Friday, 8 August 2014

A Victorian Altar to Curry and Other Events

A high Victorian table at Hutton-in-the-Forest (Photo: Cressida Vane)
I have been so busy over the past few months, that I have had no time at all to post on this blog. I have really missed it. So very briefly, here are some of the things I have been doing lately. As well as catching up with various writing commitments, much of my summer has been taken up with filming what seems like innumerable food history features for popular BBC programmes, such as the Great British Bake Off, James Martin's Home Comforts and others. However, the real highlight of the year was working with my Korean friend Wook-Jung Lee on another episode of his remarkable series A Food Odyssey. This time we looked at curry in Victorian England and the images here are of a 1890s table I recreated for the programme. Various Anglo-Indian curries and some English savoury dishes are served around a dessert set out on a surtout de table. You might spot a Twelfth Cake in the middle of the table, which I made for another production, but just for fun recycled it here as a striking centrepiece. It took me two days to make and decorate, so I thought I would get a bit of extra mileage out of it. 

A Victorian Moorghabee or Fowl Pullow made from a recipe in Dr. R. Ridell. Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book. (Madras: 1850).
Among the many Indian dishes were a few choice English ones.
The cake also turned up at a lecture/demonstration I gave on the last day of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow for Scotland Can Make It! To celebrate the Games, ceramic artist Katy West was commissioned to design a Common Wealth jelly mould, made using a clay body provided by Highland Stoneware of Lochinvar and inspired by the Art Deco interior of the celebrated Glasgow restaurant and cocktail bar Rogano. I was invited to put Katy's creation into context at a jelly tasting, which involved an illustrated lecture on the history of moulded foods, a marathon jelly un-moulding session followed by a tasting session at which the eighteen historic jellies I created, rapidly disappeared into the highly enthusiastic audience. 
Photo: Eoin Carey.
A marbree jelly made in Katy West's mould. Photo: Eoin Carey.
Photo: Eoin Carey.
If you missed this event, you may be interested in a few others I am involved in over the next few weeks. On 28th August, I am presenting a lecture in Prague at a conference called La Festa Sontuosa. The event is being held on the 300th anniversity of an entertainment given at his palazzo in Rome on 28th August 1714 by Johanna Wenzel, Count of Gallas, to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Elisabetta Cristina. The conference is being held in the count's Prague residence, the extraordinary baroque Clam Gallas Palace. The most important feature of this event will be the modern world premiere of Sacrificio a Venere, a lost and recently rediscovered serenade composed by Giovanni Battista Bononcini in 1714 especially for the occasion. My lecture Trionfi di Tavola examines the extravagant emblematic table centrepieces created for occasions of this kind.

At the count's entertainment five tables covered in ices, jellies and confectionery regaled the guests after Bononcini's performance. The centrepiece was an artificial tree hung with one hundred and fifty moulded ice cream fruits. A few years ago at the Oxford Food Symposium, my friend Robin Weir demonstrated the logistics of creating an ambitious caprice of this nature on a hot summer's day. Rostislav Muller, one of the organisers of the Prague conference has created a 3-D model of the Gallas table. A reconstruction of the table will feature in the performance later this month.

A detail of he gran rifresco at Count Gallas's party in Rome on 28th August 2014 at which Bononcini's Sacrificio di Venere was first performed. Photo; courtesy of Getty Research Institute.
3D reconstruction (detail) of  the trionfo da tavola designed on the occasion of the celabration of the birthday of Empress Elisabetta Cristina. Copyright Rostislav Maria Muller.
Many different ices, jellies and other items of confectionery featured at Count Gallas's entertainment. This is my own interpretation of a dish described on the table (note the Italian is in its eighteenth century form - 'una piramide di gelo d'agresta con odore di gelsomino e con agresta intiera siroppata dentro' - verjuice jelly scented with jasmine, with verjuice grapes in syrup inside  - delicious!    Photo: Eoin Carey.
If you cannot make it to Prague, perhaps you can catch up with me on September 6th at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas where I will be giving a lecture at a one day symposium 'The English Country House - Then and Now'. My talk is entitled From Banquet to Ball Supper – Dining and Entertaining in the British Country House 1600-1914.

Nearer to home, I am giving a lecture on early Georgian dining at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London on 17th September entitled Regal Ragouts: courtly dining and cookery in early Georgian Britain

Perhaps I will see some of you at these events. I hope you can make it.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Ryce Puddings in Scoured Guts

Rice puddings boiled in skins made from Gervase Markham's 1615 recipe (see below)
When I was a child, I frequently heard the popular idiom, 'he could n't knock the skin off a rice pudding' - usually being applied to someone who had behaved in a cowardly way. The skin referred to, was of course that delicious, caramelised, not-quite-burnt crust that forms on a British oven baked rice pudding. Many of us, including me, are of the opinion that this nutmeg-scented membrane is the choicest bit of this once ubiquitous and homely pud. But in the far distant past the skin of a rice pudding had a more literal meaning. During Shakespeare's lifetime, rice puddings were usually made in lengths of intestine, what we would now call sausage skins - they were literally cooked in skins. So the earliest recipes for rice pudding indicate that it was originally one of the vast genus of true boiled puddings made in animal guts that were popular and widespread during the early modern period and beyond.  Some of its first cousins, like mealy puddings, white puddings and black puddings still survive to this day. The recipe in black letter below is for a rice pudding of this kind published a year before Shakespeare died, in which a mixture of boiled rice and other ingredients is stuffed into 'scoured guts' before they are parboiled.

From John Murrell, A Newe Booke of Cookery. (London: 1615).
Murrell's recipe stands out as it calls for barberries, as well as the more usual currants included in puddings of this kind. Nowadays barberries, the fruits of the British native Berberis vulgaris L. are hardly used at all in British cookery, but were immensely popular at this time for their pleasant acidic flavour and stunning red colour. They were frequently used as a striking garnish and were the basis of a number of sweetmeats and preserves. Another important role they enjoyed was to add acidity as well as colour to forcemeats, pie fillings and in this case - puddings.  
The bright red fruits of Berberis vulgaris L.

Early pudding makers used little funnels to fill the lengths of intestine, a procedure that is beautifully and amusingly illustrated in the seventeenth century engraving below. Although one can get good at it with practice, this is a slow and laborious process. An improvement came with the introduction of pudding forcers, a kind of syringe which the length of gut could be stretched over. But even these were hard to use, though considerably faster than the funnels.
How a pudding funnel was used at this period - slow work!
A long length of gut was massaged over the neck of the pudding funnel.
The pudding mixture was then pushed through the funnel into the gut with a finger
A pudding forcer made an easier job of this messy and slow business.
A rare contemporary engraved portrait of Gervase Markham, equestrian, playwright and author of  books on countless subjects. Like Murrell, Markham published a recipe for Rice puddings in skins in 1615 in his celebrated recipe collection, The English Housewife (London: 1615). Here it is below.
Gervase Markham's recipe for rice puddings, published the same year as Murrell's. By 'farms' is meant 'forms, a common term for guts.
I made both Murrell's and Markham's rice puddings a few days ago for a dinner celebrating the 450th anniversity of Shakespeare's birthday. Variant recipes for rice puddings continued to be published in the later seventeenth century, that below coming from Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660), with a specific direction to tie the ends of the guts together, making a ring shaped pudding. This incarnation is flavoured generously with a quarter of a pint of rose-water!
From Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660)
Another of May's rice pudding recipes instructs us to boil a very similar preparation in a bag or napkin. However, as an afterthought, he explains that when you make rice puddings in guts, you should toast them before the fire 'in a silver dish or tosting pan'. This makes much more sense of Murrell's 1615 recipe, who instructs us to parboil the puddings, indicating that there was a second cooking process to follow. Toasting or broiling them afterwards cooks the puddings so they end up looking like grilled sausages. 
From Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660)
Robert May's marrow puddings of rice and grated bread simmer for about quarter and hour. Like all skin puddings, the forms must not be tightly filled as the contents will swell and burst the skins. They must also be pricked to release any air before they are very gently poached in the simmering, not boiling, water.
Before the puddings are toasted in front of the fire, I find that hanging them up to dry out for a day really improves them.
A toasted rice pudding
Rice puddings like this survived into the eighteenth century, as witness this recipe from the Yorkshire cookery author Elizabeth Moxon. 
Rice puddings boiled in skins from Elizabeth Moxon (Leeds: 1749). Elizabeth tells us to 'cree' the rice in milk. This interesting word is from the French crever, to burst or split. To cree rice or frumenty was to boil it until it burst and came to a soft mash. However, it could also mean to crush, mill or kibble. The wheat or barley used for making frumenty was 'creed' or crushed in a 'creeing trough'. 

