Sometimes you just have to try things even though you already know they won’t end well, don’t you?
Today’s experiment is from the medieval stalwart Forme of Cury – the cookbook of Richard II’s own cooks. Designed to be a comprehensive instruction manual, the work contains no fewer than 196 recipes ranging from the simple (common pottage) to the alarming (porpoise frumenty.)
Despite it’s off-putting name, Compost isn’t inherently dreadful and sits comfortably in the centre of the simple/alarming scale. The word “compost” in a medieval sense meant a stew, or preserved mixture of cooked fruit or veg. It was probably meant to be an accompaniment to main dishes, rather than a dish on its own.
The recipe in Forme of Cury is only one of about half a dozen medieval recipes for Compost, and no two versions are the same. Whilst Forme of Cury‘s version is clearly savoury, others aren’t. This suggests the title denotes a type of dish, rather than a set meal – a bit like how modern “crumble” can be apple, or blackberry, or rhubarb. A fifteenth century recipe for “Perys en Composte“, for example, instructs cooks to boil wine, cinnamon and sugar together before adding sliced dates and pears and stewing them in the mixture. Actually, that one sounds a bit nicer than the one I did…
Some useful context for why my husband isn’t currently talking to me.
We’re in the process of trying to sell our house. I haven’t eaten breakfast for days because no-one knows where the cereal’s kept now. We can’t move from room to room without knocking over half a dozen vases of flowers on the way. All of my daughter’s neon plastic tat has been shoved under the bed tidied away so that when people come round they will think she only plays with demure grey wooden blocks and that we are a demure grey wooden family, or something. Everything we’ve done has been to give off the impression of sophistication and elegance in the hopes that people will fall over themselves to buy our house.
Do you know what doesn’t give off the impression of sophistication and elegance? The smell of pickled turnip. I haven’t seen the form that estate agents ask viewers to fill in when giving feedback on a property, but after today I would expect to see “smelled of vinegar” high up on the list of negatives.
Compost in Forme of Cury.
Take rote of parsel & pasternak of rasenns. Scrape hem waisthe hem clene. Take rapes & caboches ypared and icorne. Take an erthen panne with clene water & set it on the fire. Cast all þise þerinne. Whan þey buth boiled cast þerto peeres & parboile hem wel. Take þise thynges up & lat it kele on a fair cloth, do þerto salt whan it is colde in a vessel take vineger & powdour & safroun & do þerto & lat alle þise thinges lye þerin al nyzt oþer al day. Take wyne greke and hony clarified togider lumbarde mustard & raisouns corance al hool & grynde powdour of canel powdour douce & aneys hole & fenell seed. Take alle þise thynges & cast togyder in a pot of erthe and take þerof whan þou wilt & serue forth.
Take parsley root and parsnips [or carrots]. Peel them and wash them. Take turnip [or radish] and cabbage and carve into pieces. Take an earthen pot, fill with water and set it over the fire. Cast all these therein. When they have boiled, cast thereto [chopped] pears and parboil them. Take these things up and let it cool on a cloth and thereto add salt when it is cold. In a vessel, take vinegar, powder and saffron and add thereto and let all the things lie therein all night (over a day). Take Greek wine and clarified honey together with French mustard and whole currants and powdered cinnamon, powder douce and whole anise and fennel seeds. Take all these things and cast together in an earthen pot and take thereof when you will and serve forth.
Forme of Cury. Translation is my own attempt.
The word “pasternak” gave me some confusion as others seemed to believe it meant a carrot whilst the online Middle English dictionary translated it as “parsnip”. The carrot museum (a thing, apparently) cleared up my confusion: “[The 17th century botanist John Gerard] gives daucus as a name for carrot in Galen, but notes that many Roman writers called it pastinaca or other names. [Parsnips and carrots] were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases only the written word, if the Medieval writer referred to “pastinaca”, it is impossible to know if they were carrots or parsnips.”
Similarly, the M.E. dictionary suggested the word “rapes” could mean turnip or radish. Feeling generous, I added both.
I began on Thursday evening by preparing a variety of root vegetables and herbs: parsley, turnip, parsnip, radish and pear, which I boiled together. At this point my husband commented that it smelled – fittingly, for its name – “a bit vegetable-y” in the kitchen. “Will it have gone by the time the people look round tomorrow?” has asked anxiously.
I promised him it would.
Once the vegetables had boiled for a while, I strained them and lay them out on a sheet of greaseproof paper to cool. To the cooled vegetables I then added salt and spices and white wine vinegar. As with all good medieval recipes there were no specific measurements. However, given that the dish was meant to be pickled, I kept adding vinegar until a small pool of it had formed under the veg, unaware that with each shake of the bottle I was slowly but surely devaluing my house.
The tray of vinegar veg sat uncovered in a cold oven overnight. The next morning I was alarmed to find a layer of condensation on the oven door. I tried to wipe it off; it didn’t budge. I realised the droplets were on the inside and that the vinegar veg must have been releasing moisture all night.
Trapped inside, with no ventilation, the smell had run rampant. A mist of vinegar condensation lined not only the door, but the walls of the oven too. My eyes began to water and an acidic taste filled my throat with each breath that made me splutter.
I had four hours to clear the smell. Every window in the house was flung open, every candle was lit. The candles were quickly blown out when we realised the only thing worse than an overpowering scent of vinegar was an overpowering scent of vinegar mixed with knock-off Yankee “vanilla latte”.
While my husband fumed for Britain, I carried on to the bitter end by draining most of the vinegar off the veg. Then, I boiled white wine and honey in a pan, along with mustard, star anise and fennel seeds. Once this had heated and the spices had infused a little, I tipped the pickled veg into the wine mixture and stirred. The Compost was done. Well, technically the phrase “cast in an earthen pot and take thereof what you will” implies it was meant to be left to preserve further, like a pickle or chutney today, but we tucked in straight away.
By now, the house smelled less awful. Still very much like we lived downwind of Branston, but less vinegary and more spicy. It was a scent I was familiar with, coming from a family who spent every autumn pickling and preserving anything that stood still for long enough. I was confident that whilst it might not be the traditional freshly baked bread smell that viewers would expect, it also wouldn’t strip them of their nostril hair anymore, which was about as much of an improvement from last night as I could expect.
We tried a small bowl of it, my husband somewhat begrudgingly. In terms of taste, it was pretty decent. Because I’d drained the vinegar off the veg earlier, the taste of it wasn’t overpowering. In fact, it worked well with the sweetness of the honey wine mixture.
Admittedly the veggies had lost most of their individual subtle flavours and instead had developed overall tastes – the pears just tasted slightly sweet, the radishes were a bit spicy, for example. But this wasn’t a bad thing, because it meant that the qualities of each one altered the flavour of the pickling liquid they sat in, so each mouthful was slightly different.
As the vinegar/veg/honey flavours died away, the aftertaste was of saffron and spices – actually quite pleasant. Though you wouldn’t want to eat a whole bowl of this on its own (not that the original would have been eaten alone anyway), with a jacket potato or bit of bread and cheese this would work very, very well.
But did they buy the house in the end?
Ha, no. Of course they bloody didn’t!
Though my husband’s adamant it’s because of the vinegar smell, I’m not so sure. Maybe it was because I’d forgotten to take down the joke sign I’d stuck on the oven that said “WARNING: FUMIGATION NEEDED!” Or perhaps it was because when the estate agent opened a cupboard up to demonstrate how much storage there was, everyone was suddenly engulfed in a tsunami of cereal, flowers and neon plastic toys.
A large handful of parsley 3 turnips 2 parsnips 7 or 8 radishes A small white cabbage 3 pears 3 tablespoons of salt A pinch of saffron A teaspoon powder forte 400ml white wine vinegar 40g currants 500ml sweet white wine 4 tablespoons honey 1 teaspoon dijon mustard 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon powder douce 1 star anise 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
Peel and chop the vegetables.
Bring a pan of water to boil, then add all the veg apart from the pears. Boil until just turning soft.
Add the chopped pears and boil for a further 3 or 4 minutes.
Drain the water and tip the veg out onto a lined baking tray.
Pour the vinegar over the veg.
Add the salt, powder forte and saffron to the veg and leave overnight, or for 12 hours.
Drain the veg, leaving no more than a tablespoon of vinegar. Put the vegetables in a bowl.
In a pan, heat the wine and honey.
When the honey has dissolved, add the mustard, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon and powder douce. Heat on low for about 15 minutes. You can leave the mixture to steep for longer if you prefer a stronger taste.
Pour the wine mixture over the vegetables and serve.
I’ve thought about making today’s experiment for a while now. It’s not particularly difficult or outrageous, but other things kept cropping up and the dish kept getting pushed down on my “to do” list. Well, today’s the day!
Egges in Mone Shine is a weird one and one that I think of as encompassing all the things I’ve learnt to expect of Tudor cooking: a combination of sweet and savoury, a degree of poetry in the name, a prettily arranged dish, and, of course, bloody rose water.
