Friday, May 29, 2009

Queensland (Culinary) History Week.

The state of Queensland is this year celebrating 150 years of independence from New South Wales. The actual day is December 10, but there are celebrations of various sorts going on all year, and today is the start of something called “History Week”. It has crossed my mind that the organisers have probably not paid much attention to Queensland’s culinary history (and I don’t just mean the damned Lamington.)

I have decided to do my bit this week, and promote one of Queensland’s humble glories – the pumpkin. We grow good pumpkins here. We don’t have to try, they sabotage compost heaps and garden beds and take over the garden with great facility if the vines are not beaten into submission as soon as they appear. If you have ever had this happen to you, you might have found that, quite literally, you cannot give them away. I have, more than once, (when I lived in the country) wondered what on earth I had done wrong, to be gifted with yet another enormous Queensland Blue.

So, today, I am going to assist you with any pumpkin glut that might come your way.The first thought, in Queensland, would be pumpkin scones. They are somewhat of a Queensland icon, so I hesitate to confess that in almost four years of this blog that I have not given you a recipe for pumpkin scones. Nor will I today, for I am still recovering from some of the truly shocking scone ideas I found for a previous post. We have had pumpkin fruit cake before too, so no news there.

How about the pumpkin pie? It is indelibly associated with that other Big Country across the water. – but I am here to tell you that it is well known in Queensland too (but we don’t use canned pumpkin. Canned pumpkin?) Pumpkin Pie was one of the topics in last year’s Thanksgiving Pie Week, but perhaps there is more than one post’s worth of substance in Pumpkin Pie?

The Australasian Cookery Book (circa 1915) thinks so. It has seven recipes for Pumpkin Pie, plus Pumpkin and Apple Pie, Pumpkin and Passionfruit Pie, Pumpkin and Pineapple Pie, and Pumpkin Meringue Pie (which includes chopped preserved ginger – another of Queensland’s famous products). If there is still pumpkin left, there is Pumpkin and Apricot Jam, Pumpkin and Pineapple Jam (did I mention that we grow a lot of pineapples here too?), and Pumpkin and Lemon Jam. And there is more. There are instructions (as if you’d need them!) for boiled mashed pumpkin and baked pumpkin, as well as Pumpkin Soup, Stuffed Pumpkin, and two versions of Pumpkin Fritters.

Most surprisingly there are also recipes for Pumpkin Flowers (stuffed with rice and herbs) and Pumpkin Tops (young shoots). All this last recipe lacks is the Hollandaise sauce to make it a nice stand-in for Eggs Florentine. Queensland chefs take note – a local spin on this breakfast classic is just a pumpkin patch away.

Pumpkin Tops.
Take a good quantity of the young shoots of the pumpkin vine, wash well in salted water. Have ready a saucepan full of quickly boiling water, add a small pinch of soda, put in the pumpkin tops, and boil until quite tender. Strain through a colander, and press with the back of a saucer to get out all the moisture. Chop finely and return to the pan with 1 oz. of butter, salt and pepper to taste. Toss till very hot. Have ready some nicely-toasted bread, butter thickly, and pile the pumpkin tops neatly on top. Place a poached egg on each, and serve.

Quotation for the Day.

Produce great pumpkins, the pies will follow later.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Clap Bread.

Celia Fiennes (1662-1741; reputedly an ancestor of actor Ralph Fiennes) did an amazing thing for a seventeenth century Englishwoman – she made extensive journeys around the country on horseback (riding side-saddle, of course), and alone (two servant women didn’t count in those days). Luckily for us she kept extensive notes of her adventures - and especially luckily for those of us interested in food, she often commented on and described regional foods that now seem to have been lost.

During her journey northwards in 1698, she described ‘Clap Bread’ as it was then made in Westmoreland. Clap bread is a sort of oatmeal (or sometimes barley) cake so called because it is clapped or beaten until it is thin, and then baked on an iron griddle. Her diary entry serves as the recipe for today.

“Here it was I saw ye oat Clap bread made. They mix their flour with water, so soft as to rowle it in their hands into a ball, and then they have a board made round and something hollow in the middle riseing by degrees all round to the Edge a little higher, but so little as one would take it to be only a board warp'd, this is to Cast out the Cake thinn and so they Clap it round and drive it to ye Edge in a Due proportion till drove as thinn as a paper and still they Clap it and drive it round, and then they have a plaite of iron same size wth their Clap board, and so shove off the Cake on it and so set it on Coales and bake it; when Enough on one side they slide it off and put the other side; if their iron plaite is smooth and they take Care their Coales or Embers are not too hot but just to make it Looke yellow, it will bake and be as Crisp and pleasant to Eate as any thing you Can imagine, but as we say of all sorts of bread there is a vast deal of difference in what is housewifely made and what is ill made, so this if its well mixed and Rowled up and but a little flour on the outside which will drye on and make it mealy is a very good sort of food. This is the sort of bread they use in all these Countrys, and in Scotland they breake into their milk or broth or Else sup that up and bite off their bread between while they spread butter on it and Eate it with their meate. They have no other Sort of bread unless at market towns and that is scarce to be had unless the market dayes, soe they make their Cake and Eate it presently, for its not so good if 2 or 3 dayes old. It made me reflect on the description made in Scripture of this Kneeding Cakes and bakeing them on the hearth whenever they had Company Come to their houses, and I Cannot but thinke it was after this manner they made their bread in ye old tymes Especially those Eastern Countryes where their bread might be soone dry'd and spoil'd.”

Quotation for the Day.

I have eaten your bread and salt. I have drunk your water and wine. The deaths ye died I have watched beside; And the lives ye led were mine.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jam, by name.

Yesterday’s story got me thinking about jam. Specifically, about the word “jam”. All sorts of versions of sugared fruit had been around for hundreds of years before there was “jam”. There were “wet” sweetmeats (or “suckets” – think of the Italian mostarda), “dry” sweetmeats – sometimes called quidonies (think of crystallised ginger or glacé apricots), and “marmalades” (which were thick pastes or dry blocks of any fruit – originally probably quince, and later any fruit, before we finally settled on oranges.)

So, we had plenty of ways of preserving fruit with sugar, and plenty of words to describe the various end-products, – but somewhere around the late seventeenth century, “jam” appeared. I understand the first known appearance of the word is in a manuscript written by a Rebecca Price in 1681, but I have no other information on her work. The first published recipe is usually attributed to Mrs. Eales, whose cookbook (1718) we have often used as a source in previous posts. She gives instructions for Apricock-Jam, Rasberry-Jam and Cherry-Jam. It does seem that around this time the fruit and sugar was more likely to be left “wetter” and put up in jars rather than dried in slabs, but we hardly needed another name.

The OED is puzzled, and half-heartedly suggests it may be from the method of “jamming” – that is, “bruising or crushing by pressure” – but is unable to resist the utterly charming and oft-repeated explanation that it derives from the French “j’aime” which means “I love (it)” - supposedly from the response of children to this form of sweetmeat. I am puzzled in turn as to why English children would have adopted a French phrase. I don’t know of any other phrases they adopted in the seventeenth century – and it seems unlikely that many children of the time learned French! Nonetheless, the explanation is so charming, I do hope the linguists eventually prove it true.

I am particularly and unreasonably fond of the spelling “giam”, so I give you Hannah Glasse’s version from her Art of Cookery (1747).

To make rasberry giam.
Take a pint of this [recipe above] currant jelly and a quart of rasberries, bruise them well together, set them over a slow fire, keeping them stirring all the time till it boils. Let it boil five or six minutes, pour it into your gallipots, paper as you do the currant jelly, and keep it for use. They will keep for two or three years, and have the full flavour of the rasberry.

Gallipots – now there’s another thing we don’t find in the kitchen any more.

Quotation for the Day.

The jelly - the jam and the marmalade, And the cherry-and quince-"preserves" she made! And the sweet-sour pickles of peach and pear, With cinnamon in 'em, and all things rare! - And the more we ate was the more to spare, Out to old Aunt Mary's! Ah!
James Whitcomb Riley.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Women, War, and Bread and Jam.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was created in Britain in 1917. Young women with a taste for adventure and a strong sense of patriotism were – quite astonishingly for the era – allowed to join the army and go to war. They were sent to France, where they freed up men for fighting by performing all sorts of clerical jobs, but otherwise they lived the military life – wearing uniforms, living in camps, and eating in mess huts.

So, what did they eat in those mess huts? A lovely book called Women and War Work, published in Britain in 1917, tells us that:

“The girls wait on themselves and the food is excellent. They receive in rations the same as the soldiers on lines of communication – that is, four fifths of a fighting man’s ration.”

The book also gave details of a typical week’s meals, “to show how well they are fed”

MONDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, baked mince, jam. Dinner: Cold beef, potatoes, tomatoes, baked apples, custard. Tea: Tea, bread, butter, jam. Supper: Welsh rarebit, bread, butter, jam.

TUESDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, boiled ham, marmalade. Dinner: brown onion stew, potatoes, baked beans, biscuit pudding. Tea: bread, butter, jam, cheese. Supper: Savoury rice, tea, bread.

WEDNESDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, veal loaf. Dinner: Roast mutton, potatoes, marrow, bread pudding. Tea: bread, butter, marmalade, jam. Supper: Rissoles, bread, butter, cheese.

THURSDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, fried bacon. Dinner: Meat pie, potatoes, cabbage, custard and rice. Tea: Supper: Tea, bread, butter, jam. Supper: Soup, bread and jam.

FRIDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, rissoles, marmalade. Dinner: Boiled beef, potatoes and onions, Dundee roll. Tea: tea, bread, butter, jam, slab cake. Supper: Shepherd’s pie, tea, bread, butter.

SATURDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, boiled ham, jam,. Dinner: Thick brown stew, poatoes and cabbage, bread pudding. Tea: tea, jam, cheese. Supper: Toad-in-Hole, bread, jam.

SUNDAY: Breakfast: tea, bread, butter, fried bacon. Dinner: Roast beef, potatoes and cabbage, stewed fruit, custard. Tea: tea, bread, butter, jam. Supper: Soup, bread, butter, cheese.

I guess the girls didn’t go hungry, and in fact for most of them it was probably pretty similar to the daily diet of the working class back home in England. A superfluity of calories (all that bread and jam!) but a great dearth of fresh fruit and vegetables.

I did search in vain for a recipe for ‘Dundee Roll', but without success. So today, I give you good old Shepherd’s Pie.

The OED blames it on Scotland (as do a number of other sources), and gives as its first supporting quote a reference from 1877, from Kettner’s Book of the Table. The author (not the famous London restaurateur himself, he only lent his name to the book), says it is basically Irish stew with a crust:

“In Scotland they produce … such a stew, cover it over with a crust, and call it shepherd's pie... The shepherd's pie of Scotland is ...too farinaceous … potatoes within and paste without.”

I am now on a mission to find the first reference to Shepherd’s Pie. As a start, one of today’s recipes is from 1862, but I am sure there will be earlier examples, so please assist!

Nowadays we are more likely to make it from raw minced meat, but it was originally a way of using up leftover cold roast, as the following recipes show:

Shepherd's Pie.
Take cold dressed meat of any kind, roast or boiled, slice it, break the bones, and put them on with a little boiling water, and a little salt, boil them until you have extracted all the strength from them, and reduced it to very little, and strain it. Season the sliced meat with pepper and salt, lay it in a baking dish, pour in the sauce you strained, and add a little mushroom ketchup. Have some potatoes boiled and nicely mashed, cover the dish with the potatoes, smooth it on the top with a knife, notch it round the edge and mark it on the top the same as paste. Bake it in an oven, or before the fire, until the potatoes are a nice brown.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, by I. Williamson, 1862

Shepherd's Pie.
For shepherd's pie, chop finely some cold meat, season it well with salt and pepper and add enough gravy to moisten. Put into a greased baking dish and cover with an inch layer of potatoes mashed, seasoned and moistened with a few spoonfuls of hot milk. Smooth with a knife, brush with hot milk and brown in a quick oven.
365 Tasty Dishes, (Philadelphia, 1906)

Quotation for the Day.

Digestion is the great secret of life. Characters, talents, virtues, and qualities are profoundly affected by beef, mutton, piecrust, and rich soup.
Mr R. Hyde, of the Industrial Welfare Society, 1929

Monday, May 25, 2009

Unreal Coffee.

Those of you who have been with me from the beginning of this blog will remember that for the first half of its life every day had an “on this day” theme. I wandered away from the idea for a number of reasons, but today a lovely little sad story begs me to take notice.

On this day in 1849, the literary Brontë sisters Anne (1820-1849), Charlotte (1816-1855) and their friend Ellen Nussey travelled by train from their home in Yorkshire to the seaside town of Scarborough. Anne was ill with consumption, and as their brother Bramwell and sister Emily had both died of consumption within the previous year, she was under no illusions as to the seriousness of her condition. She decided to use her small inheritance to fund the trip, in the hope that the sea air would be beneficial. As soon as they arrived, the young women treated themselves to dandelion coffee, and bought season tickets for the spa and the famous Cliff Bridge. Sadly, it was too late for Anne, who was already very ill and frail, and she died in their lodging house only a few days later.

We have considered some of the culinary uses of the dandelion and several of the substances used as coffee substitutes in previous blog posts, but I don’t believe we have ever considered dandelion coffee in the past. Nowadays some folk prefer to use alternative “coffees” for negative health reasons – that is, they chose to avoid real coffee because of its perceived injurious effects. In other times the choice was often made because of the perceived health benefits of the substitute itself.

The other motivations for using coffee substitutes are unavailability of the real thing due to circumstances such as war. The protagonists of the American Civil War were particularly creative in this regard, if we are to to judge from passionate claims made in correspondence to various southern newspapers of the time and which we must continue to explore in more detail in a future post.

