Peasoupers

Food

"In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London." Thus begins The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, though it could be any of the Sherlock Holmes stories. November is the quintessential month in Conan Doyle, masking London and its criminals in a "greasy, heavy brown swirl". Darkness protects the wicked and heightens our sense of fear. How glad we are of Watson and Holmes smoking their pipes in the cosy warmth of 221B Baker Street! How comforting, too, to contemplate Holmes's honest English diet, which only really comes into its own in the winter months.

Holmes is no glutton. Watson tells us "his diet was usually of the sparest". His nervous frame is powered instead by coffee, tobacco and cocaine, the hunger keeping his brain keen. The erratic hours Holmes keeps disrupt mealtimes, and he often snacks on biscuits and cold meats. While hiding out on the moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he survives on rations of tinned tongue and peaches. In the thick of another case, "he cut a slice of beef from the joint on the sideboard, sandwiched it between two rounds of bread, and thrusting this rude meal into his pocket, he started off upon his expedition". This manly, rudimentary sandwich is awesomely unlike the indulgent constructions of Pret a Manger.

But when Holmes has more time to spare, he displays fine high Victorian taste. Having solved the Case of the Noble Bachelor, he lays on an "epicurean" supper of "a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pate de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles". In The Sign of Four he graciously offers dinner to the detective Athelney Jones: "I have oysters, and a brace of grouse, with something a little choice in white wine." When the sideboard is less groaning, and a case is wrapped up, Holmes and Watson dine at Simpson's. Ravenous with hunger, Holmes repairs there for "something nutritious" (capon pudding? stewed partridges?) after starving himself for three days in The Dying Detective.

The most comforting and Novembery of all Baker Street meals is surely breakfast, often taken after a night of hard detecting and no sleep. Holmes and Watson settle with the newspapers and a crackling fire in front of a "well-polished, silver-plated coffeepot". Their basic fodder is toast and eggs, but Mrs Hudson sometimes lays on more elaborate fare under covered dishes - kidneys, say, or kedgeree. In The Naval Treaty, a story about a crucial document being stolen, she brings in "three covers", one containing ham and eggs and the second containing curried chicken. The third cover is lifted to reveal the missing naval treaty, to the shrieking amazement of a Mr Percy Phelps. Holmes comments that "Mrs Hudson has risen to the occasion . . . Her cuisine is a little limited, but she has as good an idea of breakfast as a Scotchwoman."

Curried Breakfast Chicken
Tell Mrs Hudson to chop eight skinned, boned chicken thighs into bite-sizes. She will then heat some oil in a wide skillet and add a chopped onion and a spoonful of curry mix (hand pounded from cardamom, turmeric, coriander, dried chilli, cumin, fenugreek and mustard seeds). When the spices are fragrant, she will add the chicken, a little chopped ginger and half a chicken stock cube. Then she will pour in a mixture of water, buttermilk and coconut cream, season and simmer for 20 minutes. As you sweep the cover from the dish, you may detect a light sprinkling of parsley.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians