Welcome our guest, Jeri Westerson!
Noir and hard-boiled fiction seem to be in Jeri Westerson’s blood. She was born and bred on the mean streets of Los Angeles, inhaling smog and enduring earthquakes. Raised in a household that not only embraced history, but medieval English history specifically, Jeri came by her interest in all things medieval honestly. She worked in a bevy of careers prior to setting her sights on becoming a novelist. Would-be actress, graphic artist, theology teacher, tasting host and tour guide for a winery, and newspaper reporter were among them. She wanted to create her own brand of medieval mystery, and combined the concept of medieval mystery with hard-boiled detective fiction into what she calls “Medieval Noir.”
The Alchemy of Medieval Cookery
By Jeri Westerson
My newest medieval mystery SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, with hunk-on-a-stick disgraced knight turned detective Crispin Guest, hits the shelves. While researching for this book, I had to delve into the art of alchemy, how it was done, who were the practitioners, and what did it all mean. Writing about a different place and time comes with its own sets of problems, including learning what life was like for the everyday person in medieval London. It includes a lot of hands-on research. And since this blog deals in food, I can talk about some of my adventures in medieval cookery.
Cooking is alchemy. Of course it is. And what is alchemy but transmuting elements into different elements. Cooking is just that. Changing eggs into a soufflé, for instance. The amalgamation of eggs, flour, and sugar into a cake. We know how we do it now, but how did they do it then?
My books are set in the fourteenth century, and it just so happens that in about this time, cookbooks were coming into their own. Cookbooks started out life in the Middle East as a physicians’ prescription book, with folk remedies and potions to heal the sick. Eventually, they became recipes for the table. But even so, these were not the kind of cookbooks that included medieval meatloaf. These cookbooks didn’t have recipes that everyone already knew how to cook. These were for manor houses and palaces, showcasing the very special top-of-the-line recipes. How to cook a Cockatrice, for instance, that mythological creature part bird and part beast. (How do you cook a cockatrice, you ask? Veeeerycarefully.)
Still want to make that Cockatrice? (Oh Mom, we had that last night!) Here’s the Middle English version:
Take a capoun and skald hym, and draw hym clene, and smyte hem a-to in the waste overthwart. Take a pige and skald hym, and draw hym in the same manner and smyte hem also in the waste. Take a nedyl and threde, and sewe the fore partye of the capoun to the after parti of the pygge and fore partye of the pigge to the hinder party of the capoun, and then stuffe hem as thou stuffiest a pigge. Putte hem on a spete and roste hym an than he is y-now, dore hem with yolkys of eyroun and pouder ginger and safroun, thenne wyth the ius of percely with-owte and than serve it forth for a ryal mete.
Did you get all that? Basically, cut a chicken and a pig in half at the waist, sew the front half of one to the back half of the other, stuff them, and roast them on a spit. Glaze them with eggs yolks and powdered ginger and parsley and serve as a royal feast. Sometimes the feathers would be carefully put back on the bird, as when one serves swan. That makes a really good presentation. Don’t forget to stretch your meal with Cockatrice Helper!
I have to admit, I’ve never made this, but I sure want to. Don’t you?
Medieval fare made good use of seasonal foods. Sort of had to with limited ways of food preservation (there was smoking, salting, pickling, and preserving like jams.) But mostly, you had to rely on what was growing and what was able to be caught or bought in terms of meat, and they ate a LOT of meat. But only if you were a middle class merchant or craftsman or higher. Poorer folk relied on lots of pottages or soups and stews, with lots of low-brow ingredients like dried peas and beans. Which was technically healthier than all that bleached bread and meat.
Milk wasn’t really drunk. It was far too valuable for that. They made it into cheese, something that could last for days and weeks. Fruit juices likewise were used for cooking and sweetening other food (sugar was expensive. If you had a sweet tooth, you used fruit or homegrown honey from your own bees.) Thirsty? You had to rely on water, but mostly ales, which were sweeter then. No hops yet, at least in England. They looked down their nose at that. Hops served as a bittering agent but it also preserved the beer. Without it, you had to drink that beer up mighty quick, within days of brewing.
Bread, then as now, was a staple, and baked every day. Sometimes you brought your loaves to a baker and, for a fee, he would bake it for you, using his expensive fuel to keep ovens warm all day.
One common recipe included stuffed loaves, called rastons, which I have made.
1 large round loaf
½ cup butter
1 tablespoon poppy or crushed fennel seeds
· Cut the top off a loaf and save for a lid. Scoop out the bread from the loaf and crumble.
· Melt butter in a heavy skillet and add the crumbs. Toss so that they are evenly coated. Mix with seeds. Replace all into the loaf and put on the “lid”.
· Bake in moderate oven before serving. Use your hands to pull bits away.
Almond milk was another common fare. It was used as a dipping sauce for bread, a thickener for sauces, and a flavoring agent for meat and fruit dishes. It’s funny that in our diet culture today, almond milk is back on the store shelves as a substitute for milk for the lactose intolerant or for folks who want to cut carbs from the diet. I have used this for a dipping sauce for medieval parsnip fritters.
½ cup blanched almonds
1 cup boiling water
1 ½ teaspoon of honey
Dash of salt
· To blanch almonds, boil the nuts in water for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain. Pour cold water over them. Pop off the skins.
· Grind almonds in ye olde blender or mortar, adding a few tablespoons of ice water during the process to prevent the paste from becoming oily.
· Add honey and salt to 1 cup of boiling water and dissolve. Pour liquid over almonds. Allow to soak for about ten minutes. Strain out almonds if a smooth texture is desired. (Or go to Trader Joe’s and get almond meal. Skip the blanching process and go directly to adding boiling water. No need to strain.)
Any of these are wonderful for a medieval party, and easy to do. The amazing alchemy that happens when you cook proves the magic of the process. A lot easier to turn almonds into a sauce than lead into gold, but it is no less mystical.
Jeri works her alchemy on her medieval mysteries. The latest is SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST. www.JeriWesterson.com.