A History Of Food In 100 Recipes – A book review

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So far I have aimed to share some of my historic discoveries and demonstrate how easily they fit into a modern cooking repertoire. Many people have enquired as to how I got started in food history and where they can go to do similiar research. As a beginner my first steps were in the world of medieval cookery, a truly exciting time of change. With the introduction of sugar and exotic spices into the stomachs of the most affluent in British society, diet often reflected many of the political and social changes of th era. There is a wealth of written information on this period, perfect for the historically curious cook.

As my understanding grew I so did my desire to learn more about how our diets evolved throughout history, rather than focusing on a single snapshot in time. So imagine my delight when my husband arrived home with the new book by William Sitwell in 2012. The arrival of a new cookbook is always greeted with boundless excitement in History Girls HQ but this was to offer the perfect combination of instruction and commentary on my favourite topic. Rather than a simple collection of receipts, ‘A History Of Food In 100 Recipes’ aims to introduce you to how one innovation fits in to it’s social context, then how one influenced the next.

William Sitwell is a renowned food writer and restaurant critic perhaps best known for his role as Editor for Waitrose Kitchen Magazine. Throughout the book his style is warm and friendly. So often history can be dry and humourless but Sitwell manages to include a lot of factual information in a manner which feels accessible to the novice reader. His experience on the topic is evident and instills the reader with confidence as he walks you through the evolution of cooking and diets within human civilisations.

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The ‘recipe’ I use most from this book is one you will be familiar with as I have shared it many times on my History Girls facebook page. Tiger nut sweets, circa 1400 bc is a tantalising story of Ancient Egyptian stone carvings and Old Testament bible stories. Made up of nothing more than dried fruits, almonds and honey it is also an excellent example of how an ancient delicacy can fit perfectly with modern trends. Pressed together the ingredients form the original high fibre, low sugar energy snack: perfect for life on the move.

If you are interested in widening your own repertoire of historic influence dishes then I can thoroughly recomend this first book by William Sitwell. In addition to confirming research I had from previous sources it was the start for a great number of research threads I am still following two years later. I hope for the arrival of another book from the author, regardless of whether it concentrates on history.

To find out more about William Sitwell and his work please visit http://www.williamsitwell.com

To explore medieval and Tudor recipes try Ivan Day at http://www.historicfood.com/

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That old forgotten fruit

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Quince are a mystifying fruit to the uninitiated. Solid and unyielding to the knife their yellow skins carry a thin layer of fluffy down and they seem scarred and unsightly compared to modern day tree fruit. On top of this quince require some level of processing as they would taste foul raw, if indeed you managed to take a bite without breaking teeth.

The golden – honey fruit has a long culinary history and a broad geography in origin. Jewish belief is that it was in fact the quince, rather than the apple, which Eve picked on that fateful day. In Ancient Greece brides would nibble on quince to sweeten their breath before entering the bed chamber, and it was the main ingredient in the Portuguese marmalada; Henry VIII’s favourite import.

It was through my research on fruit preserves that I first encountered this underused member of the rosacea family. The Tudor sweetmeat is a close relative of the Spanish dulce de membrillo, an excellent addition any cheeseboard. Many recipes can be found online and it is a simple, if lengthy process perfect for filling a blustery October day. Today I aim to guide readers to a more accessible way of introducing the quince into every day cookery. I should point out that I take inspiration from a medieval dish of ‘pear baked in wine’ for the infusion of fortified wine and cinnamon in the poaching stock.

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Poached Quince

Take a sharp knife and cut 5 quince into quarters. Carefully remove the core and lay cut side down into a large ovenproof pot. Pour 300ml water and 100ml madeira wine. Finish with a generous slug of honey and a couple of small cinnamon sticks. Cover and bake for 30 – 40 minutes or until cooked through.

The quince can be eaten hot or cold at this stage; with a spoonful of creme fraiche and an extra drizzle of honey. Or pop them in the bottom of a roasting dish of belly pork and onions as a sharp contrast to the crackling.

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Leftovers will sit quite happily in their juices for a couple of days. Hide a few in your apple pie for a floral depth that will keep people guessing. Dice into bite size pieces and stir into a rice pudding along with a little more madeira, ginger and brown sugar. They sit wonderfully with sweet and sticky flavours of cinnamon, ginger honey or maple syrup, so play around a little and help me stop the quince becoming an old forgotten fruit.

Corned Beef – that well known Irish-American-Jewish dish.

