Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Spice and other essentials.

A large manorial estate such as Gawthorpe (see yesterday’s story) was largely self-sufficient in the early seventeenth century. There were a few things considered necessary in a wealthy household that could not be produced by even the best run English farms however - such as spices and dried fruit. These expensive imported items were purchased from suppliers in London, and the costs recorded meticulously in the steward’s accounts book.

In June of 1601, the steward of Gawthorpe noted a purchase of:

“spyce, viz. ii pound of prunes, vjd ; j pound of cowraynes [currants] vjd ; halfe a pound of anelseedes [aniseeds] vd ; and saveron [saffron], ii”jd

To those who think that English food is (or was) bland and boring, please look again at this list! There were other spice purchases during the year – more aniseeds and saffron, as well as nutmegs and pepper and several other ingredients for cooking and household medicine.

Saffron is said to have been first brought to England by a pilgrim (probably from Arabia) in about 1339, and to have been first grown in England in 1582. The best home-grown saffron came from Essex, in the area around Cambridge and Saffron Walden. By November 1617, the steward’s book specifies “English saffron”, at a cost of twelve pence for half an ounce.

Saffron was valuable for a number of reasons: for its medicinal value, its brilliant colour, and of course, for its inimitable flavour. The herbalist John Gerard, writing in 1597 says “ … in good years we gather four score of 100lb of wet saffron of an acre, which, being dried, doth yield 20 lb. of dry and more …” and notes that “ besides the manifold use which it hath in kitchen and pastery, also in our cakes, (at bridals and thanksgiving of women) it is very profitably mingled with those medicines we have for the diseases of the breast [chest], of the lungs, of the liver, of the bladder, &c.”

The culinary uses of saffron were well established by the end of the fourteenth century in England, and continued to be expanded over the next few centuries. Here is a recipe idea (with medicinal comments) from Sylva sylvarum: or, a naturall historie: In ten centuries, by Francis Bacon (1635)
Mincing of meat, as in Pies, and buttered Minced Meats, faveth the Grinding of the Teeth; And therefore (no doubt) it is more Nourifhing; Especially in Age, Or to them that have weake Teeth; but the Butter is not so proper for weake Bodies; And therefore it were good to moiften it with a little Claret wine, Pill of Limon, or Orenge, cut small, Sugar, and very little Cinnamon, or Nutmegg. As for Chuetes, which are likewise minced Meat, infead of Butter, and Fat, it were good to moiften them, partly with Creame, or Almonde, or Pistachomilke; or Barley, or Maiz Creame; Adding a little Coriander Seed and Caraway Seed, and a very little Saffron. The more full Handling of Alimentation we reserve to the due place.

And here is a nice Saffron Cake (what we would call saffron bread today) from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747.

To make a fine seed or saffron-cake.
YOU muft take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter, three ounces of carraway feeds, fix eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of sugar, a pennyworth of rofe-water, a pennyworth of faffron, a pint and a half of yeaft, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: firft boil your milk and butter, then fkim off the butter, and mix with your flour, and a little of the milk; ftir the yeaft into the reft and ftrain it, mix it with the flour, put in your feed and fpice, rofe water, tincture of faffron, fugar, and eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan, but be fure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick oven. You may leave out the feed if you choofe it, and I think it rather better without it; but that you may do as you like.

Quotation for the Day.

A man who is stingy with saffron is capable of seducing his own grandmother.
Norman Douglas (1868-1952)

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