Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Launch Party 1: Welcome to the party!

Welcome - and before we go any further, thanks to Kath and N who very kindly once again read The Tender Herb before it could possibly go any further. I'm extremely grateful. Now, off we go!

The carriage pulls up outside the Queen Street house in Edinburgh's New Town: it’s autumnal twilight, with a nip in the air, and you pull the collar of your cloak up as you step out, but the torches are lit by the front steps, and the door opens on to the honey-warm candlelight of the hallway.

A pale manservant greets you – Robbins, you remember his name is. His odd eyes reflect the candlelight like glass. Beyond him a tall, striking maid awaits, dark curling hair escaping her lace cap. Beside her is a short, tubby man taking the gentlemen’s hats and cloaks with a look of concentration on his ordinary face. In a moment you are ready: there is the soft whisper of silk skirt on the stone floor, the scuff of light evening slippers, and Robbins leads you upstairs to the drawing room.

There some of the guests are already assembled: you greet your host, Mr. Murray, a tall young man who is beginning to grow into his role as master of the ceremonies. The portraits of his late parents, a handsome pair, still adorn the walls of the drawing room, which has been opened out for the occasion, with fires in both hearths. The smell of firewood, so usual you hardly notice it, is fragranced by the pastille burners on the mantelpieces. The long pale blue silk curtains are drawn against the night. Another manservant, this one with his collar crooked and something pulling his pocket shapeless, offers you a glass of negus from a large jug, warming against the quick chill outside. Then you can mingle.

Mr. Blair is there, bundled in a chair by the window, and his daughter, still unmarried, is keeping him company and watching the company with the eye of one who will draw them all later. Mr. Blair’s sister is gossiping whether anyone is listening or not. Mrs. Thomson is already there, of course, charming and sharp, along with her sister Mrs. Armstrong and Mr. Armstrong, all ginger-haired anxiety. Willie Jack Dundas, red-nosed and watery-eyed, is chatting with his brother Harry but with an eye constantly on the door – what unsuitable girl is he pursuing now? Several young ladies are there with their parents or older brothers, warming their hands by the fire in case they are asked to perform on the lovely piano in the room. One has brought a flute in a case: it is well known that Mr. Murray likes music. For a moment, though, it is the colours that take your eye: the ladies in soft oyster, white, pale blue, leaf green, magnolia pink, the gentlemen like shadows in black but winking with gold where their buttons catch the candlelight, the turkey rugs reflecting the ruby red of the negus in your glass.

The conversation is witty and intelligent, of course – this is Edinburgh, after all – and heavily laced with gossip – even Edinburgh’s inhabitants are human. The latest edition of the Edinburgh Review is dissected, and there is a little light rivalry with the Quarterly. Books are talked over, some with passion, others with chilly dismissal. The architecture of the latest Edinburgh suburb is subjected to criticism. The prospects of the theatrical season are considered. The room grows warm with chatter and laughter: shawls slip down from shoulder to elbow, neckcloths grow a little tighter, pale Scottish complexions flush.

At last the man Robbins appears, has a brief word with his master, and announces that dinner is served. In this easy gathering, it is the matter of a moment to find someone to go in with, and soon you are seated and admiring the elaborately symmetrical table arrangement before you. Bon appétit!

(go to next post ...)

Launch Party 2: Dinner

The smell of food is amazing, and everything is lovely and hot, considering it's been brought up the back stairs from the kitchen in the basement. Despite the aroma of warm nutmeg already in the air, you see Mr. Blair bring out his little silver nutmeg grater from his capacious pockets, and set it ready: he loves his nutmeg! By contrast, Mr. Armstrong is anxiously wondering if he brought his stomach powders - all that cream!

The recipes marked with an asterisk are from The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye, London 1995. Recipes marked with a hache are from A Choice Selection of Regency Recipes by Marie-Pierre Moine and Antonia Williams (London 1995), produced for the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.


Here we are, a warming drink as you come in on a cool September evening. Daniel will hand you a glass in the drawing room – Robbins checked to see he hadn’t made any of the glasses sticky.

