Friday, June 27, 2008

Supersizers Go ...

There's been some chatter on a couple of the mailing lists about this series being aired on BBC2 - "Supersizers Go.". Strangely, the BBC doesn't have a web page for it that I could find, however there's a very nice description on this website. The stars of the program(me) get dressed up to suit a particular time period and then experience the appropriate food.

One of the episodes shown recently was about the Elizabethan period, and seeing as that's at the tail-end of the middle ages (or just after the middle ages according to some, or about two hundred years into the Renaissance according to people who focus on Italian history, but don't get me started on this or I'll go on and on until you're blue in the face), I just had to see it.

On the whole, it was entertaining. The hosts were funny, but got a bit irritating at times. I think they meant to be that way, but I'm not sure. From time to time the show got a bit too focused on the topic of excretia - not necessarily a bad thing for a historical program(me), but really not what one would expect in a show about food.

The big question of course is, "Was it accurate?" The answer is: yes, reasonably so. It did a really decent job of appealing to the average viewer while not being total crap. I do have some nits to pick though (are you really surprised? I didn't think so), but since I'll have a lot to say about each nit, I'll save them for later posts.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Apropos of Nothing?

I love puzzles, mysteries, and secret codes. Quite a while back I made up a rather complex, multi-layer code thing and put it up on the web. I posted a link to it on a couple of the more geeky mailing lists I'm on just to see who'd try it out. To my surprise, only one person cracked it - James Prescott - and he did so in a fairly short amount of time.

What shouldn't be much of a surprise though is that he's about as much of a language nut as I am.

At any rate, the puzzle's still online. If I remember, I'll put a proper link to it on the main page of the website. If you think you can crack it, go ahead and try.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Chardwarden - Take 1

Sometimes interpreting a medieval recipe is easy - for example, I pretty much got the Peach Tart recipe right on the first try. Other times, like this one, it just doesn't go as expected.

The source recipe is the same one I used for Chardquynce, only I used pears so it would be chardwarden instead.

Chare de Wardone. Take peer Wardons, and seth hem in wine or water; And then take hem vppe, and grinde hem in a morter, and drawe hem thorgh a streynoure with the licour; And put hem in a potte with Sugur, or elle3 with clarefiede hony and canell ynowe, And lete hem boile; And then take hit from the fire, And lete kele, and caste there-to rawe yolkes of eyren, til hit be thik, and caste thereto powder of ginger ynowe; And serue hit forth in maner of Ryse. And if hit be in lenton tyme, leve the yolkes of eyren, And lete the remnaunt boyle so longe, til it be so thikk as though hit were y-tempered with yolkes of eyren, in maner as A man setheth charge de quyns; And then serue hit forth in maner of Rys.
[Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, T. Austin (ed.)]

I peeled and cut up four good-sized pears and put them with two cups of white wine in a pot on the stove, and cooked them until they were soft (this seemed to take about 5 seconds, but really it was probably more like 15 minutes). Then I puréed them, added sugar, spices, and four egg yolks. I warmed it back up to a low boil ... and it was way too runny.

Huh. This is supposed to be char (i.e. flesh) of pears, not pottage (i.e. soup). I wound up adding 4 more egg yolks to thicken it up, and it worked to a degree but it the final product was still a bit thinner than applesauce. It tasted fantastic, but this was not what was looking for. So where did it go off track?

Pears seem to have a much higher moisture content than quince, so obviously I need to rethink the liquid content. Then there's a matter of an interesting difference between two medieval source recipes. In the recipe above (TFCCB #356) it says to draw the cooked pears through a strainer with the liquid they were cooked in. However, in the same cookbook there is another recipe for chardwarden (TFCCB #34) which is almost identical but says to strain the pears without the liquid. Originally I thought this was a copy error, but given the results of this experiment it may be that it depends on which fruit is being used.

Of course this means I need to try again. Oh, the pain, the horror, the tragedy. Apparently this sort of failure is quite good with a dollop of snowe on top.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Goblins and Fairies

This isn't related at all to medieval cooking, but what the heck. It may not be much of a surprise, but I'm a long-time Doctor Who fan. I was watching last Saturday's episode and was surprised to catch the reference to Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market".

One of the characters in the program recited the lines ...

We must not look at goblin men
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?

... and then (as I said to myself, "That sounds like Goblin Market") the Doctor identified the author as Rossetti.

