Sunday, 6 June 2010

Clarissa & Richard

This is about another programme we watched on iPlayer, one about King Richard the II, narrated by Clarisa Dickson-Wright. Have you heard of her? She is one of the Two Fat Ladies. Did they make it to your part of the world? I have only ever been vaguely aware of them having written a cookbook. Sadly, the other woman, Jennifer Paterson, died. Their life stories are pretty remarkable, but I’ve never considered buying one of their cookbooks or even reading one. Frankly, when I saw the photo of the two very large ladies –  motorcycle or not – my thought was, if I eat the foods they write about, I’ll look like they do. I already know how to do that, thank you very much. That said, though Clarissa Dickson-Wright is not exactly eye candy, she's a woman of obvious intelligence, she has an accent that is 'ever so' and speaks with compelling authority.  I will look forward to other programmes she narrates.  

The basis for the programme was a cookbook that survived from King Richard’s court, the oldest surviving cookbook in England. Clarisa talked about the role of the chef in the King’s kitchen and how important he was. He would sit in a high chair, overlooking the cooks and orchestrating their work. Sounds very grand, but perhaps a little boring.  I think the best part of cooking is in the doing, though the planning part is good fun as well.

Richard II (1367-1400) was known for his eating habits. (Picture) He didn’t take to war with the relish that other Plantagenet kings did, but rather lived The Good Life. Though the church ruled over him, he ruled over all else and tried to create a mystique about himself and his office, in part like Louis the 14th via eating well, but also by holding himself aloof from others; he believed strongly in the divine right of kings

Richard loved hunting with birds of prey. There were strict rules about who could use what sort of bird. Only a King could have a gyrfalcon or an eagle. Richard paid a lot of money for a gyrfalcon: about £24,000 in today’s money. He once also paid £56,000 for a banquet feast.  He was noted for being fastidious about table manners and insisted on napkins and use of a spoon. He also brought into vogue the use of a handerchief, something I find quite useful; I detest tissues.

Spices from around the world came to Richard’s table, spices we of course take for granted today. For over half the days in the year the church decreed that no meat, but fish should be eaten. However, in another programme, we learned that the wealthy were given certain dispensations and that some creative interpretation occurred, for example, that beaver were fish, as they lived in the water.  Nevertheless, fish was eaten often and these exotic spices and herbs were useful in giving the plain white fishes some variety of flavour.

During the course of the programme, if I remember correctly, Clarissa prepared two meals, one fish (a large whole one) and the other a stuffed goose. Both recipes came from this oldest surviving cookbook, a scroll, the writing in which reminded me of the Book of Kells only without the lovely drawings. This was all shown with the back drop of an ancient stone-walled kitchen, with the huge walk-in fireplace with its iron accoutrements and a large wood table at which she worked. I took no notes about the food dishes, mainly because it went too fast, but also because I didn’t ever see me preparing a whole fish, head and all, or stuffing a goose.

Richard of course taxed his subjects heavily to support his lifestyle and became quite unpopular. He also withdrew from his court, eating alone in his chamber, preferring solitude. This didn’t endear him to the aristocracy. Though he exiled or killed most of his rivals, a cousin returned from exile and wrested the throne from him. 

Ironically, after having such an extravagant, luxurious lifestyle this gourmand starved to death in prison, at the age of 33.

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