Sima

The new event year kicked off with a day event, Pen and Sword, held by my own shire, Dun in Mara. This was fairly small and fairly casual, but everyone did well and we managed to fit in archery, heavy fighting, fencing, A&S and even a small feast. Attendees seemed to have fun and the newbies brought along to the event enjoyed themselves. I was in charge of the A&S end of things. Stefano, visiting from Eplaheimr, taught tablet weaving in the morning and in the afternoon. I gave a class on the bardic arts in the morning, and we gave small performances at the feast. There was a display of people’s projects, varying from a luxurious reproduction of a Renaissance fan to a wonderful little wooden carving of a horse.

For the day, I donated blue cheese biscuits and non-alcoholic drinks. The site was dry, so I figured that we could use something beyond water and fruit juices – although nobody, in the end, seemed to have brought juices. The biscuits were done using a modern recipe (Nigella Lawson’s, if you must know, from the Domestic Goddess), once I had established that blue cheese was indeed Period. Apparently Charlemagne was quite a fan. Otherwise the biscuits only required butter, egg yolks and flour.

My mother had visited me from Finland during the holidays, and I’d got her to bring some kits for kotikalja, known elsewhere as svagdricka, or kvas, or smallbeer. It makes a malt drink, only slightly fermented, good enough to give to children. I made six litres of this. It was, however, superseded in popularity by a traditional Finnish drink, sima. It’s often translated into English as ‘mead’, although the most common recipe doesn’t use honey and it’s not alcoholic. I found at least one recipe that did use honey, so I will experiment with that at some point. I can’t say anything else about the periodness or otherwise of this drink, except that all the ingredients are period and I can’t imagine that the preparation method would have changed a lot either. This is how you make it.

For four litres of sima, bring two litres of water to boil and pour it over 250g of white and 250g of dark muscovado sugar. Mix in the juice squeezed from two lemons and another two litres of cold or cool water. Mix in about half of a 7g bag of dried yeast. (I experimentally used fast action since I couldn’t find anything else, it worked fine). The water must be warm for the yeast to awaken, but not too hot so it doesn’t die – about 40-42 degrees is the ideal. I also washed and sliced the squeezed lemons and added them to the mix. Stir and let it rest in room temperature for 24-48 hours. I used a very large saucepan for all this.

Sieve and bottle the sima. In each bottle, add a teaspoon of sugar and several raisins. Do not quite fill the bottles and do not close them too tightly, as the pressure within will grow as the fermentation process continues. When all the raisins have risen to the surface, the sima is ready. Serve cool. You can adjust the colour of the sima by adjusting the mix of dark and white sugars, or solely use one or the other. This recipe gives quite an ale-esque taste – do not think that what you get at the end is anything like a lemonade!

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It’s also possible to add to or replace the lemons with other fruit or berries, but I haven’t tried this yet. At some point I will try out raspberry sima. In Finland, the lemon sima is a traditional drink for Vappu, the first of May.


Insulae Draconis Coronet & Yuletide University

Last weekend, the Insulae Draconis Coronet and Yuletide University took place in Glen Rathlin. Aodh has written about it elsewhere in detail. For this blog, its interest mainly lies in the gingerbread subtlety that I presented at the feast. I had carefully written documentation for it in advance, but discovered on the site that no A&S display or competition was being held this time. Not to worry; that is what the blog is for. 

Below is the documentation I would have presented. 

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1. Description

 A stylized castle incorporating heraldic elements of Drachenwald, Insulae Draconis and Glen Rathlin, all made from gingerbread dough, put together with melted sugar, decorated with edible gold paint, sugar paste, sugared almonds, cinder toffee and spices. Presented as a subtlety at the feast accompanied by a story written by me.

2. Concept of subtlety in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

 A subtlety/sotelty/soteltie was the English term for entremets (between meals), an elaborate entertainment consisting of a display piece made from edible materials, wood or canvas, and, additionally, in more sumptuous settings, automatons or live performers.[i] Besides entertainment, entremets served purposes of allegory and honouring of important people or events. Sweet subtleties could be made from materials such as pastry, butter, marzipan and sugar paste. We know that subtleties were made in shape of buildings; for example, at the enthronement of William Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1505, one of the subtleties was in the shape of the interior of an abbey church.[ii] We also know that display castles were made from pastry and decorated and/or filled with sweets and/or savouries, as the example of chastletes shows.[iii] Subtleties went out of fashion in mid- to late 16th century.

3. Gingerbread (Lebküchen/pfeffernüsser/speculaas/leckerli/pepparkakor/piparkakut) dough in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

 The history of spiced biscuits that have become one of European Christmas specialities stretches back to the Middle Ages. We cannot pinpoint their origin, but it is thought that the first ones would have been made in German monasteries.[iv] As an interesting detail, a 13th-century Provencal poem of Flamenca states that at Christmas tide the best trade is plied on spices, so we might argue that spiced biscuits at Christmas/Yuletide table have a very early justification.[v] A 16th-century German recipe calls for honey, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and pepper.[vi] In late Medieval England, honey and breadcrumbs were used, sometimes coloured with saffron or sanders (powdered sandalwood), with cinnamon and pepper for flavor. Decoration was used, as an example of box leaves held in place with gilded cloves shows.[vii] In the 17th century, breadcrumbs were replaced by flour, honey by treacle, and butter, eggs and raising agents added to enrich the dough.

4. Method

In order to incorporate the Period concept, ingredients and flavor with the methods of modern cookery, I used an adaptation of a recipe for German honiglebküchen available from Petruksen Piparkakut, a carefully researched Finnish-language blog on historical biscuits and gingerbreads. I left out the cocoa and replaced the unobtainable raising agent with commercial baking soda. Other ingredients of the dough include: honey, sugar, butter, lard, egg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, allspice, rye flour and wheat flour. As I could find no suitable Period illustrations, I used a freely available non-Period pattern. The heraldic pieces I drew myself, freehand, first on paper and then traced the design on rolled out dough. The pieces of the castle are stuck together using melted sugar and the decoration is done using Period ingredients as far as possible. Sim (2005: 153-7) notes that the art of sugarcraft was very developed in the 16th century and she documents the use of sugar paste and how to dye it in different colours.[iii] The sugared almonds and cinder toffee used were made by Lady Fianna Rua Nic Mhathúna.


[i] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (OCF), First Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999: 760

[ii] Alison Sim, Food & Feast in Tudor England, The History Press, 2005: 11, 152

[iii] Constance Hieatt et al, Pleyn Delit, Second Edition, University of Toronto Press 1996: Recipe 140

[iv] OCF: 446

[v] OCF: 493

[vi] OCF: 447

[vii] OCF: 338

 

Here is the subtlety at the feast, presented to Their Highnesses Prince Richard and Princess Lena. The photo was taken by Stefano de Mohac.

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Of Undead, and of the Arts of the Living

Pesky mundane life. I have been up to my eyes in work and have had to neglect the Medieval side of things. I did, however, manage to finish my early Period garb for the event this weekend. Here I am, in a bad iPhone picture. All the fabrics are from IKEA, so they do come from a viking marketplace of sorts. ImageIn the meantime I also managed to find some real verjuice, in Fallon & Byrne’s food hall in Dublin city centre.  Naturally it’s nothing like what I tried to recreate in the last post, without really knowing what I was doing. It is exquisite: made from cold pressed grapes and tastes like summer rain. I like to call it ‘extra virgin wine’.

This weekend was Medieval Dead 2, a seasonal event organised by the Shire of Eplaheimr in central Ireland. It was my first event since returning to play and I enjoyed it immensely. Our entire household was present, much fun was had and we even excelled at various arts, Tuathal winning the archery competition, Cassandra and one of the little ladies getting prizes for their A&S projects and yours truly winning the ‘scary’ category of the bardic performances. Dressed as a valkyrie, I recited a prophecy of the valkyries from Njal’s Saga concerning the Battle of Clontarf and the death of Brian Boru. I am thinking that I may need to look more closely into the whole area of storytelling and reciting.

I helped in the kitchen in general, but I also got to do my first stint of event cooking. It was given unto me to provide the hangover breakfast on Sunday morning. This was made more interesting still by the fact that my own consumption of wine at the feast the previous night had been liberal. Nonetheless, if a word is given, it will be kept, so I was in the kitchen bright and early, knocking back apple juice and coffee, with Aodh as my kitchen boy. I mixed together a veritable vat of pancake batter for paper-thin crepes and served them forth with lemon wedges, sugar and mashed spiced apples that were a leftover from a mulled apple juice of the previous day. Viscountess Susannah made a delicious honey butter, which tasted amazing on the crepes, together with the apple. We also served leftover bread and bacon sliced from large chunks, boiled for an hour the previous day and baked in the morning with a glaze of honey, cinnamon and ground cloves. Other leftovers were gingerbread men and a selection of cakes and biscuits. It was remarkably satisfying to step into the great hall and be received with an applause, albeit not a huge number of people had made it to the breakfast.