The recipe is from the anonymously authored A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye, which was one of the first cookery books to be aimed at a female audience. High levels of literacy remained low among many ordinary women (and much of the population in general) so only the households of the elite would have had a copy. Similarly, some of the ingredients used in the book – sugar, spices, peacock (!) – show that its intended audience was wealthy.
Despite that, it appears that a real effort was made to make the book more accessible than the medieval works that had come before it. It includes helpful guidance for quantities and timings as well as general advice on when in the year was best for eating different types of meat. Some of this advice is even pertinent to today’s kitchens, such as the best time to eat bacon, which was (correctly) deemed to be “good all times of the yere”.
Egges in Mone Shine.
When I first read the title I raised an eyebrow, given the modern meaning of “moonshine”. According to Wiki – which has a whole article on the legality of moonshine across the globe, obviously – a license is required to manufacture spirits in England and illegal manufacturing can lead to fines.
As a teacher and hitherto upstanding member of the community, I figured that it would be a while before the authorities suspected me of running an illegal spirits racket. This gave me an advantage as I began planning how I would manufacture my moonshine for the dish.
To start with, I imagined I’d need to begin by converting the space under the stairs from “general dumping ground” to “secret laboratory”. I could smuggle necessary ingredients and equipment into the house by putting them in my daughter’s buggy and covering them with her blanket, and if I could convince my family of the benefits of bathing with a hose in the garden, the bath could be used to store the liquor…
You’ve just started watching Breaking Bad, haven’t you?
Imagine, then, my disappointment when I read on and realised that “moonshine” in the Tudor context was a description of the appearance of the dish, rather than an ingredient itself. In this context the eggs represented little moons shining out of a hazy sky, which was recreated by a perfumed syrupy sauce.
The Proper New Boke of Cokerye had the earliest recipe for Moonshine I could find, but there are several other versions from later centuries. Some of these later versions include onion, such as the one from the 1660 work The Accomplish’t Cook and by the 18th century the dish had changed yet again and referred to a variety of blamange like desserts, sometimes shaped like half moons.
The recipe was straightforward and as I read it I thought it might make a pretty decent breakfast. It’s not 100% clear to me at which time of day this dish would have been eaten, but looking at the ingredients I assume it would also have made a good dessert or sweet snack.
Do you love eating vast quantities of rose water? Congratulations – you might be a Tudor noble!
Take a dyche of rosewater and a dyshe full of suger, and set them upon a chaffyngdysh, and let them boyle, than take the yolkes of viii or ix egges newe layde and putte them therto everyone from other, and so lette them harden a lyttle, and so after this maner serve them forthe and cast a lyttle synamon and sugar upon them.
Unfortunately I’m not a great lover of rose water, although I’ve tried to learn to appreciate the taste. Alas, my palate isn’t sophisticated enough and the flavour always makes me feel like I’m eating something that was boiled in my great aunt’s perfume. Because of this, (and because a “dishful” of rose water would be an enormous expense for one measly experiment), I diluted a couple of tablespoons of rose water, which was still a lot, with a glug of boiled water. I was certain the overall effect would be the same.
I added two tablespoons of sugar to the water and heated the lot until boiling. It was slightly unclear to me whether it was supposed to boil until it became a syrup, but the instruction to cook egg yolks in the mixture made me think I was dealing with sweet poaching water first and foremost. Rather than crack eight or nine egg yolks, as suggested, I just did one.
After a while the yolk had hardened and I removed it from the pan. Thinking back to one of the criteria for Tudor dishes – that they be pretty – I decided to cook the liquid a little longer to allow it to thicken slightly; I thought the egg would look better under a glossy film of syrup than sitting in a pool of water. Once this was done, I poured the syrup over the yolk, sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on it, marvelled at its elegant simplicity, and served.
I don’t know whether the Tudors had their own version of the runny egg debate or not, but my personal taste is soft boiled eggs over hard boiled. The phrase “lette [the yolks] harden a lyttle” made me suspect the author intended a combination of both. However, the idea of lapping up a syrup of rose water and runny egg yolk made me feel a bit sick, so I’d made sure the yolk would be hard throughout when I cut into it.
Turns out the runniness of the yolk was the least of my problems. Without a doubt, this was The Worst. Worse than the goat, worse than the rabbit, worse than the custard pudding. It was the worst thing I, or you, have ever tried. Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever eaten? It was worse than that.
No, that’s not hyperbole. The first flavour to hit you was just: burnt. But what was burnt? The syrup was still see through without even a hint of gold in it. The egg yolk was yellow with nary a tinge of black round the edge. It was a mystery. Once the bitter burnt taste had subsided the next flavour to wage a full assault on the tastebuds was rose water. But, like, rose water on steroids. Maybe the heating process had altered the chemicals in the liquid or maybe that’s just what happens when you eat a huge spoonful of hot rose water. I don’t know and wasn’t able to critically evaluate the dish because my brain disassociated itself from the reality of what was happening to my taste buds in protest and I spent several involuntary moments in my happy place instead. All I remember was: it was intense and it was horrible.
Once the bitter, burnt, flowery attack had abated, the egg reared its ugly yellow head. A weird sweetness was the first weapon in its arsenal, jarring after the acridness of the first mouthful. This was swiftly followed by a rubbery textured ball of overdone egg which announced its arrival in an overpowering puff of cinnamon. This caused me to splutter and cough, rekindling the burnt flavour lingering at the back of my throat, and sending me back into the fetal position on the kitchen floor.
When my husband had finished gagging, he turned to me and asked if I was sure this was a dish that was meant to be eaten, or just one that was meant to look pretty on the table. Clearly, something went wrong with my method because Egges in Mone Shine was absolutely intended to be consumed and was not some sort of Tudor prank (a thought that had crossed my mind as I lay recovering on the tiles.) As it was, we ate less than a quarter of the dish between us.
It might not have been a triumph, or a success in any form of the word, but at least it…actually no, I can’t think of anything positive. Like I said: it was THE WORST.
Egges in Mone Shine
2 tablespoons of rose water 2 tablespoons of water 2 tablespoons of sugar 1 egg yolk 1/4 teaspoon of sugar 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
Heat the rose water, water and sugar together until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just coming to the boil.
Gently place the yolks in the pan, trying not the break them. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes, spooning the water over the top of the yolk if necessary.
Remove the yolks when cooked and place on a side dish. Continue to cook the water until a thermometer reads 110 degrees C.
Pour the syrup over the eggs and sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon over them.
In under two weeks September will be here and autumn will be just around the corner. It seems strange to think that summer will be over in a month when it feels like it never really got going: No festivals, no big getaways abroad, school holidays that seemed to be welcomed mostly by worn out parents exhausted from pretending they knew their 12 times tables off by heart or what a fronted adverbial was.
I’m looking forward to autumn in a month, but I’m not ready for summer to end yet. For that reason I wanted to make something sunny and bright and quintessentially summery while I still could: ice cream.
Actually, I don’t like ice cream that much. It’s not that I won’t eat it – I’m not a total weirdo – but it’s not my go-to treat food. If I’m having ice cream it’s usually because other people are having it and I’ve bowed to a peculiar form of creamy peer pressure. I thought my aloof detachment would help me be objective, then, when reviewing the end result of today’s experiment. My husband just hoped it meant there’d be more for him.
The recipe I’m using today comes from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (more about the background here). I almost missed it as I flicked through the book because it was sandwiched between a recipe for Mock Turtle Soup and Jellied Turkey – I don’t know why.
Pare and stone twelve ripe apricots, and scald them, beat them fine…add to them six ounces of double-refined sugar, and a pint of cream…
The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse
It seemed delightfully simple. Almost like cheating. I decided to follow Hannah’s method word for word in order to allay my feelings of fraud; there would be no electronically aided blending, no fridge-freezing, no automatic churning here. Instead, I would endeavor to copy out both her ingredients and method as closely as possible.
The first step was to peel the apricots. I had never tried to do this before and the knife kept slipping as juice ran over my fingers.
“Hey, Google,” I said out loud to my ever present master. “How do you peel an apricot?”
“The perk of using an apricot is that most recipes don’t require the smooth skin of the apricot to be peeled,” Google recited back to me.
Wanting to bank some brownie points in preparation for the day technology rises up and overthrows us, I quietly thanked Google for its time and research instead of doing what I wanted to do which was hold the device under water in frustration.
It turns out that if you scald apricots in hot water and then transfer them to ice water, the skin becomes marginally easier to peel off. It still took ages and I still ended up slicing my finger with a knife, but I actually think that lent a pleasant pink colour to the ice cream…(joking.)
I mashed the hot apricots in a mortar until they were pulpy and added a pint of just boiling double cream and six ounces of sugar. Then I strained the whole lot through a sieve into a tupperware box with a lid.
Tupperware wasn’t invented until 1946.
I checked the instructions again.
