Category Archives: food

How to Make Medlar (or Quince or Crab Apple) Jelly

Last post I told you all about the overlooked fruit the medlar (or openarse). It’s a tricky one as it can’t just be picked and eaten like most dessert fruits. The way to get the most of any medlars you do get your hands on is to make a jelly, a beautiful deep vermillion preserve which makes an excellent accompaniment to game, roast or cured meats and cheese.

I thought it would also be a good opportunity to go through the process of making a jelly preserve; something I have been threatening to do for a while. This recipe works well with the close relations of the medlar: the quince and the crab apple.

Choosing the fruit:

There is a bit of disagreement as to how ripe your medlars should be; some say only unripe medlars should be used, others that ¼ to ½ of them should be bletted (soft and brown). I have only ever used unripe ones – these produce a clear, bright jelly with an astringency comparable to strong tea. Next time, I’ll be patient and wait for a good proportion of them to blet.

Medlars are high in pectin, a chemical glue that sticks plant cells together. As fruit ripens, the pectin is broken down by enzymes making the fruit soft. When making a jelly, one needs to release the pectin by boiling the fruit until pulpy so that it can set the jelly. If using a lot of ripe fruit, I would suggest adding some crab apples or tart eating apples such as Cox’s orange pippins or russets. Alternatively, a proportion of the sugar can be replaced with jam sugar, ensuring a decent set.

Quince and crab apples do not have this problem and you should be okay.

It’s worth mentioning that if you only have a few medlars, quinces or crab apples, you can supplement with some regular apples and the resulting jelly will be still be great. I’ve made quince jelly with 50% apples before and it was delicious!

Ingredients and equipment:

Aside from the fruit, all you need is water, granulated sugar and some optional cider vinegar. I think a little vinegar cuts through the sweetness very well, but you can leave it out if you prefer.

I don’t add herbs and spices to medlar or quince jelly, but crab apple jelly can benefit from some subtle flavouring: things like rosemary and thyme work well as do cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.

Specialist equipment is easy to get hold of and inexpensive: you’ll need a good-sized sheet of muslin or a jelly bag (though a tea towel or pillowcase will also do the job), a sugar thermometer or temperature probe, and some jars with lids.

Method:

Day One

Scrub the fruit(s), chop roughly – there’s no need to peel or core the fruit – and place in a large pot along with any herbs and spices if using. Just cover the fruit with water and bring to a good simmer and add some cider vinegar, around 50 ml per litre of water.

Turn on the heat, cover and simmer until very soft. Very hard fruit can take an hour, though I do give things a helping hand by squishing the fruit against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon.

When the fruit is ready, scald your muslin or jelly bag iwith hot water. If using a jelly bag, place it on its stand with a bowl beneath it, if using muslin, use it to line a bowl. Carefully, ladle the fruit and cooking liquor into the bag/lined bowl – be careful.

The jelly bag can be left to do its thing, but if just using muslin, a little extra work is required: collect up the edges and tie them well with string. You now need to hang this hot haversack of pulp over the bowl to drip overnight. I hook it over a cupboard handle and then in the fridge to keep the fruit flies off. However you do it, make sure things are securely tied – those bags can be pretty weighty.

Day Two

By now, the liquor should have stopped dripping, but give it a squeeze just to see if you can get any more out. Don’t worry of the juice has gone cloudy, this is common with medlars.

Measure the volume of juice and pour into a heavy based stockpot. To this, add your granulated sugar in the ratio of 500g sugar for every 600ml of juice. Turn the heat on and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. At this point, clip on your sugar thermometer, if using. Turn up the heat so that the syrupy mixture can boil hard. As you wait for this to happen, pop a saucer into your freezer. Skim away any scum that is thrown up.

Let the syrup boil for at least twenty minutes and check the temperature – pectin sets at 105°C. Sometimes jellies don’t always set, so it’s best to double-check with the wrinkle test. Remember that sauce in the fridge? Take it out and drop some of the jelly onto it. Let it cool for a couple of minutes. If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, all is well and the jelly is ready to be potted into sterilised jars.

(Sterilising jars is easy: place on a baking tray and pop into an oven preheated to 125°C for at least 25 minutes. I usually put mine in as the jelly is coming to a boil. Any rubber seals can be scalded in boiling water closer to the time.)

Use a jug to pour the jelly into jars, don’t overfill here, a gap of one centimetre below the rim is good. Some jars have a helpful maximum fill line on them. Seal with the lids as soon as you can. Be very careful here!

