Today is the birthday (1859) of Kenneth Grahame, a Scottish writer, most famous for The Wind in the Willows (1908), one of the classics of children’s literature, but beloved by adults too. He also wrote The Reluctant Dragon; both books were adapted into popular films.
Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh. When he was a little more than 1 year old, his father, an advocate, received an appointment as sheriff-substitute in Argyllshire at Inveraray on Loch Fyne. Kenneth loved the sea and was happy there, but when he was 5, his mother died from complications of childbirth, and his father, who was an alcoholic, gave over care of Kenneth, his brother Willie, his sister Helen, and the new baby Roland to granny Ingles, the children’s grandmother, in Cookham Dean in the village of Cookham in Berkshire in England. There the children lived in a spacious, if dilapidated, home, “The Mount,” on spacious grounds, and were introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, David Ingles, curate at Cookham Dean church.
This ambiance, particularly Quarry Wood and the River Thames, is probably the inspiration for the setting for The Wind in the Willows.
He was an outstanding pupil at St Edward’s School in Oxford. During his early years at St. Edwards, a sports regimen had not been established and the boys had freedom to explore the city and upper reaches of the river Thames (known as the Isis in Oxford), and the nearby countryside.
Grahame wanted to attend Oxford University, but was not able to because of cost. Instead he was sent to work at the Bank of England in 1879, and rose through the ranks until retiring as its Secretary in 1908 due to ill health, which may have been precipitated by a strange, possibly political, shooting incident at the bank in 1903. Grahame was shot at three times – all shots missed. An alternative explanation, given in a letter on display in the Bank museum, is that Grahame had quarreled with Walter Cunliffe, one of the bank’s directors, who would later become Governor of the Bank of England, in the course of which he was heard to say that Cunliffe was “no gentleman,” and that his retirement was enforced ostensibly on health grounds.
Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899. They had only one child, a boy named Alastair (whose nickname was “Mouse”), born blind in one eye and plagued by health problems throughout his short life. On Grahame’s retirement, they returned to Cookham where he had lived as a child, and lived at “Mayfield,” now Herries Preparatory School, where he turned the bedtime stories he told Alastair into his masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows.
Alastair eventually committed suicide on a railway track while an undergraduate at Oxford University, two days before his 20th birthday on 7 May 1920. Out of respect for Kenneth Grahame, Alastair’s death was recorded as an accidental death.
Grahame died in Pangbourne, Berkshire, in 1932. He is buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford. Grahame’s cousin Anthony Hope, also a successful author, wrote his epitaph, which reads: “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on the 6th of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.”
While still a young man in his 20s, Grahame began to publish light stories in London periodicals such as the St. James Gazette. Some of these stories were collected and published as Pagan Papers in 1893, and, two years later, The Golden Age. These were followed by Dream Days in 1898, which contains The Reluctant Dragon.
There is a ten-year gap between Grahame’s penultimate book and the publication of his triumph, The Wind in the Willows. During this decade, Grahame became a father. The wayward headstrong nature he saw in his little son Alastair he transformed into the swaggering Mr. Toad, one of its four principal characters. Despite its success, he never attempted a sequel. The book was a hit and is still enjoyed by adults and children today, whether in book form or in the films, while Toad remains one of the most celebrated and beloved characters of the book. Wind in the Willows won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958. In the 1990s, William Horwood came up with a series of sequels, but they lack the charm and eloquence of the original.
What could be better to celebrate Grahame than a Victorian summer picnic by the river? As ever, I turn to Isabella Beeton. This bill of fare is for 40 people but it gives the general idea. Notice that it spreads over both lunch and tea. It’s rather heavy on meat and light on veggies. I also love her occasional asides – “1 large cold plum-pudding (this must be good)”—and the occasional enigmatic comment – “Take 3 corkscrews.” Priceless.
BILL OF FARE FOR A PICNIC FOR 40 PERSONS.
2149. A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf’s head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers.
