A Whole Lot of Blarney!

It's time to tackle the dinner plate of my collection of Old Britain Castles china! This beauty features the Blarney Castle circa 1792.

To be honest, I've had this plate on my table so often that I don't give it much of a second thought. But on closer examination, I realize it does not look a lot like a castle.

It looks like a lovely British home, but not a castle. In fact, it looks very little like Blarney Castle as it stands today.

It turns out that Blarney Castle had a hunting lodge attached to the castle, which has since burned down, so I don't have that many details to compare against my china pattern. But I did come across some interesting facts about the Blarney Castle. There is, of course, the Blarney Stone there. As far as I can tell, in order to kiss the stone and gain the gift of gab, you have to lie on your back, hold onto a pair of metal bars and bend backwards to actually get to the stone. I have a creeping suspicion that this sacred rock may be a seething nest of bacteria from the number of people who have puckered up to it. 

But there are extensive grounds to keep you occupied, should the Blarney Stone or the Castle not appeal. They have a bog and a Fairy Glen, and most intriguingly, a Poison Garden. 

This garden features wolfbane, opium, and mandrake plants, and has the added thrill of skulls put on all of the plant signs. Don't say the Irish don't have a knack for theatrical flourish. Maybe they've been kissing the Blarney Stone a little too often!

Haddon Hall: A Plate Fit for a Pavlova

It has arrived. Technically called the 10” chop plate for Old Britain Castles. But being a pescetarian, there are no chops that I am planning to serve…unless it is “chops” of cauliflower! No, this plate, I have decided, is my Pavlova plate. Pavlova is one of those dishes I obsess over, but rarely make. Not that it is difficult to whip egg whites and bake a disk of sumptuously rich chewy meringue. Nor is it hard to whip some cream and arrange some berries on top. It is rather the slightly embarrassing fact that being made of egg, a slice of pavlova is ridiculously rich and filling. It looks something like this:

It is not the sort of dessert that it would be wise to make and keep in the house, unless there are a lot of people around to help eat it. I made one a few years ago, and it was one of the most glorious moments of my foodie life…I cut an enormous slice of it and went to town. A little later, I went in for seconds. For the next 24 hours I felt vaguely like a python that had managed to swallow a gazelle. That was not my first "merciful heavens" encounter with a meringue-based dessert. There was that baked Alaska in NYC that seriously impeded my ability to eat anything else for the next day. Do not, I say, underestimate just how dang rich meringue can be. 

Nonetheless, recently I have been dreaming of one, and there are several social gatherings ahead this month that might call for one…occasions on which I will have to share the Pavlova and will not be obliged to bring home leftovers. For this I will need a plate worthy of the stately grace of the dessert. And for this, I now have my Pavlova plate featuring Haddon Hall circa 1792. 

The Duke of Rutland’s seat, the hall has been called “the most perfect house to survive from the middle ages” in 1000 Best Houses. Movies such as Pride & Prejudice, The Princess Bride, and Jane Eyre have filmed here. Lord Manners currently welcomes visitors to his hall in Derbyshire…not a castle, we understand, but looking rather like one, and therefore featured in the Old Britain Castles pattern. It looks delightfully similar to how it does on the plate.

In December, they offer candlelight tours…put it on my bucket list! But in the meantime, I ponder, which Pavlova is worthy of the Haddon Hall plate? Perhaps Nigella Lawson's chocolate and raspberry pav?

Belvoir Castle & Old Britain Castles: Serious time with my salad plates!

As I collect Old Britain Castles, a pattern introduced in the 1900s in Britain by Johnson Brothers, I thought it would be fun to begin looking at the castles that are featured on these beautiful dishes. Today, in the mail came a haul of three salad plates, featuring Belvoir Castle.

All of the engravings on this pattern were done circa 1792, and here is how Belvoir Castle looked then.

I was so pleased to find that Belvoir Castle is not only still with us, but it is magnificently well kept, and currently under the care of the 11th Duke of Rutland. You can visit their website here.

Here is what their website says about Belvoir:

Belvoir Castle is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland. The family have lived at Belvoir in an unbroken line for almost a thousand years.  Crowning a hill in Leicestershire, its turrets and towers rise over the Vale of Belvoir like an illustration in a romantic fairytale.

The land was a gift from William the Conqueror to one of his Norman barons – Robert de Todeni who fought for him as his Standard Bearer at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  The first castle which was begun in 1067, was constructed primarily to defend its Norman owners from attack, and so took full advantage of its defensive position high up on the ridge.  By 1464 the Wars of the Roses had taken their toll on the building and it was more or less in ruins.  Some 60 years later it rose again, but as a nobler structure with a central courtyard, parts of which can still be recognised today.  But in 1649 that too was destroyed, by Parliamentarians after Royalists had seized it during the Civil War.  Its third incarnation, began in 1654 was designed as a large family home with no connotations of defence or war.

