Yesterday was the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which was fought on 14th October 1066. But of course you knew that already, didn’t you? I bet you spent the whole day wishing everyone a Merry Battle of Hastings and couldn’t wait to see what William had left under the tree. Personally I think Battle of Hastings Day gets more and more commercialised every year, but my daughter loves it so we carry on with the tradition.
Fun fact: as well as being a hell of a year, 1066 is also the code to every school gate everywhere in the world. Okay, maybe not every school gate, but most of them. Two of them, at least. My sister used to play county badminton and would spend every weekend competing in school sports halls around the country. Usually these halls were opened before the athletes arrived but one day my dad and sister pulled up to find a gaggle of kids and parents standing forlornly outside the hall, locked out. The lights were on and inside there were the sounds of people warming up (competitors who had locked their competition out in an effort to forfeit the match?) but no one could get the door open.
My dad, a teacher himself and never one to let common sense or law stop him, marched through the crowd and stood in front of the locked door. He paused and then punched in the code 1-0-6-6. The lock clicked open and a surge of tracksuited kids rushed past him, followed by their parents – all of them ignoring the legality of what had just happened in favour of a styrofoam cup of instant coffee.
I know how this sounds, but it’s completely true. It was like a scene from an action movie, only the hero was a frazzled middle-aged man who just wanted to get in and sit down, and the adoring crowds watching him were mostly kids who needed a wee. Still, I think he probably had some sort of epic soundtrack playing in his head when the door swung open.
Once mum had forced him to explain himself and call the caretaker to suggest they update their security, he told us it was because his school used the same code and he thought it “might be worth a try.”*
Back to the battle?
You all know the story, let’s not pretend here – Bayeux Tapestry, arrow in the eye (or was it?) yada yada.
In an effort to keep this post to a reasonable length, you can find out here why most of the stuff you think you know about the Battle of Hastings is wrong. In short – Harold might not have been killed with an arrow and the Bayeux Tapestry uses a huge amount of artistic license with many of the events of the battle.
Once Harold had been suitably dispatched (be it by arrow, sword or death squad), William sat on the battlefield and had his first meal as Conqueror. Accounts tell us it was roasted meat, possibly mutton or beef, which he ate among the bodies of the dead and dying, having left the English soldiers to rot on the battlefield. Not quite what you’d call fine dining.
William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. Apparently the crowd cheered so loudly during his coronation that the Norman guards outside Westminster Abbey thought a fight had broken out, and set fire to Anglo Saxon houses in retaliation. It set an appropriate tone for William’s early years as king, and he wasted no time in enforcing his will over his new kingdom.
As the current Norman England GCSE spec will tell you, Norman lords replaced most of the Anglo Saxon nobility, the language of the rich became French, and motte and bailey castles were erected in most major towns as a both an enduring symbol of Norman power and a method of ensuring the English population behaved themselves. But though these changes had huge and long term effects on the country as a whole, day to day life for the average peasant didn’t change that much. There was still ploughing to be done and animals to be fed, it was just that now their local lords were all called Jean or Henri and there was a faint whiff of smoke in the air as William’s (or should that be Guillaume’s) soldiers burned rebellious towns to the ground in an effort to maintain Norman control.
Food in Norman England
It might be easy to think that, almost 1000 years later, we English are finally free of Norman influences. Sure, we might still visit the odd castle when we need to check our eyesight, but the everyday effects of William’s conquest have long gone, right?
Well, not quite. Not when it comes to food at least.
One popular theory for why we have words such as ‘pork’ today is that the French equivalent ‘porc’ was brought over to England after 1066 and used at the dining tables of the rich (who were usually French themselves, or otherwise Anglo Saxons trying to curry favour with their continental counterparts.) As time went on these Norman words filtered down the social classes to become part of everyday language, even in people who could not usually afford to eat meat regularly. There’s been a lot written about this theory online but I couldn’t find definitive ‘proof’ of it, so if anyone knows anything more about this etymological aspect of history please let me know!
What I did find evidence of was that consumption of pork increased in England in the years following 1066. A recent study concluded that though the Anglo Saxon diet of vegetables, cereals and meat such as beef and mutton remained largely intact, and that cooking methods among the poor remained virtually unchanged, certain foods such as pork and chicken rose in prominence.
It was this discovery that spurred me on to find a medieval French pork recipe in honour of 1066, the Battle of Hastings and our Norman overlords – and it was typing that last sentence that made me realise what a suck up I am; if I’d been around in 1066 I reckon I’d have been waiting at Pevensey Bay for William to arrive, holding a banner saying “WELCOME TO ENGLAND, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF!”
Subtle English Brouet
Soutil brouet d’Angleterre. Prené chastaingnez cuitez et pelés, et moiaux de eufs cuis et ung pou de foie de porc; broier tout ensemble, destrampés d’un pou de eaue tiede, coulez; affinez gingembre, canelle, garingal, poivre long, graine, de saffren; fetez boullir ensemble.
Subtle English brouet. Grind together chestnuts that have been cooked and peeled, egg yolks cooked in wine, and a little pork liver, moisten this with a little warm water and strain it. Grind ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, grains of paradise, galingale, spikenard, and saffron for colour, and boil everything together.The Viander of Taillevent, An Edition of All Extant Manuscripts. Edited by Terence Scully.