Put it in a tin with a close cover, and set it in a tub of ice broke small, with four handfuls of salt mixed among the ice. When you see your cream grow thick round the edges of your tin, stir it well, and put it in again till it is quite thick…
The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse
It implied the use of a metal tin, which would also help to lower the temperature too once surrounded by ice and help with the freezing process. I tore the kitchen apart looking for something metal with a lid and found a tin with an icing bag set in it I’d been given as a gift. Having tipped the nozzles and bag out of the tin to meet their fate as ‘detritus on the bottom of the baking equipment drawer’ I carefully poured the mixture from the tupperware to the tin.
With the tin filled, I piled a large salad bowl (I know, I was amazed I owned one too) full of ice which I then sprinkled with coarse salt and placed the tin in. This was a common way of making ice cream before the invention of freezers and the principle behind it was based on the fact that salt lowers the freezing temperature of water, which aids the production of ice cream. I dropped all science subjects as soon as I could in school, so here’s a little more about the physics (or is it chemistry?) behind that for boffins people who like that sort of thing.
I left the the tin of cream, nestled in ice and salt, for twenty minutes to thicken. After that time, I returned, stirred the mixture and recovered with more ice and salt. Hannah Glasse stated that if I liked I could pour the ice cream into a mould at this point, to create fancy displays, but since I’d had to search high and low for something as simple as a metal tin, the chances of finding a fancy ice cream mould were slim. I made the decision that my ice cream would be served straight out of its tub.
In 1885 Agnes Marshall – the Queen of Ices – patented one of the first British ice cream makers. This was a wooden device with a metal bowl in the middle that cream was poured into. Crushed ice and salt were added to the wooden bowl and a handle was turned to churn the cream round. It dramatically reduced the wait time for home made ice cream and was a pioneering invention at the time. Unfortunately, Mrs Marshall’s invention came over 100 years too late for me, and I was forced to wait for four hours before my ice cream was anywhere near done.
After what felt like an age I was able to spoon it into bowls.
It was the consistency of a Mr Whippy, if Mr Whippy served ice cream from the pits of volcanoes. I had succeeded in making a very thick, very creamy soup, but it definitely wasn’t cone worthy. You could drink it through a straw, for God’s sake. How on earth this was ever meant to have held its shape in a fancy mould was beyond me. Perhaps somewhat tellingly, Hannah Glasse had added an instruction to “never turn it out [of the mould] till the moment you want it…”
Clearly, I had gone wrong somewhere and closer inspection showed me that the likely culprit was melted ice, which had leaked through the tin lid over time. I was crushed, as earlier inspections had been so promising. Nonetheless, I dutifully tried the liquid concoction anyway. Cream was the main flavour, with a subtly fruity aftertaste. Though it clearly contained fruit, it was a delicate flavour and not immediately recognisable as apricot – guesses ranged from greengage to peach. It was also not too sweet, which was at least a refreshing and welcome take on Mr Whippy.
Despite the somewhat disappointing structure, it was delicious. How could it not be when all it contained was fruit, cream and sugar? My husband polished off two bowl in one sitting, arguing that since it didn’t look like “proper ice cream” it couldn’t be as unhealthy.
Overall, though I am grateful to Hannah Glasse for showing me an ice cream alternative to the saccharine sweet offerings in my local Sainsburys, I have to admit that it looked far better after a few hours in the freezer, when I could actually scoop great lumps of it out of the tin. However, if anyone was after a very labour intensive milkshake, then this is the recipe for them.
12 apricots 1 pint of double cream 170g sugar Rock salt 3kg ice
Peel and stone the apricots
Plunge the apricots into boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove.
Pound the apricots in a mortar and pestle until they form a pulp.
Add cream and sugar to the apricots.
Push the mixture through a sieve into a metal tin with a tight fitting lid.
Place 2kg of ice and 4 big handfuls of salt in a large bowl. Place the tin among the ice, trying to cover the sides and top.
After 20 minutes, stir the ice cream. Replace the ice.
Replace the ice with the remaining kg as it melts.
After no less than 4 hours, check on the ice cream. It should be thick and able to be scooped. Eat it immediately, as it it will melt fast.
About a week ago someone on Twitter posted an old photo of Ivana Trump, ex-daughter-in-law of successful real-estate developer Fred Trump. She was wearing a black dress with what appeared to be a golden belt with an actual diamond attached to it. Surrounded by golden plates and crystal candlesticks, she loomed over a huge golden basket of meat. A gilt framed painting hung in the background above a clock that looked like it belonged on a royal mantlepiece in tsarist Russia. She was grinning richly, fork in hand, looking directly into the camera as if saying “Welcome to Mar-a-Lago, make yourself at home on our million dollar sofas and be sure to get your earplugs in before my husband joins us.”
To those of you who are already dismissing the vitriol and snark in this post as evidence of “jealousy” I say: Well, obviously! I am sojealous I could lie down in the grass and blend in without issue. Some of you may be better liars people than me and would turn the other cheek but I cannot. Vitriol and snark are all I’ve got to navigate my jealousy at not having lace napkins and silver side plates like Ivana’s.
Actually, I’m being insincere. By 1992, Ivana was divorced due to “cruel and inhuman treatment by Mr. Trump” so the photo wasn’t actually taken in Mar-a-Lago, but rather in the dining room of her own Connecticut mansion. By that time, Ivana was developing her own business ventures mainly based around fashion. Efforts to build successful property developments largely failed, but it didn’t stop her from embarking on other ideas – she had stints on TV and, speaking on The First Wives Club, coined the striking phrase: “Don’t get mad – get everything.” She may have been speaking from experience; reports of the divorce settlement are vague – she had to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of the agreement – but it seems that Ivana received an amount somewhere around the $25million mark when she and Donald split up.
The picture that had piqued my curiosity was from a one-off cookbook by Robin Leach called The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook, which documented what the great, good and just plain wealthy of the 90’s fed to their dinner guests. As well as individual interviews, exclusive menus were published too, such as from the Cannes film festival (Foie Gras, Fish, Beef, Celeriac and Artichoke, Chocolate Cake), and a New Orleans gala menu welcoming their Royal Bigots Prince and Princess Michael of Kent to Mardi Gras celebrations (Quail, Pasta, “Chocolate Breathless”, Pralines, Sugar Paste Harlequin Masks.)
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Somewhat aptly, by the time the book was published, Robin Leach was himself something of a celebrity, having hosted the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous since 1984. At times, the cookbook runs the risk of reading as a list of slightly luvvie anecdotes about the time its author met so-and-so actor, or dined with royalty. But I can’t be too harsh here; I’d absolutely do the same and, given how well connected Leach was, it’s actually quite restrained.
In creating ‘The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook’ we discovered that the rich and famous are no different from the rest of us when it comes to cooking and entertaining… As the social “season” approaches, hard working hostesses are never found on a tennis court or yacht’s bow.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook, Robin Leach.
Was it being ironic? I couldn’t work out if it was me or the celebs who were being mocked here; certainly I’ve never set foot on a yacht’s bow but it’s not because I’m too busy… (I did once find myself on a tennis court but it was purely accidental and I left as soon as I realised I was expected to actually run after the ball.)
Anyway, back to “Ivana’s” goulash.
Ivana began her chapter by describing how her chef created wonderful meals for special occasions, specifically winter get-togethers for her girlfriends. Sixty of them. They flew in from “London, Chicago, Paris” for a “special menu that was very low in calories but also festive – the perfect combination for a ladies’ luncheon…” A low calorie meal to celebrate Christmas with sixty of my nearest and dearest: exactly what I’d want after a 12 hour plane journey…
In another depressingly telling comment about the pressures to be a rich and famous woman, Czech-born Ivana mentioned that she found Czech food “fattening” and “terrible for the waistline”, despite clearly wishing she could eat more of it; she lists her favourite foods with increasing gusto, describing the dishes as “fantastic” and saying she was “in love with the cuisine.”
It all sounded delicious and, as a non-celeb who’s only ever been papped when driving too fast, I was looking forward to seeing how her fattening, indulgent goulash would turn out. Though the book called it “her” goulash, in reality it was actually Ivana’s unnamed chef’s goulash – she just got to have her photo taken with it.
Traditional goulash recipes are more of broths, rather than stews like Ivana’s version below. They can range from the incredibly simple to the more complex, and the rich flavours are generally achieved by cooking the ingredients on low, slow heat to release the full range of flavours over a long period of time. Many of them contain chunks of starchy veg as well, to add texture and bulk.
Beef Goulash for two, not sixty.
Since I wasn’t cooking for sixty of my closest girlfriends but only my family, I halved the recipe. After doing an obligatory admire of photos of Ivana posing by enormous mirrors, silk and damask curtains, and gold leaf covered servants, I began.
The first thing to do was melt a tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil in a casserole dish. Once this was done, I added diced beef shin, dusted in flour and paprika, to the fat and sautéed.
The next step was to add one medium diced onion and a clove of crushed garlic and cook until they became translucent. Ivana’s recipe said this would take two minutes. Two minutes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first in a series of misleading statements made throughout the recipe. Clearly, Trumpian vagueries began well before 2016.
