Period Food is Yummy: What to Bring to an SCA Potluck

This is reposted from my old blog on Blogger.

Let’s start with the basics:

  • Keep in mind the scope of the SCA:
    • The SCA is officially recreating pre-1600 Western Europe, with some wiggle room for “cultures that would have had contact with Western Europe.” This can help you figure out how to focus your research into cooking, and this is what I (and most SCAdians) mean when using the shorthand of describing something as “period.” So while saying something is period is kind of a bad sloppy habit we have (when we should say “Item X is historical for time period Y in place Z”), it is an easy way of delineating “SCA acceptable” from “outside our scope.” (And note that I’m not making any comment on whether or not the SCA should be more or less limiting than this.)
  • Make an attempt:
    • In the SCA, we require that everyone make an attempt at period clothing. Similarly, everyone can make an attempt at making and eating period food. Even if all anyone did was commit to not bringing blatantly modern foods to potlucks (pizza, brownies, etc.), we could significantly improve the quality of events. It is my aim to educate as many people as possible about historical (and passable) options that are achievable for people with various skill levels. You do not have to make a cockentrice right out the gate (but if you want to, go for it!) — everyone taking one step toward historical authenticity has a more powerful impact than a small minority of people taking a thousand steps and leaving everyone else behind. Take that step with me, I’ll hold your hand ūüôā

Approach historical cooking with the right mindset:

  • Period food is yummy!
    • Real people really ate this food, and just as when you branch out of your comfort zone and try food from another country, trying food from another time can often result in you discovering that, in fact, the unfamiliar can often be awesome.
  • Stick to your strengths.
    • ¬†It’s okay to stay within your comfort zone, especially at first. Love to bake? Try some 16th century cookie recipes. Can’t read Middle English, or uncomfortable just winging it with no quantities or specific cooking directions? Look for recipe translations and modernizations (stay tuned for links and cookbook suggestions).
  • ¬†Food is sacred.
    • There’s a reason why cultural celebrations (ahem: including SCA feasts) and religious ceremonies center around food. Food is a big deal! You will spend a phenomenal portion of your life acquiring, preparing, and consuming food; why waste that time? Food can and should be more than just bare nourishment. Food is art, food is passion, food is science, food is love, food is joy. Within the SCA, historical food is a way to experience historical life. Take that opportunity, it’s worth it.

Where to start:

  • Avoid new-world and blatantly modern foods
    • Think tiny changes. If you were going to bring chocolate chip cookies to the potluck, bring shortbread instead. If you normally bring salsa and corn chips, bring hummus and pita bread.
  • Pick a culture (a specific time and place) that interests you
    • Then do some research. This can match your persona but doesn’t have to. Maybe you’re going to a potluck at an event with a theme, or maybe you just think Spanish food is tasty and you’d like to try some historical Spanish food. If you can personalize your quest for historical food a little, you’ll have more fun with the journey.
  • Find a recipe or two that looks tasty and make it
    • See my suggestions for sources below. Maybe cook something in small quantities at home to try it out before taking it to an event to get a sense of it. If your first attempt doesn’t appeal to you or doesn’t work, don’t give up; try something else.

A word on New World vs Old World foods: the conquest of the New World changed the global food landscape forever. There are a lot of foods that we take for granted that medieval people did not know about. While it’s true that some New World foods were adopted into European cuisines prior to the end of the SCA’s time period, the forms they took at first are often ones that are complete unfamiliar to us now; white potato jam is period, mashed potatoes not so much. One of the simplest ways to begin to explore period cooking is to try going without New World ingredients. Don’t despair, though: there are lots of Old World foods that are awesome in and of themselves. Here are some representative lists of New World and Old World foods; these are far from complete:

  • New World: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, vanilla, chocolate, tomatoes, squash (winter and summer varieties), most beans, turkeys, quinoa, pecans, cashews, peanuts, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, cranberries, peppers, sunflowers, avocado, agave, huckleberry, jicama, manioc, wild ‚Äúrice‚ÄĚ, yucca, green beans
  • Old World:¬† Barley, wheat, rye, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rice, lentils, garbanzo beans, fava beans, cows, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, deer, elk, many types of fish, millet, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, most common herbs and greens, almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, eggs, dairy, apples, onions, garlic, leeks, bees (honey), cane sugar, artichoke, asparagus, beet, cantaloupe, citrus, cucumber, fig, garlic, grape, hazelnut, peaches, pears, radishes, pheasant, peacock, heron, mushrooms, gourds, and more
  • Totally modern: Chemical leavening agents, industrially processed foods, and many vegetable varieties (for example rutabagas and sugar beets)

Where to find recipes online:

My favorite cookbooks for beginners.

Things you can bring even if you can’t cook:

  • Desserts: candied ginger, dried fruit, shortbread cookies, dates, yogurt with honey, marzipan / almond paste, fresh whole or cut up fruit, candied nuts, baklava, candied orange peels, quince paste (sold as “membrillo”), fruit and nut “cake” (Spanish “Pan de Orejon”), butter wafer cookies (Trader Joe’s has these), tiny fruit tarts
  • Nibbles: cheese, olives, nuts, hard boiled eggs, hummus and vegetables / pita bread, salami and other cured meats, pickled mushrooms, pickled vegetables (check the New World / Old World lists above), p√Ęt√©
  • Salad mix with oil and vinegar dressing
  • Rotisserie chicken, pre-cooked ham, smoked fish, sausages and mustard, pre-cooked meatballs (especially with a simple medieval sauce like any of the ones based on vinegar, spices, and bread crumbs)
  • Pasta (cheese ravioli, egg noodles, etc.) with butter and cheese

Final thought: Don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun. And historical authenticity is really fun.

Really:

Candied Plums

Sugar plums are just comfits. Not plums. I know that. But I still wanted to make sugared plums.

Inspiration:

TO DRIE APRICOCKS, PEACHES, PIPPINS OR PEARPLUMS
Take your apricocks or pearplums, & let them boile one walme in as much clarified sugar as will cover them, so let them lie infused in an earthen pan three days, then take out your fruits, & boile your syrupe againe, when you have thus used them three times then put half a pound of drie sugar into your syrupe, & so let it boile till it comes to a very thick syrup, wherein let your fruits boile leysurelie 3 or 4 walmes, then take them foorth of the syrup, then plant them on a lettice of rods or wyer, & so put them into yor stewe, & every second day turne them & when they be through dry you may box them & keep them all the year; before you set them to drying you must wash them in a litlle warme water, when they are half drie you must dust a little sugar upon them throw a fine Lawne.
– Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, 1604

Full confession, I didn’t follow this very closely. I might try this again but stay more true to the recipe.

I had some nice Italian prunes (fresh ones, not dried ones; dried prunes is not redundant, prunes are a specific category of plum) that I wanted to try this with. I carefully pulled each one apart, pulled out its stone, and placed them skin up in a single layer in a heavy saucepan. Then I covered them with sugar, covered the pan, and turned the heat to very low. I let them heat without stirring them at all until they had exuded their own juice and the sugar was fully dissolved. I took the lid off, resisted the urge to stir them, and kept cooking until the sugar had made a thick, bubbly syrup.

I took the plums off the heat and let them cool just a bit, then transferred them to a cookie sheet with a Silpat. I dried them in a warm oven for 2 hours, then transferred them to my food dehydrator. I dried them, checking periodically, for several hours, until they were nearly dry but still gummy. Then I took the still sticky plums and and rolled them in sugar. Finally, I let them sit in the sugar for multiple days until they were fully dry.

Here are the finished plums:

  
As an added bonus, this yielded an amazing plum syrup which I could pretty much eat with a spoon.

Some basic medieval non-alcoholic beverages 

  
There are loads of medieval Islamic recipes for non-alcoholic beverages, but (Christian) Western Europeans were pretty happy subsisting on ale, mead, and wine. Of course, to be fair, the ale was pretty weak for most drinkers, and the wine was often watered, and in spite of what you may have read people did drink water. But there are a few scattered references to non-alcoholic beverages in medieval (western) tests which I’d encourage you to try at events. Typically, these seem to have been medicinal or wellness preparations, although I choose to think “ginger ale for a tummy ache” instead of “guafinesin for a cough” level of medicinal. Barley water (or tisane) is a famous option in this category. My favorite non-alcoholic beverages are those for which I can make long-keeping concentrates to mix with water at an event. Here are two that are at least plausibly historical for medieval Western Europe. 

Rose Drink: The Libre de Diversis Medicinis apparently mentions are drink made with rose petals and honey. I take a large quantity of rose petals (dry or fresh) and steep them in boiled water until they have lost all color, then strain them out and mix the resulting water with twice as much honey. The more petals you use the stronger a flavor you’ll get. I have found the syrup will keep at least a month unrefrigerated. To use, mix with water to taste. (More information and another redaction can be found here.)

