Tartlettes: 1390

I’ve recently become aware that a lot of my latest posts have focused on sweet treats and desserts and that I’ve rather overlooked the savoury elements of history.

I would apologise for this except that I’ve yet to meet anyone who, when offered a choice between stuffed dormouse or honey cake would pick the former. For me, cakes and desserts are the pinnacle of a meal; the main course is something to get through in order to qualify for the good stuff at the end. I’m very aware that people who prefer savoury to sweet exist – they’re the sort of degenerates who pick a cheese board for pudding – but I refuse to have anything to do with them. The same goes for people who think fruit salad counts as a proper dessert too, by the way. I had an aunt who, having been placed on pudding duty for a family meal, brought along a bowl of fruit salad. We were all very polite at the time but I made sure she was crossed off the Christmas card list before the starters were even served.

That seems unnecessarily harsh. Hurry up and get to the point.

The point is this blog can’t just be about sweet things. Much as I would have loved if it people in the past partook purely of parfait and profiteroles, I do have to admit there was an abundance of savoury foods too – even if lots of these sounded sweet (looking at you, pease pudding) and I feel a duty to try some of these savoury items too.

Savoury items such as Tartlettes. When I imagined these I thought of mini quiches, maybe with some caramelised red onion and goats’ cheese: delicious. In fact, a better way to think of them was like meaty pasta shells served in broth. Still delicious, but a bit of a shift from what I’d imagined.

The recipe is from Forme of Cury, which I’ve spoken about a little before in previous posts, but was the cookbook of Richard II’s master cook. When cooking for the king only the finest ingredients could be used, both for reasons of taste and status – woe betide anyone trying to serve him penny sweets and supermarket own-brand crisps.

Richard II shortly after being served a sub-standard cheese toastie. Not impressed. Credit here.

I started with the Tartlettes filling first and boiled some diced pork leg until I was sure it was cooked through. It didn’t take too long and though it wasn’t the most appetising thing to watch lumps of pinky grey meat bubbling round in a pot, I did my best not to think about all the medieval puddings I could have been making instead.

While the pork was boiling I read through the rest of the recipe. It’s a good job I did because it highlighted just how different medieval recipes were to modern ones and saved me a bit of headache later. After six months of running this blog I’d just about come to terms with the fact that a medieval recipe containing exact quantities and measurements was about as likely as Richard II himself supporting the peasants during the revolt of 1381. What I still hadn’t fully clocked was just how illogical medieval instructions could be. For instance, at the start of the the recipe the instructions said to grind the pork up with eggs and spices. But at the very end of the recipe, once all the ingredients had been used up, the author suddenly instructed the cook to take some leftover pork that hadn’t been mixed with eggs and spices and use it to make a broth, despite no indication that some of the pork needed to be set aside for said broth at the beginning of the recipe.

Anyway, because I’d checked ahead I set some boiled pork aside and began to blitz the rest of the pork with saffron, an egg and “raisons of couraunce” which several medieval cookery glossaries (online resources which I now spend more time on than Facebook) assured me were currants. To this I added powder forte, a very common medieval mixture of strong spices, for which there doesn’t appear to be a universal recipe. Dr Monk’s blog and this website offered a couple of versions of powder forte from Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco, a roughly contemporary European cookbook. I used black pepper, long pepper (which I had to order online), cloves and nutmeg to make my own powder forte and added it to the mixture.

Next, I made the dough. Maggie Black and other blogs I found which covered the same dish used filo pastry as their dough. While filo pastry was certainly around during the medieval era, I had my doubts that it was what the author intended; the recipe itself gave little indication that filo was the dough to use. For starters, filo pastry might not be super hard to make, but it does require a fair few steps: making the dough, portioning it out, rolling each portion to an incredibly thin sheet, coating each sheet in melted butter and placing each sheet on top of one another. The instructions didn’t mention any of these steps at all, apart from rolling out a (single) “foile of dowgh” and, while it’s true medieval pastry instructions were often vague, the author of Forme of Cury stands out as being concerned with making sure the recipes in their work were as clear as possible (for medieval standards). In short, despite Forme of Cury being a manuscript intended to highlight the wealth and lifestyle of the king, there does also appear to be a genuine effort made on the part of the author to make sure the recipes could be prepared and replicated in other wealthy households with care and accuracy. Surely if filo pastry was required, the author would have at least mentioned placing the sheets of dough on top of each other?

The second thing that made me doubt we were dealing with filo pastry was that the recipe for Tartlettes immediately followed a recipe for ‘Loseyns‘ – an early form of lasagne, which uses similar terminology (“thynne folyes”) when making dried pasta sheets. This was when I began to think I was dealing with a medieval stuffed pasta and I became convinced I was right after checking this website and seeing that the previously mentioned Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco cookbook had a very similar recipe (slightly off-puttingly called “Little tarts of Scabwort”) which, when translated, instructed a cook to take the prepared meat and egg paste and place it in “small tortelli in sheets of yellow pasta”. Tomayto, tomahto, tortelli, tortellini – right?

And finally, one hundred or so years after Tartlettes was written down in Forme of Cury, a recipe for ‘Ravioles‘ appeared in Recipes from John Crophill’s Commonplace Book which was near identical to the recipe for Tartlettes – mashed pork (with added capon this time), eggs and strong spices stuffed into a “paste” and served in broth – I mean, come on!

We get it – pasta not pastry. For goodness’ sake, move on.

Anyway, having not cut a long story short, I made pasta instead of filo pastry. I followed the same recipe in Forme of Cury for ‘Loseyns’, but added two egg yolks and some saffron because I figured if I was cooking for Richard II he’d want a richer pasta than just flour and water, and because the recipe in Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco talked about the pasta being yellow, which implied the addition of egg yolks and saffron.

I then attempted to stuff small teaspoon amounts of pork filling into the pasta and seal them closed. To start with I was aiming for nicely uniform circles but it quickly became apparent that I possessed neither the skills nor the patience for this and my pasta shells soon resembled a jumble of mismatched rejects from a ravioli factory. Though I’d tried very hard to roll my pasta out nice and thin, and not overstuff my shells, I ended up with more filling than pasta – so I froze what was left to use as stuffing mixture next time I do a roast. I’m sure my family will be delighted at the encroachment of my hobby into their everyday, non-history meals, or “safe-to-eat-meals” as they’ve started to call them.

Tartlettes made, I quickly whipped up the sauce using the leftover pork I’d so smugly put aside earlier. I call it sauce, but broth is far more accurate. It was made with a pint of homemade vegetable stock, a splash of white wine, some chopped herbs and the pork, which I diced. I then heated a pan of salted water until it was boiling, dropped the Tartlettes into the seething water and cooked them for 6 or 7 minutes. It was hard to tell when they were done but I followed the basic principle of cooking fresh pasta shells and figured they were cooked when they began to bob to the surface. I fished the Tartlettes out with a slotted spoon and dropped them into a bowl before being sprinkling them with powder douce and salt. A ladle or so of pork broth was poured over them and then they were ready to eat.

Soupy, porky, pasta goodness.

So, what did this taste like? In a word: heavenly. No, seriously – it was fantastic.

The Tartlettes themselves were slightly thicker than conventional pasta shells because of my poor rolling-out skills; we broke our rolling pin, I didn’t buy a new one and so had to use a wine bottle instead which wasn’t ideal. Despite the extra thickness, I don’t think they suffered for it. The pasta was rich and tasted pretty fragrant because of the saffron, so having a slightly thicker shell was no bad thing. Boiling them for 6 or 7 minutes was a good time because they weren’t rubbery or overdone either.

The pork filling was a mix of sweet and salty. It tasted very much like a sweeter version of Christmas stuffing – you know, the pork and apricot or pork and apple types. The currants gave it a sweet lift without any sugariness and the spices kept it grounded with just a little peppery heat. When you cut one open there was a surprisingly colourful effect from the saffron strands and ground currants. With the deep golden vegetable and pork broth the combination, both in terms of taste and aesthetics, was fabulous.

Little malformed dumplings, I’ll still love you even if the ravioli factory threw you out.

In fact, this was so good that once I’d finished my bowl my immediate thoughts were ones of disappointment that I hadn’t made more, rather than of anticipation at what was for pudding. Offer me a choice between a stuffed dormouse or a honey cake and I’ll still pick the honey cake. But offer me a choice between a stuffed Tartlette or a honey cake? Well now, that’s a tough one.

E x

Tartlettes

450g diced pork leg
30g currants
A good pinch of powder forte mixture (or a good few twists of black pepper, a couple of ground cloves and a little grating of nutmeg)
1 egg
Saffron
Salt

For the pasta:
200-250g white flour
2 egg yolks
Warm water
Saffron

For the broth:
1 pint of vegetable stock
Salt

  1. Boil the pork until cooked through. Depending on how large the chunks of meat are this might not take too long.
  2. Set aside about 1/3 of the pork to use for the broth later.
  3. Mince the remaining pork in a blender with the currants, saffron, salt, spices and egg until it forms a coarse paste.
  4. Begin on the pasta. Add the egg yolks to the flour and combine.
  5. Add the saffron to a little warm water until the colour seeps and then add the water, with the saffron strands, to the flour and eggs until a dry dough is formed. Knead the dough a little to ensure it is an even light yellow throughout. If you find the dough is too soft to roll out and cut easily you may need to add more flour.
  6. Roll the pasta out to as thin as you can – ideally no thicker than 2 or 3mm. If you have a pasta machine, use it – there’s no need to be a martyr here.
  7. Cut the sheet of pasta into rectangles – I made about 20 but the total number will depend on how thin you got your pasta, you might be able to make more.
  8. Place no more than a teaspoon of pork mixture onto one end of each pasta rectangle and seal it shut by pinching the edges. It’s really important it’s sealed all the way round otherwise the mixture will bubble out when you cook them.
  9. Begin on the broth. Add a pint of vegetable stock to a pan and simmer. Add a splash of white wine and some chopped herbs. I used parsley, thyme and sage.
  10. Dice the left over pork into small pieces and add to the simmering broth along with a good pinch of salt.
  11. Begin to cook the pasta. Heat a pan of well salted water until it’s bubbling. Add the pasta shells a few at a time for 6 or 7 minutes, or until they begin to bob up to the surface and have turned slightly more pale in colour.
  12. Remove cooked pasta shells from the pasta water with a slotted spoon and place in bowls. Sprinkle over a small pinch of salt and some powder douce and pour a ladle of the pork broth, with the diced pork, over the top.

Patina Lucretiana (Roman pork with onions): 900 AD

I seriously considered pretending I understood Latin for this one. Actually, I started learning it back in summer but then stopped when I went back to work having only just grasped the basic fundamentals of the nominative, accusative, dative and despair.

Still, I had enough to know that Patina Lucretiana does not mean ‘Roman pork with onions’. It’s actually named after a Roman contemporary of Cicero, Lucretius Epicuraeus, and loosely translates to The Lucretian dish. (I think. Despite having an amazing teacher I was better at the despair parts of my Latin lessons.)

This recipe is taken from a Roman cookbook called Apicius which is a collection of recipes organised really helpfully (genuinely!) into 10 books for each type of food: game, veg, poultry, fish etc. The first book is called ‘The Careful Experienced Housekeeper’ and is basically a 21 chapter long text on how to make sure your household doesn’t run out of the basics, and how to stop food from rotting. Before you get to that, though, the author thought that what a truly careful and experienced housekeeper needed to know was how to get properly pissed, and so the first 5 chapters are dedicated solely to making and keeping alcohol – including salvaging wine that probably should be thrown out, as in chapter 5 ‘To clarify a muddy wine.’

Patina Lucretiana is essentially braised pork belly cooked in onions and something called ‘liquamen’. This obscure term was totally lost on me and after a bit of research I found that no one truly knows what it is, but it’s likely to have been some kind of fish sauce, a bit like garum. Coupled with the fact that the recipe also mentions a broth I assumed it was meant to be more of a stock.

The recipe is also very specific in calling for salted pork belly. This is probably because, and I don’t think is common knowledge, the Romans didn’t have fridges. In order to preserve meat they might salt it, smoke it or air dry it, to draw the moisture out and make it last longer. Though I probably could have used the pork chops we had in already, (thanks to the freezer, which, in an annoying twist for the author, was invented just after the fall of the Roman Empire) I wanted to see what it would taste like with the proper cuts prepared as closely as possible to the original recipe.

So, armed with just over 500g of pork belly and a bag of sea salt, I carefully yet cluelessly began preserving the meat. It took ages because I employed the timeless chuck-it-and-hope-it-sticks method when applying the salt, which didn’t work as well as I’d hoped because the pork skin was quite dry and covered a lot of the area. In the end I had to salt some clingfilm, lay the pork on it and try and wrap it up as I poured more salt down the sides. Stuck it in the fridge and waited 2 days, an arbitrary number plucked out of the air and which I’ve since learnt would have given just enough time for the salt to do sod all as apparently it takes about 5 days to cure 1 inch of meat. So much for authenticity.

Delicious pointlessly salted meat

After 2 days I began on the rest of the meal. The recipe stated that onions needed to be added to a pan with some of the liquamen, but first they should be cleaned and the “young green tops of them rejected”. This was tough on me and the onions and I for one was in tears by the end. Afterwards I realised that the reference to young green tops probably meant I should have used spring onions, so if I did this again I’d use them, not ordinary onions.

I let 2 chopped onions cook for 10 minutes in olive oil while I made 150ml of liquamen by dissolving a fish stock pot in water with a couple more teaspoons of oil. I added this to the cooked onions and then added the very salty pork belly (I did scrape some off).

This bit I was quite nervous for, actually. I don’t really cook pork and the recipe didn’t make it clear whether to cook it on the hob or in an oven, or for how long. Since most Roman cooking was done over a hearth, with pans supported by tripods or grid irons, and the recipe had made no mention of roasting or ovens, I decided to cook it on the hob but in a dish with a lid so that it cooked in the steam of the stock and onions.

I was never more aware of how unpleasant food poisoning might be than at this point

To help me work out how long to cook this for I looked up some modern day recipes for braised pork belly. I found that it works best when left for a long time (lots of recipes suggested 2.5 hours for 1kg of pork.) With that in mind, I left my 500g (checking that the liquamen levels didn’t get too low) for about 1.5 hours. After about an hour I added a spoon of honey, about 150ml of water and a few dashes of vinegar and then left it to cook more before serving.

Potato should always form 50% of the plate

Honestly? It wasn’t as good as I’d hoped; perhaps the author wasn’t such a fan of Lucretius after all! Now, I hold my hands up and say that could well be down to my inferior cooking abilities, but I found it a bit tough and difficult to cut through. Unsurprisingly, salt was the predominant taste and only stopped short of becoming overpowering because the honey and water sweetened it slightly. Still, by everyday modern standards it was way too much.

The ancient Romans didn’t have mashed potatoes but we did, which was a bit of a saving grace for this meal, along with the onions which were delicious. The whole thing combined reminded me of an overdone gammon although the potatoes with a bit of the sauce on top worked well.

Despite the fact that I should have been in my element as this meal contained no green whatsoever, I wouldn’t rush to make it again. This is one that can stay in the past.

E x