Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Prayers in the kitchen.

Today, December 7th …

On this day in 1824 the Royal Horticultural Society of London heard "An Account and Description of the Different Varieties of Strawberries which have been cultivated and examined in the garden of the Horticultural Society". The strawberry had finally yielded to several hundred years of natural and deliberate hybridisation of Old and New World wild varieties, and become a berry that we would find familiar today.

Wild strawberries were enjoyed for centuries before this of course, and we probably still agree with the ex-monk, physician and nutrition writer Andrew Boorde that simple is best. He said “Rawe crayme [cream] undecocted, eaten with strawberyes … is a rurall mannes banket [banquet]” (1542)

There were some recipes for cooking with strawberries in the sixteenth century, but the problem with trying to recreate recipes from this era is that the cookbooks were, to say the very least, minimalist. They were meant as memory aides for the few literate household staff, and, (like computer manuals today) were based on much assumed knowledge. There was less information to impart anyway – there were no strict cooking times (no clocks in kitchens), no cooking temperatures (no thermometers) and ingredient amounts were vague (no standardised measuring implements).

Literacy rates were very low, but even illiterate kitchen staff were expected to be able to say their prayers, and cooking times were sometimes given as the duration of a particular prayer, or combination of prayers. A short time might be several “Paternoster whiles” or “Ave Maria whiles” - which, I am reliably informed, are about 20 seconds and 13 seconds each respectively.

The anonymous author of “A Propre New Booke of Cokery” (1545) assumes that you know how much butter and how many strawberries to use, and the number of crusts for a strawberry tart. You will need to have your oven “hot enough”, and cook the tart “till it be done”.

To make a tarte of strawberies.
Take and strayne them with the yolkes of foure egges and a little white brede [bread] grated, then ceason it up with sugar and swete butter and so bake it.

“Anonymous” does, however, give us the first known recipe for pastry.

To make short paest for tarte.
Take fyne floure and a cursey of fayre water and a dyshe of swete butter and a lyttel saffron, and the yolckes of two egges and make it thynne and tender as ye maye

Tomorrow … To tease a jaded palate.

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