Today I want to follow-on from the ideas posed in yesterday’s story. As we discussed in that post, in medieval times there was no clear distinction between ‘sweet’ and ‘savoury’ dishes, and sugar was used as an expensive imported spice (and medicine) rather than primarily as a sweetening agent.
In the time of Henry II (who reigned from 1154-1189), even the king’s household was only able to buy 4 pounds of sugar at a time. Accounts from the Durham Cathedral Priory in the late sixteenth century show that the consumption of sugar was only 8.5 ounces per monk, per year. Although sugar refining began in Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century, it was not until well into the seventeenth century that sugar started to become significantly cheaper. By the end of the seventeenth century the distinction between ‘sweet’ and ‘savoury’ dishes had become much more distinct, and along with it an apparent enjoyment of an actual sour note.
What has this to do with the topic of the day, you may be asking? Well, humans are not entirely stupid about food. If you are onto a good thing, stick to it, and it seems that perhaps we were reluctant to completely give away this idea of fruit (‘sweet’) with meat (‘savoury’). But why particularly apples, with pork, you may be asking?
The association of pigs with apples is obvious at one level – pigs were often let to graze in apple orchards, where they could feast on the windfalls, so the fruit was converted by the pig’s metabolism into pork, instead of rotting into compost and being ‘wasted’ as a food source. Perhaps a concept of terroir is relative here – the pig meat being intrinsically compatible with the apple? Or maybe even flavoured with it, in a very subtle way? I did read some years ago of an artisan producer in Australia who was rearing piglets exclusively on a diet of blemished or othewise unmarketable apricots, which supposedly gave the flesh a particularly delicate and presumably fruity flavour, for supply to trendy restaurants. I wonder if this still happens?
On with our topic. Apples are ripe in autumn, which was also the traditional time for culling the surplus stock that could not be overwintered. The pig was the victim of choice here as much of it was eminently preservable for winter use in the form of sausages, ham, and bacon. The offal and fresh cuts were enjoyed at the time (traditionally at Martinmas) in a fresh meat feast which would be the last for a long time – and as the apples were ripe and in abundance at the same time ….. apple sauce with pork made sense.
Even when animal husbandry improvements began to facilitate the over-wintering of stock, thanks to gentleman farmers with an experimental bent, such as ‘Turnip’ Townshend, the tradition of apple with pork remained. This is beautifully illustrated in The House-keepers Pocket-Book, published in 1760. Amongst the dishes suggested by the author for ‘the Second Course, in January’ are:
Hog’s Head roasted.
To be served with a little warm Claret and Water in the Dish, and Apple Sauce in a Plate.
Hog’s Hearslet [harslet] roasted, with Spices and Sweet Herbs, to be served with Claret and Water in the Dish, and Apple Sauce in a Plate.
Hind Loin of Pork roasted, to be served with Claret and Water in the Dish, and Apple Sauce in a Plate
Pigs were not the only animals culled in late autumn. The goose was another victim, and not surprisingly, apple was also a traditional accompaniment to goose. The author of our book for the day also recommends, as ‘a first course in September’
Geese roasted, and served with a little warm Claret, pour’d through their Bellies in the same Dish, and Apple Sauce on a Plate.
We must have a recipe for the sauce itself, and here it is, from The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying her Table (1777) – and, like the mint sauce yesterday, it shows that some recipes have not changed at all.
Pare, core, and slice some apples, put a little water into the saucepan to keep them from burning, a bit of lemon-peel; when they are enough take out the peel, bruise the apples, add a lump of butter, and a little sugar.
Quotation for the Day.
If you want a subject, look to pork!
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations