I was brought up in Surrey, and I love gardening books, so Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, by Mrs CW Earle, seemed tailor-made for me, and I succumbed to its delights as soon as I spotted it (in a box of Oxfam donations, of course). It turns out that Mrs E’s country residence was in Cobham, which I used to know a little – when I was at school a friend lived there, and sometimes I stayed at her home overnight. And it was one of the places my family would occasionally ‘run out’ to on a fine day. Usually we fortified ourselves with flasks of tea, sandwiches, and slices of Mum’s home-made Dundee cake, but I am sure we once had afternoon tea in a genteel little tea shop in Cobham (though it may have been somewhere nearby). It impressed me no end: not only were we eating out, but there were proper waitresses, and it was definitely a step up from the local fish’n’chip shop or the self-service A.B.C. café we frequented on trips to a neighbouring town.
|My 1984 edition of Mrs CW Earle’s ‘Pot
Pourri from a Surrey Garden’, produced
by Century Publishing.
Anyway, I digress. Mrs Earle was the wife of Captain Charles William Earle, hence those initials. She was christened Maria Theresa, but in 1897, when her book was first published, a married woman was known by her husband’s name, a practice which has, thankfully, been abandoned.
The couple spent roughly half the year in London, and half at Cobham, which had a two-acre garden where Mrs Earle spent much of her time. She seems to have been a knowledgeable and ‘hands-on’ gardener, but there’s more to her book than gardening. It also covers cookery, holidays, housekeeping, families, education, furnishing, customs, history, health, poems, books, weather and all kinds of other things.
I guess it was one of the ‘self-help manuals’ of its day, which makes it great fun, and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. However, much of her advice (especially on gardening) still holds good, and many of her observations remain as pertinent today as they were then. She provides a lively and often humorous picture of life at the very end of the 19th century, and is informative and opinionated, without being didactic. On the whole she’s surprisingly modern in outlook – apparently her family regarded her as a great radical – and she has a sense of fun, and curiosity about life.
In her first entry, for January 2, she sets out her agenda, telling us:
I am not going to write a gardening book, or a cookery book, or a book on furnishing or education. Plenty of these have been published lately. I merely wish to talk to you on paper about several subjects as they occur to me throughout the year; and if such desultory notes prove to be of any use to you or others, so much the better.
But, she says, gardening will be given ‘preponderance’ throughout the book, and so it is.
|For those of who don’t know Cobham, this is a photo of the High Street,
courtesy of Wikipedia and their Creative Commons licence.
I was going to try and give a resumé of the whole volume, but decided it would be nicer to share her thoughts on February (since it is February), and maybe take another look at her later in the year. This, she says, is the month of forced bulbs – ‘hyacinths, tulips, jonquils and narcissuses’. And she is absolutely right, because my little narcissi have all burst into bloom, and there are beautiful, cheerful, bright yellow flowers on the windowsills, making me feel that perhaps spring is on the way. My narcissi (in bright yellow pots, to match the flowers), were already poking their shoots through the soil when I brought them back from the local garden centre, and I feel a bit of a failure because I had some bulbs and forget to plant them back in November, which is when Mrs Earle, says you should do these things. In the Greenhouse. Or the Cellar. I was a bit flummoxed by this since we possess neither a greenhouse nor a cellar, but further reading revealed that a south-facing windowsill is fine. Actually, I’m pretty sure none of our windows face south, but the narcissi (I am positive this is the correct plural)) are flourishing, so presumably they don’t realise they’re looking the wrong way.
She also mentions the Royal Horticultural Society’s early spring exhibition in the Drill Hall, Westminster, an event she describes as one of her great pleasures. Does this location still exist I wonder? And if so does the RHS still have a spring show there?
|Narcissi on the windowsill… Not south-facing,
alas, but they seem quite happy.
Later in the month she reminds us that it’s time to make marmalade, and that old jars which are being reused should be washed thoroughly in clean water, without soap or soda. Then, when dry, they should be powdered with a little sulphur and wiped clean. Whoever knew that sulphur was an essential piece of kitchen kit! When my mother made marmalade, jams, chutneys, bottled fruit and so on she washed the jars and sterilised them by baking them in the oven, on thick sheets of newspaper.
Finally there are some recipes, or receipts as they were then known, translated from a ‘very excellent’ French chef. Mrs Earle explains:
They belong to so entirely different a cuisine from our ordinary modest and economical receipts, that I think they may not be without interest to some people.
The recipes include ravioli and gnocchi, which seems very cosmopolitan for that period, and they all appear to be very complicated and very time consuming, and are definitely not modest or economical. My own favourite, because it is so outrageous, is Pot au feu Soup. I’m a great fan of home-made soup, which is generally very simple to cook, but the instructions for this are mazing. First up there’s the ingredients: 15lbs of beef; 51/2 lbs of veal, 1 chicken, 21/2 gallons of water; 3 fine carrots; I big turnip; 1 large onion; a bunch of parsley; a head of celery; a parsnip; 2 cloves, and some salt. What size saucepan would you need for that lot? And however would you lift it?
Then there’s the method. Before you start cooking, the meat has to be trimmed and tied, which may be a tad arduous, but believe me it’s a doddle compared to what comes next. On my reckoning the soup has to boil (on a fire!!!) for something like six hours. Various ingredients have to be added or removed at various times, scum has to be skimmed off, and there are different types of boilings to be done. I kid you not. There is violent boiling, and boiling on one side, and boiling ‘undisturbed, evenly and regularly’ (with the lid on). And you mustn’t let this witch’s brew boil over, even if it seems ‘inclined’ to do so. I rather like Mrs Earle’s use of the word ‘inclined’ because it makes the soup sound as if has a life of its own. Turn your back and it could take over the kitchen, like Grimm’s Magic Porridge Pot.
And when the cooking process is finally over the fun really starts because you must ‘strain the soup, without stirring it up, through a strainer on to a napkin stretched over a receptacle big enough to contain the soup’. Right. Anyone fancy heaving that lot out of the pan?
Even then you don’t have soup as we know it. Oh no. What you have is stock, which can be used to make whatever soup you fancy – which means more food-prepping, skimming and boiling…
|When I make soup it tends to be more Pot Luck than Pot au feu!
This is made from all the vegetables left in the veg rack at the end of
the week… Plus fresh herbs… And stock cubes!
Now I realise that the basic techniques are still pretty much the same (apart from the industrial scale of the ingredients, and the fire). But personally I think progress is a wonderful thing. All I can say is hooray for modern cookers. And electric blenders. And stock cubes!!!
PS: I’m linking this to the Reading England Challenge, over at Behold the Stars. The aim is to travel England reading, and read at least one classic book per however many counties of England you decide to read. I think this definitely counts as a classic, and since non-fiction is allowed this would seem to be an ideal entry for Surrey. I’m signing up for Level 3, and hoping to read between 7 and 12 books for this challenge, which sounds reasonable, but it would be wonderful to cover every county.