A Gooseberry Sauce for Mackerel

Last post I wrote about the delicious gooseberry. Since I wrote it, I have seen them in quite a few shops, including Morrison’s, so I am feeling good about the gooseberry’s culinary future.

You’d think after all these years, I’d be better at taking photographs!

It is important to remember that gooseberries can be served with meat and fish in rather the same way as tart Bramley apples are: oily fish such as mackerel is the classic pairing, but I have found recipes that match it with chicken, goose, pork and mutton or lamb. Sauces and stuffings are made with the small new tart berries, with just a little sugar. The simplest sauce being made from halved berries, chopped mint and sugar. The ingredients are mixed, covered and left to macerate for several hours. Delicious with barbequed mackerel or herring, and the fact it isn’t cooked means the gooseberries retain their vibrant green colour.

I mentioned that in France it is known as the mackerel currant, because it is only ever really served with the oily fish, and even then, it’s considered particular only to Normandy. It did start life as an English dish, but as there was much communication between England and Normandy during the mediaeval period, it’s no surprise that they picked up some tips from the English during centuries of toing and froing.

I’ve taken elements from three different recipes to come up with mine: Jane Grigson’s English Food (1992), Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1847) and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1604). Talent borrows, genius steals and all that. Many of the ingredients are optional, so if you want a cleaner tasting sauce, omit the cream and maybe the butter too. If you are interested, there’s also a great recipe for a gooseberry stuffing for mackerel on my other blog.

It’s a delicious combination – simply grilled mackerel and the tart sauce, and maybe a green salad on the side. It’s telling you that summer is here! This pairing is largely forgotten now, but look in some older British cookery books and you’ll see it crop up again and again.

Young, green, small gooseberries are required for recipes that are served with savoury food – the later, large sweet ones are best used in desserts (recipes for those coming soon).

250 g gooseberries, topped and tailed

50 ml water

50 ml white wine, or a dash of cider vinegar

50 g sugar, or to taste

good pinch of ground ginger

salt and pepper

a knob of butter (optional)

2 to 3 tbs double cream (optional)

Put the gooseberries, water, wine or vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and cook until the gooseberries go pale in colour and start to become very soft, crushing them against the side of your pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.

If you want a very smooth sauce with no seeds or pulp, whizz the whole thing in a blender and pass through a sieve. I like to leave mine with some texture, but it’s up to you. If you did pass it through a sieve put it in a clean pan and put it over a medium heat.

Smooth or pulpy, beat in your butter with whisk or spoon until it becomes glossy, then add the cream.

Add more sugar if you like – remember it isn’t supposed to be sweet like apple sauce.

Serve alongside grilled or fried mackerel, but also pork, chicken or goose.

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Gooseberries

‘Country life has its advantages’, he used to say, ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good…and there are gooseberries.’

Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898

The humble gooseberry is not the first of the British summer fruits that springs to mind, but it is the first of the season, and I think it should be celebrated just as much as the strawberry or blackcurrant.

It’s quite difficult to find gooseberries in the shops these days – even good greengrocers don’t seem to sell them, which is odd, because they keep better than any of our other soft fruits. I suppose one of the reasons for its unpopularity is that they are usually sold when vibrant green, looking lovely and fresh but tasting very sour and astringent. In this form they need to be cooked and sweetened with sugar. Its other disadvantage is that it usually has to be cooked, no competition amongst the huge variety of exciting dessert fruits available. It’s a crying shame. Gooseberry season starts in June, but you have to wait until July for them to ripen into dessert fruit. Patience is a virtue, after all.

The gooseberry is usually a fruit more suitable for cooking, needing considerable sweetening for palatability unless a savoury accompaniment for meat or fish.

Laura Mason & Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain

The gooseberry is one of 150 species of the Ribes genus, which also includes the smaller and daintier black, red and whitecurrants. They can be found growing wild in patches of scrub all over Britain, so keep an eye out wherever you see such areas on walks, there may be a hidden gooseberry plant (I have my own a secret patch). Gooseberry shrubs are typically three for four feet high, and as any gooseberry forager knows, somewhat spikey.

