Thursday, 14 November 2013

Mapp and Lucia and Lobsters

Recently, I’ve I’ve been lucky enough to find the time to delve in the zany, slightly psychotic world of E.F. Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ series of novels, which begins with Queen Lucia in 1920 and culminates with Trouble for Lucia in 1939. This reading has served duel purposes. In the first instance, it has been my bedtime reading, and laugh-out-loud bedtime reading at that. In the second, as I suspected from reading about Benson’s novels, some of the content has been very useful in terms of one of the chapters of my thesis which I have just finished re-drafting, and so I have been able to make reference to both Mapp and Lucia (1935) and Lucia’s Progress (also 1935) as part of establishing a ‘middlebrow’ literary context for the themes I later go onto discuss in Agatha Christie’s fiction.

Now, I’m not on the pay roll or anything, but... given the choice,
why would you ever buy anything 
other than the Vintage Classics
edition?! No, seriously, why?

For anyone unfamiliar with the overarching premise of the series, ‘Mapp and Lucia’ depicts the vicious social one-upmanship between the odious Miss Elizabeth Mapp and the detestable Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (Lucia). Elizabeth Mapp was the unchallenged social queen of the small, seaside town of Tilling. However, upon her arrival in the town, Lucia, aided by her gay best-friend, Georgie (who, incidentally, she ends up married to at the close of Lucia’s Progress. Are you serious, Benson?!), adroitly sets to work ending Mapp’s reign of terror, so that she may begin her own. Basically, its Mean Girls, but in 1930s England, and, for the record, we are definitely Team Mapp: Lucia is an abominable bitch (and not in the likable way)!

One of Mapp and Lucia’s most pivotal battles is over a recipe: Lobster à la Riseholme. Upon serving this dish to her friends (and Mapp, purely out of social obligation) at a luncheon party, the enigmatic gastronomical sensation, which derives its name from the Cotswold-eqsue village in which Lucia and Georgie used to live, becomes the talk of Tilling for the reason that ‘no one could conjecture how it was made’ (191). Flying in the face of social convention, Lucia simply refuses to disclose the recipe to anyone. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the dish soon becomes the pointiest of the many thorns in Mapp’s side: The dish...

... had long been an agonizing problem to Elizabeth. She had made an attempt at it herself, but the result was not encouraging. She has told Diva and the Padre that she felt sure she had ‘guessed it’, and, when bidden to come to lunch and partake of it, they had both anticipated a great treat. But [...] lobster à la Riseholme à la Mapp had been found to consist of something resembling lumps of india-rubber (so tough that the teeth positively bounced away from them on contact) swimming in a dubious pink gruel, and both of them left a great deal on their plates, concealed as far as possible under their knives and forks[.] (191)

After failing to charm the recipe out of Lucia’s cook (which was an act in vain anyway - it is Lucia herself who always finishes the dish), towards the climax of the novel Mapp sinks to a new low. Having gone out for a walk towards the river on a stormy Boxing Day afternoon, Mapp passes Lucia’s servants who are all on their merry way elsewhere for the afternoon. Thus realising that the kitchen at Grebe is, on this rare occasion, unattended, in a brilliant culinary metaphor on Benson’s part, the thought of sneaking into Lucia’s home and stealing the recipe ‘fructified into apples of Desire’ for Mapp (255). Having entered the kitchen via the back door, the recipe is not at all hard for Mapp to find: ‘There was a prayer book [...] bound in American cloth. [...] Rapidly she turned the leaves, and there manifest at last was the pearl of great price, lobster à la Riseholme. It began with the luscious words, “Take two hen lobsters.” (257) But, uh oh, this being the utterly dippy world of ‘Mapp and Lucia’ - a world in which, as Nicola Humble suggests, ‘the day-to-day minutiae of domestic detail [...] tip over into surrealism’ (60) - what do you think happens next?

[S]he heard with a sudden stoppage of her heart-beat, a step on the crisp path outside, and the handle of the kitchen-door turned. Elizabeth took one step sideways behind the gaudy [Christmas] tree and, peering through its branches, saw Lucia standing at the entrance. Lucia came straight towards her, not yet perceiving that there was a Boxing Day burglar in her own kitchen, and stood admiring her tree. Then with a startled exclamation she called out “Who’s that?” and Elizabeth knew that she was discovered. Further dodging behind the decorated fir would be both undignified and ineffectual, however skillful her foot-work. 

“It’s me, dear Lucia,” she said. “I came to thank you for that delicious pâté and to ask if-” 

From somewhere close outside there came a terrific roar and rush as of great water-floods released. Reunited for the moment by a startled curiosity, they ran together to the open door, and saw, already leaping across the road and over the hornbeam hedge, a solid wall of water. 

