Please, help yourself to a square of the moist, golden cornbread punctuated with juicy blueberries that I just cut. It's light and substantial at the same time, lightly sweetened and rich in flavor. After partaking of this sunny bread, follow me as I introduce you to a beloved author and one of his novels.
Years ago, during one of my usual bookstore browsing adventures, I picked up a slim volume: The Warden (1855) by Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). It was the first book I read by the famous novelist from the Victorian era and the beginning of a passion that, in the years that followed, brought me to read the majority of his output. I am, in short, a big fan of Trollope. And thanks to a number of superb movie adaptations of his novels, I turned my husband into one as well. We recently watched The Barchester Chronicles, the BBC's adaptation of "The Warden" and of its sequel, Barchester Towers: if you are into period drama, I recommend the movie, which presents the characters and the story faithfully, memorably and enjoyably. (Trollope wrote four additional novels and the six-novel series is known as the Barset Novels.)
After watching the movie, I read "The Warden" again. The protagonist, Rev. Septimus Harding is precentor of Barchester Cathedral and warden of Hiram's Hospital, a charitable retirement house for 12 old men. He is a gentle man, who finds himself at the center of legal action brought against him by a young reformer. While the novel also has a love story as part of the plot (the reformer is in love with the Warden's youngest daughter), the focus is on Rev. Harding's ordeal and his decision to renounce his office at Hiram's Hospital, which was granted to him by the bishop (and the income of 800 pounds a year he derives from it).
In his struggle to clear up his position, he clashes with the family Titan, Archdeacon Grantly, who is his son-in-law, the bishop's son and the rector of Plumstead Episcopi. In chapter 8, we get a glimpse of the rectory and its inner dynamics. For this post, I will focus on the table and the food:
And now let us observe the well furnished breakfast parlour at Plumstead Episcopi... The breakfast-service on the table was equally costly and equally plain; the apparent object had been to spend money without obtaining brilliancy or splendour. The urn was of thick and solid silver, as were also the tea-pot, coffee-pot, cream-ewer, and sugar-bowl; the cups were old, dim dragon china, worth about a pound a piece, but very despicable in the eyes of the uninitiated. The silver forks were so heavy as to be disagreeable to the hand, and the bread-basket was of a weight really formidable to any but robust persons. The tea consumed was the very best, the coffee the very blackest, the cream the very thickest; there was dry toast and buttered toast, muffins and crumpets; hot bread and cold bread, white bread and brown bread, home-made bread and bakers' bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread, and if there be other breads than these, they were there; there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish; which, by the bye, were placed closely contiguous to the plate of the worthy archdeacon himself. Over and above this, on a snow-white napkin, spread upon the sideboard, was a huge ham and a huge sirloin; the latter having laden the dinner table on the previous evening. Such was the ordinary fare at Plumstead Episcopi.
And yet, I have never found the rectory a pleasant house. The fact that man shall not live by bread alone seemed to be somewhat forgotten.
The excerpt is a prime example of Trollope's delightful style. One characteristic of his writing that I particularly appreciate is his insightful treatment of women and of gentle souls, like the Rev. Harding.
If you are interested in learning a bit more about the novel's characters, this website has short introductions. The one dedicated to Septimus Harding includes a nice comment by Horace Walpole: "He is Trollope's grandest gentleman." And here's the page dedicated to Dr. Grantly described by Trollope as "a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth."
A final note: Rev. Harding plays the cello, and when he finds himself in a stressful situation, he plays an imaginary one to calm himself. On the subject of the Warden as a cello player, I found this interesting commentary by Steven Isserlis, my favorite cellist.
As I was reading the passage reported above, I decided to make something for Dr Grantly's breakfast table, something that is not specifically listed, and I thought about a quick bread I had made often a few years ago, then set aside, for no special reason. It is a variation on the beloved theme of cornbread that uses blueberries to great advantage. The recipe works well with either fresh or frozen blueberries. (Once again, blueberry season is upon us and I still have some frozen blueberries from our U-pick expedition to a local farm last year.) And it works well when using buttermilk (latticello), as in the original version, or a combination of homemade kefir and yogurt, which is what I used in my adaptation. The original recipe was published in Shape Cooks, a short-lived magazine that ceased to be published some 13 ago. In my rendition, I use cornmeal and whole-wheat flour (farina integrale) from my grain CSA.
- 1 cup (130 g) yellow [stone-ground] cornmeal
- 1/2 cup (65 g) whole-wheat flour
- 1/2 cup (65 g) all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) baking power
- a pinch of salt
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml) agave nectar or honey
- 1/2 cup plain [homemade] yogurt + 1/2 cup [homemade] kefir OR 1 cup buttermilk (235 ml)
- 1/2 tablespoon (7 g) browned butter (or regular unsalted butter), melted
- 1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (not thawed)
Preheat oven to 425 F. Line an 8-inch (20 cm) square pan with parchment paper and oil or butter the sides not covered by the paper. Combine all the dry ingredients (1-6) into a bowl. In another bowl, combine egg, agave nectar, yogurt and kefir, then gradually pour into the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Incorporate the butter, then gently fold in the blueberries.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the cornbread passes the toothpick test. Check the bread first after 18 minutes and, if it needs more time in the oven, keep a close watch as it is easy to overbake the cornbread.
Remove cornbread from the pan and place on a rack. The cornbread is very nice eaten warm. For a berry-rich breakfast, serve also a strawberry lassi. (No need to use fine china or silverware.) I particularly enjoyed it as an accompaniment to fresh cheese like my homemade kefir cheese.
I suspect that the kitchen at Plumstead Episcopi did not look as chaotic as mine during the preparation of breakfast (colazione). I must admit I am careless with bowls and tools when I cook. I justify myself with the need to be unfettered by material constraints during the creative act.
Nota per i lettori italiani. Il romanzo di Anthony Trollope che descrivo in questo post è stato tradotto e pubblicato da Sellerio con il titolo L'amministratore. Sellerio ha anche pubblicato non solo gli altri cinque romanzi del ciclo del Barsetshire, ma anche altri romanzi di Trollope, tra i quali uno molto moderno nel tema intitolato La vita oggi.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
The photo above — shot in color and then converted to black and white — is my contribution to edition #39 of Black and White Wednesday - A Culinary Photography Event created by Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook and hosted this week by the creator herself.
This post contains the gallery of images submitted to the event.
This post has the list of contributions to the event.
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