I've always thought that fairy and goblin folklore was really cool, and there are a few stories and poems I've come across that (at least in part) express what I think is at the very heart of goblinness (goblinity?). The Goblin Market is one of them. Another is William Allingham's poem "The Fairies", which starts:

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;

Of course this now has me wondering about medieval fairy folklore. Yet one more thing added to my "Must look into this sometime" folder.

Incidentally, the full text of Goblin Market is available free online at the Project Gutenberg website.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dashed Hopes

One can imagine that when I saw this posting on the News for Medievalists blog, I nearly jumped out of my skin. The post talks about how the Bodleian Library has made over 25,000 images of medieval manuscripts in its collection available onine through ARTstor. Zowie! There are some little-seen cooking manuscripts in the Bodleian that I'd love to have access to. So it was with no small amount of expectation that I made arrangements with my apprentice (who has access to ARTstor) to spend some quality time doing geeky research.

The best laid plans of mice, and all that.

Roadblock 1
First let me note that ARTstor's user interface was obviously designed by a demented chimpanzee who was suffering from ADHD and short-term memory problems. In all seriousness, I can't imagine that it was made this way by accident - someone had to work awfully hard to make it so bad.

Roadblock 2
After figuring out how to get any kind of information out of ARTstor, we spent about an hour searching, only to find that: 1. only manuscript pages with artwork on them are included, and 2. apparently none of the pages from medieval cooking manuscripts have artwork on them.

To add insult to injury, there were a bunch of pages which had illumination on only part of the page, and of course the text-only part of the page was cropped out. It's almost enough to bring a medieval cooking/word geek to tears.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Wandering in the Big Gray Zone

A few days back, the New York Times posted an article on their website about "Recipe Deal Breakers" - the things that cooks might read in a recipe that would cause them to skip it. This got me thinking in general about the foods people will and won't eat, and about how that affects medieval cooking geeks like myself.

See, here's the crux of the matter: there's no point in my making 30 pounds of blood sausage to serve to 100 people at a feast if only 3 people are even going to try it. On the other hand, the tastes of the people are not uniform. Instead of a nice, clear line that I could walk right up to and threaten to cross from time to time, I find myself standing in the middle of a vast, gray plain that isn't steadily shaded, but instead is mottled with varying degrees of will and won't. So here's what I've noticed so far about the food preferences of the people.

In general, people like meat (e.g. beef, pork, chicken). There are some vegetarians, but they're enough used to living in an omnivore world that most of them will be very happy with the slightest accommodation. Offering sauces to go with the meats is good, but it's best to serve the sauce on the side since a substantial number of the carnivores want their meat plain.

Some meats are considered a little unusual or exotic, but are generally acceptable (e.g. duck, venison, quail, rabbit). These can be served, but the serving size can be notably smaller than for the "normal meats"

There are meats that are considered strange enough that if you put them on the table, people will look at you funny (e.g. squirrel, hedgehog). If you know someone who likes these then make a special dish just for them, but don't bother making huge quantities.

Then there are the parts of the animals that are (in the US) often thrown away (e.g. brains, entrails, organs, feet, snouts, ears, tongues, genitals). Getting 1% of the people to eat any of these is nearly impossible. Even the most commonly eaten organ meat, liver, would generally fare badly here (a pity too, 'cause I've got a nice recipe for chopped liver).

Maybe it's different in other parts of the US, but here in the Midwest fish can be difficult. Something like salmon will go over OK, but just about anything else isn't worth it. The "weird" fish (e.g. eel) are even harder to get them to eat, and if you leave the head and tail on then you might as well forget it.

Frogs? No, not really. No.

What is it with trying to get Americans to eat vegetables? It seems that about half of the population is offended if anything green gets anywhere near their plate. They'll accept a salad as long as it has enough meat and cheese added to it. Starchy vegetables will be eaten if smothered in cheese (e.g. turnips) or glazed with honey (e.g. carrots), but offer them cooked spinach or beets and they'll act like you'd just insulted their mother.

I did have one surprise once on this. I'd made a turnip soup for one feast, scaling it back a little because I figured not everyone would like it, and we ran out. That was a rare exception though.

This is an odd one. People will generally eat fruit prepared in just about any way, but they rarely will ask for it. Stewed apples or pears, fruit sauces, baked fruit, all are good. Maybe they don't know what to do with fruit (other than eat it raw) and therefore they just don't think about it.

Other Foods
Mushrooms are iffy. Some people will devour them, others will run screaming.

The same goes for spicy or sour foods.

