Tag Archives: slow-cooking

Cauldron Cooking

The Three Witches as depicted in a 19th Century woodcut

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ in the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!

William Shakespeare Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

As it’s Hallowe’en I thought that I’d write a little post all about cauldrons, because of course along with a broomstick, pointy hat, black cat and warts it is a must-have for any witch worth their salt at this time of year.

The Battersea Cauldron (pic: British Museum)

Let’s start off with what a cauldron is, just on case you are unfamiliar with them. They are large, rounded cooking pots that are suspended over a fire by a chain or on support legs in the centre of the fire, and they have been used all across Europe since the first millennium BCE. One of the oldest ever found was excavated in Battersea and is therefore known as the Battersea Cauldron. It made up of bronze sheets melded together and is huge. It has been described as “one of the largest and most sophisticated metal objects of the day” and is estimated to be 3000 years old, and it obviously got some use judging by the number of reparation patches it has covering its surface. Whatever size your cauldron was, it was an expensive bit of kit and built to last, so it is more unusual to find out without patches. Precious items such as this were passed down through the generations and the “man who owned an iron cauldron” says Dorothy Hartley, “had a definite standing above those who cooked only in small pots and pans.”

You may be thinking that a selection of pots and pans might be preferable to a massive cooking pot because they give you more options and you don’t have to make giant vats of food all the time, but a cauldron is surprisingly versatile and was rarely used for just cooking great big broths with bones bobbing about the surface. No, the cauldron was in fact the complete cooking and hot water system; take a look at this wonderful illustration from Ms Hartley’s excellent books Food in England:

The mediaeval cauldron, from Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

You can see here how the cauldron was actually compartmentalised and filled with a whole variety of foods. At the base is a large joint of meat that required long cooking, usually wrapped in a flour paste and the tied up with cloth, then sat on that were wooden slats upon which all sorts of things were sat. There would have been some suet puddings wrapped in cloth simmering away, as well as bag puddings made up of peas, beans or cereal grains such as the classic pease pudding. If you did want to make some hearty stew, you placed your ingredients in earthenware jars, filled them with stock or water, covered them tightly and poached it in the cauldron water. This gentle way of poaching meat produced deliciously juicy cuts of meat; in fact, one cauldron found in Warwick Castle bore the legend: “I give meat good savour.” Often the meat was jointed and sat in a large jug, to produce old British classics such as jugged hare (or rabbit, I’ve also seen recipes for jugged kippers and jugged peas). Dorothy illustrates some beef tea being made where the meat is sat in its jar on top of some birch twigs, preventing the meat from sticking to the bottom. I love little details like those. You had to be very careful cooking like this though because those sealed pots acted like pressure cookers and were prone to exploding!


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


Aside from all of this, the cauldron also provided the washing water and bathwater. “I hope” says Hartley, “you now understand that because there was only one cauldron on the fire there was not one thing for dinner.”

Jugged hare

Cauldrons were such important and precious items that they were even found in burial sites such as the Baldock Burial, a Bronze Age burial site in Hertfordshire, where a whole plethora of things were found including  a cauldron complete with joints of meat, ready to sustain the dead as they journeyed to the Afterlife. Pagans revered them and they became symbolic of death and resurrection, often being buried in near or bogs and rivers, locations they considered to be domains of both the living and the dead.

Because they were imbibed with magic, they appear in several myths and legends; for example, the Irish god Dagda owned a cauldron that did not just magically produce food but also cured disease, healed wounds and brought the dead back to life. There was also a Cauldron of Knowledge that told you everything you wanted (and did not want) to know. There are plenty of Welsh and English stories that involve cauldrons too (though I haven’t come across any Scottish ones for some reason).

St John the Apostle boiled in oil from The Hours of Henry VIII, (C) The Morgan Library & Museum

Cauldrons of course sat upon flames and were extensively found in medieval and Tudor Christian art to depict what might happen to you if you went to Hell. One example depicts Dives – a rich man Jesus tells us of in the New Testament, who was very rich but would not share his food with a poor beggar. He is shown “tormented with thirst stewing forever in one of Hell’s capacious cauldrons.” Another manuscript knows as the Hours of Henry VIII clearly shows St. John the Evangelist sat in cauldron of boiling oil looking pretty chilled out and happily preaching whilst being tormentind by his captors. He would be later be miraculously preserved in the oil rather like, one supposes, like some nice comfit duck legs.

So there we go, I hope you have enjoyed my brief history of cauldrons and appreciate that they are not just for witches…or Hallowe’en!

