Tag Archives: festivals & celebrations

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! I hope you aren’t too hungover.

Mine was low key. I drank cider and made this massive Spotted Dick.

2020 is finally over, and 2021 is here. I hope the blog has been a bit of escapism from all turmoil the last 12 months have brought us; I’ve tried not to mention it too much.

But the best thing about 2020 is you, my lovely readers: thanks for following and reading, AND using the recipes. I’ve had a lot of new followers and great comments. Not only did I have my one-millionth view, but I also had the best year ever – and by quite a stretch. I wouldn’t have made those milestones if you all didn’t visit it and use it. The blog went very quiet in the years the restaurant was open, and I was worried the blog had died a bit of a death, but I couldn’t have been so wrong.

There’s been a wide range of topics this year from cottage loaves to roast chickens, apple hats to cauldron cooking, as well as medieval famine, the non-binary world of muffins and crumpets and the best way to cook a heron. Click this link to see all of 2020’s posts.

I have lots of plans for the year ahead: I hope to bring back the podcast, and season 2 will be coming later in the year (though I’ll be re-releasing season 1 in February). I’ll let you know all about season 2 when I know more. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any television though; since the Channel 5 show Amazing Cakes & Bakes*, the phone has never started ringing.

It is hard to think any way beyond my book, which is due at the end of this month so I feel the blog will be going a little quiet until I hand in the completed manuscript. Again, I shall keep you all abreast of developments with that too (and hopefully send out a few copies in competitions). It’s called A Dark History of Sugar, and it has taken over my life since March, and I shall be glad to let it go!

So, I thank you again: you might not be hearing from me much in January, but I’ll be posting again as soon as I can.

Neil xx

*and Christmas special. Link here in case you missed it

Elderflower Tom Collins

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Christmas Pottage


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It’s getting close to Christmas and I am sure that many of you are starting to plan what food you will making for the big day. I try and give you a Christmas recipe every year and I narrowed things down to four, and then asked Twitter which I should post and Twitter answered: the traditional Christmas pottage, the forerunner to the more familiar Christmas pudding.

Then, in a strange coincidence, Channel 5 asked me to take part in their Christmas special for their Cakes & Bakes show, asking if I would do a bit on the history Christmas pottage/pudding/cake. It won’t be broadcast until Christmas 2021, but it can be viewed on their streaming service to watch right now, just follow this link. As usual it was great fun to film, though – as always – rather nerve-racking.

Pottages were thick soups – stews really – made from meat and vegetables, made thick with grains or breadcrumbs. The meat was omitted if it was a fast day of course. Everyone ate them; if you were poor it wasn’t much more than a thin gruel. If you were rich it was packed with meat, boose, dried fruits and spices, and at Christmas they really went overboard.

As far as I know this pottage was made from at least the Late (or, if you prefer, ‘High’) Middle Ages and it was eaten either on Christmas Day, or even better on Christmas Eve: a big steaming bowlful of it would be the perfect way to mark the end the 24-day fast that was Advent and start of the 12-day piss-up that was Christmastide.

And as all the people in the neighbourhood dine with [my uncle] at Christmas, he takes care to place those who are married at the upper end of the table with himself, and to provide them each with a silver spoon to eat his plumb-porridge, which is generally very good, while the batchelors and maidens, at the lower end of the table, are furnished only with wooden spoons, and have their plumb-porridge serv’d up in a wooden bowl.

From ‘Excursion of an Oxonian into the Country’ in The Student, Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750)

Here’s the eighteenth century recipe I based mine on:

Plum-Pottage, or Christmas-Pottage.
Take a Leg of Beef, and boil it till it is tender in a sufficient quantity of Water, add two Quarts of red Wine, and two Quarts of old strong Beer; put to these some Cloves, Mace, and Nutmegs, enough to season it, and boil some Apples, pared and freed from the Cores into it, and boil them tender, and break them; and to every Quart of Liquor, put half a Pound of Currans pick’d clean, and rubb’d with a coarse Cloth, without washing. Then add a Pound of Raisins of the Sun, to a Gallon of Liquor, and half a Pound of Prunes. Take out the Beef, and the Broth or Pottage will be fit for use.

