Hello lovely readers. Just a little post to let you all know that British Food: A History will be releasing its first podcast!
Season 1 is called Lent and the first episode comes out the Sunday before Lent starts – the 23rd February 2020 with new episodes out during every Sunday throughout Lent.
Just like my blog posts, the podcast will have plenty of food history and recipes, but mixed in their will be science, evolutionary biology, natural history and anthropology, as I look at how Lent has been like for people: the hardships, the special events, the lost and forgotten celebrations and practices. I’ve written about Lent and Easter a few times on the blog before, so go and have a look-see if you fancy.
A new tab has appeared on the website where I’ll be posting loads of background bit, photos sand extra material as well as links to each episode of course.
You guys can get involved too – if you don’t follow me on Twitter, find me – @neilbuttery – and post your thoughts and if you have any extra information and facts, or questions, let me know there. Alternatively, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
It would be great if you could listen and get involved. Don’t forget to keep an eye out on the Lent Podcast tab on 23rd February.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, so today is the first day of Lent, a forty day fast that takes us right up to Easter. It came about because Jesus fasted for 40 days as he walked the wilderness prior to his death on the crucifix. Foods like meat, eggs, cheese and milk were decadent and therefore they were right out during Lent. In fact there was abstinence from any activity considered decadent, and the further back in time, the stricter were the rules. In the early days of Christian Britain some people ate only bread, whilst others ate herbaceous vegetables too. As time went on to the Middle Ages, the rules became a little slacker and fish were allowed into the diet. Thomas Aquinas was a main instigator of this move.
“By Jove, look at all the tucker Jesus has got, chaps!”
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes
Fish was chosen for several reasons: It was fare that could be eaten by all classes, so in effect everyone would be eating the same types of food, nor was is associated with power, strength, hotness and richness like meat was; indeed fish were both humble and meagre. Most importantly, it was strongly associated with Jesus himself. The 40-day long fast also symbolised a cycle of ‘purification and regeneration’ and fish were considered pure. People always find loopholes however – the rich still ate large grand dishes like roast pike. Indeed anything even closely associated with water was considered fair game during Lent: beaver, seal, porpoise, heron, even sheep found drinking from streams were eaten!
Fair game: the beever
By Tudor times, the rules had slackened even further to include fish and game, but not red or white meat (i.e. poultry). This meant one could eat bustard, curlew, pheasant, quail and red deer. Strangley, root vegetables were off the menu because they came from the soil and were a little too close to Hell for comfort for some.
In France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were sometimes no difference between Lenten meals and regular ones, at least for the aristocracy. People would simply find excuses not to fast, complaining, according to the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin “it irritated them, gave them headache, and prevented them from sleeping. All the troubles associated with the spring were put down to the score of the fast, so that one did not fast because he thought he was poorly, another because he had been, and a third because he feared to be.”
The late, great Brillat-Savarin
Most of the time it was enforced, though not for reasons of piety, but for economical ones. For example on a typical day, the French Royal Family in the Palace of Versailles, France, went through 900 pullets, 350 braces of pigeons and 86 goslings!
The Palace at Versailles
These days, people give up one vice for Lent, and although I am an atheist, I do see the spiritual worth in giving up something. Back in the day, when I used to smoke, I would try and forego cigarettes but without much success. These days I don’t bother, so I suppose I’m going straight to Hell; at least there’ll be plenty of parsnips and carrots down there to roast by the fire and brimstone…