The next day, the jelly should be set, but sometimes it takes a few days, especially if vinegar was used.

The jelly will keep for 6 months unopened, once open keep in the fridge.

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Forgotten Foods #7: Openarses

I’m continuing my mediaeval-themed posts with a somewhat infamous forgotten fruit: the openarse.

This unusual fruit is a member of the Rosaceae family which contains within its members familiar apples and pears as well as the less familiar, such as quinces, rosehips and sorbs; and like many of the cultivated varieties within this group, they made their way over here from Asia Minor. They quickly nestled themselves into the English mediaeval orchard, becoming an essential fruit crop.

The openarse looks superficially like a russet apple’s withered twin; all squat, rough and green-brown. Turn it over and you’ll see how it gained its name. The calyces, usually small and tightly puckered on the underside of an apple or pear, are very large and lobular, protruding somewhat, giving it a definite rusty sheriff badge appearance. They also sometimes called grannies’ arses. Nice.

According to Jane Grigson in her Fruit Book, the ‘English name openarse, gradually and politely, …was superceded by the French-derived medlar.’ That said, the French also call them dogs’ arses. Trust them to be more vulgar us!

During the mediaeval period, medlars were widely cultivated in England, reaching peak production in the 1600s. They were a useful fruit because they store well, ripening up quite a while after picking. At first, however, they are rock hard, sour and terribly astringent. Picked in late autumn (some say to wait after the first frost) and stored in a cool, dark place, they begin to soften and sweeten. This controlled decay – called bletting – converts starch to the fruit sugar fructose and reduces the acid and tannin levels dramatically. It’s quite nice to see the fruits bletting at different rates and times; some blet on the tree, some take weeks post picking. You can see how this steady supply of ripening fruit would have been extremely important to mediaeval people during winter (see this post on mediaeval feast and famine for more information).


A bletted medlar

The traditional way to eat the fruit is to squeeze your openarse between your fingers so that the pulp can be either picked or sucked out. The medlar was considered very good for digestion and so would be taken after a meal with port (science is revisiting these ideas and has provided some experimental evidence that it is indeed the case). The taste is pleasant, lying somewhere between tart apple and sweet prune. Because the medlar was generally eaten in this way, recipes don’t tend to appear in old cook books; the only common recipe is for medlar jelly (which will be the subject of the next post). However, I did find one for a medlar tart in Thomas Dawson’s 1596 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel:

To Make a Tart of Medlars

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling it till it be somewhat thick. Then season them sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Thomas Dawson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and an openarse can be found in a Shakespeare passage. From Romeo and Juliet:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,

And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit

As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.

O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!

A pop’rin pear, by the way, looks rather like a cock and balls. O! the camp bawdiness of it! I’m going to have to lie down.

Amusingly, the prudish Victorians replaced ‘openarse’ with ‘et cetera’, which – if you didn’t know of the replacement – makes no sense at all and, more importantly, spoils the joke.

FYI: Chaucer mentions openarses in the Canterbury Tales, and the earliest known use of the word goes right back to the 10th Century!

Colour plate from unknown source

Sourcing Medlars

After reading this, I expect you are simply dying to get your hands on some openarse yourself. This will be tricky; they are no longer grown commercially, so you’ll either have to plant one yourself or find a feral tree. If you live in the south of England this may not be an impossible task as many villages grew them in public spaces.

They are lovely trees – they grow untamed, sprawling in any direction they choose. They grow slowly, but still produce quite a large crop, so even a small tree would provide you with a decent glut of openarse. This is definitely the fruit tree for the lazy gardener.

As for me, I know the whereabouts of an ignored medlar tree in Manchester, but I’m keeping quiet about it; I don’t want all and sundry picking at my openarses now do I!?

I’ll stop now.

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Mediæval Dining

Whether a large-scale affair, or a small but formal meal, mediaeval dining followed a strict regime, and class and rank were very important. Everyone ate together, but people could not sit anywhere and eat exactly want they wanted and food was not shared equally.

Before dinner was served, the dining area had to be prepared. Most of this work was done by some of lowest-ranking lads who worked hard fetching and carrying. They cut the thick sliced of rough bread to make trencher plates. They would wash, clean and polish cutlery and other tableware ready for the main meal of the day. Those that worked well may have gone on to become servers, carvers, or even butlers. Important men such as knights and other ‘henchmen’ were looked after and fed by the Court Commissariat.

