Saturday, 30 June 2012

Drawing Threads Together

                   What do the following have in common, other than being mentioned by me in this blog? Treacle, Holy Wells, the Gunpowder Plot, Hanging Drawing and Quartering, Stonyhurst, Robert François Damiens, Kenelm Digby, Venice Treacle, and Viper Wine?

Let’s see if we can find a link.

I mentioned Treacle Wells the other day. One such holy well is that of St Winefrede, at Holywell, North Wales, and in 1601, the priest Father Edward Oldcorne sought a cure for his cancer there. Four years later he returned, to give thanks, and with him went about thirty Catholic pilgrims. Oldcorne was the chaplain to Sir Everard Digby and his wife, and when, later in the year, the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, it was said that its foundations had been laid during the pilgrimage. Oldcorne was arrested for his supposed involvement, and tortured although no real link was discovered, he was sentenced to death and on April 7th 1606, with three others, he was hanged, drawn and quartered; his final words were a prayer to St Winefride. As the executioner struck the blow to behead him, its force was such that Oldcorne’s eye flew out of its socket. This relic is now preserved at Stonyhurst. 

The Relic of Edward Oldcorne

Sir Everard Digby was also arrested and was the only man to plead guilty to the charges of high treason, and on January 30th 1606 he was, with three others, taken from his cell in the Tower of London. All four were strapped to wicker hurdles, dragged behind horses through the mud and dung covered streets of a wintery London, and bruised and battered by the lurching of the hurdles. After just over a mile, they reached the west end of old St Paul’s Cathedral, where Digby was told he was the first to be executed. He made a short speech to the crowd, admitting his act may have been sinful but his intentions were pure, and knelt and prayed for a while. His hands were bound and he was stripped of all bar his shirt, then taken up a ladder, a noose put about his neck and the ladder turned away. In an instant, the hangman cut the rope, and Digby’s body fell to the ground, bruising his forehead. Still living, he was dragged to block, castrated, his entrails drawn out and his body cut into quarters. Legend says that when the executioner, according to the custom, held it up, saying, “Here is the Heart of a Traitor”, Sir Everard answered, “Thou liest.” (This treatment of potential regicides has all too many shades of the fate of Robert François Damiens). 

The Executions of the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators

Digby had two infant sons, the eldest grew to be Sir Kenelm Digby, he of the Closet Open’d cookery book. Born in 1603, Kenelm attended Oxford but left without taking a degree. He switched from Catholicism to Anglicanism and took office in the Privy Council. About 1624 or 1625, he secretly married the celebrated beauty Venetia Stanley, whom he had known from childhood. 

Venetia Digby nee Stanley

From 1628, he was a privateer (a state-registered pirate), and captured a number of Spanish, Dutch and Flemish vessels, (these adventures will keep for another post); he was feted for his good-looks and prodigious strength, and returned to England to take up work for the Admiralty. His wife, Venetia, was, shall we say, a ‘friendly’ girl and rumoured to be as stupid as she was beautiful. She was also said to be suffering from consumption, and on the morning of May 1st 1633, she was found dead in bed, with her head on her hand. Sir Digby had not wanted to disturb her when he went to bed late on the previous night, and had slept in another room. Rumours began to be spread that the jealous husband had poisoned her, and he admitted that, to cure her headaches he had given her ‘viper wine’, which, you may recall, was an ingredient of Venice Treacle. He was known to dabble in medical matters, so it may well be he gave her a draught of this supposed panacea. Very unusually for the time, an autopsy was performed, and it was noted particularly that she had a very small brain in her skull (a result of cerebral haemorrhage, maybe). Digby’s reaction to her death was profound, making a deliberate poisoning seem unlikely, but an accidental one possible; he stopped shaving, he grew his hair long, and, in contrast to his former flamboyant clothes, only wore black garments with white collars. He withdrew from society, returned to Catholicism, gave up his adventurer’s life, devoted himself to his studies, and went into voluntary exile in Paris. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

Sir Kenelm Digby in mourning.

Friday, 29 June 2012

As is Meat and Proper

             In the definition for ‘toughy’ I quoted yesterday from Robert Forby’s The Vocabulary of East Anglia was, “– a coarse sweetmeat.” That word ‘sweetmeat’ is interesting; it is made of two elements, ‘sweet’ and ‘meat’, and is sometimes found as two separate words, (Sir Kenelm Digby uses it this way). The ‘sweet’ part is obvious enough, but the ‘meat’ part needs an explanation. 
In the past ‘meat’ used to mean any food, not just flesh, as we now use it. In Gothic, it was mats, in Old Norse mata, in Anglo-Saxon mete and in Old High German maz, all meaning ‘food.’ For example, in the Bible is, “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house,” (Matt. 9:10). From the same roots, a person with whom you shared food was your ‘mate’. The word remains in the modern tongue in the filling for Christmas pies – mincemeat – in the sense that it is minced food, and not ‘minced meat’, (although some recipes do include meat). 

