What is Taste of the Past?

Taste of the Past is where I share my love of traditional cookery. Recipes from the days before TV dinners and microwaves right down the ages to the earliest cook books that I can get my hands on. I hope you enjoy my experiments as much as I do. Please share your own ideas, efforts and feedback in the comments.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Sour dough

I learnt how to make sough dough on a very nice training course at a Yorkshire cafe a few years ago.  Their in house baker (who had previously won baker of the year so really did know what he was talking about) was passionate about pure, natural bread with nothing added and nothing taken away. 

He led us through the intricacies of making a rye flour starter, keeping it alive and using it to make some very tasty bread indeed.  Since then I have sucessfully made the starter, kept it going for weeks or months or, more honestly, until I got bored, and used it to make bread.  I followed the precise ingredients and instructions to the letter and it worked very well.

Not once, in all of this did it occur to me how many different ways there are of making sour dough until I started researching historic recipes for earnest.

Now, the more I read the more I realise that there are as many different recipes for sour dough as there are cooks and most of the recipes make it clear that theirs is the best and only way to make it work.

This set me to thinking that as long as you mix flour and water together then in the end it will go off and the chances are that as long as you don't leave it until it is actually mouldy then you may well have a good sour dough. 

This naturally led to a spot of experimenting.  First up, the leave a bit of dough from the last batch method.  Gervase Markham (1616) advises leaving a bit of your batch of bread, filling it well with salt and using it for your next loaf of bread.  It must be noted that he does include yeast or at least ale balm in the next batch.  Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe cookery school advises leaving some dough in a jam jar in the fridge and using it to flavour your next batch.

I took 2 lots of dough and left one in the fridge, nice and easy.  The other one I mixed with a tablespoon of salt and left in a plastic box in a cool pantry.  I left both of them for about a week.
 This is the fridge one, it is just a piece of knocked back dough, a bit grey but close up you can see that it has an open texture.  It smelt sour but not bad or off. 

Following the modern instructions, I made the weight up to a pound of flour, added a teaspoon of salt and sugar and warm water as if making ordinary bread but without any added yeast.
This is salted one and at first glance it looks healthier, a more natural flour colour and it didn't even smell that sour.  A closer glance shows that it had gone a bit hard in the middle but not bad.  It hadn't risen at all and it looked like a pretty nasty lump of dough. The box was very wet where the salt had drawn moisture out of the bread.  This pictures really don't show it well at all, but this one definitely looked dodgy. 
I first rinsed off as much surface salt as possible and then followed the 17th century instructions.  I ripped the dough into small pieces, covered it with warm water and left the water to stand.  A couple of hours later I strained the water and used it to make the bread.  I used 1lb of flour, 1 tsp of sugar but no salt.

I left both sets of dough to rise overnight.  It will probably come as no great surprise that the salted dough did not rise at all, not even a small amount.  The salt had completely killed the yeast, even though it had stopped the dough going bad in storage.  The fridge batch had risen quite well.

I mixed some instant action yeast into the flat dough, left them to prove in the tins and then baked them.

They were both slow to rise but they came out of the oven looking remarkably similar, there really was nothing to choose between them and more importantly they tasted pretty much the same as well.  I would really have struggled to tell them apart, both had a subtle, sour flavour.  Same result in flavour but one was a good, if slow, way of raising the bread, the other just added flavour.

A more interesting experiment that would take some years to do is Markhams recipe for course, brown bread for servants.  This recipe is a mix of  flours from different cereals and peas.  He says to make especially sure to use boiling water to mix the dough as this stops the peas making the bread taste rancid and then he says to mix it and leave it in your sour trough over night.  I am assuming that using the same wooden trough (and it must have been large for the quantities he was using) would have built up a yeast culture all of its own.  He adds that if your trough is not sour enough then you can add some leaven or let it lie longer in the trough. 

I am now going to be on the look out for people who have tried this.  Any method that involves not washing all your equipment in antibacterial washing up liquid (which would kill the yeast) would not make the Environmental Health Department happy so I have to be a bit careful, still one day....

