British composer Lord Berners in the drawing room of Faringdon, painting a portrait of his favourite horse, which had been brought into the room for the occasion.
Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, led an exceptionally interesting life. A composer whose works included several ballets as well as the music for the 1947 movie “Nicholas Nickleby”, this bald British bachelor (1883-1950) also painted more than 100 landscapes, wrote six novels, two memoirs, and was a leading light of Britain’s aesthetic world between the wars. As his friend Osbert Sitwell observed, “Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms … he moved … a sort of missionary of the arts.” As for the musical compositions he wrote for so many years, a modern critic took a jaundiced view not long ago, calling Berners’ oeuvre “exquisite musical chintz”.
The famous fantail pigeons of Faringdon House, which Lord Merlin began dyeing brilliant colours in the 1920s; they continue to be brightened thusly to this day with vegetable dyes. Nancy Mitford called the fluttering birds "a cloud of confetti in the sky."
His Lordship also was a poker-faced practical joker, fond of pranks and silly signs. “Mangling Done Here” was written on the sign which hung on his front door. He also famously coloured the fantail pigeons at his country seat, Faringdon House, brilliant shades of pink, blue, and lavender, using vegetable dyes. It is no wonder that with such eccentric behaviour as a guide that Nancy Mitford fictionalized Berners as Lord Merlin in her comic novel The Pursuit of Love.
When it came to food, however, Lord Berners was a masterful host, and his meals, whether at Faringdon or his London residence, were considered superb, even overwhelmingly luxurious. There was no Monty Python-style trickery when it came to Berners’s table, though at least remembrance recalls mayonnaise dyed blue. One of Lord Berners’ best known dishes, Roast Chicken in Cream, was reprinted in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros, 1954), that immensely entertaining memoir cum recipe compilation. After adapting the somewhat vaguely written original recipe into more accurate terms, I made it two nights ago and was mightily impressed by its rich flavour and handsome presentation. My husband called it “moist, with a lovely onion-flavoured sauce.”
NOTE: Owned by writer Sofka Zinovieff, the Athens-based granddaughter of Lord Berners’ lover, Robert Heber-Percy, Faringdon House is available to rent on a monthly basis. Contact the Faringdon Estate Office, Faringdon, Oxfordshire, England (01367 240240) for details. To read more about Berners’s life, pick up a copy of “Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric” by Mark Amory (Chatto & Windus, 1998).
ROAST CHICKEN IN CREAM
SOURCE: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954)
2 large yellow onions
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds
Juice of 1 small lemon
1/2 cup sherry or Madeira
Rub the chicken with salt and pepper, inside and out, and set aside.
Cut the onions in half and then slice into half rounds. Brown the sliced onions with butter or olive oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy pot. When done place the chicken in the pot, breast side up. Cover the pot tightly, and cook over a low heat until done.
When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and place it on a platter or cookie sheet in low oven (250 degrees Fahrenheit) until needed.
Add heavy cream, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and sherry or Madeira to the pot of onions and chicken juices. Let the sauce reduce over a medium heat until it begins to thicken, stirring frequently.
Remove the chicken from the oven. Carve it into pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Pour the thickened sauce through a fine strainer over the chicken, covering the meat thoroughly (you may need to gently press the onions with the back of a spoon to force the sauce through). Garnish with finely chopped parsley and serve immediately.