I didn’t come up with the phrase but it’s one I’ve embraced, much to my husband’s disgust. The perineum of the year: that bit in between Christmas and New Year when you can’t remember the last time you showered (let alone got dressed), when you’re left with only Strawberry Creams in the Quality Street tin, and when the entirety of your fridge/house/body smells of stuffing.
Someone in the household will, at some point in the next day or so, suggest going for a jog to start their January health regime early. Encourage them; you can crack into the Toblerone in peace while they’re gone.
And while you’re dribbling chocolate you might enjoy a round up of my top five best and worst experiments this year…
Top Experiments of 2020
Fanfares at the ready: three, two, one – go!
Number 5: Doucetes
Egg custard. Saffron pastry. Indulgence: medieval style.
These wobbly little gems were from the fifteenth century and were the first thing I’d made that felt like they could compete with modern sweets. They were buttery, creamy and rich and I’ve actually made a couple of batches of them since.
Don’t be alarmed by the appearance: they may look a little cellulite-heavy, but once you eat them they will banish all thoughts of cellulite until you next look in the mirror.
Number 4: Farts of Portingale
Do I really need to explain why this one’s on the list?
Number 3: Fish Banquet
I had no idea fish could taste so good. Someone who did, however, was Athenaeus: a 3rd century rhetorician who loved it so much he advised resorting to any method possible – buying, begging or stealing – to get a taste of premium quality seafood.
This was one of the few meals – and they have been few and far between, believe me – which made my husband actually appreciate this blog. The simplicity of the dish was its secret, but so too was the delightfully Mediterranean cooking method.
I enjoyed wrapping the prawns in fig leaves and burying them in hot coals to roast slowly. I enjoyed slicing the side dish of radishes so thinly they looked like little discs of stained glass in the sunlight. What I enjoyed slightly less was the horror I felt when the lady on the fish counter at Sainsburys told me the price of the tuna steaks she’d just cut for me and social awkwardness made me say “yes, that’s fine” instead of “sorry, are you mad? How much?”
Buy, beg or steal, you say?
Number 2: A Bengali Meal
The most self indulgent thing I’ve written all year, but the one that seems to have resonated with quite a few people. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it made me feel a little bit more connected to my family’s history and was also a great excuse to eat my body weight in ghee.
Number 1: Anglo-Saxon Bread
Bread? Just…bread? At number one?
This was one of the first things I made and it’s probably the thing I’ve made the most since. It never, ever ceases to amaze me how simple and ingenious it is: bread, water and a pinch of salt (if you want to be fancy.) And ta-da! A warm, filling, palm sized disc of bread that tastes good with literally everything I’ve tried so far.
This bread has helped a leftover stew for one stretch to two people as a midweek meal, when we couldn’t be bothered to wait for pasta or rice to cook. I have made cheese sandwiches out of this bread for my daughter’s lunch in the height of lockdown when we’d run out of Hovis but I felt too anxious to go outside and buy more. We’ve eaten this bread smothered in salty butter and dipped in jam at breakfast (admittedly that time it backfired because my daughter thought I was cooking pancakes and was very disappointed when she realised I was not.)
More than anything else, bread is the thing that I think connects us most to our past. Egg tarts are tastier but required more money, time, skill. Fish banquets are more beautiful, but not everyone had access to fresh fish. Farts sound funnier but… actually, I don’t have a comeback to that one.
But bread was eaten by everyone. The only real difference was whether you ate fine white bread made from wheat or some form of ‘lower class’ bread made with barley flour or worse.
The act of making bread – kneading – also hasn’t changed despite centuries of developments. Sure, you can use a bread maker or mixer if you like but you won’t get as good results (and it won’t be as fun) compared to just using your hands and feeling when it’s ready – when the tension in the dough’s just right, when the flour’s been completely combined…
Of course the beauty of this recipe is that it doesn’t require much kneading at all – if any. It was intended to be a quick meal to fuel a tired army, it could act as a reliable form of rent, or just as an easy lunch with a hunk of cheese for a hungry child. Whatever its use, bread was one of the few things that could unify people from across the social classes and it’s the thing that brought me closest to understanding people from the past.
“Just bread”, you say?
Worst experiments of 2020
Because this year has been a disaster in more ways than one…
Number 5: Stuffed Goat
Goat is a widely eaten and much loved meat for millions of people around the world. My own dad counts himself as someone who enjoyed a good goat curry when he was growing up. For this reason I thought I was ready to try it myself: I was not.
This was a top 5 worst experiment not so much because of the recipe itself but because it highlighted how far I still have to go until my cooking skills are anything higher than “mostly haphazard, occasionally decent” (genuine quote, by the way.)
Was it the fact I forgot the tin foil tent and didn’t baste the meat, thus rendering it tougher than leather, that ruined this experiment? Maybe. Perhaps it was the fact that half way through cooking this I decided now would be the perfect time to quickly attempt some minor DIY and remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that was ended up being neither minor or quick, but which did mean I missed the timer when it went off.
Either way, this was not a triumph.
Number 4: Stewed Rabbit
Just slightly worse than the goat was the rabbit.
Again, my cooking skills probably didn’t help with the terrible outcome of this but the difference here is that I think the recipe was also, well, terrible.
When I started this blog I knew very little about historical cooking. Like many others, I was mistaken in thinking food of the past was either dishes of bland gruel or over-spiced rotting meat. Also like many others, I was mistaken in thinking that Mrs Beeton was some sort of Victorian culinary goddess, come to pull us out of our uninspired ways and bless us with the knowledge of flavour.
Well let me tell you: Mrs Beeton was the patron saint of bland and uninspired.
Harsh? Perhaps. But this rabbit dish managed to be one of the few that I ended up not serving to my husband out of a genuine fear he would divorce me if I tried.
Number 3: Turkey Twizzlers
Nothing has ever encapsulated the meaning of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ quite like turkey twizzlers.
I’m really loathe to stick this post in my top worst experiments because it’s actually one of my best pieces of writing (I think.) And yet the outcome of that day of cooking was so hideously disgusting, and my kitchen was so covered in fat and grease, that I can’t deny its place on this list.
These are also on the ‘worst of 2020’ list because the day I made these my mother-in-law had popped over for a socially distanced catch up in our garden. I panicked that she – elegant and sophisticated woman she is – would despair at her son’s choice of partner when she saw me making these, so I’m posting them here so she knows that I know they’re dreadful. Okay?
(A week or so after I published the original post, though, Bernard Matthews announced turkey twizzlers were making a come back. Coincidence? I think not…)
Number 2: Nut Custard
Oh God. Just thinking about this makes me want to be sick.
This was my first foray into the ancient desserts of Apicius and I was ill prepared. Nut custard looked like some sort of rotting alien body part. It had eggs in it, it had nuts, it had honey. It also had… fish sauce. The fish sauce was the thing that got me – even once it was baked I still thought I could smell and taste it at the back of my throat.
The editors of the recipe said that Apicius rarely gave measurements or quantities, which meant that “in the hands of an inexperienced operator [the recipe] would result in failure.” At the time I had scoffed and had carried on to failure – just as predicted. Despite being slightly less inexperienced than I was back in February, I have yet to reattempt this one.
Number 1: Egges in Moneshine
When I was seven I ate a spider web by accident. There’s not an interesting backstory, you’re just going to have to accept that it happened and it was an accident. I have no idea if the spider was part of my unexpected snack, but at the time it was the worst thing I’d ever eaten.
When I was at uni I was given a plate of deep fried chicken wings that were still raw and bloody inside. That was then the worst thing I’d ever eaten.
When I was 27 I ate stuffed goat, stewed rabbit, turkey twizzlers and nut custard and all of them were the worst thing I’d ever eaten.
But then I ate egges in moneshine.
And I would eat a thousand spider webs – spiders included – and a thousand raw chicken wings and a thousand nut custards to never, not ever, have to put egges in moneshine in my mouth again. If 2020 was a food, it would be egges in moneshine and God only knows how much we’ve all hated this year.
Thank you and Happy New Year
So that’s it! My first year done.
Thank you very much to everyone who has read, shared, commented and supported me on this blog. It started as an overeager New Year’s resolution and I never thought it would pick up any interest beyond my mum (and to be honest I think both she and I thought one of us would lose interest around February) but it seems a few people quite like it, so thank you.
I hope you have a very happy, warm, healthy New Year and I’ll see you in 2021 for lots more historical triumphs and disasters.
Reading lists (I’m a teacher, what did you expect?)
Below is a list of some of the best food history sites and blogs. No arguments – in fact, why are you still hanging around here?
- British Food: A History – Dr Neil Buttery’s long running and exceptionally well researched and detailed blog on the the history of British food.
- Foods of England – Fabulous site of the history of the forgotten foods of England, with recipes.
- Food timeline – An incredible index of food by late food history librarian Lynne Olver.
- Medieval Cookery – A huge database of recipes from the medieval period across Europe.
- Monk’s Modern Medieval Cuisine – Written by Dr Christopher Monk who has an expert knowledge of the recipes in Forme of Cury, and also the etymology of modern and medieval food.
- Pass the Flamingo – Excellent site on the recipes and history of ancient dishes.
- Project Gutenberg – immense database of free texts including Apicius, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Forme of Cury.
- Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley – a fantastic blog by author Laura Kelley, delving into the ancient texts and recipes of Mesopotamia and other ancient Asian countries and empires.
- Tasting History – Something for YouTube fans! Brilliant channel bringing history and food to life.
- Tavola Mediterranea – if there’s anything Farrell Monaco doesn’t know about Roman cuisine it’s not worth knowing – great website with recipes and history-inspired culinary tools to buy.
- The Regency Cook – Paul Couchman, cook at the Regency Townhouse in Hove, runs a blog with recipes and brilliant cookery courses based on 1830’s techniques and recipes.