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

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.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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