The dandelion has a longstanding reputation as a healing herb. The first half of its botanical name (Taraxacum officinale) comes from a Greek word indicating to alter or to change, and refers to the belief that use of it can alter the state of the blood. In the past it has been used as a panacea for all sorts of ills, especially as a diuretic and for “derangements of the liver”

The editors of the OED first note the phrase “dandelion coffee” in 1852, but they have clearly missed some earlier references – perhaps because it was made in the household or by individual pharmacists, therefore rarely mentioned in print until it started to be made commercially on a larger scale (perhaps “on the Continent” in the mid-1850’s).

Dandelion coffee was not a cheap alternative in the Bronte sisters’ time. It was a relatively expensive medicinal treat - which seems surprising given that the dandelion grows like a weed in Britain but the coffee bean is of course imported. As with many substitutes, dandelion coffee can be used “straight”, or it can be mixed with the real thing, as the recipes below show.

Strangely, or perhaps not, prolonged exposure to ersatz anything sometimes leads to the development of a preference for it against the real thing. It certainly seems that chicory “coffee” is the beverage of choice for some citizens of some southern states of the USA, and in Holland for example.

Dandelion Coffee.
Dr Harrison, of Edinburgh, prefers dandelion coffee to that of Mecca; and many persons all over the Continent prefer a mixture of succory and coffee to coffee alone. Dig up the roots of dandelion, wash them well but do not scrape them; dry them, cut them in bits, the size of peas, and then roast them in an earthen pot or coffee-roaster of any kind, and grind them in the coffee mill, or bruise them in any way. The great secret of good coffee is to have it fresh-burnt and fresh-ground.
British Husbandry, by John French Burke, 1811

Dandelion Coffee.
Good colonial coffee, 3 parts; hard extract of dandelion, 1 part; chicory, 1 part. Reduce them to coarse powder, and mix and grind them together.
The United States practical receipt book, 1844

Quotation for the Day.

Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions; the surest poison is time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, May 22, 2009

Kissing Crust.

Were you ever, as a child, sent to buy a loaf of bread, and were unable to resist gnawing off one of the crusty crunchy corners on the way home? I was, and I did. I was reminded of it when I came across a definition of the phrase ‘kissing crust’ recently. I always understood the ‘kissing crust’ to be the soft part of the crust of a loaf of bread that happens when two loaves touch in the baking. The OED agrees with me on this, which is always nice. The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson agrees too, in his famous dictionary of 1755, and I am also delighted that the great man and I see eye-to-eye on the issue.

Dictionaries do not always agree however, and according to the Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854), what I was chewing off as I meandered home with the bread was in fact the kissing crust, which it defines as “the bottom crust, or the small crusty nob at the corner of a loaf.” Perhaps occurring where the bottom of the loaf is extra-crusty from where it “kisses” the oven floor”? The very opposite idea indeed!

That is not all! Another work (Howitt’s The Rural Life of England, 1838) has “ … the rich curly kissing-crust, that hangs like a fretted cornice from the upper half of the loaf.”

The OED does add that the kissing crust can also be ‘the under-crust in a pudding or pie’. Perhaps because it is soft and sloppy? It gives as support for this a quotation from the story of Nell Cook, in The Ingoldsby Legends, by Richard Harris Barham (1840’s) – “A mouldy piece of kissing-crust as from a Warden-pie”.

I stick to my opinion that the OED, Sam Johnson, and myself are correct on the kissing crust, but there is no reason why I cant be inspired by the warden pie idea.  Wardens are olden-day pears, used mainly for cooking, but there is also no reason why I cant give you a slightly more modern version of the pear pie.

From Domestic economy, and cookery, for rich and poor, by a lady (1827)

Pear Pies.
Bake the pears, with a little water, and a good deal of sugar, under a coarse paste; or put them into the oven or bain-marie, or upon a hot hearth, in a well-covered baking-pan, and leave them till they soften; cut in quarters, and core them; sheet a dish, dress them in, strewing them with cloves, cinnamon, and lemon, or orange zest: they may be coloured in the first doing with beet-root, or cochineal; or they may be made to retain their white colour by lemon-juice.
Pears require zest and wine, as they are very insipid; therefore, acid apples are put into the juice, or quinces, a little rough wine, brandy, or lemon-juice. Every thing is good when properly managed : they require a great deal of sugar, but care must be taken not to overcome them.

Quotation for the Day.

Will fortune never come with both hands full
But write her fair words still in foulest letters?
She either gives a stomach, and no food, -
Such are the poor in health; or else a feast.
And take away the stomach, - such the rich,
That have abundance, and enjoy it not.
William Shakespeare, King Henry IV.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

When Cream is not Enough.

Today’s recipe comes from a time when fat (whether on the body or on the plate) was A Good Thing. I dedicate this post to those courageous souls amongst you who scorn the nutrition police and have no fear of calories or cholesterol, but who, for reasons of your own nevertheless like to go sugar-free. I give you this eighteenth century indulgence for dessert.

Fry’d Cream.
Take a Quart of good new Cream, the Yolks of seven Eggs, a bit of Lemon Peel, a grated Nutmeg, two Spoonfuls of Sack [sherry], as much Orange-flower Water; Butter your Sauce-pan, and put it over the Fire; stir it all the while one way with a little white Whisk, and as you stir, strew in Flour very lightly, till ‘tis thick and smooth; then ‘tis boil’d enough, and may be poured out upon a Cheese-plate or Mazarine; spread it with a knife exactly even, about half an inch thick, then cut it in Diamond-squares, and fry it in a Pan full of boiling sweet Suet.
A collection of above three hundred receipts in cookery, physick, and surgery: for the use of all good wives, tender mothers, and careful nurses; Mary Kettilby, 1714.

Quotation for the Day.

A pessimist is someone who looks at the land of milk and honey and sees only calories and cholesterol.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chutney, Again.

Yesterday’s post got me thinking about the interpretation of Indian food by representatives of Her Majesty's Empire when they returned to Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The general consensus is that it was pretty appalling – the addition of a few spoonfuls of a single type of store-bought generic curry powder added to everything from hard-boiled eggs (mixed with apple) to soup to bananas to devilled fowl being sufficient to label it “Indian” or “Bengalee” or somesuch name.

It wasn’t all a travesty however. Without getting into the always-unwinnable debate about authenticity, I continue yesterday’s chutney theme with the following delightful-sounding recipes from a lovely book called The Englishwoman in India: information for ladies on their outfit, furniture [&c.] by a lady resident (1864).

Mint Chutnee.
½ lb. green mint leaves.
1 ounce red chillies
¼ lb. salt.
¼ lb. raisins or kismis.
2 ounces green ginger.
¼ lb. brown sugar.
1 ounce garlic or onion.
Pound with a quarter pint of vinegar, mix well and pour over the chutnee half a pint of boiling vinegar: when cold, stopper the bottles.
N.B. Country vinegar answers perfectly for most chutnees.

Sweet Chutnee.
½ lb. tamarinds.
½ lb. dates.
1 lb. green ginger.
½ lb. kismis [raisins]
½ lb. onions.
¼ lb. chillies, without seeds.
4 tablespoons brown sugar.
2 tablespoons salt.
Pound these ingredients with vinegar, and rub through a piece of net, or a coarse sieve. Bottle and cork, and it will be ready in a fortnight.

Quotation for the Day.

