Get a real taste of the Bloomsbury set's life; BOOKS They were known for their poetry and prose but Virginia Woolf and co. were also good in the kitchen a new book reveals. Richard Edmonds learns more.
COOKERY, that subtle art of rendering the raw into the appetising, probably dates back to Man's discovery of fire.
In that context I have little doubt that one day some intrepid soul will probably discover a set of runes scrawled in a remote cave somewhere, which will prove beyond doubt that some forward-looking Neanderthal female had discovered that a bison steak tasted infinitely better grilled rather than hacked raw off the bone with a flint knife. Whether this subtle gastronomic revelation delighted male Neanderthals as they belched their way back unsteadily to the cave is something not known at present.
Many thousands of years later, the first recipes we know of were preserved on the baked clay tablets found in Babylon and along the Nile in Ancient Egypt, and long after that came the archaeological finds at Pompeii where the remains of food were found preserved in lava in the kitchens of Herculaneum.
But cookbooks as such began to appear in the early middle ages, although no quantities are given, since it was assumed the cook in charge of a well-heeled household would be a professional well-versed in weights and measures and not flummoxed by requests from upstairs for fifty capons, a brace of stuffed peacocks and a couple of roast boars.
The celebrity cookbook is not all that old and one of the best was the Alice Toklas Cookbook which appeared roughly a century ago and reflected the kind of gourmet food Toklas prepared for her lesbian lover Gertrude Stein, including a reference to her famous "hash cookies".
With The Bloombury Cookbook, Recipes For Life, Love And Art, Jans Ondantje Rolls gives us a gorgeous illustrated cookbook which certainly deserves a place in any hall of fame where gastronomes worship.
Not only does she reveal recipes once cooked up by the likes of Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, she casts new light on the Bloomsbury foodies with a multitude of favourite recipes and food and drink found after copious research in their letters and diaries.
The Bloomsbury set consisted of writers, painters, poets, intellectuals and philosophers who changed the way we think today. Over their dinners or weekends at Charleston, the country house in the South Downs, they talked or debated everything from modern (for them) sexual practices to free love or the place of women alongside men in universities and public life.
E.M. Forster (who fell in love with a burly, married policeman), the painter Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Dora Carrington, Lytton Strachey (with whom Carrington was hopelessly in love, but who preferred, beautiful, clever young men) and J.M. Keynes the financial wizard, among others, often met around the dining table at Charleston (decorated by Grant) for "lingering breakfasts" and "painting lunches".
Obviously this was a leisured and wealthy class who kept servants to do the washing up and the shopping.
They were enthusiastic about food from Southern France, artichokes, garlic, pimentos avocados, food the English were scarcely aware of in the early 1920s. They admired the Impressionists, went often to Provence (where Grant had a farmhouse) and their relationships were as complicated as their sauces.
But around the dishes, which are fascinating - boeuf en daube appears in Woolf's novel To The Lighthouse and now you can make it yourself - are the beautiful drawings and paintings, many in full colour, which fit in perfectly with a text as delicious as the recipes which follow.
Apparently Carrington's teatimes at the Mill House, Tidmarsh, were grand affairs and her dinners were "sublime" - all done for Lytton, of course, who was treated like a god.
Their devotion was mutual.
In a letter to her sister, written in 1918 (several Bloomsberries were conscientious objectors) Virginia Woolf wrote: "After tea Lytton and Carrington left the room, ostensibly to copulate; but suspicion was aroused by a measured sound proceeding from the room, on listening at the keyhole, it was discovered that they were reading aloud from Macaulay's Essays".
Carrington's first attempts to bottle broad beans led to a series of explosions, but her recipe for "Bloomsbury Jam" should not cause an accident, and jam making was a skill she shared with Virginia Woolf.
If you enjoy comedy in the kitchen, this is the book for you. I tried to make Angelica Garnett's (she was Virginia Woolf's niece) Cherry Tart, but I laughed so much I forgot the cherries and finally had to settle for a store-bought yoghurt, preferring in all honesty to devour the book instead.
The Bloombury Cookbook, Recipes For Life, Love And Art by Jans Ondantje Rolls (Thames & Hudson PS24.95)
The book cover (right)
P62: Vanessa Bell, Still Life of Plums, c. 1945. Oil on canvas; 29 X 39 (11 3/8 X 15 3/8). Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo courtesy the Charleston Trust
P29: Young Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Stephen playing cricket at Talland House, St Ives, by unknown photographer, 1893-94. Gelatin silver print. Virginia Woolf Monk's House Photograph Album, (MS Thr 564), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University (as before)
P233: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (unknown photographer) at Monk's House, Sussex, 1933. Gelatin silver print. Virginia Woolf Monk's House Photograph Album (MH-3), (MS Thr 560), Harvard Theatre Collection (as before)
P181: Duncan Grant, Quentin Bell and Angelica Bell bowling on the lawn, by unknown photographer, Monk's House, Sussex, unknown date. Gelatin silver print. Virginia Woolf Monk's House Photograph Album (MH-5), (MS Thr 562), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library