Gooseberry colour plate from the Oxford Book of Food Plants

There are many cultivated varieties including two hybrids; red and white gooseberry varieties have been crossed with red and whitecurrants respectively. The hybrids make excellent dessert fruit, helpfully indicting ripeness when they’ve achieved a good ruby or white colour.

Though looked over now, gooseberries were extremely popular and have been cultivated in Britain since al least the Fifteenth Century. They were important because they were the first soft fruit of the summer, cropping well as far north as the Shetland and Orkney Islands. In the Midlands and Northern England they were revered, a tradition of competitive growing quickly developing. There was a single aim in these competitions: to grow the heaviest berry. These clubs were widespread and at one point there was 170 growing clubs, a handful still exist today in Yorkshire and Cheshire. To achieve heavy berries, by the way, you must strip your shrub of berries as soon as they appear, leaving behind a dozen so that the plant can put all its energy into growing just a few fruits.

A gooseberry shrub in the rain

Gooseberries are also known colloquially as feabes, feaberries, carberries and wineberries – the latter name coming from the fact they make excellent wine.

Aside from some parts of northern Europe, gooseberries haven’t really travelled much further than Britain from a culinary point of view. According to Jane Grigson, the French ‘have no name for them distinct from that of redcurrants’. This does seem to be the case; the French word for redcurrant is grosielle and when gooseberries are called for, they are called grosielle à maquereaux – the mackerel redcurrant.

Although sometimes served with goose, it is not the origin of the gooseberry’s name as you might assume. It comes from the Old Norman/Middle English groses or grosier, the old word for – wait for it – grosielle, the French for redcurrant, so in effect we called gooseberries redcurrantberries! All of these words come from the Frankish root krûsil which means ‘crisp berry’, and the gooseberry certainly is that.

Yellow and red are dessert fruit, let them lie on the hottest sunshine till warm through before serving – it brings out the sweetness and flavours.

Dorothy Hartley, Food in England

Preparing and Cooking Gooseberries

Whether you are picking them or buying them, you need to know how ripe your gooseberries are. This important because small, vivid green gooseberries are best for accompanying savoury dishes, and large riper ones are best made into puddings. I remember as a child, dipping raw, tart gooseberries straight into the sugar bowl. I expect the Sugar Police would have something to say about that these days.

The top and the tail

To prepare your gooseberries, wash well with and top and tail them with sharp scissors or pinching fingernails.

If you have lots of gooseberries, you can do several things. Pop some straight into freezer bags or stew them with sugar, a little water and a knob of butter and freeze that. I prefer to make jam or vinegar if I’m going to preserve them. When they cook, they start to lose their colour and if boiled very thoroughly, like for jam, they attain a lovely deep pink.

Gooseberry compote is very useful; it can be served simply with ice cream for a quick dessert, or baked in the oven as a pie, crumble or cobbler. A classic dessert is gooseberry fool, simply compote folded into lightly whipped, sweetened cream, or even better a mixture of custard and whipped cream.

A gooseberry haul from just two modestly-sized shrubs

Other desserts include steamed puddings and a delicious baked pudding rather like an Eve’s pudding: I shall be certainly posting a recipe for that. Old fashioned pies called Oldbury tarts made with hot water pastry used to be very popular. Sometimes the pies were filled with red or whitecurrant jelly, just like an old-fashioned raised pork pie – I bet they would be great served with cheese.

I cannot talk about the culinary potential of gooseberries without mentioning elderflowers. I love their delicious sweet-musk scent and add it to anything I possibly can. Back in the days of the restaurant, I made an excellent elderflower blancmange with gooseberry compote and shortbread biscuits, and I must say it was one of the best desserts I’ve ever made.

To add an elderflower air to your gooseberry dishes simply tie up a few heads in muslin before dunking them in your gooseberries or whatever.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you some of the recipes I have mentioned above, just in case you get a glut of them or spy a punnet in the greengrocers.

