Category Archives: General

A Trip to the Sarson’s Vinegar Factory

SARSONS-LOGO

A couple weeks ago I was invited by the iconic British condiment company, Sarson’s, to have a look around their factory and see the process of vinegar-making. They contacted me as they had noticed my little blog and thought I might be interested in seeing what they do because they make vinegar in the traditional way; and we’re all about tradition here at British Food: A History.

The word vinegar comes from the French words vin meaning wine of course, and aigre meaning sour or sharp, so when we talk about British malt vinegar, it’s actually a bit of a misnomer. What is in your bottle of Sarson’s used to be called alegar: sour ale! I think the word should be brought back (I’ll pop a note through to Mr and Mr Sarson).

Vinegar – aka ethanoic or acetic acid – is produced when specialist bacteria called acetobacteria metabolise normally deadly alcohol (ethanol) and harness energy from it. It takes a real specialist to use this killer chemical as a food source. Vinegar is, of course, an excellent preservative itself.

It is thought that vinegar and alcohol fermentation were discovered and refined in tandem, and the earliest example of vinegar-making goes right back to the ancient Babylonians who were brewing it from their beer and wine in 4000 BC! The ancient Romans refined methods somewhat, using wooden barrels to age and develop flavour.

The rear of the original London factory (Southwark Local Studies Library)

There are there are many types of vinegar, but malt vinegar, which is made from barley, is uniquely British, although these days it does travel a bit. Barley was a very important crop in Britain as it was grown to eat, but also to make ale. The average person in mediaeval England would drink around a litre of ale a day and it was the main source of calories for many (and much safer to drink than the water). Our love of ale meant there was plenty spare knocking about to transform into alegar. Sarson’s are the only company still making it in the traditional way and they have been producing it since 1794.

Before I had even arrived, I was greeted a delicious sweet and sour malt smell, and when the taxi pulled up outside the Manchester factory I was greeted again by the lovely folk who run the place. I donned my lab coat, safety glasses, hard hat and beard snood, and looking altogether pretty damn sexy I headed over the see the initial steps in the process.

I had always assumed that when malt vinegar was made, ale would be bought in and then fermented, but this is not the case! Sarson’s do the whole process from start to finish, including making the ale itself. It is truly made from scratch.

Barley grains

The first step is to lightly mill the barley so that the grains can crack open. It is then soaked in spring water and heated up in mash tuns: huge metal vats that constantly stir the barley and the water is collected. This process of mashing extracts the sugars.

Swishing away the sweetwort

I was allowed a little taste of the sugary liquid – or sweetwort – and couldn’t believe how sweet and delicious it was (when I got home, I looked in a few old books and found that home-made barley water was produced in essentially the same way).

The cooled sweetwort now enters the first round of fermentation: yeast is added so it can get to work anaerobically turning sugar into alcohol. This six-day process produces a barley ale that is a whopping 9.5% alcohol.

Now the alcohol can be converted into vinegar in the second round of fermentation. It was this part of the process that I found to be truly amazing: I assumed that to make a product and attain perfect consistency between batches, Sarson’s would have to seed the ale with a mother (or mother-of-vinegar to give her full title, a of plug acetobacteria) that had been carefully selected over years or even decades, to produce a unique strain (wine and beer makers do this with their yeasts). What Sarson’s actually do is simply add the shavings of the bark from the larch tree, which naturally harbours a community of acetobacteria species. This all happens in wooden tubs called acetifiers and it takes seven days for the larch bacteria to do their magic.

The huge physics-defying oak barrels!

For the last stage, the vinegar is stored in huge 40 000 litre barrels – some 100 years old – to be standardised to the correct strength (5% ethanoic acid).

Standardising the final product

The vinegar is heated up to kill the bacteria and it is piped through to the very noisy and exciting bottling room. I loved watching the bottles rattling around on the conveyor belts. It was as though I had literally stepped through the arch window on Playschool!

Then, to top it all off, they handed me my very own personalised bottle of malt vinegar!

Many thanks to Sarson’s for asking me to come to their place and let me be a nosey parker for an afternoon – I will certainly be paying the malt vinegar I put on my fish and chips in even higher regard from now on!

Next post, I’ll write a little bit about how we use – and used vinegar in the home.

