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Taste

(article, Kate Colquhoun)

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h3. From Chapter 4: "Newe Conceytes"

Of all the medieval courts, the splendor and elegance of Richard II's in the late fourteenth century were legendary. The king spent his wealth on decoration, indulgence, and sumptuous feasts rather than on foreign wars, employing more than 300 kitchen staff to feed 10,000 courtiers and visitors a day and slaughtering dozens of oxen and 300 sheep daily. While his reign was marked by famines, plagues, and hunger, it is from Richard's court that the earliest and most complete British culinary manuscript has survived: 196 instructions handwritten on fine calfskin by his own master cooks and physicians, known as The Forme of Cury.

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h1. About the book and author

British journalist Kate Colquhoun's first book was a biography of Joseph Paxton, the 19th-century gardener and architect. Her second, Taste, is a sweeping survey of British eating habits from prehistoric times to today, showing the various cultural influences on Britain's cuisine and the attitudes (and dishes) that exemplify the country's cooking.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury (2007).

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The recipes in The Forme of Cury and other manuscript fragments shed abundant light on a multitude of skillful "made" dishes painstakingly constructed by professional cooks as foils to the great roasts and combining the savor of ancient Rome with the Saracen flavors encountered by the Crusaders, at times extravagant and fierce and at others restrained and subtle. The recipes often relied on several different techniques to construct a single dish, and many had probably been passed down from cook to cook for some generations. Now, as the culinary arts were flourishing across Europe, the very act of recording recipes was a self-conscious display of royal connoisseurship: just decades before, the French King Charles V's master cook had compiled a similar collection known as Le Viandier.

Vague aides-memoires for the trained professional cook, reminding him to take just enough — ynough — of an ingredient, or to cook on a bright fire, these recipe collections tell us most of what we know about medieval courtly cuisine. Meats were often reduced to pastes, eaten on the point of a knife or with the fingers: like mortrews made from a base of pork or chicken flesh pulverized in a mortar, then boiled and thickened with bread, spices, and eggs. Rissoles, or raysols, were made by forming balls of minced pig's liver, bread, cheese, and spices and baking them with a crusting of egg yolk and saffron. Meat was regularly cut small into gobbets, and the cook's work was one of strenuous semi-violence as well as delicate modulation: along with meddling (mixing), he was told to hack, hew, stamp, and smite, to grynde, cast into broths, seethe, bray, and do on the fire.

One of the simplest recipes in The Forme of Cury was astoundingly modern for its time: proto-pastas boiled and layered with butter and cheese, known as macrows and not unlike modern macaroni cheese. The manuscript also gives us our earliest recipe for salad, using the smallest leaves of parsley, sage, borage, mint, fennel, cress, rosemary, rue, and purslane mixed with minced garlic, small onions and leeks, and decorated with slivered and toasted nuts and glowing pomegranate seeds. The dangerous "coldness" of the uncooked herbs was mitigated by a "warming" dressing of oil and vinegar, a classic combination that would remain unchanged for centuries.

In a society still only marginally literate, people craved exuberant visual novelty and illusion and, like puzzle jugs that appeared to be filled with holes but did not leak, many of the dishes produced by medieval cooks were skillful, witty, and strange. The cockentrice was a fantasy animal from the forepart of a capon and the rear of a piglet stitched together, stuffed, and roasted. Peacocks were carefully skinned, their meat seasoned with cumin before being roasted, cooled, and stitched back into their feathers, sent to the table apparently alive, their necks supported by wires, their tails spread and a phoenix fire bursting from their gilded beaks. Clearly a health risk, peacocks in their feathers were a triumph of style over substance, since everyone admitted that the flesh was stringy, but that was beside the point. They were centerpieces, designed to delight the eye as much as the palate and to emphasize social power through magnificent display; more than a hundred of them were presented at the installation feast for Archbishop Nevill of York in 1467.

[%image promo-image float=right width=425 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/creacart" caption="British recipes for salad date back to the Middle Ages."]

The love of bright color evident in medieval illuminated manuscripts, clothing, and heraldry inevitably found its way to the table. Transparent jellies were highly prized and took hours to make, with cooks laboriously boiling pigs' feet or knuckle of veal into a gluey gelatin that was scummed and strained repeatedly to remove each minuscule solid particle. Glowing medieval jellies were set in brightly colored layers or encased whole cooked fish; sometimes they were gilded or carefully scented with spices ground so finely that they were indiscernible within the shivering mass.

Boiled blood was used to color foods black, and a sandalwood-like bark known as sanders or mulberries or red alkanet were employed to turn them red or purple. Wheat starch, egg whites, or crushed almonds were used for white; mint, spinach, and parsley for green; and for blue the turnsole, or heliotrope, was mashed. Most desirable of all, egg yolks, dandelion petals, or musty saffron were used to endore pie crusts and pottages. Saffron was a costly statement, with more than 50,000 hand-harvested crocus flowers needed for each pound of dried stamens. The fields around Saffron Walden in Essex must have been a mirage of smiling color when in bloom, delighting thousands who could never hope to taste the kind of cooking in which they were used.

Flowers were in fact a particular feature of British courtly cooking, with violets used in meat stews and herb salads decorated with cowslip and broom petals, violets, primroses, and gillyflowers. A sweet pottage called rosee mixed violet, primrose, and rose petals with cows' or almond milk, flour, and honey. Spynete or espinee called for hawthorn blossoms, boiled meat, ginger, and sugar, and another concoction was based on the scented sweetness of spring elderflowers. Recipes like these demonstrate that whether savory or sweet (or both), pottages were important elements of a meal even in wealthy households, the process of lengthy simmering in water, stock, or even stale ale reducing the stringiest meat to tenderness.

Soupy pottages were known as ronnyng, while those thick enough to be sliced were called stondyng — a particular favorite was blancmanger, a thick mess of boiled rice and almond milk, lightly spiced, sweetened, and mixed with the cooked flesh of capon or fish shredded patiently with a pin. There was also mawmenee, similar to blancmanger but more robustly flavored with wine, sugar, fried dates, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. But it was frumenty, the ancient porridge of bruised wheat boiled in milk, that traditionally accompanied roast fresh mutton, venison, or porpoise at feasts. Updated for medieval tastes, it was thickened with egg yolks, colored with saffron, and left to cool before being sliced like polenta.

The Romans had of course made a kind of pastry, but they had used oil rather than butter or lard so that it could not be "raised" to a standing pie and was used mainly for sweet dishes drenched in honey, reminiscent of modern Middle Eastern patisserie. During the Middle Ages, pastry evolved into a rough, inedible casing — or coffin — filled with closely minced meats larded with marrowbone or oysters and flavored with dried fruits, nuts, and spices. Offal — livers, sweetbreads, lights, and giblets — were all highly esteemed, and the original umble pies were not in the least bit humble, using a gallimaufry of entrails including testicles, tripe, hearts, palates (the tender roof of the mouth), gizzards, lambs' tails, cockscombs, and fatty pigs' feet in a rich, spicy gracy. Valued as it was, offal was known as garbage, a word that would assume quite a different meaning as tastes changed.


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