Prof. R Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728)

It really was quite the dish.

Often pottages were cooked in a hot water pastry instead of expensive earthenware or iron pots; these were given the name ‘coffins’ and overtime pastry and baking became more refined and produced for us the mince pie. Sometimes the pottage (or porridge) was cooked in a bag and boiled (see Cauldron Cooking). It had to be less soupy and bound with eggs but cooking it this way provided us with the Dickensian cannonball-shaped Christmas pudding.

I took a look in the excellent University of Leeds Special Collections and found that they cite this fifteenth century recipe as the first example of the dish. It is more savoury, packed with onions and herbs and died red with saunders (a dye made from cedarwood).

My recipe will feed the whole family, including the “batchelors and maidens” that’s for sure. If you don’t want whole spices you can use ground ones and if you don’t want to use beef (or don’t have the time) just swap the water for beef stock:

500 g shin beef, sliced

1 litre cold water

1 tsp salt

400 ml red wine

400 ml stout

2 nutmegs, cracked, or 1 tsp ground nutmeg

6 blades of mace, or 1 tsp ground mace

1 heaped teaspoon whole cloves, or ½ tsp ground cloves

2 medium-sized Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced

200 g currants

100 g raisins

100 g prunes

2 or 3 handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs (optional, see recipe)

Place the beef shin in a large saucepan with the salt and pour in the water. Heat over a medium flame – take your time – until the wate begins to just simmer. Skim away and scum, cover and leave to simmer very gently 2 ½ to 3 hours or until tender.

Add the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs, bring back to a simmer and cook until the apples are tender, and the fruit has plumped up nicely, around 30 minutes.

Break up the beef (if it hasn’t already fallen apart on its own) with the back of your spoon and then add enough breadcrumbs to achieve the desired consistency: you can leave it soupy if you like and add none, though I think it was better thickened slightly. Start by adding 2 handfuls and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, and then add more if you think it needs it.

Taste, adding more salt if you think it needs it and serve.

References

The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728) by Prof. R Bradley

‘The Festival of Christmas’ by Joan P Alcock in Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, 1990: Feasting and Fasting: Proceedings (1991)

‘Stewet of Beef to Potage’ in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns. From King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary. Also receipts in ancient cookery (1790) by the Society of Antiquaries of London; University of Leeds Special Collections: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/view/811

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Lent podcast episode 7: Figs & Lambs (ending Lent)

Helen’s Hebridean sheep

In the final episode of the series we look at how the last Sunday of Lent was marked in the past, focussing on Fig Sunday and Palm Sunday.

Neil cooks up some historical pax cakes to give out to shoppers and traders at Levenshulme Market so see how then would go down today.

Pax cakes

With Easter Sunday on his mind, Neil gets hold of some very special meat from a Hebridean sheep farm and has a chat with farmer Helen Arthan about what it’s like working with such characterful little sheep. On his return to Manchester, he cooks up some roast hogget for two friends of the show.
 


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Helen, Neil & Vicky

Links and extra bits:

The story of Holy Week: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/holy-week-and-easter/holy-week

Recipe for pax cakes:

200g icing sugar, plus extra

30 g cornflour, plus extra

1 tsp orange flower water

Zest half a lemon

1 medium egg white

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C.
  2. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk slowly to combine, then use an electric mixer to beat the mixture very smooth.
  3. Dust your worktop with icing sugar and cornflour and roll the mixture out to a thickness of around 3 mm.
  4. Cut into rectangles and prick with a fork, then arrange on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper and dusted with a little cornflour.
  5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until slightly golden brown.
  6. Cool on a rack.

