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Clarissa Dickson Wright and the Art of Medieval Food

 

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The late Clarissa Dickson Wright is known to the English-speaking countries of the world as one of The Two Fat Ladies – the middle-aged motorcycling cooks who zipped around the English, Welsh and Irish countryside, one at the wheel of a Triumph Thunderbird, the other stuffed into the sidecar wearing what appeared to be a Biggles pilot helmet.  Jennifer Paterson, the elder, learned to cook in Benghazi and London as a saucy au pair for the upper classes.  After she tired of minding the kiddies, she appeared as a regular on the British Candid Camera and as the cook for the Spectator Magazine’s weekly lunches.   She was fired from the Spectator when she chucked all the kitchen crockery out of an upper floor window because the accountants left dirty tea cups in the sink.  Her culinary talents must have been formidable because she was retained long after she had tickled Enoch Powell’s bald spot during one lunch while girlishly cooing “koochie koo!” at the thunderstruck MP.  Hospitalized in 1999 and told she had a month or so to live, she was asked if she wanted to speak with a social worker.  “No,” she boomed, “I’m watching a Fred Astaire film.”

Clarissa Dickson Wright, although as insouciant as her other half, was a different kettle of medieval fish.  Born to an Australian heiress and the Queen’s surgeon, Arthur Dickson Wright, she grew up in London amid the upper classes of Scotland, Ireland, England and Oz.  Both her parents were connoisseurs of fine food and drink and during a time of strict food rationing her father was importing pigeon from the Middle East and caviar from Iran.  In this lavish environment, Clarissa learned to appreciate beautifully prepared food and drink but choose the law as her profession.  At 21, she became the youngest person called to the bar, working as a barrister at the Inns of Court.  Those who have read her hilarious and chagrined autobiographies “Spilling the Beans” and “Riffling Through My Drawers,” know that upon her beloved mother’s death, she collapsed into a sybaritic existence that decimated the family fortune and landed her penniless and drunk in a London jail with only Saki’s short stories as company.  Once sober, she rebuilt her life around food and its preparation, employed as a cook in private homes and as manageress of the well-known shop in Portobello Road called “Books for Cooks.”  In 1996, she and Jennifer came under the eagle eye of a sharp-witted BBC producer who decided to pair the women in a television program centered around their many talents.  These included Paterson’s basso profundo singing style, cocktail-shaking and motorcycling skills.  Dickson Wright brought her sharp wit and extensive knowledge of the history of English food.  “Two Fat Ladies” became an instant hit that was sadly cut short after its fourth season when Jennifer was struck down by cancer.

Dickson Wright, happily, went on to a solo television career bringing her knowledge of not only food but of country life to the British Isles.  Unfortunately, the programs were not available to Americans until fans of Clarissa uploaded them onto You Tube.  Two wonderful shows – 2008’s “Clarissa Dickson Wright and the King’s Cookbook” and 2014’s “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” – are there for the viewing.  Both explore the long history of cooking in England and push back against notions of bland food prepared by a garlic-phobic nation.  She makes a grand case that English food during the 14th Century achieved an artistic level that could rival France.

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Dash Barber as the young King Richard II in “Clarissa and the King’s Cookbook”