Trestle tables were laid out (we still say we are laying the table day) and covered with a tablecloth and dressed with cutlery and other tableware. When William I dined, he would sit at his chair so the table could be laid over him and then dressed. He obviously liked it snug.

Mediaeval mealtimes as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

One task was to remove the cups and other drinking vessels from their lidded storage box. The lid was removed and the cleaned cups were arranged on it, the lid was then placed back on top of the box so they could easily be distributed. This was known as the cup board.

When the room was ready, diners would first wash their hands and then seat themselves appropriately. Typically there were three types of table. The lord and lady would sit with the most important people at the top table, then middle ranking tables for the middle class, and then the lowest junior tables for remainder of the people. Once seated, Grace would be heard and the food would be brought in, but no one could eat until the lord took a pinch of salt from his ceremonial salt cellar.

The first course contained the most substantial dishes such as meat and pies, and following that in the second course, there would be sweet tarts, comfits, small songbirds and other delicate dishes. We kept this tradition in general, except for the birds (though if the fancy takes you, see this snipe post).

Large banquets would have had impressive roasts, but day-to-day this did not happen. For example the mother of Edward IV, Princess Cecill generally served up rather austere boiled beef with the odd roast here and there. On Saturdays, she had fresh and salt fish and butter.

Everyone got some of the first course, but it was not a free-for-all. The top table got a choice of around six, the middle rankers four and the juniors two, and less of it; the lord may have got a whole chicken to himself, but the middle-rankers may just have a quarter to share between several. The lads that were still working hard got some bread and cheese as respite.

Once the meal got going, one might imagine a boisterous scene, but folk were expected to be polite, chatting in a restrained manner with no shouting, burping or farting. All quite sedate, except for the big feasts such as Christmas where tables were set up everywhere to accommodate the extra guests, even in sheds. Those lucky enough to be away from the prying eyes in the main hall could get very merry indeed.

Lovely picture of some Mediaeval dining, showing intricate use of the knife (if anyone knows where this picture is from, please let me know!)

It’s worth mentioning that the types of foods people were eating in England in 1400 didn’t really change that much up right until Tudor times. Many dishes stayed the same, as did the ingredients, although many were easier to get hold of by then. There are some dishes recognisable to us today, at least in name, such as blancer mange and gingerbread.

Setting the Table

Some Mediaeval cutlery (from All About History)

As mentioned above, folk sat at a trestle table covered with a tablecloth that was changed between courses. In front of you there would be a large rectangular piece of very hard bread used a plate called a trencher. There would also be a wooden bowl, used for the more sloppy and messy foods. However you did have to share this bowl between four.

By way of cutlery, only a spoon and knife were available. You usually brought your own personal cutlery. Forks, by the way, were work of the devil. Knives could be used to stab large pieces of meat so it could be torn by the incisors. This tearing of food meant that top incisors wore away so that the they met perfectly in middle, unlike we modern Westerners who all have overbites because most of our food is cut up!

Richard III’s exhumed skull clearly showing how Mediaeval teeth ‘fit’ much better than today (pic: University of Leicester)

If you got into a bit of a mess with all this wrenching of food with your gnashers, you would have to wipe your mouth on the tablecloth because napkins were not invented until the late fourteenth century! When they were introduced, they were large folded pieces of cloth laid over one shoulder.

At the end of the meal, the bowls, trenchers and other unwanted foods were redistributed to the poor by the almoner.

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Mediæval Feast, Mediæval Famine

The Mediaeval Period is a vast expanse, lasting around one thousand years from the fifth century to the fifteenth, and so encompasses a substantial slice of history. It is flanked on one side by the Classical Period, the end of Roman occupation ended that one; at the other, the start of the Modern Age marked by the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty, the rise of the Tudors and the Age of Discovery. Being bookended like this, the Mediaeval Period is also sometimes called the Middle Ages.

A 13th Century farming scene:  Le Régime des princes, 1279.

During this period, technology and agriculture advanced greatly, but everyone was at the mercy of the elements and entire harvests were often lost creating famine. The knowledge and skill required of the mediaeval farmer was therefore ‘vital and important’; a close eye had to be kept on the seasons, weather and general climate. Planning and forethought were essential, especially when things did not go to plan, for nothing could be grown in the winter months, so the community (which may just have been a single household) depended upon the stores built up over the summer and autumn. They were slaves to the calendar.

