By now you know I am obsessed with historical fiction especially when the book concerns “real” people. When this exceptionally written book came into my consciousness I knew it would be one I would not only enjoy but would devour and, of course, would want to share with you. I was correct in that assumption. (As usual, I recommend The Book Stall my Independent Bookseller, as your source when purchasing your books.)
The protagonist is none other than Alva Vanderbilt who married into one of the wealthiest, if not THE wealthiest at the time, American dynasties. Wealth was new to Alva and the story tells us of a world known to very few. The Astor’s ruled New York Society, especially their Matriarch, Caroline. Snubbed by Mrs. Astor, Alva was determined to make her place, along with her husband, William, and the rest of the Vanderbilt family to reach the top of the Gilded Age social scene. And not only did she do exactly that but did it with grace and class Fowler takes us into this rarified world via, their exquisite homes, think Marble House (The Biltmore is briefly mentioned), the many homes in New York City. I particularly enjoyed Alva’s forays into every detail of her many homes and her participation with the noted architect, Richard Hunt, in planning the architecture and each and every phase of the construction of the mansions and the interiors from paint colors, fabrics, to furniture….everything! Having literally millions to spend she thought out every possible item in her homes and became the personification of elegance of her era.
Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island
A couple of the interiors …
Living in a strained marriage, (I’m not doing spoilers here, if you know the background of the era you know of the scandals) Alva made herself a pilar of New York, Newport, Paris and London society in lifestyle including her Charles Frederick Worth wardrobe (you know I enjoyed those descriptions!), the exquisite entertaining….balls, formal dinners…highlighting the developing of the Arts in New York City, making sure her children were exposed to the best of educations, associating with the “right” people (including Oliver Belmont) while respecting everyone no matter their social status…which I greatly admired. She was always a philanthropist and became very involved in women’s suffrage. In many ways she reminds me of our own Bertha Palmer as well as others of her time. It gives us details of the women (or The woman, Alva) behind the wealth which was always in the hands of their husbands, fathers, guardians. Fowler’s eye for detail parallels that of Alva’s…her research is impeccable. Read it you will be transfixed!
A couple of books to give you thoughts on the food of the time…
I’m including a recipe for Beef Wellington, which happens to a favorite of mine to serve at special dinner parties. This recipe is from Epicurious.com
- a 3 1/2-pound fillet of beef tied with thin sheets of larding fat at room temperature
- 3/4 pound mushrooms, chopped fine
- 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 pound pâté de foie gras (available at specialty foods shops) at room temperature
- 1 pound puff paste or thawed frozen puff pastry plus additional for garnish if desired
- N/A frozen puff pastry
- 1 large egg white beaten
- an egg wash made by beating 1 large egg yolk with 1 teaspoon of water
- 1/2 cup Sercial Madeira
- 2 teaspoons arrowroot dissolved in 1 teaspoon cold water
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1/2 cup beef broth
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped black truffles (available at specialty food shops) if desired
- watercress for garnish if desired
- In a roasting pan roast the beef in the middle of a preheated 400°F oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the thermometer registers 120°F. Let the fillet cool completely and discard the larding fat and the strings. Skim the fat from the pan juices and reserve the pan juices.
- In a heavy skillet cook the mushrooms in the butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until all the liquid they give off is evaporated and the mixture is dry, season them with salt and pepper, and let them cool completely. Spread the fillet evenly with the pâté de foie gras, covering the top and sides, and spread the mushrooms evenly over the pâté de foie gras. On a floured surface roll 1 pound of the puff paste into a rectangle about 20- by 12- inches, or large enough to enclose the fillet completely, invert the coated fillet carefully under the middle of the dough, and fold up the long sides of the dough to enclose the fillet brushing the edges of the dough with some of the egg white to seal them. Fold ends of the dough over the fillet and seal them with the remaining egg white. Transfer the fillet, seam side down to a jelly-roll pan or shallow roasting pan and brush the dough with some of the egg wash. Roll out the additional dough and cut the shapes with decorative cutters. Arrange the cutouts on the dough decoratively, brush them with the remaining egg wash, and chill the fillet for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Bake the fillet in the middle of a preheated 400°F oven for 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 350°, and bake the fillet for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until the meat thermometer registers 130°F. for medium-rare meat and the pastry is cooked through. Let the fillet stand for 15 minutes.
- In a saucepan boil the reserved pan juices and the Madeira until the mixture is reduced by one fourth. Add the arrowroot mixture, the broth, the truffles, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the sauce over moderate heat, stirring, being careful not to let it boil, for 5 minutes, or until it is thickened. Loosen the fillet from the jelly-roll pan, transfer it with two spatulas to a heated platter, and garnish it with watercress. Serve the fillet, cut into 3/4-inch-thick slices, with the sauce.
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