This summer I went to see The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National Theatre, one of my favourite London haunts. The play, which was first performed in 1707, less than two months before the death of its author, the Irish playwright, George Farquhar, is a late Restoration play.
Restoration drama refers to the plays written and performed following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. In 1642, at the height of the English Civil War, with the Parliamentary Puritans in power, all theatres were closed by an Act of Parliament and remained so for the next 18 years. To the Puritans, and their leader Oliver Cromwell, theatres were places that encouraged immoral and debauched behaviour.
The re-opening of the theatres in 1660 paved the way for a new type of drama that was different from what came before. Restoration plays were characterised by their comedy, their sexually explicit content, their contemporary setting and the first use of professional actresses – in earlier drama, women’s roles had been played by men.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is a classic Restoration play, containing all these elements. It tells the story of two young men – the beaux of the title – Archer and Aimwell, who have fallen on hard times and devise a plan to improve their fortunes. Fleeing London they arrive in Lichfield with the aim of marrying for money. The events of the play unfold in an inn where, posing as master and servant, Archer and Aimwell confront a variety of idiosyncratic characters and many twists and turns in the plot before they find their happy ending.
Amongst the characters Archer and Aimwell meet is Mr Sullen, a drunkard whose wife, whom he treats with indifference, is the object of Archer’s desires. Sullen’s disdain for his wife is shown by his offering her to another man with the words, “You shall have her tomorrow morning, and a venison pasty into the bargain.” A venison pasty is also mentioned earlier in the play when the audience first meets Sullen in Act II, Scene 1. It is a Sunday morning and Sullen comes on stage after a heavy Saturday night, complaining that his head ‘aches consumedly’. Refusing his wife’s suggestion of a cup of tea or a trip to church, he instead summons his servant Scrub and requests his breakfast: “bring me a dram; and, d’ye hear, set out the venison-pasty and a tankard of strong beer upon the hall table.”
Whether it be a bonus gift to accompany an unwanted wife, or a hang-over cure, as soon as I heard the mention of ‘venison pasty’ I was keen to make one. But I was watching the play in June, not really the time of year for venison, so was forced to wait until the arrival of autumn and the welcome arrival of venison at my local farmers’ market.
MR SULLEN’S VENISON PASTIES (makes 4)
For the pastry:
350g plain flour
175g butter (or 100g butter; 175g lard / vegetable shortening) diced
1 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
1 red onion (finely chopped)
2 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1 tablespoon olive oil
150g mushrooms (sliced)
500g diced venison
60ml red wine
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
10 juniper berries, crushed
1 beaten egg
Begin by making the pastry. Stir the salt into the flour in a large bowl, and then, using your fingertips, rub in the butter (and lard / shortening if used) until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Gradually add cold water, a teaspoon at a time, and stir with a knife until the mixture clumps together. Bring the mixture together into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Now make the filling. Peel and dice the potato and parboil in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain and put to one side. Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the onion until translucent and then add the garlic. Cook for a couple more minutes and then add the mushrooms and venison. Cook for 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper. Add the red wine, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook until the liquid has evaporated. Leave to cool. Then add the parsley, cooked potato and the juniper berries. Taste and season again if required.
Now you are ready to assemble the pasties. Remove the pastry from the fridge. Lightly flour your work surface and roll out the pastry so that you can cut out 4 x 20cm diameter circles (a side plate should be the right size). Pile 1/4 of the filling in the middle of the pastry circle. Brush the edge of half the pastry circle with the beaten egg and bring both sides up over the filling, crimping the edges firmly together to get that distinctive pasty look.
Place the pasties on a greased and lined baking tray and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. At this point preheat the oven to 220C (fan oven 200C) or gas mark 7. When the pasties are ready to go in the oven brush them with the remaining beaten egg. Bake for 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 170C (fan 150C), gas mark 3 and bake for another 30-45 minutes until the pastry is cooked and golden-brown.