It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been busy trying to raise my child to not be, at the very least, an empathy-devoid serial killer in the making WHILST ALSO attending classes full time (ha) WHILST ALSO running a house and being an attentive wife WHILST ALSO – oh, fuck it.
In all honesty, the seemingly never ending plague did such a number on my motivation to do any writing that it got easier and easier not to, and harder and harder to pull myself out of it. Truthfully, I can try not to raise a child that might grow up to dabble in casual murder, I can attend classes full time, I can let the house fall to ruin run a house and be an attentive wife — I just can’t do it all in a plague and keep up with writing.
However, I realised that if I didn’t write SOMETHING I was in real danger of not writing again, plague or no plague. Which is my way of telling you to go ahead and disregard this post; it’s really just me working through some stuff. You don’t need to see it. Go on: piss off.
Because it’s Christmas I thought I’d ease myself back in with something simple and tasty. And, preferably, alcoholic.
May was 72 when he wrote his work, a collection of largely unrestrained recipes for the Restoration nobility, gathered from his experiences as a professionally trained chef. Rather sweetly, he addresses fellow cooks in his preliminary remarks on cooking, calling them ‘most worthy artists’ and hopes that they will find his writings helpful and insightful when beginning or continuing on their own career.
Buttered Beer or Ale Otherways
Boil beer or ale and scum it, then have six eggs, whites and all, and beat them in a flaggon or quart pot with the shells, some butter, sugar, and nutmeg, put them together, and being well brewed, drink it when you go to bed.
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook
This seemed like the thing I was looking for: comforting, sweet and a good excuse to go to bed early. Interestingly, the recipe appeared under the chapter ‘Pottages for Fish Days’, suggesting (but not necessarily meaning) that it was considered relatively restrained; fish day referred to a time of relative abstinence when meat and dairy were cut down or avoided.
If you want to know more about 17th century beer check out this blog . Suffice to say, it was a little different from the mass produced ales of today. Unfortunately, the mass produced ales of today were all I had, and the guy in Sainsbury’s stared at me with a look akin to that of a turkey witnessing the approaching knife when I asked him to show me to his selection of historically accurate beverages.
I listened politely as he read out the blurb on the back of the bottle – the same one I’d just read myself – and decided to go for a traditional amber ale with an alcohol volume of 4.7%.
The next thing I remembered, with utter joy, was how fond people in the past were of not including accurate measurements. How much beer? Scrap that – how much butter? It was a titular ingredient and given the call for six eggs I feared we might be dealing in kilos rather than grams.
I muddled by on what I thought were appropriately scaled down quantities of butter and eggs. The recipe called for the egg shells to be included in the egg/sugar/butter mixture, but didn’t explain why. My only thought was that egg shells were used in other 17th century wine making recipes to clear the liquid.
This seemed unlikely to be the reason here, though, as the addition of butter ensured the finished product was always going to be cloudy. Apparently cowboys in the American West added egg shells to their coffee as they brewed it over campfires in order to mellow the taste by absorbing acidic tannins. Could it be that egg shells were added to beer to reduce the tannins in beer, thereby reducing astringency? I didn’t know, but the end result was pretty smooth and mellow, so maybe!
Once the beer was boiled and cooled a little, the egg mixture was added and whisked continuously for a few minutes before the whole thing was strained and poured out. Finally, it was bedtime time to drink.
All in all, this was not too bad. Not too bad at all. It was very rich and thick, almost dessert like and there was a hint of brandy and Christmas pudding to it (though that might have been psychosomatic given the context.) I don’t actually like beer but found I could drink half of this easily. If you like snowballs or eggnog, I’d seriously think about adding this to your repertoire too.
Today’s experiment is for those who enjoy the sweeter things in life. Quite literally, because if you eat too much of this recipe your teeth will melt and fill the leftover indents in your gums with brown tooth-and-sugar sap which will eventually dribble down your chin and onto your chest, ruining your favourite shirt.
Quite an image.
I’m only half joking, too. No, there isn’t some sort of bone dissolving ingredient – but the recipe is about 75% sugar, so you have been warned: eat in moderation.
I bought Sam Bilton’s book First Catch Your Gingerbread late last year and have wanted to do something gingery ever since. If you haven’t got it yet, you should; it’s a really thoroughly researched, well written and accessible read which covers the history of gingerbread not just in Britain but the rest of Europe as well as Asia too. Plus it has loads of recipes to try out, from sweet to savoury and modern to ancient. Most of the info for this post comes from her, so thank you Sam!
When did people start eating ginger?
I don’t have an answer to that.
In fact, I’m not sure anyone does really. Ginger has been used in food for millennia: the Romans had a dish called tractomelitus which was a paste of honey and ginger and could be used in sweet and savoury dishes. Apicius, the 1st century writer, also lists ginger among the spices that should be kept in every kitchen store cupboard, along with myrtle berries and Indian spikenard (I don’t know why I’m telling you this; I’m sure these are everyday staples for all of us, right?)
Ginger was also used in medicinal remedies. According to ancient Greek thought, the body was made up of four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Sickness was caused by one of these humors becoming unbalanced, and there were certain foods that could redress the balance because they stimulated the production of specific humors. Galen, the 2nd century physician who developed the 4 humor theory, stated that ginger could help reduce the amount of phlegm in the body, for example.
Ginger was thought to increase the amount of blood in the body. This isn’t a completely illogical conclusion to make; being hot and spicy, fresh ginger could cause the skin to flush slightly red when eaten raw. And, because the human mind has always loved the gutter, people throughout time have associated this physiological reaction to carnal attraction. Yes, ginger earned its place as an aphrodisiac fairly early on; the 1st century Persian physician Avicenna recommended mixing ginger and honey into a thick, sweet paste as a cure for impotence and by the 13th century the intriguingly named “Sultan’s Sex Potions” by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi included a ginger-based recipe to “strengthen the sperm and invigorate[s] intercourse.”
Okay, but what about the origins of gingerbread?
You’re not going to like this either, but yet again, I have no answer.
That’s partly down to etymology. The word ‘gingerbread’ isn’t to do with baking; our English word has roots in Old French gingebras which has roots in Latin zingebra: ginger – nothing to do with bread at all. Even more confusingly, once we had the word ‘gingerbread’ it wasn’t used as a description for one specific type of food, but rather alluded to any kind of preserved ginger treat: cakes, biscuits, sweets, pastes and sugarwork. Finally, and just as confoundingly, some of the earliest gingerbread recipes we have don’t contain any ginger.
A 14th century recipe for gingerbread in Curye on Inglysch gives a delicious recipe using breadcrumbs and honey – but is conspicuous in its omission of ginger. Similarly, a 15th century manuscript for ‘Gyngerbrede’ includes spices such as saffron, pepper and cinnamon – but again, no ginger.
These recipes (as well as others that contained ginger) were often made in large slabs which then sliced into strips or lozenges, rather than baked as individual cakes. In fact, they often weren’t baked at all, meaning that the texture was a sticky, treacle-tart like consistency rather than a hard biscuit.
Some gingerbreads were more like sweets – a 14th century recipe for ‘Pynite‘ (pine nut tarts) has a ‘gingerbread’ filling which is essentially a toffee made from honey and spices.
By the 16th century, banquets had become fashionable for the rich. Contrary to every historical film where Henry VIII tears into chicken legs with his bare hands and rich ladies bat their eyelids over plates of unidentified meat, banquets were sweet-only affairs and referred to a particular course rather than the entire meal itself. These sugar banquets, laden with marzipan constructions, candied fruits, crystallised flowers and sugared nuts, were an opportunity to demonstrate the skill of the household cooks as well as the vast wealth of the host.
Why ‘white gingerbread’? Can you answer that at least?
It’s at banquets that we find the type of gingerbread I’ve attempted here. By the 16th century there were two main types: red gingerbread (often a dough like mixture containing breadcrumbs) and white gingerbread (a marzipan/sugarpaste combination). Red gingerbread included sandalwood which gave it a deep red colour, whereas white gingerbread used the whitest sugar a cook could source, hence the name. Today’s experiment, which is in the 1591 work A Book of Cookrye by the anonymous ‘A.W.’ is of the white variety.
To make White Ginger Bread
Take Gumma Dragagantis half an ounce, and steep it in rosewater two daies, then put thereto a pound of sugar beaten and finely serced, and beate them well together, so that it may be wrought like paste, then role it then into two Cakes, then take a fewe Jordain almonds and blaunch them in colde water, then dry them with a faite Cloth, and stampe them in a morter very finely, adding thereto a little rosewater, beat finely also the whitest Sugar you can get and searce it. Then take Ginger, pare it and beat it very small and serce it, then put in sugar to the almonds and beat them togither very well, then take it out and work it at your pleasure, then lay it even upon one of your cakes, and cover it with an other and when you put it in the mould, strewe fine ginger both above and beneath, if you have not great store of Sugar, then take rice and beat it small and serce it, and put it into the morter and beat them altogither.
A Book of Cookrye, ‘A. W.’
Making 16th century gingerbread
First of all, I was surprised to see that gum tragacanth was used. I’d only seen it in the specialities section of supermarkets with the likes of glycerin and had therefore assumed it was a relatively modern invention. Perhaps in its highly refined powdered form it it, but it appears the Tudors were well aware of gum tragacanth and its benefits to sugar modelling.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what it did. A quick Google threw up some worrying results to do with leatherwork and cigar-making and I almost backed out of this experiment. Once I read a few more pages I saw that as well as being used for some pretty macho activities, gum tragacanth was also used in cake decorating to make sugarpaste more elastic and malleable.
It’s likely that the gum tragacanth used in the recipe was in a more solid form than the fine white powder I had, hence the instructions to leave it steeping in rose water for two days, presumably to soften it. As it was, I ended up leaving my powder to absorb some rose water for 1 day, by which time it had swollen to breadcrumb sized granules and could be pressed into a hard paste with the back of a spoon.
The sugar paste was very straightforward and identical to the kind of sugar paste you get on Christmas cakes (only, ironically, without glycerin – have I used ironically correctly? Probably not.) Once it was made I split it in two and sandwiched a delicious paste of ground almonds, icing sugar and fresh ginger between the two halves. Then it was time to set it in a mould.
Gingerbread moulds were an artwork in themselves. Often quite large, intricate and carved from wood, they would be left by the fireplace to allow the gingerbread inside to set. This presented me with two main problems: one, I didn’t possess a large, intricate gingerbread mould and two, I didn’t have a fire.
Always resourceful, I shaped my gingerbread in what I did have: a silicon cake tin, shaped like a dinosaur. I think it was a Stegosaurus. Instead of a fire I popped it into my boiler cupboard and left it to dry out over a day or two. Hey, it wasn’t authentic but I got points for effort.
Once it had completely dried out I turned my gingerbread out and daubed it with edible gold paint. Tudor sugarwork, including gingerbread, was impressive not just because of the fiddly shapes, but because they were often beautifully gilded with gold leaf and suchlike. Once I was finished my steggy shone like the regal gingery reptile it was.
And there it was! It looked great and tasted good too. The icing shell was toothachingly sweet (and perhaps a tad too thick) but the filling was amazing. Fresh ginger and creamy almonds combined well to make a tangy, punchy frangipane like filling that I could have eaten all day. As it was, the block I made was too large for one person to finish in one sitting, but these could work well in smaller sizes – perhaps made in chocolate moulds.
If you don’t feel you’ve wasted enough of your time reading through my nonsense and have another 10 minutes you never want back, why not head over to my Youtube channel to have a look at the process in full glorious technicolour?
100g or 1/2 cup icing sugar (plus an extra spoonful) 25g or 1/8 cup blanched almonds A medium piece of ginger (about the size of your thumb.) Teaspoon of rose water Teaspoon gum tragacanth 50ml or 1.6 fl. oz. water
Put the gum tragacanth in a bowl and add half of the rose water. Leave it to sit for 12 – 24 hours to allow the tragacanth to absorb all the rose water.
After the tragacanth has absorbed the rose water, sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and add the water and tragacanth. Knead to a solid, smooth ball of icing.
Grind the almonds in a pestle and mortar. Transfer to a bowl.
Peel the ginger and crush it to a pulp in the pestle and mortar, along with the remaining rose water.
Combine the ginger and almonds and add a spoon of icing sugar and combine to form a stiff paste.
Split the icing ball in two and roll out into two discs.
Spread the almond paste on one of the discs and then place the other disc on top, sealing them together.
Push the gingerbread into a mould and leave to set in a dry place for 24 hours or until it has gone hard.
Turn out and decorate with edible gold or whatever you fancy.
Every day the weather app promises me snow. And every day, without fail: no snow. I’d almost given up hope until last Friday when I woke to see the long-awaited drifts and the less long-awaited sight of next door’s cat, pissing in them.
Either I overestimated how much snow there was, or Stanley’s urine contains antifreeze, because by lunchtime it had all melted away. All of it. Gone.
Needless to say I was pretty disappointed; I’d hoped for sugar dusted foliage and undulating mounds of the stuff to spend the day messing around in. A pile of yellow slush does not a snowman make, no matter how many times you get your toddler to hold it in place.
For today’s experiment, then, I needed something that would cheer me up and bring back the wintry weather I’d hoped for. Written half way through the 16th century in A Proper Newe Boke of Cokerye, ‘A Dyschefull of Snowe‘ seemed perfect.
To make a dyschefull of Snowe. Take a pottell of swete thycke creame and the whytes of eyghte egges, and beate them altogether wyth a spone, then putte them in youre creame and a saucerfull of Rosewater, and a dyshe full of Suger wyth all, then take a stycke and make it cleane, and than cutte it in the ende foure square, and therwith beate all the aforesayde thynges together, and ever as it ryseth take it of and put it into a Collaunder, this done take one apple and set it in the myddes of it, and a thicke bushe of Rosemary, and set it in the myddes of the platter, then cast your Snowe uppon the Rosemarye and fyll your platter therwith. And yf you have wafers caste some in wyth all and thus serve them forthe.
A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye
A dishful of what now?
Basically this experiment is a plate of whipped cream, reinforced with beaten egg whites. It sounds as if it should be a topping on a cake rather than a dessert, but it would have been served as a dish in its own right during the 16th century.
Remember that dishes were served all together rather than one after the other at banquets, so a plate of whipped cream wouldn’t have been too odd when served alongside plates of chopped fruit and nuts.
What makes A Dyschefull of Snowe unusual isn’t the ingredients, but the presentation. Essentially this dish was intended to be decorative as well as edible and fits somewhere on the ‘food masquerading as other things’ spectrum the Tudors loved so much (see my post ‘marchpane‘ for another example.) Once completed, this dish should look like a tree (an apple with rosemary in it) surrounded by thick drifts of new fallen snow.
A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye wasn’t the only cookbook with recipes for snow. I found at least three other almost identical versions; a French one from 1604 that omitted the apple but included “a branch of rosemary”, a 16th century German version “to make Snow” and another English recipe from 1591 that seemed to be an exact copy.
The easiest recipe ever?
When I read this, the thing that struck me most was how simple it was. One reason for this may be the intended audience. A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye was one of the first cookbooks to be aimed at a general reader, rather than just professionals. Previously, most cookbooks were aimed at cooks within royal – or at least rich – households and were designed to showcase wealth and skill.
A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye straddled these two types of book. One the one hand, recipes for peacock harked back to the old ways of cooking. But the inclusion of instructions for when to serve each dish and what are essentially menu suggestions also points to a newer, more inexperienced audience. This is where ‘Snowe’ fits in – a dish that was accomplishable and straightforward while still retaining some of the old style ‘wow’ factor of cookery.
So I suppose it’s time to address the elephant in the room. With a recipe as simple as this, did I cut corners and use a food processor to beat the egg whites or did I attempt the 16th century way: cutting the end of a twig into four and using it as a whisk?
Look, I tried, I really tried. I didn’t go so far as to cut my own twig, but did attempt to use a manual whisk. I gave it a really good go for a full 30 seconds before thinking “sod this”, and plugging my electric one in. Life’s too short, people!
Once the egg whites had risen to form peaks, I slowly added my cream, sugar and rosewater (beating all the time) and continued to whisk until the whole mass held its shape.
I selected my fanciest glass plate to compensate for the simplicity of the recipe and placed an apple in the centre. The rosemary fit nicely into the hole around the stalk and I began to pile my snow in heaps around it.
This was one of the oddest looking things I’d made. The apple with tufts of rosemary sticking out of it looked, well, exactly like an apple with tufts of rosemary sticking out of it. I couldn’t really see the resemblance to a tree that others had suggested, but I don’t know – maybe 16th century trees just looked different to modern ones?! One though I had afterwards was that I was supposed to bury the apple under the snow so that only the rosemary was visible, but it was too late by that point.
The snow itself was very pleasant. It wasn’t too sweet because I hadn’t added a huge amount of sugar. Because of the addition of egg whites this was a little lighter than standard whipped cream – and in fact it took longer to whip up – but there wasn’t much difference beyond that that I could tell. Really the only thing that made me think this was something historical was the perfumed flavour of rosewater. It wasn’t overpowering (I’d learnt my lesson from last time), but just added a subtle fragrance to the cream.
The original recipe seemed to suggest eating this on wafers, but I hadn’t made any. We ate ours on pancakes instead, and it worked just as well.
In the end this wasn’t the kind of snow you could pelt at anyone. You couldn’t make a snowman out of it and there wasn’t enough for a snow angel either. But as I looked resentfully at my damp and drizzly cat-piss drenched garden, I thought that maybe, just maybe, this type was a bit better anyway.
A Dyschefull of Snowe
2 egg whites 200ml (or 6.5 fl oz) double cream (or heavy cream if you can’t get double cream) 1 teaspoon rosewater 50g caster sugar
Whip the egg whites up until they form stiff peaks.
Add the sugar and rose water to the cream and stir to dissolve.
While still beating the egg whites, add the cream slowly and continue to whip until the mixture stiffens. It will take several minutes.
Once the mixture has formed soft peaks, stop beating. Set it to one side.
Take an apple and stick as many stalks of rosemary in the top of it as will fit. Place the apple on a plate.
Spoon the beaten cream around the apple, spreading some of the cream on the rosemary tufts to make it look like they are covered in snow.
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.
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.
I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room and dive right in to explain the name of this dish and answer the question everyone’s asking: Portingale simply means made in the “Portuguese-style”. In 1480 the merchant Martin Rodkyns imported 4,000 farts from Portugal at the surprisingly modest cost of 6s. 8d. (approximately £230 in today’s money) suggesting that supply of farts outstripped demand and/or farts weren’t valuable enough in their own right to tax heavily. Nevertheless, farts were clearly considered something of a treat and were served along with other “subtleties” at the enthronement feast of Archbishop Warham in 1504.
All clear? Excellent.
The second thing it’s probably good to get straight is that most 16th century culinary “farts” were small, lightly puffed up, air filled pastries. Naturally the name of this dish necessitates discussion of certain unpleasant wind-based bodily functions, so to avoid confusion over which type of fart is being discussed, I’ve tried to use “fart” when talking about today’s experiment, and the playground term “trump” to describe the revolting, odious, loathsome and uncouth blowing of hot air.
Part of what makes this dish so interesting is that the name is a bit of joke – both to us and to people of Renaissance England (this may be one of the few examples of humour surviving time travel to the 21st century!) The Middle English Dictionary shows that “fart” had been used to mean breaking wind since at least the 14th century – (in)famously in the Summoner’s Tale of the Canterbury Tales where a corrupt friar finds himself in the firing line of a particularly loud and noxious one – but its etymological roots go back much further than that.
So why, if the word “fart” meant what I’m halfheartedly calling “trump”, was it used in the title of a dish? Was it just an unfortunate typo that was repeated over and over again? If not, who was it who thought that a gazpacho of guffs; a fricassee of flatulence; a bowlful of bottom burps – call it what you want – was just what the diners of the country needed? Well, in this case it was Thomas Dawson; English foodie and writer of The Good Huswifes Handmaid for the Kitchen– a text on the main points of the preparation and presentation of meat.
Dawson’s entry for Farts of Portingale is infuriatingly cool; there are no puns and no tongue in cheek comments that lesser writers might resort to in order to make their writing seem more interesting and funny. (When my husband found out what I was making today he made me swear I wouldn’t make more than three fart jokes. I’m trying, I’m really trying.)
How to make Farts of Portingale.
Take a peece of a leg of Mutton, mince it smal and season it with cloues, mace pepper and salt, and dates minced with currans: then roll it into round rolles, and so into little balles, and so boyle them in a little beefe broth and so serue them foorth.
‘The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen‘
You can see that in order to find any reason why these were called farts I had to dig a little deeper than Dawson’s recipe alone.
A second 16th century English recipe for fartsthat predated Dawson’s version by three years was markedly different; it included an early form of meringue, sugar and dough. Likewise, a 14th century French recipe called pets d’Espaigne also seems to have been some sort of bitesize pastry and meat treat and, jumping forward, the 1651 culinary text LeCuisiner François included a recipe for small pastries called pets de poutain. The respective translation for both these dishes? “Spanish farts” and “whore’s farts.”
Even more interestingly, a lesser used French word for stuffing (which is essentially what Dawson’s recipe is) is farce. A very good linguist friend of mine (who probably never imagined she would need to use her skills to look up the linguist connections of the word “fart”) suggested that a humorous mistranslation of the French dish farce could be to blame for the English dish of “farts”, before the newly minted joke was translated back into French, pets. Whatever the truth, it’s clear the obsession with food-based farts wasn’t limited to English cuisine or any one type of meal.
