Gossip and cake with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set

Date:29-04-2014 07:58:07 read:2

Gossip and cake with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set

Laura Silverman dips into the rich recipes that gave so much food for thought to Virginia, Leonard and friends

Time for tea: a Charleston cook in Vanessa Bell’s 'The Kitchen’ 

It’s August 1924 at Charleston, East Sussex. Vanessa and Clive Bell, the artist and her art critic husband, are hosting a tea party with Duncan Grant, Vanessa’s lover, for a few close friends, the Bloomsbury Group. It’s one of those dreamy summer afternoons, long and languorous. The sky is a sweep of cerulean, the light is soft and buttery and the scent of jasmine blossoms drifts through the air. The walled garden of the farmhouse dances with colour. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the novelist and political theorist, John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova, the economist and the Russian ballerina he would later marry, Roger Fry, the painter, and Lytton Strachey, the writer, laze on deckchairs among poppies and delphiniums. There’s gossip, laughter and cake.

The Bloomsburys, argues a new book, were the foodies of their day. As much as they loved to talk about Freud, Proust and the latest love affair, they appreciated fresh, unfussy dishes, often inspired by their trips to France, Italy and Spain. In The Bloomsbury Cookbook, Jans Ondaatje Rolls shows how meals provided the perfect forum for discussions and, with a little imagination, draws parallels between what the group ate and their values, characters and relationships.

Many of the Bloomsburys were better at eating than preparing dishes. But it turns out that even Virginia Woolf was competent, at least at making bread and rice pudding. Recovering from a breakdown in 1914, she went on a cookery course in which she baked her wedding ring (by mistake) into a suet pudding. Woolf’s line in A Room of One’s Own – “One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well” – was held by all the group. From informal visits to summer parties, gatherings centred on food.

Virginia Woolf (REX)

What might have been served at a Bloomsbury tea party? There would undoubtedly have been cucumber sandwiches (with a sprinkling of fresh mint) and stuffed salmon rolls (with Worcester sauce and tarragon vinegar for a bit of a kick). Virginia Woolf was partial to the cakes of Grace Higgens, the Charleston cook, so one of her seed cakes might have been passed around too. Honey cake was another teatime favourite: David “Bunny” Garnett, the writer who took Duncan Grant as his lover, kept bees. Guests could also expect madeleines, inspired by Vanessa’s and Duncan’s spells painting in France. Seed cake might be flavoured with fig sauce, using figs grown at Charleston and soaked in sour cider.

When Jans Ondaatje Rolls cooked all 170 recipes in her book last year – “meal after meal after meal” – she found they were delicious but incredibly rich. “They cooked with masses of cream and butter and sugar and eggs,” says Jans. With their gummy textures, savoury recipes for almost anything in aspic (cold eggs, turbot, chicken) were the most dated. “After three days, my children were begging for a salad.”

The modern Bloomsbury cook should test recipes before making them for a party. The grades of flour used in the early 20th century were different from those of today, while measurements are approximate. Bloomsbury cooking reflected the group’s refusal to be tied down to rules. “Their style was add a little bit here, add a little bit there,” says Jans.

Their style of dress at tea parties was similarly haphazard. Leonard and Virginia would sometimes cycle the nine miles from their country retreat, Monk’s House, to Charleston. Grace Higgens once spotted them: “They looked absolute freaks, Mr Woolf with a corduroy coat which had split up the back… Mrs Woolf in a costume she had for years.”

But not everything was so disorderly. Guests would be expected to display exquisite table manners. This “game of Victorian society is useful”, wrote Virginia Woolf. “It has also its beauty, for it is founded upon restraint, sympathy [and] unselfishness.” Clive Bell and Bunny Garnett frowned upon Maynard Keynes, who would gather everything he wanted to eat on the table around his plate. He would then help himself from the nearest dish with his own cutlery, instead of passing his plate. Lydia Lopokova, meanwhile, did away with knives and forks altogether when she was hungry, shovelling food into her mouth with her fingers.

In between mouthfuls at a meal, there would be discussions and banter. The Bloomsburys debated the nature of good, and they gossiped. Virginia, recalled Clive, “might be divinely witty or outrageously fanciful; she might retail village gossip or tell stories of her London friends”. She would become so animated when she told a story that tears would stream down her cheeks with laughter. No topic was off limits: Roger Fry often expounded outlandish theories. In the future, he once said, the planet would be governed by birds. It was a serious prediction.

Sometimes the group would share works in progress. Support was not a given. When Lytton Strachey read aloud from his biography Eminent Victorians at Charleston before it came out in 1918, Duncan Grant fell asleep. He was, he said, exhausted from working in the fields as part of the war effort.

In lighter moods, the Bloomsburys put on theatricals. In one written by Quentin Bell, the son of Vanessa and Clive, and Janie Bussy for the final summer party at Charleston in 1939, Leonard and Virginia Woolf played Fact and Fiction bookcases.

Their food might have been better than their entertainment. Anyone for cherry tart?

READ: Afternoon tea recipes inspired by the Bloomsbury set


What to bring: a handmade gift from a French market (failing that, a Cézanne), your manners, a dazzling wit, your latest manuscript, a thick skin (for criticism of your work), gossip – plenty of it.

What to wear: any old thing for tea, the more crumpled and paint-stained the better. Men should change their ties for the evening, women should change their earrings.

What to say: whatever pops into your head, as long as it’s brilliant.

What to do: tell stories, be attentive and be charming. A thank-you note would be expected.

What not to do: sulk when your love goes unrequited… or criticise the food.

*'The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art’ by Jans Ondaatje Rolls (Thames & Hudson) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £22.95 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013