This article originally appeared in the Spring, 1996 issue of Tournaments Illuminated, and is reprinted by permission of the author.
Wherever you live in the Known World, your kingdom probably organizes at least one Annual Humongous Arts and Sciences Pentathlon Event. Maybe you attend them regularly, and maybe you compete. Or, perhaps, like me, you feel that there's enough competition in mere survival in a modern urban environment without making life even more complex.
This is why I spent my first twelve years in the Society without attending a single Annual Humongous Arts and Sciences Pentathlon Event, let alone competing in one. However, this past June I broke my long-standing rule, after suffering intimidation, curses ancient and modern, arm-twisting, and being threatened with acts that are physically impossible (I think). I decided to enter the cooking category of my local A.H.A.S.P. The response to my entry was so universally positive it occurred to me that a larger audience might be interested.
This kind of thing presents problems for a cook that may not be immediately apparent to non-cooks. It was an unusually hot summer, and my entry would have to travel a good distance, for quite a while, in a cooler. After that, it would be set up in a large cabin, waiting for the judging to start. Judging was to last three hours, which meant that, in theory, my entry would be exposed to more or less open air, above eighty degrees, for upwards of four hours, with the likelihood of the food being tasted at any moment during that time. These aren't the conditions you dream about when cooking a dish that's expected to look and taste good without causing fatalities.
With all this in mind, I began listing in my head the methods of food preservation available to the medieval and renaissance European. Junking those ideas that were patently silly, like dragging sides of beef through salty ocean water behind ships of His Majesty's Navy [A], I realized that an entire meal could be developed that would demonstrate a wide spectrum of the food preserver's art. The final result, essentially medieval take-out, became known among my friends as a Pilgrim's Picnic Basket. Some of the items were planned well in advance, and as things progressed, I swapped some of the other items as per my mood at the time. I tried to include both early and late period sources, because while this detracted from the period look, I found it more interesting, and it was a better educational tool.
The items I included, in order of importance to the typical modern palate, were
I also entered a mead and an ale as accessories to the food entry, but for reasons of brevity I won't go into those here.
First off, why is this sausage Polonian? Based on the seasoning and smoking method, it appears to be an Englishman's approximation of the type of large smoked sausage found in the much-disputed lands northeast of Germany. This is, I believe, a Polska krajana or kielbasa.
The term "fillers" is probably a corruption of fillets, which in medieval cookery parlance are muscles in each of the hog's inner thighs; corresponding to, in a steer, what we now call the eye rounds. In pork butcher's jargon it's just part of the hams. Today the fillets of the hog are the tenderloins, which would make unpleasantly dry and tasteless sausage.
On a full-grown hog, the combined weight of the fillets is a bit under five pounds or so. Lacking the facilities, as well as the freshly killed hog, to do my own butchering, I used an equal weight of pork shoulder butt or blade roast, which is what my rather expensive and extremely competent butcher makes his sweet Italian sausage out of.
The handful of red sage wasn't a problem. Salvia officinalis purpurea is known in Britain as red sage, and, although perfectly edible, is now primarily an ornamental plant. Here it's plain old purple sage, á la Zane Grey, and was available fresh at the farmer's market.
For quantities on pepper and ginger, I consulted my favorite modern sausage recipe, and favorite Chinese cookbook, respectively, and figured on three tablespoons of cracked peppercorns and two tablespoons of grated fresh ginger.
Large mutton casings were unavailable. Lamb casings, such as you find in frankfurters, were inappropriate. I chose pork casings because they were easiest to find, and were also small enough to dry quickly, without affecting the flavor of the final product.
My brine was more than just salt water; I figured a household making sausage would also be curing other pork products, and would have an all-purpose brine crock on hand all year round. The brines in various brawn recipes, for instance, are pretty involved, including not only salt but sugar and saltpeter, as well as a wide variety of herbs and spices. In most cases the saltpeter would occur naturally as an impurity present in the commonly mined salt of Northern Europe. The brine recipe I settled on was a modern English pork pickle, and included salt, sugar, saltpeter, juniper berries, bay leaves, thyme, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves . Period brine recipes are, for the most part, found only in very late sources, and don't differ significantly from modern recipes, anyway.
Whether the pickled sausage is boiled until fully cooked is debatable; it may be simply blanched to tighten up the casing so it doesn't burst in the smoking process. Dried raw sausages are still common in Continental Europe, but not in England, so I simmered the sausages to the minimum safe temperature (140° F). Not having a chimney operating year-round, I warm-smoked the rings for about two hours over hickory chips. Apple or oak would have been better, but hickory was what I happened to have. I then finished the drying process in an electric food dehydrator, largely for safety considerations, given the weather at the time. I suspect sausages smoked over several months would be quite overpowering, and a bite or two would definitely make one relish that cup of wine.
This makes a relatively soft uncooked cheese.
