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The extraordinary downstairs

Monday, January 25, 2010

Drink your vegetables: Luscious green pea soup
Essential Beeton reminds me of one of my favourite films, Gosford Park. They both show the dichotomy between the upper class and the serving class ­­– in a household, that's the upstairs and below stairs. They're both about English society, but while Beeton wrote about managing the household in the mid-19th century – to cater for the increasingly frenetic lifestyle of an expanding middle class and instruct them in the ways of their new and unfamiliar social scale – the film is set in 1932 in a countryside manor.

The book is full of "recipes and tips from the original domestic goddess", as its subtitle states, and presents extracts from Mrs Beeton's original Book of Household Management. In the film, while a lot of activity takes place in the kitchen, food isn't mentioned much ­­– marmalade (here is an easy recipe) and strawberry jam, and Mrs Wilson (played brilliantly by Helen Mirren ­­– is that ever in doubt?), the housekeeper at Gosford Park, talks about dishes without meat for a vegetarian filmmaker. While there's quite a bit of eating, we don't really see much food either, although the Bloody Marys the shooting party was served in one scene was obvious enough!

What the two mediums have in common is a portrayal of the job of servants in the household. "It is the custom of 'society' to abuse its servants", is how Mrs Beeton opens her chapter on domestic servants before going on to describe the duties attached to each division of service. However, for a book with recipes, it seems odd that the responsibilities of the cook and her kitchen staff ­­– and we see how important their jobs are in the film ­­– are not discussed. Perhaps because this book came out in 2004, and the tasks of a cook have basically remained unchanged, the publishers saw no need to include it.

Mrs Beeton's recipes are not difficult to follow and don't use a lot of ingredients, although we may have to estimate some of the quantities (for example, how big was a lump of sugar in 1860?) Also, they can be time-consuming and in quantities that feed large numbers.

Her Pea Soup (Green) was "sufficient for 10 persons" (she used 3 pints or 1.7kg of peas and 2 quarts or 1.9 litres of common stock) and it took 2½ hours (!) to make. The vegetables in the soup were boiled down to a pulp, which explains why Victorian food had a reputation for being bland and looking like baby food. Rub the soup through a sieve, she instructed (hurrah for today's electric kitchen aids). The average cost of making the pea soup was 1 shilling 9 pence per quart (if my conversion is correct, that's about 21 pence now or MYR1.15!) and it was seasonable from June to the end of August (frozen peas are a godsend!). The recipe that follows is scaled down, simplified and modernised; nothing could be done to keep the price below that in Victorian times though.

Towards the end of Gosford Park, Mrs Wilson says, "I'm the perfect servant; I have no life." No kidding. Still, we were all rooting for the downstairs.

Adapted from a recipe by Mrs Beeton
Serves 4
1 tablespoon butter
2 rashers streaky bacon, diced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
500g frozen green peas, divided
4-5 leaves from a large head of lettuce, shredded
1 cup spinach leaves
600ml vegetable or chicken stock*
Toasted pumpkin seeds to garnish (optional)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the bacon; fry until crisp. Remove bacon pieces and set aside. (I must admit that I didn't have any bacon the day I made this and instead used an Italian sausage ­­– the little chunks in the picture ­­– which I fried together with the onions.)

To the remaining fat, add onions and fry until softened. Stir in the flour, then add ⅔ of the peas and all the lettuce, together with the stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the spinach and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.

Take pot off the heat and using a hand blender, process the soup until smooth. Alternatively, blend soup in a food processor or blender, then pour back into the pot. Return pot to the heat and add the rest of the peas and fried bacon. Bring to the boil again and serve. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with pumpkin seeds.

* It's fine to use a stock cube but remember, it is already salty so you may not need to season with any extra salt.


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