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Nesselrode pudding. (MRS. DARWIN'S RECIPE BOOK: Revived and Illustrated, by Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway (Glitterati Inc., November 2008))

At Home with the Darwins

Recipes offer an intimate glimpse into the life of Charles Darwin and his family

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In 1839, two years after he had returned from his epochal voyage aboard the Beagle, Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. (The two were grandchildren of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the renowned British pottery.) It was to be a love match of the highest order: the Darwins, who would have ten children, lived in harmony for more than 40 years, until Charles’ death in 1882. Darwin was devoted to his spirited, intelligent wife, whom he described as “good as twice refined gold.”

The Darwins presided over a lively household in a rambling country manse, Down House, in Kent, 16 miles from London. There, Darwin worked in his study, laboring over On the Origin of Species and delighting in family life. In their inventive take on the life of the Darwin family, writers Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway, authors of Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book, Revived and Illustrated, record an intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of this most eminent of Victorian clans. Bateson and Janeway’s vehicle is a slim little volume, a mere eight by four inches, bound in leather and fitted with marble endpapers.

Emma Darwin’s recipe book recorded some of the dishes—cheese souffle to mutton ragout and gooseberry cream—enjoyed by the family as they gathered in the dining room at Down House.

As Bateson and Janeway tested and re-created Emma’s dishes for a full-color survey of Emma’s original recipes, they also engaged in a particular take on time travel. Their historical and culinary detective work affords a unique and intimate glimpse of the Darwins. It is as if we are at table with the family, passing the Nesselrode pudding before pushing back our chairs and dispersing for a game of whist or a stroll in the orchard.

For cooks and historians, Victoriana buffs and anyone interested in an unexpected journey— an excursion into the world of Charles Darwin and his family— the authors offer an original and vivid window on a vanished world of 19th-century Britain.

“Above all,” write Bateson and Janeway, “cooking and eating a dish enjoyed by Charles Darwin and his family brought us closer to the great man.” As for Emma herself, they add, “We felt a growing admiration and warmth, and found it was natural to refer to her by her first name.”

A selection of recipes follows:

BURNT CREAM

Burnt cream, or crème brulée as it is now more commonly known, is a famous English pudding and certainly one of the best. The contrast between the cool, rich custard and the crisp, glassy layer of caramelized sugar is truly delicious. In fact, it is a simple dish of cream, egg yolks, and sugar but made in surprisingly different ways. What is generally agreed upon is that you boil the cream and then pour it onto well-beaten egg yolks, stirring as the mixture cools. After that, opinions differ; some continue to cook the custard until it “coats the back of the spoon.” Others bake it in a low oven. Still others simply let the mixture cool completely, then chill it before adding the final layer of sugar on the top.

In Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), you find the recipe closest to the one given by Emma. This, interestingly, includes whole eggs and flour. No mention is made of any flavoring—orange-flower water would have been popular in the eighteenth century, vanilla would be the obvious choice today. Then, looking more closely at Emma’s original ingredients and quantities, more questions arise. One tablespoonful of flour to only one cup of cream will surely result in an unacceptably thick mixture. And to what extent should the egg whites be whipped? As though you’re making meringue? A trial run with less flour, about half, and whites whipped to the “soft peak” stage, and then carefully folded into the cream/egg-yolk mixture, produced custard that tasted fine but remained rather runny and by the following day had become considerably more so. Any topping was doomed to sink. A second attempt, using the full tablespoonful of flour, was much more successful. You do have to boil the cream and flour gently for about ten minutes to make sure the flour is properly cooked, otherwise it will taste raw. Serves four.

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