Levenshulme Market website: https://www.levymarket.com/

Hebridean Sheep Society website: https://www.hebrideansheep.org.uk/

‘Neil Cooks Grigson’ blog: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/

Rectangular livestock paintings: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-rectangular-cows-of-art-uk

Roast hogget/lamb, recipe number 438: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/2020/04/04/438-plain-roast-primitive-lamb-with-gravy/

‘English Food’ by Jane Grigson: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/242/24292/english-food/9780140273243.html

Other primitive/ancient sheep breeds of the UK: https://www.accidentalsmallholder.net/livestock/sheep/british-rare-and-traditional-sheep-breeds/

Written and presented by Dr Neil Buttery
Produced by Beena Khetani
 
Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio

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Lent podcast episode 4: Bluebells & Magpies

In this week’s episode we start with a little look at how Lent was dumbed down over the years from extremely strict to almost non-existent.

However, the bulk of the episode is about natural history during Lent – there are lots of interesting animal behaviours around at this time of year, such as mad March hares doing their dashing about and boxing matches. Plants are starting to reappear too and seeing their blooms can really lift our spirits.

A bit of Bud…

Neil has a conversation about plants with Brenda Smith of Bud Garden Centre, Burnage, Manchester. Brenda grows many of her own plants and has an allotment so she was the perfect person to tell us about what gardeners and growers can be doing. Neil asks if there is anything growing or can be grown this time of year for the dinner table, and we discuss the importance of avoiding peat when gardening at home. We also chat about wild plants that we see in the early spring and how they have adapted to thrive in a rather bleak time of year.

Neil then speaks to Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at Manchester University, about animals and their behaviour in spring including mad March hares, aggression and territoriality in male animals, nesting building, how horrible mallards and robins are, sexual selection, horrible nature, stoat attacks and more.

Professor Matthew Cobb

One of the common threads in both chats is how climate change is affecting things for both plants and animals, which is a bit depressing, but we leave the episode on a fun cliff-hanger from Matthew. If you think you know what happened next, leave a comment below or tweet me at @neilbuttery or email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com.

Click the link below to go straight to the episode:


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Produced by Beena Khetani. Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio.

Bud’s website: https://www.budgarden.co.uk/

Guardian article about the importance of conserving peat bogs: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/28/ultimate-bogs-how-saving-peatlands-could-help-save-the-planet

More on bluebell hybridisation: https://www.wildsheffield.com/wildlife/wildlife-conservation/true-bluebells-2/bluebell-hybridisation/

Matthew’s brand new book ‘The Idea of the Mind’: https://profilebooks.com/the-idea-of-the-brain-hb.html

Matthew’s new OUP book about smell: https://global.oup.com/ukhe/product/smell-a-very-short-introduction-9780198825258?cc=gb&lang=en&

More on phenology and diaries: https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/what-we-record-and-why/why-we-record/a-brief-history-of-phenology/

Boxing hares (and rock music, for some reason): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnF9SryDa6A

Stoat behaviour including pack attacks (I wasn’t making it up!): http://www.harpur.org/stoats.htm

The Fortean Times website: https://subscribe.forteantimes.com/

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Filed under Britain, Easter, Festivals, food, General, history, natural history, nature, Podcast, Uncategorized

Lent podcast episode 3: Eostra & Eggs

In this week’s episode we look at Pagan Lent and Easter – and look at the ancient pre-Christian celebrations and symbolism that endured to the present day. We also see how the Christian church on one hand had to let the Pagans keep their traditions so they would accept this new religion, yet have them reject it all as heathenous hocus-pocus at the same time. We also find out about the Pagan goddess Eostra, who, as it turns out, we know absolutely nothing about.

Two of the most Pagan things at Easter time are eggs and buns, so Neil looks at the history of those. He gives out his hot cross bun recipe, and takes a visit to the wonderful Dormouse chocolates – Manchester’s only bean to bar chocolatier.

A big thanks to Isobel of Dormouse Chocolates for sparing the time to chat to me about chocolate eggs and the process of making artisan chocolate.