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‘Neil Cooks Grigson’ moves to WordPress

Hello lovely followers. Just a quickie to let you know that the sister blog to British Food: A History, Neil Cooks Grigson has moved from Blogger to WordPress. It makes much more sense to have them on the same format.

If you’ve never checked it out, now is your chance – there’s over 400 recipes on there, all fully reviewed. There are some amazing ones, and a fair few disasters, warts and all. So if there’s a classic English dish or recipe you’ve always wondered about, chances are I’ve cooked it up.

Just click on this link here and follow – I’d be most grateful!

I’ll be putting a few posts on there to help newcomers get up to speed on the project in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out.

Over and out!

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Blancmange

Last post I wrote all about the mediaeval dish Blanc Mange, an almond and rice stew served with chicken or fish. Obviously, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to give you a recipe for the dessert blancmange we know and love (or hate).

Blancmange went from a savoury to a sweet dish somewhere around 1600 – 1604 is the earliest recipe for it I can find that sounds like the pudding we eat today.

When one thinks of blancmange, a shuddering over-sweet pale pink mass doused with cloying raspberry flavouring is imagined. This is not a proper blancmange. When I make one, I go back to basics.

photo: unknown

Blancmange should be a simple affair: cream, milk, sugar and almond extract set with gelatine. In the recipes from earlier than the 20th Century, the gelatine would have been prepared in house from calves’ feet or pigs’ trotters. There was an alternative setting agent called isinglass which is made from the dried swim bladders of fish.

By the way, the pronounced almond flavour of almond extract is not supposed to emulate that of regular almonds, but of bitter almonds which were high in cyanide and therefore used in small, highly aromatic doses. Other things were sometimes added to this basic mixture: lemon zest, cinnamon, brandy and rose water all crop up in recipes through the centuries.

The blancmange went rather downhill once you could buy it in packet form. The almond extract or bitter almonds replaced with almond flavouring and instead of gelatine, cornflour was used. This is the dessert that many people hate. I must confess to quite liking the preparatory blancmange, but then, I’ll eat anything. It shouldn’t be called blancmange though, as it is quite a different beast; fake flavour and thick cornflour base making the final pud less jiggly and delicate. I suppose that after the realisation you could set custard with cornflour instead of egg yolks, the ‘magic’ formula was applied to blancmange.

I like to serve blancmange with a compote of cherries flavoured with a dash of kirsch and some delicate shortbread biscuits, but it is pretty good served all on its own. Who needs panna cotta!? If you want to turn the blancmange out of its mould, it is worth brushing the inside with a thin layer of sunflower oil so that it is easier to turn it out.

Makes 600 ml:

250 ml whole milk

gelatine leaves (see method)

100 g caster sugar

300ml double cream

1 tsp almond extract

Heat up the milk in a saucepan and as you wait, soak the gelatine leaves in cold water – check the instructions in the packet and use the correct number to set 600 ml except use one leaf fewer than instructed – you want a good wobble.

A good wobble…

When the milk is very hot, squeeze out the excess water from the gelatine and whisk it into the milk along with the sugar. Once dissolved, add the double cream and almond extract. Pour into your mould or moulds, cover with cling film or a plate and refrigerate overnight. If you like, you can whip the cream until floppy and stir it through the milk when it is just warm. This way you get a mousse-like consistency – good if you want to serve it at a dinner party.

To turn out the blancmange, dip the moulds in hot water for around 10 seconds. To make it release you may have to carefully coax the blancmange from the inside edge of the mould with your finger; if you can move it away easily, it should come out. Place a serving plate on top and quickly flip it over – the blancmange should release, if not, simply dip it in the water for a further 10 seconds.

Once turned out, you may find that some of the blancmange has melted, so tidy up the plate with a piece of kitchen paper before serving.

