Long Ago and Caraway…

 

Here we are again in the great season of asparagus, that timeless luscious
delicacy and supposed aphrodisiac. There was a big hoo-ha last month when the crop was blessed at Worcester Cathedral. A man was robed up in vegetable garb, and he pranced about as the Spirit of the Asparagus. For some this was much too pagan, with hints of The Green Man, the Great God Pan and Druidical nature worship. I’d imagine, too, that – in the subconscious at least – the carnal associations of the crop bothered some critics. I’m talking about the way asparagus supposedly promotes physical passion: its phallic symbolism; the role it played at Roman orgies; and the way it smells.

Jilly Cooper once remarked on how the unmistakable whiff of asparagus always hangs around the geography of great country houses at this time of year. It lingers in bodily fluids as strongly and evidently as beetroot or garlic. Indeed, the smell of older woodier asparagus has a definite similarity to that of the starry-flowered wild garlic: pungent, smoky, spicy, a suggestion of fried onions. That potent bruising highly-invasive odour is such a virile and piquant contrast to the faery-ferns of asparagus foliage. These are the delicate and feathery fronds that one used to see in wedding boutonnieres¤. The little Carr girls, if you’ll remember, used asparagus boughs to build an airy bower for the dreadful Imogen Clark in ‘What Katy Did’. And despite its luxurious reputation – and ludicrous prices in some fine-dining eateries – asparagus is not hard to grow. We had a great bed of it at home in the old days, laid down in the 1940’s if not before. My father chucked on a bit of manure; the cats sunbathed there; the crop came up year after year in full force. Pagan in its profusion!

So why not bless the sweet asparagus? The ceremony can do nothing but good. No doubt the heathen vegetable will benefit from some spiritual taming just as Edwardian hostesses tried to refine it at table by handling it with tongs.

Also on my larder shelf this week is a jar of caraway¤¤ seeds. When I was young every decent household seemed to have a caraway seed cake ‘on cut’. Cakes then were not the screechingly sweet sugar-goo mountains so ubiquitous today. ‘That’s not cake, duck: that’s gateau’, we were told in shops. You made seed cake with the old dry rub-in method. This largely went out when every cook demanded an electric mixer¤¤¤. Seed cake was generally rather dry and crumbly: it went well with very strong, very hot tea or – traditionally at a funeral – with a glass of sherry. Beatrix Potter and Charlotte Bronte both celebrated it. It smelled of caraway’s cousin, fragrant aniseed: the scent that supposedly drives dogs crackers – though growing up in a veterinary household I never saw evidence of this. And my father used to come home laden with seed cakes; his favourite thing at tea time. My aunt made a classic version; and there were fans baking cakes for him in every farmhouse kitchen

 

 

Pa would sometimes ask for dark marmalade to be stirred into the mixture; or he simply spread on his own Cooper’s Oxford at table. The unusually luxurious version of seed cake given in The Constance Spry Cook Book (1956) calls for five eggs, candied orange peel, freshly grated nutmeg¤¤¤¤, brandy and ‘a handful’ of sugared caraway comfits. Imagine the heavenly fragrance of that little beauty, cooling from the oven in shades of copper and amber and gold! The sort of cake that used to make old-fashioned tea parties so giggly.

Sixty years ago, old village ladies used impossibly vulgar nicknames for caraway seeds which will not be repeated here. But, culinary-wise, caraway is so versatile. The seeds perk up a boiled cabbage, go good with roast potatoes – and with spuds in their jackets. Let the potato bake almost through; cut it in half; dip the cut ends in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and caraway. Then return to oven until the crust is crisp. The aroma of caraway is improved and strengthened by soaking, baking or otherwise cooking. The seeds are good to chew, too. This was the invariable habit of the Baroness Lehzen, the young Queen Victoria’s gouvernante. For years Lehzen’s presence in the royal palaces would be heralded by a redolence of breath-sweetening caraway and a faint clicking noise, as of a canary or budgerigar pecking away. It was Prince Albert’s abomination of this habit, as much as his resentment at Lehzen’s influence on the Queen, that persuaded him to be rid of her once and for all.

Years ago, at the start of a Harrods Winter Sale, a beautiful Irish girl who looked like Ingrid Bergman said to me in the canteen:

“We have to EAT our way through this terrible time!”

Let’s eat and SMELL our way through the Election period! Caraways, asparagus and what you will.

¤ an unintended fertility symbol?

¤¤ isn’t ‘caraway’ a romantic word? Makes me think of Coramandel screens, Ronald Firbank characters, Edith Sitwell and her ‘Gold Coast Customs’.

¤¤¤ remember the tv ad with Maria Charles? ‘Don’t make yourself a slave, darling! Get him to buy you a mixer like your mother’s.’ Tempi passat.

¤¤¤¤ mildly mood-enhancing, as you know.

