Thursday, December 23, 2010

The First Dish Revealed

We are hosting a small "soiree" for some friends on Christmas Eve. I'd planned to serve your basic hors d'oeuvres-- baked brie en croute, Swedish meatballs, bruschetta, etc. Then, the light went off over my usually dull head.

Let them eat history!

In the interest of maintaining friendships with the aforementioned guests, I've determined that laying out a plate of stuffed dormice a la Pompeii is not a great idea. Plus, I haven't figured out a source for dormice yet. After poking around my books and on the internet, I've decided upon a 14th century recipe for "Tartlett" from the book "The Forme of Cury" (aka "The Manner of Cooking").

There's a translation of this recipe in To the King's Taste: 
"Take cooked pork and grind it small with saffron. Mix it with eggs, currants, strong powder, and salt. Make a thin leaf of dough and enclose the stuffing in it. Cast the tartlettes in a pan of boiling salted water. Take some unspiced meat without eggs, and boil it in good broth. Add sweet powder and salt. Divide the tartlettes into portions in dishes and pour the broth on top. "

I am a bit skeptical about the adaptation of this recipe in To the King's Taste, which is essentially an Italian agnolotti in brodo. According to my research, pasta was not unknown in England by the 14th century, but it was certainly a rarity. I can confidently assert that 14th century pasta was a homely, chewy cousin to what we think of as "pasta" today. Why? 

First of all, consider the flour they had to work with. I've been considering it a lot over the past three days. Wheat flour was strictly for the elites; peasants made do with rye, spelt, and barley flour. Nevertheless, wheat flour was all stoneground (which left quite a lot of the stone in the flour; medieval people apparently suffered fewer cavities than do modern people simply because the tops of their teeth were ground flat and smooth from chewing so much grit). The whiter the flour, the more prized and expensive it was-- but even the whitest medieval flour was a lot more like our whole wheat flour than a bag of Gold Medal. To further refine their flour, bakers would sift out the largest chunks of bran. 

In the interest of historical accuracy, I am going to do the same with a stoneground whole wheat flour. Additionally, I am going to make my tartletts less like ravioli or agnolotti and more like pierogies-- that is, more dumpling-like.  

Oh, and the pork-- I'm off to the butcher's this morning to pick up some wild boar meat. Apparently, American wild boar are the descendants of domestic pigs brought over by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, making wild boar the closest thing I am going to get to the scrawny free-range (as in eat whatever they can find, including dead animals and people. These are the things you learn researching a novel about the Black Death, by the way) medieval swine. When I called the butcher this morning at 6:45, they calmly assured me that that had both boar shoulder and hams, and THIS is why we pay an obscene amount of money to live in San Francisco. 

In addition, I am making my own broth from a chicken carcass I've been hoarding in the freezer, some onions and carrots, and a pinch of saffron. 

As for "powdo fort," I have no clue. More research will be undertaken during naptime today. 

Did I mention tomorrow is Christmas eve? And that I am going to do all this shopping with a two-year-old in tow? 

Yeah, wish me luck. I'm going to need it. 


  1. oh oh! I am SO excited!
    I love the "cast the tartlettes in a pot of water" part. "cast them" Don't 'chuck' them or "place them" or "add them" to boiling water. Awesome!

  2. I am so jealous! I got hungry just reading - in spite of the Black Death comment) .

  3. Yippeee! I love this blog!

    Powdo fort might be

    Poudre forte? French spicey goodness? I know this from some book my mom gave me from the 40s. Can't wait to find out how it goes over at your par-tay.