Some cookbooks have a longer shelf life than others. Well-thumbed, splattered indelibly with ingredient stains, they’ve stayed the course. Many courses, if you forgive the culinary jeu de mot. One such tome is The Carved Angel Cookbook by Joyce Molyneux, a bastion of my recipe collection since it was published in 1990. It sold 50,000 copies despite the chef’s lack of TV exposure or reluctance to self-publicise. Unlike a certain Mr Floyd, who ran a gastropub upriver from Joyce’s Dartmouth, Devon base. Until bankruptcy.
Her book celebrates the very special restaurant on the riverfront, where she made her name. I mention it now because this groundbreaking female chef turns 90 this month after being retired for well over two decades.
Happy Birthday, Joyce (and fellow legend Shaun Hill, 75 this week and still at the stove in his Michelin-starred Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny).
An appropriate dish to cook in Joyce’s honour might well be the famous Salmon in Puff Pastry with Stem Ginger and Currants, invented by her mentor George Perry-Smith when she worked for him at The Hole in The Wall, Bath in the Sixties. It accompanied her to Dartmouth when in the early Seventies he set up her and his stepson, Tom Jaine, to run the Carved Angel.
One hitch, though. It’s not in the The Carved Angel Cookbook. I’d got it in my head that it was. An easy enough mistake to make. You’ll certainly find it in two Jane Grigson books, her Fish Book (1993) and The Observer Guide to British Food (1984),where this great food scholar/cook writes: “I’d gathered that the source of the idea was a medieval recipe, but then I found something almost identical in the Cook and Confectioner’s Dictionary by John Nott (1726, reprinted in 1980). In that more fanciful time, the pastry was scored to look like a fish; inside were mace, butter and ginger in slices, along with the salmon.”
For the salmon Perry-Smith insisted on best Wye, then Tamar when he moved his own restaurant to Cornwall; for Joyce definitely Dart?
There was an obvious affinity between Joyce and Jane (who died of cancer in 1990). Tom recalled Jane and her irascible poet/critic husband Geoffrey coming for dinner to the Angel once. Joyce was apprehensive because at least one recipe had come straight from one of Jane’s books. Fortunately all went swimmingly.
Years later, Joyce would hang a grand Jane Bown portrait of Jane at the threshold of her kitchen and, one further link, Jane’s daughter Sophie was co-author of The Carved Angel Cookbook.
All of which I find fascinating but it still leaves me adrift of a birthday dish. Easy really. Let’s keep the puff pastry. Joyce provides a recipe: you could buy it in but insist on butter. It provides the light casing for a very springlike dish – A Pastry of Quail’s Eggs and Asparagus with a Herb and Cream Sauce. Wild cepes would be a luxury addition but are not essential. Check out the recipe at the end of this article. As for that definitive salmon and ginger en croute dish Google and ye will find. Versions are all over the Public Domain.
So what makes Joyce Molyneux and the Carved Angel so special 30 years on?
I happened to be in Bath this year for International Women/s Day. By odd coincidence that city has been Jan’s home since she retired in 1999, having taken ownership of the Angel years before. I called her groundbreaking before. That she certainly was, as was evident during the infrequent dinners we booked there. Joyce was always there in the properly open kitchen – an innovation in those times – with a larger quotient of female sous chefs than you’d normally encounter. And a sense of calm.
It’s seen as cool these days for kitchen staff, not just servers, to bring out plate to table. That was the norm there. Local sourcing? Farm to fork? In the book there’s a shot of the chef patron harvesting from her own lofty allotment above the winding River Dart. She made exemplary use of the seafood on her doorstep and first introduced me to samphire plucked from the foreshore.
The menu, invariably just a few dishes, no plate overcrowded, avoided the Froglification of ‘fine dining’ at that time. Still I couldn’t resist substituting feuilleté for puff. The true French influences are obvious, yet they are filtered through the acutely Gallic sensibilities of Perry-Smith, Grigson and, inevitably, Elizabeth David. I can’t recall how many covers there were. Not many. Everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves. We certainly did.
The story of how Joyce achieved such eminence, even for a while keeping a Michelin star, is striking. Read Rachel Cooke’s tribute as The Observer Food Monthly gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
It traces her journey from domestic science classes designed to equip a gal for marriage (Joyce never wed) via a revelation what gastronomy could be during an eight stint in a Stratford restaurant to the Hole in The Wall epiphany.
How The Carved Angel soared and then, post Joyce, began its descent
When the Good Food Guide named The Carved Angel the Best Real Food Restaurant of 1984 it was a remarkable reward for Joyce Molyneux’s persistence in following her culinary vision. She took over completely when Tom left the following year. In his memoir of that time he quotes a poem about the Carved Angel written by adopted Devonian and regular customer Poet Laureate Ted Hughes:
‘The Angel carved in wood
Resisted all temptation.
She fasted and withstood
And anointings of breasts
Of birds and thighs of beasts.
She did not bat an eye
When those two loose-mouthed harlots
Claret and Burgundy
Turned glass and drinker scarlet.
She barely coloured – say
She only cracked when Tom
Plucked Sally from the shrine as
A cork out of the Dom.
This bomb among the diners
Shattered the Angel – left
Her not so carved as cleft.’
Joyce continued to run The Carved Angel until 1999. Since her retirement it’s had highs and lows under several ownerships. As The New Angel under turbulent celebrity chef John Burton Race it briefly regained its Michelin star. Nowadays, rebranded The Angel, the kitchen is in the hands of 2018 Masterchef: The Professionals finalist Elly Wentworth. Along the quay the big chef name in town now is Mitch Tonks at The Seahorse. His culinary hero? Joyce Molyneux.
A Feuilleté of Quail’s Eggs and Asparagus with a Herb and Cream Sauce (serves 4)
100g puff pastry; 8 quail’s eggs; 225g green asparagus tips; 1 egg, beaten; sesame or poppy seeds; Messine herb sauce; chervil or watercress, to garnish.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to form a 20cm square, 4mm thick. Trim edges and divide into four 10cm squares. Place on a baking sheet; rest in fridge for at last 30 minutes. Boil pan of water. Add egg for one and half minutes drain, rinse with cold water and place in a bowl of cold water to rest. Tie the asparagus in a bundle, cook in boiling, salted water until tender (5 mins). Drain and keep warm.
Brush pastry with beaten egg and sprinkle with seeds. Bake in a pre-heated oven, gas mark 9 for 5-7 minutes until golden brown and risen. Out of he oven cut each so there’s a lid. Store the lids in a warm place for use later.
Re-heat the eggs in hot water for a minute and heat the sauce thoroughly. Drain eggs and place two in each pastry case with asparagus and coat with sauce. Cover with pastry lids and garnish.