Saturday, 6 December 2008

Visiting Erasmus Bunny

Today we did our weekly visit to the herb garden at the back of the Erasmus Darwin House, to feed local celebrity, Erasmus Bunny. According to Jenny Uglow's book, The Lunar Men, Darwin's house originally looked east into the Cathedral Close, but Darwin added a new front (pictured below) facing west across what's now Beacon Street.

The courtyard at the back of the house has perhaps the best view in Lichfield, overlooking the herb garden with the cathedral spires rising behind it.

Erasmus Bunny lives in a hutch by the Cathedral gift shop, keeping up the tradition of a resident rabbit (we know from Darwin's letters that he kept 'queer-coloured rabbits'). Let's be honest, Erasmus is a pretty grumpy rabbit, especially when it's cold weather. Here he's refusing to leave his burrow...

But he's easily bribed with a handful of rabbit treats.

Then it's back home, pausing to admire the ornamental flagstones and the Darwin portrait.

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Thursday, 4 December 2008

French flummery for beginnners

This is my attempt at making French flummery, which, contrary to Mrs Glasse's suggestion (see below), I've garnished with pistachio nuts. I'd been making jellies and had somehow got side-tracked by Ivan Day's absolutely gorgeous website Historic Food. He says that flummery was originally a kind of jelly, made by steeping oatmeal overnight in water, and then boiling the strained liquor with sugar. I also heard him talking on a food podcast about flummery's connections with its Italian cousin, blancmange, and anyway, I was hooked.

I ended up making the one below from a recipe in Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas's Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, a book that charts the authors' attempts to research and replicate the dishes in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels! Check out their fantastic website for a table of contents and some photos of their results. However, I cheated where the recipe listed calf's foot jelly and used gelatine instead. The result was delicately flavoured and unbelievably rich - I can see why the recipe serves eight!

Another recipe for French flummery. From: Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain And Easy (1747).

Take a quart of cream, and half an ounce of isinglass, beat it fine, and stir it into the cream. Let it boil softly over a slow fire a quarter of an hour, keep it stirring all the time; then take it off, sweeten it to your palate and put in a spoonful of rose water, and a spoonful of orange-flower water; strain it, and pour it into a glass or bason, or what you please, and when it is cold turn it out. It makes a fine side-dish. You may eat it with cream, wine, or what you please. Lay round it baked pears. It both looks very pretty and eats very fine.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Spitalfields, London

A Hogarth-themed shop-window display in Spitalfields.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Dr Johnson's House, Gough Square

I thought you might like to see some photos I took in August 2007 on a research trip to Dr Johnson's London house at Gough Square, just off Fleet Street.

Above is Johnson's cat, Hodge, standing on the dictionary with oyster shells at his feet (oysters were a cheap food in those days and quite suitable for cats!) Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, immortalised Hodge thus: 'I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, "Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;" and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, "but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed."'

While we were there, we also visited Johnson's local, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which is very close to the house. There's no hard evidence that Johnson ever went there, though you can sit on what the pub claims to be his favourite bench in the chop room, and there's even a chair suspended from the ceiling that was supposed to Johnson's. It's highly recommended for its food and authentic Georgian atmosphere - you can see from the last pic how dark it is in there! Note the portrait of Johnson and Boswell in conversation, hung above the doorway to the bar. Historically it's always been a popular meeting place for writers and journalists.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Johnson vs. Darwin

As a member of the Johnson Society in his birthplace, Lichfield, I've had the chance to attend some of his September birthday celebrations, which usually involve an annual dinner in the Guildhall. A few years ago, as my partner and I sat down to steak and kidney pie and glasses of Johnson's favourite punch, we were slightly startled by our neighbour leaning over and asking: 'Are you Johnson or Darwin?' It seemed like a bizarre question, but in retrospect this was just another version of that old 'town and gown' debate that's been going on since the early Middle Ages... The house of the great scientist and member of the Lunar Society, Erasmus Darwin, is located in the cathedral close, on rising ground to the north of the town, whereas Samuel Johnson's house (now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum) is on the market square right in the centre of town. What part of Lichfield had we allied ourselves with - he was asking - the town or the cathedral?!