“The King’s Cookbook” takes us into the world of Richard II (1367-1400) and his lavish lifestyle at table.  Deep within the British Library, we are shown the original Forme of Cury (translation:  Method of Cooking), Richard’s compilation of 196 recipes complete with food stains and marginalia.  We are shown directions for making blancmange (originally made with capon), salad (with nary a piece of lettuce in sight) and blubbery roasted porpoise.  We learn that he employed over 300 kitchen staff.  These included saucers, milkers, boners, choppers, spit boy, roasters and scribes who sat in a vestibule writing down “receipts.”  All of them (with the exception of the scribes) were half naked because of the intense heat.  They struggled mightily under the aegis of the Master Chef who sat upon a throne in the kitchen overseeing the work.  They were expected to maintain rigid sanitary conditions.  In an extension of these rules – which would benefit most Waffle Houses in the USA – he demanded his guests be provided with spoons and napkins and prohibited them from eating with fingers or belching, farting and fighting.    In an interesting aside, Clarissa notes that while medieval cooking compilations do not include vegetable recipes, they were always included in meals and feasts.  Herbs and vegetables were foraged in the wild and/or grown in private kitchen gardens.  They were simply picked daily without much thought to recording how they were used.  In the program “Lunch,” we see a lamb pottage (“in a pot”) being cooked over an open fire by docents and volunteers in medieval dress.  As they peer into the bubbling pot, Clarissa laments today’s lack of available mutton which was once so popular and has lost favor among modern people because of its gaminess.*  We are also disabused of that most pernicious notion of the medieval era that expensive and rare imported spices were used to cover up the smell and taste of rotten meat.  Nothing could be further from the truth as several historians interviewed note with vehemence.  Medieval cooks, like our modern chefs, knew how to use ingredients economically and intelligently.  As they point out, only chilies would have disguised the taste of bad meat and they had not yet been imported from the Americas.

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Clarissa Dickson Wright at the British Library with the original Forme of Cury


The louche King Richard continued his wanton ways, taxing and spending his country into anarchy all to please his exquisite palate and discriminating taste.  “I will not dismiss one scallion from my kitchen on the grounds that Parliament asked me to, ” he famously sneered, much like a medieval Richard Olney faced with a shipment of bad wine.  Of course, as is usually the case with tyrants and run-away budgets, the citizenry was soon fed up and hankering for a change.  In 1399, he was brought to heel by the usual aggressive and ambitious upstarts that tended to gather around the edges of powerful Yorkists.  In this case, it was Henry Bolingbroke, who after a false promise of freedom confined Richard to Pontefract Castle with neither a napkin nor spoon in sight.  He then proceeded to starve the king to death in an ironic execution that mirrored the death several decades later of alcoholic George, Duke of Clarence, who was supposedly drowned in a butt of Malmsey.  Mordant Lancastrian wit!

So ended the life of the first foodie king who, at least, never burned a cake unlike a certain predecessor.  Instead, he left us with one of the earliest English-language cookbooks in western history which is offered free-of-charge on Kindle.

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“I give this heavy weight off my head, and this unwieldly sceptre from my hand”

Two recipes are mentioned in “The King’s Cookbook” from The Forme of Cury.  One is Goose Madame or Goose in Sauce Madame.  The other is the simple and delicious:

Pears in Red Wine

2 Pears, 2 cups of good red wine, 1/2-1 cup of sugar depending on taste, orange zest, 1 cinnamon stick, star anise (optional).

Cut the bottoms off of peeled pears so that they stand up.  Place in a deep saucepan and pour in the red wine.  Add all other ingredients and simmer until pears are a deep jewel-like red and easily pierced with a knife.  Cool and serve on a white plate with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sweetened ricotta.

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The website Coquinaria, devoted to medieval cuisine, has a recipe for Goose Madame in which it is advised that it be served at Christmastime.  We are now in the midst of high summer but perhaps it can be tucked away for later in the year or read for pure amazement at the list of ingredients that would delight Yotam Ottolenghi:

Stuff Goose Sauce Madame

1 large goose

For the stuffing: 2-4 tart apples, 2 pears, 2 Tbs. chopped parsley and 1 tsp. of sage and savory, 2 garlic cloves, chopped, 20-30 grapes, skinned.

For the sauce:  1 Tbsp of goose fat, 1 small onion, chopped, 1/2 liter (2 cups) of dark stock, 1/4 cup red wine, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, white breadcrumbs, galingale (or ginger), cinnamon mace, cloves, cubebs (a type of peppercorn), salt to taste, giblets.

Salt to taste

the neck and giblets of the goose

Stuffing prep:  Boil the unpeeled apples for an hour in water.  Drain and cool.  Peel pears, decore them.  Cut them in small pieces.  Mix in the chopped herbs, garlic and peeled grapes.

