An Tir West War Reflections

Update: I have enabled Amazon affiliate links on this blog; I figure I shill for Amazon for free, maybe it’s time to let them give me a cut! If my enthusiasm for my new camp bed persuades you, please use the links in this post so I can keep the candles lit. 

We made our annual pilgrimage to An Tir West War for the Cooks’ Playdate last week. It was our first major SCA excursion as a family of three, and all in all was a wonderful adventure. We have a new tourney vehicle — A VAN!!! — that I am very much in love with. We panicked and overpacked, but that’s a learning process too. Kiddo had a great time, and so did moms.

We stopped at some of our favorite places along the Oregon coast on the way down and back, and got to drink in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. We also introduced the kid to tasty shellfish — he is a bay shrimp fan! — and he had his first ice cream. So fun!

Two women and a baby sitting outdoors at a table for a medieval feast
Two mom energy! Photo by Mercy Neumark

I cooked very little at the Playdate, which I anticipated because I know how much it takes to wrangle a small human. I threw together spring greens and herb salads for a couple of dinners, which were well received; I used walnut oil and white balsamic vinegar for dressing, and put some big flake salt on the side. I cooked some shelled peas from my garden with cheese rinds for flavor, and they were fine but not spectacular. I made Iron Age Celtic Glop, with beef, fresh favas and fat-hen from my garden, and oats. It was quite tasty, although I should have used whole oat groats instead of stone milled oats. I love the flavor of fat-hen, it’s got this rich earthiness that’s just amazing.

I also did some grilling experiments not anchored in research but that turned out phenomenal and that I’ll definitely repeat. At my wife’s suggestion, I grilled peach halves, then topped them with a little mint, some thinly sliced matos cheese, and a drizzle of honey. They were utterly divine. On our last day there I went a little wild trying to use up some of the excess food we had brought and wrapped various cured meats (salami, coppa, prosciutto) around pitted dates, then skewered and roasted them. If you’ve made bacon dates, you know the magic of sweet dates and salty pig. These were better than bacon dates in my opinion! So crispy and delicious. Will definitely add both of these discoveries to the regular rotation.

Cook at work, photo by Mercy Neumark
If anyone finds a grill basket like this, I need one! Photo by Mercy Neumark

 

We got some new gear for this trip that was absolutely game-changing, knowing we had the space to bring some larger things for comfort. I keep learning that the secret is to pack heavy on infrastructure and pack light on everything else. The big thing that totally made this long weekend awesome was our new camp bed from Amazon — a folding bed frame and a summer-weight futon. Most comfortable sleep I’ve ever gotten while camping! Seriously, these are so, so awesome.

The bed set up. I cannot capture how truly wonderful this was.

We also brought our fancy camping privy (and refill bags) and it made getting up to pee in the middle of the night (with a sleeping baby) much less of a production. Plus, it’s a great seat in the tent during the day with the lid closed and a sheepskin on top! The surprising hit of the weekend was our cow skin from Ikea. It was great to sit on in the grass with the kiddo, much more versatile in damp or slippery grass than a blanket. Oh, and not a large item, but I’m glad we brought a pile of folding seagrass baskets, also from Ikea, because they’re great to bring empty and then use to organize small things (like baby toys and snacks).

I came away with a better sense of what I want at events. We packed way too many snacks and brought lots of clothes and supplies for the baby that we just didn’t end up using. I didn’t wear all the garb I brought and I ended up wearing modern shoes because the ground was a little too challenging to manage when I needed to also be able to hold and chase after a kid. I came away from this event ready to get rid of a lot of SCA stuff that I think I’m just done with and streamlining / optimizing the rest of it. And I’ve accepted that I need to get some unobtrusive modern shoes.

It was great to get to see people who we don’t get to spend time with often enough. I wish I had made more time to get out of camp and be social. The people are what keep me coming back to this game.

Eventing with a kid is an adjustment for sure. I’m still having a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts about how much time / money / effort I really want to spend on the SCA right now. But all in all, it was a good experience and we had some magical moments. Taking kiddo to see the creek, pulling him in a wagon, watching him “help” in the tent… lots of good things.

One night after the baby went to sleep, my wife and I spread out the cow skin and lay under the stars together. We watched satellites and identified constellations and talked and cuddled. Just as humans have done for as long as we’ve existed.

