Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mock Food No. 3

April 16

The very strict dietary rules decreed for hundreds of years by the Christian Church were a very powerful inspiration for fake food. At some times in history almost half the days of the year were ‘fish’ days. There were multiple and overlapping reasons for this. The prevailing idea was that ‘flesh’ food stimulated bodily heat and lust, whereas fish, which came from the water was cooling, including cooling to the passions. The fact that fish do not have an observable sex life enhanced the belief that it was more suitable for times of religious observance when distracting thoughts were best kept to a minimum – and for those in religious orders, that meant all the time.

There were economic and political reasons too: encouraging fish consumption preserved livestock on the land, and encouraging the fishing industry meant the availability of a large cohort of men with sailing experience who could then be sent on voyages of discovery or used to supply the Navy.

The proscriptions led to the invention of some wonderful fish dishes, and some artful substitutes for meat, but the best fake food was invented for Lent. During Lent, all animal products were forbidden. Essentially it was a vegan diet, although the word was not coined until very recent times.

No milk, no butter, no eggs. What to do?

Make almond milk, that was step number one. Huge amounts of it were made in medieval times, and the mind boggles at the work involved in pounding vast quantities of almonds without the assistance of food processors – but kitchen labour was cheap in those days, I suppose.

Eggs? No problem. The following recipe is taken from the Harleian MS (circa 1430). It is difficult to follow, but essentially says to ‘blow’ the eggs (pinhole each end and … blow the contents out) then re-fill it with a ground almond mixture, half of which is coloured yellow with saffron (and cinnamon) and placed in the middle to mimic the yolk.

Eyroun in lentyn [Eggs in Lent].
Take Eyroun, & blow owt þat ys with-ynne atte oþer ende; þan waysshe þe schulle clene in warme Water; þan take gode mylke of Almaundys, & sette it on þe fyre; þan take a fayre canvas, & pore þe mylke þer-on, & lat renne owt þe water; þen take it owt on þe cloþe, & gader it to-gedere with a platere; þen putte sugre y-now þer-to; þan take þe halvyndele, & colour it with Safroun, a lytil, & do þer-to pouder Canelle; þan take & do of þe whyte in the neþer ende of þe schulle, & in þe myddel þe ȝolk, & fylle it vppe with þe whyte; but noȝt to fulle, for goyng ouer; þan sette it in þe fyre & roste it, & serue forth.

Butter? Almonds again to the rescue. The following recipe is from a Neopolitan recipe collection, Cuoco Napoletano, via Terence Scully’s excellent translation.

Butiro Contrafata.
Get a pound and a half of blanched, well ground almonds; get half a beaker of good rosewater and strain the almonds - if that rosewater is not enough, use however much you need so that the amount of almonds can be strained; then, so the almond milk will bind well, get a little starch, a little saffron if you want, and fine sugar, and lay this mixture into a mold as if were butter; like that it is good to eat.
[Scully, Terence. Cuoco Napoletano. The Neapolitan Recipe Collection: A Critical Edition and English Translation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000].

Tomorrow’s Story …

Mock Food No. 4

Quotation for the Day …

Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. William Shakespeare (1564-1616), from Romeo and Juliet.


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

So, fish is not a sexy meal? I'll keep that in mind on my next dinner date. Meanwhile, I've been wondering if one of the purposes of mock food was to highlight the presentation skills of the chef? If one could turn ordinary ingredients into golden apples and delight the eye, was that not considered a culinary success?

The Old Foodie said...

Hello t.w. One of the purposes of mock food was definitely to show the skills of the chef (and therefore the wealth and power of the employer); also I have no doubt that the fun aspect was important.
As for your next dinner date ... I guess that depends on which way you want the conversation etc to go. Of course, having someone cook for you (fish or otherwise) is always pretty sexy, so to be on the safe side at your next dinner date you should do the cooking yourself!

Anonymous said...

Mock bait was a commonplace on our family table in the 1960s: grated potato mixed with egg batter and fried. It goes by a hundred other names; why the name mock bait? Either a fake imitation of a newly-introduced ethnic food or perhaps it went back to a necessity to substitute potato for the fish in times of hardship. We were British and Irish regional originally. Was whitebait eaten on the Irish coasts?