Put the stock in a boiling pan, add the giblets.  Bring to a boil, let simmer a couple of hours.  Strain through a fine sieve.

Sauce:  Heat some of the goose fat and fry the onion in it.  Add the strained stock and red wine and the bread crumbs.  Let this simmer a short while until thickened.  Now add the stuffing from the goose, spices and wine vinegar.  Bring to the boil once more.

Set the temperature at 180C or 350F.  Stuff the goose, secure the filling and place goose on a rack.  Baste regularly and after about two to three hours, take it out and let it rest for 10-15 minutes for the juices to redistribute.  This can be served whole or sliced with stuffing and sauce.

 

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Goose with Sauce Madame


*One of New York City’s oldest chop houses, Keen’s Steakhouse, no longer serves mutton although it is still advertised.  What you smell the minute you enter this wood-paneled old restaurant are giant lamb chops sizzling on the platter.

Both “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner” and “Clarissa and The King’s Cookbook” are available in sections on You Tube.

Recommended reading:  all are available on Amazon:

A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Clarissa’s England:  A Gamely Gallop through the English Counties

Feast Days: Recipes from “The Spectator” by Jennifer Paterson.  Miss Paterson follows the Catholic liturgical calendar with recipes and amusing comments on the more eccentric saints of the Church.

 

 

 

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ST OSWALD’S IN GLOUCESTER–A TOWER FOUND

The scanty arches of St Oswald’s Priory lie tucked in a Gloucester suburb  a few minutes walk  from  the cathedral. Once a place of great importance, it was the burial spot of Queen Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was a warrior-queen who fought the Vikings. Henry of Huntingdon wrote this about her–

Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,A man in valour, woman though in name:Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey’d,Conqu’ror o’er both, though born by sex a maid.Chang’d be thy name, such honour triumphs bring.A queen by title, but in deeds a king.Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail’d:Caesar himself to win such glory fail’d

Her husband Aethelred was also buried at St Oswald’s and it is though they were attempting to found a new royal Mercian vault after the destruction of the one at Repton by the Norse invaders.

Recently, on the anniversary of the Queen’s death, a re-enactment was held in Gloucester  with a funeral cortege bearing a ‘body’ arriving by water then passing through the town, past the cathedral and out to the priory.

As past of the commemorations, the local children were also asked to get involved with  the local archaeologists, and a hitherto unknown tower belonging to St Oswald’s appears to have been found.

Maybe futher excavation might also find the bones of this ancient Queen, although it seems most likely her remains and that of her husband and St Oswald himself were moved around in the 11/12c rebuildingof the priory, and then everything was destroyed in the Reformation, leaving little above ground

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CHILDREN FIND TOWER.

 

 

Warwick Castle – England’s Finest Medieval Castle

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Warwick Castle Portcullis

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Francis Frith Photo of the portcullis 1901

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The mound as viewed from the portcullis

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Old bridge Warwick Castle

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The moat Warwick Castle.

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Old staircase in Warwick Castle

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14th century Guys Tower

For more photos and an interesting article  from ‘Britain and Britishness’ about Warwick Castle please  see this link . Much of the castle  has been spoilt in some respects,  although some interesting old parts that hopefully the Kingmaker and his family would recognise,  still survive.

 

Time to go digging for kings again…

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A section of the Bayeaux Tapestry showing the death of Harold II Hulton Archive/Getty Images

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/five-missing-kings-and-queens-and-where-we-might-find-them-a6798966.html

I think we should all get out our trowels and knee-pads to go digging around again!

