Egges in Mone Shine: 1575

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”.

Instructions to draw out a thorn in Proper New Booke of Cokerye. Credit here.

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?

Er…

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.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye

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.

Is it an egg or is it the moon?

The verdict.

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.

E x

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

  1. Heat the rose water, water and sugar together until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just coming to the boil.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove the yolks when cooked and place on a side dish. Continue to cook the water until a thermometer reads 110 degrees C.
  4. Pour the syrup over the eggs and sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon over them.

A Florentine of Flesh: 1591

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

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

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

I still have nightmares about Babyface. Credit here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Florentine of Flesh”, A Book of Cookrye

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

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

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

“Fancy a florentine?” I asked innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x

A Florentine of Flesh

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

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

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

Farts of Portingale: 1594

Settle down, settle down.

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

All clear? Excellent.

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

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

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

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

How to make Farts of Portingale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A plateful of farts – delightful.

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

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

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

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

“You go first,” my husband said immediately.

I bit into one.

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Farts of Portingale

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

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

White-Pot: 1615

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.

For such a wordy book there was a distinct lack of helpful measurements or quantities. Credit: here.

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.)

Captured in the light of a sunbeam. Easily my most nobbish attempt at arty photography so far.

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.

E x

*Nope.

White-Pot

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

  1. Add the milk, cream, 1 dessert spoon of sugar, the rose water and the cinnamon stick to a pan and bring to a simmer.
  2. Turn off the heat and leave to cool entirely.
  3. When totally cold, remove the cinnamon stick.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Marchpane: 1615

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.

Sugar banquet recreation from the Fitzwilliam Museum Feast and Fast Exhibition. Everything on the table (yes, even the plates) is made from sugar.

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.

R.I.P. marzipan Old St Paul’s.

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.

It’s not play-doh and mashed potato, I promise.

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.

This is probably the thing I’m most proud of in my life. Yes, I know I have a child.

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!

Even after Googling the correct layout I still got the kings and queens mixed up.

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.

Perfection.

E x

Marchpane

300g ground almonds
300g icing sugar
1 teaspoon of rose water

  1. Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl.
  2. Knead it all into a dough using your hands. Add a little water, drop by drop, if needed.
  3. Roll the marchpane out into what ever shape you want no thicker than 0.5cm.
  4. 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.

Fritters of Spinnedge: 1596

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’s The 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?

So far, so healthy.

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.

I tried, I really tried. The plate, the napkin, the aerial angle – these really are just breathtakingly un-photogenic.

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).

E x

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

  1. Boil the spinach until wilted or defrosted. Strain it and shred it finely.
  2. Beat the egg and add it to the spinach along with the breadcrumbs and spices.
  3. Finely chop the dates and add them, with the currants, to the mixture. Mix all together until fully combined and sticky.
  4. Make balls the size of small conkers from the spinach mixture.
  5. Make the batter by mixing the flour and ale together and whisking until there are no lumps.
  6. In a frying pan, melt a large knob of butter until sizzling.
  7. 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.
  8. Eat straight away – these are better hot and fresh.

“The Best Sausages That Was Ever Eaten”: 1658

I mean, how could I say no?

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.

Really appreciate the use of curly brackets here. Definitely feels more ‘expert’.

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?

Mary? No.

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.

I had high hopes for this…

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.

The least appealing ‘arty’ photo you’ll ever see.

My husband took an enthusiastic bite. I waited.

“Is it good?”

A nod.

“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?”

“No.”

“Top five?”

“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.

E x

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

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl until well combined and sticky.
  2. Take enough mixture to form a ball in the palm of your hand and shape into sausages.
  3. If frying, place sausages in pan and cook for 15 minutes, turning regularly to ensure they are cooked through.
  4. If baking, place sausages on a baking tray and cook for 20-25 minutes in an oven at 180 degrees.