“A chilli,'said Rebecca, gasping,'Oh, yes!' She thought a chilli was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some.'How fresh and green they look,'she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork.'Water, for Heaven's sake, water!'she cried.”
William Makepeace Thackeray.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Chutney Emergency.

I have never suffered from a chutney emergency, but in case I ever do, I will go immediately to The Truth and Mirror Cookery Book (Australia, 1943). Dr. Cilento gives a great solution in her chapter on Emergency Recipes. My only problem might be, that I am highly unlikely at any point in time to have in my pantry six pounds of leftover jam.

Chutney, from left-over jam.
Six lb. jam, 1 quart vinegar, ¼ oz cayenne pepper, 3 oz. salt, 2 oz. ground ginger, ¾ lb. onions, cut small. Put all in a preserving pan and boil for 1 hour. Mixed jams may be used with the same success.

Chutney is one of my favourite food words. It is a legacy, like kedgeree, tiffin, (and indeed ‘curry’), of the British colonial era in India. The word is derived from the Hindi chatni, and refers (according to the OED) to “A strong hot relish or condiment compounded of ripe fruits, acids, or sour herbs, and flavoured with chillies, spices, etc.” The OED gives the first use in English as 1813, but there are numerous uses well before this, as one would expect given that British India was a well established institution long before that date. A quick and very superficial search found “… chutnee, a curious mixture much used in curries and Indian made dishes…” (Sketches of India, Henry Moses, 1750)

The OED does not hazard an opinion as to what the Hindi chatni means, but of course this is important if we are to come to a full understanding of chutney. I do hope that someone out there with an understanding of Indian languages will enlighten us via the comments. I have had to resort to earlier dictionaries for ideas.

From A grammar of the Hindoostanee language (1796), we have chaťna – to lick. Is this the underlying concept? Something so good it makes you want to lick your lips? Or am I barking up the wrong tree altogether?

There is an interesting definition of chutnee in A Compendious Grammar of the Current Corrupt Dialect of the Jargon of Hindostan (Commonly Called Moors) with a Vocabulary English and Moors, Moors and English published in 1801. Now there is a book with an impressive title! What do George Hadley and Mohommed Fitrut give as a definition of chutnee? Sallad, that is what they suggest. My puzzlement increases.

Quotation for the Day.

I feed him interesting food, like chutneys and sardines and jalapenos, because I'm training him to be an adventuresome eater.
Michael Gross.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Law about Eating.

There have been numerous attempts throughout history to regulate personal extravagance in food and drink on the basis of religious, political, economic or moral grounds. In the midst of a period of great dearth and famine in 1346, Edward II promulgated one of Britain’s earliest sumptuary laws.
“Whereas, by the outrageous and excessive multitude of meats and dishes which the great men of our kingdom have used, and still use in their castles, and by persons of inferior rank imitating their example, beyond what their stations require and their circumstances can afford, many great evils have come upon our kingdom, and the health of our subjects hath been injured, their goods consumed, and they have been reduced to poverty; we, being willing to put a stop to these excesses, with the advice and consent of our council, make the following rules and ordinances, - That the great men of the kingdom should have only two courses of flesh meats served up to their tables; each course consisting of only two kinds of flesh meat: except Prelates, Earls, Barons, and the great men of the land, who might have an intermeat (une entremesse) of one kind of meat if they please. On fish days they should have only two courses of fish, each consisting of two kinds, with an intermeat of one kind of fish, if they please. Such as transgress this ordinance shall be severely punished.”

Needless to say, whenever or wherever they have been enacted, sumptuary laws have proven almost impossible to police, and we can be reasonably confident that the great men of Edward’s realm took little or no notice of the restrictions, and continued feasting as they had always done.

There are no early fourteenth century English cookery books known to us, so we must turn to The Forme of Cury, compiled by the Master Cooks of King Richard II in about 1390 for our recipes for today. Here are a couple of nice ideas for you – pork with sage for a “flesh” day and salmon with leeks for a “fish” day.

Pygg in sawce Sawge [sage]
Take Pigges yskaldid [scalded] and quarter hem and seethe [boil] hem in water and salt, take hem and lat hem kele [cool]. take persel [parsley] sawge [sage]. and grynde it with brede and zolkes of ayrenn [eggs] harde ysode [boiled]. temper it up with vyneger sum what thyk. and, lay the Pygges in a vessell. and the sewe onoward and
serue it forth.

Cawdel Of Samoun.
Take the guttes of Samoun and make hem clene. perboile hem a lytell. take hem up and dyce hem. slyt the white of Lekes and kerue hem smale. cole [cool] the broth and do the lekes therinne with oile and lat it boile togyd yfere. do the Samoun icorne therin, make a lyour of Almaundes mylke & of brede & cast therto spices, safroun and salt, seethe it wel. and loke that it be not stondyng [too thick].

Quotation for the Day.

Pork - no animal is more used for nourishment and none more indispensable in the kitchen; employed either fresh or salt, all is useful, even to its bristles and its blood; it is the superfluous riches of the farmer, and helps to pay the rent of the cottager.”
Alexis Soyer (1851)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Comfortable Bread.

I came across the lovely concept of “comfortable bread” recently. It seems to have a range of meanings – occasionally soft white bread, occasionally as a metaphor for money, but most usually seems to mean spiced gingerbread. Clearly there is a connection here with comfits, the little sweet spiced sweetmeats or sugared seeds (especially caraway seeds) beloved as digestives by our medieval ancestors and used to nefarious purposes by the infamous Maquis de Sade.

The OED gives numerous meanings for the word “comfortable”. It can mean ‘strengthening or supporting (morally or spiritually)”, “helpful, serviceable, advantageous”, “Strengthening or refreshing to the bodily faculties or organs; sustaining”, “pleasing or grateful to the senses”, “affording mental or spiritual delight or enjoyment”, “affording or conveying consolation”, and “affording or fitted to give tranquil enjoyment and content.” Any or all of these could apply to a nice slice of spiced gingerbread, couldn’t they?

The surprise is that the OED nowhere mentions comfortable bread, in spite of the fact that an early occurrence of the name appears in the work of one of its frequent contributors, Ben Jonson.

From Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1631)

Joan Trash, the gingerbread-woman, keeps her stall near him, and the rival traders have their differences. "Do you hear, Sister Trash, lady of the basket! sit farther with your gingerbread progeny, there, and hinder not the prospect of my shop, or I'll have it proclaimed in the fair what stuff they are made on." "Why, what stuff are they made on, Brother Leatherhead? Nothing but what's wholesome, I assure you." "Yes, stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger, and dead honey, you know." "I defy thee, and thy stable of hobby-horses. I pay for my ground, as well as thou dost. Buy any gingerbread, gilt gingerbread! Will your worship buy any gingerbread? Very good bread, comfortable bread!"

There is no shortage of gingerbread recipes in this blog. If you are not familiar with it, may I refer you to the Through the Ages with Gingerbread archive? I must still offer you a recipe for the day however, so here it is, a simple version from that just happens to also be gluten-free:

Belgian Gingerbread.
½ pound cornflour
¼ pound butter
¼ pound white sugar
1 or 2 eggs
½ ounce ginger.
Work all ingredients together on a marble slab, to get the paste all of the same consistency. Make it into balls as big as walnuts, flattening them slightly before putting them into the oven. This sort of gingerbread keeps very well.
The Belgian cook-book, by Brian Luck. 1915

Quotation for the Day.