Another event is coming up in the Shire of Glen Rathlin in a couple of weeks time. I may have offered to provide a subtlety. This may have been unwise.


Makerel in Sawse and Haedus in Alio

I was pleasantly surprised by discovering there was no assignment on my online course this week, which meant that most of the day was available for cooking. And cooking there was.

I had bought a half leg of lamb on special offer on Friday, so it was just a matter of fitting it in the menu. Hieatt et al’s Pleyn Delit (second edition, 1996, recipe 102) conveniently offered a recipe for Haedus in Alio, lamb with garlic and rosemary. It was then just a matter of finding other things to go with it. I settled on recipe 40, Cariota, roasted carrots, and 41, Benes Yfryed, fried beans. I also intended to cook cauliflower and broccoli according to a recipe from Gode Cookery, but as I will note later, I ended up not following it through.

We still hadn’t had lunch, though, and I fancied fish. Another browse through Pleyn Delit produced a very reasonable looking recipe 18, Makerel in Sawse. This is obviously poached mackerel in broth.  So off to the supermarket with me for various ingredients.

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Tesco have started to stock what they call ‘rainbow carrots’ of various colours. I was amused to see that a single (mostly) purple one was clearly included as a curiousity, as though people would be too afraid to cook it. Even it was orange inside.

The mackerel recipe comes originally from The Forme of Cury 109. You poach mackerels in a broth of water and, according to the original recipe, verjuice [1], but in the lack of the latter I substituted white wine vinegar and a dash of unsweetened cloudy apple juice. The broth is flavoured with plenty of fresh mint and ‘other erbes’. The adapted recipe suggested parsley and scallions; I used both of these and added some dried dill. I would not have thought previously that mint would go with fish, but the result was absolutely delicious, a savoury mojito of sorts. As salads and cooked greens of all sorts were well known, I served the fish on a bed of little gem leaves and steamed spinach. The original recipe suggests you ‘colour it grene or yelow’ before serving the fish forth, so I achieved this by simply piling on top of the fish the herbs cooked in the pot. Unmentioned by this recipe, but as a combination supported by many others such as this fish pie, I toasted some pine nuts and scattered them on top.

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I started cooking dinner almost as soon as we were finished with the late lunch, but that was expected and fine. Both the lamb and the carrots are originally taken from Platina’s On Right Pleasure and Good Health (De honesta voluptate et valetudine). In the original, the lamb is roasted in a spit, but we must content ourselves with an electric oven. Initially, the meat is rubbed with garlic cloves and, according to the original recipe, lard. As I wasn’t sure about getting enough of the garlic on the flesh, I pushed two cloves into cavities by the bone. I did cover the meat with lard, and noted that in her European Peasant Cookery, Elisabeth Luard gives almost an identical treatment of a lamb leg (1986, p. 194). The purpose of the lard obviously is to protect the meat from drying out. During the roasting, the meat is regularly basted with a mixture of ground saffron, garlic, rosemary and pepper mixed with egg yolks, verjuice again and juices of the meat. I ended up making the baste too liquid, using too much vinegar and apple juice, which meant it was difficult to make stick, although the heat thickened it and helped turn the surface of the lamb yellow. Platina suggests you baste with a sprig of rosemary, which is much more fun than the modern version’s pastry brush. I consulted several modern sources to find out a suitable cooking time for the lamb, but most of them indicated very short times, with dire warnings about overcooking lamb. In the end, the meat was nonetheless very rare, so after we had had our portions, I had to chuck the rest of the roast back in the oven for a bit. Something to watch for in the future. The glazing looked good, but I’m not sure whether it actually added anything substantial to the meat.

In the original, the carrots are roasted whole on hot coals. I will certainly try this on the barbecue next spring/summer, but I didn’t think it was very practical to do so in the oven. I simply cut them into thick juliennes and roasted them as you would for a Christmas dinner. Instead of applying butter on them, when done, I here did in fact follow the recipe and tossed them in a mixture of white wine and white wine vinegar and dried marjoram and tarragon. The slight sourness from the wine and vinegar was interesting and reminded me of the Finnish Christmas salmagundi.

The beans are also from The Forme of Curry, 189. The original calls for onions and garlic to fry them with, but as I had already used plenty of garlic for the lamb, I decided to omit it here. Instead I used black pepper, dried sage and basil. Hieatt notes that the beans available in Period would have been fava (broad) or kidney beans. The supermarket did not have broad beans – although it occurs to me now I should have checked the chilled section – and I didn’t fancy kidney beans, so I cheated and used butter beans instead.

All this was already beginning to be quite substantial, so I decided against making a dairy-based sauce for the broccoli and cauliflower, although my plan had been to heat a mixture of milk and cream for them. In the original, the cauliflower is steamed in milk, but I wasn’t sure what that would do to the broccoli. (And at this point I had to go rescue my husband and dog from the downpour they’d ended up in during their evening walk). So I simply steamed them and applied butter on top.

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I was reasonably happy with the meal overall, although the beans could have benefited from a gravy or a sauce. I must look into the various popular options.

 

[1] According to Larousse Gastronomique and various SCA sites, verjuice is a cooking liquid made from unripe green grapes or crab apples. There is a good discussion about it here. I decided that white wine vinegar would procude the necessary sourness, with a little bit of apple flavour added by the juice. Hieatt and others sometimes substitute it with lemon juice, but I’m not certain the citrusness would go in place of the crisp tartness of the grapes.


My Period cooking philosophy

I am a member of the SCA. This means I occasionally like to go away for a weekend or so with my friends, dress in Medieval clothing and live an idealised, romanticised version of the European Middle Ages, with, however, a fairly solidly historically researched basis in everything that we do. When we in the remark that something is ‘Period’ we mean “the arts, skills, and traditions of pre-17th-century Europe”. This blog will be mostly about Period cookery, with occasionally other crafts thrown in.

I am also a PhD student with a scholarship and a mortgage. Although my husband works in a good job, we don’t have vast quantities of money. Therefore, if I want to cook Period, my choices tend to be dictated by 1) what is already in the house 2) what can be got at a reasonable price at a supermarket or a farmers market. Let’s just say that venison or the like does not tend to feature a lot, and even lamb does so rarely (as it happens, today I am cooking lamb). However, this is great practice for cooking SCA event meals, as I aspire to do! I am also very interested in peasant food, which may be thought of as less nutritious or generally poorer than the diet of nobles, but which also had to sustain them for little or no money through hard work. I do beans and lentils a lot. To complicate things further, we like to avoid quick carbs in our diet, which means that I only sadly rarely make bread, pies or other similar delicious things. This is a pity, as I love baking and eating bread, but it just seems to be better for our health.

In my Period cookery, I will not use non-period ingredients, beyond modern commercially prepared versions of the originals, where necessary. However, I believe that throughout all times adaptation, creativity, managing with what you have and imagination have been the highest virtues of all the best cooks. Therefore there will be (many) times when I will not stick to a Period recipe, or indeed will devise my own using Period ingredients. We only have a limited amount of primary material from the Middle Ages, and even that material leaves out a lot of things that we would take for granted in modern cookery books, such as cooking times, amounts of spices and things that “everyone” knew how to cook. Accounts and other similar documents do not necessarily mention foodstuffs that did not need to be bought in, such as vegetables and fruit. My opinion is that in order to truly understand the experience of the times, we too must exercise the same cookly virtues in our cooking, and not simply be slaves to our recipe collections, refusing to try out anything outside those boundaries. My cooking is informed by A) What ingredients did they have? B) What methods did they use? and C) What examples exist? in that order. 

My particular interest is in Scandinavian and particularly Savonian-Karelian (south-east Finnish) cooking, as that is where both my own roots and my SCA persona’s roots come from. There is little material available on this, particularly as literacy came to those areas very late, which means that I will be dependent on later records, secondary scholarship, tradition and archaeology. However, I don’t think that I should let this prevent me. That said, I will, of course, work on well known Southern and Western European material, particularly when I don’t feel like putting in a lot of research to document what I’m doing. 

All the above factors should make for interesting combinations, and it’s likely that I will only rarely be able to follow all of them at once. However, I intend to follow my most important principle: Period cooking needs to be fun, and ideally produce a delicious result.