Mincing was a well known technique, and in the first English cookery book, The Forme of Cury (1380), we can find such examples as this: - A recipe for Rosee

The Forme of Cury - recipe for Rosee - 1380

Translated, it reads: - 
Take thick milk already boiled; cast thereto sugar, a good portion pine-nuts. Dates minced, cinnamon & powdered ginger and boil it, and mix it with flowers of white Roses, and flour of rice, cool it, salt it & serve it forth. If you will instead of Almond milk, take sweet cream of cattle. 

In John Frith’s Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogues (1533), is the phrase, 
“We use it customably in our daily speech to say, when a child sets his mind and delight on sport and play, It is meat and drink to this child to play.” 
John Frith - Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogues 1533

The meaning is that if something is ‘meat and drink’, it is a source of intense enjoyment, as in Shakespeare’s line from As You Like It, “It is meat and drink to me to see a clown.” Contrary to this, we have the phrase, ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ which is to say that what one man takes pleasure in will not suit another. The phrase comes from Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) he writes 
“ …so vast the Diff’rence is, what proves Strong Poison unto one, another loves,” 
and was so well known to cause Thomas Middleton, in his Plato’s Cap Cast at the Year of 1604, to say,  
Whereby that old moth-eaten proverb is verified, which says, 'one mans meate, is another man's poyson'."  

Lucretius - De Rerum Natura - Trans. T Creech - 1714 edition

An Old Norse word for a stool was skemill, which came into English as ‘scamble’, meaning either a stool or a bench. This became ‘shamble’, used mainly in the plural ‘shambles’, as the name of the benches from which butchers sold meat. In The 18 Pageant of Naaman of The Stonyhurst Pageants, from the first half of the 17th Century, the character Phronesium says,
“And to the shambles I am goinge meate to provide for supper.” 
Many towns had their Shambles, although the most famous now are those at York, and from the mess made by the cuts of meat and the blood and guts, the word came to mean both a slaughter-house and a place of disorder or carnage. So if your house is ‘a shambles’, it looks like a slaughterhouse. And when we talk about someone who shambles or walks crookedly, it is because their legs resemble those of a stool or trestle. 
“I saw a lean fellow, with sunk eyes and shamble legs,” 
George Wilkins The Miseries of Enforced Marriage 1607.

George Wilkins - The Miseries of Enforced Marriage - 1607

Not related to, but similar sounding, is the dialect word for food – scran. It’s a word I use regularly, but its origins are unclear. The OED says its relationship to the Icelandic word skran – meaning odds and ends, or rubbish, is probably accidental. It may be related to the Dutch schransen, to eat greedily, to gorge, or the Irish scranta – a part or division. It appears in Nodal and Milner’s A Glossary of the Lancashire Dialect (1875), but without etymology. 

Nodal & Milner - 'Scran' - A Glossary of Lancashire Dialect - 1875

The quotation from Edwin Waugh (called the Lancashire ‘Burns’) is dated 1879, which may seem odd in a book published in 1875, but The Chimney Corner was first published in 1874, so it’s just a typo.  And just to tie up the loose ends and bring it all back home, in Tiw: Or A View of the Roots and Stems of the English as a Teutonic Tongue, by William Barnes, (1862), is an entry for Scranchum - thin brittle gingerbread. Which is another form of parkin. Lovely.

William Barnes - Tiw - 1862

Reet, it’s time fer mi scran. Sithee.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A Right Rum Do

                           I mentioned yesterday that parkin is a traditional Bonfire Night food. Another treat is Bonfire Toffee, also called Treacle Toffee. The origin of the word ‘toffee’ is uncertain – the OED has its earliest entry as 1825, as a variant of ‘toughy’, in Robert Forby’s The Vocabulary of East Anglia,
“Toughy – a coarse sweetmeat, composed of brown sugar and treacle; named from its toughness, though perhaps it should be spelled tuffy, and considered as another form of taffy, described in W C as compounded of the same ingredients, and derived from Fr taffiat, a sweetmeat made of sugar and brandy.”

The ‘W C’ mentioned here is An Attempt at a Glossary of some Words used in Cheshire by Roger Wilbraham, 1817, which has, 
“Taffy, what is called coverlid ; this is treacle thickened by boiling, and made into hard cakes. Tafia, or taffiat, sugar and brandy made into cakes, French.”

