If you think Virginia Woolf’s novels are good, you should try her bread

A review of Jan Ondaatje Rolls’ ‘The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art’. How to make Dora Carrington’s nectar of cowslip wine, Vanessa Bells’s scones or William Cobbett’s loaf

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art Jan Ondaatje Rolls

Bloomsbury, pp.384, £24.95, ISBN: 9780500517307

I have to declare an interest: as a scion of the Bloomsbury Group, I was naturally brought up on their cooking. During the course of her research for this book I met, got to know and became friends with Jan Ondaatje Rolls. She has certainly chosen a novel way to portray that well-known group of friends about whom so much has been written that it’s hard to imagine there could be anything more to unearth. Hers is a sprightly approach. By defining them through their dinners, she makes us see the Bloomsberries from another, more domestic, more gleeful point of view: the kaleidoscope is twisted again.

This is not a cookbook tout court, for although it includes workable recipes, some of which are extremely good, ranging from ‘Mrs Dalloway’s Dinner’ to ‘Vanessa Bell’s Loving Cup’, it also contains some of only historic interest: Dora Carrington’s nectar of cowslip wine; William Cobbett’s loaf. It is more of a social history, witty and erudite, of the Bloomsbury Group seen through the window of their cookery and eating habits. And it may come as a surprise for some to learn what gourmets this gang of intellectuals could be: ‘A good dinner is of great importance to good talk,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own. ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’

Ondaatje Rolls presents the recipes chronologically, which not only makes sense but shows us the dramatic social and domestic changes that occurred between the two world wars. As time progressed, there were fewer servants but more machinery — refrigerators and pop-up toasters — and improved plumbing.

She gives a recipe from a contemporary source for ‘Thoby Stephen’s Monolithic Birthday Cake’. At Cambridge, Thoby had formed a close friendship with Leonard Woolf, who declared that not only Thoby but all Stephens were monoliths. (He might well have included himself, for by the time I knew him, Leonard was decidedly monolithic, although formed from a different rock.) The cake is delicious.

Both Virginia and her sister Vanessa were keen bread-makers and swapped recipes. If you make Vanessa’s scones, Bloomsbury raspberry jam and Jan’s own recipe for homemade butter, using the buttermilk to mix the scones with, you will end up with a truly scrumptious tea.

Not all Bloomsberries were good cooks. The Stracheys were firm believers in the virtues of rice pudding, requiring it at least once a day which, as Frances Partridge remarked, gave the meals ‘a faint flavour of the nursery’. They also had an unaccountable predilection for Spam. When they still lived at Lancaster Gate, all 12 of them, including Sir Richard and Lady Strachey, would read voraciously at table. Ondaatje Rolls has given them a diet of Racine, Plato and Gibbon. I would add a liberal helping of Elizabethan dramatists and a seasoning of Tristram Shandy to taste.

The first world war found most of the Bloomsberries living in various parts of the country. Duncan Grant, David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, and Vanessa Bell and her two sons lived first at Wissett in Suffolk and then at Charleston in East Sussex. By 1917 Lytton Strachey and Carrington had set up house at Tidmarsh Mill in Berkshire and later moved to Ham Spray in Wiltshire. After Carrington had gone to London for a few days, Lytton wrote: ‘I’ve just picked some peas. The beans frighten me.’ The cook proved incapable of killing a chicken for dinner. Lytton thought that, short of shooting it, it would be easier to make it tipsy.

Naturally life in the country changed their diet. The ballerina Lydia Lopokova’s recipe for sorrel soup begins: ‘There is an amiable grass called sorrel with an acid taste to it, that springs everywhere in Russian fields.’ I wish I had been at Peppard, the cottage near Henley-on-Thames that Philip and Ottoline Morrell took, when Augustus John’s sons, on being asked what they ate at home, replied ‘BONES’. Here we are given a recipe for Peppard Bones, which is a perfectly good, if plain, soup.

Again, I would have enjoyed hearing the following interchange at Ham Spray, when Carrington produced a dish of spring onions:

Julia Strachey: ‘What are those little long things some people have got?’
Carrington: ‘Those mean they are male dear. Ask Tommy [the sculptor, Stephen Tomlin, Julia’s first husband] if he’ll lend you his.’
Julia: ‘Oh no, not unless I’m offered.’

At Charleston, Bunny Garnett kept bees — and had what he called ‘bee mania’ all his life. He was an excellent gardener and when he bought Hilton Hall near Huntingdon in the 1920s he maintained a large kitchen garden where he grew asparagus, artichokes, mange-touts, melons, salsify, Swiss chard and a wide variety of fruit in the orchards. He told me that the thing he was proudest of doing during the second world war was preventing the bombing of the Vilmorin seed garden outside Paris, which would have resulted in severe food shortages.

Both he and Clive Bell were good shots, and there was always plentiful game at Charleston and Hilton in season. Occasionally this led to episodes which the Marx Brothers could have exploited had they made an Oscar-winning film, The Body Snatchers.Vanessa and Duncan would appropriate the birds and hang them on a nail, keen to paint natures mortes. Clive, while sympathetic to the painters, was anxious lest the game got too high in the heat of the studio. On one occasion, Grace, the cook, knocked on the studio door, distraught: ‘Mrs Bell! Mr Grant! I need these birds here and now. Mr Bell wants them for dinner before the maggots get them and I must get them plucked and all.’ She cooked them very well, with fried breadcrumbs, watercress from the dewpond in the adjacent field and crisp potatoes. Clive uncorked the claret. There is a remarkable painting by Vanessa, reproduced in this book, of a brace of pheasants, definitely dead, but appearing to try to have a post-mortem beakful of wine while hanging by their tail feathers.

The Bloomsbury Cookbook is lavishly illustrated with works by the Bloomsberries themselves. My main reservation is the choice of type, which is unnecessarily distracting. Jans Ondaatje Rolls has clearly inherited her father, Sir Christopher Ondaatje’s, philanthropy. She has donated all the proceeds of this fascinating book to the Charleston Trust.

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  • Aloysius

    If I don’t particularly like her novels, will her bread be of a similar flavour?