Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sweet, Sour, Bitter.

One day I hope to find online all eight volumes of the Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (1898) by Theodore Garrett. Until then I must content myself with the first part of Volume I, which takes us from:

Abat-Faim . - Fr. for, literally, “hunger –reducer,” such as a substantial joint of roast beef. Hence it comes to mean the pièce de résistance – something to cut at and come again.


Cakes: Knob Cakes. – Warm ½ lb. of butter, beat it until creamy, then mix in the beaten yolks of six eggs, ½ lb. of caster sugar, ½ lb. of finely-sifted flour,  and the grated peel of half a lemon. Whisk the whites of two eggs to a stiff froth, and add them at the last. Work the ingredients until well mixed. Butter some baking-sheets, put the mixture on in small rocky lumps, brush them over with a past-brush dipped in beaten egg, lay a blanched almond on the top of each, strew caster sugar and a few well-washed currants over the top, and bake in a moderate oven.

This tantalisingly partial volume came courtesy of some unknown person, who, years ago, scanned the pages and put them up on the web, with the apparent intention of completing the grand project. I don’t know who this person was, but the site has long since disappeared, and the project with it.

This Encyclopaedia is an absolute classic. I don’t think it is too much to say that it is the classic culinary bible of the nineteenth century. Would one of the great libraries of the world please prioritise scanning this monumental work and make all the volumes available online? Please, please, please.

But, I digress. This post was not intended to be a plea to librarians, or an excuse to give you a recipe for Knob Cakes. It was to be a story about the concept of ‘Aigre-Douce.’

I was browsing the precious few scanned pages of Garrett’s Encycopaedia in my possession, hoping that intense interest and longing would somehow alert the worker bees of cyberspace of their omission, when I saw, on the first page, the entry for Agro Dolce Sauce:

Agro Dolce Sauce.
Ital., literally, for "bitter-sweet sauce"; a great favourite in Italy, and served with a multitude of roast and baked dishes. The receipt for its manufacture is given by Mr. J. Fiorillo as follows:
¼ lb. of pignoli, or pine-cone kernels, from which a pungent bitter is obtained; 2oz. pistachio kernels. 3 oz. of chocolate, 2 oz. sugar, ¼ pint wine vinegar, 1 ½ oz. of candied orange and lemon peel combined, 2 oz. of black currants, and 1 ½ oz. of red- currant jelly; these ingredients are stewed for half an hour in a rich, clear, brown sauce, preferably that made from the flesh which forms the dish. Wild boar, venison, hare, and other savoury meat are greatly improved by the addition of this sauce.

This concept and recipe were a surprise to me on a number of counts. Primarily, I had always believed that aigre-douce (or, in this Italian incarnation, agro-dolce) indicated sour-sweet, but the author indicates that it refers to bitter-sweet. This alternative translation is also given in a number of food glossaries and dictionaries.
The phrase ‘sweet and sour’ is most likely nowadays to prompt thoughts of Chinese take-away food, but the particular taste combination was popular in the West in medieval times. Here is a recipe from the fourteenth century manuscript called the Forme of Cury.

Take Conynges or Kydde and smyte hem on peces rawe, and frye hem in white grece. take raysouns of Corance and fry hem take oynouns parboile hem and hewe hem small and fry hem. take rede wyne suger with powdour of peper. of gynger of canel. salt. and cast thereto. and lat it seeth with a gode quantitie of white grece an serve it forth.

Now, aside from the translation issue, the recipe for the Italian sauce has caused me some confusion. I don’t know how much bitterness the pine-nuts would have introduced to the mix - I have never thought of them as being bitter at all. What do you think? The sauce does also contain a quarter of a pint of vinegar, which I feel sure would add a sour note. Do you agree?

The other intriguing thing  about this recipe is the inclusion of chocolate. I don’t know how to interpret this in the context of the general idea of sweet and sour, but it is certainly not medieval. On the other hand, chocolate makes everything better, does it not?

So, is this sauce sourish or bitterish or chocolatey, or all of the above? It will be some weeks before I can make it, as I am travelling, but I will certainly try it when I return. In the meanwhile, if you have some ideas or some knowledge of this style of sauce, do please let us all know via the comments.


dave said...

I've heard that some pine nuts (probably not the traditional food ones) do cause taste disturbances that leave people with a bitter metallic taste in their mouths for up to a few weeks. The actual cause is not currently known.

A quick Google for "pine-nuts" bitter (with the quotes) returned almost a million hits.


Mercy said...

Chocolate would be bitter and (if it has sugar in it) sweet.

Elise Fleming/Alys K. said...

"...I had always believed that aigre-douce (or, in this Italian incarnation, agro-dolce) indicated sour-sweet, but the author indicates that it refers to bitter-sweet. This alternative translation is also given in a number of food glossaries and dictionaries."

As a retired language teacher, I sometimes wonder if the initial person made an error and the others just propogated it.