In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The English writer Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2014) is best known for the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of family dramas set around World War II that overflow with scenes of meals being prepared for a large English country estate. Published between 1990 and 2013, the books are five floral-covered bricks totaling nearly three thousand pages and centered on the children and grandchildren of a rich English timber merchant, known as “the brigadier,” and his Edwardian wife, “the duchy.” The story concerns the Cazalet family at large as well as their lovers, spouses, children, governesses, great-aunts, cooks, and cousins, all of whose struggles for love, fulfillment, and a place in the world make for page-turning reading.
It was the opinion of Howard’s contemporaries that this was not great literature, and though she hung out in elevated literary circles—most notably as the second wife of Kingsley Amis and the stepmother of Martin Amis—she was often dismissed as a writer of “women’s fiction.” But Howard’s books hold up. She has a dazzling ability to depict a character at a moment of crisis, catching a young woman midstream as she gives up one dream for another or drilling in on a telling lie, a glint of cowardice. It also takes enormous technical virtuosity to keep her huge cast of characters distinct in the reader’s mind, and a master class could be taught from the timing of her interlinked plotlines.
My conversion to the Cazalet Chronicles came midway through the second volume, Marking Time, when Jay, a clever theater student, quotes a poem to one of the heroines, Louise, a moody, damaged young woman who has artistic aspirations in a society on the verge of war (like everyone else, she eventually must give them up for the greater good):
Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It’s no go your maidenheads, it’s no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.
It’s no go my honey love, it’s no go my poppet,
Work your hands from day to day, the wind will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass, you won’t hold up the weather.
The poem, Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music,” captures the sense of social disintegration felt by people in England between the wars, and it brought home to me that the Cazalet Chronicles are a unique, sprawling formal experiment in approaching the loss of a social order, the great theme of Howard’s generation, through a proliferation of stories of relationships, family, love, the domestic, and the home. The approach is necessarily oblique because Howard’s young women experience most of the forces battering their world as sources of mystery and absence. They aren’t told things; they’re sent away when the adults listen to the radio. In one scene, a man on a train forces a teenage girl’s head down as two planes fight overhead and everyone else cheers and claps. Afterward, while the girl seethes with rage, mingled with shock at the realization that she wanted to see what was happening, her mother makes her thank the man. How does one become an adult under such conditions? Howard’s titles are telling. The third volume is Confusion; the last, All Change.
The Cazalet Chronicles are, to an amazing extent, autobiographical. In Artemis Cooper’s biography Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence, we learn that all three of the young female leads are essentially versions of Howard herself, drawing on her life experiences and the different aspects of her character. And the change, turmoil, and confusion that comes through in the novels plagued her extraordinary but tumultuous life. She, too, was a timber merchant’s daughter who spent her younger years on an English country estate. Like her characters, she modeled for Vogue, married young, and had and abandoned a child. And like them, she had many romances, including affairs with the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, the writer and conservationist Robert Aickman, and the anti-totalitarian intellectual Arthur Koestler, as well as her aforementioned marriage to Kingsley Amis, from which she inherited Martin as a stepson (in Martin’s account, far from being a wicked stepmother, Howard set him on the path toward becoming a writer).
The marriage to Kingsley Amis did not last, however, and Howard, a successful author since her twenties, continued to take lovers into her seventies while running her own sprawling country house, where she threw regular weekend parties that were a who’s who of literary London. Unlike their mothers, many of the well-off women of Howard’s generation had to do their own cooking, and she excelled at it, writing a cookbook, making her own marmalades, chutneys, and jams, and, for guests, stuffing her freezer with “stews and fish pies for the weekend, as well as things that don’t freeze quite so well, like game terrines,” Cooper writes.
As a hostess who frequently churns out food for weekend guests, I gloried in these books’ baking scenes, which provide a unique glimpse into the kitchen of a large estate of the era. In one passage in The Light Years, the cook, Mrs. Cripps,
spent the morning plucking and drawing two brace of pheasant for dinner; she also minced the remains of the sirloin of beef for cottage pie, made a Madeira cake, three dozen damson tartlets, two pints of egg custard, two rice puddings, two pints of batter for the kitchen lunch of Toad-in-the-Hole, two lemon meringue pies, and fifteen stuffed baked apples for the dining room lunch. She also oversaw the cooking of mountainous quantities of vegetables—the potatoes for the cottage pie, the cabbage to go with the Toad, the carrots, French beans, spinach and a pair of grotesque marrows.
