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The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

I’ve never actually read The Go-Between but I assume that it exists, like all great novels, to provide a useful quote to showcase my fragile intellect and act as a punny title for my amateurish blog attempts.

This blog is very much a work in progress, born of a desire to do more of the things I’m passionate about (history and eating) whilst not really wanting to commit to any real or meaningful New Year’s resolutions that might actually benefit me. You know, like reading more history books or learning to cook a meal that could be accurately described as something more than just ‘brown’.

Amazingly, my husband did not consider these cakes a healthy alternative to fruit or “a good example to set for our daughter at breakfast time.”

So with that in mind welcome to The Past is a Foreign Pantry – a blog where I’ll be making meals, cakes, breads, snacks and other culinary curiosities from history. I’ll try to stick to as authentic ingredients as far as budget and reality will allow (looking at you, 1665 medicinal recipe for ‘Plague Water’ containing powdered unicorn horn), but won’t be worrying too much about authentic methods, because who has actually got time to hand mill grain when there’s season 2 of You to watch?

Other than that no time period or foodstuff is off limits and I’ll also try all the food myself, just to add in a bit of moderate peril to make it more exciting. Obviously I’ll share the recipes as well so that anyone who wants to can try them out for themselves.

So if you’re a history buff and foodie whose idea of a good time is boring impressing your friends with fancy-pants meals that may or may not give them food poisoning then you’re in the right place. Enjoy!

E x

A Florentine of Flesh: 1591

Don’t worry; this is still just your everyday food history blog and not a recipe page by Hannibal Lecter.

Florentines. We’re all familiar with them, aren’t we? They’re the nutty, fruity, chocolatey biscuit that you can buy in packs of no more than 4 at the cost of a small house. The kind of biscuit we all go “ooh, lovely” at when we’re in the cake shop, before picking out a whopping great cream doughnut instead. The Queen probably gives them out at afternoon tea like I give out chocolate digestives – but I doubt she serves them alongside mugs of builder’s brew for dunking.

If that’s what florentines are to you then turn your computer off, go outside and revel in the paradise of your naive ignorance. How I wish I still could. Anyone who’s read any other posts on this blog, however, will know that things from history bearing the same names as things from today are rarely what we expect them to be. Sometimes that’s okay and the only differences are the addition of a few extra spices here or an eggless pastry crust there. In this case though, the Tudors took it a little bit further. You know that scene in the original Toy Story where all the broken toys come out from under the bed and they’re all monstrous, deformed lab experiments which frighten the normal toys? Well that’s the best analogy I could think of when comparing 16th century florentines to modern florentines.

I still have nightmares about Babyface. Credit here.

So, what was a Tudor florentine of flesh, really? The Oxford Companion to Food points out that, historically, the term “Florentine” meant small tarts or pastries stuffed with meat or fruit, which is exactly what I was dealing with today. The history of the chocolate florentine is hotly contested, but given that chocolate was enjoyed only as a drink in 16th century Europe, it’s likely the sweet version came into existence after the savoury one – so technically it’s the modern chocolate florentine that’s the scary spiderbaby creation.

Today’s recipe was found in the anonymously authored A Book of Cookrye. I couldn’t find a great deal of info about A Book of Cookrye, so had to piece a little of it together. The text states that the recipes within were “gathered” by “A.W.”, who remains nameless throughout. As far as I could work out, the purpose of the book seemed to be an instructional manual for rich households planning on entertaining guests, rather than a sort of everyday recipe book. Instead of recipes, the book actually begins with a five page plan of “the order how meats should be served to the table with their sauces”. This plan not only covered the sauces for each meat, but also specified which meats should be served at which meal and during which courses. There are impressive but relatively simple recipes for meat pottages, goose pie and roasted capon as well as more exotic offerings: peacock in wine sauce, stork in mustard and vinegar sauce and roasted porpoise in vinegar.

Fortunately I wasn’t dealing with something as illegal as porpoise for my fleshy florentines. Instead, the recipe called for veal kidneys chopped up with dates and currants and baked in a rich pastry “cake”. It seemed I was dealing with a steak and kidney pie without any of the steak but a lot more fruit.

A. W. seemed to be the only author to give this dish the unnecessarily metal name “A Florentine of Flesh”, but the actual meal seems to have been very common (there are two other florentine recipes in A Book of Cookrye itself), and English recipes for almost identical veal kidney dishes popped up frequently in my research, including one from 1596 just called “A Florentine“, and one from 1615 called “A Florentine of Veale“.

Veal has a bit of a chequered past – until 2007, most EU veal meat was obtained by force feeding calves and keeping them in crates to stop them exercising, thus keeping the meat tender. Critics of this practice pointed out that calves lacked much needed social interaction by being kept in individual crates and suffered abnormal growth from an inability to exercise and develop bone and muscle mass. More recently there has been an increase in “ethical veal” farming, which allows calves freedom to move around and suitably controls diets to ensure an appropriate amount of nutrients are provided to each animal. Advocates of ethical veal farming also point out that veal comes from male dairy calves who, unable to produce milk, become surplus to dairy farm requirements and are therefore frequently culled while still very young anyway. Using the meat from these calves ensures it isn’t wasted and also helps create a regulated industry which results in more humane conditions for the animals.

I don’t think wealthy Tudors had any such ethical qualms regarding veal and before I could decide what my own stance was, I realised nowhere near me was selling veal kidneys anyway. In fact, getting hold of any kidneys at all proved tricky and the only kidneys I could get were lamb kidneys, which wasn’t ideal in terms of comparable flavour to veal, but it was all I had to work with. This did mean that the recipe took yet another step further back from what a modern day diner might expect from a dish called “florentines”. Those broken toys from Toy Story? Yeah, think of my version of these florentines as the doubly-broken toys that they kept under their own beds. A frightening thought.

Take the kidneies of veale and chop them very small with courance, dates, sinamon and ginger, sugar, salt, and the yolks of three egs, and mingle altogither, and make a fine paste with yolks of egges, and butter, and let there be butter in your dishe bottome, then drive them to small cakes, and put one in the dish bottom, and lay your meat in, they lay your other upon your meat, and close them togither, and cut the cover and it, when it is baked then strew sugar and serve it out.

“A Florentine of Flesh”, A Book of Cookrye

First I minced the lamb kidneys and mixed them with currants, dates, chopped ginger, spices and egg yolk. The mixture became worryingly liquidy and I was instantly filled with regret, but I continued on. I ignored the headache inducing spelling and grammar (standardised spelling wasn’t really a thing until the end of the 18th century) and tried to make sense of the pastry element of the dish. There was no recipe given – other than it should include eggs and butter – so I made a simple pastry of flour, eggs yolks and butter and kneaded it to a smooth paste.

Modern florentines are small and round, but the recipe here seemed to suggest that I should make one big pie with my pastry and filling rather than multiple ones. I rolled 3/4 of the pastry out and placed it into a well buttered pie dish. The very sloppy filling was poured into it. Part of me wanted to stop there, because I feared that putting a lid on it would mean it wouldn’t have a chance to solidify, but the recipe seemed insistent that a pie lid be added. The only hint I had that maybe, just maybe, the mixture was supposed to be quite runny was that the next instructions were to cut holes into the top, presumably to let moisture out. I cut three slashes, crossed my fingers and placed it in the oven.

I hadn’t told my husband what I was making because part of the fun of making these slightly odder creations is seeing the look on his face when he realises I expect him to eat them. I find that if I pre-warn him he has time to adjust his expectations and the pay-off isn’t so good, so I kept quiet until it was time to eat.

“Fancy a florentine?” I asked innocently.

His eyes lit up, as I knew they would. Ha.

Actually, I don’t think this would be improved with chocolate.

I can only describe the range of emotions that flickered across his face as he took his first bite as “mixed.” Later, he explained that his reaction was initially dismay at not being served a chocolatey treat, resignation that he was going to have to try the thing offered instead, and finally a rush of relief as it turned out to be somewhat palatable.

As expected from an enriched dough, the pastry was very buttery and pretty delicious in its own right. Amazingly, the moisture had evaporated and the filling held its shape when I cut into it rather than spill out like a gravy. The taste of the filling, however, was a singularly odd mixture of sweet and savoury that my modern Western palate wasn’t really accustomed to. It wasn’t totally unpleasant, but I definitely struggled to think of a modern equivalent. As well as the sweetness there was also a bit of a fiery hit from the chopped ginger which tasted fine but did nothing to help me categorise the dish.

Though the dates, currants and sugar in the florentine meant that it would be wrong to refer to this as a strictly savoury meal, the undeniable meaty offal taste stopped it fitting comfortably into the sweet category, too. It was a weird in-between recipe and I checked to see if The Book of Cookrye had anything to say about when these were florentines were meant to be served. It didn’t – at least, not specifically – but a glance through the order of service showed that A. W. advised veal dishes to be served towards the end of meals along with custard dishes – so the ambiguous sweet/savoury element of this dish sort of made sense in context, where the delicate flavour of the veal was probably a slightly subtler, sweeter taste than lamb alternative I used.

Overall, it may be that the Queen, who seems to be a bit of a stickler for tradition, has been serving slices of these original florentines at her afternoon teas all along and her guests are just too polite to comment on it, but both my husband and I agreed that this was one experiment when we’d much rather have the modern version. Intriguing as it was to make, it wasn’t a patch on a proper biscuit so Liz, if you’re reading this (and assuming there’s an invite for me in the post), let me bring the chocolate digestives and you just make the tea, okay?

E x

A Florentine of Flesh

360g kidney (any should do)
50g dates
50g currants
3 egg yolks
1/2 a thumbs worth of ginger, peeled.
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the pastry:
125g butter
250g plain flour
2 egg yolks

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
  2. Mince the kidneys, dates and currants in a blender.
  3. Chop the ginger finely and add it to the mixture.
  4. Add the cinnamon, egg yolks, sugar and salt and mix well.
  5. Make the pastry by combining the egg yolks, butter, flour (and a little water if needed) and kneading into a smooth dough.
  6. Set aside 1/3 of the pastry for the lid, and roll out the other 2/3s.
  7. Butter a pie dish and lay the pastry in it.
  8. Pour the filling into the pie dish.
  9. Roll out the other half of the dough and cover the filling with it. Pinch along the edges to seal it shut, brush with melted butter or egg wash and pierce the top to let steam out during cooking.
  10. Cook for 45-50 minutes.

Domino Cake: 1898

What’s pink, plump and smells faintly of booze?

Hopefully you’ve given the correct answer – Domino cake – and not the answer that my soon to be ex-husband gave when I asked him: “you”.

What I’m trying to recreate today is probably better known under its modern day name “Battenberg cake”. Or rather, it’s a close variation of it. Or rather rather, it’s the cake that Battenberg cake is based on.

The origins of Battenberg cake are hazy to say the least. An oft-repeated story goes that Battenberg cake was created in 1884 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria. The novelty cake was supposedly presented to the happy couple with the alternating coloured panes representing the bond and unity between the groom, Prince Louis, and…his other Battenberg brothers. We don’t have a record of Princess Victoria’s reaction to being given a cake celebrating her husband and his family – but not her! – on her own wedding day, but the gift serves as an important reminder that, when it came to royal weddings from the past, the bride wasn’t necessarily the most – or even second most – important person there.

Princesses Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth and Alix: where was their bloody cake?!

Deep seated though this origin story is, there’s actually very little contemporary evidence to support it. Even the eminent food historian Ivan Day (who has written not one but three excellent blog posts about the history of Battenberg cake) could find little in the way of conclusive proof of the provenance of this cake.

Day points out that recipes for cakes with coloured sections wrapped in marzipan were published in England towards the end of the 19th century, but that the earliest cakes going under the name “Battenburg cakes” (with a ‘u’, not an ‘e’), originally had nine panes, which casts the whole four-Battenberg-brothers tale into doubt. Perhaps there were five extra secret brothers history is unaware of – in which case the cake maker should have been recognised as the most important wedding guest (have you ever tried to make an original nine panelled royal wedding cake?!) – but it seems unlikely.

In another blow to fans of the wedding cake theory, these nine sectioned “Battenburg” cakes didn’t appear until 1898 – a full fourteen years after the royal wedding took place. Queen Victoria – grandmother to the newly wedded bride – was considered something of a trend setter in her day. It seems unlikely that a brand new cake, created to honour the marriage between a member of the British royal family and a German prince (and his eight siblings?!) wouldn’t, therefore, have been copied in high society.

Whatever the truth is, the scaled-down four paned Battenberg cakes we’re familiar with today don’t appear to have been produced until the early 20th century when Lyons & Co. began to mass produce them. Again, the oracle Day suggests that the switch from nine panels to four may have been a decision based on what was easier to mass produce.

A four paned cake was going to be tricky enough to recreate in one morning, but nine panes was going to be a challenge. Furthermore, Domino cake wasn’t just content to up the cake content, but included additional ingredients like alcohol – making it a sort of grown-up version of Battenberg.

Domino Cake

The original recipe can be found in the Victorian magazine The Table, which was edited by Mrs Agnes Marshall: “Queen of Ices” and author of four highly successful books dedicated to the production of ice cream (which sort of makes it a shame she didn’t pick the better nickname “Ice Queen” instead.) As well as publishing cookbooks, Mrs Marshall was an successful entrepreneur and inventor, patenting a design for a machine which could freeze cream in five minutes and starting a business with her husband selling cookery products. Food historian Emma Kay called Marshall “one of the fiercest, most ambitious and successful women of her generation” and Robin Weir placed her on a par with other celebrity chefs of her time.

