Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree – In Merrie England

This is the third article in January of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on January 20, 1907, and is a continuation of the talk on keeping house in foreign countries.

This talk is on lodging in England.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.

Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree

In Merrie England

“O, the homes of Merrie England!
How beautiful are they!”

LODGING-HOUSE life in England is a kind of semi-housekeeping that appeals most strongly to Americans who have been traveling far enough to long for a touch of home seclusion and domestic comfort. We “went into lodgings” for the first time during the second year of exile. For six months we had—as the slangiest member of the party put it—“cropped the promiscuous vegetation” of pensions and hotels, and were a-weary of printed menus, of ambiguous entrees, of ubiquitous national dishes, of questionable beds and unequivocal impositions upon the strangers within foreign gateways. We yearned for food we need not analyze; for plain, wholesome living and the right of free speech, if not of high thinking.

We sought—and found—our pleasant pastures, and what the marginal reading of the Shepherd Psalm translates as “the waters of quietness,” in Brighton, just an easy run from London by railway.

We lived in lodgings subsequently in Leamington, and in the Isle of Wight, and in comfort. The Brighton experiment was so triumphantly satisfactory that the memory is an abiding delight.

The personnel of our landlord and his wife interested us from the beginning to the end of our sojourn in the famous old town—a fashionable and expensive resort of royalty and nobility 200 years ago. It is highly respectable still, but modern modes of travel have brought it so near to town that the charm of exclusiveness beloved by fashion has departed.

LUXURY WITHOUT FASHION

“Arry” and “Arriet,” taking advantage of cheap holiday excursions, make love with the frank, matter-of-course audacity of the British cockney, in the forsaken haunts of fop and coquette of the olden time. Shopmen do a fair, but not a brisk trade; parks with high-sounding titles are bordered by buildings that were once grand, and are now described by agents as “genteel and roomy.”

In such a house and upon Regent Park (a name that must have dated back to the youth of George IV, of scapegracish memory) a retired butler, who had lived for thirty years as boy and man in the family of Lord Somebody, had taken up his abode ten years before we were recommended to his good graces by a real estate agent. True to the traditions of his order, he had wedded the cook and drawn her, and the tidy sum she had saved in the same “service” as himself, into his honorable retirement. That is the way they do things in sensible old England. Upon the foundations of their united savings the mature couple leased the “genteel-roomy” house that had out lived its mansion days, and took lodgers.

The business is so little known in America (a more’s the pity!) that I will explain what the term means.

They furnished the house, dividing it into suites and flats for the accommodation of a certain number of individuals and families, for whom, when domiciled they kept house, the lodgers purchasing food and other requisites for daily living, and the proprietors doing the rest. The retired cook had but changed her scene of labors, but she was the nominal mistress of the house. The retired butler transplanted his dignity and dress coat in new soil, of which he was the owner. Both worked harder than ever before, but under conditions more honorable, from their point of view.

Let the report of one day set the case more distinctly before the mind of the reader who has never lived in lodgings.

IN COMMODIOUS QUARTERS

It was early in the summer, and the London “season” was not over. In consequence, Brighton was not full, and we had no difficulty in securing the best lodgings in the whilom mansion. We had the “drawing-room floor.” The English drawing-room is always gained by mounting stairs. Hence, our “English basement houses.” On this floor was the drawing-room entered through a smaller ante-chamber, which we, receiving no visitors, used as a library and writing room. Back of the spacious drawing-room, which looked out upon the Park, was one nearly as large, in which our meals were served. On the floor above were four bedrooms, of fair dimensions. All were clean and airy, and those in the front of the house gave us glimpses of the sea.

Even in summer we never breakfasted earlier than 8 o ’clock, and the “R.B.”—thus christened by our irreverent youngsters, and spoken of by no other name out of his hearing—made known, by a sort of plaintive patronage unattainable by any but a cidevant chief butler, that the meal was spread at that ghostly hour out of deference to our “colonial” prejudices. He was too well bred, or too wary, to quote “the quality” to us, then or ever. I have observed that those who have the offensive trick are usually people who have the least acquaintanceship with the authorities they cite. If there were mild protest in the R.B.’s shining morning face, clean shaven daily—as he passed muffins, toast and bacon, coffee, chocolate and tea—it went no further. He was a shade graver, perhaps, than after the world was better aired. More respectful he could not be. His deportment was of the best brand, and ripened by years. His spouse never, even by accident, gave us a brew of tolerable coffee. In this she was not unlike the chefs of the best hotels in London. She did make excellent chocolate, and the tea was delicious in flavor, although costing just half what we pay for inferior quality in our own country.

ADMIRED A TEA MAKER

The R.B.’s respect for me mounted visibly when he found that I expected to make tea at table. It was “uncommon to see a lady from the States do that,” he informed me. And when, kettle, tea-caddy and urn in place, I measured the dried leaves into the heated pot, poured a little boiling water over them and slipped the cozy into place, he was moved out of his habitual calm.

“Ah, madam, you do macerate your tea!” was an outburst of surprised admiration.

He was addicted to polysyllables, and they went well with the brand of deportment I mentioned just now.

The Continental breakfast does not take with the English. We had oatmeal and cream, bacon and eggs, or fish and bacon. Always bacon—the English breakfast variety we never get out of England, and which we ordered seven mornings in the week. About twice a week we had stewed, or deviled kidneys, muffins almost everyday and toast as invariably as bacon. Another inevitable adjunct of the morning repast, as it was of luncheon, afternoon tea and the Sunday night supper, was marmalade.

It is the Briton’s piece de resistance at three of his daily meals. Dundee marmalade; apple marmalade; marmalade based upon apricots green and apricots ripe; damson marmalade—marmalade named for every berry that grows—are native species of the genus. Besides these we had occasional treats of East Indian guava and preserved ginger.

After breakfast was cleared away, the R.B. presented himself, paper and pencil in hand and professional responsibility upon his brow, to receive my orders for the day. He was to do the marketing; he was familiar with shops, supplies and prices. I knew as well as he, that the programme for the next twenty-four hours and week was settled in his long head before be appeared in “Madame’s” presence. His manner of consulting me as to the least detail of the memoranda he jotted down, as from my dictation and his deferential attention to every suggestion, were inimitable. He was there for my “commands” and he went through the form of taking them. In reality, I had little to do with catering beyond paying the bills on Saturday night. I do not think I was cheated, albeit I was fully aware that my major-domo got his little commission from the tradesmen favored by our orders. He shopped to better advantage than a foreigner could hope to do. His show of protecting me against my lavish self was as good as a play.

“Strawberries, Madame!” in plaintive reluctance. “I am afraid you would hardly care to pay the market price for strawberries today. The recent rains have curtailed the supply, I grieve to say. I could not reconcile it with my conscience to let you order them without telling you that they are two shillings per quart. Uncommon fine berries, of course, but really, two shillings in the height of the season is extortionate!”

The English strawberries were as he said, uncommon of their kind. I have never seen finer, or tasted any that were more delicious, and when we could not get them for less, we smothered the R.B.’s conscience and our own, and paid the extortionate 2 shillings (50 cents) per quart.

When it came to paying six pence (12 1/2 cents) apiece for peaches in the Leamington market, we hesitated, and thought longingly of the basketfuls of the luscious fruit rotting at the week’s end on New York docks.

The weak point in the cuisine managed by the thrifty pair was the 1 o’clock luncheon. The retired cook had evidently lived out her term of service in a family that had the true British contempt for made dishes.

The distaste is as old as the reign of “Good George the King,” whose favorite dish was boiled mutton and turnips. Mrs. R.B. could compass a mince on toast. Her ignorance of croquettes, salmis, scallops and the like matched her ineptitude for all manner of salads. Her lord looked upon luncheon as a stop-gap for appetites that had been satisfied with breakfast and were reserving their best energies for dinner.

This, the fourth meal of the eating day, was to him a serious luncheon. A meaty soup—sometimes rather heavy for our taste—was succeeded in due and solemn procession by fish, a roast with vegetables, pudding or tarts, crackers and cheese and black coffee. Fruits and nuts were brought on with the crackers and cheese. These were the “dessert.” Tarts, custards, puddings and ices were “sweets.”

The main defect in the average English cuisine is sameness. We were painfully conscious of this during a fortnight’s stay at one of the largest and most expensive of London hotels. We did not weary of juicy Southdown mutton, unequaled in savoriness by any we had eaten in any other part of the world, unless it were the small roasts of lamb we used to get in Italy. Charles Lamb said of roasting pig: “He is a weakling; he is a flower.” The Italian lamb is a gentle bud—a very exquisite in his way. And his English cousin South down is a larger edition in flavor and tenderness. The “roast beef of Old England” was a lasting disappointment, and, with all deference to the native cooks, it was killed in the kitchen. We ate none that was not overdone until what gravy followed the carver’s knife was almost colorless. Sometimes it was boiled while fresh, an unheard-of method with us. The liquor in which it was boiled made good soup. The meat was insipid and fibrous.

In roasting poultry Mrs. R.B. was an adept. Her “fowls,” which she never called “chickens,” were done to a turn, pleasant to the sight and eminently satisfactory to the palate. If we did not learn to appreciate the “liver-wing” as the choicest morceau of the goodly bird, we approved of the jaunty touch lent to a plump young cook, or a capon, by tucking the brown liver under one wing—“like an opera hat”—said a saucy girl of the party.

