Monthly Archives: August 2011

Forgotten Foods #1: The House Sparrow

The very cute Passer domesticus

I do like to see a social group of tweeting house sparrows getting into fights, taking a nice dust bath, or whatever; they are so watchable. They are one of my favourite birds. Once extremely common in Britain, their numbers have dropped sharply in last few years and nobody really seems to know why. In the past they were plentiful and were commonly served up at the dinner table. In fact many songbirds were counted as legal game and were very popular indeed. Here’s a delicious-sounding recipe from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper for sparrow dumplings:

Mix half a pint of good milk with three eggs, a little salt, and as much flour as will make a thick batter. Put a lump of butter rolled in pepper and salt in every sparrow, mix them in the batter and tie them in a cloth, boil them one hour and a half. pour melted butter over them and serve it up.

Over the pond in New York, the plague of house sparrows became very bad indeed: Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow said WL Dawson in 1903. Something had to be done! The people of the ever-trendy The New York Times encouraged folk to help rid the place of the pests, and not to let good protein go to waste, they tried to make them appear as an attractive and sought-after meat:

English Sparrows are being properly appreciated. Hundreds of them are now caught by enterprising people for sale to certain restaurants where reed birds are in demand. A German woman on Third Avenue has three traps set every day, and she catches probably seventy five a week. They are cooked and served to her boarders the same as reed birds and are declared quite as great a delicacy. This German woman bastes them, leaving the little wooden skewer in the bird when served. They are cooked with a bit of bacon. She tempts them with oats, and after the catch they are fed a while with boiled oaten meal. She sprinkles oaten meal in the back yard also, and thereby fattens the free birds. … So soon as it becomes known that the Sparrow is a table bird their number will rapidly grow less.
People don’t like to experiment, but when it is discovered that the Sparrow has been declared good by those upon whom they have been tried, no boarding house meal will be deemed in good form unless a dish of fat Sparrows adorns it. Sparrow pie is a delicacy fit to set before a king.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the date of the article – if anyone knows, please let me know.

I am not that well-travelled compared to many, but here in America, and in the African countries I have visited, the house sparrow is just everywhere. To do your part to rid these continents of the ubiquitious little bastards, may I suggest getting your hands on the Dodson Sparrow Trap:

 

7 Comments

Filed under Eighteenth Century, food, Game, history, Meat, Recipes

The Pearls of the Fields

Autumn is nearly upon us and that means it will soon be mushroom season. I haven’t much experience with gathering mushrooms myself, but have found them in the past when walking in the woods. I reckon there are only about five types I can identify and be 100% sure I know what they are. When you do see some that you know, it is very exciting to collect them and bring them home. There is, apparently, a mushroom-collectors’ club in St Louis, so I shall be checking that out.

Oyster mushrooms are easy to find – they grow on dead beech trees

 Jew’s ear fungus is less well-known, but very easy to identify

Our relationship with mushrooms goes back a long, long way; mushrooms were consumed by Paleolithic man ten thousand years ago. Fungi, then as now, were not just used as food, but also as poison and for their narcotic effects.

Field and woodland mushrooms were highly-prized; it is odd to think that oysters were once used as a cheap mushroom substitute. These days, the basic mushroom is the closed cap cultivated kind, which was only grown on a large scale in the nineteenth century, so it is obvious why they were so highly sought-after. This was only in Britain though, the Romans managed to cultivate them way back when, as did the French a century before we British. We were just a bit slow on the uptake there, I suppose.

Mushrooms also were thought to be magical: they cause the familiar fairy rings you see during rainy periods in late summer and seemed to appear from nowhere. The first century Greek physician Dioscorides, suggested throwing the shredded bark of the poplar tree over compost to obtain mushrooms ‘spontaneously’ by ‘the grace of the gods’. In the Middle Ages, mushrooms were officially pronounced magical, and it was up to the alchemists of the day to try and discover the secret of creation from them (they must’ve become frustrated with the turning base metals into gold thing).

A fairy ring of mushrooms

Mushrooms have been used to give food an interesting meaty and earthy flavour to food. The reason they are so good for this job is that they all chock-full of umami – the recently-discovered fifth taste. Cooks in the eighteenth century made a lot of mushroom ketchup and mushroom powder for seasoning food, and I will make some myself eventually and put the results on this blog.

I love mushrooms of all kinds, so I thought I would give a couple of recipes – one historical, and the other a British classic.

