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Bloomsbury Dinners… eating at Charleston

It was Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Grace Higgens hanging in the upstairs corridor that first stirred my interest in the food at Charleston. Painted in 1943, what at first seems a portrait of a typical farmhouse cook in her kitchen takes on significance for a food writer like me, on noticing a large bunch of garlic hanging … surely this is no ordinary English wartime kitchen?

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By all accounts Grace was an excellent cook. She first came to work for Vanessa (as a junior maid) in 1920 when she was just 16 years old. Quentin Bell recalls her as ‘a lively, innocent, forgetful and easily startled girl, coping in the most amicable manner with the eccentricities and vagaries of artists and their friends’. She seems to have taken it all in her stride and her diaries, now in the British Library, are of full of keen observations and a wicked sense of humour.

Grace’s collection of cookbooks gives another insight into the times. They stand on the ledge just under the stairs leading to what was once her room, and include titles on Indian and Turkish cookery as well as Boulestin’s Simple French Cooking for English Homes (1923), A Second Helping (1925), The Finer Cooking (1937) and the well-thumbed Lady Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays with Recipes and their Occasions (1922), which were influential titles in their day. Grace was in good hands with these two writers. Boulestin was the most important single influence between the wars, offering British cooks detailed instructions and methods for French cookery. Lady Jekyll, sister-in-law of Gertrude, the famous garden designer, wrote in a witty and enigmatic style, offered meditations and recipes on subjects as diverse as ‘children’s bread’, ‘a little supper after the play’, ‘food for artists and speakers’ and ‘tray food’. I looked for splodges on pages, but nothing was clear except for markings next to Poulet Lyonnaise in A Second Helping. As well as these, Grace accumulated many recipes, mostly cut from the newspapers and magazines of the day.

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Duncan Grant in Charleston dining room 1964 eating from a dinner service designed by him for Clarice Cliff in 1934 (see below)

above pieces from my collection of Ceramics designed by Grant (for Clarice Cliff in 1934)

The meals served at Charleston appear to have been traditionally English, seasoned with a few French habits picked up from travels abroad – meals were often served with a salad and a bottle of oil and vinegar for dressing. Roasts, casseroles and soups were popular. Much of the vegetables and fruit came from the garden. There were chickens for eggs and for eating as well as various pigs at various times. The butcher and grocer delivered supplies from Lewes once a week. In a letter to Grace in 1938, amid fears of an imminent war, Vanessa writes, ‘I suppose the sensible thing to do would be to grow as much food as possible at a place like Charleston – vegetables, pigs, ducks and all we can.’

David Garnett writes to T.H. White in November 1944 from Charleston: ‘Life here follows a very ordered pattern. Clive shoots two days a week or more as a result of which we have lots of pheasants, partridges, hares and rabbits to eat & occasionally a snipe or duck. Angelica & Quentin are painting a lovely young cock pheasant hung up against a looking glass. Their time limit is till Monday mid-day as we want to eat it on Monday evening.’ Two recipes written in Duncan’s hand for French-style pheasant dishes survive in Grace’s collection.

Angelica Garnett tells how Roger Fry introduced her to fresh asparagus. She remembers him turning up one day with bundles he had obtained cheaply from some unusual source and deciding to dislike it ‘simply because everybody was so concerned I should do otherwise, but when it arrived on the table, limp rods of jade and ivory, I allowed him to persuade me to try it – and then naturally, could not have enough.’

Frances Partridge remembered the coffee: ‘Some of those who descended to the dining room for breakfast seemed to have got rather quickly into their clothes it must be said, and the expressions on their faces showed their preoccupation with their plans for the day to come as they helped themselves to the strong, rich-smelling coffee keeping warm in a handsome pottery jug on the hob.’

dining room

Many of the best recollections about food at Charleston come from Vanessa’s grandchildren. Henrietta Garnett in Charleston Past and Present remembers mornings when ‘Nessa was always the first down to breakfast. She did not eat much, for her habits were frugal. A slice of toast which she broke off slowly into little pieces, scraped thinly with butter and sprinkled with salt, and two cups of coffee.’ She continues, ‘Nessa was an economical woman. But one never felt stinted at Charleston. The food was good, entirely owing to Grace Higgens who was an excellent cook. The wine was good, too, owing to Clive and to Duncan, who enjoyed baiting each other with a teasing rivalry over the contents of the cellar. Luncheon consisted almost invariably of cold ham which Nessa would carve up into translucent pink slithers, baked potatoes and pickled walnuts. Duncan having shambled out of the garden for herbs would dress the salad. The grownups drank a bottle of dark stout each at lunch. The wine, they drank with dinner. We had pudding once a day, at lunch but never at dinner. She did not have a sweet tooth and Duncan had a passion for puddings.’ Tea was at five o’clock; Vanessa would sometimes make scones.

Virginia Nicholson recalls as a child holding a tea party for the grownups, Duncan, Clive and Nessa, at the far side of the pond beyond the statue. After spending the day clearing a path through the brambles and nettles with her brother Julian ‘we made a nest in the roots of a willow tree full of fascinating woodlice, damp and reedy. Triumphantly we held a tea party in this spot (supplied with Grace’s rock buns) for the entire household.’ Virginia recalls in Charleston, A Bloomsbury House and Garden that ‘Grace liked to bake and [we] were allowed to help her scrape out the bowl afterwards’. These  were renamed ‘Grace Cakes’.

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Grace retired in 1970 after 50 years in service, and Quentin Bell made a plaque, now in the kitchen, which testifies to her devotion. It reads: ‘Grace Higgens née Germany 1904-1983 worked here for 50 years & more. She was a good friend to all Charlestonians’.

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