To marks its 275th anniversary, Sotheby's has published a book of Georgian-inspired recipes. Matthew Dennison puts some to the test...
The challenge was picturesque: create a Georgian lunch menu. The requirements were not over-strict - electric Aga, pasteurised milk and deodorised guests were all thankfully permitted - and, after a telephone call to my local butcher and an unfeasibly long visit to the supermarket's dairy aisle, I approached my brief buoyantly.
This year marks the 275th anniversary of the founding of Sotheby's, and a new cookery book published by the auction house The Art of Cooking: A Contemporary Twist on Georgian Fare, replete with recipes inspired by Georgian books such as Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) and John Molland's The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined (1802), was the prompt for my gastronomic time travel.
I planned a menu carefully along the book's guidelines for seasonal eating (for many pre-refrigeration Georgians, seasonal eating was a necessity rather than a foodie aspiration). As the biographer of one of eighteenth-century Britain's most colourful royals, George II's wife Caroline of Ansbach, a woman of mountainous proportions sustained by hefty intakes of clotted cream and hot chocolate, I anticipated something decidedly hearty. How right I was. For a blessed morning the shelves of my fridge fell hostage to a blond army of double cream, full-fat milk, butter and eggs.
And so to the menu. I knew what I wouldn't be making: the 'water souchy' recorded by early-Georgian Sussex publican William Verral, a soup of 'flounders, gudgeons, eels, perch and a pike or two', or Hannah Glasse's pigeon stuffed to resemble a pear, with its filling of ground, sieved, puréed game. Instead, a less riparian soup for the first course, a vegetarian update of the classic white 'soupe a la reine' famously served at the Netherfield Ball in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice; chicken and pork knuckle pie, with mashed potato and parsley liquor, for the main course; and, to finish, a steamed pudding, flavoured with apricots. For good measure - and to guarantee at least a modicum of guest enjoyment if pork knuckles and suet pudding failed to work their magic - I consulted my friend James Tanner, of Tanners wine merchants, for wine recommendations.
First course: White soup with parsley oil and celeriac crumb
For the book, Sotheby's head chef Myles Fensom has updated the recipe, which is at least 500 years old, by replacing white chicken meat with celeriac. The 'reine' of its French name was Marguerite de Valois, the much-maligned wife of Henry IV, best know as Dumas's 'Reine Margot'. For my lunch party of ten guests I had to peel, chop and cube four celeriac, with a frantic repetitiveness once confined to *The Generation Game*. The bonus was a kitchen fleetingly pungent with a distinctive earthy-aniseed scent. Parsley oil is quick to prepare with a food processor and, if set aside over an ice bath - easily achieved in a kitchen on the Welsh borders in November - retains its jewel-like veridian colouring. Swirled through the pale soup, the effect is really pretty. Obviously, if you double the quantities as I did, you'll need a very big pan indeed.
Main course: chicken and pork knuckle pie
This pie, studded with tender pork knuckle, chicken, leeks, cream and mustard, is the slowest of slow food and all the better for it. The pork knuckle - which may involve a degree of advance planning with your butcher - needs soaking overnight. I then left it in the bottom oven of the Aga for eight hours, swimming in a watery bath of herbs, celery, carrots and garlic. The result was delicious stock and meat that parted company from the bone with no knife skills on my part. The cream- and milk-based sauce is spiked with Worcestershire sauce. First sold by Lea & Perrins at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, in origin this is a much older flavour, traceable to the fermented fish sauces of Ancient Rome.
'Proper' mashed potatoes - ie, with heaps of butter and cream - made a good textural contrast. The parsley liquor for pouring over the potato is a delicious, lemony, vinegary, cornflower-based, green sauce. Inadvertently I made oceans of the stuff. I tried to find alternative uses for it but the dogs were unexpectedly picky about this one. Using the knuckle rather than any other cut of pork lends a frisson of the past: Georgian butchers weren't big on waste (or squeamishness), and Hannah Glasse offers recipes for dealing with pigs' trotters, heart, feet and ears.
Pudding: steamed apricot pudding
'The English became so famous for Puddings that they are call'd Pudding Eaters all over the World,' claimed an article published in 1726. Trade with the East and West Indies increased the sugar available to Georgian cooks, and dried fruit was a staple in an era of limited fruit imports.
The recipe was for six individual puddings but - given my number of guests - I made a single large pudding, which obviously took considerably longer to steam, resulting in an agreeable pre-pudding pause. In a heretical moment, I worried the result might be blandly stodgy and made an apricot and brandy glaze as a final flourish.
I can report politeness and clean plates all round, an outcome it is tempting to attribute to the 2015 Montbazzillac served with the pudding. In fact all three dishes included rich, clean flavours, with a certain heartiness. Although this was labour-intensive cooking, I've since re-made two of the recipes and will probably do so again, but not in combination with one another. Compared to our usual lunch or supper party fare - something vaguely Middle Eastern, like chicken shawarma with masses of vegetable side dishes, this felt appealingly home-grown and, unsurprisingly, old-fashioned. Hurrah for the Georgians! Now, who’d like to take home some parsley liquor?
The Art of Cooking: A Contemporary Twist on Georgian Fare (£40) is available at Sotheby’s Restaurant (34-35 New Bond Street / 020 7293 5000) and Hatchards, Piccadilly