Category Archives: Seventeenth Century

Forgotten Foods #2: Verjuice

Having a crabbed face of her own, she’ll eat less Verjuyce with her mutton

T Middleton, Women beware Women, 1657

Verjuice was a very popular cooking ingredient from the Middle Ages onwards. Many old recipes ask for it and they seem to hit a peak during Tudor times. It is essentially the juice of either sour grapes or crab apples; Britain might not be the best place to grow delicious sweet grapes, but we can certainly excel in growing sour fruit! It took the place of fresh lemon juice in recipes for salad dressings, desserts like syllabubs; it was added to stews, soups and sauces as a seasoning, as well as an ingredient in marinades. It was also believed to have medicinal properties; for example, it was mixed with olive oil and blown up horses’ noses to treat colds! It was basically a necessary piece of kit in any kitchen, seeming to drop out of favour by the end of eighteenth century when lemons became more accessible.


Crushing the grapes for verjuice

The word verjuice comes from the Old French verjus, with ver-  meaning green or unripe and –jus being juice. The earliest written mention of it in British literature comes from around 1302, so we are talking old. It must have been such a useful ingredient in a place where fresh lemons will have either have been impossible to get hold of or terribly expensive.

I expected never to taste verjuice, but then as I was wandering around the excellent Global Foods Market in St Louis minding my own business, I happened upon a jar of it in the Middle East aisle of the shop. Naturally I bought some and thought I’d try some original recipes where verjuice was a main ingredient rather than just a seasoning.

17th century verjuice vinaigrette

In the 1897 volume of Good Housekeeping the subject of using verjuice in salad dressings inexplicably crops up. It takes quotes from the 17th century cook book The English Huswife by Gervase Markham. Anyway, it says that if you want to make a simple sallet then make a dressing of verjuice, sallet [olive] oil and sugar. Use it with sparagus, camphire, cucumbers, leeks, blanched carrots, purslane, with a world of others too tedious to nominate. He must have been in a bit of a mood the day he wrote that part.

It was a pretty brief recipe. Although verjuice is very tart, its underlying flavours are rather subtle so it needed quite a high ratio of verjuice to oil (much more than vinegar or lemon juice dressings).

I mixed together 4 tablespoons each of verjuice and extra virgin olive oil. To offset the sourness, I added a teaspoon of soft dark brown sugar, stirring until it dissolved. Lastly I seasoned it with a little salt and pepper. Easy and surprisingly subtle. Any leftover dressing can be stored and blown up your horse’s nose should it ever get a sniffle.

Sweet verjuice ‘scrambled eggs’ with brioche toast

I recently wrote a post about fruit curds, and I seem to have found a possible source of the preserve when looking for verjuice recipes. There is a recipe in Le Patissier François (published around 1690) that has helpfully been translated into English by Harold McGee where verjuice and salt are added to eggs in order to make them coagulate at a lower temperature, tenderising them:

Break four eggs, beat them, adjust with salt and four spoonsful of verjus, put the mix on the fire, and stir gently with a silver spoon just until the eggs thicken enough, and then take them off the fire and stir them a bit more as they thicken. One can make scrambles eggs in the same way with lemon or orange juice.

It is of Mr McGee’s opinion that a sweetened version of this recipe could be the origin of the fruit curd. Notice that fresh lemons or oranges can be used, suggesting that they are less common than verjuice.

Below is my interpretation of that recipe. I add plenty of acidic verjuice and a large pinch of salt, meaning that the ‘scrambled eggs’ actually end up thickening more like a custard. I have to say it was delicious, so if you ever do come across some verjuice have a go at this recipe:

Ingredients (for 2 people)
A good knob of butter
2 eggs
6 tbs verjuice
good pinch of salt
2 level tbs sugar
2 slices of brioche

Melt the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat. Whisk together the eggs, verjuice, salt and sugar until there is no trace of white left. Pour the egg mixture in the saucepan and carry on whisking over a medium heat. Meanwhile toast the slices of brioche. When the eggs have thickened and are just about to boil, pour them into two small pots and serve with the brioche.

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Treacle Tart

A classic British nursery pudding, the treacle tart is much-loved. It is probably the ultimate child’s dessert because it is so unbelievably sweet; it makes my teeth hurt just looking at one! That aside, I have never really lost my sweet tooth and I love treacle – meaning golden syrup of course in this case (see here for a post on treacle). Treacle tart was very popular with poorer families – the two main ingredients being bread and treacle – no expensive fruits and spices here.