Eggs and egg-based dishes go over pretty well. You can even serve pies made from eggs and herbs or whatever - just don't call it quiche or a small number of men will suddenly decide not to eat it.

Starchy foods like bread or pasta are almost as widely accepted as the "normal" meats. The no-carb diet fad put a bit of a crimp in this, but it seems to have died down.

Meat jelly? I really don't think they'll eat much of it ... but I'm going to try anyway. Sometimes you've got to break the rules.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Chardquynce - Part 2

The quince had been peeled, cored, cut up, and cooked (baked) for 2 hours at 350°F. The pieces were soft enough to smush easily with a spoon. All that was left was to figure out what to do with it. After re-reading all the source recipes, I decided to work primarily from this one:

Chare de Wardone. Take peer Wardons, and seth hem in wine or water; And then take hem vppe, and grinde hem in a morter, and drawe hem thorgh a streynoure with the licour; And put hem in a potte with Sugur, or elle3 with clarefiede hony and canell ynowe, And lete hem boile; And then take hit from the fire, And lete kele, and caste there-to rawe yolkes of eyren, til hit be thik, and caste thereto powder of ginger ynowe; And serue hit forth in maner of Ryse. And if hit be in lenton tyme, leve the yolkes of eyren, And lete the remnaunt boyle so longe, til it be so thikk as though hit were y-tempered with yolkes of eyren, in maner as A man setheth charge de quyns; And then serue hit forth in maner of Rys.
[Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, T. Austin (ed.)]

Being the impatient sort, I used a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle to grind up the fruit (having experimented in the past, I've found that the final result is pretty much the same). I then added sugar, egg yolks, and spices, and then cooked it over medium heat until it started doing the bubbling-oatmeal thing. Here's how it looked when it was done:

mMMmmmm ... quince!

Spicing is always an issue when working from medieval sources - it's rare that a medieval recipe specifies quantities for anything. When I tasted this stuff during cooking, it seemed too bland, so I wound up putting in more ginger. When it was done it tasted great to me, and my wife liked it too. However it received a less than positive reception from a couple of people who don't normally eat medieval foods. I suspect it has a bit more ginger than the general population cares for.

I'll have to try out the same recipe using pears, possibly with less ginger and more cinnamon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Interpreting out a medieval recipe can be a challenge sometimes. The one I'm currently working on is a good example.

I got some fresh quince (mmMMMmm ... quince) at Jungle Jim's and was looking for something new to make with them, when I came across the following recipe:

To mak chard wardene tak wardens and bak them in an oven then tak them out and paire them and grind them in a mortair and streyne them smothe throwghe a streyner then put them in an erthene pot and put ther to sugur till they be douced as ye think best and put ther to pouder of notmeggs guinger and granes and let the pouder be farcede put ther to powder of sanders tille it be coloured and stirr it with a pot stik and set yt on a soft fyere and let it boile till yt be stiff as leche lombard and ye put amydon or rise it is bettere and when it is cold lay it fair abrod in the coffyn and let it stond ij dais and ye liste strawe senymom upon it and a day aftur the bred is out of the ovene then set it ther in and it shalle en be hard and then ye shall mak chardquynce. [A Noble Boke off Cookry (England, 1468)]

This is a recipe for pears, but what caught my eye was (of course) the word chardquynce. The last half of the word is obviously a reference to quince (and in case you didn't know, "wardens" are a type of pears). The first half doesn't mean burned though, but is a Middle-English word meaning "meat" or "flesh", so this recipe is for the cooked flesh of pears but it also mentions quince.

A quick search turned up several recipes for chardwarden, but only a single one that specifically called for quince. Weird. Looking at these recipes further, I discovered a bit of variation.

Chared coneys, or chardwardon is a mix of quince and pears, peeled and cored, cooked until soft, mashed, mixed with honey and spices, and cooked until very thick. I suspect the end result would be somewhat like marmalade or jelly.

Chardewardon and Chare de Wardone - recipes very similar to the one given in full above - is a recipe for cooked pears which references chardquince at the end. The pears are boiled, ground up, strained, mixed with sugar and spices, and them mixed with egg yolks and cooked until thick. This would be more like a fruit pudding.

Now I could just go ahead and make the marmalade-like recipe, but I'm in the mood to try something different. So my current plan is to hybridize these recipes into a stereotypical Chardquynce.  I've already got the quince peeled, cored, and cooked until soft, so tonight I'll mix them with the sugar and spices, and then add egg yolks and cook the stuff until it is pudding-like.  Tomorrow I'll post about how it turns out.