…and of course, thanks to everyone for listening – if you have any comments, questions or queries about anything you hear, leave a comment on this post, email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com or find me on twitter @neilbuttery.

Please listen, like and subscribe.

Scroll down to see a list of photos and links all about the things discussed in this episode. See you next week!


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British Food a History: Lent was produced by Beena Khetani and is a Sonder Radio production

Extra bits:

Neil’s hot cross buns recipe: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2012/04/05/hot-cross-buns/

More on Eostra: https://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/ostara/about.html

Dormouse Chocolates website: http://dormousechocolates.co.uk/

More on Faberge and the Winter Egg: https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/kings-queens/george-vis-fight-against-fascism-history-of-royals-issue-12-on-sale-now/

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Filed under Britain, Easter, Festivals, food, history, Podcast, Recipes

The Snowball

Merry Christmas everyone!

As you may know, I like to write a boozy post at this time of year and this year’s is small but perfectly formed: the Christmassy and rather kitsch classic, the Snowball, a blend of the Dutch egg yolk-based liqueur Advocaat and lemonade.

A lot of people think Snowballs are a bit naff, but I love them. The problem is that they can be too sweet and cloying, but that’s because folk don’t realise that there are two other very important ingredients – brandy and fresh lime juice. They both cut through the custardy sweet Advocaat and subtly transform it. I recommend you go out and buy the ingredients right now!

The Snowball cocktail was invented in the 1940s but didn’t become popular until the 1970s, where it was stripped of all sophistication by those who used only Advocaat and lemonade, missing out the ingredients they supposed to be superfluous producing the sickly cocktail we all know today.

Advocaat is a Dutch liqueur. Its name is a bit of a mystery; most reckon it comes from the Dutch word for advocate or lawyer. The 1882 edition of the Dictionary of the Dutch Language says it is ‘…a good lubricant for the throat and thus considered especially useful for a lawyer, who must speak in public.’

There is another theory that it was originally made by 17th-Century Dutch settlers in the Americas using creamy avocados, sugar and rum. I am assuming that because this is the most exciting story of the two that it is the apocryphal one. Occam’s Razor and all that…

Anyway, I hope you have a great Christmas – and a good few PROPER Snowballs.

xxx

~

Per person:

25 ml (1 shot) Advocaat

12.5 ml (a ½ shot) brandy

Juice ¼ of a lime

Ice

Around 75 ml lemonade

To garnish: a thin slice of lime

Pour the Advocaat, brandy and lime juice in a cocktail shaker and add plenty of ice.

Shake well and strain into glasses. Add a single ice cube per glass and top up with a little lemon (it will fizz up!).

Stir and garnish with the slice of lime.

~


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References:

The History of Christmas Cocktails (2015), Make Me a Cocktail https://makemeacocktail.com/blog/the-history-of-christmas-cocktails/

The Origins of Advocaat, By the Dutch http://www.bythedutch.com/about/origins-of-advocaat/

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Filed under Britain, Christmas, Festivals, General, history, Recipes

Twelfth Night Cake

Upon the table was an immense dish, and in the dish was the biggest Twelfth-cake that the eyes of childhood had ever beheld. It was a positive monster, and whitened sugar of the most approved kind encrusted it all over.

From Little Grub, E H Knatchbull-Hugesson 1874

Twelfth Night, on the fifth day of January, is on the last day of Christmastide and was once the party highlight of the twelve-day long festival. In fact, Twelfth Night used to be the big day where gifts would be exchanged, and folk would make much merriment, very aware of the austere months ahead of them. All of this, including the cake, has moved to Christmas Day, of course.

The focal part of the Twelfth Night side-table was the elaborately-decorated Twelfth cake, essentially a rich fruit cake containing brandy, covered in a layer of rock-hard royal icing, the top groaning under the weight of sugar figures and other intricate sculptures and piping. Inside each Twelfth cake a large dried bean or pea would be baked; on the big day those who discovered them would be proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the day.