1 pint port wine
1 lemon
12 sugar lumps
2 pints boiling water
Grated nutmeg

Pour the port into a large, heatproof jug. Rub the lemon with the sugar lumps, then squeeze the lemon juice and strain it. Mix the sugar and the lemon juice with the port, and add the boiling water. Cover the jug until the liquid has cooled a little, then serve in glasses with a scrape of grated nutmeg.

In the supper room, the first course dishes are all laid on the table in a symmetrical display.
Start with the soup (watch out – Robbins is good at serving this but William has a bit of a shaky hand!)

White Soup*

There are lots of recipes for this – my tasters enjoyed this one very much.

6 pints water
1 medium-sized boiling fowl
8 oz lean bacon or gammon trimmings
4 oz white rice
6 black peppercorns
2 onions, peeled and halved
2 anchovy fillets
2-3 sprigs each thyme, marjoram and tarragon, tied in a cloth
4-6 stalks celery, chopped
4 oz ground almonds, a popular Georgian ingredient
1 egg yolk
10 fl.oz single cream

Pour water into a large stewpan. Rinse the chicken and add to pan with any giblets (if it’s a bit big, you can joint it). Add bacon, rice, peppercorns, onions, anchovies, herbs and celery. Cover, bring to boil and cook very gently until the chicken meat is fully cooked.
Strain into a bowl, cover with a cloth and leave in a cool place overnight (locked away from the family cats, obviously). Next day, skim off any fats or impurities and pour into a clean pan. Add the ground almonds, bring slowly to the boil and simmer 10 minutes. Strain yet again, through cheesecloth. Whisk the egg yolk into the cream and add to the soup. Reheat until very hot, but do not boil again. Watercress leaves on each bowl are pretty.

Now for the main course – all the savoury courses are served at once. In this modern household you can serve yourself – the Georgians of the early nineteenth century were growing independent of their servants at social gatherings. Take a little of each of these savoury dishes – the meat ones are the larger ones in the centre:

Chicken Baskets*

14oz shortcrust pastry (I hate buying ready made pastry unless it’s puff, so made my own.)

1lb cooked chicken without skin or bones
2oz shredded suet
1 large slice white bread without crust, crumbled
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (fortunately someone had given me a pot, or I’d have had to run to the allotment)
½ teaspoon grated lemon rind
Pinch of grated nutmeg (the Georgians loved nutmeg, and would keep some in their pocket with a little grater for adding as we would add salt and pepper)
Salt and white pepper
1 oz softened butter
1 oz flour
10 fl.oz chicken stock (cheated and used a cube)
1 tablespoon double cream

Preheat oven to 375-400’F/190-200’C/Gas Mark 5-6. Line deep bun tins with the pastry and on a separate baking tray lay out pastry handles for the baskets, a little narrower at the base than the pastry cases. Make a few spares as they’re very brittle!
Bake the pastry blind until fully cooked – the cases will take 8 – 10 minutes but the handles will only take 5 – 6 minutes. Keep aside.
Mince together the chicken meat, suet, bread, parsley, lemon rind, nutmeg and seasoning. Blend the butter and flour together with a little stock to form a paste. Bring remaining stock almost to boiling point, then drop in the butter-flour past in small spoonfuls and simmer, stirring, until the sauce is very thick. Add the chicken mixture and heat through, still stirring.
Now you can either serve hot by keeping the filling warm while you warm the pastry cases gently in the oven, or you can serve it all cold. Arrange the cases on a dish, fill, and slide the handles in carefully. Sprinkle with parsley.

Venison Cake*

This can also be done with veal, or indeed lamb, but venison was what we had.

2 ½ lbs lean venison, boned (keep the bones)
Salt and pepper
8 hard-boiled egg yolks
8 large sprigs parsley
1lb streaky bacon rashers
10fl.oz meat stock

Cut meat into three equal-sized slices, to fit your 2lb loaf tin. Lay the thickest slice in the tin and season lightly. Crumble four of the egg yolks and mix with 4 tablespoons of parsley, and spread over meat. Cut the bacon rashers in half lengthways and arrange half the strips in a layer over the egg mixture. Cover with a second meat layer and season. Repeat the egg layer, cover with remaining bacon and top with third meat layer. Season again.

