Thursday, March 05, 2009

“London Particular.”

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, London used to have thick fogs known as ‘pea-soupers’. The famous historic restaurant Simpson’s in the Strand calls its pea-soup “London Particular” – an idea they perhaps got from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House in which one of the characters refers to the ‘pea-souper’ fog as a “London Particular”. The phrase wasn’t Dickens’ idea however, it had been used for at least a hundred years as the name for a style of Madeira wine.

The word “particular”, according to the OED can refer to “A thing specially characteristic of a place or person; a person's special choice or favourite thing; (sometimes) spec. a kind of Madeira.” So, as I understand it, “London Particular Madeira” was a style specifically made for the London trade. The earliest mention I have found so far is from 1756, but no doubt there are earlier references.

One article from 1791 refers to “Madeira wine of the quality of London particular”, but what that quality was, I have no idea (but hope someone out there does, and can enlighten us all). Some references seem to suggest it was the best quality, but this piece, from The Emporium of Arts and Sciences in 1815 suggests that even “good” Madeira was at least sometimes inferior and adulterated.

Common Madeira may be greatly improved, and is so when wanted for immediate drinking, by a small quantity, (a desert spoonful to a bottle) of well clarified syrup of the finest loaf sugar. I believe in addition to this, it is not unusual to put a tea- spoonful of a filtered vinous solution of isinglass in good Madeira. These give a fullness, a richness, and a silkiness to the wine, that to my palate is very grateful. But the isinglass is apt to precipitate on standing and exposure to the air.
Your next cask is Madeira. Is it London particular ? Is it bill wine or barter wine ? Is it Cercial ? From the north; or the south side of the island ? The London particular, is the highest priced wine for the London market: next to that is the bill wine, sold for bills of exchange : next to that is the barter wine, exchanged for goods. The wine of the south side of the island, as the Cercial wine, is much the richest: the northern side is comparatively harsh. Wine is made up in Madeira, by mixing, 1st, a certain quantity of old with new wine: 2d, a certain quantity of Malmsey with the common wine: 3dly, a certain quantity of north side with south side wine. Tne more old the more Malmsey, the more south side wine, the better and dearer is the mixture. Clarified syrup is a frequent substitute for Malmsey. Teneriffe is, I believe, lately, introduced as an adulteration.

I guess less than fabulous Madeira could be used in a nice Madeira cake? Recipes for this started to appear in about the 1840’s. Unfortunately they don’t contain madeira. A mystery. I’d add some anyway. Here is an example from the magnificent Eliza Acton.

Whisk four fresh eggs until they are as light as possible, then, continuing still to whisk them, throw in by slow degrees the following ingredients in the order in which they are written: six ounces of dry, pounded, and sifted sugar; six of flour, also dried and sifted; four ounces of butter just dissolved, but not heated; the rind of a fresh lemon; and the instant before the cake is moulded, beat well in the third of a teaspoonful of carbonate of soda: bake it an hour in a moderate oven. In this, as in all compositions of the same nature, observe particularly that each portion of butter must be beaten into the mixture until no appearance of it remains before the next is added; and if this be done, and the preparation be kept light by constant and light whisking, the cake will be as good, if not better, than if the butter were creamed. Candied citron can be added to the paste, but it is not needed.
Eggs, 4; sugar, 6 oz.; flour, 6 oz.; butter, 4 oz.; rind of 1 lemon; carbonate of soda, 1 of teaspoonful: 1 hour, moderate oven.
Modern Cookery for Private Families, by Eliza Acton, 1845

Quotation for the Day ….

No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.
Thomas Jefferson


Rachel Laudan said...

Janet, I like the new look. I thought the cake was baptized Madeira because you nibbled it along with a nice little glass of the wine in the late morning. Wish I'd had such luck.

Judith Klinger said...

From what I can gather L.P. Madeira was the top quality, followed by London Market Madeira. The adulteration may have been necessary if the the wine hadn't gone 'round the world. The exposure to equatorial heat was supposed to mellow the wine, making it more palatable. The wine was literally shipped around the world before being consumed.
I love the Thomas Jefferson quote. A prime example of why absinthe became so popular. The vineyards were ravaged during WWI and absinthe was cheap and easy to produce.

SometimesKate said...

Mmm.. pea soup. When I stop feeling so icky I'll have to make a pot. My mind is hungry, even if my body isn't.

I just can't get around eating something with the word "glass" in the name. I know it's something to do with whales, but my first exposure to the word "isinglass" was from the musical "Oklahoma", "with isinglass curtains you can roll right down, in case there's a change in the wea-ther." So not only is it glass, it's also a curtain. Not at all appetizing.

I've been really enjoying your austerity recipes and the bits from WWII. I've just ordered a book by a Canadian lady named Caroline Ackerman called 'The no Fad Good Food $5 a Week Cookbook'. From what I read, this was published in the late 60's, early 70's. If you'd like, I'll let you know if it's useful. It was mentioned in my copy of "More with Less" by Doris Janzen Longacre.

Which reminds me, have you read any of John Thorne's books?

Anonymous said...

I am trying to find a copy of Caroline Ackerman's cookbook. My sister gave me a copy when I was in university (late 70's) but they are around $200 on Amazon, which is a bit dear for a 150 page paperback on a frugality theme. Anyone know where I can find one a little more reasonably priced?

Anonymous said...

Caroline Ackerman is my grandmother :) I didn't know amizon had copies of her book, it hasn't been in print for years!