Now to the Banquet!

When I was last in Hay-on-Wye in Wales (second-hand bookshop capital of the UK) I bought a great little book in Richard Booth’s Bookshop: Now to the Banquet by Isabelle Visher.

Lady Vischer was a much travelled Cordon Bleu cook. Her book is interesting and entertaining and includes over 60 recipes. But it is not just a cookery book, it is much more…  She writes about people, places and food in a way that is compelling. All the dishes are indexed and range from exotic items such as acacia fritters and coconut jam, to fresh ways with cabbage. It’s not a vegan book, there are chapters on meat, fish, eggs and dairy, but there are many other chapters that are of interest. For example:

  • Bergamot Jelly and Other Jams, Flowers in Cookery and Rose Gastronomy
  • Various Possibilities with Cabbage
  • Aioli, in Honour of Garlic and the Onion Family
  • Of Spanish Dishes and of a Great Spanish Dancer
  • Punch from the Martinique, the Poet Mallarmé, a French Sultana and Sweet Pepper à la Creole
  • The Real Tomato Sauce, How Not to Cook Spaghetti, and an Unknown Macaroni Dish
  • The Secret Crisp, Fritters, Chips, Apple Fritters and the Useful Twins – Beer and Cider
  • Mulled Wine for Elevenses and Other Christmas Fare

Here is a short excerpt from the book:

“Not long ago there was a very spirited exchange of letters in an English newspaper concerning garlic. Among those which praised it, there was one charming and witty letter. I hope I may be forgiven for reproducing it here. It is too good to be left out.

 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Sir,                                                                                                                                                                Your letter writer stresses insufficiently the virtues of garlic.

I once served in France with a Belgian major, aged 75, who made his breakfast entirely of this strange food. He was the fittest man, among 20 different nationalities, on the Pyrenees frontier. He climbed the mountain daily.

For 12 months I sat with this gallant major on the opposite side of my office table without wearing a gasmask, and I have never been so fit before or since. And I have never had such few visitors to bother me.

Yours faithfully                                                                                                                                         A.M. Cree, Capt. (S.). R.N. (retd),                                                                                                      Southsea.

Vischer also says that “Onions, surely, are the essence of humility” and includes in the book a little verse she was sent from her friend who was a great carnival fan:

Trifst du wen, den die Geschicke
Immerfort zum Lachen bringen
Sei gewiss, dass ihn im Herzen
Alt schwere Sorgen zwingen.

Liebe Zwiebel, gegenteilig,
Weisst es wunderbar zu machen:
Schwemmst die Augen du mit Träne
Füllst das Herz du uns mit Lachen.

This is her translation:

If you meet one, whom his fate
Seems to urge to constant laughter
Surely you will find his heart
Harbours hosts of heavy worries

Precious onion, you’re a genius
For you work in different manner,
Swamp the eyes with tears and weeping,
Fill the heart with merry laughter.

In the last chapter, Vischer discusses Christmas celebrations and describes various different national dishes and customs for example in Austria, Norway and Silesia. She says that in Sweden, at around 5pm they have hors d’œuvres with schnaps and beer, then soup then rice pudding with almonds in it – which you are not allowed to eat unless you make a rhyme. This book was published in 1953 so whether they still do this or not, I don’t know.

Interestingly she talks of how the austerity of the period affected the way people cooked and celebrated festivals. Vischer says: “The Vicomte de Maudit complains that had Oliver Cromwell had his own way, the jolly Christmas festivals would have died with him. ‘They did in some ways,’ says the Vicomte, ‘as far as certain dishes and their ceremonious preparations and serving are concerned.’ One is sometimes afraid that our days of austerity may finish the work of the Puritans and may also pass the death sentence on many a luscious dish.”

This seems pertinent and timely as we approach the biggest national strike since the winter of discontent in 1979! On Thursday November 30, two million workers in the UK will walk out in the biggest strike the 1970s. Twenty-six trade unions are taking part, including (for the first time ever) the National Association of Head Teachers. The main cause of the strike is the government’s public-sector pensions reforms but the ‘day of action’ is also a wider protest against the coalition’s austerity measures; their decision to impose the biggest cuts in public services since 1945. Difficult times for many, I am glad we are not taking it lying down. I just hope we can all find some way to carry on celebrating the good things in life with our close friends and family.

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