Preheat oven to 325’F/170’C/Gas Mark 3. Add the stock to the tin. Cover the meat with the bones and then with a sheet of baking parchment, followed by one of foil. Bake for 3 hours.
When the meat is done, remove the coverings and bones, and pour off any excess stock. Cover with a weight and leave to cool overnight. Turn out to serve, and slice with a sharp knife.

Herrings with mustard butter#

Here they’re served with stewed cucumbers (see below) which go very well with the strong flavour of the fish and mustard. This was one of my tasters’ favourite dishes.

4 herrings, cleaned and trimmed
2 oz. flour
Salt and black pepper

For the Mustard Butter:
2 oz soft butter
¼ teaspoon mustard powder
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

Make the mustard butter first, by mashing together all the ingredients. Chill.

Heat the grill till it’s hot. Make diagonal slashes in the sides of the herrings. Roll the herrings in the seasoned flour, then grill for 4 – 5 minutes each side until cooked. Serve very hot, with slivers of chilled mustard butter on top.

Roast Ham

A popular Georgian meat, often roasted or baked with a crust or in wine. Here I’ve done a citrusy glaze, which keeps the meat lovely and moist.

‘A Receipt to Curry after the Indian Manner’*

Murray couldn’t resist asking his cook for a curry after he loved the food so much in India, though this is warming rather than over-spicy. Robbins likes the plate.

6-8 fleshy chicken joints
4oz unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
6oz onions, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons Curree Powder (see separate entry)
Juice of 1 Seville orange or lemon

Wipe the chicken joints and put them in a stew-pan with enough water to cover and a small pinch of salt. Put the lid on and cook gently until tender. Transfer joints to a plate: keep cooking liquid.
Melt butter in a large pan till sizzling, add garlic and onions and sauté till browned. Add the chicken joints and curree powder and stir, shaking the pan, for 3-4 minutes until the chicken pieces are well coated. Stir in 1 pint of the cooking liquid, then cover the pan and simmer until the mixture is well heated through. Taste for seasoning and stir in the fruit juice.

Curree Powder*

1/2oz ground galangal
1/2 oz ground turmeric
¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2oz rice flour

This is a bit sweeter than modern curry powders. Interestingly, commercially blended curry powder was available in Britain by 1806. I’ve been having trouble for some time finding ground galangal in Aberdeen so I used potted galangal.

Now the salady side dishes, which are arranged around the edge.

Artichoke Pie#

Pastry was the usual carbohydrate, not potato: a substantial pie was a very common feature at the dinner table. The artichokes were easily grown at Letho and brought down to the Queen Street house (but if you’re using modern tinned ones, give them a rinse to take off some of the salt).

1lb shortcrust pastry
1 1/2oz butter
Flour for dusting
½ lb brown mushrooms, wiped and thinly sliced
12 large artichoke hearts
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 hard boiled eggs, cut into wedges
A little egg yolk mixed with milk, for glazing
1 egg
3-4 generous tablespoons of cream
Salt and black pepper

Take 2/3 of the pastry and use it to line a large deep greased pie dish. Roll out the other third for a lid, prick and chill.
Fry the mushrooms in a little butter. Heat over to 190’C/375’F/Gas mark 5. Thickly slice artichokes and put them in the pice. Season generously with salt, pepper, nutmeg and lemon zest. Top with the hard boiled egg, mushrooms and their juices. Dot with butter. Add the pastry lid, cut a hole in the centre, decorate as you wish and glaze. Bake for 40 minutes. Remove from oven. Mix the egg with the cream and season. Pour this into the pie. If the pie is already golden-brown, cover loosely with foil, and continue baking another 5-10 minutes. Leave to cool and settle before serving.



This is just a question of picking ingredients and arranging them nicely in concentric ovals. Beetroot was popular, along with various cold meats, anchovies, and hard-boiled eggs. Watercress or shredded lettuce leaves can look pretty, too.

Beetroot pancakes#

This is the recipe Mrs. Costane was so proud of at Scoggie Castle: Murray talked her into giving it to Mrs. Mack.

