Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mulberries and Silk in the Kitchen.

Today, August 2nd ...

Mulberries. My old, long deceased friend Samuel Pepys ate them on this day in 1662. His diary note reminded me of them:

‘I to Captain Cocke's along with him to dinner, where I find his lady still pretty, but not so good a humour as I thought she was. We had a plain, good dinner, and I see they do live very frugally. I eat among other fruit much mulberrys, a thing I have not eat of these many years, since I used to be at Ashted, at my cozen Pepys's.’

I thought of eating the berries, which made me think of silkworms eating the leaves, which reminded me of the old recipes I have seen which specify a silk strainer. It is difficult to imagine nowadays, but silk was once a very useful kitchen appliance.

Think yourself back to the days before blenders and supermarkets. Think yourself into the position of cook in a fine household. You are required to make the finest white bread for your delicate Mistress or toothless Master, the nurse is insisting on lump-free gruel for the Little Darlings, and there is a pound of cinnamon quills waiting patiently to be rendered into fine powder for the Christmas frumenty. What is a cook to do?

Use an old-fashioned strainer, sieve, colander, tamis, or whatever other-named filtering and pureeing device is available (and depending on whether the job is to remove lumpy bits or produce a fine powder or a smooth paste) along with a lot of that other old-fashioned ingredient – elbow-grease – that’s what a cook would do. The only strainers with specific purposes that are in common use now are flour sifters and tea strainers, but one upon a time there were fish-strainers, gruel strainers, punch strainers (cant have citrus seeds in the punch, can we?) and wine strainers (I’m not sure what these strained out – sediment I suppose) and perhaps others that I havent heard of.

All sorts of tools have been used over the centuries to perform these filtering jobs – bowls with holes, mesh made from wire, or horsehair or pig bristle, and of course - woven fabric. A ‘bolt’ of fabric is a familiar term, and it comes from ‘boulting’ or sifting crushed grain through progressively finer fabric to produce various grades of flour. Old recipes mention ‘straining cloths’ of wool, linen, lawn or just ‘cloth’ – and they must have been a real chore to clean for re-use. Flour mills eventually came to use silk for the finest flour, and the ‘boulting’ cylinders came to be called ‘silks’. By the mid-seventeeth century, silk strainers became widely used in household kitchens and allowed very fine powder or very fine puree.

In this delightful recipe, from Charles Elmé Francatelli who was briefly the chef to Queen Victoria, both the mulberries and the silk are used, which is nice, I think. The second recipe is nice too.

Mulberry Water.
Bruise a pound of mulberries with six ounces of rough sugar; add a pint of water, mix, and filter through a silk sieve. This most refreshing drink, which contains very little acidity, is an excellent febrifuge, and is also good for sore throats.
[The Cook’s Guide; Francatelli; 1863.]

Essence Of Orange For Wild Fowl.
Chop two shalots and put them into a small stewpan with the rind of an orange, quite free from the white or pith, and a little chopped lean of raw ham and cayenne pepper, moisten with two glasses of port wine and a little strong gravy ; set the essence to simmer gently on the fire for about ten minutes, then add the juice of the orange with a little lemon juice, and pass it through a silk sieve.
[The Cook’s Guide; Francatelli; 1863.]

Tomorrow’s Story …

San Francisco dining, 1920.

Quotation for the Day ….

A clever cook, can make good meat of a whetstone. Erasmus


Lee said...

Love this. I'm the only person for miles around with a mulberry tree, which aside from the staining to clothing, provides hours of enjoyment. Jam and syrup are a particular favourite, but most of my friends love to go out and have a good nosh straight off the branches (I've got old nurses' scrubs handy as coverups!)

Lapinbizarre said...

Years back, when I lived in a St Louis, there was a huge mulberry tree in the yard. The berries were seldom collected and usually fell and rotted. This reminded me of a bassett hound I owned at the time, who loved to roll in the fallen berries, dyeing her white fur purple!