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’.
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!
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‘
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 fartsthat 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 LeCuisiner 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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
Heat the beef stock until it is simmering.
Roll the minced fart mixture into meatball sized portions and drop them into the beef stock – about six or seven at a time.
Cook in stock for no more than seven minutes.
Remove the farts with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a warm plate while you cook the rest.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
* It’s me; I’m the expert on chocolate consumption.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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
Mix ricotta and semolina together to form a paste.
Heat olive oil in a frying pan until it is glassy and sizzles when globi are placed in it.
Fry each globi, two at a time, in the oil until golden brown.
Drain the globi on kitchen roll, then drizzle over as much honey as you like.
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?
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.
…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.
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.”
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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. Fromtablets 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.
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.
Going to tell us what it all tasted like?
I’ll try and wrap it up quickly.
It was all delicious.
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.
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.
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.
320g red lentils 250g black lentils 7 or 8 cardamom pods 7 or 8 cloves Ghee Black pepper/Long pepper
Cook the lentils in water until soft – about 20 – 25 minutes.
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.
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.
Dice the aubergine and pod the broad beans (but keep them whole.)
When the spices are heated, add the aubergine and broad beans and fry for 7 or 8 minutes.
2 mangoes 2 teaspoons mustard seeds Thumb’s worth of ginger 1 table spoon vegetable oil Fennel seeds Turmeric 30g sugar Salt Water
Peel and chop the mango into slices and cover with a pinch of salt.
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.
Pound the ginger to a fibrous paste and add it to the mustard oil. Heat for 2 or 3 minutes.
Add the mangoes and turmeric and cook for 10 minutes on a low flame.
Add just enough water to cover the mangoes and add the sugar.
Cook until the water has reduced and the chutney is the desired consistency.
1 litre gold top milk 250g sugar 150g water 4 or 5 cardamom pods Plain flour (a tablespoon or so) Ghee for frying
Make a sugar syrup by boiling sugar, water and cardamom pods together until it reaches syrup consistency (about 110 degrees c). Set aside.
Put the milk in a non stick pan and bring to just below simmering.
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.
Once dried, scrape the cream from the sides of the pan and transfer to a plate.
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.
Once you have got all the cream solids, shape it into a rectangle and cut into small squares.
Dust each square with a little flour.
Heat ghee in a frying pan until very hot.
Add the shor bhaja one at a time and fry on each side until golden brown.
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
Preheat an oven to 150 degrees C.
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.
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.
If you’ve looked out of a window lately you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve jumped forward several months to the start of drizzly autumn. Where I live we’ve had thunderstorms and the mass reappearance of winter coats as people stand outside shivering, waiting to be called into the shop so they can buy ice lollies they’ll seemingly never get to use in defiance of this most wintry of Junes.
It was time for a bit of comfort food. It will surprise approximately none of you to learn I have strong feelings on what counts as comfort food. Roast dinners, mashed potato, pasta: yes. Soup, anything with fruit, herbal tea: no. Why would anyone ever think those things counted?
Rice pudding is an emphatically comforting treat. Creamy, indulgent, adaptable without ever betraying the fundamental principles that make it so good; it is everything I needed to beat the dreariness of last week’s weather.
I knew that rice pudding-y things had been around for centuries in various forms; the ancient Romans used rice pottage as a dish to settle upset stomachs and there are several medieval recipes for boiled rice mixed with almond milk which might then be served sweetened or unsweetened. Archaeologists have even found evidence that a sticky rice, sugar and, er, blood mixture was used as mortar on 2000 year old buildings. Not comforting, as such, but interesting!
Interesting or not, I was still in need of comfort food and I was fairly sure there had to exist a historical rice pudding that fell somewhere between ‘pap for invalids’ and ‘tough enough to hold walls up’. And then I found it: white-pot.
Not the most comforting name I’ll admit. White-pot was clearly named after its appearance and an early appearance of it as a sweet dish rather than an ambiguous pottage is in Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife. It followed in the footsteps of medieval recipes for blancmanger – literally white food – which were simple, mild, pale dishes. A couple of versions of blancmanger in the 14th century cookbook Forme of Cury contained rice, while other blancmanger dishes might not contain any rice at all and resembled something akin to the modern dish blancmange.
Rice was a relatively luxurious ingredient in England until fairly recently thanks to the fact it was difficult to grow and had to be imported and so the recipe in English Huswife wasn’t intended to be eaten by the ‘ordinary folk’.
There’s a lot of debate about whether rice was first cultivated in China or India – since I don’t know anything at all about this particular part of history, I’m not going to elaborate too much on it but you can check the argument out here. What is known is that despite its ancient Asian origins, by the late middle ages rice was also being grown in some European countries such as Portugal, Italy and France.
Markham’s white-pot recipe seemed deceptively simple and delicious which fitted the first two of my criteria for comfort food. It was a good start. There were no quantities given so I adapted the recipe as I saw fit to make enough to feed a family of 3.
