Reporting on last week’s lecture by Dr Annie Gray to the Waikato Decorative and Fine Arts Society in Hamilton is daunting – especially since Annie tells me she’s likely to read this post, which is an insubstantial recollection of a lecture so rich in highlights.
Annie – a UK food historian, consultant to stately homes and television personality – took us back to the Baroque period to experience the lifestyle of those who lived at that time. Explicit about the term “lifestyle”, she told us that poor people have a “life” and only the seriously rich have a “lifestyle”. Her lecture was on “how to get by if you are very rich indeed – preferably as someone with family money”. Taking the leap of imagination to picture myself as a seventeenth century somebody was hugely appealing.
First of all, we went on the real estate tour, with an examination of the merits and limitations of various stately homes. Baroque was the beginning of consumer culture, Annie told us – the period when Hampton Court Palace was built and when Versailles was “the ultimate model”. Baroque architectural style featured a “preponderance of angels” – somewhat at odds with my usual preference for minimalism, but oh! I could see myself as the lady of the house living in such magnificence. I was intrigued by the notion that the English had to create their own version of French style, to reflect Protestantism rather than Catholicism. Looks like the angels squeaked in, regardless.
Then there was Blenheim, where landscaper Capability Brown flooded over 40 rooms to make the lake.
As if the title of palace was insufficient, the Howard family named their home Castle Howard. According to my mother, we are (rather distantly!) related to the Howards, an infinitesimal claim to roots that go back to Castle Howard that fitted rather too comfortably.
The lady of the house evidently had serious responsibilities. In a period that predated feminism by several centuries she was the property manager, the HR manager and had the taxing job of finding the perfect mate from the right estate for her beautiful daughter and who would not demand too much in the way of a dowry. I wonder what her husband spent his time doing?
As the lady of the house, my outfit would have had stays that fastened down the back of the bodice. Poor women’s stays fastened down the front – as they did not have a maid to help dress them. Annie dresses up in costumes of this period and assures us that they are quite comfortable – the perfect way to have a fashionable nipped in waistline.
Then there was the food (not at all conducive to nipped in waistlines) – hare pie, complete with the head of the hare, and luxurious piles of fruits in syrup. Now, instead of having just a knife with which to stab their food, the rich also had a fork, which made the serving of syrupy dishes so much less messy.
Working as a researcher and consultant, Annie helps those with historic sites maximise the potential of kitchens and dining areas. Over drinks the night after her lecture, Annie regaled me with relative ease with which she could skin a calf’s head as opposed to a boar’s head. She is one hands-on consultant! For those visiting the UK during 2013, there is a list of Annie’s lectures on her website (though some may not be open to the general public?). Attending one of Annie’s lectures could well be one of the most entertaining, informative, and very English experiences you could have during your visit.
The image above is from the internet. The picture is of Annie in costume we taken when she visited Kenilworth to train members of the tearoom catering team on techniques and recipes that would have been cooked at the castle at the time of Robert Dudley.