Thursday, 10 April 2014

To Roast a Pike

A pike roasted in front of the fire according to the directions in Elizabeth Birkett Here Booke 1699. It is stuffed with pickled herring, herbs, spices, anchovies, butter and garlic.
I am currently working on a project at a wonderful seventeenth century house not far from where I live in the Lake District in a stunning village called Troutbeck. The property, which is called Townend Farm, is now in the ownership of the National Trust, but for many centuries was the former home of the Brown family. The Browns were 'statesmen', a local term for farmers who were proprietors of their own land. Statesmen farmers were a fiercely independent bunch who valued education. The Browns were no exception. Over many generations they built up an extensive library and never threw anything away. A vast collection of their domestic papers has survived, leaving a remarkable record of the minutiae of domestic life in this beautiful house over nearly four centuries. 

Townend Farm, Troutbeck, Cumbria - perhaps the best surviving example of a Lake District statesman's house.
Among the papers is a small hand written collection of medical, domestic and cookery recipes which was compiled in 1699 by Elizabeth Birkett, also from Troutbeck, who married the house's owner Benjamin Brown in 1702. With my help, the National Trust are using this book, which is now on display at Townend, to interpret the domestic life of the house as it was in Elizabeth's day. I have trained the staff to cook some of her recipes in the 'downhouse' (kitchen), so every Thursday visitors are treated to  'A Taste of Townend'. I have also set up the 'firehouse' (best room) with a table laid with typical dishes of early eighteenth century Lakeland. One of these is a replica of Elizabeth's roast pike recipe. In order to make this very convincing replica, I had first to roast a real pike using her directions.
Elizabeth's 1699 recipe for roasting pike, a fish which has always been plentiful in the English Lakes.
Although they are displayed in front of a nineteenth century fireplace, the cob irons and spit in this photograph date from the lifetime of Elizabeth Birkett. It is just the sort of arrangement that could have been adapted for roasting a large fish such as a pike.
This wainscot chair is carved with the initials of Benjamin and Elizabeth Brown and 1702 - the date of their marriage. It was however, carved much later than this.
To roast a large fish like a pike on a spit requires a technique sometimes called 'splinting' which involves lashing hazel wands around the fish to create a cage. This  prevents the fish falling off when it starts to cook and become fragile. Elizabeth must have used this method, though she does not mention it in her recipe. A very full account of the technique was given by Isaac Walton in The Compleat Angler (London: 1653) in a recipe which is very similar to that of Elizabeth. However, Walton suggests filling the pike's belly with oysters, while Elizabeth gives the alternative of pickled herring. I have tried both recipes and they are equally good. I always use Walton's directions to splint the fish with lathes and filleting.