“The bank has given way,” cried Lucia. (258)

Yes! The frenemies are carried off to sea aboard the makeshift raft that is Lucia’s overturned kitchen table. Bon voyage, ladies.

Unfortunately, despite the genuinely mouthwatering descriptions of lobster à la Riseholme that we as the reader get within the novel, we, like the luckless Mapp, are never given an actual recipe. However, TimBris83 - a contributor to the online fan forum on - has taken it upon himself to recreate Lucia’s signature dish, much in the style our troubled but beloved domestic goddess, who has herself has displayed a penchant for creating recipes inspired by literary works. For instance, her ‘Mint Julip Peaches’ in Forever Summer (2002), are reported to have been inspired by her reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). As TimBris83’s recipe seemed both easy and delicious (if pricey), I decided to give it a go, and document the results. The ingredients list is as follows:

Lobster (pref a hen)
4 shallots (very finely chopped)
3 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons marsala
150 ml double cream
2 teaspoons paprika
3 pinches of cayenne pepper
3 handfuls gruyere cheese (grated)
3 tablespoons tomato passata
1 pinch of salt
1 pinch of pepper
oil or butter (for frying)

Obviously, this recipe calls for a live lobster, but in deference to the my-one-true-love Lawson (not to mention general wussiness) I decided to take the express route to deliciousness and get it pre-cooked and frozen at the supermarket. The crustacean still had to be prepared (i.e. - meat extracted from shell). On this front, I was expecting it to be worse to be honest, but thanks to this informative youtube tutorial, it was relatively easy (though outrageously messy). Seriously, I found it more of an ordeal to finely chop four shallots, which says a lot about my chopping competency.

Once all of the extracting, grating, chopping, and measuring had been done, the process was really very easy indeed. All I had to do was sauté the shallots over medium heat for about 10 minutes until they were soft and translucent. Then I heated the brandy in another small pan, set it alight with a long cooking match, let the flames die down and then poured the brandy over the softened shallots.  I then added the marsala - an ingredient I has certainly heard of, and vaguely knew was some sort of fortified wine, but had never used before - and let the mixture come to the boil.

Turning the flame onto low, the next step was to bung in the cream, paprika, cayenne, and pasata (not convinced of the authenticity of this, TimBris83, I’m sure Lucia would have had to skin and crush her own tomatoes - but thank God we don’t have to) and heated the mixture for a bit. Then time for the cheese: I added two handfuls of the gruyere I had grated earlier and whisked until smooth. Tasting at this point, I found the mixture a bit bland I have to say, so I threw in some pepper, along with a sprinkling of dried oregano and dried thyme, because, let’s be honest, what exactly isn’t improved with dried oregano and dried thyme. Tasting better now, the lobster meat was added in and warmed through.

Any recipe that suggests the measuring of cheese
in 'handfuls' is OK in my book.

Now, even for something conceived of as a nod to the almost bamboozling campery of ‘Mapp and Lucia’, I do feel that serving this in washed-out lobster shells is, dare I say, I tad too shi shi. As such, my vessel of choice for the final stage of the recipe - the grilling - was two small white gratin dishes. I divided the warm mixture between the two dishes, topped with the remaining handful of cheese, and placed under the preheated grill for a few minutes until the cheese was golden and crusty. Oh, and, although uncalled for by the recipe, I sprinkled the top with chopped parsley, because parsley is delicious and makes everything better (whereas coriander, on the other hand, is a plant that was placed on earth by Satan himself)!

The result: well, it looks lovely, doesn’t it, and it tasted perfectly fine. But that’s all I’m afraid. It’s very rich, very cheesy, but even with my additions, its certainly not packing a punch on the flavour side of things, which, for a recipe whose ingredients costs me - I sob to think - the same as what I get paid for a week’s worth of undergraduate teaching, I was expecting something really special. Probably, its a case of it being just too old fashioned, and not appealing to more modern taste-buds (TimBris83 does indeed admit that his take of Lucia’s dish loosely based on an Escoffier recipe). If I ever had some lobsters knocking about again, I would definitely go for something lighter, fresher, more zingy, more vibrant: something which enhances, rather than over-powers that special lobster flavour. All in all, a nice idea, but a lobster dish which has not stood the test of time quite as well as the quirky interwar novel in which it plays such a pivotal role.


Page references for Mapp and Lucia are to the current (2011) Vintage Classics edition of the novel.
The page reference for Nicola Humble’s comment on the novel is to The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
TimBris83’s original recipe for Lobster à la Riseholme can be found here.

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