The recipe comes from the early 14th century French work Le Viandier de Taillevent, which exists in four surviving manuscripts. It is generally attributed to Guillaume Tirel, master cook to Charles V of France, but the earliest version of the manuscript dates to around 10 years before Tirel’s birth, calling into question the true authorship.
There are a few pork recipes in Le Viandier and I pondered over which one to pick. Should I go for something simple, like roasted pork in a verjuice sauce or something a bit more ‘out there’, like boiled pork tripe? I know – it was a tough one.
A quick scan of the pork tripe recipe ensured my curiosity was cut short when I read that, once cooked, it would “smell of dung”. But another recipe underneath caught my eye: subtle English brouet.
It seemed fitting for the context: a French recipe with a possible English connection (incidentally, if anyone knows what the connection actually is, I’d be grateful if you could let me know!)
In this case the word ‘subtle’ didn’t relate to any complexity of the dish, but instead was intended to highlight how easy the dish was to digest. During this time the theory of the 4 humours was prevalent, (the belief that the body contained four liquids which, when imbalanced, caused illness), and foods were described as subtle to tell the reader they were not likely to cause a humoural imbalance. Could it have been that this dish was intended for invalids or those considered particularly vulnerable to illness? A medieval French dish to stave off sickness made on the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings during a global pandemic – surely there had never been a more timely meal?!
Terence Scully went on to explain that the composition of the dish, with its finely ground and blended ingredients, would ensure a fairly homogeneous result. This might also account for the term ‘subtle’ – to distinguish it from other brouets which had chunks of meat or bread in them.
So what was a brouet? There are several brouet recipes in Le Viandier alone. The Middle English Compendium describes brouet as a meat or fish broth, sauce or stew. The addition of saffron in this particular recipe suggested I was looking to end up with a fairly smooth yellow soup.
I began by poaching two egg yolks in white wine. While they were cooking, I blitzed some pork liver with some cooked and peeled chestnuts. When the eggs had cooked almost all the way through, I added them to the mixture.
I have to say that it did not look pleasant or fill me with hope. A combination of liver, eggs and nuts may have been considered subtle 700 years ago, but it seemed pretty bloody outrageous to my modern sensibilities. Nevertheless I persevered.
The whole mixture was tipped into a pan and I added a bit of water to loosen everything up – after all, this was meant to be some sort of broth. To this I added ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, ground grains of paradise, galangal paste, and saffron. The only thing I couldn’t get hold of in the original recipe was spikenard (no, I had no idea either), which seemed to be sold only as an “essential oil” on dubious websites, and since I didn’t fancy poisoning myself I decided to skip it. I left the lot to boil and hoped it would mellow out.
It seemed very stodgy in the pan, no matter how much water I added. I read through the recipe again and saw I was supposed to strain the liver mixture to ensure a very smooth, thin soup. So, once it was cooked, I dutifully mashed the lot through a sieve, which led to a thin broth collecting in the bowl alongside an amount of very smooth meat paste. The paste and broth were mixed together and I called my unsuspecting husband to lunch.
Let’s face it: this dish wasn’t exactly a looker. In its favour, though, was the fact it did both smell and look like a broth for invalids – in that it was the sort of thing no well person would ever want to try.
“It’s very…medieval”, my husband said, pinching his nose.
I tried it. Despite its somewhat lacklustre appearance it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d been expecting. I’m not an offal fan at all, but I found the taste of this quite bearable. The meat flavour was less intense and much sweeter than I’d expected, possibly because it was being masked by the chestnuts. It was still obviously offal, but in a relatively inoffensive way. The consistency was thin and smooth, but grainy – a bit like homemade pea and ham soup.
The second taste I noticed were the spices as a mixture of warming pepper and ginger gave way to saffron and cloves. Having such warming spices in the dish would have been a deliberate choice by the cook; in the 4 humour theory, pork was considered a cold and wet food, and spices such as ginger and pepper were hot and dry. Therefore the two ingredients were needed to balance each other out and ensure no one type of humour became corrupted – and therefore cause illness – once the dish was eaten.
Weirdly I think I liked this more than my husband did. That’s not to say I was slurping ladlefuls of the stuff, just that I could see how it would have been a warming and even comforting dish for the 14th century. My empathy only got me so far, though – after a few spoons I was done, and I don’t think I’d make it again in a hurry. Pungent offal broth, no matter how surprisingly sweet and spicy, just isn’t on my list of favoured foods.
And so another Battle of Hastings Day drew to a close. The decorations were returned to the attic for another year, the costumes were hung up at the back of the wardrobe. My daughter played with her new bow and arrow set, aiming for our eyes as we swung at her with swords and later we all settled down to look at pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry together. Classic.
*This was a few years ago so the codes should have been updated now. Hopefully. It’ll be on someone’s To Do list at least.
Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre
2 egg yolks
150g cooked and peeled chestnuts
200g pork liver
White wine for poaching
Ground long pepper
Ground grains of paradise
Few strands of saffron
- Poach the egg yolks in the white wine.
- While the eggs are cooking, blend the liver and chestnuts together to form a paste.
- Once the egg yolks have almost cooked through, add them to the liver and chestnuts.
- Add some warm water to the mixture and blend together to form a smooth paste.
- Add the mixture to a pan and add the spices. Cook for 5-8 minutes or so, until the mixture is bubbling and hot throughout. Add more water if you think it’s getting too thick.
- Push the mixture through a sieve to get a thin consistency and serve.