First I mixed 400ml of double cream with a dessert spoon of sugar, half a teaspoon of rosewater and one cinnamon stick and heated it all in a pan until it began to simmer. I then turned the heat off and left it until it was totally cooled and the cinnamon had had time to infuse. Once this had happened, I added 100g of arborio rice to the cream. This type of short grain rice most closely matched the type that was imported from Europe to England during the 16th and 17th centuries and had better properties for a dessert dish than long grain rice. Also, I wanted to make risotto for dinner.
I then added two egg yolks and the white of one egg, 50g of currants, another dessert spoon of sugar, a pinch of ground cinnamon and a pinch of salt. It went into an oven proof dish and baked for just under two hours. Just before this point I hesitated: technically the presence of currants meant this meal belonged to the “anything with fruit” genre, which I’ve already explained doesn’t count as comfort food, but I figured the overwhelming quantity of cream balanced out any health benefits from the currants, so continued.
After a couple of hours the white-pot was done. The house smelled amazing – like hot milk and spices – and as the rain poured down the windows I really forgot we were half way though the first month of summer. I quickly portioned the pudding into three bowls and presented it to my husband and daughter, who had been clustered round the oven for the past ten minutes (I had assumed it was because my cooking smelled so good, but my husband later told me it was just because it was the warmest place in the house.)
Overall, this was pretty good. It was surprisingly dark given its name but was by far the richest rice pudding I’d ever tasted, thanks to the fact it was basically just eggs and cream. I found that a normal sized bowl was a bit too much in this case and I’m still trying to work out if that means it was the perfect example of comfort food or if it went a bit too far…
In terms of taste, it was much more fragrant than modern puds; the Tudors loved an opportunity to use rosewater and the old adage ‘a little goes a long way’ directly originates from 16th and 17th century cooks’ overzealous use of it.* The currants gave a mellow fruity sweetness like a sort of Tudor precursor to huge dollops of jam, and it mingled well with the cinnamon throughout.
It was also very thick – the ratio of rice to cream may have been slightly off so I’ve upped the liquid in the recipe below. I don’t mind really thick rice pudding but my husband and daughter overruled me and suggested others might not share my obviously superior stodge preferences.
Anyway, it looks like we’re in for some good weather soon which means I’ll probably end up bowing to peer pressure and go back to eating salads and other *summery food* this time next week (let’s just pretend for the sake of this bit that I’d eat things like that, okay?) But even if that’s what the future hold for me, I’m glad I got the chance to have one final comfort food blowout.
400ml double cream 300ml whole milk 100g pudding rice 3 dessert spoons of sugar 1 cinnamon stick 2 egg yolks and 1 egg white Half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon Half a teaspoon of rosewater 50g currants
Add the milk, cream, 1 dessert spoon of sugar, the rose water and the cinnamon stick to a pan and bring to a simmer.
Turn off the heat and leave to cool entirely.
When totally cold, remove the cinnamon stick.
Add the egg yolks and white, the pudding rice, the currants, the rest of the sugar and the ground cinnamon to the mixture and fully incorporate.
Transfer to a buttered oven proof dish and bake at 160 degrees for about two hours. Check on the pudding regularly to check the top isn’t burning and cover with foil if so.
When planning today’s experiment I suddenly realised I hadn’t done a savoury Victorian recipe in quite a while. In my defense, Victorian food (barring cakes and puddings) doesn’t have the greatest reputation so it was hard to get excited about it. As Talia Schaffer points out, certain Victorian cooks like A. B. Marshall advised boiling food until it no longer resembled its original form and tasted of nothing. This was to avoid scandal befalling the diners; in a society obsessed with morality, strong flavours were believed to ignite sexual arousal – something that was largely condemned in polite Victorian society.
Or was it? Though the Victorian era tends to conjure up images of stuffy and repressed men and women glancing furtively at one another across candlelit parlours (as though making eye contact over a plate of macaroons was a particularly deviant crime), that’s not quite the full story. Of course certain groups fell into this category, but there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that Victorian sexuality wasn’t all repressed and buttoned up; there are many accounts of couples enjoying all elements of their relationship and of same-sex relationships which were ‘allowed’ to flourish in relative privacy (up until 1885, at least, after which any homosexual act – private or public – became illegal.)
The trouble was that many Victorians had never been very good at speaking publically and openly about sex, and so any sexually liberated voices were trampled on by the overpowering moralism of the abstinence crowd. As the century wore on these various groups became louder and more opposed to what they saw as the degeneration of society; social moralists who believed sex caused “enfeeblement” in men even went so far as to promote the wearing of male anti-masturbation devices to ensure that men were not regularly depleting themselves of energy and brainpower by… well, you know.
Though the final few years of the 19th century saw a radical clash of ideas around sexuality, it was the prim and proper (and largely upper class) image of Victorian Britain that won out in popular culture and in the culture of the kitchen. Victorian food became immortalised in images of milk jelly or gristly lumps of unseasoned meat and as it did, so too did society’s belief that Victorian Britain was full of sexually frustrated aristocrats with no outlet other than long-winded poetry and endless walks in the countryside.
This post has not begun the way I thought it would…
Yeah, me neither.
Back to pies?
