murreyandblue

A great WordPress.com site

Archive for the tag “mediaeval food”

Clarissa Dickson Wright and the Art of Medieval Food

 

clarissa 3

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.

clarissa 4

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.

clarissa 5

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.

richard 11

“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.

pears

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.

 

goose

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.  Both are available on Amazon:

A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright

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

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

More About Lamprey

I wrote a blog post a good while ago about the love of lamprey in mediaeval times and ever since then I have wanted to try it. Well, in the summer of 2017, I finally got the chance.

We were visiting Bordeaux and had taken a river boat cruise on the Garonne river – the guide happened to mention that one of the fish caught in the river was lamprey and that it was a local delicacy so, after the boat docked, I asked her if she could tell me where I could get some. She said there was a restaurant called La Brasserie Bordelaise which served it, so we looked it up on the internet and checked the menu – it was quite an upmarket, expensive restaurant but, as it was our wedding anniversary, we decided to treat ourselves and booked a table.

The food generally was lovely and fully lived up to the rather expensive prices. The lamprey, cooked à la Bordelaise, was 32 euros! (If you don’t believe me, click here and scroll down – look for ‘Lamproie à la Bordelaise’ under the heading ‘Les Plats’). And when we looked at the wine booklet (I can’t really call it a wine list, it was that long!) we found a bottle of Château Petrus for a mere 2,500 euros! Needless to say, we decided not to buy that!

So, what did I get for my euros? Here are some pictures.

Photo of lamprey cooked Bordeaux style

 

Photo of Lamprey cooked Bordeaux style

So, what did it taste like, you may ask? Well, to be honest, I can’t say I really know what lamprey taste like because all I could taste was the sauce it was cooked in, which was some kind of beef stock, onions and red wine. The nearest thing in taste I could compare it to is tinned oxtail soup! Yes, I paid 32 euros for something that tasted like a tin of soup! Anyway, at least I can say I’ve eaten it! And then I had this for dessert (yum!):

Photo of Tarte Tatin with double cream!

1066: A Year to Conquer the Cauliflower….

According to Mark Twain, “A cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.” And maybe he’s right, but the BBC documentary series “1066: A Year to Conquer England”, starts off with cauliflowers that must have had a Tesco education.

There they sit, large, super-white, plump, and nestling in beautifully tender, pale green supermarket-trimmed leaves, atop posts that have vaguely human-shaped figures fixed to them. The vegetables are the figures’ heads. Along on horseback, in the middle of winter, at full pelt, come young William of Normandy plus friend, with razor-sharp swords. Double whoosh! The poor cauliflowers are in smithereens.

Now, I wouldn’t mind so much if they hadn’t used what are clearly cauliflowers grown under glass, or something similar. No cauliflowers grown outside in the middle of an 11th-century Norman winter would have such delicate pale leaves. Or such beyond-flawless white heads.

A much more awkward point, however, is that according to http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(95)00072-8 (which in turn quotes from Cabbages, kales etc. Brassica oleracea (Cruciferae), by Thompson, KF, 49-52) “…Cauliflowers were domesticated relatively recently. They were unknown in the early Middle Ages, and were apparently introduced into Europe from the Levant or Cyprus at around the end of the fifteenth century…” Oops. So how could they be in Normandy in William’s time?

If the Beeb had only used a common old cabbage, they’d have been OK, but I suppose bits of greenery flying in all directions would have quite the same impact as huge white cauliflowers being obliterated with such Norman gusto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to build a medieval castle….

secrets-of-the-castle

If you have not seen the BBC documentary series “Secrets of the Castle”, please give it a whirl. It is about a 20-year project in Burgundy to build/rebuild a medieval castle, using all the materials and skills that would have been available to the original castle-builders. It is being repeated on the Yesterday channel at the moment.

Some of the techniques are absolutely astonishing. The human treadmill on top of a tower raises enormous weights of stone. Ingenious. Many details of medieval life are brought vividly to life, including the women’s tasks in the home. The cooking is simple but nourishing.  Thoroughly recommended viewing for anyone interested in those centuries.

To eat medieval meat, or not to eat medieval meat….

It is said that eating cheese last thing at night is very bad indeed for the digestion, and will result in alternate sleeplessness or bad dreams. Well, so I have been told. I ate cheese last thing last night and slept like a log, but I woke up this morning with the odd thought about the existence of vegetarianism in English history, specifically the medieval period.

The above illustrations show what I think to be the two extremes. The knight using his knife to hack himself a goodly portion of something spit-roasted, and the elderly man being spoon fed by a woman. His wife, or nurse, perhaps?

Hermits and such persons ate no meat for ascetic reasons, and as many of them lived to a ripe old age, it clearly did them no more harm then than it does now. But did the rejection of meat spread into the population at large? I do not mean not being able to afford meat, but the decision of those who could afford it, not to eat it.

The Vegetarian Society offers a history, but it seems to leap from the likes of Pythagoras and St David, to the Renaissance. Wikipedia also has an interesting entry for the subject, and performs the same leap. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_vegetarianism#Christian_antiquity_and_Middle_Ages So, apart from religious individuals and sects, what do we know about medieval vegetarians?

I’m in the dark here, literally, because I have never heard of any prominent medieval figure who rejected meat. I cannot imagine the likes of Henry “Hotspur” Percy choosing a plate of cabbage over the large haunch of beef that sizzled as it turned upon a spit. Or William Marshal’s nose wrinkling at the thought of a nourishing mutton stew after a hard ride through a winter storm. “Nay, sir, bring me yon dish of nuts!”

Please do not think I am mocking vegetarians, because that is not so, I am merely trying to place them in the context of the rather brutal medieval world. Even if someone like Edward IV had a hankering to decline all meat, would he have dared to do so? I am quite certain that all the knights and lords around him would have seen this as a sign of weakness. A true warrior needed red meat! The last thing a king needed was to gain a reputation for “softness”. Would the treacherous Stanleys have backed Henry Tudor if they learned he felt sick at the thought of eating anything that in life had possessed four legs? I think the outcome of Bosworth would have been very different. And where would a vegetarian have been in an aristocratic society that was obsessed with hunting? The whole scenario is surely impossible to picture.

If you go to http://www.ivu.org/history/renaissance/middle-ages.html, you’ll find an interesting article on the food of our medieval forebears, including monstrous feasts held over three days in September 1465 by held at Cawood Castle by Archbishop George Neville. 2500 people to be fed over three days! And so many living creatures slaughtered for the purpose that even I, a carnivore, feel ill at the thought. I know, I know…double standards. I plead guilty. These days menus include vegetarian options, but imagine having one’s stomach turned by the thought of the slaughter, and then having to sit at the board and smile as you chewed endlessly on one small morsel of beef, trying to make it last. Or would you sneak away to the kitchen in the hope of finding something more palatable to your conscience? I imagine cheese would be acceptable…unless there were vegans back then too. That is a further consideration, of course.

So, what happened? Unless someone can tell me the facts, I must conclude that the rejection of meat was a big no-no for our forebears, unless they were sick or very old. Most lists of famous vegetarians leap from Pythagoras and a few saints to Leonardo da Vinci. What about the generations in between? Does anyone have the answer?

 

 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: