Showing posts with label Jeri Westerson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jeri Westerson. Show all posts

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Welcome our guest, Jeri Westerson!

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.  

You can see her series book trailer and discussion guides on her website.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jeri Westerson Guest Blogs

Please welcome our guest, Jeri Westerson!!
Writing a medieval mystery like my latest, SERPENT IN THE THORNS (in bookstores Sept 29), involves a lot of diverse research, from the weight of armor and weapons (I own a sword, a helm, and numerous daggers), to the feel of the clothing, and to the taste of the food. And yes, I have cooked medieval food. It’s good to know what my character Crispin Guest—an ex-knight turned detective—might have eaten when he was a knight and flush with funds, and what he might have been reduced to eating when he was stripped of his title and wealth.

The first in the series, VEIL OF LIES; A Medieval Noir, will be released in paperback on October 13 with a brand new and sexy cover! I was very excited when it was nominated for a Macavity Award for Best Historical Fiction and then even more excited when it was nominated for a Shamus for Best First PI Novel. I think that’s a first for a medieval mystery.

Now on to food! You posed a few questions to me.

Name three things in your refrigerator right now.

Home-brewed mead (my husband makes it), brie, and sugar-free
strawberry Jell-O.
Do you cook or are you a take-out queen?

I do like to cook but lately there doesn’t seem much time for that. Though a few months ago, I did make the dinner for our little gourmet club. I served tapas. I set up stations throughout the dining room and living room with different foods and wines to go with them. It was a lot of fun and it gave me the excuse to buy new platters (I’m a sucker for crockery).

What does your protagonist like to eat?

My protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a former knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. What he used to eat and what he eats now are two different things. The nobility were pretty much carnivores with quite a few dishes at one sitting devoted to something with meat, though they were either dipped in sauces or were cooked in sauces with a decidedly flavorful flair. (And before you say it, they didn’t use sauces to cover rotten meat. That’s just one of those myths we can’t seem to get rid of.) Of course now, in his reduced circumstances, Crispin is forced to eat a lot of soup or pottage. The dreaded turnip shows up a lot and coarse breads and cheeses. He used to enjoy fine wines from Spain and France, but wine is expensive, even in the tavern he frequents and it would have been wiser of him to buy the cheaper ales than pay more for wine, but its his one concession to his glorious past and more often than not, he over indulges.

Is your heroine a good cook or is she going to look around town for someone to feed her curiosity?

I don’t really have a heroine, except for the wife of the tavern owner at the Boar’s Tusk, Eleanor Langton. She doesn’t provide a lot of meals for Crispin but something more like a place for him to find some comfort (they run a tab for him). His cook, more often than not, is his servant and former street urchin/cutpurse Jack Tucker. Jack is young and scrappy and he manages to scrounge the occasional sausage and capon for their hearth as well as brewing the interminable turnip pottage. If they get tired of Jack’s cooking, there are also many sellers of cooked food in London--medieval fast-food. They might enjoy cooked meat pies, fish, fowl, and even hedgehog and cat meat!

Would you care to share a recipe with us?

I found a lovely medieval dish that anyone can prepare at home. It’s a chicken dish, and I love chicken. This recipe is quite good and it’s easy.

First, the recipe in Middle English, the language of Chaucer and also of Crispin. Then a translation, and then a modern version for you.

Middle English: Chykens in Hocchee. Take chykenns and scald hem. Take parsel and sawge without eny other erbes. Take garlic and grapes and stoppe the chikens ful, and seeth hem in good broth so that they may esely be boyled therinee. Messe hem and caste thereto powder douce.

Modern Translation: Chickens in Hotchpot. Take chickens and scaled them. Take parsley and sage without any other herbs. Take garlic and grapes and stuff the chickens full and cook them in good broth so that they may easily be boiled within. Divide them into portions and cast sweet powder on top.

A word about medieval cooking before the modern recipe. The flavors that the medieval person enjoyed with their meat is very different from the modern European. In the middle ages, they seemed to like a lot of dried fruits and spices that we are more familiar with in desserts. If you are at all familiar with Moroccan cooking (or real mince pies), then you have tasted medieval meat dishes.

The powder douce that is mentioned in the Middle English version above was usually a mixture of spices, something like we’d use Zatarans or Old Bay. This is a collection of “sweet” aromatic spices, like aniseed, fennel seed, and nutmeg.

Chickens in Hotchpot (Hodgepodge) or Stuffed Chicken in Soup

4-5 pound stewing chicken
6 cups of water
1 teaspoon salt
8 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley
½ teaspoon dried sage
12 cloves garlic, peeled
¾ pounds grapes
garnish/powder douce: nutmeg, crushed anise and fennel seeds

1. Place chicken in colander and scald with boiling water. Remove fat from cavity opening.
2. Bring water and salt to boil.
3. Stuff bird with 6 Tablespoons of parsley and the sage, garlic, and grapes
4. Place chicken in boiling water. Return to boil; cover and lower heat.
5. Allow to simmer about an hour or until chicken is tender. About 15 minutes before it is finished, add the remaining parsley to the broth.
6. Cut chicken into portions, and serve together with stuffing and liquid in soup bowls.
8. Remember to eat with your fingers. No forks and spoons were rare.
7. Sprinkle each serving with powder douce.

The pictures of that medieval woman are me! I cooked a medieval feast for friends while we were camping last year. And no, I usually don't wear fourteenth century clothes. I am cooking a version of the chicken dish on a fire rather than in a pot. It's good both ways.
Thank you, Jeri, for joining us today! If you'd like to know more about Jeri and her character, Crispin, please check out her website: Jeri Westerson