Monthly Archives: September 2020

Forgotten Foods #8: The Grey Heron

When we think of the meat that was eaten at mediaeval feasts, we conjure up images of huge pieces of roast ox, venison or wild boar’s head. There was, in fact, a wide variety of meats, especially wild birds. One of these was the grey heron and its meat was regarded very highly, only fit to serve at the top tables of a banquet; the only other waterfowl with a higher status was the regal swan. According to the late, great Clarissa Dickson-Wright, heron tastes like swan too: “it was very fishy”, she tells us, “rather stringy and reminiscent of moorhen…” It’s quite odd to think they were eaten at all; they’re such a lanky things – all neck, legs and wings. There can’t be that much meat on one.

Grey Heron (RSBP)

So how does one prepare and cook a heron fit for a top table? If we look in Forme of Cury – the earliest cookbook in the English language, dating from around 1400 – and it tells us: “Cranes and herouns shul be armed with lardes of swyne, and eaten with ginger.” The “lardes of swyne” are strips of backfat or fatty bacon that are threaded through the meat so that as the lean meat cooks, the fat melts and bastes it. That’s all we get though.

Wynkyn de Worde (National Portrait Gallery)

We can glean more information from another book, The Boke of Keruynge or, The Book of Carving, which was written in 1513 by the splendidly named Wynkyn de Worde. He provides a long list of different animals, along with instructions on how to carve them for the table. Curiously, there are many words for carving – a specific word for each type of animal, so for a heron, you don’t just carve it, no, you “dysmembre” it:

“Dysmembre that heron.

Take an heron, and rayse his legges and his wynges as a crane, and sauce hym with vynegre, mustarde, poudre of ginger, and salte.”

(And to “Displaye” a crane, simply “unfolde his legges, and cut of his winges by the Joints.”)

So, we get am extra modicum of information: a piquant mustard sauce or glaze, but we still don’t know how it was cooked.

To get any detailed information, we need to go to 1660 and look at the classic tome The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, and he had obviously read Mr de Worde’s book, because he uses the same words for carving:

“Dismember that Hern.

Take off both the legs, and lace it down to the breast with your knife on both sides, raise up the flesh, and take it clean off with the pinion; then stick the head in the breast, set the pinion on the contrary side of the carcase, and the leg on the other side, so that the bones ends may meet cross over the carcase, and the other wings cross over upon the top of the carcase.”

He also tells us that herons are not simply hunted and brought to the dinner table, but stolen from nests before they have fledged and kept in special barns

“…where there is many high cross beams for them to pearch on; then to have on the flour divers square boards with rings in them, and between every board which should be two yards square, to place round shallow tubs full of water… and be sure to keep the house sweet, and shift the water often, only the house must be made so, that it may rain in now and then, in which the hern will take much delight.”

The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May (British Library)

In these sheds, the herons were not fed fish, as one might expect, but “livers, and the entrails of beasts, and such like cut in great gobbits [bite-sized pieces].” They were not just kept for the table either, many were kept for “Noblemens sports”, specifically for training their hawks. When raised for sport, they were instead fed on “great gobbits of dogs flesh, cut from the bones”

Why dogs’ flesh? Well, this was a time when Bubonic Plague was common, and at the time it was thought that dogs carried the disease, and so any strays would be routinely caught and killed. But why catch and kill an animal that you thought had plague and then feed it your own hawks? I would have thought they’d be taken to the edge of town and burned them or something, but that’s seventeenth century logic for you. CDW makes a further point:

“It’s ironic when you consider that the dogs might very well have killed the rats whose fleas did carry the plague and therefore might have prevented it.”

Indeed.

May also provides us with some recipes. In general, they are boned and filled with a minced meat and suet stuffing, seasoned with spices and oysters, then poached. Sometimes they are baked in ovens.

Herons do seem to drop out of the cookbooks after that, but they were still being eaten. The most recent reference I could find is from the 1914 book Pot Luck; or The British home cookery book by May Byron and is for Heron Pudding. It uses chunks of meat taken off the bone, and the reason why is very interesting:

“Before cooking it must be ascertained that no bones of the heron are broken. These bones are filled with a fishy fluid, which, if allowed to come in contact with the flesh, make the whole bird taste of fish.”

This may explain CDW’s issue with roast waterfowl like swan and moorhen. I wonder if they boned before cooking and if that would make them taste better?

Byron goes on:

“This fluid however, should be always extracted from the bones, and kept in a medicine cupboard, for it is excellent applied to all sorts of cuts and cracks.”

You heard it here first folks.

Heron is no longer legal game and therefore no longer eaten – as far as I know. However, if you have any stories to prove me wrong, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.

References

The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May

The Boke of Keruynge (1513) by Wyknyn de Worde in Early English Meals and Manners (1868) edited by Frederick James Furnivall

Forme of Cury (c.1400) in Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (1985) edited by Constance B Hieatt and Sharon Butler

Heron Pudding, Foods of England website: http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/Heron_Pudding.htm

A History of English Food (2011) Clarissa Dickson-Wright

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The Great Famine 1315-1317

Such a mortality of men in England and Scotland through famine and pestilence as had not been heard of in our time.