The castle you see today finally emerged in the early 1800s and was built for the 5th Duke and Duchess of Rutland between 1801 and 1832 by architect James Wyatt.

The castle was given the French name Belvoir – meaning beautiful view – now pronounced ‘beaver’ remains as one of the most magnificent and beautiful Regency houses in England.

Here is an engraving from wikipedia, which says "A plate from Jones's Views (1819), showing Belvoir Castle's dominant position overlooking the Vale of Belvoir."

Where is Leicesterhire? It is North of London by a fair ways, with the nearest city being Nottingham.

How does the castle look today and does it still compare to the engraving featured on my salad plates?

The front part of the castle appears to have been painted yellow, and it was possibly rebuilt after the engraving was done, but it is a very handsome castle!

And the inside appears to be stunning!

Put this on my list of places to visit, one day, on my Old Britain Castles tour of England!

Clarice Cliff, Queen of British dinnerware,
and “Rural Scenes” by Royal Staffordshire

This might as well have been titled “Confessions of a China Hoarder: I have a problem with British transferware!” I adore it. I see it in vintage stores and my heart starts pittering and pattering. Royal Staffordshire. Johnson Brothers. Anything that looks like it belongs on Beatrix Potter's teatime table, and I’m hooked. So I am guilty of scouring the kitchen section of vintage and thrift stores, turning over plates and reading labels. I know just enough to know that it isn’t common to see Royal Staffordshire dinnerware that has a person’s name signed on the bottom.


Who then, I wondered, was Glarice Gliff? No, scratch that. Who was Clarice Cliff? This was while hunched over at a vintage shop, peering down at a set of dusty and well-loved purple lithographs on Staffordshire china that had pointy handles on the tea cups.

A little research soon paid off. Clarice Cliff has been called “one of the most influential ceramics artists of the 20th Century.” (claricecliff.com) Born in 1899, she lived into the 1970s, and rose to prominence in the potteries area of England as a painter of pottery (yes, that really was a career in the early 1900s). She advanced to run a team of painters, all of whom produced hand painted, whimsical designs with bright, bold colors, and a distinctly artistic feel. 

One of many book that has been written about Clarice
That said, I’m not wild about the designs that she is most prized for. But I like her attitude. She was quoted in an interview as saying, “Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist, and people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery.” A woman after my own heart! 

Clarice, herself

But WWII changed Britain, obviously, as well as its tastes in dinnerware. And Clarice moved on to designing transferware for shell-shocked Britainers who yearned for the innocent, pastoral “good ol’ days” of the 1800s. The “Rural Scenes” design for Royal Staffordshire is considered “stuffy” compared to her early endeavors. Well, if the Bakery Babe be stuffy, so goes it. I think these scenes of woodcutters, beehives, cows, and chickens are utterly charming. 

And the purple color tempts me to fall into a mania of collecting that would likely take up a few decades. I am serious. Something this lovely cannot stay in my house, or I will spend the next thirty years hunting down Rural Scenes teacups and bone plates, until I have a complete set. First things first, my dove. There are still a few odd hundred or so pieces of pink transferware that I need to complete my budding collection!

Deceived, Yet Again, by Berry Bowls!

Johnson Brothers Old Britain Castles is my main pattern, which I've been collected at a painfully slow rate the past five years. I can't define the appeal of these stodgy British castles planted in the middle of beautiful red transferware flourishes...except that they somehow invoke the best kind of British stodgy...the kind that believes in little scones and sandwiches at tea time. And although my hoard is growing, I still lack a few things, key of which is a decent soup bowl. There is the cereal bowl, which is good only for looking at, and then there is...the berry bowl. It is a wee little bowl, apparently meant for berries...from a time and age when people needed bowls just for berries. And in and of itself, it is a lovely little piece of China. Were it not for the fact that when photographed at a wide angle, it looks like a bowl big enough for a roasted bird. Which is how I have twice now paid a great deal of money on ebay for 8 bowls that are meant for hummingbirds and fairies.

But of interest to some may be the differences in coloring. Johnson Brothers used to be manufactured in England, of course, but was subsequently bought by Wedgewood, and the dishes are now made in China. The patterns remain mostly the same. But there is a difference in the coloring. The dishes that were made in England are a vibrant, pinkish color, while the new ones are more maroonish and have less ink.

