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A feast of eccentric detail: Felicity Cloake on what the Bloomsbury set ate

From Virginia Woolf's boeuf en daube to Bunny Garnett’s “orgy of squid”, the glorious new Bloomsbury Cookbook fleshes out the Group’s relationship with food.

Literary luncheons: The Kitchen by Vanessa Bell, c. 1943
Literary luncheons: The Kitchen by Vanessa Bell, c. 1943

In the grand tradition of pretentious youth, I was once madly in love with Virginia Woolf – a passion that manifested itself chiefly in ostentatious reading of To the Lighthouse. Yet what do I retain of that heady affair, 15 years on? Little but a pungent memory of Marthe’s boeuf en daube – that “confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, its bay leaf and its wine”.

For a suspected anorexic, she could write a good meal; as E M Forster observed, “when Virginia Woolf mentions nice things they get right in our mouths, so far as the edibility of print permits”. That “enlightened greediness” belies a complicated relationship with food – her devoted husband, Leonard, wrote of the “terrible process” of getting her to eat – and yet it is a motif. Even her feminist manifesto, A Room of One’s Own, rails against the depressing catering at Cambridge’s women’s colleges, concluding famously, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”

Every single such reference has been lovingly catalogued in Jans Ondaatje Rolls’s glorious new Bloomsbury Cookbook (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), which uses the Group’s correspondence, diaries and art to flesh out their relationship with food. Here, amid recipes spanning nearly 90 years, from the Beeton-esque nursery food on which Woolf and her friends were weaned to a 1977 recipe for an “orgy of squid” from one of the last survivors, the writer David “Bunny” Garnett, there’s a feast of eccentric detail. I’m not sure I’ll be making Helen Anrep’s fish with bananas, but I am tempted by the promise that her post-impressionist orange cake will both “appeal to the eyes and arouse the taste buds”.

Though their earnest, rather intense reputation earned them the excellent sobriquet “the Gloomsbury Group” with Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West, it seems they took their meals as seriously as their art. This comes as little surprise, given that, in the words of Ondaatje Rolls, “Conversation was fundamental to their way of life, [and] what better forum for exchanging and developing ideas than the dining table?”

Naturally, the dinners for all those parties didn’t cook themselves – and as the woeful description of the daube suggests, Woolf and her circle were no more involved in their preparation than was Mrs Ramsay. Clive Bell, Woolf’s brother-in-law, saw no problem with the idea that “civilisation requires the existence . . . of slaves – of people who give some part of their surplus time and energy to the support of others”. Woolf had a vexed relationship with domestic help, writing to her sister, “I am sick of the timid, spiteful servant mind.”

But she was pathetically reliant on that mind and muscle; an attempt to learn to fend for herself after her first breakdown resulted in her distinguishing herself only “by cooking my wedding ring into a suet pudding”. That said, her last cook, Louie Mayer, was surprised by her mistress’s talent for breadmaking. But as Mayer’s predecessor Nellie Boxall noted waspishly, “She used every dish in the place and left all the washing-up.”

Such delicious details bring these characters to life – I relished the tale of the frugal economist John Maynard Keynes purchasing a crate of discount tinned meat so rancid that “the bargain-hunter himself could barely keep it down”, and the discovery that Lytton Strachey insisted on eating rice pudding every day.

And surely the arrangements at the painter Augustus John’s Dorset commune, where “salads were prepared and served with fantastic rituals, the leaves being finally tossed with her bare hands by the senior virgin present”, must have made even bohemian eyebrows rise. If you, too, fancy a bit of fantastic ritual for lunch, rest assured – the recipe is included in the book.