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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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Woodcock

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I have been very lucky this game season with the range of species that have fallen into my lap. Last post I told you all about the snipe I managed to get from my butcher Mark Frost. Well he’s done it again and has managed to hold of half a dozen beautiful woodcock, the larger cousin to the snipe; almost as elusive and certainly no less delicious! Another rare treat for the patrons of The Buttery.

Woodcock and snipe are similar birds and likewise can be cooked in similar ways, so much of what can be said about cooking and eating snipe can be said about woodcock.

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

 

Woodcock in brief

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

Hanging time:  4 – 8 days

Weight: 300g

Roasting time:  20-30 minutes at 230⁰C

Breeding pairs in UK: 55 000 (increasing to 1.4 million in the winter)

Indigenous?: Yes

Habitat: Mainly woodland, but also heath and marshland

Collective noun: fall

woodcock-painting

Our second-smallest game bird is a mysterious little creature, spending most of its day hiding in the undergrowth in wooded areas. The only time you are likely to come across one is if you startle it during a walk in the woods, but even then you may just catch a glimpse one of skitting and zig-zagging toward another hiding place.

Then, suddenly, usually around the full moon before Hallowe’en there is a huge influx of migratory woodcock, using Britain as an overwintering spot, often being first spotted on beaches, exhausted. Seeing the birds apparently come from nowhere in this fashion and at this time must have added to their already ethereal reputation.

Having little understanding of migration, people thought woodcock went to the moon during spring and summer. Seeing them first on beaches made others believe that they hatched from mermaid’s purses (the desiccated egg cases of sharks).

Reclusive and well-camouflaged, they only venture from their hiding places to hunt their prey at dusk; and it is for this reason that woodcock are rarely found in butcher’s shop windows. It’s a lucky shooter that manages to bag a few woodcock, and they rarely go further than the hunter’s kitchen. I’m lucky in that my butcher is also a shooter!

A treat almost as rare as snipe, it is absolutely delicious t traditionally roasted  completely whole on a piece of toast, with just breast and leg  feathers removed. The trail (i.e., the innards) are then scooped out and served upon the toast. Ortolan and plover are cooked in the same way (though it is now illegal to eat ortolan).

Because they are eaten whole, they should not be hung for long, as those gamey aromas quickly turn into the aroma of decomposition. However, it is all personal taste – true gastronomes hang their woodcock or snipe by the feet until the innards of the birds start to drip through their bills.

Woodcock were not as rare a treat as they are today where they can only be legally shot during the months when the country is teeming with them and can only be shot. Guns were not light enough to shoot woodcock with any accuracy or success and so night nets were set up that caught the birds in great numbers so they could be sent to market still alive. This practice is now illegal (though, unfortunately not in all other European countries).

woodcock

Sourcing Woodcock

Woodcock are rarely found on sale, but I have spotted them in my butcher’s shop a couple of times in the last three or four years. I do remember seeing them once at a game stall in London’s Borough Market. Patience is a virtue and if you keep looking, you’ll eventually find one. On the open market, you’ll pay at the very least £15 per bird.

Alternatively, make friends with a hunter, or ask if you can help in a local hunt. I have never done this, but would love to.

 

Preparing woodcock for the table

Take a woodcocke, & reyse his legges and his wynges as an henne; this done, dyght the brayne.And here begynneth the feest from Pentecost unto mydsomer.

From The Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving), 1508

As already mentioned, woodcock need not be drawn. You can pluck them, but be careful as they have very thin skins that are easily torn. If you are keeping the head on, remove the eyes and skin the head if you like. To draw the birds it is best to use some sharp scissors to make an incision. Use your first two fingers to loosen the innards and pull them out. Keep the tiny livers if you like. Drawing woodcock is easier compared to other small game birds such as partridge.

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See the post on snipe for more details.

 

Roast woodcock

Woodcock is not always roasted, but because you often only get hold of just one, it’s the only way you can eat it really. I’ll not repeat myself; the way it is cooked and served is exactly the same as snipe, except for a few minor differences:

  1. Smear butter over the breasts, season and cover with streaky bacon to prevent the bird from drying out in the oven.
  2. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, depending upon how rare you want your bird. Slip the buttered toast under the bird for the final 10 minutes of roasting.

 

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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.

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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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