Tag Archives: Mediaeval

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According to Jane Grigson in her Fruit Book, the ‘English name openarse, gradually and politely, …was superceded by the French-derived medlar.’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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What’s in a Name?

Hello all! So, sorry for my six month post dearth, but I’ve only gone and opened a little restaurant. It all happened quite suddenly and we’ve all been flying by the seat of our pants since it opened in January. It’s in a converted Post Office just off the highstreet in Levenshulme, Manchester.

Welcome to The Buty

Here’s the preview article, written just before we opened by lovelevenshulme.org

…and here’s another from the Manchester Evening News written just after we opened.

Anyone who has been following my adventures over the last few years will know that I started up a little business almost four years ago, attempting to bring back the best of British food, really off the back of this blog, and my other project Neil Cooks Grigson.

My prompt for writing this post is the name of the place: The Buttery. I’ve opened it with another local, Mr Brian Shields. Very nicely, he was happy for us to carry on the name; a name that carries a lot of interest for me as it is my surname, but it also describes what we’re trying to achieve.

People assume the name Buttery has something to do with butter-making , but it has nothing to do with it, but it is food-related. A buttery was a room in a castle or abbot where wine and other drinks were stored and sometimes served.

king_william_i_the_conqueror_from_npg1

William the Conqueror/Bastard was close chums with the first Butterys

The first Butterys to land on British soil can be traced right back to the voyage over the English Channel from Normandy to Hastings with William the Conqueror in 1066, so it’s not a bad lineage, historically speaking. In old Norman, the name was Buteri, which then became Boterie. The word coming originally from the Latin bota meaning cask, so essentially the buttery was where butts, i.e. barrels, were kept, eventually becoming a general dry store of all foods.

buttery

A small buttery with barrels, jar and drying herbs

The name Buttery is quite rare because surnames often come from an occupation – Tailor, Cooper, Shoesmith and Cook for example – less common is to be named after a room. So who looked after the buttery? The butler, of course!

All of the Butterys in Britain are likely to be descendants of the original man or family in charge of King William’s boteri, and it would have been an occupation of high-regard back in the Middle Ages where a secure and dependable dry stock of food, wine and ale was the difference between starvation and survival over harsh winters. William needed to bring with him a very good boteri-keeper if he was to survive cold and damp Britain. Indeed, an early branch of the Buttery family was given a family seat by William for their ‘distinguished assistance’ during that famous 1066 battle.

medieval_dinner

During the Dark and Middle Ages, life was more communal affair, with everyone in the group – high or low – eating  together in their Great Hall, and so it was that every castle and abbot had its butter to be found at the low end of the Great Hall, giving out wine, ale and candles. Butteries quickly cast their nets wider and produced food to eat as well as storing it. Berkeley Castle’s fourteenth century buttery was well-equipped with bread ovens, lead sinks, large pestles and mortars and chopping blocks. It really was the centre of the castle, as it contained the water well. Long before the castle was built, the well would have been the focal point for a village settlement, growing in population and complexity around it as one runs through the centuries.

By the time we reach Tudor times, those that once sat at the high table, now ate in separate dining rooms away from servants. This meant the adjacent rooms, including the buttery, pantry (looked after by the panter) and the kitchen had to move downstairs to make way for these smaller and more informal eating areas. The distinction between buttery, pantry and kitchen blurred and they began to disappear.

But butteries lived on in other ways; the butler became the servant held in the highest regard, overseeing the inner workings of whole houses and stately homes. Butteries found in the old college buildings of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin, became places where scholars could get a drink or two and enjoy some light meals and snacks; so called ‘buttery bars’. It’s nice that Levenshulme in South Manchester has its very own buttery, doing just that!

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The Hors d’Oeuvres: Mediaeval Pork Tartlettes

The first course of my Dinner Party Through Time was a little amuse bouche from a mediaeval recipe dating around 1400. On the throne was Henry IV, Geoffrey Chaucer was a contemporary; indeed, he was present at his coronation.

The recipe calls these little mouthfuls tartlettes, but they are actually more like a stuffed ravioli or even dim sum. Left-over pork is ground up with spices and other flavourings, wrapped up in a paste and simmered in salted water.

Unfortunately there’s no photographic evidence of this dish so you’ll have to make do with a picture of Henry IV and imagine him eating one.

MOU202462 Portrait of King Henry IV of England (1367-1413) (oil on canvas) by English School, (17th century) oil on canvas 50.5x43 Private Collection © Philip Mould, Historical Portraits Ltd, London, UK English, out of copyright

Here’s the recipe:

Take pork ysode and grynde it small with saffron, medle it with ayren and raisons of coraunce, and powder fort, and salt; and make a /bile of dowhg and close the fars thereinne. Cast the tartlettes in a pan with faire water boillyng and salt.

Although it is relatively simple to cook, this was very much a rich man’s dish with saffron and currants as well as powder fort. This was a commonly used spice mix made up of ground ginger, cumin and long pepper. Long pepper is very difficult to source these days, so for my version of the recipe I used regular black pepper.

I could have covered my meat mixture, or ‘farce’, in thinly rolled fresh pasta, but instead went for the less fiddly option of using filo pastry. I wasn’t convinced that the tarlettes would taste good boiled as in the recipe, so for the dinner party, I simmered half of them and baked the remainder. It turned out that everyone preferred the simmered tartlettes. How little faith I had!

 

This recipe makes around a dozen tartlettes

350g of lean, cooked pork

good pinch of salt

heaped teaspoon of powder fort spice mix

30g currants

1 tbs single cream

1 egg, separated

4 sheets of filo pastry

salted water

 

Powder fort spice mix:

3 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground black peppercorns

1 tsp ground ginger

 

To begin, mince the cooked pork and thoroughly mix in the salt, powder fort, currants, cream and the egg yolk.

Unfold three or four sheets of filo pastry. It can be a tricky number to keep it from drying out, but you should be able to avoid any major disasters by keeping the pastry sheets covered with a damp tea towel.

Cut a strip of filo three centimetres thick and roll a generous teaspoon of the mixture in the filo strip. You are aiming to cover the filling with two or three layers of pastry so there may be enough in one strip for more than one tartlette. Seal the pastry with a light brush of egg white. Continue until you have used up all of the mixture.

Cook the tartlettes by dropping them into simmering salted water for three or four minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and drain them carefully on some kitchen paper. Eat them immediately.

If you don’t want to boil your tartlettes, they can be brushed with more egg white and baked in the oven at 200⁰C for 8 minutes or so.

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