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Tortelleti of Green Pease

In July I am going to have the huge privilege of cooking in a real Jacobean kitchen at Forty Hall in Enfield.  They have asked me to cook vegetable recipes from the period using food from the allotments on site.  I am very excited about all of this, my family are getting to try out some interesting recipes and anyone reading this page should be warned that there may well be a distinct vegetable theme as I practice recipes to find ones that are safe ( a lot call for raw egg, not happening in my kitchen,) seasonal (a lot use veg that are not in season in the summer) and edible. 

My first one is Tortelleti of Green Pease by Robert May.

Robert May wrote his book, "The Accomplisht Cook" in 1660.  He was trained in Paris before the civil war and returned to England after the restoration bringing with him all the fashions of the court in exile.  His book gives a wide range of recipes including ones that would not have been out of place at a medieval feast to the latest fashions in French and Italian cookery.  From the books of Jacobean cookery I have read so far, he gives quite a lot of recipes for vegetables. Only Evelyn's book on salads seems to have more.

"Take pease green or dry, French beans, or garden beans green or dry, boil them tender, and stamp them: strain them through a strainer, and put to them some friend onion chopped small, sugar, sinamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg, some grated parmisan, or fat cheese, and some cheese-curds stamped.
The make paste, and make little pasties, boil them in broth, or as beforesaid, and serve them with sugar, cinamon, and grated cheese in a fine clean dish."
This recipe could be interpreted as either a savoury main course where a pinch of sugar and spice brings out the flavour of the peas or you can see the peas as simply a food colouring and bulking agent.  Cooks of the time were proud of being able to produce elaborate desert tarts with many different colours of filling.  In a previous recipe he directs that the pasties be boiled in either strong broth, milk or cream.  I chose to make a savoury version this time.

 I like recipes with no quantities, I don't feel like I am cheating when I decide how much to put in!  I must say that I went for 2 handfulls of peas to one medium chopped onion, a handful of grated cheddar, 2 tablespoons of yoghurt (instead of cottage cheese as I didn't have any in) and a small pinch of each of the spices and sugar.

May doesn't give a pastry recipe but in a previous recipe he says to make the paste with hot water.  I used one for Chinese dumplings which is basically flour and water.  I did this because I knew it would work and I have actually learnt how to do it properly.  I am going to try Italian pasta in the future.

I know these are wobbly looking.  In an earlier recipe for a meat version the author suggested that the cook might like to make the pasties in the shape of stars, fish, rolls or bean and peas.  I have a long way to go, clearly. I think I probably would also need unlimited time and some well trained staff before I manage star
shaped ravioli.

As shapes go these are not that bad for Chinese dumplings.  They may not be even but they didn't leak their filling and in the eyes of my friend Mrs Jao that is pretty important. 
 Serving, I have to admit that I left out the sugar and cinnamon and just went for the grated cheese. 

You don't need to taste or even read many 17th century recipes to see that our ancestors did not share our distinction between savoury and sweet food.  Many recipes that we would see as main courses are actually quite sweet.  Recipes frequently say that meat or vegetable pies should be served with "great store of sugar strewed over."  Actually, given the hugs amount of hidden sugar in our food today you could argue that the Jacobeans were more honest about their sweet tooth.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Preserved Grapes 1660

A change from all things orange, preserved grapes from a recipe by Hannah Woolley, sometime in the 1660s. I wanted to try this recipe as grapes are easy to come by (unlike the quinces called for in so many jam recipes of that period) and because it uses apples for the pectin.

"Take your fairest white grapes and pick them from the stalks, then stone them carefully and save the Juice, then take a pound of Grapes, a pound of fine sugar, and a pint of water wherin slices Pippins have been boiled, strain that water, and with your Sugar and that make a Syrup, when it is well scummed put in your Grapes, and boil them very fast, and when you see they are as clear as glass, and that the Syrup will jelly, put them into Glasses."I

I boiled one medium sized apple, sliced, in a pint of water for around 45 minutes until the water was yellow, but not cloudy.  I drained the water off and topped it back up to half a pint.  I didn't squeeze the apples as this would have made the jam cloudy.