Sutton Hoo and Raedwald of East Anglia (2011)

(originally published in the Ricardian Bulletin)

Saturday 30 July saw nearly twenty of us visit Sutton Hoo, a National Trust property that overlooks Woodbridge from across the Deben. Members travelled from London, Ipswich or by themselves, using booked taxis from Woodbridge station. We were there for three and a half hours, joining an official tour of the Burial Grounds and visiting the indoor Exhibition Hall.
The main grave is supposed to be that of Raedwald, at least a third-generation Anglo-Saxon immigrant from Angeln. Like his grandfather, Wuffa, Raedwald was a “Bretwalda” or high chief of all Saxons south of the Humber and east of about Birmingham, and his “Wuffing” successors became Kings of East Anglia as part of the Heptarchy. Raedwald ruled from 599 to 624/5 and converted to Christianity late in life, yet was still buried in pagan style, possibly at the behest of his sceptical widow. Two of his great-nieces are St. Ethelreda (aka St. Audrey) who is buried in Ely Cathedral and Sexberga, who married Earconbert, King of Kent, their great-granddaughter becoming the mother of Egbert III of Wessex, grandfather of Alfred. Raedwald’s brother Eni is, therefore, an ancestor of every undisputed monarch of England (except possibly from 1066-1154). The Wuffings ruled East Anglia until 20 November 869 when their last King, Edmund, was martyred by the Danes.
In summer 1938, the widowed Edith Pretty was overtaken by her own curiosity about the estate she owned and hired an amateur archaeologist and tenant farmer, Basil Brown, to investigate. Other authorities, at county, University of Cambridge (Charles Phillips) and University of London levels became involved – before war was declared and the task was suspended, the artefacts already discovered being stored in disused Tube stations. The British Museum, under Rupert Bruce-Mitford, resumed the process in 1965.
On arrival at Sutton Hoo (a Saxon word for hill), we booked our places on the official tour. It started at twelve thirty and was barely supposed to exceed an hour but lasted about ninety minutes. Our guide was Neil Montgomery of the Sutton Hoo Society, who was knowledgeable and enthusiastic with a good voice. We first passed Tranmer House, formerly the home of Colonel and Mrs. Pretty, and reached the seventeen mounds. In the first, Brown found a random selection of rivets because grave-robbers had beaten him to it and no other evidence remained.
In the second, he found rivets arranged in the shape of a wooden ship (a “clinker vessel”), together with soil that had absorbed the wood and changed its chemical characteristics. Knowledge of pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon burial rites, the personal possessions (a helmet, bowls and spoons by the head; weapons, a purse, shoulder-clasps and a great buckle by the torso; drinking vessels and other artefacts lower down) and the size of the ship showed that only a prominent chieftain could have been laid here. Brown found no human remains, save for phosphates in the soil, but many of Raedwald’s successors were Christians and thus would have been buried differently. The important mounds were reconstructed in the sixties, to heights calculated trigonometrically, but have started to erode again.
After viewing the principal mounds, we were shown the grave of a younger man, who died in his twenties during the same era and could be Raedwald’s son, buried with his horse. There are also the graves of a number of people who were hanged or beheaded in the later Saxon era. The Exhibition Hall features a lot more information and artefacts from the Wuffings’ era, including a recreation of the burial chamber and a film shown at regular intervals.
We expected to spend just under an hour exploring Woodbridge but there was insufficient time for this although there some old buildings such as the Shire Hall and C16 Bull Hotel, visited by Defoe. Edward Fitzgerald, the translator, is also commemorated in the town. During the summer, an open-top bus runs hourly around Woodbridge on Wednesdays and Saturdays, stopping at Sutton Hoo.

Further reading:
http://www.wuffings.co.uk/MySHPages/SHPage.html (Dr. Sam Newton)

More missing monarchs

On Saturday, we reported that the “Kingfinder General” (Philippa Langley) is now on the trail of Henry I, originally buried in Reading Abbey, and hoping to test the remains in Westminster Abbey that purport to be Edward V and his brother but are reckoned not to be by modern scientists.

Feversham Abbey in Kent, which is reasonably close at hand, was the burial place of Stephen in 1154, together with his wife and eldest son, on a site he founded seven years earlier. Here again, there are rumours of the bones being removed. In Winchester, right under Michael Hicks’ nose, is a pelvis that may belong either to Alfred the Great or Edward the Elder.

Henry I, Stephen and the Wessex pelvis will be almost impossible to find a mtDNA or Y-chromosome match, as was relatively easy for Richard III. Nevertheless, the rest of the evidence may add up in one or more of these cases.

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