The pudding itself as we know it has only been in existence since the late nineteenth century since golden syrup was invented in the 1880s. However, the earliest recipe I have found for a treacle tart actually dates to 1879 – before the invention of golden syrup! The recipe is by Mary Jewry and is a tart made up of alternating layers of pastry and treacle. The treacle here is black treacle, and this highlights the problem in researching the origins of this pudding; treacle meant any viscous syrup that was a byproduct of sugar refinery and specifics are not always pointed out, even after golden syrup became popular. The other problem is the recipe Mary Jewry gives is nothing like the beloved treacle tart from our childhood.

 The terrifying Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

coaxing the children with shouts of  “treacle tart! All free today!”

Shudder.

Prior to the 17th century, treacle was used as a medicine; it was considered very good for the blood and was therefore used in antidotes to poisons. It starts cropping up in recipes for gingerbread in the mid-18th century. Jane Grigson mentions a gingerbread recipe from 1420 in her book English Food where spices and breadcrumbs were mixed together with plenty of honey to make a gingerbread that seems pretty similar a modern treacle tart, but without the pastry. Heston Blumenthal in his book Total Perfection also mentions a 17th century ‘tart of bread’ where bread and treacle are mixed with bread, spices and dried fruit and baked in an open pastry shell. Then just to complicate things further, Jane Grigson mentions that the predecessor to the treacle tart is the sweetmeat cake – again a 17th century invention – that uses candied orange peel, sugar and butter as a filling and no treacle or bread whatsoever!

All this confusing history waffle is giving me a headache. Here’s the recipe that I use for a treacle tart. It is adapted from Nigel Slater’s. I like it (and I have tried several recently) because it has a lot more bread in it than most other recipes – treacle tart should be chewy with a hint of   and must hold its shape when cut, many recipes fail in this respect. I use brown bread crumbs – it gives a good flavour and increases the chewiness level a little further.

There’s a pound and a half of golden syrup in this tart so the sweetness really needs cutting with some lemon juice and zest, and if you like, a tablespoon or two of black treacle; it’s not just a nod to treacle tarts of the past, its bitterness really does tone down the sweetness. This tart makes enough for ten people I would say. Be warned – if you go for some seconds, you may fall into some kind of sugar-induced diabetic coma…

For the pastry

4 oz salted butter or 2 oz each butter and lard cut into cubes and chilled

8 oz plain flour

3 tbs chilled water

For the filling

1 ½ lbs golden syrup

2 tbs black treacle (optional)

juice and zest of a lemon

10 oz white or brown breadcrumbs

The pastry is a straight-forward shortcrust. Rub the fat into the flour with your fingertips, a pastry blender, the flat ‘K’ beater of a mixer or blitz in a food processor. Mix in two tablespoons of water with your hand and once incorporated, add the last tablespoon. The pastry should come together into a ball. Knead the dough very briefly so that it is soft and pliable. Cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge to have a little rest for 30 minutes or so.

Now roll out the pastry and use it to line a 9 inch tart tin. Put back into the fridge again – you don’t have to do this step, but sometimes the pastry can collapse a bit when it goes in the oven at room temperature.

Whilst the pastry is cooling, get on with the treacle filling. Treacle can be a tricky customer: weigh it out straight into a saucepan on tared scales and then pour the golden syrup straight in. Add the black treacle if using. Place the pan over a medium heat and stir until it becomes quite runny, then stir in the lemon juice and zest and the breadcrumbs.

Pour this mixture into the lined tart tin and bake in the oven at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180⁰C (350⁰F) for another 15 or 20 minutes.

Best served warm with cream, ice cream or custard.

treacle tart

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What is a Pudding?: Addendum

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post called ‘What is a Pudding?‘ and it seems I made a few little errors within. I don’t like to be wrong, so thought I would put it right. The subject was a little essay on the origins of puddings – the boiled and steamed kind, which I argued was the proper definition of a pudding. I still don’t think I am wrong on that count, but I did accuse some puddings of being mock puddings:

So, a pudding is any dessert, or the name for the dessert course. Aside from the proper puddings…there are some that go under a false name: bread and butter pudding [and] sticky toffee pudding…are examples of this. Why are these puddings and, say, an apple pie not called an apple pie pudding?