The deputy chief editor of the OED, Dr. Philip Durkin, suggests that the common theme shared between these three dishes was that they all included dough which was intended to inflate slightly with hot air when cooking – could the puffed up quality be the inspiration for the name? It’s a possibly tenuous link, especially when you think about all the other historical puff pastry dishes that have existed separate from the “fart” motif, but it does highlight how difficult tracing the ideas and theories behind certain types of food can be. (Which is a fancy way of saying I give up and am happy to leave it to the experts to ponder!)
It would be easy to assume that Farts of Portingale was, as mentioned, a typo made by a careless (or teenage) writer that was then copied out over time – a slip up when writing a recipe for the similar sounding Portuguese tarts, perhaps. But given the prevalence of the equivalent word for “fart” in other European cuisines it seems unlikely – what’s more compelling is that the dish was actually part of a wider culinary theme. Furthermore, the use of crude humour in food isn’t uncommon; even today there exist recipes for French-Canadian “nun’s farts”, Italian palle di nonno (“Grandad’s balls”) and Sicilian cassatella di sant’Agata (“Saint Agatha’s breasts”.) Are we really prepared to believe that it’s only in the last few decades that humans have found mixing food and rude words together can create funny results, or that the people of medieval and Renaissance England didn’t find such crass things as farts amusing? (If you do it’s because you didn’t click on the Summoner’s Tale link. Gotcha.)
Anyway, after all this I was expecting to deal with a small pastry tidbit, in keeping with the other fart dishes I’d looked at. But instead I was met with another mystery: Dawson’s recipe made no reference to pastry at all. Was this because by Dawson’s time a fart could describe any dish of bitesize morsels? Or was it because the “fart” element wasn’t to do with puffed pastry after all, but something else? I had no idea. I also didn’t really care either; having spent a solid four hours destroying my internet history with searches like “farts in food” and “the history of farts”, I felt I’d reached the limits of my research ability.
Firstly, I blitzed some mutton in a food processor. To this mushed up mutton mince I added dates, currants, some powdered cloves, mace and salt and pepper. Once it was all incorporated I rolled the mixture into meatballs and brought a pan of good beef stock to simmer (unfortunately not homemade), which I plopped the balls – farts? – into one by one.
Each fart cooked for between five and seven minutes, by which time they had lost their vibrant bloody and raw colours and had turned a wholly dull grey/brown. Certainly, they were reminiscent of the colour you might expect a fart or “trump” to be, though thankfully they didn’t smell like one.
It was unclear whether these were meant to be served in the beef stock or not. I double checked with the medieval French version of the same dish (petz d’Espaigne) in The Viandier of Taillevent which seemed to suggest serving the farts without any of the broth they’d cooked in. Dry farts, if you like.
I did my best to arrange them in an appetising fashion, but it’s actually very hard to take a meatball photo that induces salivation – unless you’re IKEA, of course. Needless to say, the name of the dish meant put these little meatballs on the back foot a bit, so I felt an obligation to increase their attractiveness when I served them.
“You go first,” my husband said immediately.
I bit into one.
“It’s fine!” I said with what I hoped was enough enthusiasm to disguise the relief in my voice.
They really were “fine.” More than fine, actually. The cloves were the dominant spice flavour but in a bold rather than overpowering way. Both my husband and I agreed that because of this we couldn’t stop thinking about Christmas, which seemed a bit weird in the middle of July, but there you go.
Overall these were like moist balls of very festive stuffing. Having never eaten mutton before, I was curious what it would taste like but I found that in these small mouthfuls, boiled in beef stock, the flavour was like a slightly game-y, richer lamb.
They were also surprisingly sweet. I’m always amazed at the power of the humble date and how much fruity sugariness it can pack and it was no different here. Dried fruit like currants and dates were important in 16th century cooking, partly due to their ability to add subtle sweetness, and were regularly imported. During previous centuries these fruits had been the preserve of the nobility but, as Clarissa Dickson Wright notes, by the end of the 16th century some of these fruits could be found in various recipes of the wealthy middle classes too – recipes such as Farts of Portingale.
At the end of writing, I’m still not sure I’m any wiser as to why these were called farts, or what made them “Portuguese”. All I can do is hope that the reasons for the name are mostly innocent and not based on any digestive issues one may suffer hours after eating a plateful of them. Fingers crossed.
Farts of Portingale
500g mutton or lamb, minced 1/4 teaspoon of powdered cloves 1/2 teaspoon powdered mace A good pinch of salt and pepper 60g pitted dates 60g currants 1l beef stock
In a blender, combine the mutton, spices, salt, pepper, dates and currants. Whizz until the dates and currants are minced and incorporated evenly through the mutton.
Heat the beef stock until it is simmering.
Roll the minced fart mixture into meatball sized portions and drop them into the beef stock – about six or seven at a time.
Cook in stock for no more than seven minutes.
Remove the farts with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a warm plate while you cook the rest.
If you’ve looked out of a window lately you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve jumped forward several months to the start of drizzly autumn. Where I live we’ve had thunderstorms and the mass reappearance of winter coats as people stand outside shivering, waiting to be called into the shop so they can buy ice lollies they’ll seemingly never get to use in defiance of this most wintry of Junes.
It was time for a bit of comfort food. It will surprise approximately none of you to learn I have strong feelings on what counts as comfort food. Roast dinners, mashed potato, pasta: yes. Soup, anything with fruit, herbal tea: no. Why would anyone ever think those things counted?
Rice pudding is an emphatically comforting treat. Creamy, indulgent, adaptable without ever betraying the fundamental principles that make it so good; it is everything I needed to beat the dreariness of last week’s weather.
I knew that rice pudding-y things had been around for centuries in various forms; the ancient Romans used rice pottage as a dish to settle upset stomachs and there are several medieval recipes for boiled rice mixed with almond milk which might then be served sweetened or unsweetened. Archaeologists have even found evidence that a sticky rice, sugar and, er, blood mixture was used as mortar on 2000 year old buildings. Not comforting, as such, but interesting!
Interesting or not, I was still in need of comfort food and I was fairly sure there had to exist a historical rice pudding that fell somewhere between ‘pap for invalids’ and ‘tough enough to hold walls up’. And then I found it: white-pot.
Not the most comforting name I’ll admit. White-pot was clearly named after its appearance and an early appearance of it as a sweet dish rather than an ambiguous pottage is in Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife. It followed in the footsteps of medieval recipes for blancmanger – literally white food – which were simple, mild, pale dishes. A couple of versions of blancmanger in the 14th century cookbook Forme of Cury contained rice, while other blancmanger dishes might not contain any rice at all and resembled something akin to the modern dish blancmange.
Rice was a relatively luxurious ingredient in England until fairly recently thanks to the fact it was difficult to grow and had to be imported and so the recipe in English Huswife wasn’t intended to be eaten by the ‘ordinary folk’.
There’s a lot of debate about whether rice was first cultivated in China or India – since I don’t know anything at all about this particular part of history, I’m not going to elaborate too much on it but you can check the argument out here. What is known is that despite its ancient Asian origins, by the late middle ages rice was also being grown in some European countries such as Portugal, Italy and France.
