Cold Comfort Comfits: The Convenient Marriage, Part I

There has been a cold snap – sudden, ruthless and seemingly endless – which has made me completely hungry for rich, slow cooked meals, Yorkshire puddings and all things warming and English.
For comfort reading, to correlate with comfort eating (you can’t have one without the other darling) I turn to the inimitable Heyer.

Georgette Heyer – like no one else on this planet – captures all that is good, starchy and perfectly English in this world, and serves it up with a little zing like the perfect steak and kidney pudding. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.)

To get me through this most recent of frosty mornings – I have been re-reading The Convenient Marriage. (TCM)

I personally prefer the old-school 70s covers to the newer reprints – some of them are ATROCIOUS – but at least they were supposed to be the actual characters from stories. This mamby-pampy trend of picking bits of old painting to chuck on the cover? Laazy — that’s what it is – and down-right boring!

*steps off soapbox*

Horry and Lord Rule are two of my most favourite heroines/heroes, and if the secondary characters are a little paper mache and the plot is a little over-used – well I simply don’t care. The spoonful of sugar that is Horry & Rule – makes the medicine go down a treat…Ah Mary Poppins….Had to get you in there somewhere…. 🙂

The Convenient Marriage was one of Heyer’s more Georgian than Regency novels; I’m not exactly sure of the barometer by which The Great Book People date this, but for myself, any mention of clocked stockings, taking off wigs to fight duels, powder, patches and pet monkeys? That lands me square in the I-am-still-masculine-despite-my-mincing-high-heels-Georgian Arena.

One of my favourite things about Heyer-Georgian, as opposed to now-a-days Georgian, is that Heyer was able to make the heroes seem completely hot – even in that nutso get-up (Duke of Avon – case in point)
Of the rare Georgian Novel I’ve read that has been published more recently,(I’m a little fussy and they are MOST ORDINAIRE) the heroes tend to trend more towards the I’m-hot-because-I-don’t-powder-my-wig-or-squeeze-myself-into-a-flowered-waistcoat…) And I personally feel that it lacks a certain bravery on the author’s part. It’s not difficult to make a scorching hero if he runs around in tight buckskin breeches and rips off his shirt at the slightest noise; however to make him sexy because of what he wears, even if it seems slightly ridiculous? Dang that is good writing.

We first meet The Earl in his house, talking about his boots:

‘Very well, sir.’ Mr Gisborne laid the papers down, and said tentatively: ‘You won’t have forgotten that there is a Debate in the House today which you will like to take part in?’
His Lordship’s attention had wandered; he was scrutinizing his own top-boot (for he was dressed for riding) through a long-handled quizzing-glass, but he said in a mildly surprised voice: ‘Which I shall what, Arnold?’
‘I made sure you would attend it, my lord,’ said Mr Gisborne defensively.
‘I am afraid you were in your cups, my dear fellow. Now tell me do my eyes deceive me, or is there a suggestion – the merest hint – of a – really, I fear I must call it a bagginess -about the ankle?’…
Mr Gisborne glanced perfunctorily down at his lordship’s shining boot.’I don’t observe it, sir.’
‘Come, come, Arnold!’ the Earl said gently. ‘Give me your attention. I beg of you!.’

Mr Gisborne met the quizzical gleam in my lord’s eyes, and grinned in spite of himself. ‘Sir, I believe you should go. It is of some moment. In the Lower House—’

‘I felt uneasy at the time,’ mused the Earl, still contemplating his legs. ‘I shall have to change my bootmaker again.’ He let his glass fall on the end of its long riband, and turned to arrange his cravat in the mirror.

He then goes on to pick out his outfit for a visit to Lady Winwood:

‘Ah! Remind me, Arnold, that I am to wait on Lady Winwood at three. It is really quite important.’
Mr Gisborne stared.’Yes, sir?
‘Yes quite important. I think the new habit, the coat dos de puce-or is that a thought sombre for the errand? I believe the blue velvet will be more fitting. And the perruque a bourse? You prefer the Catogan wig, perhaps, but you are wrong, my dear boy, I am convinced you are wrong. The arrangement of curls in the front gives an impression of heaviness. I feel sure you would not wish me to be heavy.’ He gave one of the lace ruffles that fell over his hand a flick. ‘Oh, I have not told you, have I? You must know that I am contemplating matrimony, Arnold.’

