Thursday, May 29, 2008

Making a Medieval Field Kitchen - Part 3

The thought of a proper medieval kitchen is always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind (oddly accompanied by music from George Harrison), so when I spent Memorial Day at the house of a skilled carpenter and he showed me his reproduction of a medieval table I think I showed remarkable restraint in that I did not scream "WANT" at the top of my lungs, nor did I drool upon it.

What Conal (the woodworker) made was a beautiful copy of a sawhorse table. Sadly, I don't have a picture (yet) of the one he made, but I did find a couple of examples online.

Image from Tacuinum Sanitatis, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek
(note: count the legs on each sawhorse)

I've seen several images of this sort of table in various medieval sources. The really nice thing about them is that they can be broken down into their component parts for transport. Conal said the one he made takes up surprisingly little space. That being said, these tables are remarkably stable.

Here's another picture I found online of a similar table:

Detail of a table made by a
member of the Company of the Golden Lyon

So Conal said either he'd make two of these tables for me, or at least he'd help me make them. The plan is to use maple if I can get it cheaply enough. I'll document the whole process with pictures and such.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Science in the Middle Ages

Yesterday morning I picked up a book a friend of mine was reading to give it a brief look. The title sounded interesting enough, and I thought I'd check it out - if it's decent then maybe I'd pick up a copy. As often happens with me, I got caught by a chapter and had a hard time putting the book down.

Yes, this is what I'd call light reading.

This time the chapter that snagged me was on medieval cosmology. I've been really interested in this lately, and the part of this book dealing with it is awesome. Lindberg clearly details the major cosmological beliefs in play in medieval Europe, ties them back to their origins in Aristotle's works, briefly compares them to what's being done in the middle-east, and talks about the style of medieval European scholarly works (with a very nice bit on the sort of questions scholars asked and debated), and all the while his writing style is clear and very readable.

So the verdict comes back: Yes, this is one for my bookshelf.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Endangered Foods

Yesterday evening I caught part of a radio broadcast of The World which was titled 10 Foods to Eat Before They Die. It was an interview with Simon Preston about his planned 10 course dinner in Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead, England. 

Aside from a substantial amount of gustatorial interest (how could anyone with functioning taste buds and a good imagination not be interested in a discussion about Lancashire asparagus, Herat raisins Saxon village preserves, etc...), I found Mr. Preston's passion for disappearing foodways resonated with my own. While he is highlighting rare foods and food production methods that are falling out of practice, I am researching and re-creating foods that have lain dormant for centuries. I think both of us are somewhat driven by a love of food and a desire not to forget the old in the race to find the new.

For those in the area, the gala dinner, Ten Things to EAT! Before They Die is tonight at 7pm at the Marriott Hotel, Gosforth Park (£85 including wine). I know it's short notice for those in the UK ( sorry, I'll try to learn about these things sooner), but if anyone gets to it I'd love to hear a first-hand account.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Very Small Fruit

A quick update on a very important topic: my quince tree.

The petals have all dropped off now, and the base of the flower has started to swell. Each of the five or six fruit (it was hard to count them because of the wind) is about a half inch in diameter - a bit smaller than a grape. As can be seen in the photo below, they're also already starting to turn yellow.

awww, they're so cute when they're little
(click to embiggen)

I believe the fruit above is from the flower pictured in my last post on the topic. The stamen look rather eldritch to me. Hopefully that will scare off the deer.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Love / Hate the BBC

Several weeks back I learned about a program about medieval cooking that was to be broadcast on the BBC. Clarissa and the King's Cookbook was hosted by Clarissa Dickson Wright (of Two Fat Ladies fame). The show deals with the fourteenth century cookbook, Forme of Cury. Obviously this is a program I want to watch.

And therein lies the problem. I want to see this show - I need to see this show - but I don't live in the UK. BBC America? Not anytime soon. Buy it from the BBC? It's not for sale anywhere that I can find. Download an illegal copy? Apparently medieval cooking doesn't have the tech-geek following of other BBC shows (like Doctor Who), as no one has uploaded pirate copies. Move to England? Tempting, but not feasible in the near future.

Bah! The unfairness of it all!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Take a look at the book cover below. Go ahead, enjoy ...

freakin' cool book

It's still not available from (you can pre-order it), but my wife managed to get a copy for me while she was at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (in Kalamazoo, MI).