Our boyish days look very merry to us now, all nutting, hoop, and gingerbread.
Idle Thoughts, J.K. Jerome.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Name of the Pudding.

Today I am going to reverse the natural order of things, and give you a recipe first up.

The Spread-Eagle Pudding.
Cut off the Crust of three Half-penny Rolls, then slice them into your Pan; then set three Pints of Milk over the Fire, make it scalding hot, but do not let it boil, so pour it over your Bread and cover it close, and let it stand an Hour; then put a good Spoonful of Sugar, a very little Salt, a Nutmeg grated, a Pound of Sewet after it is shred, half a Pound of Currants, washed and picked, pour Spoonfuls of cold Milk, then Eggs, but five of the Whites, and well all is in, stir it, and mix it well; butter a Dish. Less than an Hour will bake it.
[From The whole duty of a woman,…. 1737]

Now this recipe for bread pudding has me greatly puzzled. It is a fairly basic recipe not unlike thousands of others for an ordinary bread pudding of the custard variety. So, my question is “Whither the name?”

The “Spread Eagle” is a heraldic term for the depiction of an eagle “displayed” (that is, as if spread out with both wings and both legs seen in the same plane as the body) as on the Great Seal of the United States, the insignia for a Colonel in the US military, and the Coat of Arms of Poland, Austria, Germany, Russia and a number of other countries. By virtue of this grand symbolic use, it is also the name of a large number of pubs, taverns, and other hostelries in Britain and elsewhere.

For obvious reasons, the “spread-eagle” has also been adopted as a term used to refer the human body stretched out for flogging or certain sexual adventures. Perhaps less obviously, for those not familiar with the sports, it is apparently used to describe a certain figure-skating exercise as well as the result of a ten-pin bowling split which leaves the 2-3-4-6-7-10 pins still standing.

There are a couple more uses of the phrase: spread-eagling refers to a particular type of jingoistic attitude and a gruesome method of execution supposedly perpetrated by the ancient Vikings.

I cannot for the life of me fathom how something as innocuous as a bread pudding has attracted a name with this sort of connotations. So, I ask you “Wither the name of this pudding?” Any ideas?

Quotation for the Day.

Y'know I order a club sandwhich all the time. And I'm not even a member. I don't know how I get away with it. I like my sandwiches with three peices of bread. So do I. Lets form a club. Okay, but we're gonna need more stipulation. Yes we do. Instead of cutting it once, lets cut it again. Yeah, four triangles. And we shall dump chips in the middle. Let me ask you something, how do you feel about frilly toothpicks? I'm for them.
Mitch Hedberg.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Notes for Guests.

The Melbourne newspaper the Argus, of May 10, 1919 reported on a recent “Air Force” dinner that had been held in London for Mr. Winston Churchill (1874-1965),the newly appointed Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air.

The article demonstrates that frustration with the bureaucracy is not new, nor is the primary method of managing that frustration – maintaining a sense of humour. It is impossible to believe that these “Notes for Guests” were the creation of anything going by the name of “Board of Management.” A military joker, no doubt, having a laugh at the system.

An Air Force Dinner.
The following “Notes for Guests” were provided by the Board of Management for the guidance of those participating in a dinner to Mr. Churchill recently.
D.A.O. Boards /9999/Final. (Thank Heaven.)
No wines or spirits will be served without an Issue Warrant.
Serviettes will be provided in Triplicate.
The Menus are in batches of six colours – Red, Green, White, Blue, Pink, and Yellow.
The Red form must be attached to the cheque in payment of ticket.
The Green form must be handed to the Waiter along with your tip.
The White form to be sent to C.S.D. (X.Y.Z), 34 Department.
The Blue form can be retained as a souvenir.
The Pink form can be sent to your wife in advance of your return.
Anyone desirous of changing places or leaving the room must apply for a transit note.
The dinner has been arranged to take place at the Savoy hotel, bu the Ministry officials change their quarters so frequently that it is possible you may have to inquire later as to where the dinner will be actually held.
The price of the dinner has been fixed at 50/- but this is, of course, subject to any advances in wages that may be granted by the Ministry before the dinner is held.
Each guest will receive a contract number before going in to dinner, and this must be quoted on all documents referred to above.
It is hoped the above instructions will assist the guests to keep everything in order.

In honour of these fine airforce men, I give the following recipe from Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s)

Military Puddings.
Mix well together half a pound of breadcrumbs, half a pound of moist sugar, and half a pound of finely-chopped suet. Mince the rind of a good-sized lemon, squeeze the juice, and stir into the mixture. Place the puddings in small buttered cups or moulds, and bake for half an hour in a tolerably quick oven. If preferred, military puddings may be boiled, if so, they must be made into small balls. In either case, serve with lemon or wine sauce.

Quotation for the Day.

My living in Yorkshire was so far out of the way, that it was eleven miles away from a lemon.
Sydney Smith.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Flowery Pickles.

Yesterday’s story suggested nasturtiums instead of capers to make a sauce to accompany mutton, so has given me an opportunity to address a near dearth of flower recipes on this blog.

Botanically speaking, there are two ‘nasturtiums’. The bright cheeky flower that we commonly call nasturtium is officially Tropaeolum majus. Within the cabbage and mustard family (the Brassicas) there is also a genus Nasturtium which includes the peppery pungent cresses such as watercress and garden cress. It is the happy yellow or orange or red flower (sometimes called Indian cress) that we are talking about today.

All parts of the nasturtium are edible. For a spectacular splash of colour and a peppery bite the flowers can be added to salads, and they can also be used to flavour and colour vinegar, as this mid-nineteenth century recipe shows.

Nasturtium Vinegar.
Pick full- blown nasturtium flowers; fill a wide-mouthed bottle with them; add ½ a clove of garlic and a moderate-sized shalot chopped; pour as much vinegar as the bottle will take; in 2 months' time rub the whole through a fine sieve; add a little cayenne pepper and salt.
Murray’s Modern Domestic Cookery, by A Lady, 1851

The best-known nasturtium pickle however, is that of the seed pods – the alternative to capers for making sauce for your mutton, or putting wherever else you usually put capers.

Nasturtium Pickle.
So much resemble capers, both in flavour and the mode of pickling, as to be frequently used in the same manner; the seeds should be allowed to get ripe after the buds and flowers have gone off. Gather them upon a dry day, and keep them for a few days after they have been gathered; put them into a jar, and pour boiling vinegar well spiced upon them; when cold, cover the jar. They will not be fit for use for some months, but will be finely flavoured after keeping, and are sometimes preferred to capers, for which they are an excellent substitute, being useful also in serving up all dishes in which pickles are warmed with the gravy. Young red capsicums and elder-flowers before they open may be done in the same way.
Murray’s Modern Domestic Cookery, by A Lady, 1851

Quotation for the Day.

