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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Eating humble pie.



When I held my dinner party yesterday, the couple I had invited unexpectedly launched into a bitter row with both parties threatening to storm out of my flat. I found myself cast in the reluctant role of peacemaker. It reminded me of an incident years ago when I was still living in a bed-sit. My late friend rang me on the telephone in the communal hall to say that her boyfriend wanted to speak to me. I had never met him before, let alone spoken to him. I wondered what on earth he had to say to me. To my astonishment he asked if he and my friend could come around to my house, as they wanted my advice on their relationship. I was flummoxed as to why they would have chosen me but agreed. I could only think that they knew my mother was a psychotherapist and imagined I had somehow inherited her professional flair for counselling. I also thought that they felt they would be able to speak freely in front of me and that the other would be obliged to listen to their complaint in silence. I cannot recall anything about what they said or what I advised.

On Saturday night I had to force myself not to get involved. “I am not a therapist,”  I repeated and would only suggest that they seek impartial professional help together.
“He doesn’t empathise with me, “ wailed my friend. “Why can’t he wear his heart on his sleeve like I do and not be so reserved in public?
I had heard similar sentiments voiced by my women friends many times over the years, complaining that their male partners didn't understand them. This time was somewhat different as the feelings were expressed by a gay man.
 
The couple had calmed down before they left and expressed their profuse apologies for their joint behaviour, casting a pall over an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable evening. I was simply relieved neither had walked out without the other.  Nevertheless, I do not need a relationship counsellor myself to realise that the sturm und drang of modern relationships is one reason why I have remained resolutely single.

Let them eat (cup)cake.


My musings came to a sudden end on Thursday as I stopped to prepare my supper. I spent much of Friday and Saturday preparing for a dinner party. I made watercress and potato soup. I also hand baked two loaves of cardamom flavoured Finnish sweet bread and one loaf of a Finnish rye-bread and a batch of lemon cup cakes.I have got into the habit of baking Finnish loaves for guests to take home with them. A Moroccan lamb tagine and pomegranate, coriander and lemon couscous plus a cloudberry Swiss roll made with frozen cloudberries and cloudberry liqueur, bought from the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, (Head in the cloud (berriescompleted my cooking marathon. Truly a feast fit for a king or at least one king in particular: George III. 

I referred earlier to the degree of consideration that King George III showed towards his royal servants at Kew. Instead of bathing within the pink walls of the Dutch House, he chose to take his bath in a room located within the separate kitchen complex. (It had to be Kew, wonderful Kew). This saved his servants having to trudge around with jugs of hot water from the kitchen to the royal apartments. Had they done so, their route would have been underground as there was once a subterranean passageway linking the two buildings. When Channel 4’s Time Team were carrying out an archaeological survey of the long vanished White House in 2003, they were allowed into the former kitchens and were shown the now blocked up passageway. The king’s actions might not have been wholly altruistic.

King George might have had access to some of the finest chiefs in Europe, although he was said to prefer simple dishes when dining alone with his family. The fact is, in general, he would have had dined far better at my table than he would have at Kew Palace. The reason for this is simple. The logistics of ferrying cooked dishes from the kitchens to the king’s dining room meant the food was usually tepid by the time it arrived. Perhaps the king preferred not to have lukewarm baths in addition to meals.  
 At Osborne House on the Isle of White, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Swiss chalet imported from Switzerland and set up in the grounds. Their children, both male and female, were encouraged to grow food in the vegetable patch and cook meals for themselves in the fully equipped kitchen of the Swiss Chalet. Queen Victoria’s grandfather, King George III was known as Farmer George due in part to his great interest in agriculture and his desire to lead a simpler life at his summer palace at Kew.
 In his biography “Monarch : The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II,” author Robert Lacey describes how the Duke of Edinburgh arranged for a vehicle to be modified to accommodate all the kitchen paraphernalia needed for him and the other members of the family to prepare cook and clear up after a barbecue. The present Queen of England has also been known to rope in her family and guests to help with the washing up after informal meals at Balmoral and Sandringham. However, even she might draw the line at inviting foreign dignitaries to snap on a pair of washing up gloves after a state banquet at Windsor Palace. If her husband’s barbecue lorry were to break down the Queen is qualified to fix it herself. During World War II, whilst in the Auxiliary Territorial Service,  the then Princess Elizabeth trained as a lorry driver and mechanic. Following in her footsteps both her daughter, Anne, and granddaughter, Zara, own Heavy Goods Vehicle licence. They use them to ferry horse boxes around the country.  Anne was said to have once opined that if she had not been born a royal princess she would have chosen a career as a lorry driver.

 The Monarch’s regal namesake Elizabeth I famously declared “If I were turned out of my realm in my petticoat, I would prosper anywhere in Christendom”. Whether Elizabeth I could have turned her hand to being a cook is open to question. Her father, Henry VIII left such matters to the professionals. For his own meals Henry employed a French chef called Peter the Sweet. The extant Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court were not used by Peter the Sweet. He would have prepared Henry’s meals in a special kitchen close to the King’s own quarters and the King would have dined in private in the privy Chamber. As to his courtiers, those of the rank of baron or above would have dined either in the Great Watching Chamber or in their own rooms. Everyone else dined in the Great Hall, which could seat 600 people at a time. In terms of staff canteens, the Great Hall has to rank as amongst the finest in the world.

I sometimes ask friends what career path they would have liked to have pursued if financial and actual expertise or talent did not need to be taken into consideration. Thus one accountant of my acquaintance would have liked to have been a carpenter in another life. I used to fantasise about running a tea shop in a period building. I inadvertently put my foot in it two years ago when I went to Sutton House.
“I do envy you your job,“ I said to the woman who then ran the café in the Tudor building.
“Today’s my last day,“ she explained. “They have decided not to carry on selling hot meals here as there hasn’t been sufficient local lunchtime trade to make it viable. When they re-open again in spring they will limit refreshments to tea, coffee and cakes.”
Last December I enthused to the new woman in the tea room about the delicious smell of mulled wine that permeated the house. It came from a special pot on her counter-top.
“I am really fed up with that smell now, “she confided.

There is a select band of men and women who live my dream life. They are the costumed guides at places like Hampton Court Palace. They get paid for dressing up in period costume and gliding around the state apartments, authoritatively answering questions put to them by hoi polloi in the shape of tourists. An even smaller group dress up as cooks and recreate historically accurate meals. In Tudor times  only men tended to be employed in the kitchens. This could have been due to the intense heat of the kitchen fires, causing some of the servants to work in next to nothing or completely naked, much to Henry VIII’s disgust. He eventually issued orders forbidding his kitchen staff from roaming around the premises ‘naked, or in garments of such vileness as they do now.” Nevertheless, Henry did employ at least one woman in his kitchens to make 'subtleties', a role I could take on in any re-enactment. I know I was green with envy when the Eagle and I went along to Hampton Court one New Year’s Eve. Men dressed in period costumes in the Tudor kitchens were preparing a special feast of spit-roasted venison to eat together once the palace had closed for the night to visitors. To top it all, their sleeping quarters were located in the very place that was thought to have been Anne Boleyn’s private apartments. It knocked all my New Year’s Eves (Same Old New Year!) into a cocked hat (or should that be crown) by comparison.