The ‘Victorians-hated-flavour-because-they-hated-sex’ myth can also be busted by looking at a range of recipes. Sure, a quick flip through the pages of the quintessential Victorian Mrs Beeton’s Household Management shows us that pretty bland recipes for the likes of tapioca and kale broth existed, but as well as being recommended for invalids (who were supposed to eat plain things to aid recovery) these recipes are interspersed with more exciting ones for things like chocolate cream and cake so laden with booze it was literally called “Tipsy cake”.
Powerhouse of the Victorian culinary scene though she was, Mrs Beeton wasn’t the only celebrity chef and today’s experiment is from another well-known 19th century cook: Eliza Acton.
It seemed as though I was looking in the right place if I wanted to challenge the idea of Victorian food as being dull and bland. I flipped through the pages searching for something that would be a tasty thing to eat for dinner without tipping me into the abyss of moral corruption. Then I found it: chicken pie. Not just any chicken pie either: modern chicken pie. Acton didn’t explain what made this pie modern but it may have been the ingredients used; modern chicken pie contained a heady mixture of spiced chicken and sausage meat whereas an alternative recipe for “common chicken pie” didn’t have any sausage meat at all – not even a little bit – which must have appealed to the anti-sex members of Victorian society.
Don’t you dare do a ‘sausage meat’ joke. Your mother reads this blog.
Although Acton’s modern chicken pie recipe looked pretty tasty on its own, I still wanted more ‘wow’ factor to really put an end to the bland food myth. Over the next couple of pages I found instructions to make a raised pie – a type of pie that was generally taller and more ornate than standard pies and wasn’t baked in a tin or dish. Raised pies were the showstopper challenge on the Great British Bake Off 2017 pastry week episode, so it seemed a fitting choice. Acton also recommended that any of her pie recipes could be used for raised pies but cautioned that for an inexperienced pie baker (such as me) it was best to start by making a small one first, as the technique of hand moulding the case might take practice.
Following Acton’s method, I began on the pie crust. After making a dough of flour, melted butter and hot water I began to shape my pastry case by rolling it into a large mound and then pushing down to hollow out the centre so that it resembled a clay pot on a pottery wheel. One technique that’s sometimes used today is to shape the dough around a cake tin or pie dolly to ensure smooth edges and lines, allowing it to firm up and then removing it from the tin or dolly before baking. Acton also mentioned that it was difficult to achieve good results by “using the fingers only” and that usually only French cooks excelled at a totally free-hand form of pie making, which to me suggested that inexperienced cooks sometimes relied on props. Anyway, I counted myself as an inexperienced cook and shaped my dough round a small spring-form cake tin and popped it into the fridge to firm up for 20 minutes while I worked on the filling.
I could say I spent time making my own sausage meat but that would be a lie. I don’t feel too bad though as Acton’s recipe for sausage meat was lean pork, fat, sage, salt and pepper and these were the only ingredients listed in the sausage meat I bought. I also don’t have a meat grinder so any sausage meat I made was liable to be quite coarse, which Acton expressly mentioned as being a problem and something cooks should take great care to avoid.
Once I’d carefully unwrapped the parcel of sausage meat, I chopped two chicken breasts up into small chunks and seasoned them with cayenne pepper, salt, pounded mace and nutmeg. Things were definitely not looking bland! In fact, I was pretty impressed with how well the pie was holding its shape and how colourful the cayenne stained chicken was. It was then time to fill the pie with alternating layers of sausage meat and chicken before topping it and brushing with egg wash.
After one and a half hours it was done. It smelled delicious and, amazingly, it had held its shape and looked pretty impressive – if I do say so myself.
I desperately wanted to cut into it to see if I’d be greeted with neat layers or (as I half expected) pools of grey water and amorphous meaty mush, but I waited until it had cooled a little to give everything time to settle.
After five minutes I cut into the pastry which gave a heartening crack as it split open to reveal… distinct layers of sausage meat and chicken, still moist and steaming, yes! It was definitely time to taste it.
The next time someone comments that Victorian food was all overcooked meat and milky mush I’m going to send them a copy of this recipe. I’m going to print out and frame this recipe – one copy for each room in my house. Hell, I’m going to tattoo this recipe onto me so I never forget it. This. Was. Excellent.
Okay, so the pastry was a little thicker than perhaps Acton had intended, but it didn’t matter because it was surprisingly rich considering it was just three ingredients. However, it was the filling that really stood out. Chicken and pork work really well together anyway, but encasing them in pastry and allowed them to steam in their own juices for a couple of hours was a revelation. Each bite was tender and not at all dry, as pies without gravy can sometimes be. The sausage meat was subtle and slightly peppery, but the chicken was the stand out star. Faintly spicy with a slightly sharp aromatic after taste from the mace, this was not your usual meat pie. It was, in all honesty, one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten. In an instant I understood why some people could consider food a gateway to degeneracy because there was nothing dignified about the way I shovelled it into my mouth.
It was also incredibly filling – I cut two ordinary slices for both me and my husband but because the pie had a bit more height than normal we could only manage about 3/4 of a slice each. Luckily, Acton recommended that the pie could be enjoyed hot or cold so though it’s unorthodox, we’ll be having more of it for breakfast tomorrow.