Oxymel: This is just a Latin name for a nigh universal beverage made with water, vinegar, and honey. Use wine or cider vinegar and good local honey. I like equal parts of each heated together to make my syrup, which I then dilute in plenty of water. You can also use a 2:1 honey:vinegar ratio if you have more of a sweet tooth, and I’ve sometimes dissolved two parts honey in one part water before adding one part vinegar; this works well for honey that’s crystallized. 

The photo shows ready to drink versions of both these in glass bottles for easy transport to an event. The oxymel is amber colored while the rose drink is… well, rose colored!

Hopefully these can slake your thirst on a hot day.

Simple gluten free pie crust

…using only historical ingredients! 

  
I made some tiny peach tarts using a recipe from Good Housewife’s Jewell, and made half of them gluten free. This crust was very easy and handled incredibly well, for both the small (in a ramekin) and mini (in a mini muffin tin) versions. 

Recipe:

  • 5 oz brown rice flour
  • 2 oz chestnut flour
  • Pinch salt
  • Optional: double pinch sugar, for sweet pies only
  • 1 oz butter (or lard — Elizabethan pastry recipes tend to call for butter and this was otherwise vegetarian)
  • 3/8 cup boiling water
  • 1 egg
  1. Mix together dry ingredients.
  2. Combine the butter and boiling water (I used a kettle to heat it — you can also use more water and heat the butter and water together) until the butter is fully melted. A glass measuring cup is ideal. 
  3. Add butter-water mixture to dry ingredients and mix vigorously. 
  4. When cool enough to handle, add the egg and knead until it forms a smooth dough. 
  5. Roll out and use as desired. Makes enough for a single standard crust. (Double recipe for a top crust.)

If you can’t find chestnut flour locally, I order mine from nuts.com. 

What I cooked at the Cooks’ Play Date

Because of everything else going on (about which I promise a large post is coming in the next several days, after I recover a little), I didn’t really plan sufficiently for this year’s Play Date at An Tir / West War, and I didn’t get to cook much at all on one of the days. Unlike what I usually do, and to my personal shame, I did not bring actual period recipes to cook from. I was winging it on EVERYTHING that I made. All that said, here’s what I put together.

Wednesday: Set up day, so no cooking. We ate dinner in town and I had an outstanding piece of grilled salmon. I did manage to start a butter culture going by adding a half pint of cultured buttermilk to two pints of heavy cream in a jug to sit out overnight. This part is important.

Thursday: I churned butter all day! We were slow to get fire going, but I still managed to make some simple oat pancakes (oat flour, the buttermilk from my butter adventures, and eggs) to put the butter on as “play food.” For dinner I made rolled stuffed beef — I pounded a steak flat and spread it with a mix of ground almonds, powder fine (mixed spices), salt, sugar, vinegar, and rose water, then tied it up and roasted it on the fire. This was good and I’ll likely do it again. I also made Roman cucumber salad, based on my memory of an Apicius recipe (but tweaked slightly because Anne refuses to eat garum) — cucumbers, olive oil, red wine vinegar, mint, and salt. So good! I also put out some butter on the dinner table. I will certainly make butter at War again, it’s so fun. And Anne said out loud “You need a bigger butter churn!” and I have witnesses, so I’m getting a bigger butter churn.

Fish Friday: Went to the fishmonger and stocked up. I don’t think I managed to do any “play food” this day. I tried to make pea soup with some smoked salmon collars and fins that I bought, but I was distracted (this was the day of my vigil) and didn’t really give it enough consistent heat. So in spite of soaking them for over 24 hours, the whole peas just never cooked. That was frustrating. But I did make two things for dinner which were both quite successful. The first was just crab meat (I got a whole crab and Tova helped me extract all its meat) in (freshly churned) clarified butter with sage. I also made a dessert that I plan to make regularly: a Dish of Snow with fresh berries. Dish of Snow is an Elizabethan recipe for whipped cream with the addition of egg white, sugar, and rose water. The egg white seems to really help the cream whip easily; I used my new adorable birch twig whisk and it was not odious to whip by hand. The original does not have fruit added to it, but I went rogue. A+ would eat again.

Saturday was my elevation and I cooked nothing, just sat around feeling a little tense and peevish. I did throw together a very lazy salad for dinner because I did not want to arrive empty handed.

Then Sunday we had to come home! But I did get Crazy Norwegian fish and chips (with grilled fish) on the way home. Yum!

How to make a proper medieval pie crust

Update March 2018: I have done more work on this recipe and settled on proportions I like even better. This one still works just fine, but if you’d like the new version you can find it, and lots of other recipes, in my cookbook: Tried and True Historical Recipes for Home, Camp, and Feast Hall.