Orange Marmalade: 1600

My daughter has started waking earlier and earlier. I don’t mean 6:00am, which is still an unholy hour at the weekend but kind of manageable, I’m talking hours of the morning that shouldn’t be legal. 3:00am! 4:00am! Before having a child I didn’t know there was a 4:00am; it was like an urban myth. I’d heard Proper Adults talking about catching early morning flights for holidays, or doing shift work, or having to get up to let the dog out, but I always assumed they just had a really sick sense of humour.

But alas, my husband and I are now well acquainted with 4:00am get ups – the starless pitch black outside and the oppressive quietness punctuated only by our gentle sobs of defeat as we reload Baby Effing Shark onto the TV yet again. 6:00am has become the new lunchtime and by midday we aim to be back in pyjamas.

This morning I realised that, if our day is destined to start in darkness and fumbled panic as we usher our daughter downstairs to prevent her shouts travelling through the walls to the neighbours, we’d need some reinforcements. Usually this involves biscuits of some kind, but we didn’t have any in and neither of us fancied this idea too much because at the rate we’re going we’d get through several packets a day (actually I didn’t see a problem with that, but my husband – who is working towards his Proper Adult badge – pointed out it might not be very good health wise.)

So – biscuits were out. The second problem was that none of the shops near us would be open until 10:00am, it being a Sunday. This left an unacceptable six hours to go. What we wanted, what we really wanted, was a wholesome breakfast that wasn’t too much faff and felt healthy without being tediously ‘Instagram’: I wasn’t going to ‘enjoy’ a jog later, I don’t believe a bowl of mashed banana with a crescent of seeds tossed over it is a treat and at that time in the morning I was definitely not feeling #blessed.

Marmalade was what we needed. Even the word ‘marmalade’ sounds luxurious and inviting, especially when you imagine great spoons of it slathered on toast already dripping with butter. I also thought there would be something inherently comforting about big amber blobs of it glinting in the darkened living room as neon rays of whatever awful animated cartoon was now playing tried to penetrate through.

This scene of domestic chaos was probably not what Sir Hugh Plat had in mind when he wrote a recipe to ‘Preserve Orenges after the Portugall Fashion’. I imagine he envisaged women delicately nibbling at lozenges of it over fine needlework – not me wrestling with my toddler as I cut chunks of it out of her hair. Nevertheless, his recipe for marmalade (found in Sophie Lillingon’s excellent booklet A Recipe Book in the Tudor Fashion) was exactly what we needed this morning.

Published in 1600, the snappily entitled Delightes for Ladies: to adorn their persons, tables, closets, and distillatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters was yet another collection of recipes and household tips written by a man to help women run their households more efficiently, whilst also remaining beautiful and fashionable in order to keep up with aristocratic Tudor society. Delightes for Ladies is therefore a bit of a maze of practical recipes, make up tips and hints on how to create the perfect Tudor banquet. It was therefore arranged alphabetically, which explains why advice on how to correctly perfume gloves is next to a recipe for boiled pike, and why tips to maintain oral hygiene immediately follow instructions for stewed duck.

Marmalade was introduced to England from Portugal where quinces – called ‘marmelos – were preserved in thick syrup and cut out into sweets. Orange marmalade in particular was a wintertime favorite of the Tudor elite. In 1560, Robert Dudley, would-be husband of Elizabeth I, purchased “a brick of marmalade” for a banquet to impress the Queen at a personal cost of 2s 4d – the equivalent of approximately half a week’s wages. Because the cost of of oranges was so high, recipes for marmalade preserve every aspect of the orange to get the best value for money, including flesh and rind. Rather than eaten on toast for breakfast, it seems marmalade was treated almost like a sweet and was set hard enough to slice into lozenges to be enjoyed at formal dinners.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and pioneer of the marmalade wooing technique

One hobby for rich Tudor gourmands was to disguise certain foods as something else; as part of the instructions for a brilliant banquet, Sir Plat gives recipes for sugar paste flowers and various sugar molds, including molds for plates, so that guests may be tricked into thinking sweet foods were savoury and crockery was, well, crockery. Tudor cooks in rich houses were nothing short of 16th century Heston Blumenthals (or should that be Heston Blumenthal is nothing short of a 21st century Tudor cook?) If all that food deception wasn’t exciting enough, Tudor hosts who could afford oranges and lemons and didn’t want to cook with them or eat them raw (thanks to a belief that uncooked fruit and vegetables were bad for you) would often have the rind carved into intricate decorations to adorn the table and delight guests with the patterns. Truly, the long winter evenings must have flown by.

