Sunday, March 2, 2008

Humbles of Venison

Several months back I was looking for venison recipes and came across a recipe in "The Good Housewife's Jewell" (England, 16th c.) titled "To bake the humbles of a Deere." I didn't have any deer kidneys on hand, so I tried it out with ground venison instead. It was ok, but nothing to make a fuss over, and something seemed a bit strange with it. So I took a closer look at the source and did a bit of digging.

The first thing that I found was that the two different editions I had of the source were not in total agreement. One edition called for dates where the other (which I'd used) called for oats (spelled "oates"). A bit of a discrepancy there. Which one was right? I checked with an authority on the source (Hi, Johnnae!) and learned that in the microfilm version the word is clearly dates.

But this left me without much of a binder for what I'd initially assumed was something like meatloaf (yes, a faulty assumption - even I do this from time to time). A quick look at the adjacent recipes in the text and it was fairly clear that the recipe was most likely a pie. No problem. I'll make it as a pie then and see how it turns out, only this time I figured I'd get some deer kidneys and do it right.

Hence the delay. Apparently deer kidneys aren't something that can be purchased in one-pound packages at the local supermarket. Neither are they available at the butcher shop, or even (gasp!) at that mecca of food-enthusiasts, Jungle Jim's. I asked some hunters I knew and learned that they usually discard the kidneys along with the rest of a deer's innards. So I asked those same hunters if maybe, please, pretty-pretty-please, if they get the chance would they save the kidneys from their next deer for me? I got more than a few weird looks and some hesitant "Ok"s, and then I waited.

At the point when I'd all but forgotten what I wanted them fore, my apprentice presented me with two deer kidneys that had formerly belonged to a deer which had been shot by her uncle (Kristen's uncle, not the deer's). They were smaller than I'd expected, and were slightly disturbing to hold - they felt kind of like a small bag filled with jello.

deer kidneysdeer kidneys

At last we had real deer kidneys, so of course we had to cook them. I dug up the (corrected) recipe again and looked it over.

Source [The Good Housewife's Jewell, T. Dawson]: To bake the humbles of a Deere. Mince them verie small, and season them with pepper, Sinamom and ginger, and suger if you will, and cloues & mace, and dates, and currants, and if you will, mince Almonds, and put unto them, and when it is baked, you may put in fine fat, and put in suger, sinamom and ginger, and let it boile, and when it is minced, put them together.

The first question that sprang to mind was whether the kidneys should be cooked before using them - I vaguely remember a hunter joking about needing to "boil the piss out of them". We did a quick check of the other medieval recipes for deer kidneys and found that most of them did indeed specify boiling as the first step of the recipe. So I popped them into a small pot of water and let them boil. It was a bit creepy, really, because I could see a thin trail of blood streaming out of the kidneys as they boiled. Once this stream stopped I figured they were cooked well enough.

deer kidneysboiled deer kidneys

They'd shrunk a bit - we were obviously going to have just enough for a small pie. They also felt like they'd bounce pretty high if dropped. More like a superball than cooked meat. The recipe starts with mincing them "verie small", so I got out the chef's knife and did just that. Tedious, but not difficult. The rest of the recipe was quick and easy, we mixed everything all up, put the filling into a pastry-lined ramekin, covered it, and popped it into the oven for a half hour or so. When the crust looked done, I melted some butter, added the spices, and poured as much into the pie as I could (it overflowed a bit).

deer kidneysvery small pie

Of course the proof of the pudding (and apparently the pie) is in the eating. The apprentice and I looked at each other for a moment. People have been eating kidneys for a long time, probably as long as there have been people, so it has to be ok to eat. It's meat, it's well cooked, and it has all sorts of good-tasting stuff in it. With a bit of a mental shrug, we passed around the forks and cut the pie.

deer kidneysvery small pie, opened

Not bad at all, really. I don't know what I expected - maybe more of a liver sort of taste. It's basically a mincemeat pie. The flavors of the spices, fruit, and butter pretty much drowned out everything else. The meat was a bit chewy in spite of being minced, but it wasn't bad enough to put me off kidneys. In the future I'll probably be making this with venison steaks or ground meat, as it's a lot easier to get and it won't have any substantial effect on the flavor.

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