Unfortunately for Acton her fame, reputation and glorious pies were eclipsed by Mrs Beeton when Household Management was published in 1861. Fans of Acton might take a little morbid comfort in the knowledge that Eliza had been dead for two years by this point, though, so didn’t live to see her fame dwindle in comparison to Beeton’s rising star. Slightly meaner fans who enjoy seeing Mrs B’s recipes lambasted (or who just enjoy it when I cook something that ends up inedible) might want to click here for an example of stereotypical bland Victorian fare.
Comparative fame or not, it’s clear that Acton’s chicken pie wins hands down out of the Victorian recipes I’ve tried so far. Myth-busting and delicious, this is one dish I’ll definitely make again and would really encourage anyone who likes pie to give it a go – raised or not.
Modern Chicken Pie
2 large chicken breasts 300g sausage meat 500g plain flour 250g butter Teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground mace A good grating of nutmeg A good pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
Melt the butter in hot water and gradually add it to the flour until it forms a dough. Set aside about 150g worth for the lid.
Knead the rest of the dough into a lump and then, as if pushing down on clay on a pottery wheel, hollow out the centre to form a rough shaped case. Don’t push all the way through the dough as you want to ensure the filling doesn’t leak out of the sides or bottom.
Continue shaping the pastry case by pushing the dough down and kneading up the sides until it is about 5 inches in diameter and 4 or 5 inches tall. You may want to use a bowl or small cake tin to help give it a neat form.
When the pastry is the required size and shape, pop it into the fridge to firm up for about 20 minutes.
Chop the chicken into small lumps and place in a large bowl.
Add the salt, mace, nutmeg and cayenne to the chicken and make sure each piece is coated.
Remove the pastry case from the fridge and push a layer of sausage meat into the base. Sprinkle with water and then add a layer of chicken. Repeat each step until the case is filled (I managed two layers of chicken and three of sausage meat.)
Roll out the dough set aside at the start to a small disk and place on top of the pie. Make sure the edges are sealed by crimping them or pinching them to the edge.
Make a slit in the top of the pie to allow steam out of the pie when cooking and brush the pastry all over with egg yolk wash. You can add some pastry decorations at this point if you want to.
Bake. After an hour, check that the pie crust isn’t turning too brown and if it is, cover it with foil. Turn the oven to 180 degrees C and continue baking for another hour after which time the pie should be cooked.
Today’s experiment and blog post can both be filed under “super quick”, which you’ll find next to the folder marked “can’t be arsed.”
You know those days when it feels like you have ten thousand and one things to do but no energy, time or patience for them? Well so far it’s been that kind of month. Maybe it’s because we’re onto week eight thousand of “lockdown” (are we still calling it that?), maybe it’s because my husband and I are stuck in a cycle of lasagne-spaghetti-ravioli dinners because we were both silently hoping the other one would step up and attempt to cook something without pasta, maybe it’s just because it’s June and I’m still checking to see if I need a coat before going out. I don’t know, I’m tired.
Rock buns (or rock cakes, as they’re more commonly called) are the sort of cakes we’re all familiar with from childhood. Having been coaxed into a trip to see grandparents by the promise of cake once there, rock buns are exactly the sort of non-iced, non-chocolate “treat” you’d end up being presented with. Or at least, that’s how I remembered them.
These rock buns are taken from a World War Two Ministry of Food leaflet – a government produced pamphlet to provide households with filling and nutritious recipes during the height of rationing. With eggs, butter and sugar all on ration by 1946, today’s experiment threatened to hark back to the days of disappointing afternoon tea at gran’s.
The recipe reflected the constrictions of the time; no eggs, very little sugar and margarine instead of butter. Reading it, there was also a distinct lack of descriptive language – whereas modern cake recipes usually tell us about the intoxicating smells, the golden hues, the nuttiness that dances lightly on the tip of the tongue etc, etc – this one really didn’t.
In fact, the whole thing was three sentences long. There was not one simile, not one metaphor, not even a charming anecdote, to make it more appetising. Clearly poetic writing skills were also on ration in 1946.
“Make the foundation recipe with the addition of 4oz. dried fruit and 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice added with sugar.”
I did as I was asked by mixing up a batch of the plain cake foundation recipe that formed the base of many of the cakes in the leaflet. At four sentences long, this was practically an essay and took a whopping 10 minutes to complete, but I persevered.
To the foundation mix I added the required dried fruit and spice and then just enough milk and water solution to help it form an incredibly dry dough (about two tablespoons.) I then rolled it into golf ball sized lumps and popped it into “a hot oven” for about 10-15 minutes as instructed. After 15 minutes the rock buns were still a bit anaemic looking so I left them for another 5 minutes or so while I went back to Googling “family dinner ideas – not pasta.”
Finally, they were done. About time too – I’d given up a full half an hour of my afternoon on these and was almost on my knees with exhaustion. I presented the fruits of my 30 minute labour to my husband and daughter with about the same levels of enthusiasm and energy as the author of the recipe had when writing it down.
“Here you go, sweetheart,” I told my girl. “Here are some disappointing cakes mummy made. What do you think?” I turned to grab the bin in anticipation…
And stopped; no one was complaining. My husband was already reaching for a second and nodding appreciatively. I bit into mine.
I don’t know whether I was just an obnoxious child (likely) or my gran was a terrible baker – but these were nothing like how I remembered. Where was the cardboard flavour? The burnt and crumbly currants that left a bitter aftertaste for hours? The crust so hard your teeth cracked with every bite?
Though these lived up to their name in terms of appearance, once the hard outer layer was broken into they were surprisingly soft and scone-like. The currants were plump and juicy and even as someone who dislikes dried fruit in cakes I found I didn’t mind them here. In fact, they were kind of necessary because they added a moistness that stopped the rock buns from becoming too dry.
In terms of flavour, the mixed spice shone through – perhaps because there was a lack of other flavouring – but it was very subtle and worked well with the currants. Unsurprisingly the rock buns weren’t very sweet; again I was reminded of a plain scone and were it not for a commitment to authenticity I think a big dollop of strawberry jam would work well with them (jam was on ration from 1941 to 1950.)
Sure, these rock buns lacked the appeal of an icing covered fairy cake and they weren’t as rich as chocolate fudge cake, but they were still incredibly moreish and I was surprised that for such a simple recipe they were so delicious. I found myself reaching for a second and then a third in a very unrestrained, un-1946 kind of way. It may have taken no time at all to whip a batch of them up, but it took even less time to devour them and with each one I felt my mood lift a little.
Gran, if you’re reading this – I’m on my way over. Get baking.
115g plain flour 115g self raising flour 45g margarine 45g sugar 50g currants 1 teaspoon vanilla essence 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice Pinch of salt A tablespoon of milk or water
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees c.
Combine the flour, sugar, currants, salt and mixed spice in a bowl.
Add the margarine and vanilla and combine.
Add the milk or water until the mixture just sticks together.
Roll the mixture out in golf ball size balls and place on a baking tray. Leave space between each one as they will expand a bit as they cook.
Cook for 15-20 minutes until they turn golden brown.
Today’s experiment is from a work entitled De Re Coquinaria (now often just referred to as Apicuis), a 1st century Roman text full of recipes and instructions for the Roman cook. Though often attributed to the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicuis, there’s actually not a lot of evidence that this was the case. Apicuis lived a life of luxury, sampling the finest food and drink the ancient world had to offer and generally sashaying around the Mediterranean like a 1st century Rich Kid of Instagram. According to Pliny, Apicuis considered himself an expert in top quality food: he advised that red mullet tasted best when it was drowned in a bath of fish sauce made out of red mullet blood and that pork liver was sweetest if the pigs were gently fed dried figs (aww) and then killed by overdosing on honeyed wine (argh), in a similar manner to foie gras. His devotion to excessive animal cruelty gourmet dining was extreme. Seneca wrote that having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, Apicuis realised he was soon to be bankrupt and could no longer afford top-dollar food… so he chose to poison himself to death rather than, I don’t know, get a job? When I say bankrupt, by the way, I mean bankruptcy according to the standards of the uber wealthy: by Seneca’s own admission Apicuis still had 10 million sestercii left in his account.
Sally Grainger, author of Cooking Apicuis, notes that the intended audience (and therefore writer/s) of the recipes in Apicuis may well have been experienced cooks, including slave-cooks, rather than elite gourmands. It’s easy to think of slavery in Ancient Rome as being a one-size-fits-all type of situation; that there was no differentiation in status, ability or lifestyle between the slave population, but this was wrong. Slave-cooks had a higher status than slaves working as labourers and, as highly trained members of rich households, were expensive and valuable to their master. Their skills not only covered food preparation (including inventory and budgeting for ingredients), but also included reading and writing – which it’s often wrongly assumed all slaves weren’t taught in ancient Rome. It’s no secret that wealthy ambitious Romans used wining and dining as ways of networking, so it was imperative that the food served at banquets for the political elite be of excellent quality. In order to achieve that quality a rich Roman master would have to invest in the education and wellbeing of his cooks.
That’s not to say that slave-cooks were routinely educated to a very high level. The language of Apicuis is ‘Vulgar Latin’: the Latin of everyday workers. There is none of the refinement or polished poetry – ‘Classical Latin’ – in the recipes that one would expect to see if they had been written by a man as educated and elite as Apicuis. The recipes in Apicuis are particularly no-frills in terms of writing style. In addition to this there are also almost no quantities at all, no timings, no measurements. In some cases there are entire steps in the cooking process that are missed out – all of this suggests that the author expected his readers to be competent enough that they could fill in the culinary blanks without needing poetic devices to elevate any appreciation of the food. In short, it was a functional manual for the labouring masses rather than a literary work for the elite.
Going to talk about lentils or chestnuts any time soon?
Lenticulam de castaneis – which Google translate tells me actually means, in a weirdly jaunty way, “a spot of chestnuts” – is a deceptively delicious dish to make. Essentially it’s meant to be a meal of boiled lentils with a sort of mashed chestnut pureé addition, as Cathy K. Kaufman advises in Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.
The trouble with this recipe – which despite Google’s overly nonchalent reading translates as lentils and chestnuts – is that it doesn’t mention lentils. Not once. Not under a euphemism or assumed name. Not even in passing. It’s just a recipe for chestnut mush, which does admittedly sound quite nice in a foraging/back to nature kind of way, but doesn’t constitute a whole meal in my book.
