my own, with mixed results. But this was an opportunity not only to learn about Regency cookery, or to simply follow an adapted recipe, but to do so while also being given a clear idea of what my results should be, and, thanks to the Facebook group, seeing what the results of other would-be-chefs actually were. It looked, from my point of view, almost too good to be true. And if you were expecting this next sentence to be a heavy handed “It was” then here is where I must disappoint you. Because it was every bit as good as I had hoped.
To begin with the course was well taught: the Regency Cook, Paul Couchman, knows his subject well and explained everything clearly and easily.
It helped that you got the sense that he genuinely loved the topic at hand and just wanted to share it with as many people as possible. There was a feeling that he would have been there, in a suitable Regency apron, writing up those recipes and cooking those dishes, even if nobody else had come along for the ride. The accompanying workbooks were likewise well-written, going into greater detail not only of the recipes and their service but of the world in which they sprang up, and being filled with the kind of details more or less guaranteed to see me chasing metaphorical rabbits for months to come.
Besides this, there was the Facebook group. It is very comforting to know that you are not the only person whose ratafias, though given “room to spread out” nevertheless melded into one, vast, craterous expanse, instead of becoming the smoothly domed dainties of the accompanying illustration. It is somehow equally comforting to see a novice cook achieve a perfect end result: it tells you that such things can happen, even if they seem exist in the same realm as triple-rollover-lottery-wins or sunny bank holidays. Just knowing you are not alone in your trials or your triumphs makes a spot of historical cookery suddenly much more appealing than just picking the same recipes out of a book. It helps too to be able to ask: “Should my peas really take over twenty four hours to soak?” or “Does anyone else think the custard just tastes like eggs?” and receive an answer, not only from the helpful gentleman teaching the course, but from all the other people whose eggs, perhaps, were a tiny bit larger than the original recipe had intended.
Then too, even when I couldn’t or didn’t reproduce a recipe myself, I had the demonstration to look forward to, and the results of other people’s recreations to applaud. Without this I would never have realised just how much Regency chefs would have appreciated the cookery books of the nineteen-seventies. That may sound ridiculous, but simply look at Antonin Carême’s gloriously stripey almond and orange jellies, served inside the orange peel and decorated with hundreds and thousands, and tell me that the mind that concocted such a confection would not have thrilled at the thought of chocolate-finger hedgehogs, pineapple upside down cakes, and those little toadstools made out of hardboiled eggs and halved tomatoes.
Yes, I have made all of those things*. The trick with the toadstools is to make the spots out of salad cream. Which is beside the point. What isn’t, though, is that someone who would produce a pudding** that made it look as though one had simply brought an entire boiled cabbage to the table, would definitely have appreciated a well-turned radish rosette. I had read many of the recipes, in the course of research. I had seen pictures. I had even tasted quite a few things that were reasonably similar to the dishes described. But, even with those associated flavours in mind, it was hard to truly understand what I was seeing. When I looked at an illustration of a Regency dinner, all the jellies, cakes and splendid confectionary seemed, in my imagination, to have roughly the same texture and flavour as strawberry Angel Delight.
Now I know that that isn’t true. I know now the simple sprightliness of a bowl of green pea soup; the delicate sweetness of ratafias, and the discreet swilling of coffee as you try to unstick that sweetness from your teeth; I know what happens if you have just a little too much egg yolk in your chocolate fanchonettes. I know it in a real, not simply a theoretical way, from having made those things and tasted them; from fretting over pudding strings and almost scalding my fingers; from the first tentative bites, eyes squeezed shut in fear, and the moment of revelation that, actually, I like this. I know how long it took to clean the kitchen up afterwards, too. What’s more, I know I’ll be back. Actually, I’ll be back tomorrow, because that’s when The Regency Cook’s Feeding The Poor And Feasting With The Wealthy course is on. I think there are still places available, if you hurry. As a last note, just to show you that this sort of thing really does help me write, and that I’m not just whiling away the hours amusing myself when I could be finishing The Wolf-Finder General, I offer Dora’s thoughts on White Soup, which will almost certainly turn up in book form at some point in the future: “I’d read about this stuff before.
I’d three different recipes for it, in fact, between my mother’s books and the one the Vicar gave me, and it had always struck me as a particularly stupid way to waste your time. It didn’t look like anything worth eating, was the thing. Even if I was the sort of person who could afford to throw away a pound of almonds here, or a whole boiled chicken there. And that’s with the ruddy cockerel looking at me the whole time, and trying to make those beady eyes of his look big, and sad and reproachful. It looked, if you asked me, like the sort of food rich people gave to other rich people in order to quietly brag about their riches. I’d rather have the chicken, thank you, roasted properly, and never mind the blessed cockerel. No: white soup was not for me. It was, if anything, not so much a food as a fable: like one of those stories where some foolish animal with improbable conversational abilities and surprisingly opposable thumbs does some stupid thing or other and ends up suffering for it, all to underscore some silly message about Vanity, or Pride, or Lack of Objectivity In Evidence Based Science. That sort of thing. In this case, presumably, the moral of the story is that it’s a waste of time and money buying a lot of things to make a soup if you’re only going to throw all of those things away in the process of making said soup. Aristotle would probably have put it better, mind. “When you make soup from nothing, you are left with nothing.” Something like that. Something substantial. Which this soup, sitting dismally before me, was not. Seeing no other recourse I took the proffered spoon, dipped the least possible bit of it into the tiny bowl, and tasted. Unfortunately, it was delicious.” *Because they are good, is why. Although none of them quite live up to my favourite party food creation, which was little boats made out of halved potato skins, filled with a mixture of potato, cheeses, and spring onion, and topped after baking with a tiny blob of chilli jelly and tortilla chips for the sails. **In the sense of a savoury dish, filled with meat and or vegetables, and steamed or boiled.