R Wilbraham - Taffy - 1817
Tafia is also a cheap form of rum, made from boiled sugar cane, which is stirred until crystals form. These crystals are removed, leaving molasses behind. This is boiled again, water and yeast are added and it is allowed to ferment. The result is distilled to make rum spirit – a colourless liquid which is matured in oak barrels and coloured with caramel. The un-aged spirit can be drunk as tafia. So, from molasses, with its roots in the Latin mel – ‘honey’, we get to tafia, a possible root of ‘toffee’; treacle toffee made from treacle (aka molasses). 

In his second edition of A Dialect of Craven (1830), under the entry for ‘toffy,toughey’, Rev William Carr writes, 
“To join for toffy," to club for making toffy, a custom still very frequent amongst young persons. Similar societies are formed for making parkins or cakes made of oatmeal and treacle.” 

W Carr - Toffy - 1830

So it all comes around, through molasses, and honey, back to parkin, treacle and toffee. 

A recipe for Treacle Toffee.

1lb Brown Sugar
¼ pint of Water
4ozs Black Treacle
4ozs Golden Syrup
1 tsp White Wine Vinegar
3ozs Unsalted Butter
¼ teaspoon Cream of Tartar
First of all, grease an 8-inch tin with unsalted butter. Put all the ingredients in a pan and bring to a quick boil. Stir it constantly. When the mixture begins to thicken (after a few minutes), get a jug of cold water and test a drop of the mixture – when it instantly solidifies into toffee it is ready, so remove from the heat at once and stand the pan in cold water, to arrest the heat. Pour into the prepared tin and allow to cool. Break into pieces and keep in an airtight tin.

Another name for this is Tom Trot. 
Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister and author, mentions Tom Trot in his novel Coningsby (1844), 
“Have you got any toffy?' inquired a dull looking little boy in a hoarse voice of one of the vendors of scholastic confectionary.
' Tom Trott, Sir.'
'No; I want toffy.'
'Very nice Tom Trott, Sir.'
'No, I want toffy; I have been eating Tom Trot all day.'”
The first page of the first issue of the magazine Punch, July 17th 1841, has the following, 
“The boys will be the greatest sufferers. One of them had stripped his jacket of all its buttons as a deposit on some tom-trot, which the house had promised to supply on the following day; and we regret to say, there are whispers of other transactions of a similar character.”
Tom Trot was also a folk character, a good example to children, who studied hard and learned his lessons, and went on to a successful life. 

The Wisdom of Crop the Conjurer c. 1814

From the same - Tom Trot's song

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Trick or Treacle

                 If honey has an evil twin, it must be treacle. Black treacle. Thick, bible-black treacle. Sweet, sin-black treacle. Dark, sticky-black treacle. Its origins are strange, to say the least. Chaucer uses the word in his Canterbury Tales
“I have almost y-caught a cardiacle; 
By corpus boones, but yf I have a triacle, 
Other elles a draught of moyst and corny ale."
Pardoner’s Prologue ll. 27-9. 

In the Dives Pragmaticus (‘The Great Marchaunt Man’) by Thomas Newbery, 1563, a merchant hawks his wares, crying that, 

Dives Pragmaticus - Thomas Newbery - 1563
“I haue fine triacle of Genes, the plague to preuent, 
Fyne Waters, fyne Oyles, of odour excellent, 
Fyne Gummes and Parfumes as euer was spent, 
What lacke you Gentlemen, come hether to me.”

The Compleat History of Druggs - Pierre Pomet 1737

In The Compleat History of Druggs by Pierre Pomet (1737) under the entry for Macedonian Parsley, we are told that Andromachus, physician to the Roman Emperor Nero, used the seeds in a ‘treacle’, now called ‘Venice Treacle’, which was an powerful Alexipharmack or ‘resister of poison and pestilence’. 

From the same - entry for Macedonian Parsley

In the recipe for this treacle, Pomet tells us the name ‘treacle’ comes from the Greek word for an antidote for the bite of an adder – θηριακη – theriake, derived from θηρ meaning a small, wild or poisonous beast. Vipers were steeped alive in white wine, and herbs added, including opium, red roses, saffron, aniseed, rhubarb and myrrh, with honey and wine; in all a total of 64 ingredients were needed to make the potion. Monsieur d’Aquin, physician to the French King, revised the recipe, halving the ingredients and including new elements, whilst retaining dried vipers, to make the Grand Treacle. A third type, German Treacle, was made from a mere six ingredients; Gentian, Round Birthwort, Bay-Berries, Extract of Juniper and Myrrh, made up with Honey. 

Pomett's recipe for Venice Treacle

Over time, the name ‘treacle’ was applied to any medicinal syrup, and by extension, to all syrups, including those extracted in the refining of sugars, (to distinguish between the two types, the paler one is now usually referred to as Golden Syrup, and the darker one called Black or Dark Treacle, although, confusingly, Golden Syrup is used to make treacle tart). 