After the onions had gone see-through – about 15 minutes – I added a cup of water, followed by a sprinkle of marjoram, salt and pepper, and then placed it in the oven to cook for about an hour. I found this surprising; other recipes for beef goulash seemed to require upwards of two and a half hours to cook. Some Hungarian recipes also included ingredients like wine or rich beef stock, whereas Ivana’s was staunch in its dedication to water and…nothing. True, original goulashes used only water, but for a recipe described as “fattening” in a cookbook called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, I began to wonder whether Ivana’s definition of what was and wasn’t “fattening” was the same as mine.
After an hour’s cooking I added a skinned, chopped tomato and half a diced green pepper. Then, with the goulash coming to an end of its cooking time (I added an extra half an hour in the end) I boiled some egg noodles and drizzled them with a tablespoon of melted butter before serving on the fanciest plate I could find, à la Trump.
My husband was so excited when he saw me setting the table. Champagne? At lunchtime? Who did I think I was – Melania Trump?
The goulash looked and smelled good, but when I tasted it, I was a bit underwhelmed. There was nothing unpleasant about it at all, but it wasn’t as indulgent as I’d been expecting, given who its author was.
The beef was slightly chewy. Not inedible, not unpleasant, but hardly the melt in your mouth texture I’d expect – and it certainly didn’t scream “luxury” at me. There was a pleasant sweet heat from the paprika, but it was a background flavour; Ivana had specified no more than 3 teaspoons of the stuff.
The noodles were buttery but that was about all you could say for them. They swam, slightly, in the goulash liquid which was a fairly insipid mixture of water and fat. The diced pepper was still a little crunchy and together with the tomato lent a negligibly bland veggie element.
All in all, it was fine – and if a professional chef had prepared this it would probably have been great. The trouble was that the book wasn’t about professional chefs; it was about ordinary people copying professional chefs, with instructions that maybe weren’t as accurate as they could have been – with disappointing results.
As mentioned, some more traditional goulashes use only water and their main flavour comes from the abundance of paprika, slowly released beef fat and gently sweated onion. Ivana’s recipe wasn’t totally inauthentic to only use water – but it fell down because it tried to do everything too quickly – translucent onions in 2 minutes, tender beef shin in 1 hour?! I wondered why she considered this relatively plain version such a “fantastic” treat when there were far better ones out there.
Perhaps it was because for Ivana, this was fantastic? How many times did she mention her weight or calories in the first few paragraphs of her introduction? I counted no fewer than three separate references. She must have been hungry most of the time. Buttered noodles and beef must have seemed desperately indulgent to someone who was constantly watching what they ate. And if a chef always prepared it for her (as she admits), she may not have realised how much time and effort it genuinely took to make a good goulash before she sold her version to Robin Leach.
Perhaps, in the end, I just made it incorrectly, or maybe her instruction to “season the stew with salt” was actually rich-person code for “add a whopping great quantity of cream and sauvignon”.
Whatever her reason for classing this as a fattening “favourite” – it was a perfectly adequate Monday lunch. Sure, we were both a bit “meh” by the end of it, but it did the trick and we couldn’t complain about not being full. In fact, I was even left with enough stamina to begin planning my next experiment – a banquet to feed 100 people on no more than 10 calories per person.
450g diced beef shin 1 tablespoon plain flour 1-3 teaspoons of paprika (sweet Hungarian if you can get it) 2 tablespoons of butter 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil 1 medium onion 1 small garlic clove Pinch of marjoram Salt 1/2 green pepper, diced 1 diced tomato, peeled and de-seeded 400g egg noodles
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C.
Dust the beef with the flour and paprika.
In a pan, melt half of the butter with the oil in an oven proof casserole dish.
Add the beef and sauteé until browned.
Reduce the heat and add the diced onion and garlic and cook until translucent.
Add enough water to cover the beef and add a pinch of marjoram and salt.
Cook for 1 hour, replacing water if needed.
After an hour, add the tomato and pepper and cook for a further 30 minutes.
Cook the egg noodles in salted water according to the instructions on the packet.
Drain the noodles and melt the remaining butter over them.
Oh my God, it’s hot. It’s so hot that when my daughter went to the kitchen to look for an ice-cream she found that the heat had somehow penetrated through the freezer door and vaporised an entire box of her Fabs – wrappers and everything. Truly nature is a wonderous thing.
In weather like this, what else is there to do but have a barbeque?
My husband was delighted when I suggested BBQ for lunch but his joy quickly turned to apprehension as I announced gleefully “not just any barbeque! A history barbeque!”
All I had to do was find some inspiration.
Today’s experiment is from Athenaeus’ The Deipnosophists, specifically book seven: “The Phagesia”. Deipnosophists was an early 3rd century Greek work which somehow managed to fuse the two genres of philosophy and cookery together in a fairly entertaining way, despite being fifteen books long. Maybe it was just the translation I used, but I was able to read quite a few chapters without wanting to pull my brain out through my eye sockets in boredom and confusion, as can sometimes happen with ancient philosophical texts (looking at you, Plato’s The Republic.)
Put simply, Deipnosophists is a fictional account of the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus’ time at various banquets where he spoke with educated and philosophically minded guests. In it, he recalls the conversation between the guests on all manner of things, but one thing in particular stood out for me: the food.
Book seven is long and entirely dedicated to discussion of fish. Every kind of fish is discussed with various epithets attributed to them: “gold brow’d fish”, “sacred fish”, high-backed fish”, even “girl-like fish” (I don’t know why either.) In fact, fish are so exulted in this book that early on Athenaeus reminds us of the words of the 4th century BC Athenian poet Amphis: “Whoever buys some relish for his supper and, when he might get real genuine fish, contents himself with radishes, is mad.”
Equally important to bear in mind is the information that if you found yourself on Rhodes and came across the chance to eat a “fox-shark” you should resort to any means possible – even stealing – in order to taste it; according to one guest, the experience of tasting fat fox-shark can compose even those about to be executed and allow them to “meet [their] fate with brow serene and mind well satisfied.”
Despite all this talk of fish, there wasn’t a huge amount in the way of practical instructions from preparing it. The guests in Deipnosophists seem more interested in showing us how well travelled, how knowledgeable, how learned they are. Guidelines for preparing food are vague at best and often left open for interpretation. What I’ve done for today’s experiment, then, is to pick a selection of foods mentioned in book seven and form a sort of guesswork meal based on ingredients and cooking methods.
One such “recipe” that stood out for me early on was for “dainty” fish soaked in oil and covered in marjoram which was then wrapped in fig leaves and cooked under hot ash. Elsewhere, another recipe following similar guidelines used prawns. I rang my mum, who is the proud owner of a long-suffering fig tree. It has never borne any fruit and until earlier this year we really thought it might die. Only a few months ago, when she moved it to another part of the garden in an effort to save it did it seem to come back to life and grow large leaves. No fruit, still, but lots of leaves.
“You know that fig tree you only just saved?” I started by asking.
“Can I come round and hack some branches off it?”
Once her screams had died down I was able to explain that actually I only needed 10 leaves. We bartered for a while and eventually I was granted two large leaves, three medium ones and one small one “just for any gaps.”
The next dish I wanted to try involved tuna. Athenaeus told of a very simple recipe, supposedly belonging to the 4th century BC poet Archestratus, for roasted tuna sprinkled with salt that I thought would cook well in the heat of the BBQ once the smoke had stopped. This could be served with a “brine sauce”, but also went very well on its own.
I returned from my jaunt to the shop (via mum’s garden) laden with prawns, tuna steak and a few green bits to make it into a full banquet.
I started by lighting the BBQ, which was very exciting for next door’s dog, who I think gets a sausage every time next door does one of their own. But at lunchtime on a Monday, when they were both trying to work, hearing the whines and door scratching of Lulu the Lab for a solid twenty minutes was probably a bit annoying. Oh well, I thought, that’ll teach them to let her dig a hole under our fence.
While the flames were flickering higher and higher and Lulu was getting more and more excited at the possibility of a tasty, juicy sausage I got to work on the first fish dish: prawns wrapped in fig leaves.
[Take] a noble and dainty fish…wrap in fig leaves and soak it through with oil and over all with swaddling clothes of marjoram…and hid[e] it like a torch beneath the ashes.
“Do these look noble and dainty to you?” I asked my husband, holding up a prawn against a fig leaf.
He smirked. “They’re not the biggest leaves in the world are they? No wonder Eve was disappointed in Eden…”
Absolutely useless, but he was so pleased with his joke I promised I’d put it in. Anyway, the smirk was wiped off his face when I showed him the larger leaves and pointed out that this one was in fact a small one.
With the prawns wrapped in fig leaves I turned my attention to the next dish – tuna. Now, I’m not going to lie and say this was the cheapest thing I’ve ever bought, because it wasn’t. I had no idea fish could be so expensive, but by the time the lady on the fish counter told me the price she’d already wrapped it out and printed that little sticky label so, as a true Brit, I was bound by the conventions of awkward politeness to accept the fishy parcel with a smile and a quick calculation that if we only ate beans on toast for the rest of the week it would even itself out.
