It had all the makings of a sketch for a post-threshold comedy show.
Picture the scene. The Duchess of Northumberland – aka Jane – is entertaining, among others, the Japanese ambassador, a now retired bishop (we’ll save his blushes) and his wife in Alnwick Garden’s magical Treehouse Restaurant.
Drinks are being offered and she passes the ambassador the cocktail menu, which happens to feature a special range developed by the Duchess.
There’s the Delicious Jane with vodka, freshly squeezed orange juice, passion fruit syrup and a dash of Grenadine and the Desirable Jane containing Bacardi, lime, sugar, mint leaves and a splash of soda
Deadly Jane (her nickname thanks to her fascination for poisonous plants and the macabre) made up of dark and white Alnwick rum, apricot brandy, orange and pineapple juices, lime and Grenadine, is another offering along with the Plain Jane, a non-alcoholic cocktail.
But the one that catches the Japanese ambassador’s eye is the Dirty Jane, a heady mix of vodka, Chambord raspberry liqueur, sugar syrup, soda and fresh lemons, raspberries and blackberries.
Laughing Jane recalls: “The ambassador was very taken aback and said ‘whoever did this is being terribly disrespectful. Who dares to call you names?’ And I replied, ‘I did!’
“The bishop’s wife then said ‘I’ll have a Dirty Jane.’ The Bishop said he’d follow suit and finally the ambassador caved in and ordered the Dirty Jane too. It was very funny.”
One could imagine the Two Ronnies having an innuendo-filled field day with such material.
‘Dirty’ (or deadly, desirable and delicious for that matter) are not descriptions people would normally associate with Northumberland’s first lady.
But it’s refreshing to know that there is a fun side to Jane Northumberland.
And it’s one that the public seems to appreciate. Her self-styled cocktails sell well in the restaurant with the Dirty Jane outstripping all the others. “It’s the best-selling by far,” Jane says with a smile as she sips a more sedate fruit tea in the Treehouse with its higgledy-piggledy windows, log fire burning in the middle of the room, soaring beams and oversized furniture hewn from lumps of wood.
“Within three months of launching the cocktails we had sold £60,000 worth of the Dirty Jane alone. It sells phenomenally well.”
It is undoubtedly what Jane will be hoping to emulate with her two latest food-themed ventures.
The first is three pocket-sized books that delve into the Alnwick Castle recipe archives and feed into Jane’s obsession for herbs and plants and most especially anything poisonous, aphrodisiacal and curative (she famously opened a Poison Garden at Alnwick in 2005 which boasts more than 100 plants of varying deadliness. The garden remains one of the few places to have a licence from the Home Office to grow for display purposes only cannabis, opium poppies and Catha edulis, an addictive stimulant native to the Horn of Africa).
The second is the launch this week of two new ranges of chocolate bars that play on Jane’s light and dark sides.
The comfy sounding Duchess of Northumberland collection with its pink almost girly wrappers features four flavours: Alnwick rose and strawberry; sweet honey and fragrant lavender; fruit preserve and vanilla shortbread with a hint of Earl Grey and Seville orange with aromatic lemongrass.
The other selection is an altogether darker affair (in more ways than one). Called Belladonna Jane (belladonna is another name for deadly nightshade), the label features a chilling beak-like medieval doctor’s plague mask that would have been filled with aromatic herbs and was designed to safeguard the wearer from the putrid miasma thought to surround invalids.
The sharp rhubarb (the leaves of the plant are lethal) and prickly ginger flavour also fittingly includes two skulls on the label. There’s deadly absinthe and necromancer’s violet; aromatic rosemary with a kick of monk’s pepper and tart crab apple paired with intoxicating poppy seeds.
The chocolate bars follow on from an array of marmalades on sale in the Alnwick Garden gift shop and selected high street stores, one of which is made to a centuries’ old recipe found in the castle annals and which it was claimed had aphrodisiac qualities.
Thought to be the oldest known recipe for marmalade made in this country, it is contained in a book compiled by one Edith Beale dating from 1576. Edith was the great-great-great grandmother of Elizabeth, the first Duchess of Northumberland, and according to Jane her recipe book was passed from grandmother to grand-daughter down through the ages.
The ancient formula not only gives instructions on how to make ‘ordinary’ marmalade but the special aphrodisiac version using quinces, which in medieval times was believed to have been the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
The quince marmalade is sold alongside more traditional orange and lemon varieties also taken from the time-honoured recipes, which in turn are included in the present Duchess of Northumberland’s Little Book of Jams, Jellies and Preserves.
Also in the series is the Duchess of Northumberland’s Little Book of Cocktails, Cordials and Elixirs, and Jane’s personal favourite, the Little Book of Poisons, Potions and Aphrodisiacs.
