Sometimes you just have to try things even though you already know they won’t end well, don’t you?
Today’s experiment is from the medieval stalwart Forme of Cury – the cookbook of Richard II’s own cooks. Designed to be a comprehensive instruction manual, the work contains no fewer than 196 recipes ranging from the simple (common pottage) to the alarming (porpoise frumenty.)
Despite it’s off-putting name, Compost isn’t inherently dreadful and sits comfortably in the centre of the simple/alarming scale. The word “compost” in a medieval sense meant a stew, or preserved mixture of cooked fruit or veg. It was probably meant to be an accompaniment to main dishes, rather than a dish on its own.
The recipe in Forme of Cury is only one of about half a dozen medieval recipes for Compost, and no two versions are the same. Whilst Forme of Cury‘s version is clearly savoury, others aren’t. This suggests the title denotes a type of dish, rather than a set meal – a bit like how modern “crumble” can be apple, or blackberry, or rhubarb. A fifteenth century recipe for “Perys en Composte“, for example, instructs cooks to boil wine, cinnamon and sugar together before adding sliced dates and pears and stewing them in the mixture. Actually, that one sounds a bit nicer than the one I did…
Some useful context for why my husband isn’t currently talking to me.
We’re in the process of trying to sell our house. I haven’t eaten breakfast for days because no-one knows where the cereal’s kept now. We can’t move from room to room without knocking over half a dozen vases of flowers on the way. All of my daughter’s neon plastic tat has been
shoved under the bed tidied away so that when people come round they will think she only plays with demure grey wooden blocks and that we are a demure grey wooden family, or something. Everything we’ve done has been to give off the impression of sophistication and elegance in the hopes that people will fall over themselves to buy our house.
Do you know what doesn’t give off the impression of sophistication and elegance? The smell of pickled turnip. I haven’t seen the form that estate agents ask viewers to fill in when giving feedback on a property, but after today I would expect to see “smelled of vinegar” high up on the list of negatives.
Compost in Forme of Cury.
Take rote of parsel & pasternak of rasenns. Scrape hem waisthe hem clene. Take rapes & caboches ypared and icorne. Take an erthen panne with clene water & set it on the fire. Cast all þise þerinne. Whan þey buth boiled cast þerto peeres & parboile hem wel. Take þise thynges up & lat it kele on a fair cloth, do þerto salt whan it is colde in a vessel take vineger & powdour & safroun & do þerto & lat alle þise thinges lye þerin al nyzt oþer al day. Take wyne greke and hony clarified togider lumbarde mustard & raisouns corance al hool & grynde powdour of canel powdour douce & aneys hole & fenell seed. Take alle þise thynges & cast togyder in a pot of erthe and take þerof whan þou wilt & serue forth.
Take parsley root and parsnips [or carrots]. Peel them and wash them. Take turnip [or radish] and cabbage and carve into pieces. Take an earthen pot, fill with water and set it over the fire. Cast all these therein. When they have boiled, cast thereto [chopped] pears and parboil them. Take these things up and let it cool on a cloth and thereto add salt when it is cold. In a vessel, take vinegar, powder and saffron and add thereto and let all the things lie therein all night (over a day). Take Greek wine and clarified honey together with French mustard and whole currants and powdered cinnamon, powder douce and whole anise and fennel seeds. Take all these things and cast together in an earthen pot and take thereof when you will and serve forth.Forme of Cury. Translation is my own attempt.
The word “pasternak” gave me some confusion as others seemed to believe it meant a carrot whilst the online Middle English dictionary translated it as “parsnip”. The carrot museum (a thing, apparently) cleared up my confusion: “[The 17th century botanist John Gerard] gives daucus as a name for carrot in Galen, but notes that many Roman writers called it pastinaca or other names. [Parsnips and carrots] were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases only the written word, if the Medieval writer referred to “pastinaca”, it is impossible to know if they were carrots or parsnips.”
Similarly, the M.E. dictionary suggested the word “rapes” could mean turnip or radish. Feeling generous, I added both.
I began on Thursday evening by preparing a variety of root vegetables and herbs: parsley, turnip, parsnip, radish and pear, which I boiled together. At this point my husband commented that it smelled – fittingly, for its name – “a bit vegetable-y” in the kitchen. “Will it have gone by the time the people look round tomorrow?” has asked anxiously.
