Clarissa Dickson Wright dead: Appreciation - we’ve lost our foremost advocate of wholesome, hearty, British fare
One of her dishes was called Bugger Blair, as a protest against the ban on fox hunting
Like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia, Clarissa Dickson Wright was forthright, assertive, plum-faced and equipped with a voice intended to carry across a hunting field. Her early departure deprives British gastronomy of its foremost advocate. Honest, ungussied, and wonderfully hearty, her dishes are among the best food to be found on these islands: rabbit casserole, hash of crabs, pork belly with anchovies and chestnuts…
Though the four series of Two Fat Ladies brought her to national prominence, she produced her finest work in the years after her television partner Jennifer Paterson died in 1999. Authoritative and inventive, her 2004 book on game is a classic text from a real enthusiast: “I think I could eat partridge every day.”
Her greatest book appeared three years ago. A History of English Food might be described as a magnum opus if it wasn’t so much fun. Packed with historical tips – a 1660 recipe for salmon with oranges is “one of the nicest ways of cooking salmon I know” – the narrative is embellished with recollections of eating badger (“rather like young boar”), rooks (“not unpalatable”) and swan (“very fishy, rather stringy”).
As these items suggest, you didn’t go to CDW for political correctness. One of her dishes was called Bugger Blair as a protest against the fox-hunting ban. In 2009 she was prosecuted for hare coursing with dogs and, despite pleading guilty, received an absolute discharge. The main reason for the verdict is that the dogs were muzzled, but it didn’t hurt that she was the most brilliant law student of her day.
Her legal career went to hell as a result of the alcoholism that soaked up a £2m inheritance. Far from drawing a veil over her bibulous past, CDW brought it up constantly and expressed justifiable pride in her 27 years on the wagon.
For a middle-class child growing up in London, CDW enjoyed a rare proximity to the realities of food production as her father raised pigs in St John’s Wood. When a neighbour asked who butchered the porkers, her dad replied: “I’m a senior surgeon at St Mary’s, Paddington. Who do you think butchers them?” The whole family helped “wash out the tripes and scald the hair off… We prepared a lot of bacon and ham and tripe chitterlings.”
The same robustness characterised her philosophy of food. As one of Britain’s best-known television chefs, she was not blind to the irony that “while post-war Britain has shown an ever-diminishing desire to cook, it has displayed an ever-growing appetite for watching other people cook on television.”
Her extempore food lectures, delivered note-free and with lawyerly panache, were impressive for their erudition, effortless articulacy and, it has to be said, somewhat blasé approach to pedantic accuracy. (She talked of “nine different types of tripe” while most authorities would say that the cow only produces four.) It would be surprising to learn that CDW was a devotee of Wikipedia.
Though the British may be addicted to watching the fiddly impossibilities of Masterchef, it is the practical, tasty food of this irreproachably down-to-earth cook that we increasingly eat in restaurants, pubs and, it is to be hoped, our own homes. The availability of such assertive items as kidneys, oxtail, liver and anchovies is a legacy of CDW. She may have gone, but she’s left a lasting impression on our plate.
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