The recipe that comes after this one is called ‘Lentils another way’. Putting aside that we’re yet to receive the first way, this second recipe appears to follow on from the first and provides clear instructions on how to prepare lentils, but nothing about chestnuts. It may be that both recipes were originally part of one whole recipe that somehow become fragmented over time, or that they were indeed two separate recipes and the author assumed cooks would be competent enough to prepare lentils without needing instructions, but either way I used both for this experiment.
I began with the chestnut pureé. The chestnuts I had bought had already been cooked, so I just put them in a pan and added a splash of water to heat them through in.
To the chestnuts I added crushed black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mint and dried rue. The recipe also called for ‘laser root’ and ‘fleabane’ to be added. ‘Laser root’ was also known as silphium – a highly prized plant used in ancient cookery that we don’t have in today’s world. It was considered so useful and precious that it became literally worth its weight in gold. Its sap was dried and grated over food and its petals were crushed for their perfume. Its stalks were eaten as a vegetable and, like all disgusting yet inexplicably expensive things, its juice was considered a powerful aphrodisiac. Pliny the Elder wrote that in his lifetime only a single stalk was discovered, such was its rarity. The stalk was picked and sent to the emperor Nero, but history is quiet on whether it was used for edible or bedible (ha) reasons.
I, like everyone else in the world, didn’t have any ‘laser root’. I also didn’t have any ‘fleabane’ – a furry kind of daisy – mostly because its names made me suspicious that it was a fictional herb from the Harry Potter universe rather than an actual ingredient, but also because it wasn’t stocked in Sainsbury’s herbs and spices aisle. I guess Apicuis was more of a Waitrose kind of guy.
To this chestnut and herb mixture I added a little white wine vinegar and honey. For my version of liquamen – Roman fish sauce – I used nam pla, which is made in exactly the same way by fermenting the whole fish – including its guts and bones rather than just its blood – and is an excellent substitution if you lack the nasal capacity to ferment your own fish guts at home. I added olive oil and heated the lot until it had just started to bubble. The recipe then said to “taste to see if something is missing, and if so, put it in…” Something like, oh I don’t know, lentils? It was time to start on recipe two.
Lentils were enjoyed all across the ancient world and not just in Italy. I used red lentils for this because they were what we had in, though I think the Romans probably would have used the more commonly available brown lentil. Having said that, red lentils may have been used too and were actually perfect for this dish, which talked of reducing them to a purée, as one of their properties is forming into a thick paste when cooked.
Having boiled about 180g of lentils until they were almost cooked, I added chopped leek, coriander and various herbs with honey, vinegar and liquamen to them and stirred over a low heat until all combined and cooked. The recipe then said to “bind with roux”, which seemed odd given that it was all pretty much bound anyway but perhaps furthers my theory that brown lentils, which don’t form a paste when cooked, were the Roman lentils of choice. In any case, I added a tablespoon of roux in an effort to keep as closely to the instructions as possible.
I had a choice in terms of serving suggestions: serve it as two dishes – as written out in the recipes – or as one combined dish. Kaufman suggested the chestnut and lentils should be combined in one dish and because she is “a scholar-chef and Adjunct Chef-Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City” and I am just a greedy armchair historian with too much time, I took her word for it.
Now would be an honest time to admit that I’d been a bit worried about this meal. My last foray into Roman cooking using liquamen had not ended well – in fact, I still feel a bit queasy when I think of it. However, this time was different. Oh boy, was it different. This was good – really, really good.
Thanks to the roux, which I’d incorrectly assumed wouldn’t do much, the lentils were very creamy and rich. The leeks, which were just cooked through but still had a bit of a crunch, had an alium tang that cut through the creaminess and worked really well with the sharpness of the vinegar and herbs. In comparison, the chestnut puree was sweeter than I’d expected – maybe I’d added a touch too much honey? – and there was a slightly fiery aftertaste in the back of the throat because of the pepper and coriander seeds, which was delicious swirled through the lentils in a marbled effect.
The recipe may not have been written by Apicuis but it would definitely have been one he would have enjoyed, I’m sure. It was also kind of nice that it had the added bonus of not requiring any animal to be drowned in the blood of its kin. In the end the quantities made enough for two very large lunches or three modest ones, so obviously I chucked a cheese sandwich at my toddler, and my husband and I enjoyed a huge portion each. Delicious!
Heat the chestnuts in a pan with a little water – a couple of tablespoons. In another pan, add boiling water to the lentils and cook.
In a mortar, grind a few good twists of black pepper with a good pinch of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, rue (or other herbs) and a couple of leaves of mint.
To the herbs and spices add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey and half a teaspoon of nam pla. Set aside.
When the chestnuts are heated through, mash them to a pulp with a masher and add the herb and spice mixture. Stir and then remove from the heat.
By now the lentils should be almost cooked through (after about 10-15 minutes), add the leek, finely chopped, to the water with the lentils and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so.
While the lentils and leek continues cooking, start on the roux. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan and add 2 tablespoons of plain flour. Over a low heat, whisk this together and add about 125ml of milk. Whisk constantly until the roux thickens to the consistency of buttercream, then take off the heat. You may need to add more milk or flour to achieve this thickness.
