It was a bucolic time when The Two Fat Ladies burst onto our screens in a puff of cartoon smoke and bravado. And burst they certainly did, with Jennifer Paterson driving pell-mell through the British countryside in a glorious Triumph Thunderbird while Clarissa Dickson-Wright grinned benignly at us from the sidecar. In one fell swoop, they made the world realise that English food may have the reputation for being boring but it sure as hell doesn’t have to be. Echoing the devil-may-care eccentricity of Julia Child and the generous verbosity of Keith Floyed, these two friends made British TV cooks famous, paving the way for Jamie and Nigella to follow in their wake.
What I loved most about these two broads was their extensive knowledge of heritage recipes, peppered with fascinating stories of living in exotic climes and all they had cooked and experienced there. They had chutzpah– in spades. It beggars belief that the BBC were responsible for bringing them together, they had never met before the show was taped. It was a meeting of minds, as though they had known each other since childhood. Extremely brainy and well-read, they both came from ‘good’ families but they were both rebels and entirely unpretentious and idiosyncratic in their ways. Jennifer was known for unexpectedly breaking into song and often used her perfectly-manicured hands (to the horror of all the anal housewives) to mix ingredients for stuffing and the like. A retired barrister, Clarissa never missed a beat, regaling us with snippets of history and juicy trivia that most people have never heard of. All this is reflected in their food: recipes with exotic origins that are easy to prepare and extremely enjoyable to eat.
The witty repartee continues in their series of four cookbooks. Although out of print it is still possible to still nab a second-hand copy. I was lucky to find a copy of their first offering Two Fat Ladies: Gastronomic Adventures (with motorbike and sidecar) which was signed by Clarissa. I chuckled while reading her advice for carefully lining and buttering your baking tins “as thoroughly as Last Tango in Paris”. Also, in one of her tips for a recipe for pot-roasted pork: “You could do a lot worse than to take a leaf out of Fanny Cradock’s book and ‘rub salt into the fat as if into the face of your worst enemy.’”
It wasn’t only the title of the show that was politically incorrect, these two amateur cooks faced a deluge of criticism for being champions of eating red meat (Clarissa being a passionate hunter) and being staunchly opposed to the low fat movement, which had reached its zenith at the time. They certainly had the last laugh, now that we know that eating red meat, eggs and full fat dairy doesn’t cause high cholesterol. Optomen Television defended them brilliantly by publicly stating: “The Ladies are cooks not chefs – they reject the pretensions and elaborations of haute cuisine and are aggressively unfashionable.” Absolutely.
It is a tragedy that only three seasons of the show were made before Jennifer succumbed to an untimely death by cancer, only one month after diagnosis. Clarissa says that the day before Jennifer died, she asked her to bring her a tin of caviar. But when she arrived at the hospital, Jennifer had already passed on. After the funeral, she ate the caviar as a tribute to her friend.
Another magic ingredient of the show was how they visited interesting locations and people, including a village fête and a band of woodcutters. These locations may appear random at first, until one realises that all these places are close to their hearts. Jennifer’s uncle was gentiluomo (an official attendant) to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, so some episodes were filmed at Westminster Cathedral and at a convent of Benedictine nuns in Ireland. The kitchens of these all places seem to hold the history of the world within their walls. It is for this reason that I have chosen Jennifer’s recipe for venison with blackberries. In series one, episode five the Ladies visit Lennoxlove House in East Lothian, where they cook up a feast of game dishes. This also happens to be the infamous episode where Jennifer relentlessly has a go at Clarissa for supposedly sitting on the fresh raspberries for her raspberry (NOT strawberry) shortcake.
The old stone tower was built in the 15th century and is one of Scotland’s most ancient and notable houses. The atmosphere of all that history crept into the kitchen that day, as Jennifer slowly poured the sauce over the venison. The souls of all whom have cooked in that kitchen were watching, and they approved.
Medallions of venison with blackberries and crème fraiche
This dish makes a simple and delicious main course for a long and leisurely lunch. The ideal prefix would be a simple pasta dish followed by a fresh salad with homemade vinaigrette and then the venison. If you really want to pay tribute, serve Aquitainian Walnut Cake for dessert, named after the Queen of England in the 1100s, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
8 medallions of venison (two per person), room temperature
100g plain flour seasoned with black pepper and sea salt
250g fresh blackberries
2 T olive oil
2 T balsamic vinegar
1 cup red wine
2 T quince or apple jelly
2 cups fresh beef stock, kept warm
1 tsp butter
200g sour cream or crème fraiche
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Jennifer renders the fat from a few rashers of bacon, which she removes and uses for another dish.
Coat the venison in the seasoned flour. Heat the olive oil (or bacon fat, if using) in a cast iron frying pan and cook the venison for five minutes, then turn over and cook for 3-5 minutes more, depending on how rare you like it and the thickness of the meat. Cook for 5-6 minutes on each side if you prefer it well done. Lift the meat from the pan and set aside to rest on a serving platter.
Sauté the garlic in the same pan until fragrant but do not allow to brown. Add the balsamic vinegar and reduce slightly. Stir in the quince jelly so that it dissolves and add the red wine. Reduce slightly before adding the beef stock. Simmer gently for a few minutes before stirring in the blackberries and the crème fraiche. Simmer for two minutes so the berries retain their shape. Melt in the butter to add a glossy richness to your sauce. Check the seasoning before pouring over the cooked medallions.