Nobody really likes capers no matter what you do with them. Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it, tastes even better with capers not in it.
Nora Ephron.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Seven Days with a Leg of Mutton.

About twelve months ago we had a story about Caroline Chisholm, the English gentlewoman turned social activist who became ‘the emigrants’ friend’ in mid-nineteenth century Sydney, Australia. In one of her tracts she gave some suggestions for cooking and serving the staple salted beef every day of the week. Back ‘home’ the concept of creating multiple meals from one joint of meat was not new, and today I give you one formula for managing this with a leg of mutton. Remember, this was in the days well before domestic refrigeration.

From: The English cookery book: Uniting Good Style with Economy, and Adapted to all Persons in Every Clime; Containing Many Unpublished Receipts in Daily Use by Private Families. Collected by a Committee of Ladies, and Edited by J.H. Walsh, F.R.C.S, Author of “A Manual of Domestic Economy” 1859

When a smaller family than the above requires a very economical fare, the case is still more difficult, because less variety can be obtained from those joints which are well known to be the only really economical ones. Nevertheless, a good deal may be done by management; and even in the case of a leg of mutton, the dinners for a whole week may be obtained from it without having any two exactly alike, and without extra cost in any way. The following is the method proposed, which may be often useful to a married couple without children or servant, or to two sisters living by themselves.

1st Day- Cut some steaks off the large end and broil them.
2nd Day – Cut off a small knuckle and boil it, to be served with caper or nasturtium sauce.
3rd Day – Cut some cutlets off the side next the knuckle, and fry with egg and breadcrumbs.
4th Day – Bone and stuff the fillet, which is to be roasted.
5th Day – Hash part of the remainder.
6th Day – Eat part cold, with salad.
7th Day – Mince the remainder, and cover with breadcrumbs. See par. 531

Caper sauce is a very old traditional accompaniment to mutton, and I refer you back to a previous story for a recipe. The nasturtium alternative is tomorrow’s story!

Here is the par. 531 recipe for day seven, from The English cookery book.

Minced Beef Or Mutton.
531. Make a gravy according to par. 282; thicken it with flour or arrowroot, which is still better), then add to it the minced-up beef and warm it. In warming up any meats in this way, they should be done in a stewpan on a hot-plate, or in a water-bath, commonly called a bain-marie, as it is owing to boiling hashes or minces that they get hard. All sorts of stews, or meat dressed a second time, should be only gently simmered, and that for a short time only, so as to be just warmed through. After mincing the beef with some of the fat, season it and add boiled carrots, with a little onion or shalot chopped fine. Have a small hot dish with sippets of bread ready, and pour the mince into it, but first mix a large spoonful of vinegar with ir; if shalot vinegar is used as a seasoning, there will be no need of the onion or the raw shalot.

Cullis or Brown Gravy.
282. Lay over the bottom of a stewpan as much lean veal as will cover it an inch thick ; then cover the veal with thin slices of undressed gammon, two or three onions, two or three bay-leaves, some sweet-herbs, two blades of mace, and three cloves ; cover the stewpan, and set it over a slow fire; but when the juices come out let the fire be a little quicker; when the meat is of a fine brown, fill the pan with good beef-broth; boil and skim it, then simmer an hour, and add a little water, mixed with as much flour as will make it properly thick; boil it half an hour, and strain it. This will keep for a week.

Quotation for the Day.

It's nice to eat a good hunk of beef but you want a light dessert, too.
Arthur Fiedler.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The perks of the kitchen.

A modern cook or chef would probably be singularly unimpressed with being offered offered the bones, meat trimmings and rendered fat produced in the kitchen as part of his or her wage, but it once upon a time this was a traditional right of the position. We think we are clever and noble now when we put our bottles and cans in the correct bins for recycling, but in previous times absolutely nothing was wasted and everything (right down to the ashes from the fireplaces) could be onsold to top up the wages. In a large household, the the footman or butler was allowed the candle stubs, the dairy maid the poultry feathers, and the nurse the cast-off clothing of the children, for example. One man’s waste was another man’s raw materials - fat and ashes were sold to soap-makers, feathers to mattress-makers, and candle stubs to tallow-chandlers and so on.

The cook’s traditional perks, and the kitchen practices that it encouraged are nicely summarised in An Encyclopædia of Domestic Economy ...( Thomas Webster, William Parkes 1855)

“The perquisites of servants are, in many cases, so many encroachments on the property of their employers, who tacitly allow them, while they, in principle, condemn them. Perquisites are among the circumstances which tend to corrupt the morals of household servants, and as such their continuance is most objectionable. At the same time it would be difficult to eradicate the evil, which is, by prescription, become almost a domestic law. Why it has so corrupting an influence among a household it is not difficult to perceive. It places the interests of servants in opposition to those of master. What is gain to the one is often loss to the other; and in taking only a shortsighted view of his interest, a servant's integrity is not always proof against the temptation of immediate gain. The barrier between honesty and dishonesty being once broken, who can say how often it will be passed !
Perquisites of cooks consist chiefly in dripping, commonly called " kitchen stuff." This perquisite is very generally allowed, probably from the very general difficulty of keeping any check upon the cook’s use of it if it were not allowed. Every temptation to purloin should should be in all houses as much avoided as possible; but in this particular instance it is scarcely possible to avoid it. If the perquisite be forbidden, no one can tell if the cook will not furtively secure it to herself. If it be allowed her, and other temptation assails her; that of obtaining as much of it as she can by practices mean and despicable. A cook who grasps at making much of her dripping often over-roasts joints of meat, by which the fat is melted into the dripping pan. She neither protects the fat from the fire by covering it with paper, nor basts the surface of the meat to keep it moist and rich. She trims from all joints all external fat, to add to her hoards; she used for frying and for common pastry expensive materials, when she has at hand which would answer as well, and would more honestly employ the melted fat which is obtained in roasting meat.”

There were other ways too that the cook could increase the value of the perk – such as “surreptitous stabbings so that the juice may run away more freely”, as well as some rather more sneaky and sinister tricks. Butter could not only be used when dripping would serve as well (such as in pastry for savoury pies), but could be surreptitiously added to the dripping pan when no-one was looking – and worse, even candle stubs could be buried in there (presumably when the footman was not looking.)

It sounds like a really good roast had to avoid a number of points of sabotage before it reached the master’s table. What then of Yorkshire Pudding? The dish requires the generous use of dripping. Originally it was cooked underneath the roast (which was on a spit close to the fire) and collected the drippings from the meat - these becoming an integral and tasty part of the meal, and thus lost to the cook. In households with sneaky, greedy cooks, I wonder if it was served less commonly? Here it is, by its original name:

A Dripping Pudding.
Make a good Batter as for Pancakes, put it in a hot Toss-pan over the Fire with a Bit of Butter to fry the Bottom a little, then put the Pan and Batter under a Shoulder of Mutton instead of a Dripping-pan, keeping frequently making it by the Handle and it will be light and savoury, and fit to take up when your Mutton is enough, and turn it in a Dish, and serve it hot.

From: The whole duty of a woman, or, An infallible guide to the fair sex: containing rules, directions, and observations, for their conduct and behavior through all ages and circumstances of life, as virgins, wives, or widows: with ... rules and receipts in every kind of cookery ... 1737

Quotation for the Day.

The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin to those of a successful tightrope walker: an abiding passion for the task, courage to go out on a limb and an impeccable sense of balance.
Bryan Miller

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Not for the novice to attempt.

Emily Post, the 1920’s guru of etiquette, was quite clear on the point that dinner-giving was not to be entered into lightly. Actually, Emily was quite clear on everything to do with the social graces. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, to be so certain of the rules, so sure that one could follow them with ease, that one would never, ever , commit a social gaffe of any sort? Is anyone ever so certain, in real life?

Emily was certainly certain that dinner parties were …

Not for the novice to attempt.
If the great world of society were a university which issued degrees to those whom it trains to its usages, the ‘magna cum laude’, honors would be awarded without question, not to the hostess who may have given the most marvelous ball of the decade, but to her who knows best every component detail of preparation and service, no less than every inexorable rule of etiquette, in formal dinner-giving.
To give a perfect dinner of ceremony is the supreme accomplishment of a hostess! It means not alone perfection of furnishing, of service, of culinary skill, but also of personal charm, of tact. The only other occasion when a hostess must have equal--and possibly even greater ability--is the large and somewhat formal week-end party, which includes a dinner or two as by no means its least formidable features.
There are so many aspects to be considered in dinner giving that it is difficult to know whether to begin up-stairs or down, or with furnishing, or service, or people, or manners! One thing is certain, no novice should ever begin her social career by attempting a formal dinner, any more than a pupil swimmer, upon being able to take three strokes alone, should attempt to swim three miles out to sea. The former will as surely drown as the latter.

Even a “normal” family dinner would have been quite an intimidating production for a novice, if we are to judge from the recommended meal for May 6, from The Practical Daily Menu, by C.B. Peacock (1926).

Lentil Soup
Beef Olives, Savoury Cabbage, Potatoes.
Marmalade Pudding OR Blancmange; jam; custard.

From the same book, the recipe for Marmalade Pudding.

Marmalade Pudding.
4 oz. flour; 4oz. bread-crumbs; 4 oz. suet; 2 oz. sugar; pinch of salt; 1 teaspoonful baking powder; 2 eggs, 2 tablespoonfuls marmalade; a little milk if necessary.
Rub the shredded suet into the flour; add breadcrumbs, sugar, salt, baking-powder. Add the marmalade, well-beaten eggs, and, if necessary, a little milk. Mix well together, and steam in a greased mould for an hour and a half.

Quotation for the Day.

Marmalade in the morning has the same effect on taste buds that a cold shower has on the body.
Jeanine Larmoth

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Holy Water Recipe.

I cannot fathom the recipe I am giving you today. It is from Officers of the Mouth, by Giles Rose, published in 1682 (the English translation of Riboule's L'escole parfait of 1662). We have had some fun with this book earlier this year (March 23-27), but barely touched on the recipes. This one really puzzles me. It is time for you to do some of the work around here, and suggest some explanations. Here it is:

Partridges a leau beniste, or Holy Water.
Take Partridges and rost them, and when they are rosted, cut them into little pieces, and put them into a Dish with a little fair Water and Salt, and make them boyl a little, and serve them away.

I presume ‘a leau beniste’ is ‘à l’eau bénite’, which does mean Holy Water (when it is not a brand of Belgian Beer. Seriously. What a marketing idea.)

I know that ‘fair Water’ simply means pure clean water. It does not, as far as I am aware, imply any degree of holiness.

Roast partridges are probably heavenly, but not as heavenly as if they had been stuffed with foie gras and truffles, and basted with butter and ancient cognac as they cooked, and followed with chocolate and champagne.

Not having access to the original French text, and in any case being illiterate in French, I don’t know if this is a translation error or not.

So, tell me the connection between this recipe and Holy Water, please.

Quotation for the Day.

A cook, when I dine, seems to me a divine being, who from the depths of his kitchen rules the human race. One considers him as a minister of heaven, because his kitchen is a temple, in which his ovens are the altar.
Marc Antoine Desaugiers (1772-1827).

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Currant Jelly with that?

Here is a wonderful story about how we came to eat sweet preserves with meat. Is it true or not? who cares? I am saying it is story, not history. Bear in mind as you read this that the clear distinction between sweet and savory ingredients is a relatively modern concept – it was certainly not a startling new idea in 1715, the date of our story. Nor was the absence of potatoes on the dinner table in 1715 a strange situation – they were far from daily fare in Europe and Britain at that time. Perhaps, after all, it the story speaks more truth about food fashion and foodie-paparazzi, rather than the food itself.

“Currant jelly with hare was first eaten in 1715. There were no potatoes at table, when the Duchesse de Pentonville (then an emigrant), asked what there was. ‘Nothing but confitures’ was the reply of the maître d’hotel. ‘Bring me the confitures then’, siad the lively Duchesse; and she selected the currant-jelly, much to the amusement of all the nobles present. The king, however, hearing of this, ordered hare for dinner, purposely to try it with the currant-jelly, and he like it so well that he continued it for six days together; and so the currant-jelly spread all over London till it became an established fashion in the best English society.”

I have a very graphic mental image here of currant jelly spread all over London ……

Red or white currant jelly.
Strip off your fruit, and put it in a jug, stand the jug in a kettle of water, and let it boil one hour, then throw your currants into a fine sieve, and press out all the juice, to every pint of which add one pound of loaf sugar; put it in your preserving pan over a clear fire, and stir it till it becomes jelly, observing to scum it carefully; when done, pour it into glasses, and when cold, lay some brandy paper on top: then cover with white paper, pricked full of holes.
Modern domestic cookery, and useful receipt book, by E.Hammond. London, 1819.

Quotation for the Day.

The Law of Raspberry Jam: the wider any culture is spread, the thinner it gets.
Alvin Toffler.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Real Meaning of Prunes.

I don’t believe I have ever seen a hotel breakfast buffet without prunes. I don’t need to spell out the reason, do I? We all know that the changed routines of a travelling life can affect the routine of the bowels (in either direction), don’t we? So – hotels provide a nice laxative service at the breakfast bar for those of their guests who are afflicted by one of these two main travel curses.

Or, could there be another story behind the provision of prunes in places of hospitality? One requiring even more discretion? The next time you are standing at the breakfast bar at a nice hotel (and perhaps even more so at a not-so-nice hotel) – think on this: a dish of prunes was once a regular (sorry! couldn’t resist) part of the offerings in a brothel.

Shakespeare knew this, but then he pretty well knew everything that there was to know back in the sixteenth century. One of his contemporaries tells us that a dish of prunes was actually a visible advertisement for the bawdy business: from Lodge’s Wit’s Miserie, or the World’s Madnesse (1596)

"This it she that laies wait at the carriers for wenches new come up to London, and you shall know her dwelling by a dish of stewed prunes in the window, and two or three fleering wenche sit knitting or sewing in her shop. [describing a bawd]"

A dictionary of 1834 (by William Tone) explains the reason:

“Prunes (stewed). Dishes of stewed prunes were kept in brothels, and were thought to be not only a cure but a preventative of diseases contracted there.”

It was also thought at one time that prunes increased sexual potency, so we have three good reasons for brothel owners to keep in a good supply. Closer to our own time, I wonder which of the reasons (bowel, sexual potency, or venereal disease management) the manufacturers of Dr. Pepper wished to disassociate from when they vehemently denied rumours that prunes were an ingredient in their beverage. I guess it doesn’t matter – hot denial of any rumour is always a good marketing ploy they tell me.

Whatever their symbolic or medicinal value, prunes don’t deserve their slightly unglamorous image compared to other dried fruits such as apricots, or ginger, or fat raisins. Prunes are, after all, only dried plums.

In a post some time ago I featured “Unusual Prune Dishes” which included the earliest recipe for an upside-down cake that I could find at that time (1923) – made with prunes, not the ubiquitous canned pineapple rings. There are other prune dishes scattered throughout the blog stories too, if you want to test any of their alleged effects.

For today, I give you a recipe from one of my favourite books, Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare (London, 1864)

Prune Sauce [to serve with pork]
Boil one pound of prunes in half a pint of water until quite soft; add a tablespoonful of moist sugar and a tablespoonful of either rum or brandy. Rub through a sieve, and serve in a tureen.

Quotation for the Day.

Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know.
Groucho Marx.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Take one thousand beans ....

I had numerous (admittedly vague) ideas for the one-thousandth post at The Old Foodie but the event has been eclipsed by the even more momentous birth of my grandson five weeks early. I am no longer certain what those ideas were, but I seem to remember they involved a lot of recipes inspired by the word “thousand”, to be enjoyed in a giant cyber-celebration with all my loyal readers, and the requisite number of bottles of champagne.

My time being somewhat fragmented right now (and perhaps for the next couple of weeks), the party will be cut short – although hopefully the champagne will flow freely – and you must do what you will yourselves with the following ideas.

First, the vegetables:

Here is an interesting idea: I had never heard of this plant until I came across the following recipe, from A Shilling Cookery for the People, by Alexis Soyer, 1855

Plant Called The Thousand Heads.
On seeing this plant growing in great abundance in Yorkshire, I inquired of the farmer on whose land they were—if they were a vegetable for the table, and their name ? when he informed me that they were intended for spring feeding for sheep, during the lambing season; that he never used them as human food. I asked him to let me have some to try and see how they eat. He did, and I cooked them like greens; and an exceeding nice vegetable they are. They are also good stewed, and cooked with a piece of bacon. As they grow at a time of the year when other green vegetables are scarce, I consider them a valuable article of food. They are sown about April, the small plant put out about October, and planted about three feet apart, and by March or April the whole field will be one luxuriant crop of greens.
Farmers in the vicinity of large towns would do well to undertake their cultivation, as they would find a ready sale in all such places. At that time of year they are in full bloom, and are called by the above singular name in consequence of the thousands of heads continually sprouting from their root. The plant covers nearly one yard in circumference, and bears no resemblance to any other green I recollect seeing, not even to Brussels sprouts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am disinclined to count the number of individual beans required for a dish:

The Dutch Method of preserving French Beans.
Take a thousand French beans, when in full season, cut them slanting, and as thin as possible ; then procure a stone jar sufficient to contain them ; in which deposit alternately a layer of beans, and then of common table salt, observing that the proportion of salt must be, for every thousand of beans, about four pounds. When the jar is full, let it stand to the following day, and then press them down well till the water overflows, and the harder they are pressed the better. Cover them with a cloth within the jar, tight down upon the beans, over which place a trencher the size of the inside of the jar, and then a heavy weight on the top. It will be proper now and then to take off the cloth and wash it clean, when it must be put on again, as before-mentioned. By these means the beans may be preserved for a considerable time. When dressed, let the quantity chosen be steeped the night before in cold water. In the morning they must be well washed in two or three fresh waters, and put into boiling water, letting them boil hard till they become tender, for which half an houf will be sufficient. Take them off the fire, and stew them with a little butter, when they will be fit for the table.
The London art of cookery and domestic housekeeper's complete assistant, by John Farley, 1811

But a thousand beans is nothing compared to a thousand-weight of pork (although I have no idea what this really means – this is your homework for the week.)

To Cure Bacon.
To one thousand weight of pork, put one bushel of fine salt, one pound and a half of saltpetre rolled fine and mixed with the salt; rub this on the meat and pack it away in a tight hogshead; let it lay for six weeks, then hang it up and smoke it with hickory wood, every day for two weeks, and afterwards two or three times a week for a month; then take it down and rub it all over, with hicko.ry ashes, which is an effectual remedy against the fly or skipper. When the weather is unusually warm at the time of salting your pork, more care is requisite to preserve it from taint. When it is cut up, if it seems warm, lay it on boards, or on the bare ground, till it is sufficiently cool for salting; examine the meat tubs or casks frequently, and if there is an appearance of mould, strew salt over; if the weather has been very warm after packing, and on examining, you should find evidence of its spoiling, lose no time in unpacking the meat; for a hogshead of hams and shoulders that are in this state, have six pounds of brown sugar, three pounds of salaeratus, mixed with half a bushel of salt; rub each piece with this, and as you pack it in the hogshead, (which should be well washed and cleaned,) sprinkle a little coarse salt over each layer of pork, and also' on the bottom of the hogshead. I have known this plan to save a large quantity of pork, that would have been unfit for use, if it had not been discovered and attended to in time. Some persons use crushed charcoal to purify their meat. Shoulders are more easily affected than hams, and if the weather is warm the ribs should be cut out of the shoulders. Jowls also require particular care; black pepper, about a pound to a hogshead, sprinkled on the meat before it is hung up to smoke, is valuable as a preventive where flies are troublesome; have a large pepper-box kept for the purpose, and dust every part that is exposed; pepper is also good to put on beef before it is hung up to dry; wash it off before cooking, and it does not injure the flavor.
Domestic cookery, useful receipts, and hints to young housekeepers by Elizabeth E. Lea, 1859

And of course no celebration is complete without dessert. I give you millefeuille (“thousand leaves”)

A Pyramid Of Paste, Or Mille Feuilles.
For this purpose a set of tin paste cutters is required, oval, octagon, diamond, scalloped, or any other form; the largest nine or ten inches, and from that size down to an inch or less. Roll out puff paste half an inch thick and cut out with as many sizes as you want, beginning with the smallest. Bake them on a tin or sheet of paper* laid on a haking plate; the top may he done over with yolk of egg heibre baking, or iced when nearly done; bake them of a light brown colour. Have a dish to fit the largest, and when cold spread on it a layer of one kind of jam, then another sheet of paste, then another kind of jam, and surmount the top with a caramel or ornament, see Chap. xiii. The order of the jam should be so as to display a variety of colours; either by contrast, the darkest and lightest next to each other, or in shades from the darkest to the lightest, as damson, gooseberry, raspberry, or red currant, strawberry, apricot, greengage, or white egg plum.
The housekeeper's guide, by Esther Copley, 1838

Looking forward to being with you all for the next one thousand!