Treacle tin

Treacle and flowers of sulphur, better known as brimstone and treacle, is a mild laxative, and a splendid, if disturbing, play by Dennis Potter. The adjective ‘theriacal’, meaning ‘antidotal’, was applied to healing wells, and the story grew, as the original meaning was forgotten, that these were Treacle Wells. Telling them that treacle came from these wells, and, in addition, from Treacle Mines, tested the credulity of generations of children. 

Tockholes Chapel.

There are numerous Treacle Mines to be found throughout Great Britain; in East Lancashire the most famous are the Tockholes Treacle Mines (pronounced locally as ‘Tockus Traykle Mines’). In the mid 1990s, two series of animated films were made, called and about, The Treacle People. The Treacle Mines in the series were located at Sabden, on the slopes of Pendle Hill, Lancashire, where there was already a Treacle Mine tourist attraction, attracting at its best 30,000 visitors a year, (it closed in 1998). 

Syrup tin

Treacle is the vital ingredient in Parkin, a northern form of a gingerbread cake, loved in Lancashire and Yorkshire, traditional on Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes came from York), enjoyed through the year, best eaten when slightly aged as the flavour develops. Some say Lancashire Parkin uses golden syrup and brown sugar – I don’t hold with this; always use black treacle.

A Recipe for Parkin

Melt half a pound of lard (do not use butter), mix with half a pound of treacle, half a pound of self-raising flour, four ounces of fine (or medium) oatmeal, four ounces of brown sugar, and then add two large beaten eggs, half a cup of warm milk, four teaspoonsful of ground ginger, two teaspoonsful of nutmeg and one teaspoonful each of mixed spice and baking powder. I also add grated fresh ginger to taste. Grease a loaf tin and bake for one and a half hours or so, until browned, in a medium oven (140 o C), leave to cool and put in a tin for three or four days. 

It should be soft, and moist, and sticky. Eat it like cake with a hot chocolate drink, cold ginger beer, or have it as a pudding with custard. It will keep for at least a fortnight, but it never really lasts that long. 

Molasses, extracted from raw sugar, is a black syrup, the word used synonymously with treacle in the US, but not really used much in the UK; it derives it name from the Latin mel – meaning honey.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

To Bee (or not ... )

                    Bee vomit. That’s right. Bee vomit. Doesn’t sound too appetising, does it? But that is what honey is. Bees collect nectar from flowers, take it back to the hive, and regurgitate it, in order to store it as food. They keep it in honeycombs, which they make from wax, in the familiar hexagon shape – the optimum shape for covering a surface area with the minimum of material. Beekeepers encourage their bees to over-produce honey, which is then harvested from them. We don’t really farm many insects in the West, but bees are one example, and it’s a bonus that we can use both the honey and the wax. 

Beeswax candle.

I mentioned candles the other day, but we use beeswax for other things too – furniture and shoe polish, balms, to preserve some foods (like cheese), as a binder for encaustic painting, a resist in batik dyeing, to make cloth water resistant, and so on. (The waste residue remaining after rendering beeswax goes by the marvellous name of slumgum). 

Cheese preserved in wax.

Honey was used as a sweetener in much of the world prior to the Eighteenth century, when sugar began to become more readily available, and for many people, it remains the more desirable alternative, not least because of the taste. It is one of the few foods that, under normal conditions, will not deteriorate or spoil, although it should not be kept in metal containers, which will cause it to oxidise. The usual containers are glass or ceramic, and decorative honey pots are commonly seen, quite often, like this one, in the shape of a beehive. 

Honey Pot.

Honey can be used for many things, not least to produce drinks. Most people will have heard of mead, even if they have never drunk it, and may think of it as a medieval thing, all Good Queen Bess or Good King Hal, but it is a very pleasant drink and easy to make. 

Title Page The Closet 1669

In Kenelm Digby’s The Closet Opened (mentioned here), there are numerous recipes for mead, together with other drinks made from honey, whose names are not quite as well known. 

Recipe for Mead (or Meathe) by Sir Kenelm Digby

Mead is basically just fermented honey and water, another name is Hydromel – Greek for ‘Water-Honey’; if spices are added, the drink is Metheglin. If fruit is added, it is Melomel. If honey is added to malt and hops, it makes sack, another name for which is bragot. In Lancashire, a Sunday in mid-Lent was called Mothering Sunday, when apprentices and servants were allowed to visit their homes and mothers, taking gifts of sweet simnel cakes or money. Dyer’s British Popular Customs Past and Present (1900), notes,
“A sort of spiced ale called Braggot, Bragget, or Braggat, was used in many parts of Lancashire on these visits of relations, whence the day was called Braggot Sunday.” 
 The name may come Welsh – bräg = malt and gots or (mel)gor = honeycomb. 

A false etymology is the word ‘honeymoon’, which some say is derived from the custom og providing newly-weds with enough mead to drink for a month, to ensure their fertility and prosperity. This is wrong; the ‘honey’ part comes from its meaning as ‘sweet’, as when love is new and fresh, and which dwindles, as the moon wanes, after about a month. Blount (1656) says “... it is hony now, but it will change as the moon,” and in his Glossographia he has   
“Honey-Moon – the firft month of matrimony, fo termed for the firft fondnefs of a New Married couple.”

Honey-Moon - from Johnson's Dictionary 1755

None of the early dictionaries or etymologies give the false meaning (where, if it existed, it would appear); it appears to be a Victorian romanticism – it turns up in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1870, (where is added the legend that Attila the Hun died on his wedding night from drinking an excess of hydromel). 

W C Hazlitt - Honeymoon - Faiths and Folklore 1905

W Carew Hazlitt, in his extensive Faiths and Folklore (1905) makes no mention of it, but he does say that, 
“The honeymoon does not seem to have been observed of old, and no stated time was understood to elapse between the nuptials and the reception of friends at home by the married couple,”

although the Old Norse hjūnōttsmānathr meant 'wedding-night-month', whereas in German it is flitterwochen – 'tinsel weeks', in southern Germany küssmonat – 'kiss month' and, touchingly, in Dutch wittebroodsweken – 'white bread weeks'.

Monday, 25 June 2012

And - what comes next?

Remember the recipe for a cockatrice the other day

What’s going on with the funny ‘p’ shaped letters in that? Well, Old English had additional letters, drawn from the old Runic script. For example:-

Ƿ ƿ – called wynn was used to represent the /w/ sound in Old English

Ð ð – called eth is a voiced dental fricative -  /th/ as in ‘thick’

Þ þ – called thorn is a voiceless dental fricative -  /th/ as in ‘them’

Both wynn and eth were dropped from English from about 1300 onward but thorn remained in use into the Early Modern period. It was frequently used by early printers with a superscript letter /e/ to represent the word ‘the’;  þe was often used to save space, and the fuller ‘the’ used where space was not a problem. Similarly þt was a common abbreviation for ‘that’. Over time, the thorn became confused with the letter /y/, giving words like ye, you, yem, or yat which would be pronounced as the, thou, them and that. Further confusion arose with the old second person singular ye – meaning ‘you’, and people began to pronounce þe (‘the’) as ‘ye’. We find this still in such formations as Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, with the first word pronounced ‘ye’ rather than ‘the’. So pronounce it properly, as ‘The Old Tea Shop’. And forget all that old-ee shop-ee nonsense too. Old English may have scattered vowels around like there was no tomorrow, but that was then and this is now. So pack it in please. 

Just as an example, take the word ‘pease’, as in ‘pease-pudding’. ‘Pease’ is a singular word, but when the /e/ was dropped from the end, it became ‘peas’, which some bright spark assumed it must be plural because it had an ‘s’ at the end, so obviously the singular must be ‘pea’. We can see that ‘pease’ was singular from this line from October in Spenser’s Shepherd Calendar,  
'The vaunting poets found nought worth a pease.” 

The plural form ‘peasen’ is seen in Chaucer’s Legende of the Goode Women
He poureth pesen upon the  hacches slidre."
(One poured peas on the hatches to make them slippery)

Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman also has pees as singular and presen or peses as plural. 

Edmund Spencer - A Shepherd's Calendar - 1579

Another combination of letters than has caused confusion in the past is the ampersand. The letter ‘e’ and ‘t’ of the Latin word ‘et’ – ‘and’ – were joined together to make the ligature ‘&’. One version of the name for this was that, because the symbol looks like a sitting cat with a paw raised, it is called an ‘and-pussy-and’. In old elementary school-rooms, as the alphabet was recited, any letter that could stand as a word alone was prefixed with the words ‘per se’ – Latin for ‘in, of, or by itself’. The letter ‘A’, standing at the head of the alphabet, with its prefix, ‘A-per-se’, came to mean anything excellent, as in the line describing Melusine from 'The Romans of Partenay’
She was a woman A-per-se, alone.” 
At the other end of the alphabet are the letters ‘X Y Z and &’, which would be said as ‘Ecks, Wye Zed and per se and’, which, schoolboys being schoolboys, was simplified to ‘am-puzzy-am’ or ‘and-pussy-and’, until later, having learned some Latin, they recognised to be ‘and per se and’, which eventually became ‘ampersand’. 

From Notes and Queries - December 30th 1871

In a modern twist, it has been proposed, using the same logic, that @ should be called an ‘ampersat’ – ‘and per se @’ or ‘and by itself at’. I like it.


Sunday, 24 June 2012


                       Abraham Lincoln once said that, “17% of what you read on the Internet may well be inaccurate.” In this post, I wrote that the first recipe for cooking Brussels sprouts is to be found in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845). Yesterday, I found this in Cookery Reformed: or, The Lady’s Assistant, dated 1755. It is ninety years earlier. For this error, I apologise.

How to cook sprouts from 1755

There are books about cooking and there are books about eating. One of the earliest, and one of the best, is Jean Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) from 1825. 

Physiologie du goût - Title page

“Animals feed, man eats; wise men alone know how to eat.” 

It is a great thick doorstep of a book, something close to five hundred pages, and one should approach it as one approaches a fine meal. Brillat-Savarin was an epicure in the word’s true sense. The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that pleasure should be the aim of life. That is to say, in another way, that the aim of life is the absence of pain. However, some have sought to portray the Epicurean as a pleasure-seeker, a selfish, self-centred hedonist, which misses the subtlety of his philosophy. Too much is as wrong as too little – seek the happy medium, the golden mean, instead. 
“The dyspeptic man and the drunkard are incapable of either eating or drinking.” 
And this is how to read Brillat-Savarin – in measured portions, taken slowly and enjoyed at leisure, allowing oneself the time to savour his flavours, giving oneself time to properly digest him, and relishing the fine sensations and rare pleasures to the senses. He rambles on and he digresses, there are asides and footnotes, he tells tales and relates anecdotes, he satisfyingly massages your prejudices and infuriates your sensibilities, draws you in as he spins out his yarns; he reflects and recalls, diverts and deviates, meditates, remarks and remembers. And, of course, he makes your mouth water.

"Dessert without cheese, is like a pretty girl with only one eye." 

Cuisine de Paris - Title Page - Plumerey & Carême

It goes without saying that, for Brillat-Savarin, the French produced the finest foods. Prior to the seventeenth century, French cookery was much like that of the rest of Europe. A change came when François Pierre de la Varenne and Marie-Antoine Carême began to abandon the use of spices in favour of fine herbs, fresh vegetables and simpler sauces. Carême became known as the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings, cooking for many of the crowned heads of Europe. He introduced ‘mother sauces’, base sauces (Béchamel, Hollandaise, Velouté, Tomate and Espagnole) which could be used to make ‘lesser’ or ‘secondary’ sauces by the addition of other ingredients, and he also introduced the service à la Russe (serving dishes separately, in the order of the menu), rather than service à la Française (serving all dishes simultaneously). 

A Guide to Modern Cookery - Title Page - Auguste Escoffier 1907

Carême’s work was continued after his death by Armand Plumerey, and was further refined and simplified by Auguste Escoffier, whose Le Guide Culinaire (Guide to Modern Cookery) (1905 – 1st English trans. 1907) set the standards of French haute cuisine, which became known as cuisine classique, the standard in high class restaurants and hotels in Europe, and the rest of the world, during much of the 20th century. 

Auguste Escoffier

Like it or not, a knowledge of the techniques, methods and ingredients of the French style is essential for any aspiring chef, or cook, to this day. 

The French Cook - Title Page - L Friedel 1846

The dominance of the French led to an inverted snobbery, not least by those confused by the language, with sentiments like, “ … do you think it easy to sell Irish Stew for 75 cents, per, when you can sell Navarin d'Agneau à l’Irlandaise for a dollar?” openly expressed. It is laziness. Just a couple of hours with a recipe book will give enough of an idea to find your way around most menus.

A Guide to Good Living - John Phin 1896

In Victorian times, you could even buy a pocket guide to help you. 

Saturday, 23 June 2012

All over in just a Trice

                       Many years ago, I worked on a poultry farm. When we replaced the old hens with young ones, we would often find ‘wind’ eggs, which are the first eggs laid by new birds, often before the reproductive system is mature enough to produce true eggs. Wind eggs are small or misshapen, sometimes even without a hard shell but like a leathery bag instead, and usually they do not contain a yolk. Folk tradition calls these ‘cock’s eggs’, and legend had it that if one of these cock’s eggs could be hatched, sometimes incubated by a toad or a serpent, the result would be a cockatrice. 

The cockatrice was a fearsome beast, with the head of a cockerel, the wings of a dragon and the tail of a snake; its baleful stare could turn men to stone or throw fire, burning everything it gazed on. In medieval bestiaries the cockatrice and the basilisk are virtually interchangeable, the basilisk sometimes lacking wings, or with a snake’s head at the end of its tail. In one of the cookery manuscripts I mentioned yesterday, is a recipe for a cockatrice.


Take a Capoun, & skald hym, & draw hem clene, & smyte hem a-to in þe waste ouerþwart; take a Pigge, & skald hym, & draw hym in þe same maner, & smyte hem also in þe waste; take a nedyl & a þrede, & sewe þe fore partye of þe  capoun to þe After parti of þe Pygge ; & þe fore partye of fe Pigge, to þe hynder party of þe Capoun, & þan stuffe hem as þou stuffyst a Pigge ; putte hem on a spete, & Roste hym : & whan he is y-now, dore hem with ʒolkys of Eyroun, & pouder Gyngere & Safroun, þenne wyth þe lus of Percely with-owte ; & þan serue  it forth for a ryal mete. 

Take a capon and scald him and draw him clean, and smite him in two in the waist across; take a pig and scald him and draw him in the same manner, and smite him also in the waist; take a needle and thread and sew the fore part of the capon to the after part of the pig, and the fore part of the pig to the hind part of the capon and stuff him as you stuff a pig; put him on a spit and roast him; and when he is done, adorn him with yolks of eggs and powdered ginger and saffron, then with the juice of parsley without; and then serve it forth for a royal meat. 
(Harleian Manuscript 279)

These ‘artifices’, ‘devices’ or ‘conceits’ (properly called an entremet or subtlety) were very popular in the Middle Ages – the taking of something and making it look like something else, or concealing one thing inside another (think of the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie). A book by John Partridge, from 1573, is called The Treasurie of commodious Conceits, & hidden Secrets, and may be called The Huswiues Closet, of health-full prouision. One such conceit was to serve unexpected combinations of ingredients – a favourite was sweet and sour tastes in the same dish (long before we were introduced the Chinese method). Chicken could be serve with gooseberries, or “Hare with a pudding in his Belly” – the ‘pudding’ was a stuffing of dried and fresh fruit, with sugar and wine. Or maybe, combinations of colours in a tart, with black prunes, white from eggs and yellow from the yolks. A ‘fowl’ could be moulded from breadcrumbs, sugar and cinnamon; hollow imitations of fruits might be moulded from sugar, and then painted for added realism. And what of the lost dishes? Who today has tasted Quiddany, Hachy or Tansy? Have you drunk Sack with Clove Gilly-flowers, or a pint of Cock-Ale recently? What is Bragot, Chaudwyn, or Steponni? Where can you find Red Dear or Manchet for sale? Slipp-coat Cheese, anyone? 

I mentioned four-and-twenty-blackbirds earlier. In her article ‘Cornish Feasts and "Feasten" Customs’ (Folk-Lore Journal Vol 4, p.124, 1883), Miss M. A. Courtney reports that a pie containing four-and-twenty-blackbirds was a regular feature of a Cornish Twelfth Night celebration, and some rather shaky attribution places the Sing-a-Song of Sixpence rhyme back to the time of Henry VIII, with the blackbirds representing the monks displaced by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Now, there’s not much meat on a blackbird, but rooks used to be regularly eaten and one theory is the ‘blackbirds’ were really ‘black birds’, that is to say, rooks. Rook pie was once a widespread dish. 

Rook Pie

This recipe is from a cookery book that comes from the 1930s. You may be surprised to learn that this book is still in print. It is Miss Tuxford’s Modern Cookery for the Middle Classes. I bought my copy for about 20p in a charity shop, years ago – and with a title like that, how could you resist the urge to buy it? 

In addition to rook pie, Miss Hester H Tuxford M.C.A. offers us a mouthwatering Ragout of Tripe, together with that perennial middle-class favourite - Boiled Sheep’s Head. One can only wonder what Miss Tuxford’s reaction would have been if she was informed that a member of the great unwashed had taken one tin of ‘My Lady’ Pineapple Chunks, a quarter pint of water, an ounce of gelatine and a little carmine, and rustled up her ‘Pineapple Jelly’. And could the lower orders ever truly appreciate her ‘Salmon Salad’, composed as it is of one tin of ‘Sailor’ salmon, 2 or 3 tomatoes, a teaspoonful of cooked onion, a hard-boiled egg, a large lettuce and a little cooked beetroot? One has one’s doubts, Miss Tuxford, one really has.

And as for your Boiled Sheep's Head, I see you, and raise you Cow's Head Soup, from 1863's Cookery for the Lancashire Operatives by A Gentleman.

Now, if that doesn't stick to your ribs, nowt will.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Cooking the Books

                   I mentioned Willie Fowler’s Countryman’s Cooking the other day and I’d like to return to the subject of cookery books. I love them. I can sit down and read a good cookery book with the same pleasure as I’d get from reading a good novel. The optimum word there is ‘good’ – a good cookery book should tell a story, rather than just being a list of ingredients or a set of instructions. I don’t just want to know what to do; I want to know why I am doing it, who has done it before, and where they did it. I want history, geography, folklore, gossip and, above all, I want to be entertained. It’s the difference between eating to live and living to eat. I can eat plain rice and beans, or I can have spice, savours and seasoning too. I want the cookery and the book.

