Roald Dahl with Cartier cigarette.
It's odd that I haven't written about Roald Dahl before. Perhaps I have been waiting for the right moment. Like so many others reared on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or "James and the Giant Peach", I'm a fan of the old boy (described memorabily by Lynn Barber, I think, as Baldilocks). Actually, I'm a massive fan. Of course I am. The man was a genius. I still have my dog-eared copy of "James and the Giant Peach" lying around somewhere; a bizarre book if you think about it: a group of insects hi-jack a gigantic peach and fly it across the Atlantic to New York, where, if I remember rightly, it ends up spiked on the Empire State Building and the anti-hero (a centipede) becomes Mayor.
Roald Dahl by Sir Matthew Smith, 1944
Back in the late 60's and 70's (about the time I was wearing long grey shorts, sporting bloodied knees and fantasising over the admirably plummy Jenny Agutter in Lionel Jeffries' The Railway Children) Dahl was known as much for his creepy short stories as his children's books. Who can forget that amusing story about the gormless American vegetarian who gets served up as a juicy top side of pork?
Those of a vintage will remember "Tales of the Unexpected". And the slighty ersatz television series from London Weekend Television. Dahl introduced each episode by firelight from the civilised environs of his country house library in Buckinghamshire. The tantaslising opening titles featured a voluptuous woman in a body stocking and Lady Diana hair-do (according to my father and the South Buckinghamshire Advertiser, a housewife from Princes Risborough) prancing Bond-Like- super-imposed over a montage of tarot cards, roulette wheels and Aztec crystal skulls. I've got the slightly sinister fairground-y theme music going on in my head as I type.
We lived relatively close to the Dahls' house in Great Missenden, and sometimes stories about the goings-on at Gypsy House filtered through, fourth hand, through "friends of friends". This included Roald wheeling in one of those domed silver hotel serving affairs at a dinner party, from which sprang a flapping, live chicken. I have no idea if this tale is true, but it does seem very much in keeping with the Master of the Unexpected.
Gypsy House, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
Roald's widow, Felicity, opens the garden at Gypsy House from time to time in aid of the worthy Roald Dahl Foundation which supports children in the three areas of neurology, haematology and literacy (Dahl's seven year old daughter, Olivia, died of measles and his son, Theo, was severely injured following a horrific accident with a New York taxi). It's well worth a visit if you have any interest in gardens or the great man himself. It's a delightful house. And a delightful garden. I've posted some of my photographs from a recent visit.
Which takes me to "Memories with Food at Gypsy House", later re-published as "Roald Dahl's Cookbook". This is a charming book which I bought from one of those dreaded remainder piles back in the early 90's. You can buy it from amazon, and currently the price ranges from a ridiculous penny to a ridiculous £99.
This is a gourmand's cookbook, with a collection of sophisticated recipes, anecdotes, quirky Quentin Blake drawings, and an opportunity for Roald to digress on subjects as wide ranging as wine, gambling, the history of chocolate, mushrooming and the beneficial health effects of the sweet potato. I like Roald's recipe for Oeufs en Geleé: "...this is the most beautiful and delicious dish, but it is difficult to make well. If you can succeed in having the eggs not only soft-boiled inside but also separately suspended in the jelly, and yet not having the jelly too firm, then you have acheived the miracle." It's a buy.