That mighty fish [tuna], whose home is Byzantium. Cut it in slices, and then roast it all with accurate care, strewing on nought but salt most thinly spread; then sprinkle a little oil, then eat it hot, first dipping it in brine or if you like to eat them dry they’re good like the immortal gods in character…but if you once forget and vinegar add to them, then you spoil them.
Because of the price tag I was very, very unwilling to go too off piste with the recipe. Not that there was a lot to go off piste with, but the fear was there. I sprinkled salt onto the tuna steaks, made a mental note not to add any vinegar to them, and set them aside to focus on the accompaniments.
Obviously I had to make something with radishes, if only to check I hadn’t gone mad. Spring onions were described in ancient Greece as early as the 4th century BC and it was believed that they had certain medicinal properties such as “balancing the blood” which could help prevent things going wrong with the body – handy, then, for putting right any temporary radish-related madness. I sliced the radishes finely using a side of the cheese grater I’d never really understood before now (you know the bit I’m talking about, don’t pretend), and put them in a bowl with the chopped spring onions. To this I added two tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and a dash of garum (nam pla).
Asparagus was also mentioned in Deipnosophistae along with its various medicinal properties. There were no cooking instructions but I knew it was renowned for being quick to cook thanks to the Augustan expression “as quick as cooking asparagus” to describe something as being fast. With this in mind I imagined that the ancient Greeks, especially Archestratus (of tuna recipe fame) who was renowned for promoting simplicity in food, would have cooked asparagus using the easiest method to hand. For this meal that meant dowsing them in olive oil and salt and placing them on a grate over the ashes of the BBQ to roast.
After fifteen minutes or so of the prawns cooking under the ash and the tuna and asparagus roasting on the grate above them I felt it was time to taste. Tentatively, I removed the coals and and pulled each fig parcel out of the pit. The tuna was placed on a plate with the asparagus and the radish mixture was brought to the table.
Firstly, let me say that unwrapping food from hot leaves, covered in ash and smelling vaguely of fruit and smoke was such a treat. I felt like a child opening a present it was that exciting. The prawns were a rich pink colour and surprisingly juicy considering they’d been right among the coals. There were little pools of moisture in the fig leaves from the meat juices which meant the prawns must have steamed and roasted at the same time. In terms of taste: delicious. The fig leaves did make a difference, albeit a subtle one. It was an unidentifiable sweetness, reminiscent of the sultana filling in peshwari naan, but much less noticeable.
The tuna was cooked to perfection, which I was doubly relieved about as it meant our money hadn’t been wasted and also that I’d managed to keep to Archestratus’ exceptionally vague instructions to “judg[e] by instinct of the time it takes to be completely done without being burnt.” Helpful, right? It was tender, juicy and so flavoursome that I double checked the recipe – surely these elegant and sophisticated tastes were modern creations, not ones that were thousands of years old?
The asparagus was slightly crunchy – we ate the tips and left the very bottom of the stalks – but rich and oily and salty all the same. My husband squeezed some lemon over his asparagus but I abstained since there’s some debate as to whether lemons were used in ancient Greek cooking – the lemon was used in Roman cooking from the 1st century AD, but whether it made it into Greek recipes soon after is unclear.
I had to admit that by this point I was sure radish-hating Amphis had been right; who would ever choose a bowl of raw veg over meals such as this? And then I tried the radish and spring onion mixture. It was the perfect relish for the tuna – tangy and crunchy. I know that Archestratus had been very clear that adding vinegar to the tuna would ruin it, but maybe he hadn’t tasted good vinegar. Or maybe he had and it was my taste buds that were unsophisticated and uncultured (after all, Deipnosophistae was also known as the “The Learned Banqueters”, and I wasn’t sure I fit that description.) Whatever the case, the radish was so delicious that even after the fish had all been finished I was still eating it out of the bowl.
Overall, this looked and tasted incredibly modern. Possibly that’s because I was allowed a little more creative freedom to interpret the recipes in this one, so I chose techniques and flavours that I’d be used to, but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think that ancient Greeks just knew really, really good food when they saw it. I will absolutely be making this again – just as soon as we’ve saved up enough for two more tuna steaks.
Prawns in fig leaves
Two fig leaves per person Three to four raw, shell off king prawns per fig leaf Olive oil Marjoram
Tuna steak with salt
Tuna steak (1 per person) Salt Olive oil
200g Asparagus spears 150g radishes 4 spring onions Olive oil Red wine vinegar Nam Pla Salt
Light a barbeque to give the flames a chance to die down.
Rub each prawn with olive oil and cover with marjoram
Wash the fig leaves and then place three or four prawns on the leaf. Fold the edged of the leaf over the prawns until you have a small parcel. Flip over so the the weight of the prawns keeps the fig leaf from opening up.
Rub the tuna steaks with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
Grate the radish into slivers and chop the spring onions. Place both into a bowl.
To the bowl add the oil, vinegar and nam pla. Stir well.
Rub the asparagus with olive oil and salt. Place the asparagus on the BBQ.
When the flames have stopped, carefully remove the grate with the asparagus on and move aside the charcoal and place the fig leave parcels on the bottom. Pile the ash and charcoal over the leaves.
Replace the grate and turn over the asparagus to ensure all sides are cooked.
Place the tuna steaks onto the grate with the asparagus. They will only need a few minutes on each side depending on how hot the BBQ is so keep an eye on them for when they start to flake.
After ten to fifteen minutes of cooking (again, depending on the heat of your BBQ), the fish should be cooked. Remove the tuna, fig parcels and asparagus from the BBQ.
Give the radish mixture one last stir and serve it all up.
Ever wondered what it would be like to have dinner and dessert at the same time? Don’t lie, of course you have – what child hasn’t?
What about instead of just serving the two courses at the same time, you served both of them in the same bowl?
What if the bowl was actually a four turreted, freestanding pastry castle?
What if the castle was on fire?
I imagine these are just some of the questions that went through the head of Richard II’s master chef when he designed Chastletes and committed this frankly bizarre but brilliant dish to the pages of Forme of Cury. Settle in because this post is a long one…
According the the British Library, Chastletes translates as “little castles”. Essentially, it was a recipe for an open-top pork filled pie, with battlements cut along the edge, and four open-top pies surrounding it, each filled with a different filling: almond cream, ginger marzipan, fruit puree and egg custard. What was slightly confusing was the term “little”; Forme of Cury seemed to suggest that the pastry be rolled out to a foot in length and width before being shaped into castles, which didn’t scream “little” to me.
By the way, if you use incorrect terminology when discussing castles you’ll give a lot of nerds terrible migraines.
And as I’m vying to become Queen of the Nerds I can’t have that, so here’s a crash course.
Put incredibly simply: the earliest form of castle in Britain was the motte and bailey, for which we have the Norman invasion of 1066 to thank. You may remember this type of castle from school when your mum built a model of one for your homework and it sat at the back of the classroom for two terms before mysteriously vanishing, never to be seen again.
These castles were simple, quick to build wooden towers (the keep) which were constructed on the top of man-made hills (the motte). Mottes provided an excellent vantage point to spot approaching enemies and gave an elevated position for the keep to sit on; an enduring symbol of Norman oppression over the Anglo-Saxon population. A wooden fence (the palisade) ran around the bottom of the motte, forming a courtyard (the bailey), which was often big enough to house several small buildings in which soldiers, provisions, animals – anything, really – could be kept.
After a few years, castle builders realised that though wooden keeps were relatively cheap and quick to build, they had several major flaws: they rotted over time, they were susceptible to arson (or just wayward candles), and they couldn’t be build too large. From the 12th century aristocrats began to update their wooden castles and replaced them with stone ones (known as stone keep castles). These were an improvement in defense, thanks to the incredibly thick, inflammable walls.
By the start of the 13th century, those with stone keep castles realised that, yes, things were generally less aflame since they’d upgraded, but there was still work to be done. The motte, for example, provided invading forces with ample opportunity to tunnel under and up, thus undermining the keep’s foundations. The palisade, even if upgraded to stone, was often a weak, easily breached structure. A new defensive strategy slowly took over, moving the focus from the keep to gatehouses and fortified walls, sometimes more than one.
From the 14th and 15th centuries onwards, as the threat of invasion diminished, new castles became less about fortification and more about comfort for the families who owned them. Palace-fortresses, as they became known, were the epitome of luxury for anyone who could afford the astronomical renovation bills. Whatever you kitchen extension cost – triple it, easily. New quadrangular castles had no keeps – the buildings and rooms were built into towers at the four corners that connected the curtain walls and enclosed a central courtyard. These castles were predominantly for show – their owners rarely anticipated invasion or siege, and as such made use of features such as large windows to bring in more light.