All the while seeming – not just interesting – but also humorous, sarcastic and slightly mocking – but in the best possible way. I would totally invite him to dinner – flowered waistcoat and everything.

Rule, (along with Avon) go in my top 10 favourite Heyer-Heroes.

If you haven’t read The Convenient Marriage – you really should. Not only is it delightful and light, its also sweet – like the book equivalent of a turkish delight rolled in icing sugar – all rosewater and air. You can devour at least three in a row before you feel even slightly queasy. It has the added benefit of a most adorable heroine; and one of the few occasions I’ve read a stutter in a book that hasn’t made me want to screech with frustration and skim through the prose.

But I have sequed (although the Turkish Delight reference does provide a junction with which to bring me back to the point of the post): Cold Comfort Comfits… a slight Truth-Stretch – because there aren’t really any comfits per sae in TCM – BUT alliteration darling – its everything…

(As McGonagall well knows)

So this post is the result of a combination of things:

  • I was cold, hungry and (like Madame Hubbard): my cupboards, she were bare
  • I was re-reading A Convenient Marriage
  • And feeling a little stressed this week, I have resorted to counting to bring back the calm…

(Judge not, least you be judged…)

So I am providing the following RANDOM FOOD FACTS for those of you that like a little history and civilisation with dinner…

That’s right people.

These are things you’ll probably only care about if:
a) You love all things Heyer
b) You like all things food
c) You like random and possibly pointless numerically wrapped factoids.

TCM contains 21 references to individual types of food/drink (non-repetitive: which just means I didn’t count it if it was referred to more than once.)

Of that 10 are drinks (with or without foods)

These include:
• Pg 44 Ratafia
• Pg 61 Syllabub
• Pg 68 Hot Negus & Sweet Biscuit
• Pg 71 Cup of Chocolate
• Pg 73 Tankard & Sirloin • Pg 82 Coffee
• Pg 108 Eggs & Cream
• Pg 161 Turkey Poults & Buttered Crab
• Pg 162 Artichokes
• Pg 184 Claret
• Pg 193 Tea
• Pg 195 Wine
• Pg 206 Cognac
• Pg 258 Chocolate & Sweet Biscuits
• Pg 288 Picnic
• Pg 293 Cold Supper
• Pg 362 Duck & Mutton, Crayfish & Quince
• Pg 410 Mutton & Mushrooms
• Pg 448 Duck
• Pg 451 Pupton of Cherries
• Pg 464 Maderia

Page Numbers are from the 2009 Edition by Sourcebooks Casablanca (epub edition)

And this post focuses on the first:

Ratafia

‘The butler brought the ratafia himself, and set the heavy silver tray down on a table. He was dismissed with a nod, and went regretfully. He would have liked to see with his own eyes my lord drink a glass of ratafia. The Earl poured two glasses, and gave one to Horatia. ‘The bargain!’ he said, and drank heroically.

Most of Heyer’s novels despise Ratafia as a pansy-wimpy-female drink, with men heroically downing it whilst wishing it was something stronger, or ordering it for fainting females whose nerves need reanimating after a shock (like elopement, kidnapping or runaway phaetons…)

Ratafia is actually a term used for two types of sweet alcoholic beverage, either a fortified wine or a fruit-based beverage. The latter type is a liqueur or cordial flavoured with lemon peel, herbs in various amounts (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, mint, rosemary, anise, etc.) typically combined with sugar. It may also be prepared with peach or cherry kernels, bitter almonds, or other fruits, as many different varieties are made.

There were some issues with Ratafia, around this time, as cherry kernels and bitter almonds both contain cyanogenic glucoside, called amygdalin, which is toxic, however wikipedia (bless) suggest using less toxic flavourings such as in-season fruit, vegetable and herbs.

