Friday, November 09, 2007

The end of a meal.

November 9 ...

Anthony Trollope finished Barchester Towers on this day in 1856. He says in the book that “the end of a novel, like the end of a children's dinner party, must be made up of sweetmeats and sugarplums.”

Trollope’s apparent dismissal of sweet things as suitable only for the end of children’s parties is probably as much a comment on his Englishness as anything else. The traditional end to an English dinner used to be a small savoury dish – a little Welsh Rabbit, sardines on toast, or a ‘Devil’, perhaps.

I am at a loss to explain this peculiarly English preference for a savoury end to a meal. The more recogniseable custom – of ending a meal with a something sweet – goes back to at least medieval times when a feast finished with hippocras (a sweet spiced wine) and wafers. The tradition was probably based on the medical belief that sugar (or honey) and sweet spices acted as digestives. Sugar was very very expensive at that time and was used in small quanitities as we would use a spice. It was commonly added to what we would now consider to be ‘savoury’ dishes, although there was no such distinction in the Middle Ages.

Sugar became progressively cheaper as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries advanced and sweet dishes became more prominent, but still appeared throughout the meal. Gradually a final separate course solely of very sweet dainty things developed and this was called the ‘banquet’. For a time the word did double duty for both the sumptuous meal and the separate course. This meal was usually taken in a separate room – sometimes even a separate building or pavilion called the Banquetting House in the grounds of the stately home. Eventually the delicacies of the banquet course became dessert, the ‘course’ itself remaining as a faint echo in the chocolate mint with coffee.

Eventually all sorts of things were included in “banquettting stuffe”, and whole cookbook sections were devoted to them. Sweetmeats of course were there – they could be “wet” (fruit in syrup) or “dry” like nougat and “sugarplums” (candied fruit). Other delights which might appear were small sweet biscuits, marzipan shapes (some very elaborate), jellies and creams, and ‘compost’.

It is a wonderful word, compost. ‘Compost’ is a purely gardening term today, and refers to decomposing material to be used for the enrichment of the soil. It also refers to a preserve composed of 'fruit or spice preserved in wine, sugar, vinegar, or the like.’

The recipe I give you today is from those elegant ladies Mrs. C.F. Leyel and Miss Olga Hartley. It is a wonderful dish that falls somewhere between a wet sucket and a compost. Their instructions for making a caramel are a bit minimalist, but the idea is lovely. I would just pour the cool caramel over the oranges and not worry about the first syrup.

Caramel Oranges.
Skin the oranges, cut them into thick slices free from pips and pith, and arrange them in a bowl. Pour over them a syrup made of their own juice and white sugar. Make some caramel with a quarter of a pound of loaf sugar and a gill of water, by boiling it together for about ten minutes. Pour it out to harden; then beat it into crumbs and sprinkle it on the oranges. Cover the bowl with a little sweetened whipped cream and on this put a few chopped burnt almonds.[The Gentle Art of Cookery; Leyel & Hartley; 1925]

Monday’s Story …

London Salmon.

Quotation for the day …

We owe much to the fruitful meditation of our sages, but a sane view of life is, after all, elaborated mainly in the kitchen. Joseph Conrad.

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