The list of vegetables was pitifully short. Potatoes, that were perfect in their way, miracles of mealiness and magnitude; broad beans, a sort of overgrown lima; vegetable marrow, to which we inclined favorably, and Brussels sprouts, were the chief of our diet, so far a stable vegetables went. Day after day the round was repeated, with an occasional and most welcome interpolation of delicious green peas, when ducks took the place of the “regulation” fowl. Those who hankered for coarser esculents might regale plebeian tastes with cabbage and turnips. The finer vegetables that make our home markets beautiful and enticing throughout the year are unknown luxuries to the untraveled Briton.

I should be ungrateful and unjust if I failed to descant briefly upon the chaste joys of afternoon tea in the country that gave birth to the fascinating function.

AFTERNOON TEA’S JOYS

At 5 o’clock P.M., England, from palace to hut, “puts the kettle on and they all have tea.” It is the hour sacred to domestic tranquility and social comfort. We had the habit before we went into lodgings. It was confirmed for the rest of our lives by our two summers in the tight little island. And, verily, the teas spread in our sight by the Turveydropian R.B. were something to remember. However far we might have wandered afield, Londonward or into the country rich in downs, dykes, castles and historic ruins, we were sure to bring up at tea time in the quiet drawing room, and as sure to find the round table, covered with a snowy cloth, drawn to the corner of the hearth. The late afternoon was sometimes chill with sea-fogs, and in England the least suspicion of dampness and falling temperature is seized upon as an excuse for lighting a fire. Sometimes we came in wet, but cheerily, for we knew what awaited us. Then the sea-coal was a glow in the grate; the tea-urn bubbled in unison with it, and the cloth was hidden by plates of thin bread and butter, sandwiches, the toast rack, cake basket, a plate of hot scones or tea cakes shrouded in a napkin, always marmalade, and, not infrequently, a delicacy with which we became acquainted—and zestfully during that halcyon summer at Brighton—to wit, Devonshire cream! It was eaten with brown bread and butter and jam, otherwise marmalade.

At 10 o’clock we might have had supper if we had wanted it. I think the R.B. and his spouse never failed to eat their bread and cheese with, maybe, a bit of cold beef or pork, and to wash the food down with a “pint of bitter” at this ungainly hour. The poorest cottager must have his supper, if there be a crust of bread or a wheel of cheese in the cupboard.

How the better classes keep up the national custom, when they have breakfasted at 9, lunched at 1, had tea at 5 and a heavy family dinner at 7.30, or a dinner party at 8, passed our comprehension then, and is not yet quite clear.

ENGLISH RECIPES

Tea Cake.

Sift four capfuls of dried flour into a bowl and chop into it a scant cupful of butter. Dissolve half a yeast cake in four tablespoonfuls of warm water and stir it into two cupfuls of milk, or enough to make a soft dough. Roll this out into a sheet and cut into cakes as large as a tea plate and less than half an inch thick. Set them, covered lightly, in a warm dark place until they have nearly trebled in thickness. Bake in a floured pan. Keep them covered for twenty minutes, then brown.

Run a sharp knife around the edge, tear the cake open, butter and serve upon a plate lined and covered with a heated napkin.

Yorkshire Pudding.

Two cupfuls of flour, into which have been stirred, and then sifted with the flour a teaspoonful of baking powder and one of salt. Mix to a soft batter with two cupfuls of milk. Beat four eggs light and whip into the batter with quick, upward strokes.

This is always served with roast beef. When the beef is done, transfer it to a heated dish and keep hot over boiling water. Pour off the fat from the top of the gravy left in the dripping pan; turn the batter into the pan, set back in the oven and bake quickly to a delicate brown. Dish the meat and lay the pudding, cut into squares, about it in the platter.

Jam Pudding.

Line a buttered bake dish with a good puff paste. For a batter allow two eggs and their weight in butter and in dried and sifted flour. Cream the butter and sugar, whip in the yolks beaten smooth, and then the frothed whites, alternately with the flour, which has been sifted twice with a tablespoonful of baking powder.

Now spread the puff paste in the bake dish with peach jam, or with preserved peaches, mixed with a tablespoonful of preserved ginger, cut fine. Pour the batter upon this prepared bed and bake in a steady oven. Cover with paper as you would cake, removing to brown after the pudding has puffed up well.

It is really very nice when properly made, although un-American in construction.

Castle Pudding.

Two eggs, the weight of the eggs in granulated sugar, dried flour and in butter. Sift the flour twice with half a teaspoonful of baking powder. Cream the butter and sugar, working in the juice and grated peel of half a lemon. Add the beaten yolks; beat hard and whip in the stiffened whites, alternately with the flour. Bake in buttered pate pans as you would small cakes; turn out and eat hot with sauce.

Marion Harland

OTHER ARTICLES ALSO PUBLISHED…
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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