Monday, March 19, 2012

The Unwelcome Guest.

Whether or not you prefer your meat cooked bleeding-rare or extremely well-done or somewhere in between depends on many factors. Some of these are personal. An oozing, bleeding, almost raw piece of meat may be an uncomfortably close a reminder that what you are about to eat was once a living, breathing animal, or you may simply be squeamish at the sight of blood. There are historical and cultural influences too. Cultural groups define themselves in terms of difference from their neighbours, so if you are English, and those pesky French like their meat well done, you are more likely to prefer yours underdone. Neither can fashion be ignored. The popular choice may last only as long as the current trend-setting celebrities (or authorities) remain at the top. Their stay there is, by definition, ephemeral, and their choice changed, as a matter of principle, by the next wave of opinion-makers. There are of course practical reasons too. If the only meat available is that from working beasts who have become too old for their jobs, then it is going to be tough and need long, slow cooking. 

It seems that in the past, there may have been circumstances when it was desirable to make a well-done roast appear to be bleedingly-rare, at least to superficial inspection. Here are some intriguing instructions to do just that, from the seventeenth century.

To rost meat to seem bloody.
When your Meat is rosted, let it be what it will, a little before you serve it away, take a little Hare’s Blood which hath been dryed and beat to Powder, and sprinkle it over your Meat, and let it have a turn or two at the Fire, and you shall see, that when you would cut it, it would seem to be bloody.
A Perfect School of Instructions for the Officers of the Mouth, (1682)

The author does not indicate why this ruse might be necessary, but there may be a clue in a book published over a century earlier in Naples. This ‘recipe’ also uses hare’s blood, with the optional addition of harp strings for extra effect. The book is Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic) 1558 by the Italian scholar and scientist Giambattista della Porta (John Baptist Porta.) 

That flesh may look bloody and full of Worms, and so be rejected By Smell-feasts.
Boil Hares blood, and dry it, and powder it. Cast the powder upon the meats that are boiled, which will melt by the heat and moisture of the meat, that they will seem all bloody, and he will loath and refuse them. Any man may eat them without any rising of his stomach. If you cut Harp strings small, and strew them on hot flesh, the heat will twist them, and they will move like Worms.

‘Smell-feasts’ were unwanted guests who ‘smelled a feast’ in the offing and invited themselves along, knowing that the rules of hospitality would prevent them being turned away. Note that the harp strings of the time were made from natural materials (gut) and hence did not simply melt as modern synthetics would, but would wriggle in a very maggoty way on the bloody backdrop. I wonder how may laws that little strategy would break today?

Quotation for the Day.
One must always welcome guests sincerely, with a certain effusion of the heart, for when they come to your table they must already be happy with you.
La Petite Cuisine, by Baron Brisse (1870)


Mary Bergfeld said...

What fascinating background. I'm so glad I found your blog. This is my first visit so I took sometime to browse through your earlier posts. I'm so glad I did that. You've created a really interesting spot to visit and I'll definitely be back. Have a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks, Mary. I have a lot of fun with the blog, so I am delighted that you have enjoyed it!