Markham’s white-pot recipe seemed deceptively simple and delicious which fitted the first two of my criteria for comfort food. It was a good start. There were no quantities given so I adapted the recipe as I saw fit to make enough to feed a family of 3.
First I mixed 400ml of double cream with a dessert spoon of sugar, half a teaspoon of rosewater and one cinnamon stick and heated it all in a pan until it began to simmer. I then turned the heat off and left it until it was totally cooled and the cinnamon had had time to infuse. Once this had happened, I added 100g of arborio rice to the cream. This type of short grain rice most closely matched the type that was imported from Europe to England during the 16th and 17th centuries and had better properties for a dessert dish than long grain rice. Also, I wanted to make risotto for dinner.
I then added two egg yolks and the white of one egg, 50g of currants, another dessert spoon of sugar, a pinch of ground cinnamon and a pinch of salt. It went into an oven proof dish and baked for just under two hours. Just before this point I hesitated: technically the presence of currants meant this meal belonged to the “anything with fruit” genre, which I’ve already explained doesn’t count as comfort food, but I figured the overwhelming quantity of cream balanced out any health benefits from the currants, so continued.
After a couple of hours the white-pot was done. The house smelled amazing – like hot milk and spices – and as the rain poured down the windows I really forgot we were half way though the first month of summer. I quickly portioned the pudding into three bowls and presented it to my husband and daughter, who had been clustered round the oven for the past ten minutes (I had assumed it was because my cooking smelled so good, but my husband later told me it was just because it was the warmest place in the house.)
Overall, this was pretty good. It was surprisingly dark given its name but was by far the richest rice pudding I’d ever tasted, thanks to the fact it was basically just eggs and cream. I found that a normal sized bowl was a bit too much in this case and I’m still trying to work out if that means it was the perfect example of comfort food or if it went a bit too far…
In terms of taste, it was much more fragrant than modern puds; the Tudors loved an opportunity to use rosewater and the old adage ‘a little goes a long way’ directly originates from 16th and 17th century cooks’ overzealous use of it.* The currants gave a mellow fruity sweetness like a sort of Tudor precursor to huge dollops of jam, and it mingled well with the cinnamon throughout.
It was also very thick – the ratio of rice to cream may have been slightly off so I’ve upped the liquid in the recipe below. I don’t mind really thick rice pudding but my husband and daughter overruled me and suggested others might not share my obviously superior stodge preferences.
Anyway, it looks like we’re in for some good weather soon which means I’ll probably end up bowing to peer pressure and go back to eating salads and other *summery food* this time next week (let’s just pretend for the sake of this bit that I’d eat things like that, okay?) But even if that’s what the future hold for me, I’m glad I got the chance to have one final comfort food blowout.
400ml double cream 300ml whole milk 100g pudding rice 3 dessert spoons of sugar 1 cinnamon stick 2 egg yolks and 1 egg white Half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon Half a teaspoon of rosewater 50g currants
Add the milk, cream, 1 dessert spoon of sugar, the rose water and the cinnamon stick to a pan and bring to a simmer.
Turn off the heat and leave to cool entirely.
When totally cold, remove the cinnamon stick.
Add the egg yolks and white, the pudding rice, the currants, the rest of the sugar and the ground cinnamon to the mixture and fully incorporate.
Transfer to a buttered oven proof dish and bake at 160 degrees for about two hours. Check on the pudding regularly to check the top isn’t burning and cover with foil if so.
Have you ever become involved in something so far beyond your skills or ability that you can see no way out of it? Something that at the time of starting seemed like a great idea or a funny story for later – like starting a marathon in flip flops or becoming president despite any political experience – but that after less than two minutes reveals itself to be a horrible, tragic mistake.
For me, my mistake was marzipan. More specifically, it was attempting to build a replica of old St Paul’s cathedral out of marzipan using a 17th century recipe on a Saturday night. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to have fun at the weekend.
Let me explain. I’d been flicking through Terry Breverton’s The Tudor Kitchen and had been really intrigued by a whole chapter on Tudor sweets and banqueting. During the 16th and 17th centuries, banqueting guests would enjoy a feast of predominately savoury dishes served all together. After enjoying this meal of many dishes and side dishes, they would then move to another room where a second meal – the banquet – waited for them made up exclusively of sweets, candied fruit and nuts, and sugar plate. The intention of the sugar banquet was to delight guests with sweet treats disguised as other things, such as gloves made out of sugar paste (no, I don’t know why), as well as impressing them with the variety and expensiveness of the sugar and spices laid out. In fact, a clue that banquets were more about showing off than about actually enjoying the food is in the word itself; we get the word banquet from bancetto, Italian for bench, because the sweets served at a banquet would be laid out on a long table to make it easier for guests to view.
In the Tudor and Stuart mind, no banquet was complete with marzipan.
Gervase Markham, whose recipe for marchpane inspired today’s experiment, wrote in his 1615 work The English Huswife that marchpane – stiffened marzipan – should have “the first place, the middle place, and the last place” of a banquet, which highlights how important the stuff was to Tudor and Stuart feasting.
I was intrigued; my experience of marzipan was that it was a necessity in order to make fruit cakes marginally more edible. Sure, it was nice enough at Christmas but was it good enough to serve in great blocks during feasts? I remembered asking my mum for a cake shaped like a hotdog and covered in coloured marzipan for a BBQ birthday party, but even the memory of this highly sophisticated cake left me unconvinced that I’d want it three times during the same meal.
A little bit more research told me that Tudor marchpane was a very different creation to modern day marzipan, in terms of usage. Whereas modern marzipan is often hidden under thick sheets of painfully sweet icing, the Tudors made it a centrepiece of the meal by carving it into elaborate shapes and covered it in nothing but a bit of gilding, if it could be afforded. Occasionally it would be dyed with natural dyes like parsley or sandalwood, but its main function was to be edible table decoration; Markham wasn’t serving blocks of plain marzipan to expectant guests at all. I suddenly wished I could go back in time to 11 year old me as she explained to her friends why a marzipan hotdog cake was better than a ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ cake and tell her not to worry; in requesting a marzipan sculpture as my birthday centrepiece I was actually celebrating a longstanding tradition and not just being “a bit of a weirdo” as my sister put it.
Other than hotdogs, what other things can marzipan be shaped like?
Elizabeth I was certainly one Tudor monarch who would have appreciated the marchpane hotdog. Long famed for her sweet tooth, a German traveller commented that Elizabeth’s teeth were black which was a “defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar.” When she died at the age of 69 years old, it was reported that she had lost most of these rotten teeth.
One of the many sweet foods that Elizabeth was partial to was marzipan. And marzipan shaped like famous buildings was considered the height of fashion. At some point in her reign the Queen had been presented with a gift of a marzipan replica of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was likely that such a creation, in all its intricacies, would have required a team of expert cooks and taken years of practice to master. In my overambitious and egotistical way I attempted to recreate it in one evening, in my tiny kitchen, having had no confectionery training whatsoever. What could go wrong? Well pretty much everything, it turned out.
