Finest Hour 189, Third Quarter 2020
Review by Katherine Carter
Annie Gray, Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook, Profile Books, 2020, 400 pages, £16.99. ISBN 978–1788160445
Katherine Carter is the Collections and House Manager at Chartwell.
Health Warning: While reading this scrumptious book, be prepared to crave deliciously rich-sounding recipes. I first spoke with Annie Gray early in 2018 when she had got in touch as part of her research for the book she was writing about Georgina Landemare, the Churchills’ cook. She was keen to visit Chartwell and get a feel for the house where Mrs. Landemare had spent so much time and where I am fortunate enough to work. Annie wanted to learn what had been the layouts of the house both before and after the Second World War so as to understand what had been the logistics involved in Mrs. Landemare’s job.
Many people write about Chartwell, and lots of them visit over the course of their research, but on her first visit I sensed in Annie a real desire to understand Mrs. Landemare’s life there. Where had the kitchens been? Which were the stairs she would have used? How close were these in relation to the service lifts, and where had the family dined? Annie was combing meticulously through menus, fridge bills, wine lists, and other archival documents.
The increasing attention to the staff that served the upper classes of early twentieth-century society has been interesting to observe for those of us who run historic houses in Britain. “The Downton Abbey effect,” as I call it, means that the team at Chartwell are now asked almost as much about butlers, maids, secretaries, bodyguards, and cooks as about the Churchills themselves. But can the stories of the staff make interesting histories unto themselves? With Victory in the Kitchen, Annie Gray emphatically proves that they can.
The start of Mrs. Landemare’s life is a fascinating insight into the lives and status of servants in the Victorian era, when working life began in what today we would regard as childhood. And of course the subject of food is never far away. Descriptions of Edwardian dinners and their mind-boggling levels of intricacy—an evening at Blenheim, for example, often included seventeen courses—shows just how pivotal to the aristocracy was the role of food.
The book does have some longueurs. The chapter about Mr. Landemare, Georgina’s future husband Paul, runs nearly forty pages before he meets his wifeto-be. I can, however, forgive this on account of being introduced at this point to some mouth-watering Parisian dishes, including the heavenly sounding batons au chocolat (chocolate and vanilla flavoured almond pastry biscuits dipped in meringue and chopped pistachios).
Mrs. Landemare started working for the Churchills in 1933, initially hired for individual occasions as a “jobbing cook.” With Winston’s reputation as a lover of food, and the importance of meals to his politicking—especially during his “wilderness years” of the 1930s—a great deal of pressure came with the role of cook at Chartwell. By the time the Second World War began in 1939, however, Mrs. Landemare had made herself indispensable not only to Winston Churchill but to the entire family.
For the rest of Churchill’s career, entertaining remained a vital tool for his political discussions and policy-making. Mrs. Landemare well understood this, as illustrated by her own account of her reluctance to abandon the Downing Street kitchen during an air raid because she was in the middle of preparing a mousseline pudding for the Prime Minister. Perhaps most remarkable was her ability to create delicious and satisfying meals during the war despite rationing (though with the addition of diplomatic coupons and the help of further supplies brought from the productive gardens at Chartwell).
By delving into the life of Mrs. Landemare, we learn how one woman made her mark on history not on the world stage but from the kitchens. Her service and unswerving loyalty to the Churchills made her a vital cog in their lives for more than thirty years. It is little wonder that Winston said that he could not have achieved what he had without her. You can experience why this was so yourself. Expect when you finish Annie Gray’s superb book you will next find yourself buying Mrs. Landemare’s very own Recipes from No. 10.