The Essex Serpent

THE BOOK:

61HINX3QoBL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_I waited a long time for this book, and wanted to love it because of a glowing review by a blogger I follow. I plodded, rather than flew, through the book. Still, there was much to love, and I find myself thinking about the characters long after finishing the book. Set in Victorian England, there are distinct Gothic overtones to the story, that enhance the setting: London and Colchester. In the city, Charles Ambrose, a wealthy aristocrat and friend of the main character, Cora, expresses compassion for the poor of Bethnal Green who were forced to live in sub-human conditions: ” Even animals in the zoo should have their cages cleaned,” he says nobly. Before you get all judgy, remember that this is the England of Charles Dickens, and disdain for the poor was based on the upper class belief that their squalor was due to a moral deficit, not economic circumstances that left them with few resources to compete for a chance at a better life. The other location, Colchester, is the oldest recorded town in England, having been referenced by Pliny the Elder in 77 BCE. Wow! The 500 year-old George Hotel, where the Ambroses stayed when they visited, has Roman cellars, and is still in operation. In spite of its history, when Cora left London for Colchester after her husband died, her friend, Katherine Ambrose chided her, “If you wanted the sea, you could have used our house in Kent: here it’s little but mud and marsh for miles and the sight of it would depress a clown.” I love these people.

Apparently 1890’s London was mad for science, and that is what drew Cora to Colchester, where she hoped to find a fossil of some unique creature that would insure that her name and discovery would be preserved in the British Museum. When reports of sightings of an elusive serpent reached London, Cora packed up her son, her companion, Martha, and her things, and headed off to Colchester. The serpent sighting is based on a real 1669 pamphlet, “The Flying Serpent or Strange News out of Essex.”

Charles and Katherine Ambrose, Cora’s dear friends, arranged for her to meet their friend, the Reverend William Ransome, who lived in Aldwinter, not far from Colchester. There is an immediate bond between the two, despite their nearly polar oppposite views of the cosmos. Cora’s faith is totally rooted in science, while, Ransome is a man of God, believing that if there is a serpent, its presence is a warning from the Almighty about the moral depravity of the community.  And yet, Cora finds his intellect a worthy match for hers, and she enjoys sparring with him about scientific evidence versus divine presence. Their common ground is their mutual love of nature. Perry’s best writing lies in those descriptive passages where the characters are outdoors. Nature frees their thoughts and their tongues, allowing them to connect on their walks in ways that don’t happen in the Reverend’s parlor. During one of their sojourns, they stop in a clearing to argue a point, when Will suddenly looks around and notices that the canopy of the trees has created a natural cathedral. Will feels his faith most in nature, while Cora feels most free and alive there.

My favorite part in the book is one of Cora’s letters to Will. She relates a story about a friend of her father who loved to amuse her with stories and puzzles when she was a child. Once he asked her if she knew two words in the English language which are spelt the same and pronounced the same but have opposite meanings. The word was “cleave.” It can mean splitting or adhering. In a lovely passage, Cora uses it to express her feelings for Will.

There is so much in this book that I think about and would comment on but for the fear that this post would rival the actual book in length. Suffice to say that I did love it. Also,  my confidence in the above mentiond blogger is confirmed, as his literary taste continues to match my own.

THE BEAUTY:

The book’s cover! So far it’s my favorite of the year. Designed by Peter Dyer for Serpent’s Tail, a division of Profile Books. Ltd., it is based on a William Morris design.

THE FOOD:

After an extended falling out between Cora and Will, she plans a midsummer party to mend fences. The foods mentioned were capons (just a roasted chicken, really), eggs (boiled, of course, this is Victorian England after all), ham studded with cloves (just had that at Easter), small potatoes, salmon, and tomatoes with mint – the last the most mouth-watering option, in spite of the fact that I’m not  big fan of mint. I could find no Victorian recipes, so I figured Cora must have improvised, as did I in the salad below.

Tomato and Mint Salad
Serves 4

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, sliced thin
¼ C extra-virgin olive oil
1½ T white balsamic vinegar
1 clove crushed garlic
¾ tsp kosher salt divided into ½ tsp and ¼ tsp
2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced crosswise
½ tsp sea salt
¼ C loosely packed mint leaves

Put the crushed garlic in a small bowl with the olive oil to infuse
while preparing the other ingredients.

Slice the onion and place in a medium bowl of ice water to
mellow the pungency of the onion. Let sit for 10 minutes, drain
and pat dry.

In a medium bowl, toss the cherry tomatoes with a ¼ teaspoon
of kosher salt. When the onion is ready, add to cherry tomatoes and
toss to combine.

To make the vinaigrette, strain the garlic from the oil (I leave it in, because we love garlic) into a small bowl. Add the balsamic vinegar, ½ teaspoon of
kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Whisk to blend.

Arrange the heirloom tomato slices on a platter. Sprinkle lightly with sea
salt. Spread the cherry tomato mixture over the heirlooms, then
drizzle the vinaigrette over all. Garnish with mint leaves and serve.

After having the salad, I will use basil next time. Basil is a better pairing than mint for tomatoes according to my palate.

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