The bowl on the left is made in England and shows signs of wear and tear. It cost $7 on ebay. To the right is a $4 bowl from discount store Marshalls...not made in England. You can see the difference of richness in color. This has led me to the inescapable conclusion that it is better to pay a little more for the older China that was made in England. Exciting stuff? For a transferware fanatic, yes!

I did add two platters to my collection, one a birthday gift, and the other a sentimental purchase (it is Kings College in Cambridge, England...not really a castle, but I'm still glad they put it on a plate!)

The Oddest China Obsession Yet!

I have to admit...this one draws odd looks from people. But the idea started several years ago, as I would pass by the china shelf at the local thrift store, and see here or there a cup and saucer or a champagne glass or a plate with "50th Anniversary" on them. I always looked at them wistfully, thinking these beautiful treasures must've been very dear to whomever had a long enough marriage to buy these. And somehow, these precious things made their way to the thrift store, most likely by heirs who saw no use in them. I always thought it a terrible pity. And that is when it occurred to me. What if I took these treasures and made a tea set of them? Setting a table with pieces of china that represent something that most in my generation have no expectation of experiencing: a fiftieth wedding anniversary. 

And so it has begun. One cup at a time, I shall build my treasure collection. Perhaps on my fiftieth birthday, I will bring them out for lunch. Really, the historian and the sentimentalist in me cannot resist. Observe this cardboard box, clearly marked from a yard sale. "50th Anniver. 1.00."

And inside? This lovely serving plate with a clip-on handle.

How can I not salvage these and give them a place of honor? Surely this justifies another set of china keepers?

March Hare Tea

It was my food conspirator in Boston who started the entire thing. She called me with tales of a tea party with a glorious chocolate & orange trifle. Well, day dreams of trifle led to day dreams of Victoria sponge cake and then pots of tea and then scones and then clotted cream...it was clear that I was late for a very important date. It had been far too long since I'd gone to a proper tea! Luckily, there is at least one other woman in California besides myself who is willing to obsess about that most proper and comforting ritual of afternoon tea; we shall call her the First Lady of Frosting. So a plan was hatched for March Hare Tea, or as I thought of it, Easter Tea. What could be more glorious than fancy hats and cups of tea and plates of dainties and little sandwiches to pop in one's mouth, so that without appearing overtly gluttonous, one may have quite a feast! Our first and most crucial decision was cake. A carrot cake, said I. Fine, said the First Lady of Frosting...as long as it doesn't have nuts or raisins or anything like that. I was momentarily befuddled, but a quick googling revealed that there are others out there who also prefer their carrot cake with carrots as the big star. We decided on Gimme Some Oven's recipe, which features a pound of shredded carrots! Our test run was delicious, but proved one important point of science: if you do not mix the baking soda well enough with the flour, the carrots will turn green. Yes, green. Our first cake looked a little like zucchini cake. The second time around, we got it right though. And the First Lady of Frosting outdid herself with little carrots all around the cake.

The second dilemma? Clotted cream. I've had clotted cream, properly done, in the bucolic meadows of Cambridge, England...where, in fact, buying clotted cream is no more of an event than buying sour cream in the states. But the variety that comes in bottles has never been a taste event. And although there are recipes online to simulate clotted cream, we decided to go with a dollop of creme fraiche. Tangy, a bit loosy goosy (far from clotted), it was quite acceptable with apricot jam and a scone.

There were tea sandwiches, of course. Cucumber and cream cheese. Honey sheep's milk with heirloom tomatoes, and sharp cheddar with arugula. But for me, the true object of my affection is the deviled egg. I so rarely find these at parties any longer, which is perhaps for the best, given that I am constitutionally unable to restrain myself from downing them like candy! The First Lady of Frosting obliged with eggs that were crackle-dyed in Easter fashion. It was up to me to determine the ingredients. My memory of childhood deviled eggs was no more complex than mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. So I went to the experts on comfort food, at Southern Living, to see what other people do for a sumptuous treat. I immediately DQ'ed the suggestion to add avocado rather than mayonnaise...I have my principles, people! But it seemed to me that aside from mayonnaise and mustard, the three main variants are pickle relish, Worcestershire sauce, or hot sauce. And one recipe that even added cream cheese! I went with what we had on hand at the First Lady of Frosting's fridge, and we ended up with spicy mustard, sweet pickle relish, a wee sprinkle of garlic powder, and mayo. It was good. Very good. I ate at least four entire eggs that way.

But deep in my foodie heart, I can't help but think that more exploration is in order. This is such a delightful, old-fashioned appetizer; I feel a deviled-egg kick coming on! And perhaps Victoria sponge cake? And trifles? And, oh my...I'm late for a very important date. TEA!

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