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Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’m carrying on the medieval almond milk theme (I will move away from this topic, I promise) with another post on what could be described as mediaeval England’s national dish – blanc mange. Blanc mange – literally white food – was a simple stew of poultry and rice poached in almond milk. Over the centuries, it evolved into the wobbly dessert we know and love (or hate) today. In France almond soups thickened with rice or bread are still eaten, so it appears that the blanc mange diverged into two different dishes: cold pud and creamy soup.

Blanc mange wasn’t just popular in England, but over the whole of mediaeval Europe. It began life as a Lent dish of rice, almond milk and fish such as pike or lobster, but people liked it so much that it was eaten at every meal, where the fish could be substituted with chicken or capon. Outside of Lent it could be flavoured with spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon and galangal, seasoned with verjuice, sugar and salt. It is thought that the dish originates from the Middle East, the part of the world we imported rice and almonds.

It’s worth mentioning that although a Lent dish, no commoner could afford this meal even in its most basic form– imported rice and almonds were very expensive, as were farmed chickens. This was commonplace food for the richer folk of society.

Here’s an example of a blanc mange recipe from around 1430:

For to make blomanger. Nym rys & lese hem & washe hem clene, & do þereto god almande mylke & seþ hem tyl þey al tobrest; & þan lat hem kele. & nym þe lyre of þe hennyn or of capouns & grynd hem small; kest þereto wite grese & boyle it. Nym blanchyd almandys & safroun & set hem aboue in þe dysche & serue yt forþe.

This recipe seems to be for a blanc mange served cold or warm; the rice is cooked in the almond milk and cooled while the capon or chicken is poached separately. Saffron and almonds are sprinkled over the dish before serving.

I’ve looked at a few recipes and they don’t really change over the next two hundred years – always chicken or fish, rice and almond milk and a few mild spices, sometimes served hot, sometimes cold and often adorned with slivered almonds fried in duck or goose fat and a sprinkle of sugar, all before being served forth. They also seem extremely bland with most recipes containing no spices at all. That said, many of our favourite foods are bland: white bread, mashed potatoes, avocados and mayonnaise all belong in the bland club, so bland does not equal bad. In fact, bland food is usually comfort food, and I strongly suspect that this is what is going on here, a bland white food, served at every meal no matter how grand. Blanc mange was mediaeval comfort food, the macaroni cheese of its day!

The blanc mange went from a chicken and rice dish to wobbly pudding somewhere around 1600 it seems. A 1596 recipe uses capon meat, ginger, cinnamon and sugar, and is pretty much identical to the recipes from 1400, but then I find in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book of 1604 that she gives instruction for a cold sweet. She describes a moulded dessert set with calves’ foot jelly (i.e. gelatine), almonds, rice flour, rosewater, ginger and cinnamon.

Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’ve combined the methods of several recipes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The important thing to remember is that mediaeval almond milk would have contained sugar, salt and a little rosewater, so if you want to use the modern shop-bought stuff, you might want to add a little of all three for authenticity. Alternatively, you can have a go at making some yourself.

The spices I went for were ginger and cinnamon, but you can add white pepper, galingale and saffron too if you like.

The only thing I have done differently to the original recipes is to leave my chicken on the bone; bones stop the chicken drying out in the cooking process and flavour the dish.

1 L mediaeval almond milk flavoured with a few drops of almond extract

1 chicken jointed into 8 breast pieces, 4 thigh pieces and 2 drumsticks, skin removed

3 tbs duck or goose fat

white rice measured to the 300 ml line of a jug

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

1 ½ tsp salt

small handful slivered almonds

Demerara sugar and more salt for sprinkling

Pour the almond milk in a saucepan and heat up to almost boiling. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan melt one tablespoon of the goose or duck and when hot, tip in the rice. Stir to coat the rice grains in the fat, then add the spices and salt. Add the chicken pieces and hot almond milk and stir just once more.

Turn the heat down to low, place on a lid and simmer gently for 25 minutes.

When the time is almost up, fry the slivered almonds in the remaining fat until a deep golden-brown colour.

Serve the chicken and rice in deep bowls with the almonds, salt and sugar sprinkled over.

There you go, pretty easy stuff really. And the verdict? Well, it was quite bland, but pretty tasty with all of the adornments, and the flavours developed a lot over night when I reheated some. The sugar wasn’t as weird tasting as you might expect, and the mild scent of rose water really lifted the dish. The almonds fried in duck fat were amazing, and I’ll certainly be stealing that idea. Will I make it again? Probably not, I must admit, but it was an interesting experiment. Next post, I’ll give you a very easy recipe for a proper dessert blancmange, one of my favourite things to eat. Until then, cheerio!

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Medieval Rose Pudding (Rosee)

Last post I wrote about my little experiment making almond milk. With my batch I decided to make a mediaeval recipe from the first cook book in English, Forme of Cury. It was written around 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II; I’ve written about it and cooked up a few recipes from it before.

The one I chose is called Rosee, and it is like a pudding – in the American sense of the word – i.e. a thick custardy dessert. This one is thickened with rice flour instead of eggs like a regular custard and is flavoured with rose petals (“with flours of white rosis”) as well as some ginger and cinnamon. It’s not the right time of year for roses, so in lieu of the blooms, I used some rose water instead. It’s also flavoured with pine nuts and dates, which also adds a little texture. Sugar is the sweetener – which wasn’t refined to pure white in the 1400s, so I used soft light brown sugar to replicate this.

You don’t have to use mediaeval almond milk, you can buy it, or just use regular cows’ milk.

Here’s how it is written in Forme of Cury. It’s hard to decipher, but once you know the now defunct letter thorn (þ) is makes a th sound (so seþe is pronounced seethe), it makes it a lot easier.

Rose Pudding 1390:

Take thyk mylke; seþe it. Cast þerto sugur, a gode porcioun; pynes [pine nuts], dates ymynced, canel [cinnamon], & powdour ginger; and seeþ I, and alye [mix] it with flours of white rosis, and flour of rys. Cole it; salt it and mess it forth. If þou wilt in stede of almaunde mylke, take swete crem of kyne [cows].

Hopefully you get the gist – it takes a while to tune in!

I didn’t follow the method exactly – I used my own cook’s logic to the dish – but I made quite a delicious pudding, and it didn’t feel as though it was a vegan dessert. A knob of butter or a glug of cream, goes a long way with making food satisfying, but I genuinely didn’t miss them. It really goes to show that the King and his court did not go without during Lent!

Rose Pudding 2019:

Makes 4 to 6 puddings

25g rice flour or cornflour

¼ tsp each ground ginger and cinnamon

250 ml mediaeval almond milk, bought almond milk or full fat milk (or a mixture)

60 g soft light brown sugar

Pinch salt

50 g chopped dates, plus extra for decoration

25 g pine nuts or chopped mixed nuts, plus extra for decoration

2 to 3 tbs rose water

Put the flour and spices in a small saucepan and whisk in the milk, starting by adding just a third of it at first to prevent lumps. When all of the milk has been added, put the pan on the heat and bring to a simmer, stirring well with a wooden spoon or small whisk as it begins to thicken. Add the sugar, salt, dates and nuts. Keep it simmering very gently for around 10 minutes to cook out the flour. If it looks like it will be too thick, add more liquid (it sets quite firm, so when it is hot, you’re looking for the consistency of thick double cream).

Remove from the heat and add the rose water – I like quite a lot, but it can be rather overpowering, so add enough that seems just right and then add a shake more. By doing this you are compensating for the fact it will be served cold, the flowery aroma less pungent.

Pour into serving cups – I went for small coffee cups – scatter with a few more dates and nuts and cover with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Pop them in the fridge until set.

Half an hour before you want to serve them, take them out of the fridge to take off the chill.

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Mediaeval Almond Milk

Over recent years, as we have become more aware of people’s food intolerances and allergies there has been a great rise in the amount of plant-based milks consumed in the western world. We’ve also realised that there are many benefits associated with the cutting down of animal products in our diets. One of these plant milks – almond milk – is actually having a Renaissance because it was a food that used to be consumed in abundance in mediaeval Europe. Indeed, if I was writing this 20 years ago, it would be appearing in my ‘Forgotten Foods’ series on the blog.

As you may know, mediaeval Christians fasted a lot. There were two great fasting episodes: Advent and Lent. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays was a fast day, meaning that around half of the days of the year were spent fasting. No meat or animal produce was allowed to be eaten, except for fish which was considered cool and calming and so appropriate for these days of solemnity.

The nutrition contained within almond milk. Notice the added ingredients.

Just like the people do today, mediaeval folk tried to make alternative products that could fill the same satisfying gastronomical niche as the real thing. Almond milk was one of those products.

Almonds were imported (as they are now) and very expensive. Households were expected to make almost all their own food and drinks and almond milk was no exception. The expense and effort required to make it made it a fasting ingredient reserved only for the rich, and they consumed a lot of it. King Edward I went through a startling 40 000 pounds of almonds in just two years!

I must admit I quite enjoy modern almond milk as a drink or in porridge but find it otherwise a little insipid, so I was interested in finding out how mediaeval people went about making it and what it was like. From my reading, it seems to be thicker and more substantial than todays, where it was refined into a thick almond cream or curdled to make a kind of almond curd cheese. I’m not sure if this would be possible using the almond milk of today!

On the other hand, modern almond milk may be more nutritious. When people moved from cow’s milk to plant-based milks, many didn’t realise there would be a massive drop in their consumption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This led to concerns that people would become deficient, and so modern manufacturers fortify almond milk with extra nutrients to help people to achieve their recommended nutritional allowances for the day.

Making Mediaeval Almond Milk

The basic method was acquired from the Arabs who were supplying much of the almonds themselves via the vast network of trade routes that stretched out through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

The begin almonds would be pounded very fine, sometimes with a little spring water or rose water to stop them oiling;  they didn’t want to make almond nut butter by accident! After this initial exhausting task, the almonds would be soaked in spring water (though I have found references to soaking them in barley water too). After soaking, it was passed through a strainer and seasoned with salt and some honey or sugar. Cream could be made by boiling the milk down until very thick or made into curds by adding vinegar before straining. I came across this recipe for an almond cheese so thick, you could slice it:

Take almond milk, and boil it, and when it is boiled take it from the fire, and sprinkle on a little vinegar. Then spread it on a cloth, and cast sugar on it, and when it is cold gather it together, and leche it [slice it] in dishes, and serve it forth.

So how does mediaeval almond milk compare to compare to todays, and how is it to use as an ingredient?

I updated the mediaeval approach to making almond milk, but the ingredients essentially remain the same.

100g ground almonds

2 tsp rose or orange-flower water (optional)

1 tsp sugar or honey

A good pinch of salt400 ml boiling water

60 ml white wine (optional)

The first task is to get those ground almonds super-fine. Put them in a blender (a Nutri-bullet style blender is perfect) with the rose water and about 50 ml of the hot water and blitz in pulses until very smooth. Add the rest of the boiling water and leave to stand and soak for around 20 minutes.

Give the milk a good swish around and pass it through a sieve to remove any large pieces of ground almond. Sweeten with the sugar or honey, add the wine if using and allow to cool.

The mediaeval almond milk is now ready to use.

The Verdict

Well I must say, I was quite impressed with the end result. It was more substantial than bought almond milk in both texture (it was creamy) and taste (the honey, salt and rose water). It wasn’t chalky or gritty either like I expected. I don’t recommend adding the wine however; it put the flavours out of kilter for me, but each to their own I suppose.

I heartily recommend making some. I made a rose-flavoured pudding (see next post) and I even tried making the cheese with the left-over almond milk.

I was rather odd in flavour, I added soft dark brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar, let it stand for a few hours and then passed it through a scalded tea towel sat in a sieve. It could make an interesting mediaeval version of a Yorkshire Curd Tart I think.

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