All right – so I’m never going to be the greatest cook of the 14th century. I got an inkling of that last week, when I experimented with a medieval recipe for pottage. And I’ve now conclusively proved it, since I’ve made a more elaborate medieval dish. I think I’ll stick to reading about gastronomy in the Middle Ages, not trying to practice it.
For this second attempt at medieval cooking, I chose a dish called Salmon Pie with Sweetmeats, from Hannele Klemettilä’s The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes.
Though it covers much the same time period as Peter Brears’ Cooking & Dining in Medieval England, the other new food history I used for last week’s recipe, it’s a very different book.
The Brears book is structured around the physical arrangements for preparing, serving, and consuming food. Klemettilä, a Finnish cultural historian, structures hers around types of edibles (chapters on breads, vegetables, meat, seafood, sauces, etc.) and the ways nobles, peasants, and the middle classes ate them on feast days, fast days, and ordinary days. Also, where Brears considers only England, Klemettilä also covers France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Scandinavia. The books provide two interestingly different perspectives on 14th- and 15th-century foodways.
The salmon pie I chose to make has all the exuberant array of ingredients that were common among medieval dishes served at the tables of the rich, perhaps on one of the many meatless days. It contains figs, currants, and dates; cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, salt, and pepper; pine nuts and almond milk. Not the kind of things we think of nowadays as accompaniments to fish!
I approached the recipe with cautious enthusiasm. The first steps were to make up a short-crust pastry dough and some almond milk. I used a modern recipe for the dough (which the author allows). For the “milk” I boiled ground almonds, water, sugar, and salt; then strained the liquid. Next, I cut dried figs in small pieces, cooked them in white wine until soft, and pureed them. I sliced a nice filet of salmon into strips, cut dates into small pieces, and cooked those two items together in white wine for five minutes.
When the fig puree was cool, I added all the spices to it, along with enough of the strained wine broth from the salmon to make a spreadable consistency. Now I was ready to assemble the pie.
I lined a pie dish with half the dough, spread the spicy fig puree over it, sprinkled on the pine nuts, and spread the drained salmon-date mixture over that. After adding a top crust I brushed it with the almond milk in which I’d dissolved a little more saffron. That turned the crust a brilliant golden yellow.
Baking enriched the golden color and brought up an unusual but savory aroma. I took the pie to the table and cut two plump slices. With some trepidation, we took forkfuls.
It was a one-bite lesson in how our culture shapes our lives. It tasted bizarre: an unsettling clash of flavors. The crust was good – tender and enriched by the almonds and saffron. The fig layer was good – spicy, mildly fruit-sweet, and pleasant in combination with the pine nuts and the crust. But the nice, fresh, succulent-looking salmon that went into the pie tasted just wrong! Against the other flavors it seemed positively unwholesome: fishily tart, fishily sweet.
Tom’s judgment on the pie was Disgusting! Though he’s always claimed his Jesuit education made him one of the finest minds of the Middle Ages, it apparently didn’t equip him with the commensurate palate. He took about two bites and then just nibbled at the edges of the crust. As the person responsible for this whole undertaking, I doggedly finished my whole slice, trying to accustom myself to the unfamiliar flavors. I couldn’t do it: It remained bizarre, strange and exotic in an unattractive way.
I hate to waste food, but the rest of that pie was not eaten.
For anyone who might be interested, here’s the book’s reproduction of the original recipe, from Harleian MS 4016.
Tart de ffruyte. Take figges, and seth hem in wyne, and grinde hem smale. And take hem uppe into a vessell; And take pouder peper, Canell, Clowes, Maces, pouder ginger, pynes, grete reysouns of couraunce, saffron, and salte, and cast thereto; and ϸen make faire lowe coffyns, and couche ϸis stuff there-in, and plone pynes aboue; and kut dates and fresh salmon in faire peces, or elles fressh eles, and parboyle hem a littell in wyne, and couche thereon; And couche the coffyns faire with ϸe same paaste, and endore the coffyn withoute with saffron & almond mylke; and set hem in ϸe oven and lete bake.
Maybe it tasted better in Middle English, served prettily to Chaucer’s high-toned Prioress, while the Miller and the Monk guzzled ale.
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