About ½ lb cooked beetroot, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons whisky or brandy
¼ pint double cream
4 large egg yolks
2oz sifted flour
Tiny pinch salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Butter for greasing the pan.

Mix the ingredients until well blended and let the thick batter rest for at least an hour.
Heat butter in frying pan and coat it well. Drop a tablespoon of the batter into the centre and cook until set, turn and cook on the other side. Keep adding butter as required until all the pancakes are cooked. Serve warm or cold.

Stewed Cucumbers#

These are on the same plate as the herring above, and go very nicely with it. Allow your neighbour to pass you some. A bit counter-instinctive for us to cook a cucumber, but it does the job well.

2 medium or one large cucumber
2 oz butter
White parts of 3 large spring onions or scallions, chopped
1 tablespoon flour
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
¼ pint chicken stock
Salt and black pepper

Halve the cucumbers lengthways, then quarter lengthways and deseed. Cut into 1” segments.

Melt butter in a frying pan, add the onion and cucumber and fry for a minute. Sprinkle on the flour, stir well and season. Add nutmeg, vinegar and chicken stock and stir again for a minute.

Cover, reduce heat a little and cook for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft and translucent, and serve hot.

A Pretty Dish of Eggs*

6 square slices of toast, without crusts
12 or more cold hard-boiled eggs
Unsalted butter for frying
Salt and black pepper
Good pinch of grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
2 shallots or 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon plain flour
Salt and pepper
6 fl.oz medium dry white wine

Make the toast first and keep it warm. Shell enough eggs to provide 24-30 presentable, round slices ¼” thick. Coat the base of a large frying pan with melted butter. Gently fry the egg slices, turning them over once: they brown very quickly. When they have browned on both sides slip them out and on to kitchen roll.
Keep aside the six best slices for garnishing and pile the rest on a warmed serving platter, leaving room for the toast round the edge. Sprinkle with pepper, salt and nutmeg, then keep it warm.
Put 1 tablespoon melted butter into a saucepan and add the shallots or onion. Stir over a medium heat until they soften. Off the heat, blend in the flour and season well. Stir the wine in gradually, with a little more butter from the frying pan if you wish. Stir over low heat until it thickens.
Cut the toast into triangles and arrange on the edge of the dish, then pour over the sauce. Arrange the reserved egg slices on top.

Eat quickly while the toast is crisp! Though I must admit I was nibbling happily at the leftovers next day.

Now the damage has been done to the savoury dishes, the table is cleared, the cloth lifted, the cutlery changed and the puddings are laid out, again in a pretty pattern. Just talk amongst yourselves! Three or four puddings are set out with small dishes of nuts, fruit in season (or out, if you can get enough horse manure to bring on those pineapples), and cheeses. Ices were popular at balls or routs, or summer parties, but less so at an autumn city dinner. Instead soft puddings or fruit pies were the thing. Help yourself!

Jaune Mange*

Well, think of blancmange!

2 tablespoons powdered gelatine
1 pint hot water, in a saucepan
16 fl.oz white wine
Strained juice of 2 oranges
5 egg yolks, beaten
About 4 oz caster sugar

Scatter the gelatine on to the hot water and stir until it dissolves. Let it stand for a few moments to settle, then add the wine and orange juice, followed by the beaten egg yolks. Stir in the sugar a tablespoon at a time: try to judge how much you need by the strength and flavour of the wine, and blend it thoroughly to make a smooth, sweet liquid. Place over low heat and bring to simmering point very slowly. As soon as it begins to rise in the pan, pour into a 2 ½ pint or 6 individual wetted moulds and allow to set (takes up to 12 hours).
Turn out and decorate.

Claret and Redcurrant Jelly#

½ oz powdered gelatine
¼ pint water
½ lb redcurrant jelly
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Juice and grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
3 or 4 cloves
¼ pint claret
2 or 3 heaped tablespoons caster sugar

Sprinkle gelatine over the water and dissolve over a low heat. Stir in the redcurrant jelly, cinnamon, lemon juice and zest, cloves and sugar.
Heat through without boiling, still stirring. Stir in the claret. Line a sieve with a double layer of damp muslin or a very clean damp cloth. Strain the jelly into a mould, glasses or bowl. Chill until set.

Watch this – my guests reeled at the sweetness, though apparently this has been toned down from the Georgian levels!

Antonin Careme’s Apple Pudding#

Careme was the Prince Regent's chef at Brighton Pavilion, where the kitchens were a palace in themselves. This is a good autumn pudding, and an alternative to all those slithery jelly things Georgians loved so much. My tasters, who are not averse to a good steamed pudding of an evening, devoured this one.

2 teaspoons baking powder
8 oz plain flour
4 oz caster sugar
4 oz shredded suet
2-3 Bramley cooking apples, peeled and finely sliced
2 oz raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Make a dough with the baking powder, flour, suet and half the sugar, and a little water. Grease a pudding basin, and line it with 2/3 of the dough. Fill with apples, raisins, cinnamon and the rest of the sugar. Flatten the rest of the dough as a lid and pinch to seal. Cover pudding basin, place in large pan with water well up the sides. Bring to boil and cook 2 hours, with lid on pan, topping up water as necessary.

Upend on to a plate and serve hot with custard or cream.

Dinner is over! (go to next post (no.3, that is, if you've had too much wine!)

Launch party 3: Sources for research for The Tender Herb

There is of course much discussion of books after dinner, and much conversation about India, where so many Scots go to seek their fortune. Spices and silks are already common on the Scottish market: even some Hindi words are creeping into everyday use.

Archer, Mildred, and Falk, Toby: The Passionate Quest: The Fraser Brothers in India, London 1989. Account of some of William Fraser’s doings in Delhi and Himalaya, with plates of paintings by his brother James. James was in India rather after my time but the whole family was there at various points, so I’ve included, briefly, Aleck Fraser, another brother. A tremendously talented family. 

Baron, Archie: An Indian Affair: From Riches to Raj, London 2001. Good background, very accessible.

Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the making of the British Empire, Cambridge 1988. A more scholarly account, with a useful glossary.

Buddle, Anne: The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India, Edinburgh 1999. The catalogue from an exhibition in the National Gallery of Scotland celebrating two hundred years since Seringapatam, which, you might remember, was where Major Keyes left one of his legs (Knowledge of Sins Past)

Dalrymple, William: City of Djinns, London 1994. One of his earlier books on India and a good read, rich with historical commentary and contemporary anecdote.

Dalrymple, William: Age of Kali, London 1998. Another early book – they are his best, in my view – but this takes a wider view of India than City of Djinns. Although again it has a modern setting, his sense of the historical background of the places he visits and the situations he examines is very valuable.

Guy, Alan J., and Boyden, Peter B.: Soldiers of the Raj: The Indian Army, 1600 – 1947, London 1997. Another exhibition catalogue, this time from the National Army Museum, London. In this exhibition (pp.232 – 3 in the catalogue) was the remarkable (for its sheer size, if nothing else) painting of the ‘March of Francis Marquess of Hastings, Governor General of India, Commander in Chief’, 1814, showing the enormous procession required for the Governor General and his wife to tour India. This inspired, though on a considerably lesser scale, Murray’s journey from Bombay to Delhi – I sat staring at it for ages!

Kaye, M.M., ed.: The Golden Calm: An English Lady’s Life in Moghul Delhi. Reminiscences by Emily, Lady Clive Bayley, and by her father, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, London 1980. Beautiful book with plates of paintings commissioned by the family showing many different views of Delhi, with commentary and reminiscences. This lady was related to Charles Metcalfe, the Resident with whom Charles Murray stayed.

Parkes, Fanny: Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes, London 2002. Very enjoyable account of travels in India from a female perspective.

Wild, Antony: The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600, London 1999. In this I scribbled ‘We need: a strict clergyman, possibly a golfer; an enthusiastic golfer; a lady of spirit who visits zenanas but whose accounts brought back are not necessarily true; a quieter lady who is more reliable’. I’m not sure why I was so keen on the golfing aspect!

Henry Yule and A.C Burnell: Hobson Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary, 1886. Something to browse through – fascinating to see several languages coming together and the points at which they meet. Thanks to this for Mr. Buttered Toast!

Now, off with you to the last blog post of the evening ...