Despite her moniker, public knowledge of Mrs Marshall’s works is slim. This is partly because when she died in 1905 the rights to her works were bought by Ward Lock, the company that published Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This publishing house was, unsurprisingly, not interested in publishing another Victorian cookbook and jeopardizing the lucrative market they’d cornered by promoting Mrs B’s relatively bland offerings at the expense of other 19th century cooks, so they let the collective works of Mrs Marshall fall into obscurity. The final nail in the coffin for Mrs Marshall’s reputation came in the 1950s, when a fire destroyed the archival collection of her works.

In the July 1898 edition of The Table, the recipe for Domino cake is under the fancy French name “Gateau à la Domino” and it appears to be an original Marshall creation, long before the time of mass produced cakes from Lyons & Co.

Mrs Marshall’s cake featured the classic nine paned pattern wrapped in marzipan, but it was decidedly more upmarket than similar “Battenburgs” of the time. For one thing, the marzipan contained maraschino and vanilla essence. The quantity and quality of ingredients were also greater than the average Battenberg, with lemon peel and almond essence being incorporated into the genoese sponge and an extra sweet apricot glace (rather than bog standard apricot jam) being used to hold the cake sections together.

I began by making the sponges, which Mrs Marshall called Genoise Paste. First, I mixed butter and lemon peel together then hand beat the mixture with sugar for ten minutes, or until my arm fell off. I added five eggs, baking powder, almond essence and 8oz of plain flour to the batter before dividing it into half and colouring one half red. Mrs Marshall called for “carmine” to be used to colour the mix red, which during her time would have been from the cochineal beetle. Despite my most lacklustre efforts, I couldn’t find enough beetles to squeeze a really good measure of liquid from and a promisingly juicy worm turned out to be an old pink shoelace. I had to use “Red Red” food colouring instead which was, in fairness, more red than any beetle could have produced anyway. And less…crunchy.

Once the batter was baking in the oven I started work on the marzipan – or almond paste, as Mrs Marshall referred to it. This was pretty straightforward but after ten minutes of vigorous butter-beating my arm was tingling in a peculiar way and I could hear my wrist click with every gesture, so I snorted at Mrs M’s suggestion to hand knead ground almonds (as a true entrepreneur, she advised using her own brand of ground almonds), icing sugar, maraschino and egg white into a stiff paste, and bunged it all into the blender.

When the cakes were cool, I cut them into 6×1 inch rectangles: four pink and five white. This meant we had a bit of spare cake left over, but I’m not sure anyone in my household saw that as a problem. At least, not one that wasn’t easily overcome.

The moment you need a tape measure to make a cake is the moment you have gone too far.

With the cake rectangles arranged in a checkerboard pattern on top of the rolled out marzipan, I heated half a jar of apricot jam with 2oz of caster sugar and a little water until all the sugar had dissolved and pushed the mixture through a sieve. This was the apricot glace which would stick the cake bits together.

Once each cake piece had been given a coating of glace, the marzipan was gently rolled up the sides of the cake and smoothed down. The edges were trimmed off – Mrs M was very insistent that the ends of the cake should not be covered – and the whole thing was given a light dusting of icing sugar.

Actually, not a bad wedding gift after all.

I stepped back. It actually looked like something resembling a Battenberg cake! In fact, it looked better than a Battenberg cake because of the extra five panes and for a mad minute I thought about applying to Bake Off; after all, hadn’t they used Battenberg as a technical challenge before? And here I was more than doubling the amount of squares like it was no big deal.

“Yeah, but that was a celebrity Bake Off,” my husband informed me. “It’s like the pre-school version of Bake Off where you get marks just for knowing how to use a spatula.”

Celeb Bake Off or not, I reckon Paul would have given me a handshake for this one; it had nine identifiable and pretty much identical squares, the marzipan was of an even thickness and, most importantly, there was no trace of a soggy bottom.

Though it looked very much like a pimped up Battenberg, the taste and texture was a little different. Despite containing sugar, icing sugar and sweetened jam it was still far less sweet than I was used to which I suppose just goes to show how sugar laden mass produced cakes can be. I was a bit worried the cake would be dry, but the apricot glace helped prevent that and the sweet apricot flavour went well with the other fruit and nut flavours.

What I was most surprised by was the marzipan, which was far less almondy than I expected. Instead, the primary flavour was a sort of bitter cherry thanks to the maraschino – not at all unpleasant, but not what I was used to. I found myself picking off the marzipan coating and eating it without the cake to try and pinpoint the exact flavours.

Overall, for a cake that required the use of a measuring tape, this wasn’t as complicated to make as I thought it would be. It was also really interesting to make something that looked so similar to a modern day favourite, but with just enough differences to make it slightly unfamiliar – it was like looking at another piece of a puzzle you thought you’d already completed.

In the end I have to take back my earlier, snarky comments about this being a wedding present. I don’t know how Princess Victoria might have felt upon receiving a cake celebrating her husband and his eight brothers on her wedding day, but if it had been me I wouldn’t have cared at all – as long as I didn’t have to share it with them.

Domino Cake

225g butter
225g plain flour
225g caster sugar
5 eggs
Lemon peel
Almond essence
Baking powder
Red food colouring

For the marzipan:
1 egg white
280g icing sugar
140g ground almonds
Vanilla essence
Dessert spoon of maraschino

For the apricot glace:
150g apricot jam
50g sugar
Dessert spoon of water

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
  2. In a bowl, mix butter and lemon peel until smooth and white.
  3. Add the sugar and beat well.
  4. Add the eggs, baking powder and flour, a little at a time, and incorporate.
  5. Add 8 drops of almond essence and mix.
  6. Divide the batter into two halves. Leave one half plain and colour the other half red with a few drops of food colouring.
  7. Portion the batter into two small baking trays (I used 25x17cm) and bake for 15-20 minutes.
  8. Place the ingredients for the marzipan into a blender and blend until they form a stiff paste.
  9. Place the marzipan into the fridge to firm up.
  10. Once the cakes are baked, allow them to cool and the slice them into rectangles 6x1inch. You need 5 white and 4 red.
  11. Heat the apricot jam with the sugar and water and when it is dissolved, push the mixture through a sieve.
  12. Roll the marzipan out into a sheet about 1cm thick and brush a little apricot glace onto the centre of it.
  13. Arrange the first layer of cake on top of the apricot glazed marzipan: white, red, white.
  14. Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: red, white, red.
  15. Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: white, red, white.
  16. Brush the sides and top and then roll the marzipan up over the cake layers, smoothing it down at the sides until it covers the cake.
  17. Flip the cake over so that the marzipan join is hidden along the bottom and trim off the excess marzipan.
  18. Dust with icing sugar and serve with a cup of tea.

Turkey Twizzlers: 2005

If you ask any adult who was primary school aged in 2005 what the biggest event of that year was they’ll all say the same thing.

No, not the inauguration of George Bush, or the launch of Youtube. A few may comment that the biggest event might have been the first screening on the new Doctor Who, but they’d be wrong. I am, of course, talking about the time Jamie Oliver banned turkey twizzlers from school dinners.

If you didn’t live through this event you can’t understand just how deeply it shattered the nation. I’d go so far as to say no school dinner based scandal has ever rocked the foundation of our society like it since – including the horse meat fiasco of 2013 (actually, had turkey twizzlers not already been discontinued, they may have been caught up in that one too…)

For those of you who don’t know (and those of you who just love the drama of it all), in 2005 celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a nation-wide campaign to remove lunches that he saw as being overly processed and heavy in fat and salt from school canteens. His plan was to replace these “fast-food” school dinners with ones cooked from scratch that included wholegrain and fibre on the ingredients list, and vegetables that didn’t contain E-numbers. Had he simply sought to add healthy options to school dinners, rather than remove all the deep fried offerings from the menu, then it’s unlikely I’d be here today, reminiscing about these lardy, fatty, spirals of meat. But that was never his plan; Oliver was unwavering in his stance – all unhealthy food must go.

It was a daunting quest for an age when a school meal could be nothing more than a pastry shell filled with melted cheese served with a side of Panda Pop cola (another school dinner great, taken too soon.) My lovely village primary once served me a lunch of nothing but custard, for example. But when Oliver embarked on his campaign, in the mess of potato smilies and chocolate cement, there was one lunch that quickly stood out as a particularly nefarious meal: the turkey twizzler.

It’s hard to describe a turkey twizzler to someone who didn’t grow up with them. How do you explain the rationale behind making a meal for kids out of spirals of turkey scrapings from the abattoir floor, mushed to a pulp with lard and breadcrumbs, coated in sugar and spices, and deep fried in oil? It doesn’t matter, the point is kids went wild for them. Standing in the lunch queue the whispers would trickle down the line with growing excitement: “it’s turkey twizzlers for lunch!” You can imagine the despair when they became the object of Oliver’s wrath.

Sides were picked in preparation for the Great Twizzler Conflict and the media did its best to represent each one fairly: on one side – an alliance of fast food junkies with no plans to live beyond forty and freedom-fighting parents who feared their little darlings would explode upon contact with something as healthy as even a baked bean. On the other – organic loving, vegetarian hippies who ate nothing but pure sunbeams and crapped out smugness. The battle ground was readied, a time for the fight was decided and the war cries were heard: parents would meet outside the school gates at lunchtime.

And meet they did. In scenes not dissimilar to humanitarian aid workers handing medicine through the fences of detainment camps, mothers slotted McDonald’s fries through the lattice work of school gates for their offspring to fight over. Business savvy parents with dubious scruples ran takeaway rackets, collecting money for daily orders and delivering them to rabid pre-teen hoards through gaps on the playing fields. On the other side of the war, parents rallied round Oliver and formed vigilante groups, calling themselves Ninjas, and stormed school kitchens to ensure not one trace of fat was found. Others formed collectives and took it in turns to cook meals for the school community while alternative catering companies, ones who couldn’t even spell “turkey twizzlers” let alone make them, were being sought.

In the end, Oliver was successful, and despite manufacturers offering to rejig the recipe to reduce the fat content, turkey twizzlers were removed from school lunches before being discontinued towards the close of 2005. But the landscape of school canteens was forever changed. No longer did we live off carbohydrate and grease. When the whispers filtered down the line they carried messages of despair and dismay: “it’s runner beans again.” The fall of the mighty twizzler heralded the end of other school lunch staples and in 2007 the government introduced compulsory rules for school caterers to follow under the document “Nutritional Standards”. The document pointed out that, in 2007, nearly a quarter of all children starting primary school in England were classed as overweight or obese. Similarly, three fifths of five year olds showed signs of dental decay.

Initiatives to combat such startling figures were drawn up and included the “eatwell plate” – a chart highlighting what the ideal nutritional makeup of a child’s meal should be. These plans were rolled out to parents and schools; every classroom had a glossy poster of the eatwell plate and pupils searched it with growing anxiety: where were the chips? The nuggets? Goddamn it, where were our potato waffles? All gone. In their place: fish, legumes, wholewheat bread and pasta. With growing horror we realised an entire third of the plate was labelled “fruit and vegetables”.

The eatwell plate. I achieve this maybe once or twice a year. Credit here.

Fried food was to be “restricted across the whole school day” and could be served no more than twice a week. In addition to this, there were to be two days across the week where no meat, battered, breadcrumbed or pastry-based food was to be served and instead only wholesome vegetarian meals were to be dished out to fill hungry bellies.

Worse was yet to come. Under the new legislation, schools were banned from selling chocolate, confectionary or crisps. Cakes and biscuits were to be eaten only at lunchtime as part of the eatwell plate. Fizzy drinks were outlawed. Blackmarket tuck-shops boomed and kids took out payments from playground loan sharks when they couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for a packet of Smarties. You had to be careful, though; miss a repayment and the sharks would come round to your locker and break all your crayons.

Fortunately for me, I had ended my time in primary education by 2007 and had escaped to the land of secondary school and packed lunches. The eatwell plate lost its power over my cohort and became an object of ridicule in PSHE lessons. People ate KitKats with reckless abandon in the corridors, and the bins were overflowing by the end of the day with such brazen items as crisp packets and shop bought sandwich wrappers. It was like a paradise.

Cowed though the nation had become, hardcore twizzler fans never gave up the fight. Almost immediately after their demise, appeals sprang up to reinstate them to their former glory and a 2017 petition to “bring back turkey twizzlers” has been signed by over 27,000 people – and the number is still growing. In 2019, the Telegraph warned (or celebrated, depending on your view) that turkey twizzlers could even make a comeback to school canteens after a no deal Brexit.

Given that the turkey twizzler was a mass produced, factory manufactured item, rather than a recipe as such, recreating it with 100% authenticity was impossible. What I did find, however, was a list of ingredients from the original product. Some of the ingredients I’d only ever seen in chemistry lessons, and many of them were just strings of numbers and letters; hardly the sort of stuff available in Sainsbury’s. What I’ve tried to do, therefore, is stick to accurate ratios and focus on the main ingredients while leaving the additives out.

Turkey twizzlers were a peculiar food, not because of their ability to transform a nation into a furious, additive-reliant mob, but because of the amount of fat in them. Let me explain: turkey isn’t an exciting meat. It can be bland and underwhelming, but what it does have going for it is its low-fat content relative to other meat. So it remains a mystery to me why anyone would take the main selling point of turkey and flip it on its head by adding so much lard that, when cooked, just over 21% of a turkey twizzler was just fat.