Sir Plat seems to have tried to incorporate the spirit of food trickery into his recipe, but went one step further by hollowing out an orange and filling it with marmalade – thereby succeeding in creating an orange disguised as…an orange: “then there will be marmalade of Orenges within your Orenges…” Orangeception.

My parents kindly came to relieve us of toddler duty mid morning so, having left them at the mercy of our daughter who was happily pushing playdough up her nose (hey – it was an improvement on mashing it into the carpet), I crept away to begin work on the marmalade.

I put two oranges, cut into quarters, in a pan and then added the hollowed out flesh of two more. I added enough water to just cover them (like all good historical cooks, Sir Plat gives no quantities) and boiled them together for half an hour until I could pierce the rinds easily with a fork. Then I removed the orange pulp, leaving the liquid behind and blended it until the rind was cut up fine. Instead of a food processor, Sir Plat recommended pulverising the oranges by beating them until they formed a paste, but time was of the essence here and my energy reserves did not stretch to mashing oranges by hand. Once the blended oranges had been put back into the liquid, the original instructions were ambiguous about how much sugar to add. Sophie Lillington recommended weighing the combined pulp and liquid and adding the same weight of sugar. For me, this was approximately 500g but will vary depending on the size of the oranges and how much water is added in the first place. Then it was time to boil the sugar and oranges up into marmalade.

I know that there are various stages to boiling sugar with suspicious names like ‘soft crack’ and ‘firm ball’ but I’ve not really had much need to dwell on them before. Desperate for this marmalade to be a firm success (in every sense of the word), and not trusting Sir Plat’s naive advice to just “boil [the oranges] in youre sirup: then there will be marmalade”, I resorted to using a very authentic Tudor sugar thermometer to measure when the mixture was up to 105 degrees – the setting point for jam. Even though oranges have a lot of pectin in them, in order to keep this authentic I wasn’t using jam sugar so I wasn’t going to take any chances.

Temperature reached, I spooned the thick amber goodness into four orange halves and poured the rest into a dish to keep in the fridge (show me one parent who has time to sterilise jars for God’s sake). After another half an hour or so the mixture was pretty much set and I was ready to create my own orange marmalade filled oranges.

Bloody. Hell.

Look at it. Look at it! Maybe I am a bit tediously ‘Instagram’ after all. After a lot of swearing and near disaster I managed to sort of glue two halves of an orange together and glazed them with a little of the syrup left in the pan in order to see how this might have looked when served in 1600. The other two halves I cut open to show just how successfully set the marmalade was – it was a bit like a soft jelly. Sir Plat had advised that when cut the marmalade should be “like an hard egg”, and it wasn’t far off. Admittedly the photos did have to be taken quickly but that was only partially to do with the fact that the marmalade oozed ever so slowly downwards the longer it was kept tipped up, and more to do with the fact that we couldn’t wait to try it.

The marmalade tasted divine. I understand that there were various factors keeping Elizabeth from marrying Dudley, but I don’t get why she didn’t just abdicate the throne and run away with him if this was the sort of thing he was buying for her. It was sweeter than modern marmalade but still had a bit of the bitterness from the rind. Being exceptionally sticky it was soon clinging to every available surface but I didn’t care; I was in marmalade heaven.

Overall this was really straightforward to make (minus the orange stuffing bit at the end, which was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done) and didn’t take half as long as I thought it would. It tasted far better than any shop bought marmalade too. I know I didn’t bother to sterilise any jars to keep this ‘cupboard fresh’ but to be honest it wouldn’t last long enough anyway – after twenty minutes all the marmalade in the oranges had gone and there were several teaspoon gouges in the stuff in the fridge.

Is it worth voluntarily getting up at 4:00am for? No. Don’t be stupid, nothing is. But does it make enforced 4:00am get ups bearable when nothing else so far has? Definitely.

E x

Orange Marmalade

4 large oranges
Enough water to cover the oranges
500g caster sugar

  1. Cut 2 oranges into quarters and place them in a pan. Add the pulp of the other two oranges (but not the rind) to the pan and cover with water.
  2. Boil for half an hour or until the rinds are very soft.
  3. Remove the orange rinds and pulp from the liquid and blitz in a food processor until the rind is chopped fine. Add this back to the liquid and weigh.
  4. Add the same weight of sugar to the orange mixture and boil until the temperature is 105 degrees.
  5. Spoon the marmalade into sterilised jars or containers.

Green Apple Pie: 1574

One of the topics I’ll soon be starting with year 10 is the American West. It’s the study of how and why people in the 19th century moved westwards to settle across the vast landmass that is now the United States of America – pausing periodically for the odd massacre of the people who already lived there, moving again, pausing again to have a civil war and moving on.

When I ask my students what they think of when they think of modern day America the responses are varied and predictable: patriotism, flags, eagles, guns, baseball, fast food and big cars. But that’s not all America is to 15 year old British kids, is it? What about the values – the ideas – that make America similar and different to us?

Usually we manage to steer the conversations away from Donald Trump’s hair and on to more academic things like why the idea of ‘freedom’ (whatever it may mean) is so important to many Americans. The American West course isn’t just about looking at the actions of 19th century Americans and European migrants, but what their motivations were too. It’s about analysing the decisions and events which came to develop American beliefs such as personal liberty and patriotism into the forms we know today (including Donald Trump’s personal right to wear his hair however inexplicably he wants to.)

But when I take my teacher hat off and stop trying to think too deeply about it all, I always come back to food when I think of America. Hot dogs, fries and that weird plastic cheese that my mum made me think was worse than drinking a gallon of bleach when I was growing up, but that melts like nothing else on a burger. And I think of the food I’ve never tried but really want to: corn dogs, biscuits and gravy (which sounds like an abomination to the average Brit), kool-aid, grits… But the most American food of all – the quintessential American dessert – is apple pie.

Or is it?

Before the first settlement in Jamestown had even been dreamed of, the Tudors already had several varieties of apple pie and apple tart. In fact, pies of all kinds were an absolute staple of the Tudor dining table. Whilst hunting for the perfect apple pie recipe I also found recipes for pear pies, quince pies, peach pies, citron pies, gooseberry pies, prune pies (though why anyone would feel the need to make multiple versions of this is anyone’s guess) and cherry pies.

Only slightly disturbingly, pie crusts were known as coffins and their primary function was just to hold the delicious meat or fruit filling in place, sort of like a baking tin. The pastry itself wasn’t necessarily meant to be consumed, although it could be.

Pies were a favourite of that most rotund of Tudors: Henry VIII. He was reportedly particularly fond of quince marmalade and orange pies and in 1534 his household records the purchase of an orange strainer – an exotic and rare piece of equipment for both Tudor kitchens and my own kitchen. As part of the vast kitchens at Hampton Court there was a dedicated department known as The Pastry whose job was to produce the tart cases and coffins for Henry’s meat or fruit of choice. Such was the popularity of pies at Henry’s court, one of Hampton Court’s four great pastry ovens measured twelve feet in diameter. Most of the pastry cases made at The Pastry were wholemeal, but the king’s would have been made of the finest white flour. For more information on this definitely check out Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: King and Court.

This recipe is taken from A Proper New Booke of Cookery which the British Library tells me was one of the first books to include practical instructions of the kind we might recognise today: measurements – spoonful, ladleful – and cooking times. Like a pro, I’ve managed to eschew such helpful recipes and have instead succeeded in selecting one of the few that seems to contain neither measurement nor timings.

Imagine how pissed off you’d be to have painstakingly set the type on the printing press for this book, only to have someone rubber stamp it in 0.5 seconds
Copyright: British Library

For this recipe I felt it was time to call in some reinforcements so I gave my dad a call. Big mistake. He is a very good cook, but struggled to accept that this 500 year old recipe might be slightly different to his beloved Delia one.

“What on earth is it talking about: take your apples and core them as ye will a quince?” he frowned. “When was the last time you cored a quince?” he asked, like I’d personally written the recipe to spite him. “Do quinces have cores?”

We agreed to slice the apples thinly and sprayed some lemon juice over them to stop them going brown, even though the recipe didn’t call for it, because I actually think the man would have had an aneurysm if I hadn’t have let him. While he looked at a picture of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course to calm down, I got on with the coffin.

I had assumed that this pastry would be like a Tudor version of a shortcrust, but upon closer inspection it wasn’t anything like it. First I melted butter with water in a pan and added saffron to it. Then, I added the whites of two eggs and enough flour until the pastry formed a thick and smooth dough. It ended up a little like choux pastry, but much thicker.

I got dad to roll the pastry out onto my forever-ruined wooden worksurface while I added “enough” sugar, cinnamon and ginger to the apple slices. As with many other Tudor recipes, the quantity “enough” served as an indication to add ingredients in quantities that the master’s palate preferred. I calmly added as much sugar and spices as I desired and then my dad decided it was time we had an argument about butter.

“You should definitely butter the pastry dish,” he told me.

“It doesn’t mention it in the recipe, and the pastry has a lot of butter in it already. Anyway, we already added lemon to the apples and that wasn’t meant to be there either.”

“I would. Delia would.”

Long story short, we ended up compromising with an amount of butter that was neither negligible enough to match the butter-less recipe nor large enough to do anything useful in Delia’s eyes. Lose-lose all round!

The apple mixture encased in its coffin, I got on with the decoration. Since I used fine white flour, such as would have gone in a pie for the king, I felt that my apple pie should have some decoration befitting the royal table.

After his defeat of Richard III, and to stop any rebellions or power grabs from relations of Richard, Henry Tudor (father of Henry VIII) married Elizabeth of York who was Richard’s niece. In order to show that the two families were now one, Henry, master of propaganda that he was, combined one of the symbols of his house of Lancaster – a red rose – and one of the symbols of Richard’s house of York – a white rose to create that well known motif: the Tudor rose. He wasted no time in slapping this not at all subtle symbol everywhere – on doorways, building arches, bridges and wall panels. Anything that stood still enough for long enough was at risk of having the image carved into it. What could be more fitting for a Tudor pie than to decorate it with a Tudor rose?

Not ones for realism, the Tudors

I have to stop playing the ‘gormless dad’ angle at this point though because after seeing me struggle with freehand pastry carving he was the one who suggested drawing a stencil on grease proof paper and cutting round it. Instantly my roses were transformed from the sorts of splodgy modern art-esque designs that might have had me beheaded for treason into something that semi-resembled Henry VII’s emblem. The recipe then called for a rose water and sugar glaze to be pasted onto the top of the pie with a feather, but I felt that this would take too much time and since we’d already adulterated the original method with lemon juice and buttered dishes, I thought using a pastry brush wouldn’t matter now. The pie glazed, I put it into the oven for 1 hour and waited.

I was a bit worried that the pastry might not hold its shape, being a bit wetter than a bog standard shortcrust, but I was delighted to see that I’d be keeping my head when I pulled the pie out of the oven and saw that the rose was still in tact! In fact, the whole pie looked pretty damn delicious.

The pastry held its shape well when cut and the apples still had a bit of crunch to them, which I quite like. It was also neither too sweet nor too spicy because the quantities of sugar and ginger had been added according to my personal taste. I do have to grudgingly admit that the areas of the dish which had been greased well offered up the bottom of the pie crust a lot more easily than those areas that had only had trace amounts of butter smeared over them, but it wasn’t a huge effort to get it out. The only slight issue was that there was a lot of liquid in the pie, but that was quickly mopped up and could be drained out by making a small hole in the crust once cooked.

I don’t want to be presumptuous but I’m absolutely certain I would have become wife number seven if I’d presented this to Henry VIII

I had wanted to serve this with clotted cream and had found a 1594 recipe for it: “Clowted Cream after Mistres Horman’s Way” (whoever she is.) However, since the recipe begins “Once you have taken the milk from the cow…” and all the cows in Britain are currently underwater thanks to storm Dennis, I just bought some instead. Either way it was delicious!

E x

Green Apple Pie

5 bramley apples
285g caster sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Few strands saffron
125g butter
350g plain flour
2 egg whites
Rose water or egg wash
Water

  1. Peel and core the apples, then cut them into slices.
  2. In a pan melt butter with a tablespoon of water and saffron. When melted, add the egg whites and flour gradually, stirring until incorporated and smooth.
  3. Roll out dough to 1cm thickness and place in a pie dish.
  4. In another bowl, toss the apples with the sugar, cinnamon and ginger. Lay on top of the pastry in the pie dish.
  5. Cover the pie with a pastry lid and brush with rose water with a little sugar mixed in or an egg wash if you prefer. If you have dough left over you could make your own design and add it to the pastry lid. If you do this make sure you stick the design to the lid with a beaten egg.
  6. Bake at 160 degrees for 1 hour.

Spinach Tart: 1699

We’d had quite a long day having yet again been up early, each of us lying silently and pretending not to hear our toddler’s 6:00am shouts, hoping that the other would break first and get up with her. I won, but my husband got his revenge by allowing her to play with a toy drum kit very loudly and enthusiastically in the room directly under our bedroom. After what seemed like a never ending day, 13 hours later she was back in bed drifting off to sleep and we crashed onto the sofa, exhausted.

I’m giving you this background so you’ll understand that I was tired and slightly delirious when I decided to unwind by making this dish. Because what could be more relaxing than making puff pastry from scratch for the first time ever using vague historical methods, whilst hoping that any noise or swearing you make doesn’t drift up to the bedroom above you? As soon as I started I realised I’d basically become a hostage to butter and dough, unable to stop what I’d started but also unable to call for help.

This recipe is taken from a 1699 Stuart book called Elizabeth Birkett’s Commonplace Book, which the National Trust has helpfully transcribed here and which you can also find in Sara Paston’s Book of Historical Recipes.

The Stuart era was one of the most turbulent and violent periods of English history, seeing the attempted assassination of its first monarch, an increasing obsession with witchcraft, a full on civil war, the Interregnum, the restoration of a monarchy that seeemed hell bent on bankrupting itself and the eventual increased curtailing of royal prerogative. Phew. How fitting, then, that a dish from this time period should mimic the unpredictable and confusing nature of the era.

First, I had to take a “good quantity” of spinach and boil it. Taking into account that even a tonne of spinach has an uncanny ability to wither away into just enough to feed an ant, I settled on a 900g bag of frozen spinach to start with, with emergency back up spinach in the fridge if the frozen stuff dwindled too much into nothing. If this experiment didn’t work it did at least indicate that I should change banks because the anti-fraud squad at NatWest still has yet to contact me; after all, if spending £10 on healthy green veg and nothing else doesn’t constitute unusual activity on my credit card I don’t know what does.

After I’d boiled an ungodly amount of spinach I had to strain it completely, shred it and then mix in the yolks of 4 eggs and an ambiguous amount of sugar, stated only as “a good flow” in the recipe. At this point I really began to question myself: What was this dish for? Was it a pudding? Was it a main? Some quick research told me that sweet spinach tarts were a popular “second course” dish in the 17th century. Out of how many dishes, though, I couldn’t find. Was it meant to be served alongside roast beef or with custard? The bewildering nature of this recipe was shining through loud and proud.

I read on and was perplexed to see that I also needed to add a “pretty amount of butter.” I paused.

“Darling,” I whispered sweetly through to my husband, aware that the bat-eared child was dozing directly upstairs. “How would you describe this butter?”

“For God’s sake, if it’s mouldy just don’t use it,” he hissed back, not even looking at it. “No one will care if you have to use marge instead.”

I thrust the half used pat of butter under his nose. “Would you say it looks pretty?”

I genuinely think he thought I’d lost it.

“Would you describe this butter as the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? More radiant than your wife, more delightful than your child?”

His eyes twitched. “Er -“

“Look at its shiny greasy gleam. Look at the little toast freckles poking out at you, even though I’ve asked you a thousand times to use a different knife, look at it’s pretty gold wrapping. This is one hot piece of butter, right?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you!”

Back to the kitchen I skipped, while my husband quietly researched psychotherapists in our area.

I melted the ever so pretty half pat of butter and mixed it into the spinach, sugar and egg mix. The recipe then just casually mentioned that I’d need some puff pastry to lie the mixture on. I don’t know why I didn’t read ahead fully, but by now it was 9pm and my will was waning. Learning that I’d have to make puff pastry from scratch for the first time in my life, and using instructions that were clearly already written by a madwoman was almost too much.

(Luckily?) Elizabeth Birkett didn’t provide a recipe for 17th century puff pastry, so I began to toy with the idea of using shop bought ready rolled. I mean, no one would know, right? I could just say I’d made it myself… My eyes read down the recipe to where, underneath the ingredients for the tart filling, I saw another 17th century recipe, from an unknown document: ‘To Make Pufe Past’. Damn.

Puff pastry is one of those things that I always thought sounded really daunting and belonged firmly in the realm of Serious Cooking. It’s the sort of thing I imagined Nigella Lawson might silkily say was ‘divinely simple’ to make from scratch before whipping out twenty different ingredients and revealing you need a chemical engineering degree for. The instructions for making 17th century puff pastry were, however, fairly straightforward, but I still Googled how to make it just in case.

Of all the things I’ve accomplished, including my family, this is the best

The difference between 17th century pastry and modern day pastry was obvious: eggs. Modern day puff pastry is basically a bucket load of butter mixed with dough made of flour and water. 17th century was a bucket load of butter mixed with a dough made of flour and a bucket load of eggs. This 1686 recipe was one of the most decadent display of a culture going ‘sod it’ in the face of political, religious and financial uncertainty I had seen. I guess if you thought you might lose everything tomorrow (and for King James II this was true just 2 years in 1688 later during what became known as the Glorious Revolution) then you might as well eat all the eggs and butter you have all at once, a la Ron Swanson.

First I added 3 eggs and 1 egg yolk to 275g of plain white flour. The dough was very wet and I doubted that I’d be able to roll it out like it was required, so I added more flour until it was firmer. I then stuck it in the fridge, which wasn’t wholly historically accurate, but did give me an advantage later on when I had to add lumps of butter and roll it without it melting.

After it had chilled for 15 minutes or so, I rolled it out and stuck lumps of butter over it. Thanks to my Googling, I knew I had to fold the dough into thirds, give it a quarter turn and then roll it out. Then, I added more lumps of butter and had to repeat the process 10 times. In all, I used up an entire block of butter and I definitely lost count of how many turns I did. It still looked bloody awesome, though.

Once the pastry was made I placed it onto a baking tray and slopped my weird sweet spinach mix onto it. I spread it around, covered it with another layer of dough and brushed it with a rose water and sugar glaze. It then baked for 25 minutes while I did my best Bake Off impression, peering in through the oven door every 30 seconds and whispering “rise, rise, rise” to myself. In the other room, my husband dialled the number for the psychotherapist.

The kitchen filled with a pleasant buttery aroma. Because the oven had to be so hot when it went in to give the pastry a chance to rise properly the rooms downstairs also got very hot. We switched the central heating off, basking in the glow of the oven, and tried not to think about another Stuart event, the Great Fire of 1666, which started in a bakery perhaps making spinach tarts like this one.

Finally, the tart was golden and was even doing a very good impression of successfully risen puff pastry. I narrowly avoided 3rd degree burns when I opened the oven door and removed the dish, genuinely excited to try this enigmatic experiment.

A delicious vegetarian wellington/quiche/custard tart, my favourite

By now it was after 10pm. We were both exhausted. The kitchen looked it had been the site of a fight between an army of millers and dairy farmers. There was butter in every crack and crevice of the work surface and my husband visibly recoiled in horror when I emerged like a crone with hair and face covered in a thick dusting of flour. I cut us a slice, not sure what to expect.

The pastry had worked! It wasn’t perfectly flaky layers like Paul Hollywood would have liked, but it was definitely closer to puff than any other type. The mixture wasn’t as watery as I had expected either, perhaps because I’d spent so long pressing the spinach into the sieve to drain it. Because it had called itself a tart, I cut it into two generous slices, but after a few mouthfuls both of us agreed that standard portions were far too big. It was just far too rich to be able to eat a whole slice of; baklava sizes would have been much better.

Taste wise it was subtle and sweet but the spinach was still the main flavour. Luckily, spinach isn’t too strong of a flavour anyway, so it wasn’t overpowering. The rose water and sugar glaze was a bit perfume-y for my tastes, but because there was only a little bit of it, it was easily hidden with another bite of filling.

I’m waiting for that handshake, Paul

It definitely wasn’t unpleasant and actually when I came home I had a bite of it cold as an after work snack, but I still don’t know where it would fit in a modern day dinner. It wasn’t pudding-y enough to be a dessert, and I think the subtle flavours would be lost if you tried to serve it with custard or cream. It was too sweet to be a main. It might fit in well at a brunch alongside other pastries but you’d have to think of another name for it because if someone gave me the choice of an almond croissant or something called a spinach tart, I know what I’d pick.

One of the more minor reasons I started this blog was to eat more greens. Though it’s taken some time to achieve this, and most other adults manage it without needing to resort to making an egotistical song and dance about it, I felt that in this recipe I might have finally managed it. Unfortunately any healthy kudos I might have achieved were definitely neutralised by the amount of butter that also went into this. It was one of the most unhealthy things I’ve eaten. As it cooked, I watched the butter pour off it and as soon as it hit my tongue, melting and rich as it was, I heard my long suffering junk food clogged arteries sigh ‘not again.’ Still, in small quantities, definitely one to try!

E x

Spinach Tart

For the pastry:
275g plain flour
3 eggs plus an extra yolk
250g unsalted butter
water

For the filling:
900g frozen spinach

4 egg yolks
50g of sugar
125g melted butter
a tablespoon of rose water and sugar for glaze

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
  2. Mix flour and eggs together to form a dough. Place in the fridge for 15 minutes.
  3. Roll dough out into a rectangle the size of a baking tray.
  4. Place 50g of butter, in lumps, onto the dough.
  5. Mark the dough into thirds and fold it over itself. Turn it a quarter clockwise and roll it out into a rectangle again. Repeat this until all the butter is used up.
  6. Divide the pastry into half.
  7. In a pan, cook the spinach. When it’s cooked, drain it and dry it completely.
  8. Mix in the yolks of 4 eggs and 50g of sugar.
  9. Add the melted butter and when all combined, spread over half of the pastry which has been rolled to cover a baking tray (it will be very thin).
  10. Cover with the other half of the pastry and glaze with a mixture of rose water and sugar.
  11. Bake at 200 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden and risen.