Today is the birthday of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1869) best known for the creation of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. Often the author is referred to as Conan Doyle as if he had a compound last name. But, in fact, Doyle was his last name and Conan was one of his first names. He was born and raised in Edinburgh and went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. In 1882 he opened his first medical practice in partnership with a classmate in Plymouth but within months left to set up an independent practice in Portsmouth. He was not very successful at first, so while he was waiting for patients he wrote short stories. He had trouble finding publishers until he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. It was picked up by Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, a paperback magazine founded by Samuel Orchart Beeton, husband of legendary cookbook author, Isabella Beeton ( and her publisher). The character of Holmes was loosely based on one of Doyle’s teachers, Joseph Bell, who was noted for his powers of deductive reasoning. One might get the impression from his photo, and his profession that Doyle modeled Dr Watson on himself. Like Watson, Doyle worked as a field hospital doctor (in the Boer War).
Doyle always considered his other writing, especially his historical novels, as more important than the Holmes stories, and so wrote to his mother in 1891: “I think of slaying Holmes… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” His mother responded, “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” Yet, in 1893 in “The Final Problem” he had Holmes tumble over the Reichenbach Falls with his arch enemy Moriarty and thought he was done with him. But public outcry was so great that he agreed to write more and published The Hound of The Baskervilles in 1901, set at a time before the Reichenbach incident. Then in 1903 he brought Holmes back in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes, in which he explained that only Moriarty had fallen to his death, but Holmes let it be thought he was dead because he had other mortal enemies.
In the collection, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, is a story called “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez.” Holmes is able to solve the mystery of a disappearing murderer in part by noting the eating habits of the occupant of the house, a mysterious professor, where the murder takes place. The following exchange occurs between Holmes and the housekeeper.
“I suppose the professor eats hardly anything?”
“Well, he is variable. I’ll say that for him.”
“I’ll wager he took no breakfast this morning, and won’t face his lunch after all the cigarettes I saw him consume.”
“Well, you’re out there, sir, as it happens, for he ate a remarkable big breakfast this morning. I don’t know when I’ve known him make a better one, and he’s ordered a good dish of cutlets for his lunch”
Ever since his first appearance, Holmes has attracted a huge following, and there are scores of clubs devoted to picking apart every detail of the stories trying to complete a biography of him from tiny slivers of evidence. Dozens of books have been written extending tales of Holmes’ life, and there seems to be no end of movies and television shows attempting to expand our vision of the detective. So I guess I should join the crowd (I am a fan too), and attempt to recreate the dish of cutlets the professor had ordered. If you want to know why the cutlets are important you will have to read the story for yourself. What sort of fan would I be if I gave away the ending?
Given the connexion between Doyle and Isabella Beeton I give here one of her recipes in her own words for veal cutlets, which is a variant of breaded cutlet recipes found from Vienna to Buenos Aires, but with an English twist. She does not say what “savoury herbs” to use but I would imagine that parsley, thyme, and sage would fit the bill nicely. I don’t doubt Holmes ate something similar on many occasions. The gravy might be a bit bland for modern tastes so you can use beef stock instead of water and use a few pinches of fresh thyme and parsley to punch it up. Forcemeat balls are meatballs made from equal quantities of finely ground meat and fat pounded together, much like a sausage filling, sometimes bound with an egg (and breadcrumbs) and shallow fried. Forcemeat made from bacon and suet would work well with this recipe. For some reason Beeton mentions forcemeat balls all the time in her cookbook but gives a recipe only for fish forcemeat. So I have appended a modern recipe from Scotland for bacon forcemeat balls.
VEAL CUTLETS .
866. INGREDIENTS.—About 3 lbs. of the prime part of the leg of veal, egg and bread crumbs, 3 tablespoonfuls of minced savoury herbs, salt and pepper to taste, a small piece of butter.
Mode.—Have the veal cut into slices about 3/4 of an inch in thickness, and, if not cut perfectly even, level the meat with a cutlet-bat or rolling-pin. Shape and trim the cutlets, and brush them over with egg. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, with which have been mixed minced herbs and a seasoning of pepper and salt, and press the crumbs down. Fry them of a delicate brown in fresh lard or butter, and be careful not to burn them. They should be very thoroughly done, but not dry. If the cutlets be thick, keep the pan covered for a few minutes at a good distance from the fire, after they have acquired a good colour: by this means, the meat will be done through. Lay the cutlets in a dish, keep them hot, and make a gravy in the pan as follows: Dredge in a little flour, add a piece of butter the size of a walnut, brown it, then pour as much boiling water as is required over it, season with pepper and salt, add a little lemon-juice, give one boil, and pour it over the cutlets. They should be garnished with slices of broiled bacon, and a few forcemeat balls will be found a very excellent addition to this dish.
Time.—For cutlets of a moderate thickness, about 12 minutes; if very thick, allow more time.
Average cost, 10d. per lb. Sufficient for 6 persons.
Bacon Forcemeat Balls
6 oz (175g) breadcrumbs
2 oz (50g) finely shredded suet
2 oz (50g)bacon, finely chopped and fried until crisp
4 teaspoons of mixed fresh parsley, sage and thyme finely chopped
1 egg, well beaten
1 1/2 oz (40g) butter
Mix together the breadcrumbs and the suet in a bowl.
Add the bacon, herbs, salt and pepper (to taste).
Stir the beaten egg into the mixture.
Form into balls about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter.
Melt the butter in a frying pan.
Add the forcemeat balls and fry for 6 minutes.
Yield: 6-8 balls