Queen Victoria’s 1849 Twelfth cake


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Some Twelfth cakes were extremely expensive, and every baker or confectioner in the land worth their salt would produce a breath-taking, awe-inspiring shop window filled with cakes of differing sizes, all covered in wonderful sugar-work. There was huge competition between confectioners to produce the best displays; and no wonder, selling any number of these bespoke cakes meant some real money had been made that winter!

Many people, of all ages and conditions, – young and old, gentle and simple, giddy and thoughtful, – stepped every hour to look through the large plate-glass window, and see the grand show of Twelfth-cakes.

From The Queen of the Twelfth-Cakes, Cuthbert Bede 1857

The Twelfth Night cake began life – like many traditional cakes did – as a yeast-leavened bread, enriched with dried fruit and ale (see also Simnel Cake). Over time, the cakes were enriched further with brandy or rum and sugar, giving it a close texture. Eventually, chemical raising agents were used to give the batter a lift.

Here’s a 1604 recipe from a lady called Elinor Fettiplace:

Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, but as much barme [the yeasty froth from the top of fermenting beer barrels] as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, then make a posset with it, & temper the Cakes with the posset drink, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.

I would love to have a go at this recipe at some point.


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Twelfth Night cake has declined in popularity since the invention of the Christmas cake (which, incidentally, is a hybrid of a Twelfth Night Cake and Simnel Cake). Here’s the recipe that I use, which is slightly different to my Christmas cake. Notice that there are no raising agents used – I like the close-texture it gives, if you disagree, add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the flour to give it a little lift.

I don’t decorate my cakes elaborately, preferring as thin a layer of icing as possible, so I use half a batch of royal icing, but if it is your thing, you might want to make a little more!

175 g softened salted butter

175 g caster or brown sugar

1 tbs black treacle

3 eggs

175 g plain flour

¼ tsp each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mace

400 g mixed dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, quartered prunes)

75 g candied peel

50 g slivered almonds

60 ml brandy, rum, strong ale (or milk)

1 dried butter bean (optional)

A half-batch of royal icing

Line and grease an 8-inch cake tin and preheat your oven to 160°C.

Cream the butter, treacle and sugar until pale and fluffy and beat in the eggs one by one before gently stirring in the flour and spices. Once incorporated, mix in the fruits, peel and nuts and stir in the booze (or milk).

Pour into the cake tin, pop in the king/queen bean, level off the top and bake for an hour. Cool in the tin.

Decorate the cake with the royal icing, being as elaborate as you like.

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Filed under baking, Britain, cake, Christmas, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes

Simnel Cake

A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake that contains plenty of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast, offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent; a special day when people visited their mother church or cathedral. Don’t confuse Mothering Sunday with Mothers’ Day; it is only in the last century that this day is associated with showing enforced appreciation to our mums (though I assume that you met up with your mother on return to your original diocese).

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course).

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This doesn’t sound that much like a special bread, you may think, but what made it special is that it made out of the highest quality flour possible; simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not dissimilar to spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.


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Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Below is the recipe I use – I can’t claim it as my own, but I don’t know where I got it from, so if you recognise it let me know, you know I always like to credit my sources!

This is a very straight-forward cake mixture made using the all-in-one method; it is very important that you use very soft butter so that the cake batter creams quickly without developing the gluten too much. If you don’t want to make your own marzipan, you can buy some ready-made, but I do urge you to make your own, it really is worth the (really quite little) effort required. The marzipan recipe below is different to my previously published one and I think much better. I shall try to remember to update the other post.

For the cake:

225 g softened butter

225 g caster sugar

4 eggs

225 g plain flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

zest of 2 oranges

zest of 2 lemons

325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)

125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole

500 g orange marzipan (see below)

icing sugar for dusting

apricot jam

1 beaten egg

Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.

In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.

Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.

Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.

When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.

Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).

For the marzipan:

90 g caster sugar

140 g icing sugar

220 g ground almonds

grated zest of an orange

1 beaten egg

Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

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Filed under Britain, cake, Easter, Festivals, food, Recipes, Uncategorized

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.


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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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Filed under Britain, food, General, history, Mediaeval Age

Wassail!

 

Wassail

Wassail! Wassail! all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

A Gloucestershire Wassail, dating to the Middle Ages.

Yesterday was the 6th of January, the final feast day of Christmas, the day of epiphany, Twelfth Night. Down in the counties of South-West and South-East England a very old and special ceremony takes place in the apple orchards; the Wassail was a way to celebrate the end of Christmas and to bless the trees so that they will bear plenty of fruit for the cider. It was a time of celebration and merry-making. All of this happened at dusk, a magical time of day, where the world faeries and spirits overlapped with the world of Man. In different parts of England, the day upon which the Wassail occurs changes: some celebrate it on the 5th of January (the Eve of Epiphany), and others on the 17th of January (this is day Twelfth Night would occur before the Introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, “Old Twelfthy Night”, as it was called).

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A blurry, dusky Levenshulme Community Choir leading our Wassail

For the Wassail ceremony a Wassail King and Queen are nominated who lead the other revellers a merry dance around the trees. In the largest trees, the Queen is lifted into the boughs so she can spear pieces of toast that have been soaked in Wassail punch (I’ll get to that in a moment or two) as an offering to the tree spirits of the orchard. As folk dance about the trees, other run around banging pots and pans to drive out the evil spirits.

Wassailing predates the Battle of Hastings and is thought to have its origins in Ancient Rome, where people would make sacrifices to the Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fruits. The word Wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-hael, meaning “to your health” and the word is used just as we would use Cheers! today. Below is one telling of its origins by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1135 book History of the Kings of Britain:

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”

I was lucky enough to go to a Wassail in Levenshulme in Manchester, which is not in the south of England, but the north. In Levenshulme there is a lovely community orchard, and it should be blessed just like any other. It was a great evening and really interesting to see just a glimpse of old England. If you have apple – or any fruit – trees, they why not have a Wassail. Indeed anything that needed blessing could wassailed like other crops like barley and livestock. Of course you’ll need to make some wassail to drink…

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Spiking the trees with toast offerings

The drink wassail is essentially a hot mulled cider or ale, sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with spices and made much boozier with sherry, brandy or sack (a sweet, fortified ale similar in taste to sherry) and sometimes thickened with eggs. An essential ingredient in the wassail drink is roasted apples, which would quickly burst and fall apart, giving wassail its alternative name ‘lamb’s wool’. Also floating on the surface would be plenty of toast.

The hot wassail is poured into a large carved wooden bowl and it is passed around the crowd so that everyone can take a good mouthful, raise it above their head and shout “Wassail!”. It is because of this celebration, we “raise a toast” when having drinks.

Two Wassail Recipes

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Here’s a recipe dating from 1722 that appears in the excellent book Food in England by Dorothy Squires:

Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.

I liked that it is diluted with beer! What brew it must have been.

Below is my rather pared down recipe for wassail:

Ingredients:

4 to 6 apples

3 litres of good cider

6 cinnamon sticks

dark rum, to taste

soft dark brown sugar, to taste

around 500ml of water

toast (optional)

Prepare the apples; cut around them a circle halfway down, this stops them bursting when cooking, place on a tray and bake in a moderate oven until they have begun to collapse, around 30 minutes. Whilst you wait for the oven to do its job, pour the cider into a large pan with the cinnamon stick, at least 3 generous tablespoons of sugar and 250ml of rum and half of the water. Bring to a simmer and add more sugar and rum, and dilute accordingly with more water. Lastly, for tradition’s sake, atop with slices of toast.

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Filed under Christmas, Festivals, food, Fruit, General, history, Recipes