In a mortar crush coriander seeds, cumin seeds, rue (or other herbs) and a couple of leaves of mint, as you did in step 2 (without the pepper). Add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey and half a teaspoon of nam pla.
Once the lentils have cooked, drain them and add the herb and spice mixture to the pan. Stir to combine.
Take a couple of tablespoons of the roux and stir it through the lentils, making sure it’s combined. You can add more, if you like, to create a creamier texture.
Pour the chestnut purée into the lentils and stir through, making sure not to combine it too thoroughly. You could leave a dollop of it on top.
Have you ever become involved in something so far beyond your skills or ability that you can see no way out of it? Something that at the time of starting seemed like a great idea or a funny story for later – like starting a marathon in flip flops or becoming president despite any political experience – but that after less than two minutes reveals itself to be a horrible, tragic mistake.
For me, my mistake was marzipan. More specifically, it was attempting to build a replica of old St Paul’s cathedral out of marzipan using a 17th century recipe on a Saturday night. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to have fun at the weekend.
Let me explain. I’d been flicking through Terry Breverton’s The Tudor Kitchen and had been really intrigued by a whole chapter on Tudor sweets and banqueting. During the 16th and 17th centuries, banqueting guests would enjoy a feast of predominately savoury dishes served all together. After enjoying this meal of many dishes and side dishes, they would then move to another room where a second meal – the banquet – waited for them made up exclusively of sweets, candied fruit and nuts, and sugar plate. The intention of the sugar banquet was to delight guests with sweet treats disguised as other things, such as gloves made out of sugar paste (no, I don’t know why), as well as impressing them with the variety and expensiveness of the sugar and spices laid out. In fact, a clue that banquets were more about showing off than about actually enjoying the food is in the word itself; we get the word banquet from bancetto, Italian for bench, because the sweets served at a banquet would be laid out on a long table to make it easier for guests to view.
In the Tudor and Stuart mind, no banquet was complete with marzipan.
Gervase Markham, whose recipe for marchpane inspired today’s experiment, wrote in his 1615 work The English Huswife that marchpane – stiffened marzipan – should have “the first place, the middle place, and the last place” of a banquet, which highlights how important the stuff was to Tudor and Stuart feasting.
I was intrigued; my experience of marzipan was that it was a necessity in order to make fruit cakes marginally more edible. Sure, it was nice enough at Christmas but was it good enough to serve in great blocks during feasts? I remembered asking my mum for a cake shaped like a hotdog and covered in coloured marzipan for a BBQ birthday party, but even the memory of this highly sophisticated cake left me unconvinced that I’d want it three times during the same meal.
A little bit more research told me that Tudor marchpane was a very different creation to modern day marzipan, in terms of usage. Whereas modern marzipan is often hidden under thick sheets of painfully sweet icing, the Tudors made it a centrepiece of the meal by carving it into elaborate shapes and covered it in nothing but a bit of gilding, if it could be afforded. Occasionally it would be dyed with natural dyes like parsley or sandalwood, but its main function was to be edible table decoration; Markham wasn’t serving blocks of plain marzipan to expectant guests at all. I suddenly wished I could go back in time to 11 year old me as she explained to her friends why a marzipan hotdog cake was better than a ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ cake and tell her not to worry; in requesting a marzipan sculpture as my birthday centrepiece I was actually celebrating a longstanding tradition and not just being “a bit of a weirdo” as my sister put it.
Other than hotdogs, what other things can marzipan be shaped like?
Elizabeth I was certainly one Tudor monarch who would have appreciated the marchpane hotdog. Long famed for her sweet tooth, a German traveller commented that Elizabeth’s teeth were black which was a “defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar.” When she died at the age of 69 years old, it was reported that she had lost most of these rotten teeth.
One of the many sweet foods that Elizabeth was partial to was marzipan. And marzipan shaped like famous buildings was considered the height of fashion. At some point in her reign the Queen had been presented with a gift of a marzipan replica of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was likely that such a creation, in all its intricacies, would have required a team of expert cooks and taken years of practice to master. In my overambitious and egotistical way I attempted to recreate it in one evening, in my tiny kitchen, having had no confectionery training whatsoever. What could go wrong? Well pretty much everything, it turned out.
In lieu of a team of expert cooks I roped my husband into holding up walls while the sugar syrup cement dried. He also had to act as a scapegoat for anything that went wrong (he later told me it was the most fraught and unpleasant evening of our married life), and provide soothing glasses of gin before crucial moments during the construction. When it inevitably all collapsed after several hours’ work and my husband pointedly asked if this was what I’d truly meant when I’d told him I had an “exciting Saturday night project planned for the both of us”, I decided to switch tack.
In 1562 Elizabeth received a New Year’s gift from her master cook, George Webster, of a “faire marchpane being a chessboard”. This seemed a lot more manageable, mainly because chessboards tend to be flatter than cathedrals, so once the dust had settled I tentatively told my husband that I’d be attempting a second marzipan creation again in the morning.
