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‘
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.
Each fart cooked for between five and seven minutes, by which time they had lost their vibrant bloody and raw colours and had turned a wholly dull grey/brown. Certainly, they were reminiscent of the colour you might expect a fart or “trump” to be, though thankfully they didn’t smell like one.
It was unclear whether these were meant to be served in the beef stock or not. I double checked with the medieval French version of the same dish (petz d’Espaigne) in The Viandier of Taillevent which seemed to suggest serving the farts without any of the broth they’d cooked in. Dry farts, if you like.
I did my best to arrange them in an appetising fashion, but it’s actually very hard to take a meatball photo that induces salivation – unless you’re IKEA, of course. Needless to say, the name of the dish meant put these little meatballs on the back foot a bit, so I felt an obligation to increase their attractiveness when I served them.
“You go first,” my husband said immediately.
I bit into one.
“It’s fine!” I said with what I hoped was enough enthusiasm to disguise the relief in my voice.
They really were “fine.” More than fine, actually. The cloves were the dominant spice flavour but in a bold rather than overpowering way. Both my husband and I agreed that because of this we couldn’t stop thinking about Christmas, which seemed a bit weird in the middle of July, but there you go.
Overall these were like moist balls of very festive stuffing. Having never eaten mutton before, I was curious what it would taste like but I found that in these small mouthfuls, boiled in beef stock, the flavour was like a slightly game-y, richer lamb.
They were also surprisingly sweet. I’m always amazed at the power of the humble date and how much fruity sugariness it can pack and it was no different here. Dried fruit like currants and dates were important in 16th century cooking, partly due to their ability to add subtle sweetness, and were regularly imported. During previous centuries these fruits had been the preserve of the nobility but, as Clarissa Dickson Wright notes, by the end of the 16th century some of these fruits could be found in various recipes of the wealthy middle classes too – recipes such as Farts of Portingale.
At the end of writing, I’m still not sure I’m any wiser as to why these were called farts, or what made them “Portuguese”. All I can do is hope that the reasons for the name are mostly innocent and not based on any digestive issues one may suffer hours after eating a plateful of them. Fingers crossed.
Farts of Portingale
500g mutton or lamb, minced
1/4 teaspoon of powdered cloves
1/2 teaspoon powdered mace
A good pinch of salt and pepper
60g pitted dates
1l beef stock
- In a blender, combine the mutton, spices, salt, pepper, dates and currants. Whizz until the dates and currants are minced and incorporated evenly through the mutton.
- Heat the beef stock until it is simmering.
- Roll the minced fart mixture into meatball sized portions and drop them into the beef stock – about six or seven at a time.
- Cook in stock for no more than seven minutes.
- Remove the farts with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a warm plate while you cook the rest.