The other weird thing about turkey twizzlers was that, despite the name, they only contained 34% of turkey. The rest of the twizzler was fat, water, rusks and additives.

No-one ate twizzlers in bumper cars, I don’t know why this is the image Bernard Matthews chose.

I started with the two percentages I knew I had and worked out that if I was to make 500g of turkey twizzlers I’d need no more than 170g of turkey meat. I chose turkey sausage meat as it contained on the label some of the additives I’d not been able to buy myself, without adding anything that wasn’t on the original twizzler list. The ingredients in twizzlers were listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amounts listed first. After turkey (34%), the next ingredient on the list was water – but the “recipe” I found didn’t provide a quantity. Pork fat, however, was the third ingredient and I already knew that twizzlers were found to contain 21% of fat after cooking, meaning that the amount of water in my twizzlers had to be somewhere between 106g and 170g. I didn’t want sloppy twizzler, so I opted for a relatively reserved 110g.

Rusk was the fourth item before we embarked into a list of E-numbers and spices. I decided, therefore, that it had to be a relatively high percentage of a twizzler since so far there was nothing to “bulk up” the meat. I chose to add 100g, leaving about 15g or so wiggle room for spices, salt and flour.

The turkey, rusk, lard and water was blended in a food processor along with a tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon of salt until it resembled the infamous “pink slime” of reconstituted fast food. I shaped out five sausages and ran skewers through them before putting them in the fridge to firm up.

Homemade pink slime.

To create the iconic spirals that gave twizzlers their name, I cut into the sausages right to the skewer and angled up, so that the meat was sliced in one continuous spiral. Each twizzler was rolled in a mixture of BBQ, tomato, mustard and salt spices and then shallow fried in vegetable oil for a few minutes on each side. Because I wasn’t sure they were done I also finished each one off in the oven for fifteen minutes, just to ensure they were cooked all the way through.

By now the kitchen smelled like, well, the inside of a school canteen circa 2004. There was grease and oil spatter up the walls and a smoky, fried smell in the air. My skin and hair smelled like the inside of a deep fat fryer, no matter how much soap I scrubbed with. On the plus side(?!), I was inching ever closer to what promised to be an early grave as my turkey twizzlers finished off their cooking.

Once they were done I pulled the skewers out of them and marvelled at how springy and successful the spirals were. They were clearly a homemade version of the iconic school dinner, but they weren’t a bad take. Because they’d been made from scratch and I’d skipped all the additives, I even wondered if they might pass the government’s Nutritional Standards guidelines. Not likely, I thought, as the fat pooled off them and filled up a side plate.

The filter I used for this was called “nostalgia”.

Now might be a good time to admit something: I’ve never actually tried a turkey twizzler. Well, I had a clandestine forkful of one once, when my friend didn’t want to finish hers. My parents, wary of school dinners before the Great Twizzler Conflict even began, put me and my sister on the school register as being vegetarians – even though we weren’t. Rather than turkey twizzlers, beef burgers and chicken nuggets we were served cheese flan, cheese omelette and cheese quiche (which was cheese flan, but with a sprig of parsley on top to make it fancy.)

I don’t remember loads about my one mouthful of turkey twizzler, other than that I was seriously underwhelmed. It was chewy, fatty and the flavour was indistinguishable. My husband, on the other hand, had no restrictions placed on him, and punched the air with delight when I said I was going to try to recreate them. I therefore deferred to his judgement when deciding how successful this experiment had been.

The first tentative mouthful brought back the memory of the texture: crispy on the outside, springy and smooth inside. Though my twizzlers were larger than the original, I was pleased to see I’d pretty much nailed the springiness of the spirals in at least two of them.

In terms of taste – they were, as my husband put it “like turkey twizzlers without the MSG.” The flavours were very close to what he remembered in that they were a mix of fat and fried meat with a smoky coating, but without the chemicals and flavourings they lacked something of the fizz, the addictive quality, of the old twizzlers.

In the end we didn’t finish these beyond a few exploratory bites. As kids, the idea of deep fried lard and turkey might have been appealing, but having been part of the process I couldn’t wait to bin the lot and drink a pint of kale smoothie. In one afternoon I felt I’d done what Jamie had been trying to do for the best part of his career; in the end he hadn’t needed to campaign and fight against the pro-twizzler faction – all he’d had to do was teach people how to make them.

E x

Turkey Twizzler

170g turkey sausage meat
110g water
106g pork lard
100g rusks
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying

For the coating:
3g sugar
3g BBQ spice
2g tomato powder
2g flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

  1. Add the turkey, lard, water and rusks to a food processor and blend until a smooth paste forms. Add the tablespoon of flour and teaspoon of salt to bind the mixture together more. If you think it is still too loose, add another spoon of flour.
  2. Shape the turkey paste into 5 large or 6 medium sausages. Push a skewer through each one and place int he fridge for several hours to firm up.
  3. Mix up the ingredients for the coating and spread over a plate.
  4. Remove the meat from the fridge and with a sharp knife, cut up in a spiral from the bottom to the top of the sausage, making sure to cut deep enough to hit the skewer. You may need to wiggle the spirals down the skewer slightly to ensure even frying.
  5. Roll each skewer in the coating and shall fry, one at a time, in a frying pan of vegetable oil.
  6. Fry each twizzler, turning every minute, for about 7 or 8 minutes. Alternatively, you can bake them for 18 minutes at 180 degrees C.

Stuffed Goat: 1st Century

Time for a Roman one.

I’m working my way up to dormice but I’m not quite there yet. One day, I promise. Maybe.

The Romans were, like most ancient civilisations, extremely resourceful when it came to food. I suppose if famine was a very real threat, and you didn’t have supermarkets to just pop in to for bits and bobs, you’d learn pretty damn quickly how to use every part of an animal or which flowers were pretty and edible. To the modern cook, the Romans do seem to have taken that survival instinct to the extreme though; they didn’t just know how to survive on the weird and wonderful – they seemed, at times, to revel in it. In 2005, archaeologists excavating a food quarter in ancient Pompeii discovered the bones of a giraffe leg – complete with butcher marks – in the gutter of an ancient diner. Similarly unnervingly, the most famous Roman cookbook, Apicius, had not one, but two recipes for roasted flamingo and added, as a footnote, that if one fancied, “parrot [may be] prepared in the same manner.”

Of course, that’s not to say that every Roman ate this sort of nonsense everyday. Far from it. Flamingo tongue, for example, was considered a delicacy even for the wealthy – and the poor were lucky if they got within 10 feet of the grease of the plate (I’m assuming; I don’t actually know how greasy flamingo tongue is?)

Most Romans ate a diet of fish and meat or cheese, legumes, vegetables and bread; fairly normal stuff. Dormice didn’t appear on menus as frequently as popular history would have you think. Though Apicius appears to have been a manual used by experienced cooks (including slave-cooks), only the wealthier classes would have had access to some of the more frivolous recipes in it, and even then some of these recipes would have been enjoyed only at very special occasions; like eating caviar as a canape instead of in a sandwich (unless you’re like my husband’s grandfather, who was given some caviar as a gift but had no idea what to do with it and unknowingly created the most expensive butty in the world for his work packed lunch…)

Cute, tiny and delicious… Credit here.

I’ve talked a little bit about the background of Apicius here, but the headlines are basically that it was an instructional work to guide the accomplished cook in the preparation and cooking of everyday meals – as well as meals for banquets – for their wealthy masters. The name Apicius has been attributed to the 1st century gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, though historians now doubt he wrote the manual himself. More likely is that thanks to his reputation as an unrelenting glutton of the most expensive food (Pliny wrote that Apicius was “equipped for every ingenuity of luxury”), his name became a byword for “gourmand” and seemed a fitting title for the work, which was probably composed by a series of educated cooks.

Goat isn’t anywhere near the same “unusual food” league as flamingo tongue or giraffe. In fact, it’s relatively common in parts of the UK with high African and Caribbean populations, and in other countries it’s as easy to get hold of as chicken is here. My dad, who lived for a few years in Nigeria as a boy, enjoyed it regularly in curries. Unfortunately for me, the nearest butcher that sold goat meat (I couldn’t find it on Sainsbury’s shelves) was in Leicester, which is still in a strict lockdown. Much as I love historical cooking, I wasn’t about to take a jolly into a city still very much in the grip of a pandemic, so looked elsewhere and found that I could get goat meat delivered from the Dorset Meat Company, an ethical grass-fed, outdoor-reared butcher in my second favourite county. Win!

And…I could end the post there. You’d all be thinking that this was a lovely, educational experiment using ingredients I was unfamiliar with to create a semi-authentic Roman meal. But you’d be wrong. So, so, dead wrong. I almost didn’t write this post up, believing that the end result was so disastrous that there was nothing anyone would gain from reading it. Alas, my ego and need for attention spurred me on.

The recipe I attempted was one of 10 possible recipes in Apicius for goat. It was essentially a roasted dish, with an accompanying sauce. Some of the other recipes were pretty simple, such as kid stew which was cooked in chunks with onion, wine and various herbs and if I’d only stuck to these ones, there may have been a very different outcome to this experiment. The recipe I chose to follow, however, lured me in because of its precise measurements and quantities. That’s right, it was that most rare of historical recipes: one with exact instructions. I should have known it was too good to be true.

Aliter haedus sive agnus syringiatus: lactis sextarium unum, mellis unc. IV, piperis unc. I, salis modicum, laseris modicum. Oleum acetabulum, liquaminis acetabulum, mellis acetabulum, dactilos tritos octo, vini boni heminam, amulum modice.

“Another kid or lamb syringiatus: one pint of milk, 4 ounces honey, 1 ounce pepper, a little salt, a little laser. Oil, liquamen, a spoon of honey, 8 [ounces] crushed dates, a good glass of wine, a little starch.

Apicius, Book VIII

(Huge apologies for dodgy translation, I used a combination of Google translate and already translated versions to try and get as accurate picture of the original recipe as I could.)

Anyway, Sally Grainger’s version seemed to have converted most of the original quantities to modern day equivalents, so I used her translation as guidance. The first thing to do was to roast the goat. Underneath the original recipe was another recipe which appears to have become disjoined from the first, but clearly belongs to it as it gives instructions for preparing the raw goat. I was to rub the meat with oil and pepper and sprinkle on liberal pinches of salt and coriander seeds before roasting. So far, so simple and even delicious; the smell of meat as it roasted with coriander was mouthwatering.

You know what a roast looks like.

Having never cooked goat before I’d done a little research and knew that there was a danger, thanks to the low fat content, of it becoming too dry and tough. In order to combat this, modern cooks (as well as Apicius!) advised regular basting throughout the cooking process. Some cooks even suggested cooking the meat in a tin foil tent to trap any escaping moisture. I rolled my not-technically-authentic foil out and dutifully shaped it so it would fit over the meat before setting regular timers on my phone to remind me to baste it.

The Romans took a lot of their understanding of insanity from the Ancient Greeks, and certain schools of thought taught that madness was a divine punishment; a common trope in Greek mythology or epics. The 1st century Roman physician Celsus subscribed to the belief that insanity could be visited upon a person by “phantoms” which could cause a person to descend in to one of two types of madness: the “depressed” or the “hilarious”.

I’m telling you this so you’ll understand why I decided, halfway through roasting the goat, to remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that in itself took over half an hour – and then expected her to go to sleep without any issues. Whatever phantom it was that inspired me to do this was clearly a fan of schadenfreude.

I sat on the floor of the landing as the smell of roast goat grew stronger and shepherded my daughter back into her new bed when she appeared at her doorway, wildeyed and wailing, every 45 seconds. To add to the madness, the alarm on my phone went off every ten minutes to remind me to baste the meat. I ignored it nine times; the foil tent would have to do on its own.

After just over an hour and a half of battling the world’s most resistant toddler there was silence. I checked in on her: she had pulled her pillow and blanket onto the floor and had fallen asleep under the bed…we clearly had much work to do. The work would have to be done another night, though, because by this point it was almost 9pm and I hadn’t even started on the sauce to go with what I presumed was now incredibly burned goat.

As I headed back into the kitchen, I saw that the foil covering I’d been relying so heavily on to stop the meat from drying out had been left in a neat tent on the side – in my mad rush to take the cot-sides off my toddler’s bed I had forgotten to actually cover the goat with it. Any “hilarious” aspects of the phantom madness that had gripped me earlier began to fizzle away and were quickly replaced by “depressed” ones.

Truth be told, by this point I was ready to jack it all in and order a takeaway – I’d try a goat curry in the spirit of it all if necessary. But the masochist historian in me forced me to see this thing through to the bitter end, so I began work on the sauce.

I added the milk, pepper, honey and salt to a pan along with a little asafoetida. The ingredient “laser” was an ancient herb that has since become extinct, but was believed to be closely related to asafoetida, which made a reasonable substitute. While it was heating enough to dissolve the honey, I blitzed the dates with more honey, oil and liquamen – I used nam pla as a modern alternative. Nam pla has a very distinctive smell and despite being used in countless Thai recipes, it’s a smell I just can’t get used to. I fully understand that it transforms dishes with its umami flavour but once I smelt this I just couldn’t get the scent out of my unsophisticated nose and I knew I was going to struggle to eat dinner. Unfortunately for me, Grainger’s reading of the recipe called for a full 70ml of it – not an inconsiderable amount.

