A Georgian Supper at Dr Darwin’s House
Well, I hang my head in shame for taking so long to tell you about a dinner for Erasmus Darwin’s birthday that we attended on 12th December 2009 but better later than never! The Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield (left) is a wonderful museum and was originally Darwin’s home between 1758 and 1781. Regular readers of this blog will know about the pleasant herb garden at the back – tucked away from view behind the Cathedral Close – and, of course, Erasmus Bunny who lives at the back of Lichfield Cathedral Bookshop. The garden is a fitting memorial to Darwin, whose interest in plants contributed to our understanding of many biological processes, including photosynthesis.
For those unfamiliar with Erasmus Darwin’s life and work, he was born at Elston, five miles southwest of Newark in Nottinghamshire, and he worked as a physician, first in Lichfield and later in Derby. He was a remarkable man with an endless curiosity about the world and his influence was far-reaching. He investigated topics such as physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, plant growth, nutrition and biology; he was also a keen poet whose 1792 work Botanic Garden was much admired by the Romantic poets, particularly Coleridge. As a member of the Lunar Society, he joined with friends such as Mathew Boulton, Joseph Priestley and James Watt to develop and promote Birmingham’s new industrial technology, and – perhaps most importantly – his thoughts on evolutionary biology were the catalyst for his grandson, Charles Darwin’s, famous treatise on natural selection, On the Origin of Species.
Not a great deal is known about the house during Darwin’s residence, though it’s clear that he was responsible for the way it looks today. Having qualified as a doctor in 1756, the 26-year-old Darwin married Mary Howard the following year at St Mary’s Church in Lichfield, and settled into an old half-timbered house at the western end of the Cathedral Close. The building he modified to suit their tastes, turning the back (on Beacon Street) into a grand new façade with Venetian-style windows. The old semi-circular moat around the Close was still visible at this time, so Darwin built a bridge of shallow steps and Chinese paling from his front door to the pavement, clearing the bottom to make a terrace planted with lilac and roses.
Yet unlike Lichfield’s other major 18th-century attraction, the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Darwin’s house was derelict 15 years ago and – thanks to the support of Darwin scholar Dr Desmond King-Hele and Gordon Cook (now Chairman of the Erasmus Darwin Foundation) – opened as a museum in 1999 with donations from, among others, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Development Fund. Last year it marked its tenth anniversary with a refurbishment of several rooms, while Darwin’s birthday on December 12th was celebrated with a six-course supper of classic Georgian dishes (a fine tribute to a man whose motto was ‘eat or be eaten’).
We had, of course, eagerly purchased our tickets early on, so as not to miss out on the feasting, and weren’t disappointed by the authentic menu which drew heavily on the recipes of that great English cookery writer, Hannah Glasse. Despite Dr Johnson’s rather predictable dismissal of female cooks (‘No Madam. Women can spin very well, but they cannot make a good book of cookery’) the results were absolutely stunning!
I have typed up the full menu so you can appreciate the full extent of the chef’s art (see below), but I remember in particular the Christmas Pye which had turkey, goose, chicken and pigeon underneath a great pastry top (pictured above right). The Nasturtium berries and lime in the mashed potato – gathered from Darwin’s herb garden – were an amazing combination. Meanwhile the starter (Salmon and scallops preserved in elderflower vinegar) was a clever reference to the Darwin family coat of arms which featured three scallop shells. Erasmus famously added the Latin inscription E Conchis omnia (‘everything from shells’) to demonstrate his belief in evolution, but this offended Canon Seward of Lichfield Cathedral, who claimed in a satirical verse that Darwin ‘renounces his Creator/And forms all sense from senseless matter./Great wizard he! by magic spells/Can all things raise from cockle shells’.
Dessert was a tour de force, and though we were absolutely stuffed, everything cried out to sampled from the plum porrige (a forerunner of Britain’s traditional Christmas pudding) to an amazing almond soup (pictured right) and boozy sack posset. With port and kickshaws to follow, it’s fair to say that we were pretty full by the end of it! Kickshaws, by the way, are trifling edible things (the word comes from the French quelque chose, literally ‘something’) and are, I suppose a forerunner of petit fours. Check out the full menu below and marvel at the skill on display!
Dinner At My Home, 12th December 2009.
Salmon Preserved the Jews’ Way.
Salmon and scallops preserved in elderflower vinegar, dressed with pickled samphire.
Yorkshire Christmas Pye.
Containing turkey, goose, fowl and pigeon, served with mashed potato with Nasturtium berries and limes; buttered cabbage; ragout of onions; carrots dressed the Dutch way; truffle and Morel sauce.
Plum porrige for Christmas; almond soup with jugged cherries Lady North’s way; sack posset.
Preserved fruit and kickshaws.
Coffee and sweetmeats.