Culinary Memories and Inspirations: The Bloomsbury Cookbook

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Each and everyone of us needs food to survive although some of us take the appreciation of this necessity to a level far beyond mere sustenance. For all their high brow intellect and unconventional lifestyles the Bloomsbury group were as fond of food and eating as many of us are today.

Their love of food is explored by Canadian born author Jans Ondaatje Rolls in The Bloomsbury Cookbook. Ondaatje Rolls, who lives in Sussex with her husband and four children, was originally inspired to write the book eight years ago following a visit to Charleston farmhouse near Lewes (home to artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant). As she delved into the group’s colourful past she was struck by how intensely interested they all were in food. Food featured in their literature (like the beef en daube in To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf), their correspondence, their art and eventually led them into the kitchen themselves.

Each section contains a collection of recipes that reflects the culinary memories and inspirations of the Bloomsbury group at that time.
The book is split into seven sections detailing different stages of the Bloomsbury group. It begins with Before Bloomsbury when Virginia and Vanessa were still the ‘Stephens sisters’  with a shared passion for baking bread. It moves onto the rip roaring 20s with An Appetite for Bloomsbury where their lust for entertaining comes to the fore and concludes with Bloomsbury’s Offspring which includes recipes from their grandchildren such as Henrietta Garnett (granddaughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and daughter of David Garnett who had previously been the lover of her grandfather). Each section contains a collection of recipes that reflects the culinary memories and inspirations of the Bloomsbury group at that time. These have been painstakingly collated by Ondaatje Rolls by sifting through notebooks, letters and diaries. Many of these come from their servants such as Grace Higgins dubbed ‘the angel of Charleston’. Where no recipe could be found she has used one from a food writer of the period such as Florence White or the eponymous Mrs Beeton.
But most are very traditional British recipes like jam roly-poly (almost surprisingly so given the groups bed hopping activities) although they become a bit more adventurous as the group travelled with recipes like vegetarian paella making an appearance.

So is The Bloomsbury Cookbook just another recipe book? Well the answer is yes and no. Although she has tested many of the recipes herself, Ondaatje Rolls recommends that they should be tried out before preparing them for guests. Some like Lydia Lopokova’s (former Russian ballerina and wife to John Maynard Keynes) Black Grouse seem slightly ludicrous and perhaps a little lethal (this recipes involves burying the game birds for two weeks prior cooking them). But most are very traditional British recipes like jam roly-poly (almost surprisingly so given the groups bed hopping activities) although they become a bit more adventurous as the group travelled with recipes like vegetarian paella making an appearance.

Where The Bloomsbury Cookbook differs from most regular recipe books is the preface given to each recipe explaining where the inspiration came from. This provides a fascinating insight into the characters that formed the Bloomsbury group making them less aloof than their intellect and talent dictates. This is a recipe book you can legitimately read in bed without feeling like some cooking obsessed nutter. Although there are no images of the recipes themselves there are pictures of their distinctive paintings including those by Grant, Bell and Dora Carrington. As a social history artefact it charts the blossoming of the Bloomsbury group from their bourgeois roots and all the trappings that included such as relative wealth and servants to their scandalous relationships and the impact it had on their lives. Ondaatje Rolls has reproduced the recipes (interspersed with a few of her own) as she found them. This means that some of the instructions are scant by today’s standards and the measurements are imperial rather than metric. Although this can be a bit frustrating to the home cook it is possible with a bit of effort and the aid of the conversion chart at the back of the book to reproduce some of the dishes these people enjoyed. You can see the results of my own Bloomsbury inspired dinner menu over on my blog Comfortably Hungry.

If you are a fan of Virginia Woolf and her cohorts you’ll like this book for it’s anecdotal history of Bloomsbury. If cooking is your thing you’ll love it all the more. Plus Ondaatje Rolls is also donating all profits from this book to the Charleston Trust to help preserve the history of this distinct group of artists and writers for future generations.

The Bloomsbury Cookbook (Thames & Hudson, £24.99)

 

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