Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tarts for Travellers.

May 20 ...

Viscount John Byng took to the English country road in the eighteenth century for a variety of reasons, and luckily for us he kept a meticulous record of his observations. We have met him a couple of times already - once to share his horrid meal of ‘raw, rank mutton chops and some cold hard potatoes’, and another time when he fared very sumptuously on ‘Cold Beef, Cold Veal, and Gooseberry Tart’. He had another gooseberry tart experience on this day in 1789, but it was not so pleasant.

Wellwyn, May 20th 1789. Mrs S. Talk’d about Mutton chops; but I stuck to my demand of cold meat, with a goosebery tart; and was right, for she instantly produced a cold Tongue, and a cold Fillet of Veal: as for her fusty old tart of last years fruit, I open’d the Lid, and closed it tightly down for the next Comer.”

The Viscount was, perhaps optimistic in expecting a pie of fresh gooseberries so early in the season? Or am I out of touch with the English seasons?

Gooseberry tart was a staple in inns and ordinary households at the time because the fruit grew without much effort on the part of humans, and it lent itself well to preserving. Since late medieval times gooseberries had been used to add a sour note to rich meat and fish (it was regularly paired with mackeral), along with barberries and lemon, but by the seventeenth century was firmly employed in the pies and tarts of the country. We could digress here into a discussion of was John’s ‘tart’ really a pie, as it clearly had a lid, and some would consider it therefore a pie, but such a crucial debate takes place in my upcoming book The Pie: A Celebratory History, and redundancy is, well – redundant.

Instead, we will consider the name ‘gooseberry’. A silly name. Nothing at all to do with geese, unless some long-forgotten method of force-feeding gooseberry pie instead of figs to geese to fatten their livers explains it. Even the Oxford English Dictionary gives up. They were ‘goosegogs’ to me as a child in the north of England, and in some parts they are called fea-berries, but the OED offers nothing there either. For a foolishly-named fruit the only suitable recipe is the foolishly-named fool, which is a trifling form of dessert like a trifle without the texture.

Gooseberry Fool.
Take two quarts of gooseberries, set them on the fire in about a quart of water. When they begin to simmer, turn yellow, and begin to plump, throw them into a cullender to drain the water out ; then with the back of a spoon carefully squeeze the pulp, throw the sieve into a dish, make them pretty sweet, and let them stand till they are cold. In the mean time take two quarts of new milk, and the yolks of four eggs beat up with a little grated nutmeg; stir it softly over a slow fire; when it begins to simmer, take it off, and by degrees stir it into the gooseberries. Let it sland till it is cold, and serve it up. If you make it with cream, you need not put any eggs in: and if it is not thick enough, it is only boiling more gooseberries, But that you must do as you think proper.
[The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Hannah Glasse 1747]

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Prodigious Pike.

Quotation for the Day …

Avoid fruits and nuts. You are what you eat. Jim Davis (‘Garfield’)

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