 Then I boiled the apple water with half a pound of sugar, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved.  I then added the grapes and followed the recipe.  I used seedless grapes but did cut them in half.  After about 20 minutes of fast boiling the mix looked like the picture below.  Not exactly clear as glass but then some glass of the period was less clear than what we are used to today.

And here we have the results, halved grapes in a jam or syrup. The fruit stayed quite firm and had I not halved the fruit it would have been almost complete.  The question really is whether Hannah Woolley was able to de-stone grapes and still leave them intact or whether she chopped them in half as well.

Flavour, I must say that while this looks quite pretty, the photo doesn't do the lovely pale green colour justice, it didn't taste of very much at all.  Admittedly I like a thick chunk of wholemeal toast for my breakfast and the strong taste of the bread probably didn't help.  I think that this might make a very elegant addition to a scone and cream or a lovely filling in an otherwise simple sponge cake. 

If you only had access to grapes for a very few weeks of the year then this would give you a light grape flavour for the rest of the year, if you could afford the sugar.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Marmalade the old fashioned way

Once you start looking at old recipes for preserves you start to think that very little has changed.  By the 1600s every recipes follows the 1lb of fruit to 1lb of sugar format that you would expect.  Mustard recipes given in 1699 are virtually identical to ones you find on the internet today (but do suggest using a cannon ball to crush the seeds which is something so cool I have to keep mentioning it) and I have a recipe for chutney (or compost as they liked to call it) from the 14th century that would hold its own today.  However, when I started to make the marmalade recipes they do differ quite a lot.

Delia Smith's marmalade recipe uses 2lbs of sugar to one lb of fruit.  The fruit is peeled and the peel is boiled in the juice and water until soft.  Sugar is added and the mix boiled rapidly until setting point is reached.  This gives a medium dark, rich marmalade with a distinctive bitter taste that we recognise today as real marmalade.  The 17th century seemed to prefer something much lighter, fruitier and sweeter.  I have tried recipes from Elinor Fettiplace, writing in 1604 and Hannah Wolley, writing in 1660's.
The first difference you see is in the bitterness, where we love it and wait especially for the January Seville season to make our marmalade, they went to lengths to avoid it.  Peel your oranges and boil the skin in several changes of water until the skin is soft and the bitterness is gone.

Second difference, apples!  Both ladies use sliced apples or pippins in their recipes.  This serves two purposes, it adds to the bulk of the preserve and it adds much needed pectin.  Most of the pectin is in the skin and pips of the orange, if you remove these by changing the water then you need to get your setting agent from somewhere else.

As you can see from the picture above you end up with a lot of apple to not that much orange rind.

  Third difference, FRUIT!  Whereas modern marmalade can be described as jam with a bit of fruit it, with these recipes I ended up packing the fruit into the jars as tightly as possible to eek out the small amount of jam syrup that was left.  What you get is a preserved fruit, large chunks of orangey fruit in a very sticky jam.

The fruit holds its shape very well but as my husband pointed out you don't so much spread it on your toast as arrange it as best you can.  Using fresh, hot toast does help.
 1lb of apples and 3 large oranges made 3 fairly small (7oz) jars of jam.  In terms of selling it, that works out at about £2 a jar if you include the price of the jar as well.

 On the left is the 17th century marmalade and on the right is the modern one.  Taste wise Lady Fettiplace's preserve is delicately flavoured.  The orange taste is light and sweet with only a hint of bitterness left (I probably should have changed the water more often).  The apple and orange peel holds it shape very well and provides a little texture to the jam.  Overall, it is a very pleasant addition to the breakfast table.  My family don't actually like my usual marmalade, they say it is too strong, I say, "all the more for those that do," and carry on making it just for me.  They do like this version though.  They tell me that it is not too strong and is much nicer.  Looks like I will have some competition for these jars.