Once the dates and liquids had been transformed to a runny paste, I transferred it to a pan, added a small glass of wine and heated the mixture slightly. I strained the warmed milk and combined the two and stirred like a madwoman to try and stop it from curdling too much. Once I was sure I could stop stirring, I added a tablespoon of cornstarch to thicken it slightly over heat. I may have added too much because after a while the sauce became as thick as wallpaper paste, which did nothing to add to my anticipation of the meal.

The goat had been roasting on a low heat for about two hours now. I took it out, drained the pitiful amount of meat juice into the date sauce and rested the goat under foil to reach the warm but not hot temperature that it would have been served at.

Roman diners often ate roasted meat in slices and dipped each slice into small bowls of sauce, rather than cover the meat entirely. I decided to copy this method of serving: partly for authenticity reasons but also on the off chance that, if the goat wasn’t too tough, I didn’t ruin it by drenching it in cheesy smelling sauce. Despite being called stuffed goat, it actually wasn’t clear where the stuffing occured, and I wasn’t about to risk it by filling the meat with the dubious sauce.

At least the bowl was pretty.

We sat, apprehensive, in front of our plates until my husband went first and took a bite. He chewed thoughtfully. He chewed some more. After what felt like a solid minute of chewing, he stood up and wordlessly made his way to the kitchen to put some chips in the oven.

“Oh God, is it that bad?” I asked.

“No,” he lied (still chewing). “I just thought it would go with chips.”

I took a bite. The quality of the meat had been very good, so this tasted very similar to lamb with only a subtle “goaty” hint to it. However, my fears of it being too tough were right – it was so chewy that I felt like the stereotypical image of Henry VIII, tearing meat off in chunks with his teeth and eating with his mouth open, as I ate.

The sauce, though not as bad as I’d thought, failed to save the meal. It was too thick, for one, and clung to the meat rather than soaked it which therefore did nothing to alleviate the dryness. It was faintly sweet and creamy, but with an alcoholic tang. Though you couldn’t taste the fish sauce on its own, there was a lingering scent of it (I couldn’t work out if it was from the sauce or from remnants in my nose), and so with each bite there was a slightly cheesy retronasal smell that I found pretty off-putting.

In the end we continued determinedly through about 1/3 of the meal before giving up and sharing the bowl of chips. Late into the evening I made brownies, too; it seemed like that kind of night. I was determined not to waste the leftover goat, though, so I have plans to mince what was left and add it to a ragu.

Overall, the night did not end as I thought it would. My toddler was asleep on the floor, all the windows were open to drive the smell of fish sauce out and our dinner lay mostly uneaten on the side. I’m not saying an experiment with flamingo tongue would have been better, but it couldn’t have been much worse.

E x

Stuffed Goat

1kg goat (or lamb) leg
Small handful of coriander seeds
12g black peppercorns
300ml whole milk
110g honey
Pinch of asafoetida powder
4 dates
70ml fish sauce
70ml olive oil
150ml white wine
Tablespoon cornflour

  1. Rub the goat with olive oil and cover in salt, pepper and coriander seeds. Roast, under a foil tent, for 2 hours at 160 degrees C. Baste regularly.
  2. When the goat is roasted, take out and keep covered in foil. Begin the sauce.
  3. Crush 6 peppercorns and add them and the rest of the peppercorns to a pan with the milk. Add 40g of honey, the asafoetida and some salt. Heat gently.
  4. Grind the dates in a food processor with the rest of the honey, the fish sauce and oil. Transfer to a pan and add the wine. Heat.
  5. Strain the milk and add it to the date sauce, stirring whilst adding.
  6. Take the meat out of the oven and allow to rest a little. Pour the meat juices into the date sauce and stir.
  7. Transfer the sauce to small dishes, carve the meat and serve at just above room temperature.

Leche Lumbarde: 15th century

My husband had an important work call to make on Tuesday morning. You know the kind – the ones you have to put in your calendar so you absolutely do not forget about them. The kind people ask “are you all ready for it? Let me know if you need anything.” The kind that you spend weeks worrying about and might, just might, treat yourself to some sort of calorie laden confection as congratulations for getting through it once it’s over.

In my husband’s case, this was an extra large bag of Haribo. He’d bought it a week or so ago in anticipation of The Call and lovingly stashed it at the back of the cupboard behind the beans and spaghetti hoops where it waited patiently for its time to come.

Unfortunately, that time actually came three days too early when, in a fit of sudden dinnertime anxiety about our terrible eating habits, I raided the cupboard looking for rice, wholewheat pasta or lentils to make something wholesome and disappointing with. As I pushed aside a jar of alarmingly red tikka sauce I saw the Haribo bag lurking in the shadows, hoarding its gummy bears, fizzy cola bottles and sour cherries.

It wouldn’t be decent to describe what happened next. Needless to say, my husband ate a plate of wholewheat spaghetti on his own as for some reason I wasn’t too hungry anymore.

And that was the end of that. Until Monday evening, when my husband turned to me with gleaming anticipation in his eyes and told me how much he was looking forward to devouring the Haribo after he’d got through The Call in the morning. They were really helping him focus on the prep work, he said. He didn’t know what he’d do without them as a motivator, he said. If something, anything, should happen to them, he’d be utterly destroyed.

Okay, maybe not as dramatic as that. The point was, he was an earnest and very nervous man and I was a terrible wife.

Obviously I replaced the bag (I’m not a total monster), and The Call went well. But it got me thinking about how I could crowbar it into this blog and the answer came thusly: make some medieval sweets.

Yeah nice one, not a tenuous link at all.

In my defense, when reading through the recipe for these I was struck by how they might pass as a medieval version of gummy sweets. So not totally tenuous..?

Medieval people knew very well about the setting properties of gelatin: recipes in Forme of Cury describe the process of cooking pig’s feet, ears and snouts – along with calve’s feet – in a mixture of wine, water and vinegar to make an enticing dish called Gele of Flessh. What I couldn’t find any evidence of, however, was sweet jellies. And if there were no sweet jellies then it wasn’t too much to assume that gummy sweets were out of the question as well.

Forme of Cury, not telling me how to make jelly babies.

I knew that by the end of the 16th century marmalade was being made that resembled something akin to gummy sweets (rather than our modern version); Hugh Platt’s 1600 recipe for orange marmalade was supposed to be so thick it could be served in jellied lozenges. Likewise, the popular 17th century sweet quiddany – quince paste – was supposed to be so solid it could be set in moulds and turned out without losing its shape. But I couldn’t find much evidence of this type of solid-set jam being made in England during the middle ages. A medieval dish from Forme of Cury called Connate came close to these 17th century pastes, but it used lard and raw egg yolk to set it, rather than pectin alone.

What I did find was Leche Lumbarde. Thinking back to my year 9 Spanish lessons I was fairly confident, before reading the whole recipe, that this would include milk – so I almost didn’t bother, thinking it wouldn’t be anything like what I was searching for. In reality, the Leche Lumbarde I found contained no milk, but plenty of dates and sugar (or honey) cooked in wine and set into slices. Okay, it wasn’t a jelly baby or a fizzy cola bottle but it was about as close as I could get.

Other medieval recipes for Leche Lumbarde included meat, such as the 15th century version from Thomas Awkbarow’s Recipes which started off by boiling brawn to a pulp, and the Forme of Cury version, which involved ground pork. It may have been that the makers of Haribo tried an edition of brawn or pork flavour gummy worms, but the packet that my husband had been so looking forward to seemed to rely mostly on fruit flavours, so I skipped these versions in my search.

The recipe I used came from Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016. Harlein MS. 279 seems to date from around 1430 and Harlein MS. 4016 dates from around 1450. The recipes within these manuscripts were heavily influenced by continental (especially French) cookery and many of the titles of the recipes have bastardised English names – the milk-based recipe Letlardes, for example, is clearly based off an earlier French one: Layt Lardé.

I still couldn’t shake the idea of the Spanish sounding name, though. And the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I was that I’d spent all that time in Spanish lessons only for history to deny that milk didn’t belong in recipes entitled “leche”. If many of the recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books were based on recipes from France, then surely it wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility that some Spanish influence had crept in too? There must be a connection, I thought – there must be an original, milk-based Spanish recipe for Leche Lumbarde that had somehow become muddled on its way to England.

A 13th century Spanish cookbook called The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook had a recipe for “A Sweet of Dates and Honey”, which was almost near identical to the recipe I had for Leche Lumbarde. Unfortunately, this recipe didn’t contain any milk, so wasn’t all that helpful in proving the milky origins of the dish. Furthermore, given that 13th century Andalucía wasn’t the region referred to as Andalucía today, but instead referred to all the regions in Spain under Arab Muslim control, it was likely that the original name of this dish (which had been lost) would have been Arabic, so unlikely to contain the Spanish word leche, anyway.

After hours of research I still couldn’t find anything. And then, in desperation, I stopped pushing the very limited Spanish and access to medieval Spanish cookbooks I had beyond their extremes and banged “leche” into the online Middle English Compendium to see if it could point me in the direction of anything I’d overlooked.

Leche” it sang back to me. “Of lesche, laiche, leske ‘a thin strip, a slice’. Cook. (a) A strip, slice; (b) any of a number of jellylike dishes prepared from various ingredients and usually cut into strips or slices.”

Oh.

I’d spent an afternoon chasing the belief that I was about to unearth the global transformation of a dish from its milky Spanish origins to a milk-less English sweet – a discovery that as far as I could see, no one else had made. For good reason, it turned out, because it didn’t bloody exist.

In this particular context, “leche” was truly nothing to do with milk at all. If I’d paid attention to the other, meaty versions of Leche Lumbarde I’d have seen that they too avoided milk. “Leche Lumbarde” was just another way of saying “sweet slices in the Lombardy fashion”. What the original Lombardy recipe that had inspired the 15th century English version looked like was anyone’s guess; I was too crushed to begin that particular treasure hunt and already on the way to the shop to buy yet more, consolatory, Haribo.*

What a fantastic waste of time. Are you going to cook now?

It was all turning into a bit of a disaster; I’d spent so much time chasing a misguided hunch that I had very little accurate history to talk about. In fact, I was at risk of having to include my dead-end research in lieu of proper information about the dish…

But onto the actual cooking. Milk or no milk, Leche Lumbarde was pleasingly easy to whip up and contained relatively few ingredients: dates, sugar, white wine and spices. Though the original recipe made it seem like there were lots of steps involved, in reality the last few sentences were guidance for what to do if the dish didn’t set properly; mine did, so I didn’t need to follow the end points.

Leche lumbarde. Take Dates, and do awey the stones; and seth hem in swete wyne; and take hem vppe, and grinde hem in a morter, and drawe hem thorgh a streynour with a litull swete wyne and sugur; and caste hem in a potte, and lete boyle til it be stiff; and then take hem vppe, and ley hem vp apon a borde; and then take pouder ginger, Canell, and wyn, and melle al togidre in thi honde, and make it so stiff that hit woll be leched; And if hit be not stiff ynowe, take hard yolkes of eyren and creme thereon, or elles grated brede, and make it thik ynogh; take Clarey, and caste thereto in maner of sirippe, whan thou shall serue hit forthe.

Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks

First I heated dates in a pan of white wine – I chose a Pinot Grigio as the recipe specified “sweet” (though I’m not a big wine drinker and in reality it all tastes very similar to me; sorry!) The dates simmered for a couple of minutes until they were softened and just starting to fall apart. I added them – without the wine – to a blender and blitzed.

Why couldn’t it have been milk instead of wine?!

Once suitably pulverized, I added a spoonful of the now syrupy wine back to the dates, poured most of rest of the wine away (I set a couple of spoons aside for the final part of the recipe), and returned the dates to the pan. The recipe called for sugar to be added at this point but, like all medieval recipes, didn’t specify how much. I ended up settling for just under half the weight of the dates, aware that this was meant to be a sweet and should therefore be, well, sweet.

The date and sugar mixture was stirred into a thick paste and then heated until it bubbled. Though there was no indication of what temperature to cook it for other than until it was “stiff”, I checked with a food thermometer and took it off the heat at about 106 degrees C, to be sure it had at least passed the setting point of jam. In all honesty, it looked pretty thick and stiff before it reached this temperature but I wanted to make sure.

Once it was off the heat, I added a pinch of powdered ginger and a pinch of cinnamon, stirred it through and turned the whole lot out onto a covered board. It was still boiling hot, so rather than use my hands, as suggested, and risk melting the skin on my palms, I patted it into a rectangle with the flat side of a spatula.

It seemed like it was already thick enough to slice but if it wasn’t the recipe provided some strikingly helpful pointers, by medieval standards. To thicken up the mixture, it suggested, one could crumble in hard egg yolk or grated bread which would provide some additional setting qualities. As it was I only had to cool mine an hour before cutting it into slices (and shaping it into cola bottles).

So similar it’s like “Where’s Wally?” but with Haribo.

The final part of the recipe called for clarey – a type of spiced wine sweetened with honey – to be drizzled over the finished slices like a syrup. I added a spoon of honey to what was left of the date-infused wine I’d set aside earlier, added a little ginger and heated it. Once the honey had dissolved I let it cool a bit so it didn’t melt the sweets and drizzled a couple of teaspoons over the slices.

Did these taste like Haribo? No, not at all. Did they feel like Haribo? Also no. They were much stickier and softer than gummy sweets, so fans of very chewy sweets would be disappointed. In terms of taste, they were sweet but not painfully so; most of the flavour came from the dates, so it was a very sticky, jammy type of sweetness. It almost felt like eating the inside of a fig roll.