2150. Stewed fruit well sweetened, and put into glass bottles well corked; 3 or 4 dozen plain pastry biscuits to eat with the stewed fruit, 2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, 2 cold cabinet puddings in moulds, 2 blancmanges in moulds, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold plum-pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, 3 dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, 6 lbs. of butter (this, of course, includes the butter for tea), 4 quartern loaves of household broad, 3 dozen rolls, 6 loaves of tin bread (for tea), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes, a tin of mixed biscuits, 1/2 lb, of tea. Coffee is not suitable for a picnic, being difficult to make.
Things not to be forgotten at a Picnic.
2151. A stick of horseradish, a bottle of mint-sauce well corked, a bottle of salad dressing, a bottle of vinegar, made mustard, pepper, salt, good oil, and pounded sugar. If it can be managed, take a little ice. It is scarcely necessary to say that plates, tumblers, wine-glasses, knives, forks, and spoons, must not be forgotten; as also teacups and saucers, 3 or 4 teapots, some lump sugar, and milk, if this last-named article cannot be obtained in the neighbourhood. Take 3 corkscrews.
2152. Beverages.—3 dozen quart bottles of ale, packed in hampers; ginger-beer, soda-water, and lemonade, of each 2 dozen bottles; 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, champagne à discrétion, and any other light wine that may be preferred, and 2 bottles of brandy. Water can usually be obtained so it is useless to take it.
Here is a recipe for veal and ham pie (also called veal, ham, and egg pie), a mainstay at picnics now as then. Homemade cannot be beaten. The pastry is called slack paste and breaks all the common rules for pastry using boiling fat instead of ice cold. It is not rolled, but pulled and poked whilst warm until it lines the baking vessel. The result is a surprisingly light and flaky yet strong pastry that holds its shape when pies are removed from their containers. For smaller, individual pies the pastry is strong enough for them to be baked without containers, as with Scotch pies (see here for recipe).
Veal and Ham Pie
1lb/450 gm ground veal
4 oz/110 gm ground, boiled ham, minced
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp ground mace
¼ tsp ground bay leaves
1 lemon, zest only
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 oz/110 gm lard, plus extra for greasing the tin
3/4 cup/200 ml water
12 oz/350 gm plain flour
1 egg yolk
3 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled
2 tsp powdered gelatin
½ pint/300 ml boiling light stock
Pre-heat oven to 350 °F/ 180 °C
Grease a 2 ½ pint/1.4 liter loaf pan and line the base with greaseproof paper. Put the veal, ham, parsley, mace, bay leaves, lemon zest and onions in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.
Put the flour in a heatproof mixing bowl. Put the lard and water in a saucepan and gently heat until the lard has melted. Bring to the boil, remove from the heat and tip in to the flour all at once. Using a wooden spoon mix to form a soft dough. Beat the egg yolk into the dough. Cover with a damp cloth and let the dough rest until it has cooled just enough to be easy to work with bare hands. Do not allow the dough to cool completely. Cut the dough into two parts –3/4 for the base and 1/4 for the top. Reserve the top part in a warm place under a damp cloth and work with the base part. Flatten it a little and lay it in the base of the pie pan. With your fingertips work it into the base and and up the sides of the pan, making sure it is evenly distributed and a little hangs over the edges. Press in half the meat mixture and place the eggs down the center. Fill with the remaining meat mixture. Roll out the remaining pastry for the lid. Cover the pie with the pastry and seal the edges. Use the pastry trimmings to decorate the top, then make one large whole in the center of the pie.
Bake for 1 ½ hours. If necessary, cover the pastry with foil towards the end of the cooking time to prevent over-browning. Leave to cool for 3-4 hours. Make up an aspic by dissolving the gelatin in the boiling stock. Cool for about 10 minutes. Pour the liquid aspic through the hole in the top of the pie. I usually use a small funnel to prevent the aspic spilling over the pastry. Leave to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour before removing the pie from the pan. If you wait too long, the fat from the pastry will bind the pie to the pan. If it does not come out easily, dip the pan in hot water for a few minutes.
Wrap the pie in a kitchen cloth and refrigerate. Serve by cutting into ½ inch/1.25 cm slices. Each slice will have a nice roundel of egg in the center. At home, serve this slice on a garnish of greens; at a picnic just pick it up and eat it with your hands. I like mine with a dab of hot English mustard and a pickled onion, but plain is perfectly fine. The combination of mace, bay, and lemon zest is astounding and needs no help.