Seville Oranges

No posts for a while, partly because my family and I have been laid low with a very nasty cold and more importantly because I managed to get my hands on some late but very welcome Seville oranges.  I have been spending all my spare time up to my eyeballs in orangey experiments, trying out recipes from the 17th century and stocking up on modern marmalade for the year to come.  Post to follow on marmalade, orange cakes and candied peel.

Oranges in the 17th century were a huge treat and many hours were spent making them into elaborate sweetmeats for the banquet course at the end of celebration meals.

Marmalade was just the start, a sticky but very stiff confection that could be sliced, shaped or stamped into pleasing shapes as much for decoration as for eating.

The most impressive centre pieces would have been orangeadoes.  These were preserved, whole oranges.  Hilary Spurling gives a recipe in her fantastic book, Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book.  Oranges were boiled whole in several changes of water, then the pulp was hollowed out through a small hole in the bottom of the orange the remaining skin was stuffed with sugar.  More sugar, syrup and boiling later and you have a whole, preserved orange.  I must say that I have not attempted this delicacy yet.

What I have tried so far are Elinor Fettiplace's white pippin and orange preserve and her orange cakes.  Details to follow.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Salsify, salsifax or viper grass

When I planted this small parsnip look-a-like veg last year I thought I was indulging in some unusual gardening by planting something old-fashioned and interesting. Since then my veg box scheme have planted some for general sale next year and my sister tells me that her local supermarket in Leeds sells the stuff. So it may no longer be all that rare but it did fulfil my criteria of letting me try a taste of the past. 

The earliest reference to salsify that I have found (and no I haven't looked very far before anyone asks) is in John Evelyn's Acetaria written in 1699.
Viper-graſs, Tragopogon, Scorzonera, Salſifex, &c. tho' Medicinal, and excellent againſt the Palpitation of the Heart, Faintings, Obſtruction of the Bowels, &c. are beſides a very ſweet and pleaſant Sallet; being laid to ſoak out the bitterneſs, then peel'd, may be eaten raw, or Condited; but beſt of all ſtew'd with Marrow, Spice, Wine, &c. as Artichoak, Skirrets, &c. ſliced or whole. They likewiſe may bake, fry, or boil them; a more excellent Root there is hardly growing.

More recently I have found growing instructions in Joy Larkham's veg growing book and in the pages of the before mentioned veg box scheme's cook book and I have to admit that one of the reasons I chose this particular veg to experiment with was that I could easily buy the seeds in the local garden centre.

As parsnip. Plant seeds in well hoed soil early in the year and leave them to get on with it until at least October. Leave in the ground until you are ready to eat them. The leaves are long and thin, the roots likewise.
These are the ones that came up straight and useful. About the same number had obviously not been in well prepared ground and came up forked and twisted.

First of all I tried Evelyn's suggestion for eating it raw. I soaked 4 roots for 24 hours, changing the water after 12 hours. My plan was to try one root every day until I found out how long it took to soak out the bitterness. After the first 24 hours I couldn't detect any bitterness at all and neither could my husband, who is one of those people who always eats their veg raw if they can, so we went ahead and ate them.

Modern sources describe the flavour as delicate and they would be right. My husband thought it had a slight parsnip flavour, I thought is tasted most like water chestnut. Raw, it certainly has a texture and bite like water chestnut and that slight metallic zingyness I associate with them.

Then I boiled 3 in their skins. Modern recipes say that the sap they give off can make them stick to the pan when boiled and that the skin comes away easily once they are cooked. I boiled them and tested with a knife until they were at what I thought was an al-dente stage. That was about ten minutes for finger thick roots. Turns out this was way too long as the roots were impossible to peel and very soggy. However boiling had reduced the metallic edge (I wonder if that was what Evelyn meant by bitterness) and enhanced the flavour a little.