The wine made them richer and somehow smoother, but there was no discernible alcoholic taste. Similarly, the spices – ginger especially – gave each piece a kick, but it was a subtle heat rather than a strong flavour.

In the end I’d made a relatively small batch, enough for four medium/large slices (or leches, I guess.) It turned out that this size was right – pleasant as these date sweets were, they weren’t an acceptable replacement for real gummy bears or cola bottles and we found it hard to finish them in a way we’d never struggled with before with Haribo. I guess, if anything, this experiment taught me that replications, no matter how interesting, can never replace the authentic thing.

Oh – and that unless you have half a day to waste shouting at Google Translate and listening to the Spanish national anthem “to get into the right mindset”, it’s best to leave the proper research up to the experts.

E x

* If it turns out that I’ve made yet another mistake and that “Lumbarde” doesn’t, in fact, mean “in the Lombardy fashion” please be sure to highlight this by writing me a letter and popping it straight in the bin. Or, if you must let me know, email theforeignpantry@gmail.com along with a subscription to a years supply of Haribo.

Leche Lumbarde

100g pitted dates
200ml white wine
40g caster sugar
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
(optional: tablespoon honey)
(optional: breadcrumbs or egg yolk)

  1. Heat the dates in simmering wine until they are soft.
  2. Remove dates from the wine and blend to a pulp. Set aside 3 tablespoons of wine and pour the rest away.
  3. Place dates back into the pan and add 1 tablespoon of the wine. Add the sugar and stir until all incorporated.
  4. Heat the date and sugar until it is thick and bubbling and can hold its own shape (about 105 degrees C.)
  5. Remove from heat and stir in the spices.
  6. If you don’t think the mixture is thick enough to cut when cooled, add in 50g of breadcrumbs or one hard boiled egg yolk, crumbled, and mix in thoroughly.
  7. Tip mixture onto a non stick surface and shape into a rectangle a couple of cm thick. Allow to cool entirely.
  8. Slice and, if adding the sauce, heat the remaining tablespoons of wine with a tablespoon of honey. Add a pinch of ground ginger and then drizzle over the slices.

Farts of Portingale: 1594

Settle down, settle down.

I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room and dive right in to explain the name of this dish and answer the question everyone’s asking: Portingale simply means made in the “Portuguese-style”. In 1480 the merchant Martin Rodkyns imported 4,000 farts from Portugal at the surprisingly modest cost of 6s. 8d. (approximately £230 in today’s money) suggesting that supply of farts outstripped demand and/or farts weren’t valuable enough in their own right to tax heavily. Nevertheless, farts were clearly considered something of a treat and were served along with other “subtleties” at the enthronement feast of Archbishop Warham in 1504.

All clear? Excellent.

The second thing it’s probably good to get straight is that most 16th century culinary “farts” were small, lightly puffed up, air filled pastries. Naturally the name of this dish necessitates discussion of certain unpleasant wind-based bodily functions, so to avoid confusion over which type of fart is being discussed, I’ve tried to use “fart” when talking about today’s experiment, and the playground term “trump” to describe the revolting, odious, loathsome and uncouth blowing of hot air.

Part of what makes this dish so interesting is that the name is a bit of joke – both to us and to people of Renaissance England (this may be one of the few examples of humour surviving time travel to the 21st century!) The Middle English Dictionary shows that “fart” had been used to mean breaking wind since at least the 14th century – (in)famously in the Summoner’s Tale of the Canterbury Tales where a corrupt friar finds himself in the firing line of a particularly loud and noxious one – but its etymological roots go back much further than that.

So why, if the word “fart” meant what I’m halfheartedly calling “trump”, was it used in the title of a dish? Was it just an unfortunate typo that was repeated over and over again? If not, who was it who thought that a gazpacho of guffs; a fricassee of flatulence; a bowlful of bottom burps – call it what you want – was just what the diners of the country needed? Well, in this case it was Thomas Dawson; English foodie and writer of The Good Huswifes Handmaid for the Kitchen – a text on the main points of the preparation and presentation of meat.

Dawson’s entry for Farts of Portingale is infuriatingly cool; there are no puns and no tongue in cheek comments that lesser writers might resort to in order to make their writing seem more interesting and funny. (When my husband found out what I was making today he made me swear I wouldn’t make more than three fart jokes. I’m trying, I’m really trying.)

How to make Farts of Portingale.

Take a peece of a leg of Mutton, mince it smal and season it with cloues, mace pepper and salt, and dates minced with currans: then roll it into round rolles, and so into little balles, and so boyle them in a little beefe broth and so serue them foorth.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen
“Alas,” she sighed. “All this meat and veg when all I really want is a good fart.”

You can see that in order to find any reason why these were called farts I had to dig a little deeper than Dawson’s recipe alone.

A second 16th century English recipe for farts that predated Dawson’s version by three years was markedly different; it included an early form of meringue, sugar and dough. Likewise, a 14th century French recipe called pets d’Espaigne also seems to have been some sort of bitesize pastry and meat treat and, jumping forward, the 1651 culinary text Le Cuisiner François included a recipe for small pastries called pets de poutain. The respective translation for both these dishes? “Spanish farts” and “whore’s farts.”

Even more interestingly, a lesser used French word for stuffing (which is essentially what Dawson’s recipe is) is farce. A very good linguist friend of mine (who probably never imagined she would need to use her skills to look up the linguist connections of the word “fart”) suggested that a humorous mistranslation of the French dish farce could be to blame for the English dish of “farts”, before the newly minted joke was translated back into French, pets. Whatever the truth, it’s clear the obsession with food-based farts wasn’t limited to English cuisine or any one type of meal.

The deputy chief editor of the OED, Dr. Philip Durkin, suggests that the common theme shared between these three dishes was that they all included dough which was intended to inflate slightly with hot air when cooking – could the puffed up quality be the inspiration for the name? It’s a possibly tenuous link, especially when you think about all the other historical puff pastry dishes that have existed separate from the “fart” motif, but it does highlight how difficult tracing the ideas and theories behind certain types of food can be. (Which is a fancy way of saying I give up and am happy to leave it to the experts to ponder!)

It would be easy to assume that Farts of Portingale was, as mentioned, a typo made by a careless (or teenage) writer that was then copied out over time – a slip up when writing a recipe for the similar sounding Portuguese tarts, perhaps. But given the prevalence of the equivalent word for “fart” in other European cuisines it seems unlikely – what’s more compelling is that the dish was actually part of a wider culinary theme. Furthermore, the use of crude humour in food isn’t uncommon; even today there exist recipes for French-Canadian “nun’s farts”, Italian palle di nonno (“Grandad’s balls”) and Sicilian cassatella di sant’Agata (“Saint Agatha’s breasts”.) Are we really prepared to believe that it’s only in the last few decades that humans have found mixing food and rude words together can create funny results, or that the people of medieval and Renaissance England didn’t find such crass things as farts amusing? (If you do it’s because you didn’t click on the Summoner’s Tale link. Gotcha.)

Anyway, after all this I was expecting to deal with a small pastry tidbit, in keeping with the other fart dishes I’d looked at. But instead I was met with another mystery: Dawson’s recipe made no reference to pastry at all. Was this because by Dawson’s time a fart could describe any dish of bitesize morsels? Or was it because the “fart” element wasn’t to do with puffed pastry after all, but something else? I had no idea. I also didn’t really care either; having spent a solid four hours destroying my internet history with searches like “farts in food” and “the history of farts”, I felt I’d reached the limits of my research ability.

Firstly, I blitzed some mutton in a food processor. To this mushed up mutton mince I added dates, currants, some powdered cloves, mace and salt and pepper. Once it was all incorporated I rolled the mixture into meatballs and brought a pan of good beef stock to simmer (unfortunately not homemade), which I plopped the balls – farts? – into one by one.

A plateful of farts – delightful.

Each fart cooked for between five and seven minutes, by which time they had lost their vibrant bloody and raw colours and had turned a wholly dull grey/brown. Certainly, they were reminiscent of the colour you might expect a fart or “trump” to be, though thankfully they didn’t smell like one.

It was unclear whether these were meant to be served in the beef stock or not. I double checked with the medieval French version of the same dish (petz d’Espaigne) in The Viandier of Taillevent which seemed to suggest serving the farts without any of the broth they’d cooked in. Dry farts, if you like.

I did my best to arrange them in an appetising fashion, but it’s actually very hard to take a meatball photo that induces salivation – unless you’re IKEA, of course. Needless to say, the name of the dish meant put these little meatballs on the back foot a bit, so I felt an obligation to increase their attractiveness when I served them.

Soft focus, pointless greenery, finickety plating: it’s the grandslam of wankerish food photos.

“You go first,” my husband said immediately.

I bit into one.

“It’s fine!” I said with what I hoped was enough enthusiasm to disguise the relief in my voice.

They really were “fine.” More than fine, actually. The cloves were the dominant spice flavour but in a bold rather than overpowering way. Both my husband and I agreed that because of this we couldn’t stop thinking about Christmas, which seemed a bit weird in the middle of July, but there you go.

Overall these were like moist balls of very festive stuffing. Having never eaten mutton before, I was curious what it would taste like but I found that in these small mouthfuls, boiled in beef stock, the flavour was like a slightly game-y, richer lamb.

They were also surprisingly sweet. I’m always amazed at the power of the humble date and how much fruity sugariness it can pack and it was no different here. Dried fruit like currants and dates were important in 16th century cooking, partly due to their ability to add subtle sweetness, and were regularly imported. During previous centuries these fruits had been the preserve of the nobility but, as Clarissa Dickson Wright notes, by the end of the 16th century some of these fruits could be found in various recipes of the wealthy middle classes too – recipes such as Farts of Portingale.

At the end of writing, I’m still not sure I’m any wiser as to why these were called farts, or what made them “Portuguese”. All I can do is hope that the reasons for the name are mostly innocent and not based on any digestive issues one may suffer hours after eating a plateful of them. Fingers crossed.

E x

Farts of Portingale

500g mutton or lamb, minced
1/4 teaspoon of powdered cloves
1/2 teaspoon powdered mace
A good pinch of salt and pepper
60g pitted dates
60g currants
1l beef stock

  1. In a blender, combine the mutton, spices, salt, pepper, dates and currants. Whizz until the dates and currants are minced and incorporated evenly through the mutton.
  2. Heat the beef stock until it is simmering.
  3. Roll the minced fart mixture into meatball sized portions and drop them into the beef stock – about six or seven at a time.
  4. Cook in stock for no more than seven minutes.
  5. Remove the farts with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a warm plate while you cook the rest.

Chocolate Soufflé: 1861

It was world chocolate day yesterday, apparently. Normally these celebrations pass me by a bit – there’s a world meatball day, a coffee day, a hamburger day and a porridge day. Obviously I’m looking forward to 24th October – world tripe day – but mostly I’m a bit cynical and imagine that behind the merriment and random recipes there’s a big fat corporation greedily counting its money.

But it didn’t escape my attention that 7th July was designated world chocolate day. Call me boring, call me clichéd but that’s one food day I can get behind and you’ll be happy to know that I made sure to celebrate by eating as much of it as I could – chocolate biscuits, chocolate bars, chocolate cake, hot chocolate. All enjoyed with appropriate solemnity for the occasion, of course, and not at all gorged with reckless abandon as I attempted to prove the “share” part of a family sized bag of Buttons was more a guideline than a rule.

I’ve not done too many chocolate recipes, mostly because the glorious stuff wasn’t known about in Europe until the 16th century and so recipes containing it (in a modern format) are fairly limited. Its history is fascinating, though.

Who are these people that get paid to take photos of chocolate and how can I get that job?
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s a lot of terminology around chocolate but modern experts tend to refer to cacao as the unprocessed plant or bean while chocolate is the word for anything made from the processed beans. Whatever you call it, chocolate in all its forms was a highly prized item. In pre-colonial Mesoamerica, where it originated, cacao was used as a symbol of wealth; when Cortés arrived to plunder Tenochitlan in 1519, he and his men witnessed a ceremony where Montezuma II was served over 50 jars of chocolate to drink. Cortés and his men might not have fully grasped the awesome display of wealth they were seeing, but to other Mesoamericans the excessive amount of chocolate drink would have signified Montezuma’s extreme power because of the number of beans needed to make so many drinks. Similary, a 16th century document tells us that cacao was valuable enough to the Aztecs to use as currency – in 1543 40 cacao beans were paid daily to workers in maguey fields.

The Spaniards didn’t think much of chocolate at first, describing it as “a bitter drink for pigs“, but brought it back to Spain nonetheless where it continued to be largely disregarded until someone realised that if you added cane sugar or honey to it, it suddenly became an indulgent sweet drink. By the 17th century sweetened chocolate drinks were being enjoyed by the rich all over Europe for its taste but also for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties (Casanova was apparently a great fan.)

It wasn’t until 1828 that Coenraad van Houten invented the cocoa press, which separated out the cocoa fats from the bean and left a powder which could be added to milk, much like a modern day hot chocolate. This process also meant that chocolate could be mass produced, making it cheaper and more available to the wider public. In 1847 J. S. Fry and Sons realised that combining the fat and liqour from pressed cocoa and adding sugar could create a mouldable solid and voila! the chocolate bar was born.

These early bars were dark and were enjoyed in small quantities as the taste was still fairly strong and bitter. Cadbury’s had some initial success in 1861 with boxes of luxury chocolates, branded ‘Fancy Boxes’. The small chocolates in these boxes were branded as indulgent gifts and were designed to be enjoyed in small dainty mouthfuls (a scientific impossibility as experts* on chocolate consumption have since discovered.)