According to Professor Chris Woolgar, given its castle shape and brightly coloured fillings, Chastletes fits in with a type of dish called an entrement: a dish that arrived at a banquet table in between courses and was designed to entertain and delight guests. The entrement was a status dish; usually highly decorated and coloured, it could only be eaten by certain social classes and was intended to highlight wealth and show off the skill of the cook. By the end of the 13th century some entrements had become set pieces that conveyed certain messages. One apparently popular entrement depicted a knight (a grilled capon) with a paper helmet and lance sitting astride a roast piglet. I don’t know exactly what message that one was meant to convey, but I bet it was both hilarious and thought-provoking if you were a medieval lord.
Anyway – the design of Chastletes seemed to be a mash up of a quadrangular castle – thanks to the four towers at the corners – with an additional stone keep. This also fits in with the time frame; Forme of Cury was compiled around 1390 – right on the cusp of the 15th century when quadrangular castles were at their most popular. The recipe is very vague and open to interpretation, though, so it’s possible that multiple versions existed.
Take and make a foyle of gode past with a rollere of a foot brode, & lynge by cumpas, make IIII coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rollere þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn arme, of VI ynche depnesse, make þe grettust in þe myddell, fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde, & fasten þee oþere foure in euoury syde, kerue out keyntlyche kyrnels aboue in þe maner of batelyng, and drye hem harde in an ovene, oþer in þe sunne.
Take and make a sheet of good pastry, using a rolling pin, one foot wide and long by computation, make four coffins of the same pastry upon the rolling pin, the size of your wrist and six inches deep. Put the greatest in the middle, fasten the sheet in the mouth upwards, and fasten the other four on each side. Carefully carve out the battlements above in the manner of parapets and dry them hard in an oven or in the sun.
Forme of Cury. Translation by Christopher Monk.
I couldn’t find much evidence online for what my version of Chastletes should look like for sure. The kitchen gurus at Hampton Court Palace recreated a version of the recipe for Chastletes in 2016, but they opted for circular towers throughout in a nod to the Henrician Device Forts – 16th century stone circular castles built during the reign of Henry VIII.
By the 14th century, entrements were known as subtleties (this term would later refer exclusively to sugar paste models). Though the medieval term subtlety meant clever or surprising rather than understated, I still couldn’t help but snort when I read this; there was nothing subtle about Chastletes.
To start with, it was over a foot long and tall. In a slightly foreboding jolt of realisation, I realised I’d made a subtlety in the shape of a building before – when I attempted a marzipan model of old St Paul’s. It hadn’t quite gone to plan and rather than a towering sugar cathedral I’d ended up with a model of what St Paul’s might have looked like if bulldozers had existed in the 17th century.
In order to avoid a repeat of the marzipan fiasco, and as it would be just me and my family sampling this dish, and not the worthy guests at a king’s banquet, I scaled it down a little and started by making the main keep. As usual, there were no instructions in the recipe for pastry making, other than it should be “good”. The use of pastry in medieval England is quite complex. Traditionally, it’s believed that the pastry crusts on medieval pies were nothing more than flour and water and weren’t intended to be eaten, instead just acting as vessels for meat and gravy, but recently that theory has been challenged as some recipes for pastry used ingredients designed to enrich the dough, like eggs, which implies the mixture should be edible. Medieval pastries didn’t use fat, such as butter or lard, however, so getting a lovely flaky melt-in-your-mouth pie crust was unlikely for this experiment.
For this “good” pastry I chose to use flour and egg yolk, which yielded a strong dough that was robust enough to hold its shape well and baked into a hard structure – ideal for holding the fillings – as well as being something that could be eaten without too much complaint.
I used a mould to create the main keep. When I say “mould”, I don’t mean I had a handy castle-shaped frame to push the dough into (although I’ve literally just caught sight of my daughter’s bucket and spade in the garden…), I mean I draped the dough over a small upturned lasagne dish. It probably wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was the only way I could ensure straight, even edges. Once shaped and any excess dough trimmed, I cut out squares from the top edge for the battlements. I moved the keep to a sunny area of the garden to dry out a bit before baking, and got on with the turrets.
In all honesty, these were the bits I was most daunted by. How was I going to ensure I created four equally sized turrets? How were they going to support themselves? How could I ensure they were watertight for when the various mixtures were poured into them? Designs like these turrets have contributed to a belief that medieval pastry, especially when it had to be freestanding, was incredibly thick, but some argue that the idea of medieval pastry being inches thick comes from 18th century pie making techniques and perceptions of the medieval world as being unrefined.
If the turrets, which were smaller than the main keep, were supposed to be filled with stuffings and custards then it seemed to me that cooks wouldn’t want what little space they had to fill them taken up with thick pastry. Given how robust the keep had turned out, I was confident I could create a reasonably thin – certainly thinner than an inch – pastry wall, thus maximising the amount of space inside to pour the fillings into.
I began to experiment first by freestyling the turret and shaping it by hand. Though this worked to an extent, the turrets weren’t very uniform and looked a little like they’d been designed by Gaudi. Amazing architect though he was, he wasn’t in business during the 14th century so I rolled them up and started again.
This time I had the idea to shape them round something, which is actually what Forme of Cury seemed to suggest, if I’d bothered to double check. The rolling pin proved a bit cumbersome and it was difficult to achieve flat bottoms on the turrets, but then I hit on a solution: spice jars. They were almost the perfect width and height – the only issue was how to get the jar out its pastry casing before baking. I buttered the jars and wrapped them in greaseproof paper and wrapped the pastry round them. It seemed to work, and by leaving a little tuft of greaseproof paper exposed I could fairly easily pull the jar out of its pastry casing, leaving a hollow space behind.
“Why is there butter all over the cinnamon? And the nutmeg? And the ginger?” my husband asked later.
“It was for the pastry turrets, obviously.” I told him.
It’s a testament both to his patience and how resigned my family has become to this hobby of mine that he didn’t ask any further questions.
With four turrets completed and the keep nicely dried out it was time to blind bake the castle in the oven for twenty minutes or so, just to help it set. At this point I realised that the keep could have done with being a couple of inches taller to make the proportions more even, but by this point it was too late. A tip for next time perhaps (as if!)
Once the pastry was baked and cooling, I began work on the fillings:
In þe myddel coffyn do a fars of pork with gode powdour & and ayroun raw with salt & colour hit with safroun, and do þi a noþer creme of almaundes, and held in anoþer creme of cowe mylke with ayroun, colour hyt with saundres. In a noþur manere: fars of fyges, of raysouns, of apples, of peres & holde hit broune. In a noþer manere, do fars as to frytours blaunche, and colour hyt grene, put þis in þe ovene & bake hyt wel & serue hit forth with ew ardaunt.
In the middle coffin put a forcemeat of pork, made with good powder and raw egg and salt, and colour it with saffron; and do thee another with almond cream; and put in another a cream [custard] of cow’s milk with eggs; colour it with sanders. In another, differently: a forcemeat of figs, raisins, apples and pears; and colour it brown. In another, differently: put a forcemeat like that for frytour blaunched, and colour it green; put this in the oven and bake well and serve it forth with brandy.
Forme of Cury. Translation by Christopher Monk.
Forcemeat of figs
This was by far the easiest of the fillings to recreate: figs, apples, raisins and pears went into a blender and were blitzed until they resembled something akin to baby food. Or rather, something akin to what my daughter left for me in her nappy after eating baby food. Not pleasant. Thankfully, however, it smelled nothing like baby food (pre or post digestion) and tasted perfectly pleasant. There were no spices to be added so it wasn’t out-of-this-world, game-changingly tasty, but it made a pretty decent palate cleanser. Although the easiest to make, it was also possibly the hardest to recreate accurately, given that I was unable to get hold of any of the original varieties of apple or pears that grew in England in the 14th century. Descriptions of apples from this time period use the word “sweet” a lot, so I opted for a Royal Gala apple to try and emulate the original flavours.
What was this? Cream mixed with almonds? I checked elsewhere in Forme of Cury and found a recipe for créme of almaundes that said that, yes, essentially it was. Okay, it didn’t specify cream per se, just that the almonds should be blaunched and then ground to form a thick paste. In order to create an extra creamy version of these, I blitzed some whole almonds and added them to warm whole milk – just enough to form a thick pap. The recipe then said to add a sprinkle of vinegar and sugar so I added the tiniest amount of vinegar – less than half a teaspoon – and a teaspoon or so of sugar and stirred.
Forcemeat of frytour blaunched
Frytour blaunched appears in Forme of Cury as small pastries fried in honey and wine, stuffed with an almond, ginger and sugar paste – like a spiced marzipan. This sounded lovely, and I dutifully prepared the filling that would go into the third tower. Slightly less lovely, however, was the instruction to “colour it green”. The vibrant colour would have delighted guests and might have been procured from crushed parsley or other green plants. Professor Woolgar highlights that though medieval people rarely mixed colours to achieve the necessary shade, green was a bit of an exception; it was discovered that if saffron was mixed with, say, parsley, a much brighter shade could be produced. The English called this “gaudy green” and it helps go someway to disproving the notion that colours were muted affairs in medieval cooking. I tried making my own green shade out of spinach leaves and though it was partially successful, I worried that adding too much would alter the flavour of the marzipan so, choosing style over substance (which, given the essence of the dish wasn’t a totally anachronistic choice to make), I added a few drops of green dye to help the mixture along.