The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346

In the autumn and winter of 1314, Britain experienced a period of extreme wet and “bizarre” weather; torrential rain flooded the fields, rotting crops and drowning livestock. The staple food of the time was of course bread, but the ‘daily’ bread was becoming more and more scarce as stored grains either went mouldy or were “innutritious”. In a good year, one might expect a good return on grain planted: for each grain sown, you could get up to seven grains back. In 1315 the return was devasting: now you reaped one grain for every two planted – had they known it, they would have been better off not sowing seeds in the spring, but of course they did not know that this spell of bad weather would devastate crops for almost two years.

Edward II

What could be causing this? Naturally at this time, all eyes turned to God – it was obvious He was punishing the English, but what could they have done to deserve this? One answer could be found in the King’s Vita. Edward II was on the throne, and at this time all kings had a running commentary-cum-almanac written about them and their times called a Vita, and his Vita placed the finger of blame directly on the English people themselves. Apparently, the English “excel other nations in three qualities in pride, craft and in perjury. All of this comes from the wickedness of the inhabitants.”

In reality, it wasn’t just the English who were affected by the weather, it was widespread, hitting the whole of the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany and West Poland. At the time, each country seemed to think the ordeal was happening only to them, and all of them insularly blamed their own nations for their own personal famines.

A map showing the areas of Europe affected by the Famine (from Arizona Geographic Alliance)

During winter of 1314/5 people quickly realised that if they were to keep aside some of their grain to sow in the springtime there was very little spare to grind into flour for bread. This was not uncommon; England is, after all, wet and warm a lot of the time. Things usually picked up the next year and as long as there were some seed and livestock reserved for the new farming year all would be well. The problem was the weather did not change in the springtime and produced next to no crops. It was obvious a real famine was on its way.

In response to this, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, ordered Parish Churches throughout the realm to partake in some ‘solemn processions’ in an attempt to curry favour with God. King Edward and his Parliament tried something a little more practical and attempted to stave off, or at least put off, the famine by rationing and regulating food prices so that everyone could get at least something. Parliament fixed the price of wheat, sheep, cattle, chickens and eggs. It cost 12 shillings for ‘a live fat cow’ and a penny for two dozen hens’ eggs.

This was a great idea in theory, but in reality, it was a disaster; there was so little food that traders’ and farmers’ businesses were no longer viable. Things really were at a stretch, even the King, when he turned up with his household at St Albans for a visit, something that kings loved to do – they would turn up with their entourage and expect their hosts to house, feed and water them opulently. It was a great honour to have this thrust upon you, and dukes and earls of the land all dreaded finding out the King was coming to them. They knew the royal party would clean them out and have them haemorrhaging money for the entire period. Well not this time – August 1315 – for his host could barely find enough bread to feed them.

As the year progressed price fixing was ditched, and prices increased hugely. Now, a quarter barrel of wheat (a bit under 13 kg) rose in price from five shillings to forty shillings, and all you were getting for a penny now was “2 little onions”. By 1216 there had been two years without a harvest and the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to sell his holy relics to pay for food.

If you didn’t fancy your chances stealing food, you could have a stab at some foraging. The trouble was much of the undeveloped lands were boggy and filled with rotting vegetation too. People tried digging up roots, eating grass and even the bark from trees.*

Sheep and cattle were killed from outbreaks of ‘murrain’ (a highly virulent disease, probably food-and-mouth); in Berwick, starving soldiers boiled and ate the carcasses of their diseased horses for sustenance. Animals all around the country died in their thousands, and the people literally could not eat them fast enough. In a normal year when animals were killed their meat was cured in salt to preserve it, but because of the extreme weather it was too wet to dry salt, causing a shortage making it extremely expensive so they rotted.

An image showing both people starving and cattle succumbing to murrain

For England, it was worst in the north (it is ‘grim Up North’, after all). Northumbria had to deal with constant raids from starving Scots and were reduced to eating “dogs and horses and other unclean things”. There was even talk of cannibalism: “others stole new-born babies to devour.” Hopefully this story was apocryphal.

One in twenty died during the famine but for those who survived, insult was added to injury because a “great pestilence” came and devasted a population weak with malnutrition and dysentery. The next year would improve a little, and in 1318 there was bountiful harvest. However, it took years for the livestock population to recover from murrain. As for the people, they were affected by cold winters, poor harvests and disease much more than before the famine; the Great Famine had left Europe in a weakened state for several decades and “[t]here would be really no sustained growth for a hundred years.” Quite so, because little did they know that soon Europe would be hit by its first wave of the Black Death, which devasted those countries hit by the Famine even harder that the rest.

Today, we cannot imagine being at the mercy of the elements like this; with modern technology and farming methods, we reckon these events are things of the past – in the Western World at least. To some degree I am sure it is true, but today we have never been so UNaware of how our food is grown and processed. I wonder just how many narrow squeaks we have had. I expect they are not infrequent.

*this might seem a little far-fetched, but deer commonly strip and eat the bark and its inner green layer in times of hardship such as wintertime. I wonder if folk observed this behaviour and thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try too.

References

‘10 Things to Know About the Great Famine’, Medievalists.net website https://www.medievalists.net/2019/06/great-famine/

‘Edward II: The Unconventional King’ (2017) by Kathryn Warner

‘The Great Famine’, halinaking.co.uk website: http://www.halinaking.co.uk/Location/Yorkshire/Frames/History/1315%20Great%20Famine/Great%20Famine.htm

‘The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century’ (1997) by William Chester Jordan.

‘The Great Flood and Great Famine of 1314’ by Ben Johnson from Historic UK website: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Great-Flood-Great-Famine-of-1314/

‘The History of England Volume I: Foundation’ (2012) by Peter Ackroyd

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