Director Guillermo del Toro describes his 2015 film Crimson Peak as a “ghost story and gothic romance.” American aspiring writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) joins her new husband Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) at their family’s deteriorating gothic mansion, isolated in the English countryside. Like many of his movies, it is a dark fairytale, rich with gorgeous imagery and punctuated by surprising violence.
While one can see that the Sharpe home was once glorious, with its grand front hall, countless rooms, and wealth of furniture, tapestries, and heirlooms, the family (dwindled to just Thomas and Lucille) is now penniless. A huge hole in the roof lets in the cold along with falling leaves and snow, the walls are coated with fluttering black moths, and the house itself is sinking into thick red clay.
Unlike most upperclass English families of the time, the Sharpes have no service staff, and prepare their meals themselves. From what we see, the fare is very simple, including Lucille’s humble breakfast, some watery porridge, and cup after cup of firethorn berry tea. Firethorn berries, otherwise know as pyracantha berries, are a bright brick red color, very bitter, but not toxic and are sometimes made into jelly. Edith complains of their bitterness and Thomas tells her “I’m afraid nothing gentle ever grows in this land, Edith. You need a measure of bitterness – not to be eaten. To survive.”
True to the simple nature of the food in the Sharpe home is this recipe for oatmeal porridge, and you simply cannot talk about Victorian English food without talking about Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. First published in 1861, it is the quintessential book on housekeeping and cookery, and with its detailed recipes and illustrations was the most oft-consulted cookbook of the time.
Of course there is instruction on oatmeal, and Mrs Beeton gives you three options, listed from worst to best. First option is to sprinkle oatmeal into boiling water with your left hand and stir continuously with your right for 30 minutes. Exhausting. Second options is to soak it overnight – cooks quicker, but you have to plan ahead. Third option, declared the best, is to use a “water-jacketed saucepan,” or double boiler, which will cook the oatmeal with infrequent stirring. I basically used the third option, only didn’t need the double boiler because unlike in Victorian England, we now have non-stick cookware.
To dress it up, I added all of her suggestions – nutmeg, ginger, butter, cream – as well as a couple toppings: toasted almonds, and some sour cherries. The cherries I soaked until plump in port wine. This is optional, but gives them a lovely flavor, and “a sip of port” is mentioned in the film as what Edith’s father wants for his breakfast.
Sour Cherry Oatmeal Porridge
- 1 cup steel cut oats
- generous pinch salt
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons cream
- sugar to taste
- 1/2 cup almond slivers, toasted in a dry pan
- 3 ounces dried sour cherries, soaked in port wine or water at least an hour and up to overnight, then drained
In a saucepan, add oats, salt, and 3 cups water. Heat to a boil and reduce to medium low to simmer for approximately 30 minutes, stirring frequently and add more water if necessary. Remove from head and stir in nutmeg, ginger, butter, cream and sugar. Top with sour cherries and almond slivers.
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