Can Simon Schama cook?
In this month’s (that is February’s) Vogue, that wonderful polymath Simon Schama shares his views on, and recipes for, stews. In the course of this article, “Simmer of love”, he has some harsh words for the culinary knowledge of Virginia Woolf.
His particular target is the meal cooked by Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, a tremendous pot of boeuf en daube. Just one ladleful of the stuff is enough to turn awkward company into human beings, joined in “tender communion’. Mrs Ramsay is delighted at the success of this French recipe and swoons over the lovely “confusion of savoury yellow and brown meats.”
Hang on, say Schama. What are these yellow meats in a boeuf en daube? “A chicken foot lurking in there along with the beef and onions, is there?”
And it gets worse. Mrs Ramsay had been extremely worried by the timing. “Everything,” writes Woolf, “depended on being served up to the precise moment they were ready.” Hang on again, says Schama. You can’t ruin a daube by the timing. “Stews are the most forgiving dishes.”
Mrs Woolf doesn’t know what she’s talking about in the culinary department, he concludes. She was, after all, rather “bony”.
I am afraid that it is the far from bony Prof Schama who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Conversation at high-table at Newnham, where Woolf once had a memorably awful lunch (described in A Room of One's Own) exposed his mistakes. The Senior Tutor, whose specialist subjects include the novels of V Woolf, cordon bleu cookery and psychology, instantly spotted that Schama hadn’t been reading his Mastering the Art of French Cooking carefully enough.
That classic cook book (by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child) details exactly the recipe that Mrs Ramsay must have cooked (p.333 in the edition I’ve been using). It’s a well-known but particularly luxurious pot au feu, which “always makes a great hit with guests”. It looks “for all the world like a plain pot au feu”. But actually it includes not only beef, but pork, sausages and even a whole chicken. So, yes, a chicken foot was lurking there among the beef and onions.
And the timing’s a very tricky thing too. With all those different meats, you have to be careful that they each get the cooking time they need. In fact Mastering the Art suggests that you tie a string onto each piece of meat so you can pull them out separately to see how they’re doing. This stew is not a “forgiving dish” at all.
So full marks to the bony Mrs Woolf. And nuls points, for once, to Prof Schama.