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Cookbook Progress Update

Since posting about the cookbook project back in January, some stuff happened that was really hard and sad and I’m still processing all of it. It definitely put a damper on my dreams of testing a recipe a week for the cookbook, but I’m finally starting to feel a little human again (ugh grief is dumb). I don’t know how many recipes I’ll be able to test and add to the cookbook, but I have managed to get a small handful together since January (and it’s not like I didn’t have lots of recipes ready to go back in January, either!)

So, there will be a cookbook, it will probably mostly look like the table of contents already posted (see link), but there will also be at least a few more recipes too! I still don’t have anything like pre-order details or even how I’ll be releasing it nailed down; I’m going to just have to take that as it comes.

A Basic Medieval Spice Kit

(This is reblogged from my old blog)

I could write absolute digital reams on the subject of spices in medieval cuisine. No, medieval people did not use spices to mask the taste of rotten meat (don’t get me started), but spices are an integral part of medieval cooking. While individual dishes have their own unique spice profiles, there are two indispensable spice mixes that show up again and again in medieval recipe collections from various times and places: powder douce and powder fort. My basic spice kit to take to events contains these two mixes plus salt and saffron. These four items are enough to get me through most dishes I want to prepare. Here’s some more information about each of the blends:

Powder fort: Fort in this case meaning strong. Mentioned in Italian, French, and English recipes for sure, and likely in recipe collections from other places but I am less familiar with them. So far in my reading of English recipes from the 13th and 14th centuries, I have yet to come across an actual recipe for powder fort itself. There is some evidence (mostly from the Menagier de Paris) that these mixes might have been purchased ready-made rather than prepared by a household or home cook, which offers one explanation for the lack of recipes. Additionally, it’s extremely unlikely that everything called “powder fort” was the same. Think of this as a name for a category of related spice mixes rather than a name for one specific mixture. My practical advice is that you experiment with different mixtures of strong / “spicy” spices to find something you like. Possible spices include black pepper, cubebs (tailed pepper), grains of paradise (also a hot, peppery spice), long pepper (the hottest spice known in medieval Europe), cinnamon (either true cinnamon or cassia), clove, mace, ginger, nutmeg, and galingale. My favorite mix combines approximately

  • 1 part each:
    • Black pepper
    • Cubebs
  • 1/2 part cinnamon
  • 1/4 part mace
  • 1/8 part clove

Grind to a fine powder and mix well.

I like my powder fort to mostly taste of pepper, with the other spices there for balance and complexity. I tend to leave out long pepper and grains of paradise because I think each has such a subtle flavor that they deserve the spotlight. I also generally stay away from the “weaker” spices — I just don’t think ginger, nutmeg, and galingale can hold their own against the other ingredients.

Powder Douce:Douce meaning sweet, these spices are somewhat milder than those in powder fort and more appropriate for sweet dishes. Additionally, powder douce can include sugar. All of the explanatory notes above apply equally to powder douce, except those about the desired flavor and ingredients. Powder douce is often sprinkled on egg and pasta dishes.

Possible ingredients include sugar, cinnamon (here I would stick to true cinnamon if possible), ginger, nutmeg, galingale, and possible small amounts of mace or clove.
My personal combination, again approximate quantities:

  • 1 part sugar
  • 1/2 part ginger
  • 1/2 part cinnamon
  • 1/4 part nutmeg

Grind to a fine powder.

I generally leave out mace and clove as the strong flavors can quickly overpower the other spices. Remember, if you want strong spices, choose powder fort.

I store my powder fort and powder douce in the earthenware jars pictured above, which were made by Mistress Morgaina. As mentioned above, I round this out with saffron and good sea salt. For longer events I often add more to my stash, but these are enough to get me through most camp cooking projects.

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”

Introduction to Historical Food Research

This is re-published from my old blog.

In the SCA, the first piece of research advice you’ll get (well, after “don’t try to back-document a project you’ve already completed”) is that you must know the difference between a primary and a secondary source. Generally, we define a primary source as an actual historical item (or text) and a secondary source is a modern interpretation of those historical sources. So if you’re researching clothing, a primary source would be an extant historical garment while a secondary source would be a modern book about medieval clothing.

Here’s a question for you: what’s a primary source for historical cooking? You can’t go to a museum and see (much less eat) the wedding feast of Henry and Matilda. Recreating historical food will always require you to synthesize multiple research strands. That’s the fundamental purpose behind this lesson: all of these types of sources that I describe build on each other, and the strongest research makes use not only of multiple individual sources but multiple strands of research and analysis.

Continue reading “Introduction to Historical Food Research”