In my last post I discussed, with reference to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela, the way food is frequently used as an indicator of social status in literature.
Jane Austen, writing in the last decade of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, produced novels which combine romantic fiction with social satire. Her characters mainly come from the landed gentry – landowners who do not need to work to earn an income – though there is significant stratification within this social class dependent on characters’ wealth. When food is mentioned in Austen’s novels it is drenched in social significance and ideas of status.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s best-loved novel first published in 1813, Mrs Bennet, who is desperate to marry any – or all – of her five daughters to wealthy husbands in order to secure their futures, uses food to impress others. She is keen to assure Mr Bingley, a wealthy gentleman who has shown an interest in her eldest daughter, Jane, that her daughters – unlike those of her neighbour Lady Lucas – do not cook, saying “I always keep servants that can do their own work.” Likewise she reprimands her husband’s cousin, Mr Collins, for assuming the dinner that he has enjoyed was cooked by one of the Bennet daughters: “Mrs Bennet … assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and … her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.” The Bennets may be poorer than many of their neighbours, but the running of the household and the family’s leisured lifestyle confirms their membership of the gentry.
But whilst neither Mrs Bennet nor any of her five daughters will find their way into the kitchen, Mrs Bennet is still ready to take credit for the food that is served to her guests. Towards the end of the book, when Mr Bingley returns to Netherfield, renewing Mrs Bennet’s hope that he will propose to Jane, Mrs Bennet invites him – and Mr Darcy – to dinner. She is anxious to make a good impression on both men: “…she did not think anything less than two courses could be good enough for a man, on whom she had such anxious designs, or satisfy the pride and appetite of one who had ten thousand a-year.”
And Mrs Bennet does impress with her chosen menu, as she says to her daughters when the gentlemen leave: “I think everything has passed off uncommonly well … The dinner was as well dressed as any I ever saw. The venison was roasted to a turn – and everybody said they never saw so fat a haunch…. and even Mr Darcy acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably well done...”
“Mrs Bennet’s decision to serve game is an astute one, game being the symbol of the gentry. If you served game for dinner, there is a good chance it would come from your own land – or perhaps that of your neighbours – highlighting your social status. In fact, as soon as Mr Bingley returns to the neighbourhood and visits the Bennets, Mrs Bennet is quick to invite him to come and shoot on their land: “‘When you have killed all your own birds, Mr Bingley, …I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please, on Mr Bennet’s manor.I am sure he will be vastly happy to oblige you, and will save all the best of the covies for you.'”
With partridge being plentiful at my local farmers’ market, I decided to try my hand at cooking it. Roast partridge is easy to prepare, and cooks in slightly less than 30 minutes, allowing plenty of time for flirtation and conversation with the wealthy gentlemen.
MRS BENNET’S PARTRIDGE
Ingredients (per person):
1 rasher of bacon
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
25g softened butter
salt and pepper
For the sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 small shallots, peeled but kept whole
150ml red wine
100ml chicken stock
1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 190C / 170C fan / Gas mark 5.
2. Season the partridge’s cavity with salt and black pepper, and add a bay leaf and leaves from one sprig of thyme.
3. Rub the skin of the partridge with softened butter and season well.
4. Brown the bird all over in a hot frying pan.
5. Transfer the bird to a roasting tin, and lay a rasher of bacon over the top of the bird. Place in the oven and roast for approximately 25 minutes, until the meat is cooked (you can eat it slightly pink if that is to your liking).
6.Using the same frying pan, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and fry the shallots over medium heat for 6-8 minutes until just golden. Place in a separate roasting tin with 100ml red wine and a splash of water, and place in the oven.
7. When the partridge is cooked, remove it from the roasting dish and place on a plate. Cover with foil and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
8. Pour the meat juices into the shallot roasting tin. Place it on the hob over a high heat. Add another 50ml wine and stir; let it bubble for a few minutes. Add 100ml chicken stock and simmer for a few minutes.Then add the balsamic vinegar and butter, season to taste, and simmer until the sauce has turned syrupy.
9.Serve with the partridge and your choice of vegetable accompaniment.