But when I turned toward making this exciting-sounding food, I discovered how stingy it is. We tend to think of wealth as a monolith and imagine that people in country houses of any era were consuming the cream of the crop. We also—thanks, in part, to The Great British Bake Off—have moved so far from the cliché of English food being terrible that I’d forgotten to expect it. But a reader who is paying attention will notice that one of the first things Howard tells us about the duchy is that she’s an Edwardian who doesn’t believe in taking baths or heating houses or eating toast with butter and jam (it has to be one or the other, or else it’s too decadent). The dishes being turned out in the Cazalets’ kitchen are things like the “cottage pie,” above, and “rissoles”—both to be found in the “leftovers” section of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course (Delia Smith, an English equivalent to Julia Child, was a source Howard used in her personal life). And that’s before the war. During, food becomes even scarcer. One Christmas feast in Marking Time relies on two rabbit pies, because though meat was rationed at the time, people were allowed “to shoot vermin on a Sunday, [and] luckily rabbits count as that.”
In order to bridge the gap between my expectations of glamorous English country cooking and the realities of choosing a menu from Howard’s books, my spirits collaborator, Hank Zona, sourced me a bottle of sparkling wine from Ridgeview, an English vintner from Sussex, home of the Cazalets’ fictional estate (and Howard’s real one). England is an emerging region for sparkling wine, thanks, sadly, to climate change, and the twenty-five-year-old Ridgeview is one of the first and most prestigious makers. Their Bloomsbury line, which I especially like, has what Zona describes as “citrusy crispness and tart apple flavors, combined with a touch of the toast and creaminess found in many champagnes.” With some apologies to this excellent bottle of bubbly, I served it with Delia’s rissoles, made in true duchy fashion with leftover chicken I had on hand (not hugely recommended, though I’ve made some recipe tweaks below that may help), plus a sunchoke soup, a rabbit-and-gammon pie, and a rice pudding.
The soup and pie recipes both come from Howard’s own cookbook, Cooking for Occasions (1987), written with her friend Fay Maschler, the restaurant critic since 1972 for the London Evening Standard. I chose the soup because sunchokes are in season at the moment and Howard included it in a section devoted to “foolproof” recipes. That a sunchoke could be considered foolproof surprised me since I’ve always considered the humble, knobby-looking tuber (part of the subterranean reproductive unit of a sunflower) to be a challenging ingredient that has a strange gassy smell when cooked. I found the pie in a section devoted to picnics, and it was the only dish mentioned in the Cazalet Chronicles that I found Howard’s own recipe for. It was a challenge of a different type, since it called for boiling a rabbit together with some pig’s trotters, deboning it, making a hot-water crust, pouring the bone stock into a little hole in the top of the baked pie, and leaving it to set.
I hoped that all my dishes would achieve a sort of rustic elegance and simplicity, with hearty, meaty, creamy, nutmeg-y flavors evoking the English countryside. The soup almost did, though I seasoned it according to my own specifications after I found Howard’s bland. The pie smelled delicious but was also bland, with a thick, flavorless crust and a broth that didn’t set. I’m uncertain if this lack of taste could be attributed to Howard’s recipe or was just user error, since most of the techniques were unfamiliar to me. Lastly, I chose one of two rice puddings from Delia’s—the “rich” version, since the one seasoned with prunes and apricots sounded like a childhood nightmare. The finished product had a thick layer of butter on top and was not to my liking, though in scarcer times it may have been a treat.
Throughout my adventure with the Cazalets’ kitchen, I thought longingly of Mrs. Cripps, who surely would have done it all better. I also considered that if Howard’s food defied my expectations in a bad way, with her writing it was the reverse—and that’s what really matters.
Foolproof Sunchoke Soup
Adapted from Cooking for Occasions, by Fay Maschler and Elizabeth Jane Howard.
2 lbs sunchokes
3 strips of bacon
2 tbs butter
1 cup diced fennel, celery, and carrot
6 cups chicken stock
1/4 tsp nutmeg (or more, to taste)
dollops of sour cream, to serve
Scrub and cut up the sunchokes. You need not peel them, but do clean them thoroughly.
Fry the bacon till crispy in the pan you plan to use to cook the soup. Then remove the bacon and reserve. Add the butter to the bacon grease, then the diced fennel and carrot, and sauté for a few minutes, until beginning to soften.
Add the sunchokes and stir to coat them in the oil mixture. Then add the chicken stock, cover, and bring to a boil.
Turn down to a simmer and cook until the artichokes are soft. Pass the mixture through a vegetable mill, or blend using a blender or immersion blender. Return to heat, season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and taste. Continue to season until the soup suits your liking. Serve with crumbled bacon and a dollop of sour cream.
Recipe adapted from Delia’s Complete Cookery Course.
8 oz cooked meat, preferably lamb or beef
a small onion
a slice of high-quality stale bread, crust removed
2 tbs milk
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 tbs chopped parsley
a clove of garlic, chopped
an egg, beaten
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup whole wheat flour, seasoned to taste
oil for frying
Place the bread to soak in the two tablespoons of milk.
Grind the meat together with the onion using the meat-grinder attachment of your mixer, or chop finely by hand.
Mash the soaked bread in the milk with a fork, then add the mixture to the ground meat, along with cinnamon, garlic, parsley, egg, and salt and pepper, to taste. Mix with your hands to combine.
Form the mixture into small patties, roll in the seasoned flour, and fry on medium heat until cooked through, five minutes per side.
Cold Rabbit-and-Gammon Pie for a Picnic
Adapted from Cooking for Occasions, by Fay Maschler and Elizabeth Jane Howard.
For the filling:
1 lb lean gammon (or thick slice of ham of a nonsmoked variety)
2 pig’s trotters (or a shank, if trotters are unavailable)
1 cup white wine
1/2 lemon, sliced
a bay leaf
an onion, peeled and sliced
3 carrots, scrubbed and sliced lengthwise
2 stalks celery
a sprig of thyme
6 coriander seeds, crushed
For the crust:
4 cups flour
1 tsp salt
a stick of butter
1 cup water
This pie needs to be cooked, cooled completely, then filled with stock and chilled again before serving. Start two days in advance of service.
Put the rabbit and gammon together in a large pot, along with all the other filling ingredients, and cover with water. Bring just to a boil, then turn down to a simmer, and cook until the rabbit is tender and comes away from the bones when probed, about an hour. Remove the rabbit and gammon, and reserve. Strain the broth and discard all the other ingredients. When the meat has cooled, pick the rabbit flesh from the bones, and cube the gammon.
Preheat the oven to 350.
Next, make the crust. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, and whisk to combine. Separately, melt the butter on low heat, then add the water and bring to a boil. Working quickly, add the wet mixture to the dry, and stir. This must be done quickly because the paste needs to be molded into shape before the butter has time to solidify; if this is done too slowly, the paste will become brittle.
Put a third of the paste in a cloth, and keep warm. Put the rest into an eight-inch springform pan: press it down over the bottom and then up the sides with your fingers. Now take the rabbit and gammon and fill the tin, but don’t press the meat down. Take the remaining third of the pastry and press it lightly with the palm of your hand into a round for the lid. Place this on top of the pie, trim to fit, and pinch it around the edges to seal. You can use leftover trimmings for cutouts for the top of the pie. Make a hole in the center of the pie with your little finger.
Bake for about ninety minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Let cool completely.
When the pie is cold and the stock has become a jelly, take two cups of stock and warm it in a pan until just dissolved. Using a measuring cup or other vessel with a spout, pour the liquid gently through the center hole of the pie. Do this in little spurts; you will find that if you wait a moment between each pouring, the pie will absorb a surprising amount of liquid. Leave the pie to set, and serve cold.
Recipe adapted from Delia’s Complete Cookery Course.
1/2 cup sushi rice
3 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
4 tbs butter
3 eggs, beaten
grated rind of 1/2 lemon
pinch of nutmeg, freshly grated or ground
Preheat oven to 300.
Butter a four-cup baking dish.
Put the rice into a saucepan, add the milk, and bring it slowly to the brink of simmering. Allow to cook gently until the rice is chewy and almost tender, around twenty minutes.
Next, add the sugar and butter, and stir until dissolved. Take the saucepan off the heat, let the mixture cool until it is merely warm, and then add the beaten eggs and lemon zest. Transfer to the buttered dish, sprinkle on some freshly grated nutmeg, and bake for forty minutes—or longer if you prefer a thicker consistency. Cool and chill before serving.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.