Thursday, 8 March 2012

Life Below Stairs.

Back to Ham House tonight to attend the reopening of the kitchen and servants quarters underneath the great hall. In recent ears this area has only really been used during Christmas celebrations, and has ended up doubling up as a store room for the bits and pieces of film set periodically left behind when the house and gardens are used as a location.

The team at the house, led by Vic, have done a brilliant job reclaiming the space, providing another way to see how Ham must have operated in the early seventeenth century. The walls have life size cartoon transfers of some of the servants, with short passages about their lives whilst in the kitchen demonstrations of food preparation and baking were going on. We toasted it with an alcoholic ginger ale, the closest the scholars had found to a taste of the time.

One of the more surprising exhibits was a restoration salad, recreated from archived menus. It was amazingly cosmopolitan and included such exotic tastes as cucumber, capers and olive oil - which I'd thought had only really been introduced to the UK by Elizabeth David in the 1950s.

I'd always known that the restoration had opened up England to a whole range of European influences as Charles II returned to London after eleven years of continental experience. It's why, if you had money, the 1660s must have been a thrilling time to be in the capital.

One of the effects of creating cultural hybridity seems to be a shift from a verbal or literary reliance to a more visual form of expression. Much of the way theatre in the later 20th century has developed has been driven by the need to mix cultural forms in an understandable way. Colour, shape and spectacle replace philosophy, text and doctrine. The returning court certainly defined itself in these terms and the salad, in a small way, seemed to demonstrate that point very clearly. Impossible to explain, perfect to show. A perfect mixture of smell, texture, taste and look.

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