A dairy farmer informed me that strokings are the final few ounces of milk from each milking; to get them you have to be more gentle when stimulating the cow's udder, hence the name. They are lower in butterfat than the morning milk, so a lower proportion of cream is added to the morning milk to approximate stroakings and cream.
Getting some rennet was a problem living where I do. I was finally forced to buy a cheese-making kit at a home brewing supply store, of all places. The kit also provided a nifty draining basket and a lot of other stuff I didn't use.
The milk was pasteurized but not homogenized; it came from the farmer's market, as did the cream. My basket was designed to hold the curds from a gallon of milk, so I cut the recipe down a bit: approximately one hundred ounces of milk to twenty of cream, and eight ounces of live-culture sheep's-milk yogurt.
I heated my pasteurized milk and cream to about 88°F.; almost all the modern cheese recipes I've seen call for a temperature range of 75 - 90° F. before adding a bacterial starter culture, which is where the yogurt comes in.
The process of cooling, heating, and cooling again achieves two ends: not only does this process reach and regulate a specific temperature in an age before thermometers, but it gives the milk just enough time to sour a bit. Rennet works much more efficiently in the presence of acid, and I figure that porous wooden bowl the recipe speaks of has acid-producing lactobacilli lurking in every microscopic nook and cranny. Rather than trust in nature and airborne bacteria, I innoculated my milk with a known, non-mutated strain of lactobacillus, one which would not make the milk bitter. I chose sheep's milk yogurt on a moment's whim. Buttermilk, sour cream, or ordinary yogurt would have done just as well. Most of the sourness, by the way, stayed in the whey, which left fairly sweet curds when drained off.
I used half a rennet tablet dissolved in warm water, in lieu of the soaking liquid from reconstituting a dried cow's rectum, the dried curds from the stomach of an unweaned calf, or a variety of alkaloids from relatively unobtainable herbs, all of which are far more in period. I'm sure you won't mind.
Otherwise there were no significant deviations from Digby's recipe, except that I had to refrigerate the cheese for part of the ripening process. Excessively warm weather was causing the cheese to sweat butterfat, which goes to show you why the manufacturers of commercial cream cheese generally stabilize their product with gum emulsifiers.
"(#73) Too make thin oat Cakes It must bee made with oaten meale steped all night in pump water, and bake it the next morning pore in the batter upon a stove with a brass Ladell"
I used about two cups of steel-cut porridge oats, ground a bit finer into medium-fine grits. Modern riddlecake recipes call for pinhead oats, which are a bit smaller than porridge oats, but definitely not flour, either. To this I added about a quart of water to achieve a pourable batter, bearing in mind the batter would thicken as water was absorbed. Fairly hard tap water doubled pretty well for pump water. While it's possible the mineral content of the water would affect the final product, I thought the addition of Burton water salts from my brewing supplies would be going a bit too far.
I let the batter prove overnight. Whether this was intended to provide natural leavening with airborne yeasts I can't say, since no details are provided about covering the bowl. I covered it with a plate and left it unrefrigerated. I believe the object of the overnight steep is to save time and fuel (Cook while you sleep!). Certainly no noticeable leavening or souring occurred.
Modern home recipes for riddlecakes call for portions of batter to be baked on a griddle on or near the fire, on one side only. When the cakes begin to peel away from the griddle, they are removed and hung on a rack before the fire to fully dry and crisp. In the North of England they were frequently hung on a clothesline near the hearth. In their soggy, flexible form, they're pretty hideous.
I opted for a toasting directly on the rack of a 250° F. oven, which took about half an hour to achieve a palatable product. It ended up being a bit like matzoh, a bit like Wasa Krispbread, and a bit like a commercial oatcake.
I've chosen to adopt the French name for this concoction, since compost is what my father uses to fertilize his garden. The above compot recipe produces a mixture of parboiled fruits and vegetables preserved in a mustardy, vinegared syrup: somewhere in between a chutney and Italian mustard fruits. It is probably a rather provincial oversimplification of an earlier French recipe in The Goodman of Paris. That recipe is a rather famous one beginning with the words, "Take five hundred new nuts..." The type of nuts called for is a bit unclear, but hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds are all possibilities.
The recipe is organized according to the calendar, with the first ingredients going in on the Feast of St. John (June 24th). Additional ingredients go in periodically until November. The recipe is several pages long in fine print, and to attempt to reproduce it here would take almost as long as it would to follow its instructions. It's interesting because it is an early example of the pickled green nut, something we now only associate with walnuts. Normally I wouldn't bother with such an elaborate preparation, but I'd recently run across a supply of immature almonds in their edible shells and wondered what to do with them. Compot sprang immediately to mind, along with a growing sense of horror as I comtemplated the insanely complex procedure needed to produce this dish. I decided to make a rather loose synthesis of the two recipes, the English and the French, using the green almonds as one of the parboiled fruits to be preserved in mustard/saffron syrup.
This particular project was never really intended to be taken too seriously, so a certain license with shortcuts and equivocation is to be expected, particularly since I decided to limit myself to whatever ingredients I had on hand. In spite of all this, I liked the result.
I blanched the almonds until barely tender in boiling water, drained them and put them in a large wide bowl. I then followed with similarly boiled pasternaks [parsnips], rafens [radishes], rapes [turnips], caboches and peeres [Bosc], all cooked separately to their individual doneness. These were mixed and salted a bit. I didn't wait overnight for them to exude juice, so I reduced the sauce a bit thicker than I wanted it, figuring that the excess liquid would thin the sauce down to the right consistency. I added soaked currants directly to the bowl.
In a separate pan I brought a mixture of honey, white wine, and white wine vinegar to a boil, reducing it to a syrup. I added all the spices listed in the English version of the recipe, except for the anise, which I lacked, and which I felt was redundant in the presence of fennel. In exchange I borrowed the concept of the powdered red sandalwood from the French recipe, and added some, since I had some. The hot sauce was recombined with the compot, the entire mixture was brought back to a boil, and canned in small preserving jars. This last might be gilding the lily, but green almonds won't be back in the Middle Eastern market til next spring, and I had a feeling no one would believe I had actually made this bizarre concoction. It turns out the stuff keeps quite a while in the fridge, and is excellent with any cold meat.
There must be dozens of recipes in English for firm, sliceable quince jams, jellies, pastes, marmalades, and what have you. I chose this particular recipe because it comes the closest to what I did at the time.
First let me point out that the season for quinces in the Eastern U.S. is from November through January. Back in May, while considering what to include in this basket, I ran across several jars of quince jam I had made last winter. The jam was made in pretty much the way dictated in the first half of the recipe above: the pulp of cooked quinces was mixed with equal parts by weight of sugar and cooked slowly until I had a dark red jam. Many medieval and renaissance recipes for quince marmalade call for less sugar; the recipe for cotignac in The Goodman of Paris uses honey, but I was making a modern jam, so equal parts sugar and quince it was.
I was able to control the color of the jam by controlling the cooking time, the amount of water in the pot, and by deciding whether or not to cover it. Quinces are closely related to apples, and like apples, they darken as they oxidize when exposed to air. The difference is that quinces turn red instead of brown. Depending on the cooking time, they can be anywhere in a range from a rusty amber to crimson to a deep, almost black, garnet. This can take several hours if you want to achieve a deep red, and you need to add water every so often so it won't burn.
To turn the jam into marmalade, you just cook it until it is stiff and pulls away from the sides of the pan, being careful not to burn it. A wide frying pan works well for the final boiling: you can use a blazing high heat if you stir constantly with a wooden spoon, but watch out for those superheated splashes (boiling sugar syrups are hotter than boiling water, remember). When the gunk holds the tracks of your spoon in soft peaks, it is done. It can then be molded or stamped, or put into your patented Elizabethan marmalade box, which has a pretty design or picture in negative relief on the bottom, and a perforated top to facilitate drying. I had to make do with a carved wooden shortbread stamp from Scotland, the sides built up with layers of waxed paper until the full consignment of molten quince lava would fit inside. When the stuff cooled, it was easy to unmold, kind of like a giant gummy bear.
The French version of red quince marmalade, cotignac, is and has been a commercial specialty of the town of Orleans at least since the Middle Ages. Legend has it that it was shortly after the raising of the siege of Orleans in the Hundred Years' War that the manufacturers began stamping each round ingot of cotignac with the image of Joan of Arc on horseback, which is how it is still sold today.
These five items, along with two drinks, were presented as a recently unpacked picnic basket, with various cutting boards, napkins, knives and crockery. I am told one of the reasons it scored highest in its category was that it was an original and industrious project, carried out well. I also think that I must have tapped into popular sympathy for a trend of the current mundane lifestyle, and indirectly a related one in the S.C.A. Convenience foods are becoming increasingly important in many people's lives as they hoard their free time more jealously. Why shouldn't this show up in S.C.A. life as well?
Over the past thirty years, various S.C.A.-related publications have printed material related to food preservation. Often the authors have made it clear that such and such a recipe is intended more for its intrinsic educational value than for practical use, and that they assume no responsibility for the success and safety of the project. This type of thing can be very intimidating to some people, and I believe it has prevented a lot of people from experimenting with food preservation.
It doesn't have to be this way. It's like this: all the methods of preservation mentioned above were developed through trial and error. If they failed, people occasionally became ill, and some different method was tried the next time, until it worked. When the methods became successful, the processes pretty much stopped evolving.
Don't be afraid of them, but don't be stupid, either. If you want to experiment with food preservation of any kind, you should find a reliable, modern, mundane source book. The Joy of Cooking is an excellent example, but there are plenty of others. Try following that author's instructions until you are comfortable with whatever process it is: drying, smoking, conserving, confiting in fat, pickling, or whatever. Then go back to some of the period sources and you'll see how much the ancient and the modern have in common.
Footnote A. As I recall this had unfortunate results in the film "Jaws". See Bibliography, item #3.
Selected Bibliography and Sources
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