References

‘Cauldrons and flesh-hooks: between the living and the dead in ancient Britain and Ireland’ by Jennifer Wexler & Neil Wilkin, The British Museum Blog https://blog.britishmuseum.org/cauldrons-and-flesh-hooks-between-the-living-and-the-dead-in-ancient-britain-and-ireland/

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

Hours of Henry VIII, MS H.8 fol.7 (c.1500) The Morgan Library & Museum http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/13/77089

The Medieval Cook (2009) by Bridget Henisch

‘Vessels of Death: Sacred Cauldrons in Archaeology and Myth’ (1998) by Miranda J Green, The Antiquaries Journal, vol 78, pp. 63-84

4 Comments

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

Celery

The great about celery is that it is two vegetables and one spice all in one.

The large familiar swollen stems are actually greatly enlarged leaf stalks and make up most of the plant visible above the soil. The celery we know and love was selectively bred in 14th century Italy from the wild plant that is “rank, coarse, and…poisonous” according to the celery expert Theophilus Roessle. It is these stalks that join onions and carrots to produce the trinity of stock vegetables – indeed it is for stock, or for salads, that celery is commonly used, but it does make a great vegetable on its own. It was very popular to serve celery sauces with poultry, or served covered in a cream sauce with pheasant.

In Good Things, Jane Grigson gives us two valuable pieces of advice: firstly, that celery is a seasonal vegetable that is at its best from November and December. We have lost this seasonality and it is a shame, I expect few of us have eaten prime celery improved by the ‘first frost’. The second piece of advice is how to eat the vegetable raw; once you have procured your first-frosted celery, you should trim it and spread down the curved length of the stem good butter. Next, sprinkle with sea salt. “Avoid embellishments”, she says “a good way to start a meal.” To prepare celery for eating, it is often a good idea to string it – this is particularly important if it is to be cooked. It’s very simple to do because the strings are quite near the surface of the stalk; take a vegetable peeler to its curved underside and peel the strings away. Easy.

If allowed to flower, the seeds produce a spice which was used to make celery vinegar, a popular condiment in the 18th century. It is also the part of the plant that is used to make celery salt, an ingredient in a classic Bloody Mary cocktail. To make it, just grind up some celery seeds and mix with double the amount of good quality sea salt.

Celery plant showing off its stalks and root

It might surprise you to know that celery is a member of the carrot family, but if you look beneath the soil surface you will find a large swollen root, though it doesn’t look very much like a carrot; it is round, creamy and white and covered in small knobbly roots. This is celeriac, sometimes just called celery root. It goes really well with game and can be roasted like parsnips or pureed with some potatoes. Raw, it is an excellent ingredient in coleslaw.

Here are a couple of recipes that show the celery stems off at their very best. Both can be made from one head of celery.

Braised Celery

This is my favourite way of cooking celery and it is also very simple – the most difficult bit is remembering to take it out of the oven! It requires the inside stalks of a head of celery – don’t throw away those outer sticks, you use them to make celery soup (see below). It is best made with beef stock and served with roast beef or game, in particular pheasant.

one head of celery, outer 8 stems removed

2 oz of butter

8 fl oz beef, chicken or vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Separate the sticks of celery, string those that need it and slice them in half and place spread out in a single layer in a shallow ovenproof dish. Dot with the butter and pour over the stock. Season with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with a well-fitting lid or some foil. Bake in the oven at 160⁰C (325⁰F) for 2 ½ hours.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


 

Celery Soup

This is the best way of using up the really stringy outer stalks on a head of celery. It’s pretty low-fat (you could swap the butter for olive oil) but has a nice ‘cream of…’ look and feel but without the actual cream. To achieve this, all you need to do is to stir in a couple of fluid ounces of milk after the soup has been liquidised. One of my favourite soups.

2 oz butter

1 bay leaf

¼ tsp allspice

8 sticks of celery including the leaves, sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium potato, diced

1 pint of vegetable or light chicken stock

2 fl oz milk

good pinch of ground white pepper

salt

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, when it stops bubbling add the bay leaf and allspice. Cook in the butter for 30 seconds or so before adding the celery, onion and potato. Mix well to coat the vegetables with the butter. Turn the heat down to low-medium and cover the pan. Let the m cook gently for 20 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil and simmer gently for a further 30 minutes. Let the soup cool a little before liquidising in a blender. Push through a sieve if you like your soup super smooth. Add the milk and a good seasoning of white pepper and salt; the amounts are up to you, but I use around 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 of a teaspoon of pepper.

3 Comments

Filed under Britain, history, Recipes, Uncategorized, Vegetables