Isaac Walton (1594-1683) by Jacob Huysmans. 
Here are Walton's directions -

'First, open your Pike at the gills, and if need be, cut also a little slit towards his belly; out of these take his guts, and keep his liver, which you are to shred very small with Time, Sweet-margerome and a little Winter-savoury; to these put some pickled Oysters, and some Anchovies two or three, both these last whole (for the Anchovies will melt, and the Oysters should not); to these you must adde also a pound of sweet butter, which you are to mix with the herbs that are shred, and let them all be well salted (if the Pike be more than a yard long, then you may put into these herbs more than a pound, or if he be lesse, then lesse Butter will suffice): these being thus mixt with a blade or two of Mace, must be put into the Pikes belly, and then his belly sowed up, and so sowed up, as to keep all the Butter in his belly if it be possible, if not, then as much of it as you possible can, but take not off the scales; then you are to thrust the spit through his mouth out at his tayl, and then with four, or five, or six split sticks, or very thin lathes, and a convenient quantity of Tape or Filliting, these lathes are to be tyed round about the Pikes body from his head to his tayl, and the Tape tyed somewhat thick to prevent his breaking or falling off from the spit, let him be roasted very leasurely, and often basted with Claret wine, and Anchovyes, and Butter mixt together, and also with what moisture falls from him into the pan: when you have roasted him sufficiently you are to hold under him (when you unwind or cut the Tape that tyes him) such a dish as you purpose to eat him out of; and let him fall into it with the sawce that is rosted in his belly, and by this means the Pike will be kept unbroken and compleat: then to the sawce, which was within, and also in the pan, you are to adde a fit quantity of the best Butter, and to squeeze the juyce of three or four Oranges: lastly, you may either put into the Pike with the Oysters, two cloves of Garlick, and take it whole out, when the Pike is cut off the spit, or to give the sawce a hogo, let the dish (into which you let the Pike fall) be rubbed with it: the using or not using of this Garlick is left to your discretion.'

From Isaac Walton, The Compleat Angler (London: 1653).
A Windermere pike about to be lashed to a spit with a cradle made of hazel lathes and tape (filleting).
The pike roasts in front of the fire/
A salmon cooked using the same method. This was roasted at Gainsborough Hall a few months ago. Note the similarity of the cob irons to those at Townend Farm.
A pike roasted to Elizabeth's recipe and garnished with jagged Seville oranges.
The pike for the Townend table
A special occasion dinner in the Townend Firehouse
A recipe for a sauce for boiled pike in Elizabeth's hand, but given to her by Lady Winifred Strickland of Sizergh Hall. 
Winifred Trentham Lady Strickland, by William Wissing. Courtesy NT. 
Elizabeth's recipe book contains a number of old charms for various ailments that would have been frowned upon as 'papist' in late seventeenth century Westmorland. There are also a number of recipes from local Catholic recusant families such as the Braithwaites of Burneside and most notably from the Stricklands of Sizergh Hall. I have reproduced Madame Strickland's sawce for boyld pike above. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Lord and Lady Strikland went into exile in France with James II. It is possible that Elizabeth's family were Catholics. I will deal with some Elizabeth's other recipes in future postings.

Visit Townend Farm website

Monday, 20 January 2014

A Medieval Meal for Real

The roasting range in the kitchen of Gainsborough Hall, probably being used for the first time in four hundred years as it was intended, for roasting a full range of meats and poultry for a high status meal. A goose sawce madame, four rabbits, four mallard, a woodcock and other game birds roast on the hand turned spits.
I am often rather grumpy about the way in which food history is represented on British television. Commissioning editors in this country seem to regard it as a niche subject area only suitable for three minute intercuts into popular food programmes such as The Great British Bake Off. I suspect the purpose of these bijou interludes is to afford viewers a brief moment to make a coffee between the thrills and spills of the great cupcake, or gingerbread house challenge. Another approach has been the 'Carry on Banqueting' comedic slant, such as that of the Supersizers series some years ago, when Giles Coren and Sue Perkins took the piss out of our culinary past, while a medley of well-known celebrity chefs made fools of themselves making a mess at recreating ancient dishes. Because the food genre is considered a branch of entertainment, there has never been a serious cultural survey of our food traditions. You might say, 'what about the living history programmes, such as The Tudor Farm, or Clarissa Dixon-Wright's Hannah Glasse or The King's Cooks?' I don't suppose I am going to be popular for saying it, but I am afraid these programmes give the false impression that the food of our ancestors was terribly lumpen and unskillfully prepared. Watching the 'expert' presenters for instance, making raised pies that look like wobbly junior school pots does not really celebrate the incredible skills that our ancestors possessed in pastry work. I am afraid that they really need to up their game. 

When a virtuoso chef such as Heston Blumenthal is given the opportunity to examine our culinary past, he favours an approach which tends to use highly technical contemporary methods, telling us more about modern restaurant presentation than past traditions. Very little recognition is given to real experts. For instance, the makers of a recent BBC documentary about the food writer Dorothy Hartley actually filmed Peter Brears in his home kitchen talking about her dessert recipes. But this excellent sequence never made it into the final edit. This is ironic, as the outstanding contribution that Mr Brears has made to our understanding of English food will prove in the long term to be far, far more important than that of Miss Hartley. I think we have a lot of growing up to do when it comes to this subject on British television. 

Imagine my surprise then, when I was recently invited by KBS, the South Korean equivalent of the BBC to work with them on a programme about medieval food and dining in England. They did n't want a celebrity chef or restaurant critic presenter and they did n't want to dumb down the narrative. What they did want was to celebrate the true history of English food using real expertise, rather than bang on in the usual stereotypical way about how bad it was. During the process of making the documentary, which was directed by the celebrated Korean producer Kim Seung Ook, I quickly discovered the remarkable technical virtuosity, fresh perceptions and high production values of his outstanding crew. 

The recipe for Sawce Madame, a goose stuffed with quinces, pears and herbs from The Forme of CuryThis is a page from a c.1420s version of the text - courtesy John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. The original text dates from the 1390s. 
My aim was to accurately recreate an ambitious medieval meal in a high status household, so we chose to film at Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire with its wonderful great hall and kitchen complex. I enlisted the help of the outstanding re-enactment group Lord Burgh's Retinue, who regularly work at the hall. Led by Paul Mason, the group excelled themselves in a long, but exciting day's filming. I coached the kitchen crew in using their roasting range properly, showing them how to splint a salmon with hazel wands and how to skewer meats authentically, so they did n't stay still while the spits rotated. We also spent two days in my own kitchen where I demonstrated the preparation of a number of fifteenth century dishes, including a sawce madame, bake metes of partridge, gingerbread decorated with box leaves and a hastelet of fruyte. At Gainsborough we filmed a high table sequence led by Paul with full Plantagenet dining ritual, from Latin grace and blessing to washing of hands with an ewer and basin. The table and buffet was dressed correctly for the period and there were demonstrations of carving, sewing and correct service.

The finished sawce madame at the servery 

A bake mete of partridge surmounted by the bird itself with gilded beak and spots of gold on its feathers
A soteltie waits to be taken to the top table. This was originally made by my incredibly gifted friend and colleague Tony Barton for my 2003 exhibition, Royal Sugar Sculpture at the Bowes Museum. 
The kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall
A chastelet, a pie made in the form of a castle with different fillings in each tower awaits a spectacular flambé with brandy before being brought to the table
An early fifteenth century gingerbread coloured with red sanders is ornamented with box leaves pinned on with cloves
The great hall at Gainsborough. There was originally a lantern on the roof, which allowed the smoke from the central hearth to escape. The magnificent perpendicular oriel window floods the high table with bright light.
KBS director Kim Seung Ook(second from right) and his remarkable crew. Development producer Gina McDonald, who co-ordinated the production in the UK with me is in the middle.
The programme will be screened later this year as an episode in the wonderful KBS series A Food Odyssey, a visually stunning and highly intelligent global celebration of food culture. A DVD will also be available. BBC commissioning editors please take note.