There is also the story that the original inventor (taking the name from the phrase in Catholic wedding ceremonies to announce official ratification of the marriage – Rata Fiat), named it so after the strong liquor enabled the local population of Andorno, Italy to overcome a plague around 1000 AD. His son survived the plague and was able to celebrate his wedding. The Italian dialect of Andorno shortened the name from Rata Fiat to simply Ratafia.

Is this true? I don’t know – but tres romantique non?

I found a recipe for making ratafia, and it actually reads more like a Sangria and although I doubt this is what the Earl or Horry were drinking (I would’ve thought theirs was the more fortified wine type) but I couldn’t resist putting it in.

Ratafia Wine

A bottle of red or white wine, 1/4 cup vodka (to prevent fermentation), 1 cup cut-up fruits, vegetables, or herbs, 1/4 cup sugar. Combine all ingredients in a large jar and refrigerate 3 to 4 weeks; strain into a clean wine bottle and cork or cap tightly. Keep refrigerated.

Kristin Smagula found the following recipe for Ratafia in Robert’s Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff, published in 1828.

Into one quart of brandy pour half a pint of cherry juice, as much currant juice, as much of raspberry juice, add a few cloves, and some white pepper in grains, two grains of green coriander, and a stick or two of cinnamon, then pound the stones of cherries, and put them in wood and all.

Add about twenty five or thirty kernels of apricots. Stop your demijohn close and let it infuse for one month in the shade, shaking it five or six times in that time at the end of which strain it through a flannel bag, then through a filtering paper, and then bottle it and cork close for use; you can make any quantity you chose, only by adding or increasing more brandy or other ingredients.

Also, because I was hungry:

Ratafia Biscuits

These light biscuits are made with almond essence, very similar to the Italian amaretti biscuit but usually smaller and a little darker in colour. They were an easy, popular cookie that used whipped egg whites for leavening and that baked up very light

In the 18th century ratafia biscuits were closely related to macaroons. Today the subtle distinction between them has become blurred: what was then known as a ratafia would now be considered a macaroon; whereas what was then called a macaroon does not have a modern parallel. Both are light, fragile biscuits made of almonds, egg whites, and sugar—but ratafias were flavored with bitter almonds; macaroons were not. Since the Georgian/Regency period predated scheduled afternoon tea, these biscuits were often served during the dessert course of a dinner to offset other sweets. The Georgian favorite, Syllabub, was commonly accompanied by Ratafia Cakes or Macaroons and the recipe maven of the 18th C., Hannah Glasse, suggests that they be used in place of cake in Trifle. They can be used in trifles, crumbled into puddings or served after dinner with coffee. Miss Beeton actually refers to them in her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, in a recipe for Trifle.

Ratafia Cakes (Martha Lloyd’s Household Book)

Take 8 fl oz: apricot kernels, if they cannot be had bitter Almonds will do as well, blanch them & beat them very fine with a little Orange flower water, mix them with the whites of three eggs well beaten & sifted, work all together and it will be like a paste, then lay it in little round bits on tin plates flour’d, set them in an oven that is not very hot & they will puff up & be soon baked.

Or for a version you could actually make without breaking out your Ye Olde Englishe Dictionary:

Ratafia Cakes

  • 340g (12oz)/ 1 ½ Cup Caster (fine or powdered) Sugar
  • 225g (8oz)/ 1 Cup Sweet Almonds
  • 110g (4oz)/ ½ Cup Bitter Ones
  • 1 teaspoon orange-flower water or orange liqueur
  • 4 Egg Whites

Blanch, skin and dry the almonds and pound them in a mortar with one egg white. Stir in the sugar and gradually add the remaining stiffly whisked egg whites. Pipe the mixture using a small biscuit syringe [piping bag] on to cartridge paper. Bake the cakes for 10 to 12 minutes in rather a quicker oven than for macaroons. A very small quantity should be dropped on the paper to form one cake, as, when baked, the ratafias should be about the size of a large button. Time: 10 to 12 minutes.

So there you go…

Ratafia in all its glory – has it convinced you to try it at all?

I know at the very least – I’ll be making Ratafia Biscuits…and having them with lashings of hot sweet tea in vintage tea cups.

 

(gratuitous tea gif… :))

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