In lieu of a team of expert cooks I roped my husband into holding up walls while the sugar syrup cement dried. He also had to act as a scapegoat for anything that went wrong (he later told me it was the most fraught and unpleasant evening of our married life), and provide soothing glasses of gin before crucial moments during the construction. When it inevitably all collapsed after several hours’ work and my husband pointedly asked if this was what I’d truly meant when I’d told him I had an “exciting Saturday night project planned for the both of us”, I decided to switch tack.
In 1562 Elizabeth received a New Year’s gift from her master cook, George Webster, of a “faire marchpane being a chessboard”. This seemed a lot more manageable, mainly because chessboards tend to be flatter than cathedrals, so once the dust had settled I tentatively told my husband that I’d be attempting a second marzipan creation again in the morning.
As he preemptively booked us for marriage counselling, I got to work. Markham’s recipe was very simple, with an emphasis on the quality of ingredients used, not the quantity. All I needed was ground almonds (Markham advised using Jordan almonds and grinding them to a pulp, but Sainsbury’s didn’t offer me that much choice), very finely sifted sugar (I used icing sugar to achieve the levels of fineness needed) and rose water.
I combined the almonds and sugar in equal quantities – 400g of each – and added two teaspoons of rose water. Then, kneading as if it were a bread dough, I began to work the mixture together, adding a little water to help it stick, until I had a stiff and cohesive block of marzipan.
I was then faced with a dilemma: what colour the dough should be. Despite our modern images of them, chess boards weren’t always white and black – quite often they would be white and any other darker colour, most often red. The important thing was to get a deep contrast between a light colour and a darker one.
A 1534 inventory of the belongings of Catherine of Aragon recorded that she possessed “two chess sets, with red and white chessmen.” I don’t know how Elizabeth would have felt about the use of her father’s first wife as inspiration for my marzipan chess set (especially given that Catherine never accepted Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn), but by the time I’d really thought about it, half the marzipan had been soaked in beetroot juice so it was too late to get hung up on whether or not Elizabeth would have appreciated this detail.
First up to be made was the chessboard.
I cut out 64 individual 3cm by 3cm squares – 32 red and 32 white. It took forever and I began to panic that I was embarking on another Cathedral Palaver. I considered employing an expert team of cooks, such as George Webster would have used, but one half of my team had barricaded himself in the bedroom and refused to come out until this attempt was over and the other half just wanted to lick icing sugar off everything. Nevertheless, I continued on and arranged the squares like a chessboard before cutting out a border. To make the marzipan stiff I baked it in a low oven for half an hour or so.
As the board baked I started on the figurines. This was by far the most fiddly and annoying bit. In my head they were beautiful elegant carvings with crisp lines and sharp edged. In reality each one ended up as a nondescript, blobby mess. I must have practiced the knights eighteen times before they stopped looking like deformed hippos and began to resemble at least something related to horses.
It didn’t help that the beetroot juice had made the red dough more sticky. Every bit stuck to my fingers and each piece was pulled slightly out of shape each time I tried to set it down. I wasn’t basing my pieces on any particular set because it was surprisingly difficult to find pictures of Tudor chess sets online. All I could find was paintings from the time which indicated that the pieces looked broadly similar to modern day sets so that’s what I aimed for.
I put the figurines in the oven and began to decorate the chessboard, which had been cooling for a while. During the baking process it had puffed up a bit, a little like pastry, but once cooled it had flattened out a little.
It’s likely Elizabeth’s chessboard would have been decorated with gold leaf to give a red and gold contrast that highlighted her wealth and luxury. I didn’t have any gold leaf and even if I had I’d never be able to afford enough to cover each square properly. What I did have, however, was edible gold metallic paint leftover from a birthday cake I made last month. It wasn’t as elegant as gold leaf but it did the same job and soon my chessboard gleamed regally.
At this point, as I was basking in the glory of my chessboard, my husband informed me that the figures in the oven had melted.
As I sprinted to the oven I wondered whether George Webster died from stress brought on by the highs and lows of creating marzipan nonsenses like this? I don’t know, but if my own experience is accurate, it’s very likely. I felt my blood pressure rising as I peeked into the oven and saw that the figures were well and truly ruined. With a heavy heart, I remade them, hippo-horses and all. Instead of putting them in the oven this time, though, I stuck them in my very un-Tudor fridge to firm them up a bit.
Once they were a bit firmer and the horses were less…droopy, it was time to daub them in their own gold paint and arrange them on the board to see how they whole thing came together. It didn’t look too bad!
True, some of the proportions of the pieces were a bit off, and there were some definite lumps and bumps that I doubt would have made the cut on Elizabeth’s board, but overall I was quite happy with it. I could definitely see how something like this could be worthy of being a centrepiece at a banquet. Yes, part of me still wanted to have a glorious 3D model of St Paul’s Cathedral as my showstopper, but the chessboard was a decent alternative.
In terms of taste it was less sweet than modern marzipan is and much nuttier, possibly because the baking had enhanced some of the almond flavour. It was also much more fragrant than modern marzipan thanks to the rosewater in it. The two flavours combined – almond and rose – made a very pleasant pairing with neither overpowering the other.
The texture of the marzipan was also different to what I was used to. There was no limpness to it at all – it was like a well baked biscuit. It cracked and broke easily so had to be handled with care, but was surprisingly light once baked, a bit like meringue. I actually preferred it to modern marzipan.
So after all this what was the chessboard the centrepiece for? Some fancy Tudor inspired meal? A homecooked feast? No. After all the time and effort, all the stress and tears, all the endless wiping sugar off the kitchen table and trying to stop my daughter licking every worksurface, the great marchpane chessboard ended up being the centrepiece for…a Chinese takeaway.
300g ground almonds 300g icing sugar 1 teaspoon of rose water
Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl.
Knead it all into a dough using your hands. Add a little water, drop by drop, if needed.
Roll the marchpane out into what ever shape you want no thicker than 0.5cm.
Place on a baking tray sprinkled with icing sugar or covered with a non-stick sheet and bake at 120 degrees c for 30 minutes, or until the marchpane is just starting to colour at the edges.
The quest to eat more vegetables in the Foreign Pantry household is at risk of veering into saga territory. It should be straightforward, after all – two thirds of the household are adults fully aware of the five a day rule and there are (sadly) no reports of broccoli shortages in the shops. And yet. And yet.
I’ve spoken before about my good intentions and, for the sake of my daughter (whose first full sentence was “more biscuits now?”) we do keep some of the green stuff in the fridge and a bowl of f-r-u-i-t somewhere under piles of letter and papers on the table, but it’s not like I’m a natural herbivore, to put it lightly. You know those smug families with fridges full of veg organised in rainbow order, who always seem primed to tell you about a “fabulous new aubergine recipe” they discovered at the weekend? That’s not me. My fridge is arranged in whatever way will fit the most cheese in, and I had to use spellcheck to make sure I’d spelled ‘aubergine’ correctly just now (but ask me about a brownie recipe and I’ll give you five.)
Which goes some way to explaining how I ended up here: covered in beer and batter, frying balls of spinach in ever increasing quantities of butter. Hey, at least it’s a start.
Today’s recipe is from Thomas Dawson’sThe Good Huswifes Jewell, an influential late Elizabethan recipe book written at a time of growing culinary curiosity when rich households began to collect cookery books to keep up with the fashions of courtly kitchens. As with many other similar cookery books of the time, The Good Huswifes Jewell contains recipes for herbal treatments for illness as well as recipes for food.