After several years of experimentation, I have developed a method for making hot water pastry that works very well both for rolled crusts and for self-supporting crusts for a wide variety of medieval pies and tarts.

Finishing a medieval pie crustI use imported flour from Lammas Fayre for my pastry and have been extraordinarily happy with it. I recommend their Elizabethan Manchet Blend for this recipe as that most closely matches the evidence I found for what type of flour was used by high medieval English bakers. If you are unable to obtain this flour, you can substitute a mixture of 2 parts whole wheat pastry flour and 1 part unbleached all purpose white flour, although this does not have the same qualities as the heirloom wheat varieties or sieving to yield “white” flour.

This recipe uses lard for fat, so it is only suitable for meat day pies. That said, lard crusts needn’t be exclusive to meat-filled pies — I’ve never had a problem with the taste of lard pastry for sweet pies. For the record, I use leaf lard from heirloom Tamworth hogs, but you can substitute any home-rendered or pure rendered lard. Do NOT substitute shelf stable lard from the grocery store, it is substantially different from natural, real lard.

If you are cooking for a¬†meat day but cannot use lard due to dietary restrictions, rendered beef suet is a fine substitute but has a somewhat stronger flavor.¬†For fish or fast day pies, the evidence I have found suggests that their pastry was made with thick almond milk, but I am not currently satisfied with the pie crusts I have made using this method and plan to do more experimentation before “officially” publishing a recipe.

The historical pie dish I have is much smaller than a modern pie dish. The amount of pastry that I need to line and top that dish is also¬†a good amount to make¬†for a self-supporting pie that isn’t too large. With some experimentation, I found that doubling the quantities I used made enough pastry for a two-crust pie made in a standard modern pie dish. Since I suspect this is more useful to more people, those are the quantities I give here.

Recipe for Hot Water Pastry: (sufficient for one two crust pie in a standard dish)

  • 14 oz flour
  • 2 oz lard
  • 1 cup (8 oz) water — I know it seems excessive, but much of it will boil off
  1. Place the flour in a heat-safe bowl, making a well in it.
  2. Heat the water and lard together until the lard is fully melted and the water has barely begun to bubble.
  3. Pour the heated water and lard into the well in the flour and stir vigorously.
  4. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
  5. Separate the dough into two pieces, one roughly twice the size of the other. Roll out both portions of pastry on a lightly floured surface to between ‚Öõ and ¬ľ inch thick.
  6. Use the larger piece of pastry as a bottom crust, lining the pie dish (trap); set aside the smaller piece for a top crust.

Note: This recipe works better when the dough is kept warm.

Happy baking!

All about medieval English grains

This is an excerpt from my research into high medieval English pastry. For more information and a full¬†bibliography, see “Raising a Coffin” and “Crustardes of Flessh” on the Files page.

A wheat thresher
A wheat thresher

One potential source of information on medieval cereal crops is blackened roof thatch from standing medieval buildings. Layers of soot-blackened thatch survive on some medieval English buildings dating from the medieval period (specifically the 14th and 15th centuries) and John Letts (see sources) has examined over 200 samples, all originating from the South of England and most coming from Devon. (Typically roofs in the north of England were thatched with water reed or sedge [Ambrose and Letch].)  These samples have preserved not only grain-bearing plants (with both the ears and straw intact), but also crop weeds and other vegetables. These roof samples provide us with a glimpse into complete medieval fields, and allow us to see how crops changed over time. The most significant finding is the diversity of crops within a medieval field:

Most samples contain ‘land race’ mixtures of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), English rivet wheat (Triticum turgidum) and rye (Secale cereale) which grew to 6ft (1.8m) or more in height – far taller than modern varieties – as well as barley (Hordeam vulgare) and oats (Avena spp). Land races evolve over many centuries when crops are grown in heterogeneous conditions, year after year, from seed saved from the previous year’s crop. The result is that every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease. (Letts)

Continue reading “All about medieval English grains”

How to Make Crustardes of Flessh (finally!)

At long last, here is a complete description of how I made Crustardes of Flessh for KASC back in March, including recipes and quantities. Enjoy!

This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn't get pictures of it.
This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn’t get pictures of it.

Continue reading “How to Make Crustardes of Flessh (finally!)”

Medieval Cooking is Complex: A Complete Recipe Annotation

During the process of creating my pie for KASC, I had to not only do a lot of test cooking, but I also had to do a ton of close reading. Reading a medieval recipe is a complex and nuanced endeavor. Here is an example of my process of interpreting a recipe.

Continue reading “Medieval Cooking is Complex: A Complete Recipe Annotation”