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.

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