The Elizabethan era was a unique one: continuing to build on the foundations of the Tudor dynasty but with veins of medieval tradition still running throughout it, much of what went on in Elizabethan kitchens was a fusion of old and new. Clear instructions for cooking and measurements in recipes, for example, began to be used with some regularity during the Elizabethan era, which marked a shift from the medieval ‘chuck it in and hope’ approach to quantities of ingredients. Similarly, the food historian Ken Albala noted that Jewell was the first English cookbook to provide a recipe for sweet potato and used simpler flavour combinations than had been used in medieval recipes. Yet some things didn’t change; making use of seasonal ingredients was still key and combining sweet and savoury elements in one dish remained a favoured technique.
This is something that Fritters of Spinnedge highlights very well: if you asked anyone in 21st century Britain whether spinach fritters fried in beer batter was a sweet or savoury food I think most people would answer savoury. But Dawson’s recipe for spinach fritters, nestled between recipes for spit roasted mutton and boiled pigeons, is distinctly sweet. And, frankly, delicious. I’ve yet to find a better way to eat spinach.
First I boiled spinach for a few minutes just until it was wilted, before straining the liquid off it and and adding a small handful of breadcrumbs. To this I added an egg, a teaspoon of sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger and pepper. Dawson then instructed me to add dates “minced fine” and currants, and then combine everything together. It looked wonderful. It smelt great. Maybe this could be our way to vegetable nirvana?
Maybe not. After making my spinach and date mix, I had to roll the mixture into small balls to be fried. This bit took a while; despite my judicious spinach straining efforts there was still a lot of water left over so each ball had to begin in a vice like grip to squeeze excess moisture out before being shaped. It took a long time and gave me mild carpal tunnel syndrome; I’d started making fritters about golf ball size but worried they were too large to cook through so ended up downsizing to conker size. This made the process much longer and wetter than I would have liked and I wondered if maybe I just wasn’t cut out for a life of vegetables after all. Like, maybe it’s in my DNA to resist greenery whenever I encounter it and by putting so much effort into these bloody balls I was actually fighting my own inherent nature? Nevertheless I struggled on heroically, buoyed by a promise I made myself of a congratulatory hot chocolate if I completed the task successfully.
Balls finally shaped it was time to make the batter. Dawson suggested an ale and flour mixture, which I wasn’t about to argue with. Ale was the main drink of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth, after which beer began to take over. Ale tended to be sweeter than beer and was commonly brewed by women as part of regular household food production. Very good ale-brewers (AKA “ale-wives”) with a head for business could also make extra money selling their excess ale from their house, although commercially produced ale was subject to testing by local tasters (cushy job, right?) and anyone found selling sub-standard or watered down ale could face a hefty fine. The ale taster in Worcester during the reign of Elizabeth I was given the very onerous task of visiting “every brewer’s house in this city…and there to taste their ale whether it be good and wholesome for man’s body, and whether they make it from time to time according to the price fixed.”
Good ale could take a couple of days to produce, and I had as long as my daughter’s nap would last, so I had to duck out of becoming an “ale-wife” on this occasion and instead use what we had in: Doombar amber ale. I don’t actually drink beer myself, but I know some people get very het up about what counts as ‘good’ beer, so if Doombar doesn’t meet your exacting standards please direct all your outrage towards my husband, not me. Thanks.
I made up a thick batter of ale and flour and heated a frying pan with a knob of butter. Dawson didn’t give instructions for what the fat should be when frying the fritters, but in another recipe for “Fritter Stuffe” he mentions frying with butter, so I assumed he wouldn’t complain about it being used here either. Once each fritter ball had been coated with the batter it was plopped onto the pan and turned regularly in the butter to ensure it cooked on all sides. It wasn’t quite deep fat frying but apparently it was still smoky enough to set off our fire alarm, which momentarily woke our daughter, thereby threatening to ruin my fragile and newly found appreciation of vegetables. For some reason my husband had foreseen the possibility of this happening (casting no aspersions on my cooking ability, I’m sure) and was able to do the tea-towel dance under the alarm fast enough to switch it off before the toddler woke properly.
Fritters fried and toddler soothed back to slumber, it was time to taste test. Admittedly, it wasn’t an attractive dish. Plopped onto a plate with no arranging they looked like burnt sprouts oozing grease like there was no tomorrow. It wasn’t a fantastic advertisement for a new healthier lifestyle and I wondered if this had once been an Elizabethan version of avent-garde dining that had gone very wrong. Still, there was only one way to test…
…and thank the fritter gods I did. These were great! Okay, faffy and fiddly to make and ugly at the end, but really quite delicious. Definitely not healthy, though; the first taste was of buttery, beer-y batter which melted as soon as it hit the tongue.
The spinach mixture was sweet, but not in a sugary, synthetic way. It was almost middle Eastern in its flavour combinations – the dates and currants lending a syrupy, treacle like element. Overall most of the spices were subtle, but the pepper was quite prominent and gave a kick to the back of the throat that lingered for a while after all of the fritter had been eaten.
Okay, so is this a feasible way to get more vegetables into your diet on a regular basis? No. Absolutely not. Not only does it take a bit of time to complete all the steps and roll out the spinach mixture into individual balls, it’s not really a healthy way to eat vegetables either (which sort of defeats the point.) But would I make it again? Yes! And that is definitely something to celebrate, if only because now I’m able to be one of those smug people who has a fab new spinach recipe to share with the aubergine lot.
But so what if these take a bit more time to prepare and are a little wonky to look at? They taste great and, at the very least, are a fun way to fritter away an afternoon (sorry).
Fritters of Spinnedge
225g fresh or frozen spinach 1 egg 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs Teaspoon of sugar 6 or 7 dates 30g currants 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the batter: 75g plain flour 30ml light or amber ale
Boil the spinach until wilted or defrosted. Strain it and shred it finely.
Beat the egg and add it to the spinach along with the breadcrumbs and spices.
Finely chop the dates and add them, with the currants, to the mixture. Mix all together until fully combined and sticky.
Make balls the size of small conkers from the spinach mixture.
Make the batter by mixing the flour and ale together and whisking until there are no lumps.
In a frying pan, melt a large knob of butter until sizzling.
Dip the balls into the batter and place them into the pan of butter. They should begin sizzling immediately and you will have to turn them on all sides to ensure they are cooked through.
Eat straight away – these are better hot and fresh.
It was a bold claim for a book that also contained recipes for “Fritters of Sheeps feet” and something called “Pap” (which as far as I could see was just a bowl of milk, flour and egg) so I wasn’t filled with confidence that these would in fact be the best sausages ever. Nevertheless, I bought pork mince instead of our usual Cumberlands and told my husband and daughter to expect the best bangers and mash they’d ever tasted; there was now no other option but to trust in the conviction of an author so sure of the recipe that he had published it anonymously.
