‘Hence rustic dinners on the cool green ground
Or in the woods, or by a river side
Or fountain – festive banquets that provoked
The languid action of a natural scene
By pleasure of corporeal appetite’
The Prelude (lines 93-97)
It’s William Wordsworth’s birthday and I’ve been thinking about early nineteenth century food and what they ate at Dove Cottage. Thomas De Quincy said that Wordsworth had an iron constitution and an excellent digestion. He remarked on it because his own digestion was dreadful and the use of opium to relieve his pain is what led to his famous addiction. Dorothy – even making allowances for her over-fondness was still always worried about William’s health. She cosseted him dreadfully.
In 1817 Wordsworth attended a dinner in London given by Benjamin Robert Haydon, a rather unsuccessful painter of historic subjects. Haydon invited Wordsworth to meet the young poet John Keats and then to make the party go with a swing he invited the wonderfully witty and sociable Charles Lamb. The evening was such a highlight in his life that Haydon referred to it in his diary as ‘The Immortal Dinner’, which became the title of a fascinating book by Penelope Hughes-Hallett – and many thanks to my friend George for telling me about it.
At this time fashions in serving food were changing towards service ‘a la Russe’ – i.e. the food coming to the table in stages as we do it nowadays. Before that there were ‘courses’ but that simply meant a sort of buffet spread to which you helped yourself from the table. So when we read menus of gigantic meals held before the early nineteenth century, it doesn’t mean everyone ate everything!
Haydon’s dinner was a great success conversationally and Charles Lamb was a great trencherman – he writes a lot about food. Wordsworth unfortunately was indifferent to all the fancy dishes and was used only to very plain fare.
At Dove Cottage the Wordsworth family lived frugally and ate a simple diet. Sir Walter Scott after a visit there, recalled 'three meals a day - two of which were porridge' and says it was a domestic life characterized by ‘plain living and high thinking’.
Behind Dove Cottage was a small garden and orchard; William described it in his poem ‘The Farewell’ as a ‘little nook of mountain ground’. Much of it was left as wilderness but they did grow a few vegetables. Dorothy Wordsworth was the family gardener and bread maker and she often writes in her diary about what she plants – runner beans were a regular feature and she frequently made records making the family bread – sometimes of wheat and sometimes barley. A dish of bread soaked in milk was the Wordsworths' most usual family supper - it was soothing to the digestion and a way of making stale bread palatable and not leaving it to waste.
So having travelled a little distance from its beginnings as a dish made from left overs here’s a rather up-market -
Bread and Butter Pudding
I do all sorts of things with B & B pudding, I make it with panettone, brioche or saffron bread, I spread my bread with marmalade or apricot jam, I omit the sultanas and put in dried apricots and sometimes substitute grated parmesan for the sugar and make a savoury cheese pudding. This is the plain sweet version.
I small loaf of good day old white bread thinly sliced and cut into triangles
3 large eggs
I large carton double cream and a splash of milk
2 tablespoons of caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
3 tablespoons sultanas or mixed dried fruit – I used a mixture and added extra peel.
1 dsp Demerara sugar
A wide shallow dish – well buttered, and a roasting tin it will fit into.
Prepare this in the morning if you can and leave it to stand all day before baking. Warm the cream in a pan and add the sugar, stir until the sugar is dissolved. Beat the eggs in a bowl and pour on the warm (not hot) cream, add the vanilla.
Melt the butter until liquid – do not brown. Lay the first layer of bread in your dish (I use the raggy bits for this layer) and brush with melted butter then sprinkle with 1/3 of the dried fruit. Repeat until all the bread, butter and fruit is used up. Make the last layer as decorative and regular as you can with the pointy ends up so they brown, now sprinkle with the last bits of fruit and a dessertspoon of Demerara sugar.
Pour on your creamy egg mix and get it well into all the cracks and crevices, you may need to add a splash of milk depending on the size of your dish. Leave the uncooked pudding to stand for at least an hour.
Put your dish in a roasting tin and pour cold water round it, now put into the pre-heated oven and bake for about 45 minutes until well risen and brown. I like to serve it warm rather than very hot, sometimes with more cream or a fruit compote – or both!!
‘Fresh butter, tea-kettle and earthenware,
And chafing dish with smoking coals
Beneath the trees we sat in our small boat
And in the covert ate our delicate meal
Upon the calm smooth lake’
The Prelude (lines 170-174)