Wet, cold weather in spring and summer could spell disaster later in the year if food, especially grain, was not rationed and stored properly; what was grown was grown, and when autumn hit no plants could be cultivated from seed. Fighting off damp and vermin was important too; not just because it was food for the people, but for livestock too. Whole stores have been destroyed by mould. The best way to take down a village or town was to destroy the grain stores.

A modern reproduction of a mediaeval grain store (Village de l’An Mil)

Efficiency was also key: corn and other cereal crops (such as oats in more northern climes) were collected and stored, poultry such geese would eat fallen grains difficult for people to pick, and would hopefully fatten. These birds – and other livestock – would all be slaughtered, the offal being eaten immediately with most of the meat preserved in salt and smoked in chimneys. Only the animals required for breeding the next year would be kept, but in poor years even these beasts had to be killed. This had huge repercussions; not only would there be no breeding stock next spring, but also no oxen to plough the fields to plant the corn. With few crops, people were essentially reduced to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, trapping wild animals and foraging for pignuts, berries and leaves. Famine and its associated diseases followed, especially when one throws in the Black Death in the latter centuries of this period.

Life for most was relentlessly gruelling and cruel, especially in the first Anglo-Saxon half of the period and no one was exempt; of course, it was peasants and slaves who would be the first to feel the effects of this, those ranked higher were better protected, but as a town generally ate the food it produced itself, effects quickly trickled down.

Things did improve in England when William the Conqueror/Bastard hopped over the channel with his Norman mates; an unprecedented amount of food and wine was imported from Normandy, France and other countries. Of course, only the Norman high-rankers benefitted. A major blow to the common man was the Conqueror’s implementation of strict hunting laws. Only the king, nobles, and those given special permission could hunt in the forests, anyone caug were punished severely, even in very lean times (for more information on this topic see this previous post).

Mediaeval Feast

A noble mediaeval feast, notice the dogs have free reign!

In times of plenty great feasts were held, especially by the kings and nobles of the age; one had to show ones wealth, and the best way to do this was by displaying how productive your land was with huge amounts of meat, poultry, game and fish. In this period it was all about quantity and quality.

In the twelfth century, the first crusades opened up a whole new world of excitement and opulence for the rich, as exotic fruits and spices were brought back from the Holy Land along the newly-formed spice routes, adding a whole new dimension to high-class feasting.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period, and in smaller towns and for Christian feasts and celebrations, feasts tended to be a community-wide affair, with everyone eating together in a great hall. There was a strict system where one sat, however, the top table being reserved for the special guests.

Most feasts followed the same basic pattern; several courses each made up of several dishes, with everyone collecting food from the tables at which they were sat. Large flat squares of hardened bread called trenchers were used as plates, which were then given to the poor to eat afterwards (it was also much cheaper to make disposable bread plates than to buy or produce earthenware ones.)

The first course started with the archetypal roast boar’s head, it was often extravagantly decorated with brightly coloured pastry pieces as well as silver and gold leaf. It was symbolic of a time gone past – the head of the beast killed for the night’s feast, and was not generally eaten. Served alongside the head was brawn, a kind of terrine made from a pig’s head, and mustard. I have made brawn myself and it is very delicious; it’s amazing how much meat there is on a pig’s head!

Immediately after the boar’s head and brawn, the large roasted animals were brought in: pigs, mutton, kid, swan, venison and ‘noble’ game such as hare.

The second course was made up of the smaller and lesser animals: chickens, rabbits, songbirds and bitterns for example, and meat broths.

The third course was essentially the same as the third, but included fish and and more dainty dishes, like eggs in jelly, custard tarts, marzipan and comfits.

There would also be many pies, some small and some huge, and some that were there just for show; the most famous being the ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It was common to put live animals in huge pastry cases so that when it was cut open, they would fly (or crawl) out much to the guests’ amusement. Such solettes, or subtleties, were part of many feasts. Great feasts had a whole course made up of dishes that were simply there to be looked at!

The planning and manpower required to carry off these huge events, the food served would be dependent upon season. My next few posts are going to about mediaeval food – hope you enjoy!

References:

Curye on Inglyche (1985), Eds. Constance B Hieatt & Sharon Butler, Oxford University Press

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley, Little Brown & Company

A History of English Food (1998) by Clarissa Dickson-Wright

 

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Forgotten Foods #6: Pease Bread

I often frequent the excellent vegan cooperatively-run supermarket Unicorn in Chorlton, south Manchester, to fill my food cupboards both at home and at the restaurant. One day, a couple of months ago, I spotted a very mediaeval ingredient: green pea flour. I had come across ‘peasemeal’ in several old books, but didn’t expect to ever see it for sale. (Another popular mediaeval ingredient is almond milk, used particularly on fasting days; it’s funny how these old ingredients are having a comeback as health foods.)

One of the mediaeval small-holder’s most important crops was his pea crop – they were not eaten as young sweet garden peas, but were left in the pods to mature and dry. The peas became starchy and packed with protein; an excellent nutritional source for the winter months. We use those dried peas today for mushy peas or split peas. Then, they were mainly used in pease porridge/pottage.

The pease were often ground to make peasemeal to thicken stews, and to make bread for cattle. People only ate it themselves in times of winter famine, and this peasebread was hated by all.

Peasebread and peasemeal stopped being produced in most of the UK, but it did live on until the mid-20th Century in the very North of Scotland and Orkneys, where very few crops can be grown in abundance (rye and oats are the only others really). Folk enjoyed pease scones, bannocks (flatbreads) and breads, but it was still associated with poverty.

Peasemeal is considered easy to digest, partially due to its lack of gluten, and is high in protein and carbohydrates. I quite like how some of these mediaeval ingredients are being re-examined during a time of vegan and paleo-dieting. It is strange to think how the poor were eating healthy vegetables with little fat, red meat, salt and sugar, considered then to have no nutritional value. Meanwhile, the bunged-up rich were chowing down almost entirely on meat, spice, white bread and sugar, in the belief they were eating properly. I bet their bedchambers sank in the morning.

I had to have a go at the derided peasebread, just to see how bad it was. I did cheat a little bit and mixed the peasemeal with some strong bread flour. It was pretty straight-forward to make, though the dough was very sticky was hard to knead. The resulting bread was dense and a little crumbly, but had a delicious sweet pea flavour, with hints of roasted peanut butter. Probably too dry to eat on its own, it was great toasted, buttered and dunked in soup.

So, here’s my recipe for peasebread. It made two flattened cobs.

(Notice all my liquid measurements are in grams rather than millilitres; for greater accuracy, it’s much easier to weigh your liquids, a tip from Elizabeth David.)

250g green pea flour

250g strong white bread flour

10g salt

10g instant yeast

30g sunflower or olive oil, or softened butter or lard

330g hand-hot water

In a wide mixing bowl mix together the two flours. To one side of the bowl place the salt, and place the yeast to the opposite side. Make a well in the centre and pour in the oil/fat and the water. Mix with your hands to form a dough. Leave to settle for ten minutes.

Spread a little oil on a work surface and knead until smooth. This is pretty tricky because it is so sticky, so use a dough scraper to help.

Oil a bowl and place in the dough inside and cover. Leave to rise until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours. Knock back the dough, divide into two pieces and form in to two taught, round cobs. To do this, roll into balls with oiled/floured hands, then tuck in the dough underneath whilst turning the ball, tautening the surface. Place on greased baking trays, flour generously and cut a cross in the centre. Cover with large plastic bags and leave to rise again for about an hour.

Place the cobs in a cold oven, then set the temperature to 230⁰C and bake for 40 minutes. Cool on a rack.

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Forgotten Foods #5: Parsley Root

Every now and again I write a post on forgotten foods, and here is one vegetable that was used widely in Medieval times, but has fallen very much out of use in this country: parsley root.

We are all very familiar with the culinary uses of parsley leaves, but the root has been much ignored in Britain of late. Parsley root is what celeriac is to celery and it is still commonly used in northern Germany (hence its other name ‘Hamburg’ parsley), Croatia, Bulgaria, Poland and Russia. It is an essential element in a truly authentic borscht.

Parsley root pops up every now and again in Medieval recipes but it popped up rather more recently in Manchester from my fruit and veg suppliers Organic North. I assume it’s started to appear here because of the recent influx of Eastern European folk to the UK and demand is high!