Eventually, in 1875, the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter had the novel idea of adding milk powder (after trying and failing with liquid milk, which caused the chocolate to seize) and created milk chocolate, which was an instant hit. Rival chocolate firms scrabbled around to imitate the creamy taste and in 1905 Cadbury’s released the first Dairy Milk bar, which boasted a higher percentage of milk than any other competitor brand.

Is all this background info just your excuse to try different types of chocolate?

No, actually.

I don’t like dark chocolate. It’s high up on the list of sophisticated tastes that adult palates are supposed to enjoy that I don’t, along with red wine and liquor, blue cheese; strong coffee. In theory I should be a beacon of health, right? In reality I’ve overcompensated for not liking these foods by developing a palate as fond of sugar and fizz as that of a child – frosted cereal, milkshakes, entire jars of Nutella on one slice of toast. Okay, fine – it’s the palate of a child with irresponsible parents. So what? I had a great childhood and my fillings light up a room when I smile.

Because of this I was only sort of excited to try Mrs Beeton’s recipe for chocolate soufflé, given that it was published in 1861 – a full 14 years before anyone had successfully manufactured milk chocolate. My husband, who’s a certified signed up Adult(TM), was, however, delighted by the idea of this experiment (even though I made it for breakfast in rebellious solidarity with my inner child.)

First I separated four eggs and added a few teaspoons of sugar and flour to the yolks. Mrs Beeton then told me to add 85g of “best chocolate”, which unfortunately meant dark chocolate. I used Bournville because even though it wasn’t sold until 1908 – and it definitely isn’t the best quality – it was what was most readily available at 8:00am when I decided to make soufflé. I just had to hope that the average bar of 2020 Bournville chocolate was as good as a very good bar of 1861 chocolate. It took forever to grate, but eventually I had a small pile of very finely grated chocolate, which I mixed into the egg yolks.

My next deviation from the original recipe was to use an electric whisk to whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. Stiff peaks formed, I folded the egg whites into the yolk and chocolate mixture trying not to beat all of the air out of it. The soufflé was then portioned out into buttered ramekins and baked for 20 minutes.

Little fluffy clouds in a pool of sewage.

Once they were in the oven I found I was filled with dread that they wouldn’t rise and I’d be left with two deflated eggy messes. I started to do initially nonchalant but increasingly neurotic soufflé inspections: I began by wandering into the kitchen every couple of minutes to check on the oven, pretending that I’d left the milk out or the hob on. Then there were a couple of innocent peeks through the door to check that they were rising properly and before I knew it I was kneeling on the floor, face pressed against the hot glass, hissing “rise my beauties, rise!”

And rise they did. The second wave of dread washed over me as I read “the proper appearance of this dish depends entirely on the expedition with which it is served…if allowed to stand after it comes from the oven, it will be entirely spoiled, as it falls almost immediately.”

Entirely. Spoiled.

Has a more terrifying phrase ever been written? And what was worse is that it seemed totally unavoidable – I could have absolutely nailed the recipe, even use the very best of best chocolate – and it would all be for nothing if I shuffled instead of sprinted to the table when serving it.

I prepped myself for the worst, took a deep breath and whisked the soufflé’s from the oven so fast I was at risk of breaking the sound barrier.

“Stand back!” I roared at my husband as I ran to the table to photo them before they deflated.

In the end Mrs Beeton had maybe exaggerated the delicate nature of soufflé; yes, they sunk slightly within a minute or so of being out of the oven, but they were hardly “spoiled.” At least, not spoiled enough to render them inedible for breakfast.

Totally forgot to add powdered sugar when they came out of the oven which entirely spoiled them.

Not only did they look like chocolate soufflés, but they damn well tasted like them too; rich and dark without being too sweet. My husband particularly enjoyed this aspect to them because he said it made them feel “healthier”. Inside they were light and airy, but as they deflated they got a bit gooier and more unguent.

I didn’t finish all of mine because, well, dark chocolate. But my husband, buoyed by the seemingly wholesome nature of these, managed to finish off his own and the rest of my ramekin. Dark chocolate soufflé for breakfast: approved by Real Adults.

World chocolate day might be over, but I’m already counting down the days to next year when I can make a (milk chocolate) version of these again. Also, if someone could tell me the shortcut for the acute accent so that I don’t have to keep copy and pasting the “é” every time I write “soufflé” in the future, I would be forever indebted to you.

E x

* It’s me; I’m the expert on chocolate consumption.

Chocolate Soufflé

85g dark chocolate, finely grated.
1 teaspoon plain flour
3 teaspoons caster sugar
4 eggs

  1. Preheat an oven to 160 degrees C.
  2. Separate the egg whites from the yolks.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks and add the grated chocolate. Mix.
  4. Add the flour and sugar to the chocolate and egg yolk and whisk together until fully incorporated.
  5. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
  6. Fold the egg white into the egg yolk. Make sure not to over-fold to prevent the air escaping.
  7. Butter two large ramekins and divide the soufflé mixture between them.
  8. Place the soufflés into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Do not open the oven door during cooking.
  9. Remove the soufflés and dust with icing sugar. Serve immediately.

Meat Loaf: 1967

Before today I’d never made or eaten meatloaf before. Growing up, my whole experience of it came from watching American films from the 90’s where it was always presented as a bit of a disappointment: dry, bland and uninspired, occasionally with ketchup. None of my friends ate it either so it became something I thought of as semi-fictional, in a boring kind of way. I think there was only one film where meatloaf was made to seem dangerous and exciting, but it was part of a messy, short lived scene that ended with a pickaxe and bits of Meat Loaf all over the walls and floor. Other than creating some mildly conflicting emotions in 12 year old me (who, let’s face it, knew she shouldn’t be watching a DVD that featured so much leather and red lipstick on the front cover), this particular scene didn’t really change my opinion of the dish overall.

I’m unsure why I thought of meatloaf as this slightly ugly, dull meal in comparison to the fancy sounding terrine when they are such similar dishes. It’s probably because the word “terrine” evokes French elegance, upmarket restaurants and crisp white napkins whereas the word “meatloaf” sounds like something we’d all be fighting over in the dystopian wasteland of a nuclear winter as part of a futile effort to avoid resorting to cannibalism. Or maybe I’ve just thought about it too much.

“It’s really boring” I told my husband. “At least, I think it is. You probably won’t like it.” I showed him the ugly photo of lumpy meatloaf in Marguerite Pattern’s 1967 edition of Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour.

“Well why are you making it then?”

I showed him the photo of Wurstel Sausage in Aspic which had been the alternative for my foray into the food of the 60’s and 70’s. He agreed I’d made the right decision.

A third 70’s dinner option. Credit here.

In theory meatloaf has been around for centuries because dishes of compressed minced meat have existed since ancient times. In Apicius there’s a recipe for Brain Sausage involving pulverised minced brain which is shaped and cooked in a pan and sliced into portions to be eaten cold. I would do anything for my love of historical cooking, but I won’t do that. I needed a modern, non-brain version to make instead.

Our modern idea of meatloaf first appeared in American print in 1899 – coincidentally just after the invention of the meat grinder. From then on it became a firm American staple, appearing in cookbooks and on dining tables for decades after. It wasn’t until 1939 that meatloaf made it to British print, however, by which time it had cemented its place as a versatile but fairly inelegant meal. The recipe I used for today’s meatloaf, taken from Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour, appeared under the title “Made-up meat dishes” which did little to change my perception of meatloaf as something that wasn’t quite real, but I was prepared to change my mind. Besides, I was using my gran’s old cookbook which bore tell tale splatter marks from when meatloaf had been all the rage in the 70’s.

First I melted 1 oz. of margarine in a pan, added two chopped onions and cooked them until they were soft but not brown. I then added 3 oz. of mushrooms, flour and milk to form a white sauce and cooked until thickened. So far, so easy. I was actually quite pleased to see that the first two ingredients were vegetables and not meat; it somehow made the unappetising image in the book a little less daunting.

Once the onion/mushroom/white sauce mixture cooled slightly I added a combination of minced beef and sausage meat, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, two eggs, 3 oz. bread crumbs, a teaspoon of mixed herbs and 1 oz. of parmesan cheese (“Oh, you’re making a fancy meatloaf then”, my mum said when she found out the ingredients.) I then added 3 tablespoons of tomato puree which gave everything a disconcerting pinky/orange hue and reminded me of Rocky Horror again, before squidging it all into a loaf tin and baking for just over an hour.

Hmmm.

The thing I hadn’t appreciated about meatloaf is that it’s often meant to be served cold. Patten’s recipe called for the meatloaf to be chilled in the fridge for a couple of hours once cooked before being sliced and served with a salad. I had intended to serve this for dinner, and by the time it was done it was already 7pm. I didn’t think my family would appreciate waiting another two or three hours for a meal that I’d done nothing but complain about since starting. It’s fair to say expectations weren’t high and tacking on an additional countdown to inevitable disappointment wasn’t something I fancied doing to my family – so I served it hot.

Sliced warm, it didn’t quite keep its intended loaf shape – entirely my fault, but not very helpful in boosting the overall attractiveness of the meal. That said, it didn’t look as awful as I’d imagined a whole tin of squashed meat would. There was a pretty satisfying brown and crunchy top to the meatloaf which, once broken, revealed a surprisingly tender and moist interior. I was delighted to find that the crumbly dryness I’d been expecting was no where to be seen – it was like eating a lasagne without pasta and was quite delicious.

The mushrooms and white sauce lent the whole thing a pleasantly silky texture as well as preventing dryness. The tomato paste gave a surprisingly strong “vegetable” taste that threatened to distract from the beef and sausage meat, a combination that worked quite well, although I would have preferred more sausage meat than Patten used in her recipe.

I wanted to see what it tasted like cold, though, so a couple of hours later I cut a slice from the refrigerated leftovers. The flavours had intensified, with the beef becoming more prominent in particular and the tomato taking a welcomed backseat. The texture had become a little chunkier and less smooth too – it was somehow more robust. Overall I think I preferred it cold, as Patten had intended.

Tastier but still kind of ugly when cold.

Despite my limited pop culture references leading me to believe meatloaf was a bland meal, I didn’t find it bland at all and my husband and daughter seemed to wolf it down. However, the overall presentation and fact that it was best eaten cold meant that it would be out of place at a dinner party.

If I was going to a picnic though, and wanted something that tasted great but didn’t make me look too try-hard, I would absolutely make this again. Likewise, I could see this being a much enjoyed family meal if I had time to prepare, cook and chill it properly. And that, I think, is the beauty of meatloaf. It’s not trying to be anything more than it is – occasional family meal, satisfying picnic lunch, theatrical aging rock star – it’s all good.

E x

Meat Loaf

28g margarine
2 onions
85g mushrooms
28g plain flour
1/4 pint of milk
2 eggs
Teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Teaspoon salt
Teaspoon mixed herbs
28g Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
3 tablespoons tomato puree
85g pork sausage meat
450g minced beef
85g breadcrumbs

  1. Melt margarine in a saucepan and add the onions, chopped. Cook until soft but not brown.
  2. Dice the mushrooms and add to the softened onions. Cook for 1 minute.
  3. Add the flour and stir through the mushrooms for 1 minute. Keep stirring to prevent lumps forming.
  4. Once the flour has been absorbed, add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce is thick.
  5. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  6. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  7. Add the remaining ingredients to the onions and mushrooms and mix thoroughly.
  8. Press the meatloaf mixture into a loaf tin and bake for 1 hour – 1.5 hours.
  9. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the tin before transferring to a wire tray. Wrap the meatloaf in greaseproof paper and place in the fridge for 2 or 3 hours before cutting into slices.

Globi: c. 160 B.C.

How do you pronounce ‘globi’? Is it glob-ee? Glow-bee? Glob-eye? Does it really matter when they all sound just as unappetizing as each other? When I saw the title of today’s experiment I assumed it would be for some sort of hideous fish, oozing mucous and slime and served on piles of raw seaweed – that sort of thing. I don’t know why I bothered to read the rest of the recipe, to be honest.

Luckily for me, it turned out that globi weren’t anything to do with mucous-y fish at all. In fact, once you got over the unfortunate name they actually sounded quite delicious: balls of fried cheese covered in honey and poppy seeds. ‘Globi’, meaning spherical in Latin, was therefore a description of the dish’s appearance rather than a gooey sea creature.

The recipe was from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura, the oldest surviving work of Latin prose, which I found in The Classical Cookbook. It’s written in Cato’s usual uptight and stoic way and was intended to be a useful manual of the rules of farming and agricultural management for those rich enough to own large farms (or be looking to expand smaller farms), or those who wanted to create profitable agricultural businesses. The average large Roman farm would usually be staffed by slaves, as many profitable businesses in Ancient Rome were, and so parts of De Agri Cultura are also concerned with how to manage the slave-labourers. It’s here we can see the more jarring elements of Cato’s writing; he talks about the slaves on the farm as if they were any old farm tool rather than people, and advises masters to work slaves constantly before selling them alongside “worn-out” animals and objects when they become too weak, old or sick:

“Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle…old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave and whatever else is superfluous.”