But it is the chocolate which is uppermost in Jane’s mind. It has taken a year to develop. Made for Jane by North Shields-based The Chocolate Smiths, the flavours are quirky to say the least. There was much tasting and tweaking over the summer before the final versions were decided on.
It sounds like the dream job. But Jane confesses she has hitherto not been a great consumer of artisan chocolate, her sweet-toothed cravings veering more towards Fry’s Turkish Delight, Dime bars and Cadbury’s Milk Tray (she is also not adverse to a Big Mac or KFC!).
“I was worried when I was doing the tastings that it would be too sophisticated for my tastes and not what I wanted. But I’ve been blown away by the end result.
“They are two separate but at the same time complementary lines that I believe, and hope, will appeal to different people.”
But it is the ‘dark side’ that in Jane’s words “gets me going.”
She chose all the ‘aphrodisiacs’ and ‘poisons’ for the chocolates. “I think when you are doing something like this you have to be true to yourself,” she says.
Not that any of the ingredients are noxious, it should be pointed out. The chocolate range plays on the collected ingredients poisonous and aphrodisiac associations.
With relish Jane enters into a discourse on the harmfulness of belladonna. It takes just two or three berries to kill a human. “But a rabbit can eat them and feel no ill effects,” Jane explains. “However, if you were to kill and then eat that rabbit you would die a horrendous death from belladonna poisoning.”
A cheery thought.
Luckily the Little Books contain nothing so violent. But they do provide a fascinating insight into this country’s food history and domesticity and how noble families like the Percies’ catered for both themselves and the army of staff needed to run homes like Alnwick Castle.
The books owe much to the first Duchess of Northumberland’s almost obsessive record keeping. Jane describes Elizabeth as “something of a control freak.”
There was a fine line between kill and cure and Jane found recipes for treating nightmares, whitening teeth and alleviating colds interspersed with methods for making preserves, cakes and elixirs.
Elizabeth Percy, whose hand written documents proved to be the best source of information, was an interesting woman. She had already been married three times when she wed Sir Hugh Smithson in 1740. He was later created the Duke of Northumberland in 1766.
Jane says: “I was really looking for things to do with death, but in the middle of all this I would find these special recipes from ‘great-great grandmother’ that dated back to the 15th century.
“Recipes were passed down through the generations and Elizabeth had compiled everything from what to do if you were vomiting to how to make a lemon cake.
“I even came across a French book that contained details of a soporific for those facing being hung, drawn and quartered, which involved taking a mixture of opium seeds and hemlock.”
She describes the recipes contained in all three books as both an inspiration and a “kind of intravenous history lesson that brings the whole world of still rooms and household management to life and allows us to see how aspects of it are still very relevant to how we live now.”
Unfortunately, records aren’t kept in the same way, although Jane concedes she has tried and tested recipes, like the toffee cake that her husband, the present Duke of Northumberland, adores, that are being passed around a new generation.
But as she says of the books: “They open up a window on to a world that sadly no longer exists.”
- The new Duchess of Northumberland and Belladonna Jane chocolate ranges are available from Alnwick Garden priced at £3.99.
- The books are published by The History Press and are also available from the Alnwick Garden gift shop at £9.99 each or via Amazon.co.uk
For more information on Alnwick Garden and the Treehouse Restaurant go to www.alnwickgarden.com
To Cure Love
(From The Little Book of Poisons, Potions and Aphrodisiacs)
Take 2oz of Consideration, half of Quantity of Indifference, 10 Grains of ingratitude, 6 temples of Patience, a small sprig of Rye, a good handfuls of Employments, four months absence, mix with it…
To Make Perry
(From The Little Book of Cocktails, Cordials and Elixirs)
Take pears that have a vinous juice such as the Gooseberry Pear Horse Pear both the red and white, the John, the choak pears, and other pears of the like kind; take the reddest of the sort; let them be ripe but not too ripe and grind them as you do apples when you make cyder, and work it off in the same manner; if your pears are of a sweet taste, mix a few crabs with them.
To Make Marmalade
(From The Little Book of Jams, Jellies and Preserves)
Take quinces and pare then and cut of the cores: then seeth them verie tender in cleane water and straine them in canvas of viij d an ell and let them stande in the vessel wherein they be strained. Then take the water that it is sodden in and take two whites of egges and beate it fine and put it in the same water. Then take sugar and put thereunto, then let seethe the same white of egges sugar and the same water till it be b oiled half awaye. Then take blancket lining and straine it through the same. Then put the sirupe and quinces together. So boile them till it be verie thicke and stirre it well for burning. Then boxe it.