Today, May 11th …
Our old friend Parson James Woodforde of Norfolk told us about his dinner on this day in 1789 in his diary, and he lamented the lack of the traditional accompaniment to his fish.
“We had Maccarel to day for Dinner being the first we have seen any where this Season, 5d. apiece, but the Spring is so very backward that here are no green gooseberries to eat with them nor will there be any for some time.”
Most of our longstanding traditional accompaniments such as apples with pork and cranberries with turkey have their origins in the seasons and in terroir. The parson notes that his mackarel was the first they had had that year. A book of the time tells us that it is season from April to July, and as the parson notes, it would have been expected that the gooseberries would have been available by this time in May. Pigs were often reared in association with orchards, the fruit lending its flavour to the animal’s flesh, and making it a perfect accompaniment to it on the table. Likewise, turkeys and cranberries are natural accompaniments because both originated in the North American continent.
In medieval times, there was no distinction between sweet and sour dishes, but by the end of the seventeenth century this had become clear, and an enjoyment of sour flavours had developed. A common sour note at the time came from the barberry – which we have looked at previously. This fell out of favour and became less available when the bushes were found to be a source of a disease which was damaging wheat crops around the world, and large scale eradication was put in place.
Gooseberries were commonly added to what we would consider savoury dishes today. Like most other fruit, they were likely to be more sour in the parson’s day than we are used to now, thanks to two hundred years of horticultural progress that have given us sweeter cultivars. Recipe books of the eighteenth century clearly show that they were the traditional and favourite accompaniment to mackerel. So was fennel. The plain lemon is now our generic fish flavouring of choice. Methinks that in some respects our ancestors had more variety than we do.
Whether you prefer your fish boiled or broiled, these recipes from The new art of cookery, according to the present practice; being a complete guide to all housekeepers, on a plan entirely new ... , written by Richard Briggs, “many years cook at the Globe Tavern Fleet-Street, the White Hart Tavern, Holborn, and now at the Temple Coffee-House, London” will show you how to do it eighteenth century style.
To boil Mackarel.
Gut and wash the mackarel clean, take care of the liver and roe, and put it in the fish again; have a kettle of spring water boiling, put in some salt, put the fish on a drainer, and tie them across it with packthread, put them in and boil them; (if large half an hours, smaller twenty minutes) take them up, let them drain a moment, and put them in a dish; garnish with green fennel and scalded gooseberries, with fennel and butter and plain butter in boats.
To broil Mackarel.
Gut your mackarel and wash them clean, split them down the back, wipe them dry with a cloth, sprinkle some pepper and salt on them, with a little fennel, mint, and parsley chopped fine, flour them and broil them over a clear fire till they are brown; put them in a hot dish, and garnish with scalded gooseberries and fennel, with fennel and butter and plain butter in boats. You may broil them whole; gut and wash them very clean, chop some fennel mint and parsely fine, mix it with a piece of butter and a little pepper and salt, stuff the mackarel and wipe them with a cloth, flour them, and broil them gently for half an hour; put them in a hot dish, and garnish with scalded gooseberries and fennel, with plain butter in a boat.
Monday’s Story …
Upstairs in Mayfair.
This Day, Last Year
We found out about Diligrout.
Quotation for the Day …
Nothing can more effectually destroy the appetite, or disgrace the cook, than fish sent to table imperfectly cleaned. Handle it lightly, and never throw it roughly about, so as to bruise it. Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845)
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