As he preemptively booked us for marriage counselling, I got to work. Markham’s recipe was very simple, with an emphasis on the quality of ingredients used, not the quantity. All I needed was ground almonds (Markham advised using Jordan almonds and grinding them to a pulp, but Sainsbury’s didn’t offer me that much choice), very finely sifted sugar (I used icing sugar to achieve the levels of fineness needed) and rose water.
I combined the almonds and sugar in equal quantities – 400g of each – and added two teaspoons of rose water. Then, kneading as if it were a bread dough, I began to work the mixture together, adding a little water to help it stick, until I had a stiff and cohesive block of marzipan.
I was then faced with a dilemma: what colour the dough should be. Despite our modern images of them, chess boards weren’t always white and black – quite often they would be white and any other darker colour, most often red. The important thing was to get a deep contrast between a light colour and a darker one.
A 1534 inventory of the belongings of Catherine of Aragon recorded that she possessed “two chess sets, with red and white chessmen.” I don’t know how Elizabeth would have felt about the use of her father’s first wife as inspiration for my marzipan chess set (especially given that Catherine never accepted Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn), but by the time I’d really thought about it, half the marzipan had been soaked in beetroot juice so it was too late to get hung up on whether or not Elizabeth would have appreciated this detail.
First up to be made was the chessboard.
I cut out 64 individual 3cm by 3cm squares – 32 red and 32 white. It took forever and I began to panic that I was embarking on another Cathedral Palaver. I considered employing an expert team of cooks, such as George Webster would have used, but one half of my team had barricaded himself in the bedroom and refused to come out until this attempt was over and the other half just wanted to lick icing sugar off everything. Nevertheless, I continued on and arranged the squares like a chessboard before cutting out a border. To make the marzipan stiff I baked it in a low oven for half an hour or so.
As the board baked I started on the figurines. This was by far the most fiddly and annoying bit. In my head they were beautiful elegant carvings with crisp lines and sharp edged. In reality each one ended up as a nondescript, blobby mess. I must have practiced the knights eighteen times before they stopped looking like deformed hippos and began to resemble at least something related to horses.
It didn’t help that the beetroot juice had made the red dough more sticky. Every bit stuck to my fingers and each piece was pulled slightly out of shape each time I tried to set it down. I wasn’t basing my pieces on any particular set because it was surprisingly difficult to find pictures of Tudor chess sets online. All I could find was paintings from the time which indicated that the pieces looked broadly similar to modern day sets so that’s what I aimed for.
I put the figurines in the oven and began to decorate the chessboard, which had been cooling for a while. During the baking process it had puffed up a bit, a little like pastry, but once cooled it had flattened out a little.
It’s likely Elizabeth’s chessboard would have been decorated with gold leaf to give a red and gold contrast that highlighted her wealth and luxury. I didn’t have any gold leaf and even if I had I’d never be able to afford enough to cover each square properly. What I did have, however, was edible gold metallic paint leftover from a birthday cake I made last month. It wasn’t as elegant as gold leaf but it did the same job and soon my chessboard gleamed regally.
At this point, as I was basking in the glory of my chessboard, my husband informed me that the figures in the oven had melted.
As I sprinted to the oven I wondered whether George Webster died from stress brought on by the highs and lows of creating marzipan nonsenses like this? I don’t know, but if my own experience is accurate, it’s very likely. I felt my blood pressure rising as I peeked into the oven and saw that the figures were well and truly ruined. With a heavy heart, I remade them, hippo-horses and all. Instead of putting them in the oven this time, though, I stuck them in my very un-Tudor fridge to firm them up a bit.
Once they were a bit firmer and the horses were less…droopy, it was time to daub them in their own gold paint and arrange them on the board to see how they whole thing came together. It didn’t look too bad!
True, some of the proportions of the pieces were a bit off, and there were some definite lumps and bumps that I doubt would have made the cut on Elizabeth’s board, but overall I was quite happy with it. I could definitely see how something like this could be worthy of being a centrepiece at a banquet. Yes, part of me still wanted to have a glorious 3D model of St Paul’s Cathedral as my showstopper, but the chessboard was a decent alternative.
In terms of taste it was less sweet than modern marzipan is and much nuttier, possibly because the baking had enhanced some of the almond flavour. It was also much more fragrant than modern marzipan thanks to the rosewater in it. The two flavours combined – almond and rose – made a very pleasant pairing with neither overpowering the other.
The texture of the marzipan was also different to what I was used to. There was no limpness to it at all – it was like a well baked biscuit. It cracked and broke easily so had to be handled with care, but was surprisingly light once baked, a bit like meringue. I actually preferred it to modern marzipan.
So after all this what was the chessboard the centrepiece for? Some fancy Tudor inspired meal? A homecooked feast? No. After all the time and effort, all the stress and tears, all the endless wiping sugar off the kitchen table and trying to stop my daughter licking every worksurface, the great marchpane chessboard ended up being the centrepiece for…a Chinese takeaway.
300g ground almonds 300g icing sugar 1 teaspoon of rose water
Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl.
Knead it all into a dough using your hands. Add a little water, drop by drop, if needed.
Roll the marchpane out into what ever shape you want no thicker than 0.5cm.
Place on a baking tray sprinkled with icing sugar or covered with a non-stick sheet and bake at 120 degrees c for 30 minutes, or until the marchpane is just starting to colour at the edges.