Creme of cowe milk
Custard, to you and me. Again, this was pretty straightforward despite not having a comprehensive recipe to work from, other than it should contain egg yolk. I added three yolks to double cream and whisked over a low heat. A spoon of sugar was added, to enhance the flavours and provide a little sweetness. Once it was beginning to thicken, I coloured it red (again, using a combination of beetroot juice and a drop of food dye) and poured it into the first turret…
…where it promptly seeped out of the bottom.
In a panic, I poured it from the first turret into a second one, hoping this wasn’t going to be a recurring problem. Success! This time the custard stayed put and the pastry walls remained unbreached. The other three turrets were slowly filled and then the whole structure was popped back into the oven to resume baking for another half an hour or so until the pastry was cooked and the fillings had baked.
Meanwhile I began work on the main pork stuffing. This was a fairly straightforward recipe of pork mince, powder fort, saffron and salt. There seemed to be nothing else, but I remembered from making Tartlettes – another Forme of Cury recipe that used a forcemeat of pork, salt and saffron – how well currants had worked in the mixture, so I chucked in a handful, confident they’d complement the various fruit and nut elements of the dish. The pork mixture was coloured yellow and then, once it had fried for a while, was added to the keep and baked along with the rest of the fillings.
And that was that – after a full day’s cooking I had a recognisable castle filled with five different coloured fillings ready to serve to my family.
That little two word phrase right at the end of the recipe: “ew ardaunt.” What did it mean? The answer came back: probably that the whole thing, having been lovingly and painstakingly created over several hours, should now be doused in brandy and set alight. I felt my blood pressure rise as I recalled how, a few hours earlier, I’d fashioned thirty six individual tin foil hats to protect the pastry battlements from burning in the oven. And now I was expected to set them on fire on purpose?
Having never flambéed anything before, I was advised to watch a few videos on YouTube of Christmas puddings being set alight in preparation. The blurb for one – that I shouldn’t try this at home and that the demonstrator was a “combustion physicist” – didn’t fill me with confidence, but I was sure I’d seen my dad (very much not a combustion physicist) do a flaming pud before, so I invited my parents round for dinner on the understanding he’d do the pyrotechnics.
The scene was set, half a bottle of brandy was heating in a pan, mum was standing by with a huge jug of water: it was time. The pan of brandy lit up beautifully and was dutifully poured over the castle, but the pork stuffing sucked it up like a sponge, meaning that the overall effect was of an underwhelming year 7 chemistry experiment rather than a glorious towering inferno. I managed to capture the first few seconds of the torching, but have had to turn the sound off to block out my dad’s voice repeatedly ordering us to “stand back!” followed by muttered disappointed obscenities when he saw the limited extent of the blaze.
Once the fire had abated I carved the castle up. I was delighted to see that the fillings of the turrets had all set, even the custard, and held their shape nicely. The egg custard was a clear favourite and tasted just like a slightly less-sweet custard tart from today, despite it’s vaguely alarming pinky hue.
The next favourite was the green marzipan, which had a subtle gingery kick to it. Less smooth and sweet that modern marzipan, it was everyone’s second favourite filling and being baked gave the whole thing a nicely toasted taste.
The almond cream had set into a fairly firm, sliceable mixture after cooking. It was creamy but not sweet, and slightly gritty. I could imagine it going well with a stronger flavour – maybe drizzled over coffee ice cream, for example – but on its own it was a little bland and uninspiring.
Baking had done little to improve the forcemeat of figs’ overall appearance, apart from solidify it into a more meaty looking mass. In fact when I served this, everyone expected it to be some sort of sausagemeat stuffing. The consistency was still very smooth, like purée, and wasn’t as sweet as you might expect a dish of just fruit to be.
Obviously what everyone was most intrigued by was pork stuffing which took pride of place in the centre keep. Despite being a fairly impressive golden yellow, it was, unfortunately a little under seasoned and therefore slightly bland. This was my fault – the recipe had made it clear that salt should be added, but I’d been too restrained in my interpretation of how much. The flavours of the powder fort were present such as cloves and nutmeg, for example, but not overwhelming and more of an aftertaste at the back of the throat. Given the rate at which the forcemeat had sucked up the flaming alcohol, one of the initial flavours was, unsurprisingly, brandy – which maybe explained why my husband went back for seconds!
In the end there were several elements of this dish that wouldn’t be out of place on modern dining tables; the lurid colours were reminiscent of brightly decorated cakes and the presentation of it was on par with the showmanship of Crêpes Suzette being served tableside. The castle shape might be a quintessentially medieval design but the idea of shaping food into quirky designs is still popular today; it’s only been a few decades since the rise of the cheese and pineapple hedgehog, for example.
Having said that, there was much that was very medieval about this dish. The flavour combinations – sweet and savoury in the same dish – were jarring to my modern palate. Certain spices were dominant throughout – ginger, saffron, cloves – in a way that they aren’t perhaps in food today. And the pastry, though perfectly edible, wouldn’t fare well in a competition against modern flaky or shortcrust.
“It’s an odd little thing,” my dad, ever the philosopher, declared at the end. I’m not sure Richard II would have appreciated this opinion but I had to agree; “odd” was a fitting description. My daughter, who was offered some non-alcoholic parts of the leftovers, had a much blunter judgement: “Yuck. Can I have a yoghurt?” Clearly the subtleties of this particular subtletywere lost on my family, but I still felt a sense of achievement for trying it anyway.
Overall, if anyone’s looking for a medieval themed challenge then Chastletes, with its five differently coloured fillings, freestanding shape and serving suggestion: “on fire”, is the dish for you. Just make sure you’ve roped someone else into helping you clean the kitchen after.
P.S. My neverending thanks go once again to Dr. Chris Monk for introducing me to Chastletes, sharing his notes with me, and giving up his free time without complaint to offer expert advice and patient reassurance every time I contacted him with queries. An absolute legend.
For the castle: 700g plain flour 6 egg yolks Water
For the pork forcemeat: 500g pork mincemeat Powder fort Saffron 30g currants Salt (Yellow food dye if needed)
For the fig forcemeat 4 figs 1 sweet apple (I used Royal Gala) 1 pear 30g raisins
For the almond cream 100g ground almonds 2 or 3 tablespoons of whole milk 1/2 teaspoon of white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon of sugar
For the frytour blaunched 100g blanched whole almonds 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger 2 teaspoons of sugar A splash of water Greed food dye (or spinach water)
For the creme of cowes milk 3 egg yolks 175ml of double cream 2 teaspoons of sugar Red food dye (or beetroot juice)
Combine the pastry ingredients and knead into a stiff dough. Using 400g of the dough, roll it out into a large sheet and drape over an upturned rectangular dish, approx. 20cm x 12cm in measurement.
Trim off excess dough and carve out small battlements along what will be the top of the pastry case. Place somewhere warm and dry to firm up.
Divide the remaining dough into quarters and shape each one into a tower. I did this by rolling the dough out, wrapping an standard spice jar in greaseproof paper and rolling the dough around this, before closing the bottom off to create a watertight well. The jar can then be removed from the dough by pulling the greaseproof paper up and out of the pastry case, leaving a deep indentation in the dough.
Make sure all seams are pinched tightly closed and carve out battlements in the towers.
Flip the rectangular structure over so that the battlements are pointing upwards. Without removing the rectangular dish, place the structure on a non-stick baking tray and attach the towers to each edge – try to get it so the seams of the towers are pressed against the corners of the keep and therefore hidden.
Blind bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 180 degrees C until solid.
Begin on the fig forcemeat. Combine the fruit in a blender and blitz until a purée forms. Pour this mixture into the first tower once it is out of the oven and slightly cooled.
Begin on the almond cream. In a pan, combine almonds and milk until a thick paste, the consistency of wall paper paste, forms. Stir in the vinegar and sugar and add to the second tower.
Begin on the frytour blaunched. In a blender combine almonds, ginger and sugar. Blitz until a marzipan like consistency is reached (you can add a few spoons of water if needed). Add the food dye and spoon into the third turret (make sure to press this one down.)
Begin on the creme of cowes milk. Combine egg yolks, cream and sugar in a pan and heat slowly until the mixture just starts to thicken. Colour it red and pour the mixture into the final turret (cross fingers it doesn’t leak!)
Place the castle, with the filled towers, back in the oven at 180 degrees C and bake for about 30 – 40 minutes, or until the custard seems set. You may want to place tin foil over the battlements to stop them from burning in the heat.
Begin the pork forcemeat. In a blender, combine pork, powder fort, salt and currants and blitz until the consistency of sausagemeat. Fry this in a pan and add a few strands of saffron that have soaked in a little water to release the colour. If the colour doesn’t turn a deep enough yellow, add a few drops of food dye. Once the pork is almost cooked through, add it to the centre of the castle in the oven to finish off cooking with the rest of the fillings.