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Open to the navel: the Virgin Queen

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“She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson…lined with red taffeta. She kept the front of her dress open, and you could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of her dress with her hands, as if she were too hot…”

This is Elizabeth Tudor in her sixties, exposing her flushed yet withal “white and delicate” flesh like a pagan goddess to the French ambassador, de Maisse. Was the Queen’s stomach painted like her face with white lead and egg whites? Was this apparent revelation all a titillating illusion like Dietrich’s nude souffle stage dresses and Mme Recamier’s damped muslins and flesh-coloured tights? Other visitors to the English court in the 1590’s confirm this ritualised exhibitionism and, after a second audience, de Maisse writes of Elizabeth’s gown being plucked “open even to the navel”. It conjures the most bizarre image and what are we to make of these reports, so much at odds with the image of the Queen received from her portraits in old age? These show her in gowns which are low cut (as an unmarried woman she was entitled to a certain decolletage) but of decent and immense stiffness, bejewelled rigidity, built on corseted foundations of wood and iron. Sometimes she has a fresh rose pinned to her dress, a flower which seems frail, inappropriate and out of place amidst such geometric splendour as coruscating and hard as a Byzantine mosaic. The simplicity of the rose is almost perverse and unnatural by contrast.

Elizabeth’s portraits were intentionally stylised and her image defined and controlled by law. Therefore they can be taken at face value by neither the biographer nor the costume historian. I well remember that the designers for Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the early 1970’s – “I had to learn to breathe through my back” – found that certain apparel was impossible to reconstruct. The ruffs flopped, the airy jewelled butterfly collars and veils would and could not support themselves, the farthingales would not hang right. Tudor painters, it was concluded, had constructed on canvas what was impossible to create from fabric. Moreover for the sake of both comfort and economy rich Elizabethans (especially the women) spent a great deal of their time en neglige, informally dressed in the equivalent of dressing gowns and housecoats. The torturing discomfort of formal dress was only for portraits, visits to Court and other great occasions. There was a certain vogue for being painted in bed, or even the bath. Both Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More went to the scaffold in loose bedgowns whilst the awe aroused by the appearance of Marie Stuart at her execution was in part due to the magnificence and drama of her attire – “dressed as for a festival”.

Elizabeth defined her own appearance and became defined in turn by her clothes. As a teenager she had a black velvet gown cut to pieces on her body while her step-mother Katherine Parr held her and Parr’s husband wielded a dagger, the three of them torn between tears and laughter. This “romp” (in my day an amusing anecdote of children’s history books) is now most uncomfortable to read about and sounds horribly like the symbolic rape of a minor. And it has a pendant episode 50 years later in the spiritual ravishment of the aged Queen by the young Earl of Essex bursting unannounced into her bedroom to find her undressed and “her hair about her ears”. Unarmoured, unprepared: clothes made the woman, maybe even the monarch. Essex had found her out. She never forgave him, and maybe he too felt the betrayed resentment of a film-fan who meets his Star at last only to be horrified and disillusioned by the egregious wig, the Pawnee make-up, the tiny stature. Some of the nastiest talk I’ve ever heard has been among the “loyal fans” at stage doors. “Putting more make-up on, I suppose”; and, from a group of English ladies (all clones of their heroine) waiting to see Liz Taylor,”if she doesn’t sign for us we’ll kill her.”

And what did Essex tell his friends of Elizabeth. Words to the effect that “her mind is as crooked as her carcase”. He lost his head – in both senses – and two years later the Queen herself died. We are told that 300 gowns were found in her wardrobe and the new queen consort, the buxom blonde Anne of Denmark, chopped them all to pieces for masques and plays: the illusion of majesty feeding the fantasy of the stage. Art imitating life, and how.
Had the exhibitionism of Elizabeth been the reverse? A homage to the nudity of classical statues, to the celestial virgins Diana and Artemis upon whom she modelled herself? A depressed lonely and “intrinsically disordered” old woman’s fantasy of herself as Eve before the Fall: pure, fertile but undefiled? Or a sad and senile attempt at seduction?

What do we really know of our sartorial past? It has been suggested that the graceful folds shown in frescos of gauzy Egyptian draperies may be in fact a primitive artist’s attempt to show a crumpled creased bundle of coarse linen. For decades now it has become a lazy shorthand for 1920’s chic to stick a bandeau’d feather, Red Indian-style, on a girl’s head, a fashion that had by then long gone by as I heard from a woman who’d lived the period – “that was the 1912 look for Heaven’s sake”. (And she’d been in the Ziegfeld Follies, as a matter of fact: she knew whereof she spoke). I defy anyone to find me a contemporary picture of this “flapper” (sic) look. But there, it’s become a factoid, indestructible misinformation.

And we see something of the same in romantic histories of scent. There is much raving over the lost treasures of Cleopatra’s toilet under the waters off Alexandria. Of Mme de Pompadour’s bank of hyacinth perfumes; of Greek courtesans perfuming each limb with a different fragrance. Of Marie Antoinette betrayed in the act of escape by her luscious perfume. Speculative scents which have long evaporated, dried up and gone. From what we know of perfumes prior to the 1880’s I can’t imagine any of them actually amounted to much – clunky masses of expressed oils suspended in primitive alcohol spirits or animal fats with no structure, consistency or expansion. Elizabeth Tudor had a keen nose and maybe her preference for fresh herbs, roses and meadowsweet tells us something about the horrid perfumes of her time, all too often used to disguise a worse odour. The glamour of the wearers, burnished by the centuries, imbues their unknown scents with a spurious sheen. We must not rewrite the past (as my brother always says as funerals) but we may admit that it is an entirely unknown quantity…and quality.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons