The Seductive Power of Strawberries

D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the ‘British Queen’ variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
‘No – no!’ she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips.  ‘I would rather take it in my own hand.’
‘Nonsense!’ he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.  

  (Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles)

In my last post I wrote about literary links between food and seduction, ending with Alec d’Urberville’s seduction of Tess through strawberries.  Whilst strawberries on their own – provided they have been grown naturally in plenty of sunshine – can be beautifully sweet and delicious, needing no other accompaniment, I wanted to find a recipe that would present them in their full glory and have a meaningful relationship with Hardy’s novel.


Strawberries are readily matched with cream, and the Dorset setting of Tess – and all Hardy’s novels – made me think particularly of clotted cream.  And then of cream teas.  And then of strawberry shortcake, that lovely combination of a scone-like cake coupled with cream and strawberries.

Now whilst strawberry shortcake is strictly speaking an American concoction – the first published recipe for it appears in an American cookery book, The Ladys Receipt Book by Miss Leslie where it is called Strawberry Cakes (https://archive.org/stream/misslesliesladys00lesl/misslesliesladys00lesl_djvu.txt) – the first recipe for shortcake actually appears in a 16th century English cookbook:  The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (first published 1594).  The recipe given is as follows:

To make short Cakes.
TAke wheate flower, of the fayrest ye can get, and put it in an earthern pot, and stop it close, and set it in an Ouen and bake it, and when it is baken, it will be full of clods, and therefore ye must searse it through a search*: the flower will haue as long baking as a pastie of Uenison. When you haue done this, take clowted Creame, or els sweet Butter, but Creame is better, then take Sugar, Cloues, Mace, and Saffron, and the yolke of an Egge for one doozen of Cakes one yolke is ynough: then put all these foresaid things together into the cream, & temper them al together, then put them to your flower
and so make your Cakes, your paste wil be very short, therefore yee must make your Cakes very litle: when yee bake your cakes, yee must bake them vpon papers, after the drawing of a batch of bread.  (see http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/ghhk/)

* I would guess that ‘searse it through a search’ means sieve the flour since the writer says that the baked flour will be ‘full of clods’.

I like the fact that this recipe includes ‘clowted Creame’ – a West Country delicacy – and ‘saffron’ which is still used nowadays in Cornish baking.  I decided to use the clotted cream to sandwich together the cut shortcakes (with the strawberries) and use creme fraiche instead in the mixture (inspired by a Nigella Lawson recipe in How to be a Domestic Goddess) and used the saffron to give a West country glow to the finished shortcake (though this can be omitted).

SEDUCTIVE STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKES

Ingredients (makes 8): 
325g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons caster sugar
1 pinch saffron threads (optional)
125g unsalted butter frozen
1 large egg, beaten
125 ml creme fraiche

1 beaten egg and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar to brush on the top of the shortcakes
Strawberries (hulled and quartered) plus clotted cream in abundance to serve.

Method: 
Preheat oven to 220C / 200C fan / Gas mark 7.
Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and saffron – if using –  in a large bowl.
Grate in the butter and, using your fingertips, crumble it into the dry ingredients.
Whisk together the egg and creme fraiche and pour it gradually into the dry ingredients, mixing with a fork until it comes together into a soft but not sticky dough.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 2cm.
Cut into rounds using a cutter: if you use a 7.5cm cutter you will get 8 – a smaller cutter will yield more.
Place the cakes on a greased and lined baking sheet.  Brush the tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden-brown.
Leave to cool.  When ready to serve, split open and fill with clotted cream and strawberries.

Food and Seduction

Food and sex have always been linked: from romantic meals to the alleged aphrodisiac qualities of certain foods – according to an article in The Independent these include asparagus, celery and pomegranate: see here  

And it is the same in literature.  One of the most famous examples comes in Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, Tom Jones, in which the protagonist and Mrs Waters, an older woman whom he has saved from the clutches of a villain, sit down to eat dinner in an inn.  Whilst Mrs Waters has only eyes for Tom and tries her utmost to seduce him, Tom is hungry and needs to eat before he will succumb.  The humour is increased by the mock-epic language Fielding uses, presenting the seduction as a battle:

First, from two lovely blue eyes, whose bright orbs flashed lightning at their discharge, flew forth two pointed ogles.  But happily for our heroe, hit only a vast piece of beef which he was then conveying into his plate, and harmless spent their force.  The fair warrior perceived their miscarriage, and immediately from her fair bosom drew forth a deadly sigh.  A sigh, which none could have heard unmoved, and which was sufficient at once to have swept off a dozen beaus; so soft, so sweet, so tender, that the insinuating air must have found its subtle way to the heart of our heroe, had it not luckily been driven from his ears by the coarse bubbling of some bottled ale, which at that time he was pouring forth.  
(Book IX, Chapter 5)

Luckily for Mrs Waters, Tom soon finishes his meal and can appreciate the efforts she is making:

This smile our heroe received full in his eyes, and was immediately staggered with its force.
(Book IX, Chapter 5)

In Tony  Richardson’s 1963 film of Fielding’s novel the scene is transformed into a masterpiece of visual seduction with both characters eating their way – in silence, apart from the occasional slurp or munch – through a range of aphrodisiac foods including lobsters, oysters and pears – you can access the clip here.

A darker, more menacing seduction scene involving food takes place in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the novel I wrote about in my last post.  The scene comes early in the novel when Tess goes to visit the wealthy Alec d’Urberville and his mother, whom her parents believe (mistakenly) to be their relatives, to request financial assistance when her family fall on hard times.  The naive, beautiful Tess is met by the charming Alec who will later prove her downfall when he sleeps with her, leading to her conceiving an illegitimate child and being labelled as a ‘fallen woman’ by the moralising and puritanical late Victorian society in which she lives.

This tragedy is still in the future when Tess and Alec first meet.  But the clues are there.  Hardy presents Alec as a diabolical figure, tempting Tess with fruit just as the serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

When Tess arrives at the house Alec is inside an ornamental tent that has been erected on the lawn.  As she stands on the driveway, ‘a figure came forth from the dark triangular door of the tent,’  Alec’s emergence from darkness symbolising his evil intentions.  After an initial conversation Alec suggests to Tess that they walk around the grounds of the house and, when they approach the fruit-garden he asks her if she likes strawberries.  When she says she does, he begins giving them to her, initially dropping them into her hand, but then feeding them straight into her mouth, a clearly sexual gesture which distresses Tess but to which she succumbs:

D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the ‘British Queen’ variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
‘No – no!’ she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips.  ‘I would rather take it in my own hand.’
‘Nonsense!’ he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
(Phase the First, Chapter V)

Whilst the reader can see what is going on, the narrator notes that Tess has no idea that behind the smoke emanating from Alec’s cigarette ‘sat the “tragic mischief” of her drama‘.  The strawberries are only the starting point.

Whilst strawberries are delicious in their own right – the sweeter ones not even needing any additional sugar or cream – lest the reader thinks it a cop-out for me just to suggest a bowl of strawberries to accompany my musings on this episode, my next post will feature a recipe involving strawberries fit to seduce!

Food and Country Life

There was a great stir in the milk-house just after breakfast.  The churn revolved as usual, but the butter would not come.  Whenever this happened the dairy was paralyzed.   Squish, squash, echoed the milk in the great cylinder, but never arose the sound they waited for.

(Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles)


I spent most of my childhood in Devon and for four years lived in a village in the North Devon countryside.  Whilst I love my city life now, and would be reluctant to ever leave it, I’m very thankful for my country upbringing; the freedom; the proximity to the natural world; local rural customs (the annual horticultural show and lamb roast); the way agricultural practices mark out the year – lambing, sheep-shearing, sowing, harvesting, swaling (the controlled annual burning of gorse and scrub on moorland to allow new grass to grow and thus provide grazing for livestock); and of course – the food.  Our village had its own bakery which churned out loaves and other baked items day in day out.  You could go to the bakery and buy bread there, or wait to buy it from the baker’s van on his weekly run.  Then there were the village and church events where there would always be a veritable spread: Devon splits; scones, jam and cream; sandwiches; home-made jams and cakes.  Perhaps this is where my love-affair with food and cooking began!

My country upbringing may have also contributed to my love of Thomas Hardy’s novels.  Whilst Hardy’s books are set in Dorset, not Devon, and precede my country existence by around a century, there is still something familiar about the world they evoke.  At the same time it was certainly more than the country settings that grabbed me.  Having seen John Schlesinger’s film of Far from the Madding Crowd on TV, I was hooked by the story of the wilful Bathsheba Everdene and her relationships with her three suitors of varying likeability.  Turning my back on anything light and frothy – I was distinctly unimpressed by the happy ending of the first Hardy I read, Under the Greenwood Tree – I sought tragedy and despair.  Far from the Madding Crowd was swiftly followed by Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Jude the Obscure and my favourite – in terms of gut-wrenching painfulness – The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Hardy’s characters – their mistakes and mishaps, and the bad luck they encounter – and the relentless cruelty of the Godless universe they inhabit had me enthralled.

With their rural and agricultural settings, it is probably no surprise that food features so frequently in Hardy’s novels.  Many of his characters are closely involved with the production of food, either by working the land or tending animals, or by turning the raw products into edible foodstuffs.
That is certainly the case with the protagonist of what is probably Hardy’s best-known novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (first published 1892). After her seduction by the villainous Alec D’Urberville, Tess returns to her home village, Marlott and, having given birth to her son, Sorrow, works in the corn-fields binding into sheaves the corn cut down by the reaping machine.  Later on, after she has been rejected by her new husband, Angel Clare, following his discovery of her status as a fallen woman, Tess takes work harvesting swedes at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, its name suggesting the barrenness of the land and the deathly nature of the work.  The fact that Tess arrives there in winter exacerbates the misery of the work which suitably reflects her desolate emotional and mental state.

But between these two jobs, Tess works in a far more pleasing environment: as a dairy-maid at Talbothays farm.  Tess arrives there following Sorrow’s death in a section of the novel called ‘The Rally’, the title suggesting she is picking herself up and making a new start.  Talbothays is a place of abundance and fertility – so different from the subsequent Flintcomb Ash – a place where Tess makes new friends and begins to put her past behind her, and also the place where she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare.  

Talbothays is also a place of food.  The dairy-maids and other farm-workers all breakfast together with Dairyman Crick and his wife, creating an atmosphere of togetherness and congeniality.  And dairy products are manufactured on site after the cows have been milked.  Tess falls asleep on her first night to ‘the smell of the cheeses in the adjoining cheese-loft, and the measured dripping of whey from the wrings downstairs’ (ch. 17).  Whilst the butter’s inability ‘to come’, as recounted at the beginning of chapter 21 – see above – is a matter of great concern for all:

Dairyman Crick and his wife, the milkmaids Tess, Marian, Retty Priddle, Izz Huett, and the married ones from the cottages; also Mr Clare, Jonathan Kail, old Deborah, and the rest, stood gazing hopelessly at the churn; and the boy who kept the horse going outside put on moon-like eyes to show his sense of the situation.  Even the melancholy horse himself seemed to look in at the window in inquiring despair at each walk round.  

Mrs Crick then recalls a country saying that if ‘somebody in the house is in love’ the butter will not come.  This triggers Crick’s memory of an episode in which a young man, who was misleading a young woman, hid from her angry mother in the butter churn, and was swung round in it by her as she vented her fury on him for his mistreatment of her daughter.  This talk of love and deception upsets Tess who makes her excuses and steps outside, but is saved from having to explain herself when the butter at last decides to come:

Fortunately for [Tess] the milk in the revolving churn at that moment changed its squashing for a decided flick-flack.
‘Tis coming!’ cried Mrs Crick, and the attention of all was called off from Tess. 

Having recently read a number of posts and articles about making butter at home, I decided to give it a try.  It is incredibly simple and very satisfying.  Whilst you can do it by hand – by shaking the cream inside a sealed jam jar – a quicker and less painful method involves using either a food-mixer or a blender.

TALBOTHAYS BUTTER

Ingredients (for 250g butter):

600ml double cream
Large jug of ice-cold water
1 teaspoon sea-salt (optional)

Method: 

Pour the cream into the food-mixer or blender and leave for 1 hour to come up to room temperature.

Whip or blend the cream initially on low speed then raise to medium speed.  The cream will get gradually thicker and begin to form peaks which will increase in stiffness.

After around 5 minutes – though it may take longer – you will see clumps of butter beginning to form.  Stop the machine and strain off the buttermilk – you can use this for baking (e.g. in scones, soda bread, pancakes or muffins).

Place the butter in a clean bowl.  Pour some iced water over it and knead the butter by hand to rinse it and press out any remaining buttermilk. Pour off the water and repeat the process until the water runs clear.  This will help the butter last longer.  If you want salted butter – which will also last longer than unsalted – add a small amount of sea-salt and work it through the butter by hand.

And there you have it – your home-made butter.