Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happy Birthday to Charles.

February 7

Today is the birthday of Charles Dickens (in 1812). This wonderful story-teller’s works are rich with images of food – not surprising for a man who had been a hungry boy forced to work in a boot-blacking factory at the age of twelve. Food quotations alone from his stories could give us fodder for this blog as long as I will be writing it, so my problem today was – which one to choose?

Gravy is under-represented in food writing, methinks. One day I might attempt the definitive book on gravy (and custard? England’s two main sauces, and who needs any more when they are done to perfection in one of their infinite varieties?)

Mrs. Todger, in Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewitt, runs a boarding house. The job has taken its toll on her good looks, and she explains why:

“Presiding over an establishment like this makes sad havoc with the features… The gravy alone is enough to add twenty years to one's age, I do assure you… The anxiety of that one item, my dears, keeps the mind continually upon the stretch. There is no such passion in human nature as the passion for gravy among commercial gentlemen”.

Mrs. Todger was quite right to take gravy seriously. The preparation has a seriously long heritage, and the word an obscure etymology – two good reasons for reverence. The OED hazards a guess that the word derives from a mis-reading of the Old French word grané, meaning ‘grain’, meaning ‘anything used in cooking’ – which is as obscure and brave an explanation that one would wish. If grané refers to grain as in flour as in thickening for meat juices, then we have arrived at ‘English’ gravy, in which case it is a perfect explanation, for English gravy is a different dish from French ‘gravy’ which is merely ‘jus’.

There are recipes for gravy in the earliest English cookbook, the Form of Cury, written about 1390. It consists of the rabbit broth, thickened with ground almonds, not flour, and spiced with sugar and saffron.

Connynges in Grauey.
Take Connynges..and drawe hem with a gode broth with almandes blanched and brayed, do therinne suger and powdor gynger.

By the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens was considering gravy, ‘when properly done’ it was an incredibly labour-intensive process. I blame progress and its accompanying serious dearth of servants for the decline of good gravy and the invention of boxed gravy powders.

Miss Eliza Acton devotes a complete chapter to Gravies, and I give you an extract from it, to show how serious gravy can really be:

GRAVIES are not often required either in great variety, or in abundant quantities, when only a moderate table is kept, and a clever cook will manage to supply, at a trifling cost, all that is generally needed for plain family dinners; while an unskilful or extravagant one will render them sources of unbounded expense. But however small the proportions in which they are made, their quality should be particularly attended to, and they should be well adapted in flavour to the dishes they are to accompany. For some, at high degree of savour is desirable; but for fricassees, and other preparations of delicate white meats, this should be avoided, and a soft, smooth sauce of refined flavour-Should be used in preference to any of more piquant relish.

To deepen the colour of gravies, the thick mushroom pressings of Chapter V., or a little soy (when its flavour is admissible), or cavice, or Harvey's sauce may be added to it; and for some dishes, a glass of claret, or of port wine.

Vermicelli, or rasped cocoa-nut, lightly, and very gently browned in a small quantity of butter, will both thicken and enrich them, if about an ounce of either to the pint of gravy be stewed gently in it from half an hour to an hour, and then strained out.

She decries gravy which is over-thickened and greasy:

“ … gravies, which should not, however, be too much thickened, particularly with the unwholesome mixture of flour and butter, so commonly used for the purpose. Arrow-root, or rice-flour, or common flour gradually browned in a slow oven, are much better suited to a delicate stomach. No particle of fat should ever be perceptible upon them when they are sent to table … ”

She gives a number of recipes, starting with:

Brown lightly and carefully from four to six ounces of lean ham, thickly sliced and cut into large dice; lift these out, and put them into the pan in which the gravy is to be made; next, fry lightly also, a couple of pounds of neck of beef, dredged moderately with flour, and slightly with pepper; put this when it is done over the bam; and then brown gently, and add to them one not large common onion. Pour over these ingredients a quart of boiling water, or of weak but well-flavoured broth, bring the whole slowly to a boil, clear off the scum with great care, throw in a saltspoonful of salt, four cloves, a blade of mace, twenty corns of pepper, a bunch of savoury herbs, a carrot, and a few slices of celery: these last two may be fried or not, as is most convenient. Boil the gravy very softly until it is reduced to little more than a pint; strain, and set it by until the fat can be taken from it. Heat it anew, add more salt if needed, and a little mushroom catsup, cayenne-vinegar, or whatever flavouring it may require for the dish with which it is to be served: it will seldom need any thickening. A dozen small mushrooms prepared as for pickling, may be added to it at first with advantage. Half this quantity of gravy will be sufficient for a single tureen, and the economist can diminish a little the proportion of meat when it is thought too much.

At risk of drowning you in gravy recipes and wearying you of the gravy word, in order to briefly indicate the range of gravy offerings in the Dickensian era, I give you a small selection:

Boil for about ten minutes, in half a pint of rich and highly-flavoured brown gravy, or espagnole, half the rind of an orange, pared as thin as possible, and a small strip of lemon-rind, with a bit of sugar the size of a hazel-nut. Strain it off, add to it a quarter pint of port or claret, the juice of half a lemon, and a tablespoonful of orange-juice; season it with cayenne, and serve it as hot as possible.
Gravy, ½
pint; ½ the rind of an orange; lemon-peel, 1 small strip; sugar, size of hazel-nut: 10 minutes. Juice of ½ a lemon: orange-juice, 1 tablespoonful; cayenne.
[Miss Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845]

Pick a very stale woodcock or snipe, cut it in pieces (but first take out the bag from the entrails), and simmer with as much unseasoned meat-gravy as you will want. Strain it, and serve in the dish ; but if the mutton be not long kept, it will not acquire the venison flavour.
[Murray's modern cookery book. Modern domestic cookery, by a lady 1851]

Melt a piece of butter about the size of an egg, in a sauce-pan, shake in a little flour, and brown it by degrees, stir in half a pint of water, and half a pint of ale, or small beer which is not bitter, an onion, a piece of lemon-peel, two cloves, a blade of mace, some whole pepper, a spoonful of mushroom pickle, a spoonful of ketchup, and an anchovy; boil altogether a quarter of an hour, and strain it. It is an excellent sauce for various dishes.
[The practical cook, English and foreign, by J. Bregion and A. Miller, 1845]

On Dickens …

There have been previous stories in this blog on dinner with Dickens, the Dolly Varden Cake inspired by one of his characters, and also one on the menu book authored by his wife.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Pork Pie, without the Pork.

Quotation for the Day …

Polly put the kettle on, we'll all have tea. Charles Dickens, in Barnaby Rudge

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