In our old cook books, it only seems to crop up as an ingredient in pottages and the like, but seems to have been used extensively by local physicians in all sorts of tinctures to cure dropsy and scarlet fever, as well as in bladder and kidney ‘teas’ because of its supposed diuretic properties. It turns out that parsley root is very good for the liver, so they might have been on to something there.

parsley-roots

Parsley root (Photo: Harvest to Table)

Parsley roots are a pale creamy-white, like a parsnip, but less yellow, and are thin and slender like a carrot. They lack that woody part to their roots that large parsnips have, being tender all the way up like a carrot. They taste predominately of parsley, but also of celeriac and parsnip.

They can be eaten raw in salads or as part of a coleslaw; the organic ones I got hold of made my tongue go a little numb after eating a raw one!

Cooked, they can be used like any root vegetable in soups. Apparently, they roast very well and make excellent chips. Their slight earthiness marries well with fish especially shellfish. I found a great-looking recipe for scallops in parsley root milk by American chef Karen Brooks – one to try next!

If you are unsuccessful in your search to find your own parsley roots, don’t worry because they are very easy to grow, taking just 3 months from seed to harvest. They overwinter well and can be dug up, replanted in a pot, and popped on a windowsill where the leaves will regrow to give you a personal supply of forced parsley herb.

 

Roast Parsley Root Soup

The best ways to enjoy any root vegetable is to either roast it or turn it into soup. Here’s a perfect combination of the two from my chef Matt, I particularly like that – the onion aside – all the vegetables are from the parsley family, so they all work together very well, never taking focus away from our star ingredient.

parsley root soup

3 tbs olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

6 fine parsley roots, peeled and chopped into 1cm slices

1 carrot, prepared just as the parsley root

2 celery sticks, roughly chopped

2 or 3 sprigs of thyme

2 fresh bay leaves

Salt and pepper

1 litre light vegetable stock or water

A splash of white wine or white vermouth (optional)

Chopped parsley root leaves or celery leaves to garnish.

 

First preheat the oven to 200°C and then heat the oil in a sturdy roasting tin over a hob. Tumble in the onion, parsley roots, carrot, celery, thyme and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper then turn the vegetables over in the pan until evenly coated with the oil. Once things have picked up a little colour, place the tin in the oven for around 20 minutes, stirring at half time.

When the vegetables are cooked though place them in a saucepan with the stock or water. Deglaze the pan with the wine or vermouth, if using, otherwise use a little water and tip all those nice burnt bits into the saucepan.

Bring the soup up to a bare simmer and cook until things are very soft. Allow to cool a little bit before fishing out the herbs and blitzing in a blender.

Check your seasoning, reheat and serve in bowls with some chopped parsley or celery leaves.

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Snipe

Last week I was very excited to hold of some snipe, a very rare treat indeed. I roasted them and got them on my menu. To eat them in the traditional way is, by our modern standards, rather macabre; they are cooked and roasted completely whole. Guts and brain are eaten.  It’s not for the faint-hearted, but, as is often the case, they make delicious eating. I was worried I had gone a little too far, but the people of Levenshulme did me proud.

So here’s a post all about snipe and how to roast and eat them in the traditional way.

A while back I wrote a general entry about game. Read it here.

 

Snipe in brief:

Season: 12 Aug – 31 Jan (England, Wales & Scotland); 1 Oct – 31 Jan (Northern Ireland)

Hanging time:  2-3 days

Weight: 150g

Roasting time:  10-15 minutes at 230⁰C

Breeding pairs in UK: 80 000

Indigenous?: Yes

Habitat: Mainly marshes and wetlands, but also heathland, moorland and water meadows

Collective noun: wisp (when in flight); walk (when on foot)

 

What is a snipe? Well Laurence Andrew, writing in his tome The noble lyfe and natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles and fishes… (c. 1527) has a pretty good stab and describing it (though I’m sure the snipe does not get its bill stuck in the mud Natural Selection would have something to say about that!):

Snyte [Snipe] is a byrde with a longe bylle & he putteth his byll in the erthe for to seke the worms in the grounde and they put their bylles in the earthe sometyme so depe that they can nat get it up agayne & thane they scratche theyr billes out agayn with theyr fete. This birde resteth betimes at nyght and they be erly abrode on the morning & they have swete flesshe to be eaten.

cover-of-laurence-andrew-the-noble-lyfe-and-natures-of-man-of-bestes-serpentys-fowles-and-fishes-that-be-most-knoweu

Weighing in at an average of 150g, the snipe is our smallest legal game bird. They are not an introduced species like the pheasant, red legged partridge or rabbit, but indigenous to the UK and Ireland (where most reside). There are around 80 000 breeding pairs in the UK, but these numbers increase substantially when around one million individuals flock to the country to overwinter.

