Monday, 15 August 2011

Lessons from the past

A close friend lent us their house while they fled to the fastnesses of France recently. I have to say we didn’t do a lot, mainly because we wanted to rest and restore ourselves. However, when I am in London, Hampton Court Palace is always a must, so we duly spent a cracking morning there. The sun was out, the gardens looked fabulous, a game of real tennis was in progress and I managed to suss out a bit more of the geography of the Tudor palace for the Luke books. It retains a prime place in my heart. I waited 40 years to visit it and have been 7 times in the last two years.

Paul had never visited the Tower and I’m always up for a jaunt there, too. Of course, the queue for the Jewel House was very long, which I find strange because the crown jewels are incredibly boring. The only bauble that moves me at all is Queen Victoria’s little crown, incredibly sweet and designed to go over her widow’s cap. Much more interesting is the sense of place, the reality of looking over walls, imagining holding enemies at bay or being a prisoner and seeing how difficult escape would have been. The thing that always annoys me about the Tower is how they insist that Anne Boleyn was executed in front of St Peter ad Vincula, when historians have shown quite clearly that she met her end in front of what is now the Waterloo Barracks.

The highlight of the holiday, though, was a visit to the Downland and Weald Open Air Museum near Chichester. Houses from all periods – 12th century onwards – have been moved and restored. I was able to get a real sense of what Luke’s house might look like, how his rooms were arranged. I learned about herbs and herbal medicines and, the crowning glory – much more fascinating than the imperial jewels – a proper working Tudor kitchen.

We learned how to make butter. I was introduced to a couvre de feu, anglicised to ‘curfew’, used to bake small batches of bread when the cook didn’t want to light the bread oven, the rotation of beer-making so that the household never ran out, making cheese using rennet to split milk into curds and whey. The curds made a cheese a bit like mozzarella. They used the whey to help flavour bread. Tudor cooks used everything. (When the family pig was killed, the joke was that everything was used except the squeak, a custom that my grandfather practised into the 1930s with their family pig. Stains from salt dripping down his bureau from the hams and bacon hung over it are still visible.) Leftover ashes from the bread fire went under the beer cauldron ensuring that the yeast didn’t die. There was no waste. Perhaps in times like these, we could all learn a lesson from them.

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