De Agri Cultura, 2.7

Really nice guy, right? Though Cato’s thoughts on slavery should be viewed within the context of the Roman Republic – a society built on the belief that slavery was a necessary element to a successful civilization – his opinions were still considered extreme by some. As Rebecca Gove notes, the poet Seneca, for example, viewed slaves as conquered people who needed to be supervised in order to ensure efficiency, but deserved more dignity and compassion than was given to animals, warning overly harsh masters that “[Slaves] are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies.” That doesn’t mean Seneca was sympathetic to slaves, just that he thought they worked better when they were well treated.

When he wasn’t advocating the sale of exhausted humans in the name of good farm management, Cato could be found loudly supporting laws designed to restrict women’s wealth. I know, I was shocked too. The Lex Oppia was the first in a number of sumptuary laws established in 215 BC which specifically banned women from owning more than half an ounce of gold, wearing purple clothes or ride in a carriage in the city of Rome (or any town within a mile of Rome). This might seem shocking now, but sumptuary laws were a very common way of controlling the status quo and maintaining social order and continued for centuries after the Roman Republic – and not just in Rome, either.

There’s a bit of debate surrounding the Lex Oppia and whether it was a “true” sumptuary law or whether, because it was introduced during the peak of Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian empire, it’s better to view it as an emergency wartime measure to protect the wealth of Rome. Either way, by 195 BC the people of Rome, having beaten the Carthaginians, felt it was time to repeal the law.

But who argued that women simply couldn’t be allowed to grow their wealth and wear fancy clothes again? Why, our man of the people – Cato. His reasons for upholding the law were varied but centered mainly around the argument that women would instantly resort to competitive dressing which would shame those who couldn’t afford the best clothes. Alternatively, he argued that all women were afflicted with an insatiable desire to spend money – an urge he likened to an incurable disease – and therefore the Lex Oppia was a kindly restrictive measure to prevent the poor unrestrained dears bankrupting themselves.

Not a fan of Cato, we get it.

I know, I know: it’s anachronistic to apply modern sensibilities to the past… sorry. Still, when he wasn’t working his slaves to the point of death or stopping women from wearing silk underpants or whatever it was he had a problem with, Cato came up with some pretty decent recipes.

I’d covered his libum (also from De Agri Cultura) with success so I had high hopes for globi in spite of their dubious name.

To begin with I needed ricotta cheese. Now that I’m a bit more experienced at cooking I thought I’d try and make my own. I felt pretty cocky about this; cheese-making always seemed so difficult and something that “real” cooks did. I swanned off to alert my husband to my newly acquired status as master chef.

“Oh yeah? Ricotta’s pretty easy isn’t it? Do you want any help?”

Not the reaction I’d hoped for.

I heated 1 litre of full fat milk until it was just under boiling and added 30ml of white wine vinegar. The Roman author Varro wrote about cheese making, stating that fig sap and vinegar could be used to coagulate milk into soft cheese. I didn’t have any fig sap and when I asked my mum if I could cut a twig off the ailing and temperamental fig sapling she’s been attempting to grow for years she hung up on me. So I just had to hope that the vinegar alone would do the trick.

Every instinct in my body told me not to eat this.

True, it looked like a yoghurt I once left in my locker over the summer holiday but I was confident it would all work out for the best. After ten minutes of it coagulating I poured it into an old muslin cloth and left it to drain overnight.

The next morning I had been rewarded with 150g grams of creamy, cheesy ricotta. Success! I added 80g of semolina to the cheese and mixed it together to form a thick paste, which I shaped into large olive sized balls.

Each ball fried in a pan of olive oil until it was golden brown before being transferred to a kitchen roll covered plate to mop up the excess oil. The globi were then drizzled with honey and rolled in poppy seeds before being “artfully” arranged on a plate.

Looks fancy, right? I had to lie on the cold kitchen floor and get my husband to squat above them, squeezing honey onto the plate to get just the right kind of drip. Less fancy now, I bet.

As you can see, they look pretty great. Elegant and easy – they only had to be tasty and I’d have pulled off a cooking hat trick. And they were!

The globi themselves were quite creamy and mild in a savoury kind of way, which made them very different to modern sweets. All of the sweetness came from the honey and the beauty of that meant they could be sweetened to personal taste by having only enough of it drizzled on to get the poppy seeds to stick, or by being served with a side bowl of it to dunk them in. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I opted for the sweeter option.

Texture wise they were slightly gritty, thanks to the semolina, but it was a grittiness that was enveloped in smooth ricotta, so it wasn’t very noticeable and certainly not unpleasant.

In the end I was actually a little put out by how easy it was to make these. What with the cheese-making and the frying, I’d sort of assumed these would safely earn me my place in the hallowed halls of advanced cookery but I felt a bit of a fraud by the end. Still, as I handed my husband the honey and told him to help with the photos I pretended to wipe sweat off my brow and sighed with the imaginary effort of it all.

I think he bought it because afterwards he offered to do the washing up and I got to sit on the sofa with my feet up, dipping globi into warm honey with reckless glee. Win!

E x

Globi

150g ricotta (or you can make your own by heating 1l of full fat milk until just below boiling and adding 30ml of white wine vinegar. Stir for a few minutes then leave to coagulate. After 15 minutes, pour the mixture into a cheesecloth with a bowl under it to collect the whey. Leave it for at least 30 minutes, or overnight for a firmer cheese.)
80g semolina
Olive oil for fying
Honey to taste
75g poppy seeds

  1. Mix ricotta and semolina together to form a paste.
  2. Heat olive oil in a frying pan until it is glassy and sizzles when globi are placed in it.
  3. Fry each globi, two at a time, in the oil until golden brown.
  4. Drain the globi on kitchen roll, then drizzle over as much honey as you like.
  5. Roll the globi in poppy seeds and enjoy.

A Bengali Meal: 16th century

Today’s post is weirdly long and personal, so if you’d prefer to switch off now I won’t blame you. We always think people are more interested in our backstories than they actually are, and I’ve definitely fallen into that trap with this post. Go and watch the TV. Go outside and enjoy the sun. Hell, lie down and stare at the ceiling for 10 minutes – I can guarantee it will be a more interesting use of your time.

For hardcore fans (hi dad), or those too lazy to click off – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My grandad was born in India, in West Bengal in the 1930’s. Back then it wasn’t called West Bengal; it wasn’t until 1947 that Bengal was partitioned, with the Eastern section becoming part of the newly created Pakistan and the Western section, the part my grandad’s family lived in, remaining in India. Grandad used to say he remembered sitting on the roof of his parents’ house watching a seemingly never ending line of Hindu migrants – his family – who had found themselves on the “wrong” side of partition, walking down the road towards the house and wondering what on earth they were going to do. All these displaced aunts, uncles, cousins…where would they sleep? Would there be enough food? Would they be staying long?

Grandad aged 8 and getting ready for a festival. Have you ever seen a less excited child?

A few years later he moved to Britain to do post-grad research having already graduated from the University of Calcutta. The post-grad also allowed him to avoid the threat of an arranged marriage he didn’t want to be a part of. In Britain he worked as an inventor and sent sketches of his inventions to be turned into blueprints at the draft department of the company he worked for. After a year or so, one of the draughtswomen made a mistake with the measurements and he visited the department to help fix it. Six months later he was engaged – this time of his own volition – to the draughtswoman who had cocked up the measurements (though she maintained it was his dodgy drawing that was at fault.) The rest of his time was spent convincing his new mother in law that a mixed marriage wasn’t the end of the world and that yes, actually, people with darker skin and foreign names (the horror!) could be just as intelligent, funny and kind as the white people she met with to drink tea and judge others. In his case, more so. Great grandma came round to having “one of those Indians” in the family eventually…

Britain wasn’t always hugely accepting of immigrants in the 50’s. Or 60’s. Or 70’s. Or… you get the picture. I know there were some dark periods for grandad and so, to try and lessen the target on him and his family he Anglicized as much of himself as he could. He changed his name to one that sounded more English. He rarely spoke Bengali again and didn’t teach it to his children. He accepted jobs at engineering firms that required him to regularly relocate to new countries in order to “get rid” of him while still benefiting from his labour. He took it all in his stride and ironically ended up with a work history so rich and international that by today’s standards it would be akin to that of a successful global businessman.

By the time he retired he had become a public serving and well respected member of the community and he began to revisit his Bengali roots. When my sister and I visited as children he’d tell us folk stories from his own childhood, play old Indian records for us and we’d try on my aunt’s bindis and saris. We’d have brilliant but bizarre “fusion” dinners of samosas, dal and spag bol followed by rasmalai and apple crumble and there were always plates of Bengali sweets bought from the Asian market which he’d encourage us to wolf down before our parents came to collect us. At the time I thought this was the greatest thing ever but now I’ve had a child and can imagine the sugar-hyped car journey home, it seems like an unbelievably evil thing to do to my mum and dad.

Adorable but irresponsible actions aside, I only knew him as grandad. Sweetie junkie, “Big Giant”, king of farting and blaming it on the dog – this one’s for you. Miss you.

Medieval India…

…was not like medieval England, I have realised (give me my PhD now.) I admit, this might seem obvious to everyone given the thousands of miles between Britain and India – not to mention the size difference in land mass. But it’s more than that. Even the term “medieval India” is problematic because from a British-centred world view it implies conformity with Western dates, which isn’t necessarily the case. What’s called “medieval India” spans from roughly the 6th-18th centuries CE, with numerous and complex eras as part of this lengthy time period.

Whereas post-10th century medieval England was ruled over by one king and one king only, the same was not true for India, which maintained local and regional dynasties throughout this period. Some historians, such as Ram Sharan Sharma, have drawn comparisons with the European feudal system; local Indian rulers were given power and land in exchange for service and loyalty to the dynasty. These dynasties were shaped and developed by various cultural traditions, including agriculture, but also by religion. It’s impossible to overstate the complexity of the history of religion in India, but if you thought religion in medieval and Renaissance England was fraught and exhausting, you’re going to want to take a breather before seeing what was going on in India at the same time.

It won’t be a surprise to learn that the cuisine of 16th century India wasn’t unified either. As a vast country benefiting from lots of different climates, the people of Bengal – which I’m focusing on – would have had access to different ingredients than the people of, say, Punjab.

Early 11th century texts such as the Charyapadas describe Bengal as being a region of fishing, hunting and of growing rice – but make no reference to dal at all. In fact, it’s not until the 15th century that dal is mentioned as a dish. Chitrita Banerji commented that the abundance of fish in Bengal made dal unnecessary as a source of protein and that its introduction to Bengali cuisine in the 15th century coincided with the Bengali emergence of the Vasishnava Bhakti sect – a branch of Hinduism that promotes vegetarianism.

Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, mourala fish, fried leaves of the jute plant, and some hot milk on the side.

From the Bengali text Prakritapaingala, c. 1400

To this day Bengal remains a region devoted to rice, fish and sweets. There’s even a proverb: Machhe bhaate Bangali – a Bengali is made of rice and fish. Pre-colonial Bengali cuisine was also exceptional among other Indian cuisines because it evolved a set-course structure, with one dish being served after another, while other regions favoured serving dishes at the same time. A Bengali meal would generally start with Shukto: a bitter dish, followed by Shak: leafy veg, followed by Dal: pulses, followed by vegetable or meat dishes, followed by Chatni: chutney, before finishing with sweet dishes.

There are a few “medieval” Indian cookbooks – but most references to food and meals comes from literary works of the time such as the one I’m using today, the Chandimangal. The Chandimangal is a mangal kavya – a narrative poem about the deities as they established their cults on earth. The genre was hugely important to “medieval” Bengali literature and flourished during the 13th-18th centuries. In the Chandimangal there are literally hundreds of references to food – all described in vivid detail from the tantalising “jhasha fish in tamarind sauce” to the unappetizing “nasty porridge made from old rice-dust” to the downright confusing: “[Dhanapati] ate yogurt and treacle with a crunching noise.”

20th century painting of scenes in the Chandimangal by Ajit Chitrakar. Credit: V&A Museum.

It’s important to remember the foods of the Chandimangal represent the diet of the wealthy – the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of the Hindu caste system. Ordinary Hindus – Vaishyas and Shudras – wouldn’t have had everyday access to the wealth of meat, spices, fruit and sugar mentioned in the text (and the “untouchable” Dalits would never have had any access at all.) As is often the case in this time period, the voices of the poor have unfortunately been lost.

I really wanted to recreate some of the fish dishes but it was impossible to get hold of any of the fish mentioned in the Chandimangal in my area of the UK – I’m not even sure Heston Blumenthal has access to clownfish, which are lovely fried in mustard oil, apparently. In the end it was whittled down to seven dishes from the text – a 16th century Bengali feast in honour of my grandad.

Dal.

The first thing I wanted to get started was the dal. The Chandimangal recipe for red lentil dal was so simple I could have wept tears of joy. Red lentils, black gram, cardamom, cloves and a pinch of pepper. That was it!

When I make dal in ordinary circumstances I often add chopped onion but very early Indian texts don’t mention onions at all. Since 1500 BCE, onions, which had been introduced to India from South West Asia and Afghanistan, were seen as the food of hated rival tribal populations and foreigners and though they grew well in India, they weren’t mentioned in any of the Vedas at all. As Colleen Taylor Sen speculates, this may have been because they were associated with “despised indigenous people” or were seen as unclean because of their smell and eye watering properties. The avoidance of onions would continue well into the 16th century where they were used more often, but always with a whiff of taboo. A quick check of the Chandimangal showed me that onions were entirely absent in the text, so I knew it wasn’t a hidden ingredient to add at my discretion, but rather one which had been deliberately omitted.