Normally, shooting indigenous species holds up a red light for conservation – and rightly so, it should always come first, but in this case the snipe have the upper hand because they are so damn tricky to shoot.

common-snipe

They are secretive, highly camouflaged birds that use their very long bills to probe mud and sand flats for tasty creatures to eat. When driven at a hunt they fly in zig zags and are quickly gone again, this is why a group of them is called a wisp. (It’s no surprise, then, that especially good sharp shooters in the armed forces became known as snipers.) These birds are almost self-managing in their difficulty to hunt!

As a food they are delicious, indeed they are considered the finest eating. They are wonderfully rich and tender, and although they are small, a little goes a long way. Winston Churchill once demanded ‘a brace of snipe washed down with a pint of port’ as a hangover cure whilst on a transatlantic flight to Washington DC. Their carcasses make excellent stock.

Not just the leg and breast meat are eaten, but also the brain and the trail – in other words, the innards of the bird, usually scooped out and spread on the slice of toast it was roasted upon.

Don’t be repulsed by this! Your first worry is probably that the guts will be full of the bird’s faeces, well worry not, the snipe (and its larger cousin, the woodcock) evacuates its bowel as soon as it takes flight. Your second worry, presumably, is that you are eating gory intestines, liver, heart etc. Again, nothing to worry about here either! It is all very soft, rich and tender like a lovely warm pâté.

The head is cut in half lengthways so that the brain can removed or sucked out.

This is ancient finger food.

 

Sourcing snipe

As you will have guessed, finding snipe for the table is tricky. I’ve only ever seen snipe three times in butcher’s shop windows so my advice is to make friends with someone who shoots, because only a few will have been shot on any single hunt, and therefore it’s unlikely there will be any surplus for the butcher to pick up. The chances are you’ll probably have to finish the business of hanging the bird(s) yourself.

Most game birds are sold in ‘braces’, i.e. pairs, usually a cock and hen, but snipe actually come in threes, or ‘fingers’, so-called because that’s how many you can hold between the fingers of one hand.

These tiny birds do not need to hang for long, just 2 or 3 days. If it is unseasonably warm or being hung indoors 1 or 2 days should do the trick.

 

Preparing snipe for the table

You are to observe: we never take anything out of a wood cock or snipe

James Doak’s Cookbook, circa 1760

Snipe are extremely easy to prepare if you are roasting them:

  1. Pluck away the leg and breast feathers. If you like, remove the skin from its head.
  2. Truss the snipe with its own beak, by pulling its head down to its side and spearing the legs with its long bill.

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Some recipes as you to remove the trail before you cook it (sometimes to be fried up with butter and smoked bacon). To do this, make a small incision in its vent and use a small tea or coffee spoon to remove the entrails.

Snipe can also be cooked just like any other bird if you prefer (but you are missing out on a real treat). Pluck the whole body, or peel away the skin, and cut away legs, head and feet.

 

Roast snipe, and how to eat it

Per person:

1 or 2 oven-ready snipe

1 or 2 pieces of toast, as large as the snipe

Butter

Salt and pepper

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To accompany:

Mashed potatoes or game chips

Roast vegetables

Gravy made from game stock

A sweet jelly such as redcurrant, quince or medlar jelly

 

  1. If your snipe have been kept in the fridge, remove them and let them get to room temperature, about 30-40 minutes.
  2. Preheat your oven as hot as it will go, 230⁰
  3. Spread a good knob of butter on the toast and lay the snipe on top. Smear two more small knobs over the snipes’ breasts. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the snipe on a roasting tin and roast for 10-12 minutes for medium-rare birds. If you are roasting several, make sure that you leave a good gap between each one so that heat can circulate around them.
  5. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes or so.
  6. The snipe can then be served to each guest with various accompaniments. I think it’s best if each guest carves their own snipe.
  7. Take the snipe off its toast and cut of its head. Use a chef’s knife the cut its head in half lengthways.
  8. Next, scoop out the snipe’s trail with a teaspoon and spread it over the toast.
  9. Remove the legs and cut away the breasts using a steak knife.
  10. Eating is fiddly, so use your fingers to get every piece of meat from the carcass.
  11. Don’t forget the brain – pick up the two halves of the head and use the beak from one half to extract the brain from the other half, then swap. Alternatively, suck the brain out.

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