I promised him it would.
Once the vegetables had boiled for a while, I strained them and lay them out on a sheet of greaseproof paper to cool. To the cooled vegetables I then added salt and spices and white wine vinegar. As with all good medieval recipes there were no specific measurements. However, given that the dish was meant to be pickled, I kept adding vinegar until a small pool of it had formed under the veg, unaware that with each shake of the bottle I was slowly but surely devaluing my house.
The tray of vinegar veg sat uncovered in a cold oven overnight. The next morning I was alarmed to find a layer of condensation on the oven door. I tried to wipe it off; it didn’t budge. I realised the droplets were on the inside and that the vinegar veg must have been releasing moisture all night.
Trapped inside, with no ventilation, the smell had run rampant. A mist of vinegar condensation lined not only the door, but the walls of the oven too. My eyes began to water and an acidic taste filled my throat with each breath that made me splutter.
I had four hours to clear the smell. Every window in the house was flung open, every candle was lit. The candles were quickly blown out when we realised the only thing worse than an overpowering scent of vinegar was an overpowering scent of vinegar mixed with knock-off Yankee “vanilla latte”.
While my husband fumed for Britain, I carried on to the bitter end by draining most of the vinegar off the veg. Then, I boiled white wine and honey in a pan, along with mustard, star anise and fennel seeds. Once this had heated and the spices had infused a little, I tipped the pickled veg into the wine mixture and stirred. The Compost was done. Well, technically the phrase “cast in an earthen pot and take thereof what you will” implies it was meant to be left to preserve further, like a pickle or chutney today, but we tucked in straight away.
By now, the house smelled less awful. Still very much like we lived downwind of Branston, but less vinegary and more spicy. It was a scent I was familiar with, coming from a family who spent every autumn pickling and preserving anything that stood still for long enough. I was confident that whilst it might not be the traditional freshly baked bread smell that viewers would expect, it also wouldn’t strip them of their nostril hair anymore, which was about as much of an improvement from last night as I could expect.
We tried a small bowl of it, my husband somewhat begrudgingly. In terms of taste, it was pretty decent. Because I’d drained the vinegar off the veg earlier, the taste of it wasn’t overpowering. In fact, it worked well with the sweetness of the honey wine mixture.
Admittedly the veggies had lost most of their individual subtle flavours and instead had developed overall tastes – the pears just tasted slightly sweet, the radishes were a bit spicy, for example. But this wasn’t a bad thing, because it meant that the qualities of each one altered the flavour of the pickling liquid they sat in, so each mouthful was slightly different.
As the vinegar/veg/honey flavours died away, the aftertaste was of saffron and spices – actually quite pleasant. Though you wouldn’t want to eat a whole bowl of this on its own (not that the original would have been eaten alone anyway), with a jacket potato or bit of bread and cheese this would work very, very well.
But did they buy the house in the end?
Ha, no. Of course they bloody didn’t!
Though my husband’s adamant it’s because of the vinegar smell, I’m not so sure. Maybe it was because I’d forgotten to take down the joke sign I’d stuck on the oven that said “WARNING: FUMIGATION NEEDED!” Or perhaps it was because when the estate agent opened a cupboard up to demonstrate how much storage there was, everyone was suddenly engulfed in a tsunami of cereal, flowers and neon plastic toys.
A large handful of parsley
7 or 8 radishes
A small white cabbage
3 tablespoons of salt
A pinch of saffron
A teaspoon powder forte
400ml white wine vinegar
500ml sweet white wine
4 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon powder douce
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- Peel and chop the vegetables.
- Bring a pan of water to boil, then add all the veg apart from the pears. Boil until just turning soft.
- Add the chopped pears and boil for a further 3 or 4 minutes.
- Drain the water and tip the veg out onto a lined baking tray.
- Pour the vinegar over the veg.
- Add the salt, powder forte and saffron to the veg and leave overnight, or for 12 hours.
- Drain the veg, leaving no more than a tablespoon of vinegar. Put the vegetables in a bowl.
- In a pan, heat the wine and honey.
- When the honey has dissolved, add the mustard, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon and powder douce. Heat on low for about 15 minutes. You can leave the mixture to steep for longer if you prefer a stronger taste.
- Pour the wine mixture over the vegetables and serve.