Monday, May 14, 2007

Upstairs in Mayfair.

Today, May 14th …

One way or another, we are all voyeurs at heart. We may peer judgementally at the contents of the supermarket trolley in front of us at the checkout queue, or we may surreptitiously read about the latest celebrity love and lust dramas in weekly magazines, or we may read other people’s diaries. I mean of course historic diaries.

William Tayler was a servant (perhaps a footman) in a well-to-do nineteenth century household in Mayfair, London, and and he kept a diary. He obviously felt that the eating habits of the Upstairs folk who employed him were worthy of note, for on this day in 1837 - a mere few weeks before Victoria became Queen of England - he wrote:

“For the parlour breakfast they have hot rolls, dry toast, a loaf of fancy bread and a loaf of common and a slice of butter … they make their tea themselves. They have chocalate which is something like coffee but of a greasey and much richer nature. This is all they have for breakfast … Lunch is at one … They generally have some cut from ours or have cold meat and some vegitibles. Dinner at six which is considered very early. This day they had two soles fryed with saws (sauce), a leg of mutton, a dish of ox, pullets, potatows, brocolo (broccoli), rice and a rhubarb tart, a tabiaca (tapioca) pudding, cheese and butter … tea at eight o’clock with bread and butter and dry toast, never any supper – its not fashionable.”

Broccoli was the stand-out food for me when I read this description, although I was tempted by the idea of an unfashionable supper. Broccoli is the vegetable that proves that the average customer at the greengrocer is smarter in some ways than a lot of heavily scientific botanists and horticulturalists. The latter struggle to find any significant difference between broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. botrytis asparagoides) and cauliflower (Brassica oleracea var. botrytis cauliflora), whereas even the vege-phobes amongst us can distinguish them from across the store. Broccoli, I am reliably informed, differs from cauliflower only in “the form and colour of its inflorescence and its hardiness”. And both are only variations of the cabbage plant after all, as we have previously noted.

Broccoli, as its name suggests, was produced (developed? invented?) either deliberately or accidentally, in Italy. It appeared in Britain in about 1720, but did not take the vege-growing or eating public by storm. It has been treated with fluctuating indifference ever since. From the mid-eighteenth century to the early Victorian era, cookbooks – if they had any recipes for it at all – all gave variations on the same three themes. Broccoli was boiled and buttered (with most recipes noting that the French eat it with vinegar and oil), or ‘boiled like asparagus’, garnished with nasturtium buds and served as a ‘pretty salad’, or cooked with eggs.

Broccoli then seems to have fallen somewhat out of favour. There is nothing at all in Richard Dolby’s The Cook's Dictionary, and House-keeper's Directory: A New Family Manual of Cookery … (1830) in spite of its reasonably encyclopedic content. Those eminent Victorian cookbook authors, Isabella Beeton and Eliza Acton have one recipe each for what is essentially the boiled vegetable. An author called Frederick Bishop was at least aware of (and sounds slightly sad about) the imminent loss of the broccoli and egg recipe, so I give it here as it sounds worth rediscovering, reviving, or re-vamping.

Broccoli and Buttered Eggs.
Keep a handsome bunch for the middle, and have eight pieces to go round; toast a piece of bread to fit the inner part of the dish or plate; boil the broccoli. In the meantime have ready six (or more) eggs beaten, put for six a pound of fine butter into a saucepan, with a little salt, stir it over the fire, and as it becomes warm add the eggs, and shake the saucepan till the mixture is thick enough; pour it on the hot toast, and lay the broccoli as before directed. This receipt is a very good one, it is occasionally varied, but without improvement, the dish is however nearly obsolete.
[The Illustrated London Cookery Book: Containing Upwards of Fifteen Hundred First-rate Receipts ... By Frederick Bishop 1852]

Is there a society for the Preservation of Lost Recipes? I would like to join.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Fleeing the Famine.

Quotation for the Day …

“I do not like broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli.” George Bush Snr.


Johanna GGG said...

when I was young I hated broccoli - but today love its green brilliance and earthy taste - I think it is one of the most attractive vegetables and it inspired a brilliant dish and cookbook title - the enchanted broccoli forest (Mollie Katzen). So I am thankful it didn't fade away into extinction (if vegetables can indeed become extinct?)

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Johanna; I guess veggies can become extinct - there was something called laser ( a green leafy I think) in ancient Roman times that is now extinct, and the original wild form of maize is gone, I believe. I love broccoli too.