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Tinned meat has always been high on my ‘not on your nelly’ list, with corned beef sitting right at the top. However, whilst researching traditional Irish recipes I encountered corned beef brisket and have wanted to have a play ever since.

For years I have been describing corned beef brisket as a typical Irish dish, then exported to the British and American navy and finally turned into the high salt/high fat tinned meat we see today.

The name seems to originate from the ‘corns’ of salt used in the brine to preserve the dish. It is very important to make sure the basic components of this solution are correct, but with the right proportions of water/salt and nitrate the rest, as they say, is up to you. Most of the recipes found online are American and I adapted one from a Mr Alton Brown.

The science-ey bit. The salt and saltpeter in this recipe have a curing effect on the beef, changing the texture and flavour of the meat. This is NOT a method of preservation which allows long term storage and brining should always be done in the fridge. PLEASE NOTE : saltpeter is highly toxic in too large amounts and should be stored with this in mind.

Mothership recipe for brining meat

2300ml fresh water

11/2 cups of large flaked salt (I used Maldon salt)

1/2 cup of soft brown sugar

2 flat tbsp of food grade saltpeter

Any combination of spices you fancy trying. Suggestions might be cinnamon, mustard seed, peppercorns, clove, allspice berry, juniper, bay and ginger. Whole spices work best.

Mix all of the above in a large pan, bring to the boil and simmer, stirring until everything has dissolved. Take off the heat and stir in 2lb of ice. Place the whole thing in the fridge and chill right down. It can be left overnight if desired.

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And so, to the beef. This is where the cross cultural reference comes in. It seems that beef itself was expensive and in short suuply in the 18th century. If you were the average peasant-in-the-street the only meat you were ever going to get your hands on was pork. Then the opportunity came for a new life in North America and Irish citizens took their penchant for salted pork with them. Once in America Irish immigrants found themselves lacking in pork; and rubbing shoulders with Jewish neighbours who were producing a Kosher salt beef brisket. Due to a proliferation of beef herds in Ireland at about the same time, the British started producing the same product back in the Emerald Isle and so the relationship with Navy ships began!

Meat for corning

For a first attempt I decided to stick with beef, but shall be trying this process with pork next time. You need a piece of around 4-5 lb piece, cut into two. Place each piece of meat in a large resealable freezer bag and divide the brine between the two bags. Ensure the meat is totally covered and press all excess air out before sealing. Stand in a suitable container and cure for a minimum of 10 days. Give each package a good squish around everyday to keep the solution circulating about the meat.

So now you have a piece of cured salt beef! But what to do next? Cooking instructions are exactly the same as any other piece of brisket. Add whole small carrots, cabbage quarters and potatoes into the broth at the end to serve in a traditional sense. Or cool, pull apartand eat in huge doorstop sandwiches with lots of mustard for a more American twist!

15th Century sweet tooth!

Happy Birthday to Richard of York; last Plantagenet King of England!

As part of my work for The History Girls I try to take time at the beginning of each month to research important points in history. It being October, my initial thoughts were of course stretching towards Halloween and how this celebration forged it’s way into the national celebration it has become. I found some fantastic recipes, and will be sharing a 17th century pumpkin pie recipe with you very soon.

During this sweep for information I discovered that 2nd October, 1452 was the date of birth of Richard III. This coincided with an article I found only a couple of days ago, stating that the recently discovered remains of King Richard seemed to indicate that he had a sweet tooth. I don’t think that came as much of a surprise!

As a small nod to our local royal celebrity I thought that I would share one of my favourite 15th century recipes. It’s a tasty, simple recipe which seems almost frugal by today’s standards. Two of the main ingredients indicate that this would have been a sweet dish for the upper classes though it’s quite possible that the poorer classes had their own, plainer version.

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 Apple Muse

15th C recipe from http://www.godecookery.com

Take apples and seethe them, and serge them through a sieve into a pot. Then take almond milk and honey and cast them to; add in breadcrumbs, honey, saffron and salt a little. Boil it up and let it seethe though mind to stir it well. Serve it up when thick.

Simple! Although it isn’t mentioned in the recipe, you could always add extra warmth with a little ginger, cinnamon or even a zing of lemon zest. They are all appropriate to the period and allow you to experiment a little to suit your own tastes. The dish can be served warm or at room temperature but it doesn’t keep well so is really best eaten straight away. Eat out of little pewter dishes wearing your best jewellery for true decadence.