Well it seems that I can answer my own question, at least in part. I was flicking through The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman by Gervase Markham which dates from 1615 (for context King James I of England and VI of Scotland was reigning) and it seems that some of the puddings that are baked today have their roots in the simmering pot. In fact a pair of my favourites – the rice pudding and previously accused bread and butter pudding are specifically mentioned. Their forerunners were cooked in natural intestinal casings – farmes – just like black puddings:

Rice puddings

Take half a pound of rice, and steep it in new milk a whole night, and in the morning drain it, and let the milk drop away; then take a quart of the best, sweetest and thickest cream, and put the rice into it, and boil it a little; then set it to cool an hour or two, and after put in the yolks of half a dozen eggs, a little pepper, cloves, mace, currants,dates, sugar and salt; and having mixed them well together, put in a great store of beef suet well beaten and small shred, and so put it into the farmes…and serve them after a day old.

To make bread puddings

Take the yolks and whites of a dozen or fourteen eggs, and, having beat them very well, put to them the fine powder of cloves, mace, nutmegs, sugar, cinnamon, saffron, and salt; then take the quantity of two loaves of white grated bread, dates (very small shred) and great store of currants, with good plenty either of sheep’s, hog’s or beef suet beaten and cut small; then when all is mixed and stirred well together, and hath stood a while to settle, then fill it into farmes…and in like manner boil them, cook them, and serve them to the table.

I was corrected on the sticky toffee pudding in that post… I wonder how many other puddings that are not boiled today once were? I shall go through the books with a fine-toothed comb and report back. More interestingly, I need to get my hands on some farmes and make these bad boys myself and see how they compare to their modern counterparts…

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Christmas Cake

Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies – if you don’t like dried fruit you are in trouble at Christmastime!

The Christmas cake as we know it comes from two Christian feast days: Twelfth Night and Easter.

When families in the sixteenth century made their Christmas puddings for the big day, they would often use some of the mixture, with the addition of flour and eggs, to bake and eat for Eastertime. These were obviously rather rich families. It was liked so much that the rich fruitcake was made for Christmas too. We also dropped it from the Easter menu for some reason.

The addition of the marzipan and royal icing (see here for recipes) came much later when a cake was banned from Christmas. The last day of Christmas is Twelfth Night (the 5th of January) and it used to be traditional to make a Twelfth Night cake that contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. Oliver Crowell, the Lord Protector of England, and the other Puritans banned the feasting on that special day in the 1640s (he also banned mince pies as well) complaining that there was too much excess. Christmas Day remained a public holiday and some feasting was allowed, so people simply made their Christmas cake and covered that in marzipan instead, and so the Christmas cake was born.

Britain’s biggest ever party-pooper: Oliver Cromwell

You don’t have to cover it with the marzipan and royal icing though (see here for recipes); in Yorkshire (my home county) it is popular to eat the Christmas cake with some nice cheese such as Wensleydale or Cheddar instead.

I love Christmas cake, so I thought I would give you the recipe I always use – it is adapted from Jane Grigson’s English Food (click here to see my other pet project) – and it has never failed on me. As I said a couple of posts ago, if you want to eat top-quality food at Christmas, you need to make your own, or spend a fortune at Harrod’s. Plus the cake is made well in advance – I usually make mine 6 weeks before Christmas so it can mature. Once you’ve cooked it, you only have to feed it with a little brandy to make it nice and moist.

This recipe is of course for an English-style Christmas cake; the Scottish, Welsh and Irish have their own versions, all in a similar vein, but with a few differences. I’ll blog about them at some point.

I have realised that I don’t have any decent photographs of my Christmas cake (I had a hard-drive die on me and I lost lots of photos), but I shall take some next year when I shall be making this cake again…

Ingredients:

1 ½ lb mixed dried fruit

4 oz of whole roasted almonds

4 oz chopped candied citrus peel

4 oz rinsed glacé cherries quartered or left whole

10 oz plain flour

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp grated nutmeg

the grated rind of a lemon

8 oz salted butter

8 oz soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbs black treacle (or molasses)

4 eggs

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbs warmed milk

brandy

Preheat your oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F).

Begin by mixing all the dried fruit, almonds, candied peel and cherries in a large bowl. Next, sift in the flour, turning in and coating the fruit, then mix in the spices and fresh lemon rind.

Now cream the butter sugar in a separate bowl, then mix in the vanilla and black treacle. Beat in four eggs one by one until incorporated, and the mix in the fruit and the flour. For the final stage, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the warmed milk, stir it in, and then add enough brandy to slacken the mixture slightly, so that it achieves a dropping consistency – you don’t want a dry cake, now do you?

Line an eight inch cake tin with greaseproof paper and pour the mixture in, hollowing the top a little to compensate for it rising in the oven. Cover with a layer of brown paper to prevent scorching and bake for 3 to 3 ½ hours. Test it after 3 hours with a skewer. When done, leave to cool in its tin overnight. Wrap in greaseproof paper or foil and keep in an airtight container.

Ideally the cake should sit for at least a month to mature, but 2 or 3 weeks is also fine. Whilst it sits, you need to feed it with a sprinkle of 2 or 3 tablespoons of brandy, turning the cake every couple of days or so.

The cake is ready to eat when it has been ‘fed’ for a little while, however, you might want to add a layer of marzipan and royal icing.

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Remember remember the fifth of November…

Remember, remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.

We see no reason

Why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

On the fifth day of November 1605, after an anonymous tip-off, a man was found in the House of Lords keeping watch over 36 barrels of explosives. That man was of course Guy Fawkes, the most famous of the thirteen Catholic conspirators who attempted to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland.

King James I of England & VI of Scotland

They were not doing out of sheer spite, you understand, in fact they had pretty good reason to do it. James was a Protestant, as was Elizabeth I before him. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, after becoming sick of being told what to do by the Roman Catholic Church, essentially created Protestantism so he could do anything – or anyone – he liked. This made him the Head of the Church rather than the Pope – something that still exists to this day. In fact, it will be this year – 2011 – where a long-time law will eventually be dropped allowing members of the royal family to marry Roman Catholics. Anyway to be Catholic was to be hated – you had no few rights and any public servant or member of the Church Office had to swear an allegiance to the Church of England. Several attempts to assassinate the monarch previously had been unsuccessful, but the Gunpowder Plot was the closest anyone had ever got to getting the job done.

A contemporary depiction of some of the conspirators

Guy Fawkes is the third from the right

Guy Fawkes may be the best known of the conspirators, but he was certainly not the ringleader – that was a man called Robert Catesby. No, Fawkes was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and because he was caught red-handed, it was he that was made an example of. Even though he was caught and arrested, he only confessed to the full crimes after three days of torture. Eights of the conspirators were caught and hung, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes’s signature before torture…

…and after.

Of course anyone who was a Protestant celebrated this fact and it soon became customary to build bonfires on the fifth of November and in its early days it was used as another excuse to persecute any Catholics that may be living in your neighbourhood. However, the decades and centuries passed, and for most people Guy Fawkes Night is simply a great British custom where we get to huddle round a big bonfire, set off our fireworks – and most important of all – eat some food.

British celebrations always have feasts, or at least certain foods, associated with them and Bonfire Night is no exception. It may not have a very long list, but they are some of the most delicious foods. I think it is because it is associated with cosiness – big coats, big scarves and big hunks of cake and toffee, all washed down with a big mug of tea.

One of the most exciting things for me as a child was baking potatoes in the bonfire. The potatoes were wrapped in aluminium foil and gingerly placed in the white-hot embers with the use of a stick and left there for an hour or so to cook before being fished out and eaten greedily with lots of melted butter. There is no better baked potato than a bonfire-baked potato let me tell you. If you are having a bonfire, give them a go, you will not be disappointed.

This time of year is the best for cakes and toffees – they are commonly heavily flavoured with black treacle and spices, all very provocative and medieval-feeling. The four that spring to mind are Yorkshire parkin, bonfire toffee, cinder toffee and toffee apples. It is these autumn and winter foods that I love the most, and miss the most. I am hunting down the ingredients to make some of these myself whilst I am here in the USA – the recipes will follow of course.

One last thing: if you are having a bonfire, don’t forget to check it before you light it, just in case a little hedgehog has made its little hibernation home in there. Roasted hedgehog should certainly not be on the menu…

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