An early cookery book in English is The Forme of Cury (The Form of Cooking – Cury is from the French cuire – ‘to cook’, and has nothing to do with curry), a manuscript roll from the late 14th Century. There are other manuscript cookery ‘books’ from slightly after The Forme of Cury, and that fascination lies in what people were eating five hundred years ago, and how they prepared it. 

This is a page transliterating a menu from the marriage feast of Henry IV in 1403, from a manuscript from about 1430. It is a feast for a King, admittedly, but from it, we find among the following served: - Pike, Lampreys, Bream, Eels, Chicken boiled, Pig in Sage, Venison Broth, Jelly, and Strawberries. And I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because I’m sick of hearing it. Spices were very, very expensive in the Middle Ages and were most definitely not used cover the taste of tainted meat. If you could afford spices, you could certainly afford fresh meat, and you would not waste pricey spices on dodgy meat.

There was a fuss a few years ago when Delia Smith included an entry for boiled eggs in one of her books. In 1699, a book called The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened had the following recipe for boiled eggs;
 - A CERTAIN and infallible method to boil new-laid Eggs to sup up, and yet that they have the white turned to milk, is thus: Break a very little hole, at the bigger end of the shell, and put it into the water, whiles it boileth. Let it remain boiling, whiles your Pulse beateth two hundred stroaks. Then take it out immediately, and you will find it of an exact temper. 
So that’s how to time your egg. 
Kenelm Digby’s Closet was never really written to be published, it was for his own personal use, and was published by his son and his steward after his death. What is astonishing is the vast array of ingredients Digby used, from herbs and spices, flowers, roots, fruits, nuts, seeds and wines, to grains, meats, honeys and vinegars. 
Another view of the bewildering diversity of foods enjoyed in the past can be seen from this title page from the Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter (1802). Stews, hashes, ragouts, pastries, pies, jellies, syllabubs and creams – in a book for the frugal housewife; what on earth did the affluent housewife serve up? In 1747, Hannah Glasse published The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, a work that became the standard reference work at the time, but if any work comes to the mind as the standard cookery book, it must be Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management
First published in parts, the book was published in 1861, and, as the title suggests, it is a manual for the running of a Victorian household, but as such a large part of it is taken up recipes, it is often popularly known as Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook. The very name Mrs Beeton brings to mind the typical Victorian matron, a large, jolly woman with her grey hair in a bun, all bust and bustle. In fact, Isabella Beeton was twenty-one years old when she started to write her book, and died from puerperal fever the day after the birth of her fourth child, aged merely twenty-eight. 
One lovely aspect of Mrs Beeton’s is the illustrations, giving us a first-hand picture of Victorian luxury. From the same time, and openly plagarised by Mrs Beeton, was Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845), which was the first cookery book to list the ingredients at the start of each recipe and to give cooking times, something that is now standard in almost every cookery book. I mentioned that I like more than just recipes in a book, and I’d like to mention two books that do this. 
The first is Curry and Rice on Forty Plates by George Francklin Atkinson, which isn’t actually a recipe book, but the recollections of a British Army officer in India, but a fascinating read – the forty plates are actually the forty illustrated plates in the book. The other is a cookery book I bought in 1977, Harvey Day’s The Complete Book of Curries
It was first published in 1958, but revised a couple of times. In these tinternet days, you might be able to find a copy somewhere, and you will not be disappointed if you buy one. It’s an amazing book, mixing the clubbishness of a retired Army major with the expertise of a true chef. At one point Day laments that he cannot produce a ‘traditional’ Indian cookery book, saying, 
“ …they were indeed comprehensive, including invaluable hints on such matters as Diarrhoea in Cows; Condition Powder for Horses; To Keep Posts from Decay; To Judge the Height of a Tree by Trigonometry; Mother Shipton’s Prophecy; and how to buy food – ‘Coffee should be bought in bushels; salt should be bought by maunds (80 lbs); and coriander, mustard seed, cummin seed and fenugreek should be fresh and new and free from weevils”. 
Then he peppers his book with all sorts of tips and stories and advice. It was incredibly exotic back in the seventies – I tried for years to buy lemon grass, but there was none to be had then, even for ready money. The recipes were strange; you won’t find recipes for Corned Beef Bhurta or Brain Bhajias in modern cookery books. Neither will you find such opinions as, 
“Generally speaking, the English don’t make good cooks. Not because the culinary art is beyond them, for when the English turn their hands to anything, there are few of any race who excel them. Except, perhaps, the Scots”.