Alexis Soyer (1810-1858)

The first is from a book called Shilling Cookery for the People by Alexis Soyer, published in 1854. He was the first celebrity chef and I am sure he’ll get a posting all to himself at some point. He happened upon some tasty field mushrooms and tells us the story of how he came up with a recipe for those ‘pearls of the field’:

“Being in Devonshire, at the end of September and walking across the fields before breakfast to a small farmhouse, I found three very fine mushrooms, which I thought would be a treat, but on arriving at the house I found it had no oven, a bad gridiron and a smoky coal fire. Necessity, they say, is the mother of Invention, I immediately applied to our grand and universal mamma, how should I dress my precious mushrooms, when a gentle whisper came to my ear… The sight when the glass is removed, is most inviting, its whiteness rivals the everlasting snows of Mont Blanc, and the taste is worthy of Lucullus. Vitellius would never have dined without it; Apicius would never have gone to Greece to seek for crawfish; and had he only half the fortune left when he committed suicide, he would have preferred to have left proud Rome and retire to some villa or cottage to enjoy such an enticing dish.”

I have reported this recipe in the other blog with Jane Grigson’s modifications for making the delicious dish yourself in a modern oven. Click here for the recipe. Try it – you will not be disappointed, no siree.

For some crazy reason there is no recipe for Cream of Mushroom Soup in Jane Grigson’s English Food. I do not know why this is because when I was thinking about recipes that were omitted from the book, it was one of the most glaringly obvious absentees. As you may know, it is one of the reasons for doing this blog – compiling recipes that were missed out of English Food. This recipe is one of my staples and is from Lindsey Bareham’s excellent book A Celebration of Soup. It is delicious and very quick to make and uses the old-fashioned way of thickening soups with the use of old bread.

Ingredients:

2 oz stale white bread

milk

1 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (any kind, but Portobello mushrooms are the best for this)

2 oz butter

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

2 tbs finely chopped parsley

salt, pepper and nutmeg

1 pint of chicken or vegetable stock

4 fl oz double cream

Place the bread in a dish and pour enough milk over it to make it nice and soggy. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the mushrooms.
Cover, and simmer for five minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread, break it up and add it to the pan along with the garlic, parsley and the seasonings (don’t be tight with that nutmeg, folks) before pouring the stock over the lot. Bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for a further ten minutes. Pop the soup into the blender, return to the pan, stir in the cream and bring back to the boil. Easy!

If you want to do a low-fat version, use some fat-free cream cheese like Quark, or just use milk instead of cream.

That’s enough mushroom talk for now, I think….

2 Comments

Filed under food, history, Recipes, Soups, The Victorians, Vegetables

Eton Mess

I did a bit of a dinner party recently for my work chums and for dessert I made an Eton Mess.

I always thought that the Eton Mess was ‘invented’ around the 1920s when, during the annual cricket match at Eton College, a rather giddy labrador sat upon the picnic basket containing the strawberry pavlova, squashing it. The plum-mouthed boys didn’t care a single jot that their dessert had been essentially ruined (and probably covered in dog hair) and ate the thing anyway, preferring it to the pavlova. And so the Eton Mess was born and served up as a summertime pudding ever after.

It turns out this story is total nonsense, and was just invented by the cook during the 1930s. I didn’t even have the decade right.

Eton College school yard and chapel

Although  I know the Mess as a delicious mixture of strawberries, broken meringue and cream, it was also made with bananas too.

Here’s my recipe for Eton Mess, hopefully the Eton Old Boy and chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would approve of this recipe. Although he says that they didn’t serve it during his time at the college. Ah well, you can’t have everything.

This pudding was for 10 people, so you can adjust the quantities accordingly if you want to make it for fewer folk. Or just make loads and eat it all to yourself like the fat little piggy you are!

Ingredients:

4 egg whites

10 oz of caster sugar

pinch of salt

2 lbs of strawberries, hulled and chopped

1 tbs of vanilla sugar

2 pints of double (heavy) cream

strawberry jam

First off all you need to make your meringues – you can of course buy some, but they are quite easy to make. Start by whisking the egg whites with the salt until frothy, then add the sugar bit-by-bit with you electric mixer on a medium setting. The mixture will become very thick and glossy-looking.

Preheat the oven to 100°C (200°F). Line some baking trays with some lightly-oiled wax paper and spoon the mixture onto it to make nests. Use a serving spoon so that each nest is the same size and use the back of the spoon to make the nest shape.

I like to do them this way, as they look nice and home-made. However, if you are handy with a piping bag, then pipe out the mixture. Place trays in the oven and keep the door slightly ajar using the handle of a wooden spoon. The nests need to stay in the oven for around 3 1/2 hours so that they harden. Don’t worry if you leave them in longer, as they can’t really burn at this low temperature.

Next, place the strawberries in a bowl with the vanilla sugar (see here and here for two recipes if you want to make your own) and allow them to macerate together at room temperature for at least twenty minutes. Now whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Now all that needs to be done is create the mess. Crush the meringue nests and stir them into the cream. Fold in the strawberries and their juice.

Lastly, stir through some strawberry jam or a further sweet strawberry hit. Pile into bowls and serve straight away before the meringue gets the chance to go soggy.

10 Comments

Filed under food, history, Puddings, Recipes, Twentieth Century