I am going to reverse the usual order of things today, and begin with the Quotation for the Day because when I came across it it took my fancy, and it also indicated a serious omission in blog topics to date. It is from the American writer Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867), and goes ….
“My wife is one of the best wimin on this Continent, altho' she isn't always gentle as a lamb with mint sauce.”
Over the course of almost four years of week-daily blogging I have made numerous references to mint and have featured a number of historic menus in which mint sauce appears as the inevitable accompaniment to lamb or mutton – yet I have never explored mint sauce itself, nor given a recipe for it.
Why is it that we have mint with lamb, apples with pork, cranberries with turkey, and lemon with fish and so on? How did the traditions of these very specific fruits with very specific meats begin?
In medieval times, there was no clear distinction between ‘sweet’ and ‘savoury’ dishes, because sugar was a very expensive imported luxury used – generally speaking – in very small amounts, in the way of a spice. From today’s perspective, many individual medieval dishes seemed to contain a bewildering mixture of ingredients - fruit, meat, fish, almond milk, eggs, spices, sugar and so on. By the standards and beliefs and agricultural conditions of the time however, there was nothing random about the ingredient selections.
The prevailing medical doctrine of the time (the Humoral Theory) influenced which foods should be mixed for a particular person, event, time of the year etc. Of course, in the days before refrigeration and canning, local eating and seasonal eating were the norm, so whatever herbs, fruits or vegetables happed to be ripe and ready on your farm at lamb or pig-killing time were the ones you ate with your meat, and learned to associate and expect with that meat. It is also reasonable to assume, as human taste buds have not changed over the centuries, that our medieval ancestors enjoyed the same interplay of sweet - salty - sour – bitter - and umami that we do today, and developed their recipes accordingly.
There are other forces at work too. One theory of the development of the lamb/mint association suggests that it is a legacy of the roast lamb and bitter herbs eaten by the eaten by the Israelites on the eve of their Exodus from Egypt.
I have not explored the historic connection between lamb and mint exhaustively – this is a daily blog, after all, not a daily treatise - but interestingly it seems that pig was just as likely to be sent to the table with mint in the early eighteenth century - in its own right, not necessarily only when it was sent as counterfeit lamb, as in the following rather fun recipe from The House-keepers Pocket-Book (1760).
To Roast the Hind Quarter of a Pig, Lamb-fashion.
At the Time of Year when House-Lamb s very dear, take the Hind Quarter of a large Pig, take off the skin, and roast it, and it will eat like Lamb, with Mint-Sauce, or with a Sallad, or Seville Oranges.
We must have a recipe for the sauce, of course, and this one shows that some things don’t change at all!
Wash your mint perfectly clean from grit or dirt, then chop it very fine, and put to it vinegar and sugar.
The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook, by T.Williams (1717)