June 20 ...
On this day in 1389, Queen Isabella, the wife of Charles VI of France, made a ceremonial entry into Paris. “Isabella of Bavaria” was married off to Charles when she was fifteen years old. She had by the time of this event, at the tender age of nineteen, already given him two of the twelve children she would ultimately bear him.
Royal “entries” into major cities were huge events lasting days on end – with parages, entertainments, tournaments, - and of course, feasting. The banquet which followed Isabella’s official annointing as the Queen of France was, of course, as grand and spectacular as massive wealth and power could make it. The scenario was described in detail:
“You must know, that the great table of marble, which is in this hall, and is never removed, was covered with an oaken plank, four inches thick, and the royal dinner placed thereon. Near the table, and against one of the pillars, was the king's buffet, magnificently decked out with gold and silver plate, and much envied by many who saw it. Before the king's table, and at some distance, were wooden bars with three entrances, at which were serjeants at arms, ushers, and archers, to prevent any from passing them but those who served the table; for in truth the crowd was so very great, there was no moving but with much difficulty. There were plenty of minstrels, who played away to the best of their abilities.
… There were two other tables in the hall, at which were seated upwards of five hundred ladies and damsels; but the crowd was so great, it was with difficulty they could be served with their dinner, which was plentiful and sumptuous. Of this it is not worth the trouble to give any particulars; but I must speak of some devices which were curiously arranged, and would have given the king much amusement, had those who had undertaken it been able to act their parts.
In the middle of the hall was erected a castle of wood, forty feet high, twenty feet long, and as many wide, with towers at each corner, and one larger in the middle. This castle was to represent the city of Troy the great, and the tower in the middle the palace of Ilion, from which were displayed the banners of the Trojans, such as king Priam, Hector, his other sons, and of those shut up in the place with them. The castle being on wheels, was very easily moved about. There was a pavilion likewise on wheels, on which were placed the banners of the Grecian kings, that was moved, as it were, by invisible beings, to the attack of Troy. There was also, by way of reinforcement, a large ship, well built, and able to contain one hundred men at arms, that, like the two former, was ingeniously moved by invisible wheels. Those in the ship and pavilion made a sharp attack on the castle, which was gallantly defended; but from the very great crowd, this amusement could not last long. There were so many people on all sides, several were stifled by the heat; and one table near the door of the chamber of parliament, at which a numerous company of ladies and damsels were seated, was thrown down, and the company forced to make off as well as they could.
The queen of France was near fainting, from the excessive heat, and one of the doors was forced to be thrown open to admit air. The lady of Coucy was in the same situation. The king, noticing this, ordered an end to be put to the feast, when the tables were removed, for the ladies to have more room. Wine and spices were served around, and every one retired when the king and queen went to their apartments.”
Poor young Isabella; she was already pregnant with her third child, a girl who was also to be called Isabella - the future wife of King Richard II of England. No wonder she felt a little tired and faint – it must have been an exhausting day.
It is disappointing for his readers six centuries later that the scribe did not believe that the plentiful and sumptuous feast was worth describing in detail. The story does give me an excuse to give you some recipes from the time however, for I have been neglecting the medieval era. I have chosen some dishes for Isabella from a ‘cookbook’ of the time written by the ‘master of the kitchen stores of the king’, who presumably had a lot of say in the preparation of this banquet. The book is usually referred to as Le Viander de Taillevent, it was written somewhere between 1386 and 1393, and rapidly became the culinary gospel of medieval France.White capon soup.
Cook them in wine and water, dismember them, and fry them in lard. Crush almonds with some capon livers and dark meat, steep in your broth, and put to boil on your meat. Take ginger, cloves, galingale, long pepper and grains of paradise, and steep in vinegar. Boil well together, and thread in well beaten egg yolks. It should be well thickened.
Take almonds, wash without blanching or peeling, and crush. Take some fine large crayfish, cook them in two parts of water and one part of wine, with a bit of vinegar if you wish, drain them, and let them cool. Remove the feet and tails from their shells and set them aside. Beat and crush the carcasses very well (like the almonds), steep everything in clear puree of peas, wine and verjuice, and strain together through cheesecloth. Take the crayfish feet and tails, fry them in a bit of butter, dry them like fried loach, and boil them in a pan or fine clean pot. Take ginger, a bit of cinnamon, a bit of grains of paradise, a bit less cloves than grains, and a bit of long pepper, steep in a bit of wine and verjuice, and add sugar generously. Boil everything together and salt lightly. If you wish to add fried fish do so. It should be thick enough to cover your meat.
Large and small crisps.
Cook the large crisps in some hot lard in a syrup pot or brass casserole. Make them from egg whites and fine flour beaten together. It should not be too thick. Have a deep wooden bowl, put some batter in the bowl, and shake the hand inside the pan above the hot lard [pouring batter into the lard]. Keep them from browning too much.
Cook the small crisps in an iron pan. Beat egg yolks and whites with some fine flour. It should be a little stiffer than the batter for large crisps. Have a little fire (as long as it is hot). Take your wooden bowl pierced at the bottom, and put some batter in it. When everything is ready, pour [a thread of batter from the hole in the bowl] and form it into the shape of a small buckle (or larger), with a kind of tongue of the same batter through the buckle. Let them cook in the lard until they are plump.
Quotation for the Day.
Food for thought is no substitute for the real thing. Walt Kelly (1913-1973).