I've only read a chapter so far. Actually, I opened it up at random to somewhere in the middle, intending only to skim a page or two to whet my appetite, and somehow got sucked in and couldn't stop reading before the chapter's end. Then I took a moment (read: half an hour) to flip through the rest of the book.

This has got to be Brears' best work to date, and it's absolutely incredible. Aside from his very readable prose, he has filled this monster of a book with hundreds of clear illustrations on things like setting out tablecloths and carving pies. The little bit he had in Boke of Keruynge was just a speck of dust on a drop in a bucket compared to what's in here. There are also recipes, and serving instructions, and descriptions of medieval English daily life - all of it backed up with documentation from primary sources. Absitively beautimus!

While this book is a bit pricey, it is way more than worth it in quantity. If the rest of the chapters are even close to being as good as the one I read (and I have every reason to think they are) then this book is perfect for someone who wants a single, detailed text that delivers the distilled general knowledge of medieval cooking in England. It's also good for medieval food geeks like me who want to jump into a vat of knowledge and splash around for hours on end.

Cooking & Dining in Medieval England
Peter Brears
Prospect Books
ISBN: 1913018555

Thursday, May 8, 2008


At first you don't succeed ...

What I did was to take a 2 pound piece of pork loin and and put it in a covered baking dish with 1 cup of (cheap) white wine and a little salt (maybe a quarter of a teaspoon). This was put into a 350°F oven for a bit over 2 hours - the pork was tender enough to tear apart with a fork.

it's really difficult to make a photo of meat jelly visually interesting

Tasting this stuff was an interesting experience. A part of me kept expecting sweet fruit flavors, so completely un-subtle flavor of meat came as a shock with every single bite. I also had trouble reconciling the coolness of the jelly with the taste. The thing is, it wasn't at all an unpleasant experience - it actually tastes quite nice - it was just surprising. I suppose one gets used to it after a while.

The color comes from the pork, and maybe from sugars in the wine caramelizing (is there enough sugar in wine to do that?). Some of the medieval recipes for meat jelly say to make it all sorts of colors using various substances, so there must be some way to make less colorful jelly as a base. Perhaps a different type or cut of meat (medieval recipes suggest things like cow feet or sheep's feet or even veal bones) or maybe a different type of wine or adding vinegar would work better.

Anyway, now that I know I can intentionally make meat jelly, I'll keep experimenting and see how close I can get to one of the actual medieval recipes. I doubt I'll be able to get a lot of people to eat it - even if it is nicely presented, colored yellow or red or blue, and with some pieces of meat mixed in, but it shows up in medieval cookbooks often enough that I just have to know.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Flower Power!

Back in the late summer of 2006, I ordered a quince tree from a nursery in California. I'd never planted a fruit tree before, but I'd read plenty on the topic, and dreamed about it for years, and finally managed to get my wife to reluctantly agree to getting one. So did a lot of searching and researching, and picked Cydonia oblongata as the variety I wanted. The tree was delivered by UPS in a big (and heavy) cardboard box. I followed the included instructions and watched it grow for the next year and a half. Nothing much happened of course (except for a couple attacks by bugs). It didn't blossom or fruit the first year, but that was expected since quince flower from the ends of new growth.

This year is apparently a different story though. When I went back to check on it last Thursday (and make sure the bugs hadn't attacked again), I saw little rosy-salmony-colored flower buds at the end of each branch. It's going to flower this year, neat! So I checked again yesterday and here's what I found:

so that's what quince blossoms look like
(click for huge image)

This means that with any luck I'll have home-grown quince sometime around October, and home-grown quince leads to home-made quince marmalade!

Why is that so exciting? You've never had quince marmalade, have you? Let me try to explain ...

To say that quince is a close relative of the apple doesn't quite put it in perspective. The quince is everything the apple has ever wanted to be but just can't. It has an incredible fragrance, and because of it's high natural pectin content, it is perfect for making preserves. In fact in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were quince trees in just about every farm yard just because of its usefulness. The quince isn't perfect though. It's kind of funny looking. It's also usually to hard and astringent to eat raw, and therefore needs to be cooked before eating.

And therein lies the big problem. The vast majority of people in the US nowadays don't cook. They want ready-to-eat food. This makes quince unlikely to be a big seller at the corner grocery, if it's stocked there at all.

Things are looking up though. Quince can often be found in ethnic groceries, and I've even started to see them from time to time in the big chain stores. Take a look next time you're in amongst the produce. If you find some, take them home, cut them up, and cook them. From that point on an apple will never be able to look you in the eye again.