One of the plus sides of being a journalist during the lockdown is that high profile people have suddenly found themselves with a surplus of time on their hands and nowhere to go, making it far easier than usual to access these celestial beings. Among the more surreal moments of lockdown so far is having a Zoom chat with Lord Carnarvon, owner of the real Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle in Hampshire – about his new gin, which is made with botanicals from the castle grounds, including lavender, orange peel and oats usually used to fuel racehorses.
Carnarvon’s great grandfather, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 with archaeologist Howard Carter. My Italian grandmother grew up in Alexandria, so Egypt has always held a fascination for me. After chatting about his gin, Lord Carnarvon told me about his great grandfather’s fateful find. “Sadly, he died in the hour of his triumph. While in Egypt he got bitten on the face by a mosquito, which got infected and led to pneumonia. Curiously, the weakest part of Tutankahmun’s gold mask is exactly the same place where my great grandfather got bitten,” he revealed.
“My grandfather was quite superstitious of the story, and chose not to trumpet it as the extraordinary feat it was. After he died my father discovered an incredible collection of Egyptian objects in a hidden cupboard between the drawing room and the smoking room while doing an inventory in 1988 with his very Carson-like butler, Robert. Among the objects was a ladies make-up set, tweezers and an eye decorating kit dating back to the time of Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs who pioneered expeditions to the Horn of Africa.”
The day after our intriguing phone call, a bottle of Highclere Castle Gin and a weighty coffee table tome, At Home at Highclere, written by the Countess of Carnarvon, arrived at my door. Within it was a recipe for Anglo-Indian breakfast dish kedgeree. Keen for a break from French food, I decided to give it a go. A Victorian breakfast staple, kedgeree became popular in the 19th century during the height of the British empire. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the dish’s roots date back to the 14th century, when it was a simpler concoction of spiced lentils, rice, fried onions and ginger known as ‘khichiri’.
British colonists developed a taste for khichiri, and, with fish being a mainstay of the Raj breakfast table, Indian cooks soon began integrating the two, later adding soft boiled eggs as a garnish. The fish used was unlikely to be the smoked haddock found in kedgeree today. Rather, cooks would fling in the catch of the day, serving it for breakfast so it didn’t spoil in the heat. Keen to enjoy the exotic dish back home, the colonists brought the recipe to Britain, and it soon became a Victorian breakfast table staple, the mildness of the spicing appealing to Brits’ delicate palates – Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale were particularly partial to the dish.
One of the joys of kedgeree is its versatility – it can be eaten hot or cold at any time of day, but the sweet spot is serving it warm as a brunch dish. While wildly unfashionable at the moment, I feel kedgeree is due a revival, and could one day rival the likes of shakshuka as a hipster brunch favourite. Lord Carnarvon likes his with salmon, but I went traditional with smoked haddock, poaching the golden hunks in warm milk. Kedgeree is a relatively simple dish to make, but it’s a true test of your multitasking skills. At one point I had all four hobs on the go and felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia making magic with the elements from his clifftop perch.
It doesn’t really matter which parts of the dish you do first – ideally you’ll be boiling your eggs, cooking your rice and poaching your fish at the same time to ensure none of them end up going cold. The haddock needs to simmer in its milky bath for around 10 minutes. For added flavour, you can cook the rice in the milk that poached the fish, but the real flavour comes from the fried onions, butter and curry powder added afterwards. A tablespoon of turmeric helps to ramp up the vivid yellow of the rice in a similar way to saffron. The eggs need eight minutes, so they’re hard enough to keep their shape but soft enough to retain their gooey yolks.
The jury is out as to whether peas have a rightful place in the dish. I love the flashes of green they brought to the party, which popped wonderfully against the sunshine yellow of the rice. Some recipes call for cream, others don’t. Lacking any in the pantry, I used crème fraîche, which made the dish all the more luxurious. For a first attempt, I was delighted with how it turned out. The only problem was that I’d cooked enough to feed an army, so ended up having to eat the damn thing for the next three days. Cold kedgeree can by jazzed up with a generous squirting of Kewpie mayo, though I’m not sure Queen Victoria would have approved.