Anyone for delicious little frivolities with an aristocratic pedigree?
The peculiarly English habit of serving something savory as the final course in a meal — the place usually occupied by cheese — was still in fashion in the grander country houses of England until about half a century ago, when it dropped out of favor in domestic kitchens, although the custom didn’t entirely vanish in London’s gentlemen’s clubs and at formal civic occasions.
Savory bites originally intended to show off host’s good fortune
The savory — for those who’ve never been confronted by this small and salty bite on toast immediately after dessert — is a Victorian introduction to the British menu designed to show off the servants and the silver with as many courses as possible in the high old days of empire. Classics of the genre were roasted marrow bones; deviled herring roes; sweetbreads; chicken livers; smoked fish; salted anchovies pounded with butter; and prunes or oysters wrapped in bacon and flashed under the grill (devils and angels on horseback, respectively).
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Savories, simple to prepare and good with the gentlemen’s port, suited the style of the relatively servantless 1920s. Agnes Jekyll, a columnist at the London Times, devotes an entire chapter to them in her book “Kitchen Essays” (London, 1922). Agnes’ sister-in-law Gertrude, known as Lady Jekyll, suggests puff-pastry boats as a more elegant vehicle than toast, as these can be prepared in advance and filled “with all manner of cargo such as eggs scrambled with cheese, or cold hard-boiled and chopped with a little gherkin and capers, sardines made into a purée beneath a thin veil of a soufflé mixture or a savoury custard, slightly browned in the oven; anchovies beaten with cream into a cold cayenne mousse, or coming chilled from the refrigerator with a thin sprinkle of cress.”
Agnes Jekyll’s readership at the time included my husband’s godmother, Monica Rawlins — born at the turn of the century — who acted as her father’s hostess at the family home, Syston Manor in Somerset, after the early death of her mother. Miss Rawlins’ delightful illustrated menus indicate six courses, concluding with the savory. As the youngest of three daughters and three sons (two killed in World War I), she was expected to remain unmarried at home — all very “Downton Abbey.” But she escaped to live a bohemian life as an artist in Wales, never married and left me, the widow of her godson, a glove box full of her menu cards and her annotated Edwardian-era cookbooks in the remote farmhouse that was hers for the rest of her life, and where I now live.
Savories are simple, delicious and too good to lose for lack of a menu opening. Serve them in much the same way as tapas or mezze, in combination and all on the table at the same time.
Choose four recipes to share between four people as the main course — no need for starters, though a green salad would not come amiss. Savories are also perfect for a summer lunch or a candlelit kitchen supper.
Queen Victoria’s Beef Marrow Toasts
Her Imperial Majesty’s chef, Charles Francatelli, confided to his readership that his royal employer, in spite of rumors concerning her health after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, was fortified with this little treat every day.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
2 beef or veal marrow bones
4 slices of white bread
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or spring onion
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Have the butcher break the bone open to allow you to get at the marrow. Remove the raw marrow and cut it into hazelnut-sized pieces.
2. When you’re ready to serve, poach the marrow pieces delicately in a little boiling salted water for one minute only, and then drain immediately.
3. Meanwhile, toast the bread and then cut it into squares.
4. Pile the marrow on the hot toast, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the parsley, onion and a squeeze of lemon and serve without delay — marrow sets as it cools.
Lady Jekyll’s Mushroom Toasts
This was Miss Rawlins’ favorite savory, made with the big, flat field mushrooms that spring up overnight in the sheep pastures surrounding her house in the Welsh hills.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
2 ounces butter
8 large open-cap mushrooms
Salt to taste
8 tablespoons thick cream
1 teaspoon English mustard
White pepper to taste
Bread rounds for serving
1. Melt the butter in a frying pan and lay in the caps (save the stalks for a sauce or soup). Salt lightly and be patient while they lose their moisture and begin to fry. First they will sizzle, and then juices will run.
2. Meanwhile, combine the cream with the mustard and pepper and mix well.
3. Transfer the mushrooms carefully to a gratin dish when done. Finish each cap with a tablespoon of the cream seasoned with mustard and pepper.
4. Slip the dish under a grill or broiler until the cream bubbles.
5. Serve on bread toasted in the buttery juices left in the pan — get the pan good and hot so the bread is really crisp.
The Duchess of Windsor’s Doigts au Fromage (Fingers of Cheese)
The former Mrs. Simpson — hostess-with-the-mostest in postwar Paris — astonished her sophisticated guests with her English savories, an idea unknown in France. “A meal,” she said, “should always be witty and include a surprise.” Frozen cheese fingers supplies both.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Freeze Time: 2 to 3 hours
Total Time: start 2 to 3 hours ahead, 30 minutes prep and finish
1 medium-ripe camembert, crusts removed
1 heaped tablespoon curd cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ pint (½ cup) heavy cream, whipped stiff
Grated parmesan for dusting
1. Blend the camembert and curd cheese together by pushing them through a sieve or chop thoroughly in the food processor.
2. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the whipped cream.
3. Spread a layer the thickness of your thumb on a baking tray lined with cling film. Turn out the cheese mixture onto a hard, clean surface and cut into fingers.
4. Dust with finely grated parmesan and serve ice cold. This is perfect served with ripe strawberries dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.
Main illustration: Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins