Monday, 20 January 2014

A Medieval Meal for Real

The roasting range in the kitchen of Gainsborough Hall, probably being used for the first time in four hundred years as it was intended, for roasting a full range of meats and poultry for a high status meal. A goose sawce madame, four rabbits, four mallard, a woodcock and other game birds roast on the hand turned spits.
I am often rather grumpy about the way in which food history is represented on British television. Commissioning editors in this country seem to regard it as a niche subject area only suitable for three minute intercuts into popular food programmes such as The Great British Bake Off. I suspect the purpose of these bijou interludes is to afford viewers a brief moment to make a coffee between the thrills and spills of the great cupcake, or gingerbread house challenge. Another approach has been the 'Carry on Banqueting' comedic slant, such as that of the Supersizers series some years ago, when Giles Coren and Sue Perkins took the piss out of our culinary past, while a medley of well-known celebrity chefs made fools of themselves making a mess at recreating ancient dishes. Because the food genre is considered a branch of entertainment, there has never been a serious cultural survey of our food traditions. You might say, 'what about the living history programmes, such as The Tudor Farm, or Clarissa Dixon-Wright's Hannah Glasse or The King's Cooks?' I don't suppose I am going to be popular for saying it, but I am afraid these programmes give the false impression that the food of our ancestors was terribly lumpen and unskillfully prepared. Watching the 'expert' presenters for instance, making raised pies that look like wobbly junior school pots does not really celebrate the incredible skills that our ancestors possessed in pastry work. I am afraid that they really need to up their game. 

When a virtuoso chef such as Heston Blumenthal is given the opportunity to examine our culinary past, he favours an approach which tends to use highly technical contemporary methods, telling us more about modern restaurant presentation than past traditions. Very little recognition is given to real experts. For instance, the makers of a recent BBC documentary about the food writer Dorothy Hartley actually filmed Peter Brears in his home kitchen talking about her dessert recipes. But this excellent sequence never made it into the final edit. This is ironic, as the outstanding contribution that Mr Brears has made to our understanding of English food will prove in the long term to be far, far more important than that of Miss Hartley. I think we have a lot of growing up to do when it comes to this subject on British television. 

Imagine my surprise then, when I was recently invited by KBS, the South Korean equivalent of the BBC to work with them on a programme about medieval food and dining in England. They did n't want a celebrity chef or restaurant critic presenter and they did n't want to dumb down the narrative. What they did want was to celebrate the true history of English food using real expertise, rather than bang on in the usual stereotypical way about how bad it was. During the process of making the documentary, which was directed by the celebrated Korean producer Kim Seung Ook, I quickly discovered the remarkable technical virtuosity, fresh perceptions and high production values of his outstanding crew. 

The recipe for Sawce Madame, a goose stuffed with quinces, pears and herbs from The Forme of CuryThis is a page from a c.1420s version of the text - courtesy John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. The original text dates from the 1390s. 
My aim was to accurately recreate an ambitious medieval meal in a high status household, so we chose to film at Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire with its wonderful great hall and kitchen complex. I enlisted the help of the outstanding re-enactment group Lord Burgh's Retinue, who regularly work at the hall. Led by Paul Mason, the group excelled themselves in a long, but exciting day's filming. I coached the kitchen crew in using their roasting range properly, showing them how to splint a salmon with hazel wands and how to skewer meats authentically, so they did n't stay still while the spits rotated. We also spent two days in my own kitchen where I demonstrated the preparation of a number of fifteenth century dishes, including a sawce madame, bake metes of partridge, gingerbread decorated with box leaves and a hastelet of fruyte. At Gainsborough we filmed a high table sequence led by Paul with full Plantagenet dining ritual, from Latin grace and blessing to washing of hands with an ewer and basin. The table and buffet was dressed correctly for the period and there were demonstrations of carving, sewing and correct service.

The finished sawce madame at the servery 

A bake mete of partridge surmounted by the bird itself with gilded beak and spots of gold on its feathers
A soteltie waits to be taken to the top table. This was originally made by my incredibly gifted friend and colleague Tony Barton for my 2003 exhibition, Royal Sugar Sculpture at the Bowes Museum. 
The kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall
A chastelet, a pie made in the form of a castle with different fillings in each tower awaits a spectacular flambé with brandy before being brought to the table
An early fifteenth century gingerbread coloured with red sanders is ornamented with box leaves pinned on with cloves
The great hall at Gainsborough. There was originally a lantern on the roof, which allowed the smoke from the central hearth to escape. The magnificent perpendicular oriel window floods the high table with bright light.
KBS director Kim Seung Ook(second from right) and his remarkable crew. Development producer Gina McDonald, who co-ordinated the production in the UK with me is in the middle.
The programme will be screened later this year as an episode in the wonderful KBS series A Food Odyssey, a visually stunning and highly intelligent global celebration of food culture. A DVD will also be available. BBC commissioning editors please take note. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Macedoine Jelly Revisited

A couple of glamorous victorian entremets in my kitchen

Just a quickie. I have just spent a couple of days filming with a BBC crew making a number of items of period food. Yesterday I put together a couple of nineteenth century maraschino fruit macedoine jellies to show how glamorous Victorian food could be - at least on the upper class table. I am posting a few iPhone snapshots I took in my kitchen this morning of the jellies with their fruit garnitures. I have garnished them with a couple of nice silver hatelet skewers from the 1870s, which gives them a striking sense of formality.

A neo-gothic macedoine mould and liner from Urbain Dubois, Cosmopolitan Cookery (London: 1870). I am fortunate enough to own a complete example of this two component mould, so am able to replicate these stunning Victorian entremets with a great deal of accuracy. 
Two different macedoine jellies with their moulds. To stop it moving or floating in the jelly, the inner liner is clipped to the outer mould.

If you are tempted by these dishes, why not learn how to make them yourself on my Jellies and Moulded Foods Course

Thursday, 2 January 2014

To Roast a Pound of Butter

Some butter rotates 'a good distance from the fire' on a wooden spit in an abortive attempt to roast a pound of butter according to instructions from William Ellis, The Family Companion (London: 1750). 
From Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1747)
Don't waste your time with this one. Although if you do try it and actually succeed in making this mysterious dish, please let me know exactly how you did it, as you may have stumbled across the culinary holy grail. Over the past three decades I have tried many times 'to roast a pound of butter'. All my attempts failed. On each occasion, I was convinced I had overlooked (or not understood) some important detail in the recipe. Some time after each frustrating failure, I would foolishly have another go. Over the years I have tried three different recipes - that reproduced above from Hannah Glasse (1747) -  the earliest printed recipe I know from Gervase Markham (1615) - and a so-called Irish method from William Ellis (1750) - recipes below. All have ended in failure and I have tried all these slightly different methods more than once. Yet something tells me that this was not a joke or hoax and it could have been successfully done. Or perhaps I am a gullible fool. So where have I gone wrong?

From Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (London: 1656 edition - first published 1615)
Markham's recipe is different from the others. Sugar and sweet butter (meaning freshly churned and unsalted butter) are beaten up with egg yolks as in the early stages of mixing a cake. This was the first recipe I ever tried. I found that in order to get the mixture onto a spit it was necessary to let it stiffen by putting it in a cold place. I 'clapped' the stiffened butter preparation on an old wrought iron spit, probably made in Markham's lifetime, and since I understood the term 'soft fire' as a low fire I cautiously rotated it about twenty-five inches in front of the flames. Remember that roasting takes place in front of the fire and 'not over the fire' as many who should know much better often say. As the outside softened I dredged it with a mixture of breadcrumbs, currants, sugar and salt as advised by Markham in the previous recipe for roasting a suckling pig - see below. So far so good. The rotating mass was soon covered with a jacket of uncooked breadcrumbs, but when I brought this a little closer to the fire to 'roast it brown' the breadcrumbs started to slide off as the butter below melted. I dredged these 'bald areas', but gradually more globules of butter mixed with the dredging would fall off. Finally, the iron spit got hot and the whole sorry project fell off into the dripping pan below. Failure number one.

From Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (London: 1656 edition - first published 1615)
I realised that using an iron spit was not a good idea. I had noticed that in his 1750 version of the dish, the Hertfordshire farmer William Ellis suggests using a wooden spit. I thought this was a more sensible approach because metal conducts the heat more quickly, resulting in the butter falling off before the process can be completed. The recipe was given to Ellis by 'a certain Irish woman' who claims to have made twenty-seven pounds of roasted butter one Christmas Eve. I first had a go at doing it this way about twenty years ago. Although the butter did not fall off, the dredging of oatmeal did. Failure number two. 

From William Ellis, The Family Companion, (London: 1750).
I eventually attempted Hannah Glasse's 1747 method, but using a wooden spit as advised by Ellis. This time the butter was dredged with breadcrumbs before it was put down to the fire and basted with egg yolks. Again the dredging dropped off as the butter softened. The dripping pan filled with a soft buttery porridge! I am glad I did not waste any oysters, which would have been covered in this unpleasant looking gloop. Failure number three. John Timbs in his Things Not Generally Known (London: 1859) describes Glasse's recipe as 'a culinary folly'.

Just for fun this year, I had another go at Ellis's 'Irish' method. Some Irish friends who turned up on Christmas Eve were intrigued when I told them that roasting a pound of butter could have been an old Irish Christmas Eve tradition. Since I had a fire in the hearth, we had another go at it and the photographs below record that latest attempt. I am always hopeful that I can get this to work, but as you can see it was just another failure.

A pound of butter is put on a wooden spit
Fine oatmeal is dusted on the rotating butter.
The oatmeal crust is shed as the butter underneath melts.
Now all this begs the question - was Markham pulling our leg? If so, he certainly made a gull out of me. So was this just an old culinary joke? If this was the case it does not surprise me that Hannah Glasse was taken in by the ruse. Despite what many others think about her, this particular lady is certainly no kitchen heroine of mine. I agree with her contemporary rival, the Hexham innkeeper Ann Cook, that Glasse was a high-born charlatan who almost certainly did not cook any of the dishes she describes in her book (more on this particular issue one day in another post). Surprisingly Cook does not specifically attack her rival's instructions for roasting a pound of butter in her toxic sixty-eight page critique of Glasse's recipes in Professed Cookery (Newcastle: 1754). However, I doubt very much that Hannah ever had a go at it. 

So how about the Irishwoman who claimed to Ellis that she had roasted 'twenty- seven pounds so' in a day? In my experiments I found that things started to go wrong after about twenty minutes in front of a slow fire. If she succeeded in producing the quantity she claimed, it would have been a long working day on that particular Christmas Eve. Was she feeding Ellis the Blarney? It is obvious from his account that he had not actually witnessed the process or eaten the results. I suspect she may have been lying because I am unaware of any other Irish accounts of this dish. Put me right if you do. 

Now I am aware of various techniques for deep frying butter coated in breadcrumbs or batter, but that is a completely different technique from this particular 'culinary folly'. Alexis Soyer for instance, gives a recipe for Croustades de Beurre in The Gastronomic Regenerator (London: 1846) in which little cylinders of very cold butter are rolled in breadcrumbs three times and then deep fried, resulting in little hollow croustades that can be filled with some savoury preparation. Modern dishes similar to Soyer's Croustades de Beurre (see the link below) instruct us to freeze the butter before it is deep fried. Perhaps the Irish lady put her butter out in the cold to freeze hard before she roasted it. Glasse's instructions to brine the butter before roasting it may have had a minor refrigerant effect, but I think I am clutching at straws here. Even when it is frozen hard the coating still falls of in front of a soft fire and even more rapidly in front of a fierce one.