The Compleat Cook, or to give it it’s full title in all its pomposity: The Compleat Cook, Expertly Prescribing The Most Ready Wayes, Whether Italian, Spanish Or French, For Dressing Of Flesh And Fish, Ordering Of Sauces Or Making Of Pastry was not one for humility. I mean, if the title itself didn’t fanfare the skill of the anonymous author, three of the recipes have “excellent” their title, two refer to themselves as “the best” and four refer to themselves as “good”. In fact, there was a second recipe for sausages in The Compleat Cook for “good sausages” should one feel unprepared or unworthy to try “the best sausages” (incidentally, if this is you, have a believe in yourself a bit more – of course you’re worthy of the best sausages.)
Of course, all this showmanship does make you wonder why the author felt the need to explicitly state that the recipes in his book were actually worth eating. Were there other cookbooks with recipes for “Substandard Syllabub” or “Gruel to make you gag?” Were some cooks, punished by their masters for burning dinner, secretly flicking through recipes to find a lowest grade of sausage they could to serve in quiet revenge? Well actually, in a way – yes.
The Compleat Cook is actually part of a wider work originally published in 1655 called (slightly pervily) The Queen’s Closet Opened. Part one ‘The Pearl of Practice’ deals with medical concerns, part two ‘A Queen’s Delight’ deals with confectionery and part three ‘The Compleat Cook’ is more of a general set of recipes. And who was the Queen of England in 1655?
Elizabeth I, then? Also no. Try harder.
I don’t know – Victoria?! Well now you’re just embarrassing yourself.
In truth, there wasn’t a Queen. That’s right – we’re slap in the middle of the good ol’ Interregnum years where Christmas celebrations were curtailed, Puritans decreed that fine foods (such as the best sausages you ever did eat) were outlawed and high taxes saw growing public resentment of what had once seemed a bold new way of running a country. Oliver Cromwell, the king Lord Protector who ruled the UK from 1653 – 1658 had pretty much the same powers as a king but without the title. In 1649, following years of bloody Civil War, Cromwell signed his name on the death warrant for Charles I. Four years later, he had all but replaced Charles. Just as Charles I had believed in the divine right of kings and executed those who did not give him what he wanted, Cromwell also believed in shutting down anyone who disagreed with him until they capitulated and asked him to rule as sole Lord Protector, which was very different from being king because there were more syllables. When he died in 1658 he passed his power to his eldest son and was buried in Westminster Abbey – but remember you better not call him a king!
Cromwell’s ‘reign’ was marred by unbelievable brutality against the Irish by troops he was in charge of (see: Drogheda) and his hope for a 16th century version of religious tolerance towards the various Protestant sects, despite his own strongly held Puritan beliefs, just contributed to huge mistrust among his contemporaries.
After the monarchy fell in all but name many rich households looking to find favour with the notoriously austere self styled ‘Puritan Moses’ would have had to let their distinguished chefs go. Puritan England didn’t look kindly on feasting and frivolity. So the chefs, whose reputations were based on their ability to conjure up fine banquets and ingenious dishes had to advertise their services in the hope that they might find employment in new households – ones that were less concerned with kowtowing to the new Lord Protector. The Compleat Cook can therefore be seen as the worst type of C.V.; long-winded, pompous and well over the accepted 2 page limit. The Queen of the wider Queen’s Closet of which Compleat Cook was a part, was probably Henrietta Maria, wife of the executed Charles I.
This was a bold move which perhaps explains the anonymity of the author; he must have hoped that discreet word of mouth would help him find new employment if his book rose to prominence. People were fascinated by the ways of the rich and The Compleat Cook allowed them to glimpse behind the veil at a way of life that had been, quite literally, killed off.
So what about these sausages then?
Oh yes, the sausages.
A glance through the recipe suggested these wouldn’t be too bad at all – all they were was pork mince, suet, onions and herbs and spices. Interestingly and reassuringly there was no casing involved, just a confident conviction that binding the ingredients with egg yolk would create a meat paste that would hold its shape when fried.
First I combined pork mince, beef suet, diced onion, sage, nutmeg, salt, pepper and egg yolk in a bowl until it formed a thick mush. I’m not sure I’d call it a paste and I was unconvinced it would hold its shape during cooking, but if I wanted to experience the best sausages I’d ever eaten I had to respect the process.
It became apparent that rolling the meat into sausages wasn’t going to work; bits of onion and suet kept flaking off and ruining the shape. I ended up rolling balls of the mixture in my hands and patting each ball into a sausage shape.
And that was it. It was all really straightforward. The recipe assured me that the uncooked ‘paste’ would last for 14 days but I saw no reason to make my un-Puritan heathen family wait that long and risk food poisoning, so I cooked them straight away.
Usually I bake sausages rather than fry them, and since the mixture was enough to make 10 good sized ones, I fried four and baked six to see if there was a difference.
I was surprised to find that both fried and baked, the sausages retained their shape well. Even when being turned and prodded to see how much longer to go, they held up. They even smelled pleasant – much meatier than shop-bought ones and fragrant with the sage. The only worrying thing I noticed was that thanks to the suet there was a lot of fat in the pan. But more fat meant more flavour, right? Maybe these were going to be the best sausages I’d ever eaten.
After twenty minutes or so it was time. I arranged the sausages as artfully as one can arrange tubes of meat without making it look like a sculpture of solid turds, squeezed some tomato ketchup that I’m sure Heinz followed an authentic civil war recipe for into a pot, and served my meal.
My husband took an enthusiastic bite. I waited.
“Is it good?”
“But is it the best sausage you’ve ever eaten?”
A shake of the head.
No matter, I was prepared for this. “Well, is it the second best?”
“I don’t know! Who keeps a mental list of their top five sausages ready to reel off? It’s good. It’s a bit bland, but it’s fine.”
He wasn’t wrong.
I can’t think of another way to describe them apart from meaty. I don’t know if it was because lots of shop sausages include breadcrumbs, or mince the meat very fine, but these felt almost more like burgers. The lack of casing made the fried ones slightly drier than I was used to – for some reason, though, the baked ones weren’t as dry.
The sage and nutmeg were noticeable and worked well with each other, particularly the nutmeg which created a subtle spiciness at the end of each mouthful that I wasn’t used to with modern sausages.
Overall, if I were a noble family looking for a new chef in 1668 I’d need to see another showstopping dish from The Compleat Cook before employing the author. They were good – but not the best I’d ever eaten.
In a weird way, maybe the simply “good” sausages which followed a similar recipe (with more spices and no onion) but encased the mixture in traditional “hoggs guts” would have tasted better, but the rulers of 17th century England were unlikely to find out; in 1660 Charles II retook his father’s throne ending the Protectorate and restoring the monarchy. Upon his return the custom of spectacle and lavish dining (usually at the expense of the nation) came back into fashion. Charles II would often be served 26 dishes and used silver-gilt and gold plates as he sat at a table covered in embroidered linen under a canopy of state. Spectators who could only dream of such luxuries were invited to witness the royal gorging from behind railings. “Good” sausages probably wouldn’t have cut it anymore.
The Best Sausages That Was Ever Eaten
500g pork mince 450g beef suet 1 onion 2 egg yolks Nutmeg Salt and Pepper 2 handfuls of sage
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl until well combined and sticky.
Take enough mixture to form a ball in the palm of your hand and shape into sausages.
If frying, place sausages in pan and cook for 15 minutes, turning regularly to ensure they are cooked through.
If baking, place sausages on a baking tray and cook for 20-25 minutes in an oven at 180 degrees.