I heated the spices in a little ghee to release the flavour while the lentils cooked in salted water. Once they were soft the whole lot was mixed and seasoned with a pinch of long pepper – a type of pepper native to India and which is sometimes called Bengal pepper; I took this as a pretty solid sign it would have been used in this dal. (Also I’d bought a tin of it for a previous experiment at a stupid price and wanted to prove to my husband that it hadn’t been “yet another expensive ingredient you’ll never use again.” I know he loves this hobby of mine really…)

Shukto.

Next it was the Shukto – the bitter dish usually served at the start of a meal. I heated asafoetida, fenugreek and cumin in ghee before frying broad beans and diced aubergine. The text also mentioned the addition of neem leaves, which I didn’t have, so I used curry leaves instead to mimic the appearance of neem leaves and moved on to the next dish. So far, so simple.

Mango Chutney.

After this it was time for mango chutney. All I had to go on in the text was that it was meant to be “yellow coloured”. “Well it’s just chutney,” I thought to myself. “How much could it have changed in the past 500 years, really?”

Turns out the answer is: a lot. Loads. There are over 28 million hits if you Google “mango chutney recipe”. I had to find a recipe that used only ingredients mentioned in the Chandimangal, or sort of make it up. I opted for a mix of both. After peeling and chopping two mangoes, I ground mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar until they were an oily mush, which I heated in a large frying pan. To this I added turmeric, fennel seeds and ginger that I’d pounded into a fibrous paste. Once it was heated through I added the mangoes, some salt and sugar and covered with a cup of water, leaving it to reduce for about an hour until it was a lovely thick golden yellow. This was the part of the meal I was looking forward to the most.

Liquid gold.

Shor Bhaja.

At least, it was the part I was looking forward to the most until I saw what I could make for pudding: Condensed. Milk. Sweets. These were mentioned numerous times and I got so excited when I saw them. People who know me for five minutes will know that I think of condensed milk as being a Very Positive – nay, an entirely necessary – part of life, but the milk sweets in the Chandimangal didn’t require any English condensed milk at all. It was a much more literal meaning – condensing a pan of milk down to cream by boiling the liquid off, exactly as shor bhaja are made today.

First I brought a litre of full fat milk to just simmering and as the cream floated to the surface I gently pushed it to the edge of the pan where it clung to the sides, drying. Once the creamy dregs stuck to the pan had dried out I scraped them out and onto a plate, where they sat like scrambled egg, congealing in a quiet and disgusting way. I couldn’t help notice that after twenty minutes I had the most minute scrapings on the plate and still a litre of milk to get through. Still, I was sure things would pick up soon.

Three and a half hours later I scraped off the last creamy dreg. My feet ached. My back ached. I hadn’t left the pan for longer than two minutes – it was 25 degrees out but in my little kitchen, with steam rising off the pan and a window that only half opened, it felt like 250 degrees. In the time it would have taken me to make eight trays of muffins (and eat them all), I had just enough cream solids to fit in my palm. What kind of sick culinary joke was this?

I angrily shaped the cream into a rectangle and cut out ten small squares, which were then dusted in rice flour and fried in ghee until golden brown. I ignored the alarming amounts of ghee seeping off the fried shor bhaja as they sat on sheets of kitchen paper, and got to work on the sugar syrup. As ancient Bengal had been famous for its superior quality of cane sugar, I mixed golden caster with water and added cardamom pods to flavour the syrup, which were mentioned in other sweets in the Chandimangal so may have been used here too.

Cream, fried in ghee, drowning in syrup. I do not see a problem with this.

Balls of coconut and molasses.

The next sweet dish mentioned was blessedly easy – coconut and molasses. To half a bag of desiccated coconut I added four teaspoons of molasses and rolled it into golf sized balls. I wasn’t sure whether they should be cooked or eaten raw so I tried one and winced at the pungent treacly flavour. I ended up baking them for 10 minutes or so to toast the coconut which I hoped would lessen the strength of the molasses.

Balls of syrup and fruit or nuts had been around for millennia and it’s likely that these coconut and molasses concoctions had been influenced by earlier dishes. From tablets dating to about 1750 BCE, we can see the existence of mersu – a popular ancient Babylonian dish of dates and nuts chopped up and rolled into balls. In 529 BCE the Achaemenid Persians took control of Babylon, formally ending the Babylonian empire. The Persians preferred to assimilate conquered civilisations into their empire rather than destroy them, so production of Babylonian food like mersu continued under early Achaemenid rule. As a form of taxation from the regions they conquered, Persian kings would insist on lavish banquets being laid out whenever they visited. Herodotus tells us that Xerxes demanded such lavish banquets wherever he went that if he stayed in one region for longer than a day he risked bankrupting the area (my kind of guy.) Herodotus also tells us that the Persians were excessive in their love of sweet food, so when Darius I invaded the Indus Valley in 518 BCE and incorporated parts of India into the Persian Empire, it’s likely he brought sweets like mersu with him, which may have been the inspiration for these coconut balls.

Though these were just coconut in sugar, somehow they still weren’t the sweetest thing on the table.

Sweet rice pancakes.

The final dish to be made was sweet rice pancakes. These were mentioned several times and it wasn’t always clear what their function was. Sometimes it seemed like they were being eaten as a dessert, sometimes as a snack and sometimes they were eaten with chutney. I decided to serve them with the other desserts, but they may have had multiple functions in a meal rather than just pudding.

Modern day Bengali rice flour pancakes are called patishapta and look a bit like crepes stuffed with coconut and thick milk filling. I’ve never tried one, but they sound delicious. The only thing stopping me making them for this experiment was that there was no mention of a pancake filling in the Chandimangal. In fact, from the references to being eaten with chutney it made me think that the pancake shouldn’t be too crepe-like, but more of a sturdy tool to scoop chutney and sauce up with.

The modern day malpua pancake seemed to fit this description and an early form of it called apūpa had been eaten by people since the Vedic period. Malpua are incredibly popular in West Bengal today and there are many variations of them. More importantly, malpua can be enjoyed with a variety of dishes, which fits in with the slightly ambiguous use of them in the Chandimangal.

In order to be as historically accurate as possible I mixed rice flour with a little barley flour, since barley and rice (not wheat) had been staple crops of Bengal since ancient times, then added milk, jaggery and fennel seeds and mixed it into a thick batter. After letting it rest for a couple of hours, I heated up yet more ghee in a deep frying pan until it was very hot and spooned a large dollop of malpua batter into the sizzling fat. Each side was fried for two minutes before being lifted out and left to drain on kitchen roll. Traditionally, malpua are served with syrup, but there wasn’t a reference to syrup being eaten with them in the Chandimangal, so I didn’t make one.

Delicious with or without chutney or syrup.

Going to tell us what it all tasted like?

I’ll try and wrap it up quickly.

It was all delicious.

Too quick?

Rather than serve the dishes one by one I chose to break Bengali tradition and served the savoury dishes all together, followed by the sweets. It just seemed easier and to be honest I’d chosen the hottest day of the year to spend in the kitchen over pans of boiling ghee and milk, so I didn’t have the energy to keep trotting back and forth with bowls of food.

Despite its moniker as “the bitter dish” the shukto wasn’t bitter at all. It was pleasant and aromatic, but bitter it certainly wasn’t. I wonder if aubergines of 16th century India were more strongly flavoured than they are today. Sprouts have famously been cultivated so that the bitter ones die out; could something similar have happened to aubergines? If anyone knows (or has any fancy theories), let me know.

The dal was glorious, as dals often are. I was worried it would be a bit bland but it wasn’t at all. Creamy, thick and rich with a lovely fragrant cardamom and clove heat to it, this was something we ended up eating cold the next day for lunch.

The mango chutney went particularly well with the dal. It was nothing like shop bought chutneys, which are often very sugary. This had a fruity sweetness to it and was much thicker than shop bought chutneys. It also packed a punch! There was a definite heat and firey aftertaste that built slowly at the back of the throat thanks to the mustard oil and a sprinkling of dried chili flakes. After making this it’s very obvious to me why chutney was served as a dish on its own; I could have eaten a whole bowl of it without needing anything extra.

A bowl of white rice with ghee made a good accompaniment to the meal and was mentioned numerous times in the Chandimangal. It’s unlikely the rice of 16th century Bengal would have been basmati rice, though, as basmati would struggle to grow in the Bengali climate, more likely it would have been boro or aman – neither of which were available to me.

So good I can’t even think of a funny thing to say.

Then it was time for the desserts.

The shor bhaja were obviously what I was most intrigued by – cream fried in butter with sugar syrup sauce? I made sure I had paramedics on speed dial for when the heart attack began, and took a bite. It was unlike any Western food I’d eaten. So hard to describe. Imagine taking the crust off clotted cream, then deep frying it (I know that’s already hard to imagine) so you get that buttery doughnut fried taste. Instead of rolling the shor bhaja in sugar like a doughnut, though, they were dipped into lightly cardamom spiced syrup which glazed each piece and oozed into every pore. Thank God the four hours’ work only yielded ten delicious pieces because these were literally lethal.

Baking the coconut and molasses balls had done little to alter the taste, but they were much drier than when raw. They weren’t unpleasant but were definitely an acquired taste, as treacle can be. I could only manage half a ball but my husband, who has invincible teeth, ate four in one go.

And finally: the rice flour malpua. These were a bit of a standout, actually. Faintly sweet but with a subtle anise-like flavour in the background, these pancakes were incredibly moreish. They were crisp and buttery on the outside but snapped open to reveal soft pillowy centres of sweet rice-y goodness. On their own they were delicious, but with mango chutney they were divine.

Heaven on two plates, at least.

So what would grandad have made of all this? Well, though he loved eating Bengali food, he wasn’t much good at cooking it himself. When my dad brought my mum home to meet his family for the first time, grandad said he’d cook a curry to mark the occasion. And he did – with a chicken and a jar of HP Curry Sauce.

Happy eating – I’m off to lie down for a week.

E x

Dal

320g red lentils
250g black lentils
7 or 8 cardamom pods
7 or 8 cloves
Ghee
Black pepper/Long pepper

  1. Cook the lentils in water until soft – about 20 – 25 minutes.
  2. While the lentils are cooking, heat the spices in a pan with the ghee to allow the flavours to mingle. Bash the cardamom pods a little to release the seeds.
  3. When the lentils are done and the spices have been heating gentle, add the lentils to the ghee. You may want to remove the spices from the ghee before hand to save you having to watch out for them during the meal.
  4. Sprinkle over a little pepper and serve.

Shukto

1 aubergine
500g broad beans (unpodded)
1 teaspoon asafoetida
1 teaspoon fenugreek
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Ghee

  1. Heat the spices in ghee to release the flavours.
  2. Dice the aubergine and pod the broad beans (but keep them whole.)
  3. When the spices are heated, add the aubergine and broad beans and fry for 7 or 8 minutes.

Mango Chutney

2 mangoes
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
Thumb’s worth of ginger
1 table spoon vegetable oil
Fennel seeds
Turmeric
30g sugar
Salt
Water

  1. Peel and chop the mango into slices and cover with a pinch of salt.
  2. Crush the mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar to form a paste. Add the paste to a pan with the vegetable oil and fennel seeds and heat.
  3. Pound the ginger to a fibrous paste and add it to the mustard oil. Heat for 2 or 3 minutes.
  4. Add the mangoes and turmeric and cook for 10 minutes on a low flame.
  5. Add just enough water to cover the mangoes and add the sugar.
  6. Cook until the water has reduced and the chutney is the desired consistency.

Shor bhaja

1 litre gold top milk
250g sugar
150g water
4 or 5 cardamom pods
Plain flour (a tablespoon or so)
Ghee for frying

  1. Make a sugar syrup by boiling sugar, water and cardamom pods together until it reaches syrup consistency (about 110 degrees c). Set aside.
  2. Put the milk in a non stick pan and bring to just below simmering.
  3. As the cream rises to the top, gently push it to the sides of the pan so that it clings to the side and begins to dry out.
  4. Once dried, scrape the cream from the sides of the pan and transfer to a plate.
  5. Repeat the process until the milk has evaporated and you have a pile of cream solids. It will take approximately 3 – 4 hours. In between skimming the cream off and waiting for it to rise again, gently scrape a spoon along the bottom of the pan to help prevent milk from burning on the bottom.
  6. Once you have got all the cream solids, shape it into a rectangle and cut into small squares.
  7. Dust each square with a little flour.
  8. Heat ghee in a frying pan until very hot.
  9. Add the shor bhaja one at a time and fry on each side until golden brown.
  10. Transfer the cooked shor bhaja to a plate and drizzle over the sugar syrup.

Coconut and Molasses Balls

600g desiccated coconut
4 or 5 teaspoons molasses

  1. Preheat an oven to 150 degrees C.
  2. Combine coconut and molasses in a bowl and rub together using your hands. You may find using a rubbing motion with fingers and thumbs helpful, as when making crumble topping.
  3. When the mixture can be rolled into balls, roll out golf ball sized portions and bake in the oven for no more than 12 minutes until the coconut is toasted.

Rice Pancakes

180g rice flour
90g barley (or plain) flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
300ml milk
45g sugar
Ghee for frying

  1. Combine flour, sugar and fennel seeds in a bowl.
  2. Gradually add the milk and combine until a thick pancake batter is formed.
  3. Heat ghee until very hot.
  4. Drop one dessert spoon of batter into the ghee and spread it out to the size of a small saucer.
  5. Fry on each side for 2-3 minutes until golden brown.