Menu masters

November 1, 1996

This week The THES begins a series on a little-mentioned but crucial ingredient in academic life - food. Here, Lisa Jardine reveals her culinary passions, what the Tudors put in their blancmange and what made Francis Bacon sizzle. Sian Griffiths reports.

Lisa Jardine's earliest food memory is of her sister Judith being plonked in her high chair at the bottom of the garden to finish her greens. "She was two. My parents were quite strict people; it was just postwar. That has coloured the whole of my life," she says laughing and jabbing a wooden spoon wildly in the air. "Finishing up, finishing everything, is one of my recurring nightmares."

Rita, her mother, on a flying visit to her eldest daughter's Bloomsbury flat looks rather askance but Jardine, scholar and broadcaster, in the kitchen making a "themed" birthday cake for 12-year-old son Sam, is in full flow. Now she is on to less dangerous gastronomic territory - early dinner parties where, from the age of about six, she was included at her parents supper table alongside such celebrities as Aldous Huxley and Yehudi Menuhin. "We had C. P. Snow to dinner, Rachel Butler, Elizabeth Frink (because my mother was a sculptor) ... and at the end of dinner they would sign my autograph book."

Her father, the broadcaster Jacob Bronowski, (best-known for the TV series The Ascent of Man), thought the supper guests would expand his daughter's cultural horizons; a trick Jardine admits to having tried with her own three offspring "though I do not have quite such grand people to dinner".

It is one day before the launch of Jardine's first trade book, Worldly Goods, which argues that the Renaissance, usually thought of in almost mystical terms as a high point of European culture, can rather be looked at as a sordid commercial competition between crowns and merchants vying greedily to acquire ever more exotic works of art. The book has already achieved the kind of press coverage rarely accorded to academic tomes and Jardine's phone is constantly ringing.

Rita is manfully fielding calls. "The Australian Broadcasting Corporation," she says passing the phone to her daughter who delivers a five-minute monologue on the conflicting class expectations of Charles and Di. "Can't, I'm whisking egg whites into a cake," Jardine says into the mouthpiece, turning down, ruefully, on account of being such "a media tart", a live interview.

The significance of food, she acknowledges, though it has loomed large in her life, has not played a great part in her work. There is a passage in Worldly Goods, she remembers, about the Byzantine emperor John VIII paying a visit to the pope in Florence, accompanied by a large retinue. "John VIII stopped off for an afternoon meal and people were amazed to watch him eat salad because posh people in Italy did not eat green stuff; it was regarded as food for peasants. When I found that I thought it would be nice to do more about the food."

Academics are snobs, sighs Jardine, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London. When she wrote a book on Francis Bacon she noticed that his writing was full of recipes, mostly cooked for him by his housekeeper - surely scope there for a PhD thesis or two. But food, somehow, is always left out of literary analysis.

But Jardine, who admits "being passionate about food" - "I find cooking extraordinarily unwinding and relaxing" - may be the person to start a new academic field. With her daughter Rachel, a second-year PPE student at St Anne's, Oxford, she is already researching Elizabethan food. It began when Rachel started working during her holidays at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk, where Tudor life is recreated every year for three weeks in as authentic a fashion as possible. Cooking in the kitchen, Rachel had to come up with convincing Tudor recipes.

"We started researching together. I tried a few recipes here in the kitchen. Most of them are not for the modern palate - because of the Tudor predilection for mixing meat and sweet," says Jardine. "Blancmange, for instance, started as a chicken dish. I got the OED and found that was right - it is blanc manger. It started as chicken with almonds and cream, a minced chicken mould. Around 1600 it dropped the chicken, and kept veal gelatine I that was the only meat left in it. Francis Bacon says that it is a great health food - it has almonds, milk, gelatine, a bit of ground rice. Spices too, cinnamon, crystallised cloves.

"I am very interested in this idea of how recipes fit in with Elizabethan life. I love that idea of how a dish is modified. At what stage was the chicken dropped? Why?"

Born of Orthodox Jewish parents, Jardine says she still believes in the importance of family meals. She does most of the cooking - "it used to be Elizabeth David, now it is nouvelle cuisine, something with raspberry sauce" - and has made a point of teaching her boys, though not her daughter, to cook.

She remembers "appalling Oxbridge high table feasts" - "grand ingredients dreadfully cooked" but praises King's, Cambridge, where she is an honorary fellow, for "moving into the 20th century with simple meals, lovely occasions for everyone to sit and talk."

Her worst food nightmare was a surreal dinner at Sarah Dunant's house cooked by Dunant's ex-husband (he always cooked), with Shere Hite and Susie Orbach as guests. "Hard to swallow your food in that kind of company."

The cake is almost ready and Jardine offers me a lick of the chocolate mixture. It will eventually be cut in the shape of Scottie Pippen, "the thinking man's star of the American basketball team, the Chicago Bulls". Sam plays basketball, and Jardine has tried in vain, she reveals, to get the Labour party interested in it as a national sport for children. "There's a lot of nostalgia for old-fashioned sports like cricket and rugby rather than the street sports children want to play."

The table is littered with snaps of previous birthday efforts: a sort of Hansel and Gretel house for Daniel, aged one; a bright green stegosaurus; a microchip cake, a reclining African nude which horribly embarrassed 18-year-old Rachel's friends.

"My eldest son is 26, so I guess I've had 25 years of cake-making. Rachel was born on October 7 so there were years at Cambridge when that cake was made at 4am. It was a stupid vanity."

But somehow, you feel, Lisa Jardine wouldn't have had it any other way.

Elizabethan Blancmange

2 oz almonds 1 pint water 2 oz ground rice 2 tbsp rosewater 3 tbsp sugar (caster) pinch of cinnamon pinch of ginger quarter ounce gelatine dissolved in rosewater

(candied flowers for decoration)

* Grind almonds in food processor. Add water till absorbed (may be bit more than a pint). Strain through muslin (squeezing occasionally). Mix almond milk with 2 oz ground rice (make paste with a little first), bring to boil, simmer 5-10 minutes, add sugar, spices and gelatine dissolved in rosewater. Chill. Scatter cinnamon and flowers on top.

Adapted from Hilary Spurling, Elinor Fettisplace's Receipt Book

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