When the fillings are all cooked, remove from the oven and set aside. In a pan, heat a few tablespoons of brandy until very hot in a metal saucepan or metal ladle.
Once the brandy is hot, set fire to it while still in the pan or ladle and pour over the main section of the castle.
Don’t worry; this is still just your everyday food history blog and not a recipe page by Hannibal Lecter.
Florentines. We’re all familiar with them, aren’t we? They’re the nutty, fruity, chocolatey biscuit that you can buy in packs of no more than 4 at the cost of a small house. The kind of biscuit we all go “ooh, lovely” at when we’re in the cake shop, before picking out a whopping great cream doughnut instead. The Queen probably gives them out at afternoon tea like I give out chocolate digestives – but I doubt she serves them alongside mugs of builder’s brew for dunking.
If that’s what florentines are to you then turn your computer off, go outside and revel in the paradise of your naive ignorance. How I wish I still could. Anyone who’s read any other posts on this blog, however, will know that things from history bearing the same names as things from today are rarely what we expect them to be. Sometimes that’s okay and the only differences are the addition of a few extra spices here or an eggless pastry crust there. In this case though, the Tudors took it a little bit further. You know that scene in the original Toy Story where all the broken toys come out from under the bed and they’re all monstrous, deformed lab experiments which frighten the normal toys? Well that’s the best analogy I could think of when comparing 16th century florentines to modern florentines.
So, what was a Tudor florentine of flesh, really? The Oxford Companion to Food points out that, historically, the term “Florentine” meant small tarts or pastries stuffed with meat or fruit, which is exactly what I was dealing with today. The history of the chocolate florentine is hotly contested, but given that chocolate was enjoyed only as a drink in 16th century Europe, it’s likely the sweet version came into existence after the savoury one – so technically it’s the modern chocolate florentine that’s the scary spiderbaby creation.
Today’s recipe was found in the anonymously authored A Book of Cookrye. I couldn’t find a great deal of info about A Book of Cookrye, so had to piece a little of it together. The text states that the recipes within were “gathered” by “A.W.”, who remains nameless throughout. As far as I could work out, the purpose of the book seemed to be an instructional manual for rich households planning on entertaining guests, rather than a sort of everyday recipe book. Instead of recipes, the book actually begins with a five page plan of “the order how meats should be served to the table with their sauces”. This plan not only covered the sauces for each meat, but also specified which meats should be served at which meal and during which courses. There are impressive but relatively simple recipes for meat pottages, goose pie and roasted capon as well as more exotic offerings: peacock in wine sauce, stork in mustard and vinegar sauce and roasted porpoise in vinegar.
Fortunately I wasn’t dealing with something as illegal as porpoise for my fleshy florentines. Instead, the recipe called for veal kidneys chopped up with dates and currants and baked in a rich pastry “cake”. It seemed I was dealing with a steak and kidney pie without any of the steak but a lot more fruit.
A. W. seemed to be the only author to give this dish the unnecessarily metal name “A Florentine of Flesh”, but the actual meal seems to have been very common (there are two other florentine recipes in A Book of Cookrye itself), and English recipes for almost identical veal kidney dishes popped up frequently in my research, including one from 1596 just called “A Florentine“, and one from 1615 called “A Florentine of Veale“.
Veal has a bit of achequered past – until 2007, most EU veal meat was obtained by force feeding calves and keeping them in crates to stop them exercising, thus keeping the meat tender. Critics of this practice pointed out that calves lacked much needed social interaction by being kept in individual crates and suffered abnormal growth from an inability to exercise and develop bone and muscle mass. More recently there has been an increase in “ethical veal” farming, which allows calves freedom to move around and suitably controls diets to ensure an appropriate amount of nutrients are provided to each animal. Advocates of ethical veal farming also point out that veal comes from male dairy calves who, unable to produce milk, become surplus to dairy farm requirements and are therefore frequently culled while still very young anyway. Using the meat from these calves ensures it isn’t wasted and also helps create a regulated industry which results in more humane conditions for the animals.
I don’t think wealthy Tudors had any such ethical qualms regarding veal and before I could decide what my own stance was, I realised nowhere near me was selling veal kidneys anyway. In fact, getting hold of any kidneys at all proved tricky and the only kidneys I could get were lamb kidneys, which wasn’t ideal in terms of comparable flavour to veal, but it was all I had to work with. This did mean that the recipe took yet another step further back from what a modern day diner might expect from a dish called “florentines”. Those broken toys from Toy Story? Yeah, think of my version of these florentines as the doubly-broken toys that they kept under their own beds. A frightening thought.
Take the kidneies of veale and chop them very small with courance, dates, sinamon and ginger, sugar, salt, and the yolks of three egs, and mingle altogither, and make a fine paste with yolks of egges, and butter, and let there be butter in your dishe bottome, then drive them to small cakes, and put one in the dish bottom, and lay your meat in, they lay your other upon your meat, and close them togither, and cut the cover and it, when it is baked then strew sugar and serve it out.
“A Florentine of Flesh”, A Book of Cookrye
First I minced the lamb kidneys and mixed them with currants, dates, chopped ginger, spices and egg yolk. The mixture became worryingly liquidy and I was instantly filled with regret, but I continued on. I ignored the headache inducing spelling and grammar (standardised spelling wasn’t really a thing until the end of the 18th century) and tried to make sense of the pastry element of the dish. There was no recipe given – other than it should include eggs and butter – so I made a simple pastry of flour, eggs yolks and butter and kneaded it to a smooth paste.
Modern florentines are small and round, but the recipe here seemed to suggest that I should make one big pie with my pastry and filling rather than multiple ones. I rolled 3/4 of the pastry out and placed it into a well buttered pie dish. The very sloppy filling was poured into it. Part of me wanted to stop there, because I feared that putting a lid on it would mean it wouldn’t have a chance to solidify, but the recipe seemed insistent that a pie lid be added. The only hint I had that maybe, just maybe, the mixture was supposed to be quite runny was that the next instructions were to cut holes into the top, presumably to let moisture out. I cut three slashes, crossed my fingers and placed it in the oven.
I hadn’t told my husband what I was making because part of the fun of making these slightly odder creations is seeing the look on his face when he realises I expect him to eat them. I find that if I pre-warn him he has time to adjust his expectations and the pay-off isn’t so good, so I kept quiet until it was time to eat.
“Fancy a florentine?” I asked innocently.
His eyes lit up, as I knew they would. Ha.
I can only describe the range of emotions that flickered across his face as he took his first bite as “mixed.” Later, he explained that his reaction was initially dismay at not being served a chocolatey treat, resignation that he was going to have to try the thing offered instead, and finally a rush of relief as it turned out to be somewhat palatable.
As expected from an enriched dough, the pastry was very buttery and pretty delicious in its own right. Amazingly, the moisture had evaporated and the filling held its shape when I cut into it rather than spill out like a gravy. The taste of the filling, however, was a singularly odd mixture of sweet and savoury that my modern Western palate wasn’t really accustomed to. It wasn’t totally unpleasant, but I definitely struggled to think of a modern equivalent. As well as the sweetness there was also a bit of a fiery hit from the chopped ginger which tasted fine but did nothing to help me categorise the dish.
Though the dates, currants and sugar in the florentine meant that it would be wrong to refer to this as a strictly savoury meal, the undeniable meaty offal taste stopped it fitting comfortably into the sweet category, too. It was a weird in-between recipe and I checked to see if The Book of Cookrye had anything to say about when these were florentines were meant to be served. It didn’t – at least, not specifically – but a glance through the order of service showed that A. W. advised veal dishes to be served towards the end of meals along with custard dishes – so the ambiguous sweet/savoury element of this dish sort of made sense in context, where the delicate flavour of the veal was probably a slightly subtler, sweeter taste than lamb alternative I used.
Overall, it may be that the Queen, who seems to be a bit of a stickler for tradition, has been serving slices of these original florentines at her afternoon teas all along and her guests are just too polite to comment on it, but both my husband and I agreed that this was one experiment when we’d much rather have the modern version. Intriguing as it was to make, it wasn’t a patch on a proper biscuit so Liz, if you’re reading this (and assuming there’s an invite for me in the post), let me bring the chocolate digestives and you just make the tea, okay?
A Florentine of Flesh
360g kidney (any should do) 50g dates 50g currants 3 egg yolks 1/2 a thumbs worth of ginger, peeled. 1 teaspoon of salt 1 teaspoon of sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
For the pastry: 125g butter 250g plain flour 2 egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
Mince the kidneys, dates and currants in a blender.
Chop the ginger finely and add it to the mixture.
Add the cinnamon, egg yolks, sugar and salt and mix well.
Make the pastry by combining the egg yolks, butter, flour (and a little water if needed) and kneading into a smooth dough.
Set aside 1/3 of the pastry for the lid, and roll out the other 2/3s.
Butter a pie dish and lay the pastry in it.
Pour the filling into the pie dish.
Roll out the other half of the dough and cover the filling with it. Pinch along the edges to seal it shut, brush with melted butter or egg wash and pierce the top to let steam out during cooking.