Lastly I peeled and thinly sliced the last 4 or 5 roots and fried them with some leeks and chorizo as recommended in a modern recipe. I fried them for quite a long time, until nice and crispy and served sprinkled on top of lamb. Now this tasted really nice. Chorizo and salsify work well together.
Fried salsify

It is also possible to eat the young leaves of the 2 year old plant but unfortunately I had to dig up all my roots so I can't tell you about that for at least another year.

So why grow salsify?
It was in the ground for a long time and was not once bothered by slugs! I put the seeds in and off they went. It is slow to germinate but once it's up it seemed to be pretty hardy. Also you can leave it in the ground until you need it, all winter, a great consideration in the past. It might not taste of very much but it adds valuable diversity to the diet and the garden. If you lived in a time before supermarkets and freezers you needed to make sure that if one crop failed due to long wet summers or a plague of slugs then you had lots of other food to fall back on.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Making Marchpane

Marchpane is the old version of marzipan.  It was much more than today's little sweets though, a marchpane was a grand centrepiece, a large, coloured, gilded, decorated masterpiece for the final course in a large feast.

A quick search in Google images will show you some spectacular examples of modern cooks making up the old recipes.

I have been particularly interested in recipes from the 1600s.  Over the handful I looked at, they all contained ground almonds and sugar as the base (note, no egg whites that you find in modern recipes) and then some added ground cinnamon, gum tragacanth and rosewater.

I based my first attempt on Elinor Fettiplace's recipe from 1604.  It calls for 1lb of sugar to every 1 1/2 lb of ground almonds.  These should be worked together in a pestle and mortar until a thick paste is formed.

I couldn't find gum tragacanth at an affordable price so i left it out, other writers such as Gervase Markham don't mention it at all so I took a risk. All I can say is that next time I will definitely be using the gum tragacanth, no matter how much it costs.

Pounding the sugar and almonds together was very hard work.  I started off using my old food processor but soon moved to using my very small pestle and mortar and then end of a wooden rolling pin.  As you keep pounding away the mix does start to cohere but not as much as the recipe suggests and certainly not enough to be able to mould it into intricate shapes for the decoration.

Once you have your paste you should roll it out on a base of marchpane bread or wafer and bake in a moderate oven until it is hard.  Keep back some of the paste and use it to make decorations known as conceipts.  These could be of any subject.

The you take it out and ice it with an icing made from ground sugar and rosewater, put on your conceipts and return it to the oven for a few more minutes. This icing will give the marchpane a glossy, white covering.

My marchpane never reached the point of being rollable so elaborate models were out of the question.   I did find this picture here by Clara Peeters dated to about 1615 and this proved to be my saviour.  It clearly shows a round marchpane that is non too flat on top.  As far as I can tell, it is decorated with a sprig of possibly rosemary that is decorated with small items that would be completely at home on our modern Christmas trees.  This was a real marchpane that I could actually try and copy.

And here is my own attempt.  I lined a large flan tin with baking paper and then pressed the mixture in.  Once it was cooked, iced, cooked again and cooled the finished cake was quite solid but easy enough to cut and eat.  I did use a shop bought, plastic tree for a Christmas cake but as seventeenth century housewives could buy all their elaborate sugar decorations from a professional sweet shop if they had the money I am sure most women would have gladly used our cheaper versions to imitate the elaborate desserts produced by society ladies.
Decorated quite plainly because the icing was very hard and difficult to piece with a stalk of rosemary so I had to settle for just the wire and tape cake decoration

Coming out of the oven.  The icing looks nice and shiny here but as it cooled it went quite grainy in some areas.  I think it might have been down to how finely I prepared the sugar, more experimentation needed.
    Finally and most importantly, how did it taste?  Very nice thank, is the answer.  It is drier than modern marzipan and with the great differences in ratios of sugar to almonds that you find in the different recipes it would be easy to work out a recipe that suits anyone's preferred sweetness.

For reference, I used recipes from Elinor Fettiplace's REciept book, Gervase Markham and Sir Kenelm Digby.  There are a lot more out there and as my cookery book collection grows I am sure that I will find a lot more to try.