July 29, 2011

Though we know of quite a few full meals of the medieval and renaissance era, our understanding on how to compose an entire meal properly are limited at best. While the dishes can be reproduced fairly well, we only have tidsbits of information suggesting when in a meal they should be served.

However, in quite a few places we do find suggestions on what to end a meal with, both with the purpose to aid digestion and general wellbeing. A common suggestion would be to eat pears and cheese, which in other words is a tradition with a rather old origin. Another tradtion that we have more or less lost by now was to end a meal with wafers and spiced wine.

As the manor did have an ancient (or probably 18th century) wafer iron, I decided that I should have a go at making wafers. Making wafers at least dates back to the 14th century, as is evident in this image from 1340. (Note the bowl of batter next to the wafermaking king)

The recipes I used for this trial was a French recipe from the late 14th century and a dutch recipe from the mid 16th century. It seems that the proper definition of wafers and waffles is a bit vague why the recipes chosen use the term waffles instead of wafers.

Le ménagier de Paris (1393)

Waffles are made in four ways. In the first, beat eggs in a bowl, then salt and wine, and add flour, and moisten the one with the other, and then put in two irons little by little, each time using as much batter as a slice of cheese is wide, and clap between two irons, and cook one side and then the other; and if the iron does not easily release the batter, anoint with a little cloth soaked in oil or fat. – The second way is like the first, but add cheese, that is, spread the batter as though making a tart or pie, then put slices of cheese in the middle, and cover the edges (with batter: JH); thus the cheese stays within the batter and thus you put it between two irons. – The third method, is for dropped waffles, called dropped only because the batter is thinner like clear soup, made as above; and throw in with it fine cheese grated; and mix it all together. – The fourth method is with flour mixed with water, salt and wine, without eggs or cheese.

Nyuewen Coock Boek (1560)

To bake good wafers.
Take grated white bread. Take with that the yolk of an egg and a spoonful of pot sugar or powdered sugar. Take with that half water and half wine, and ginger and cinnamon.

For the first recipe I chose to use the simpler of the two recipes, that of a 16th century dutch origin. The first part of making the dish was fairly straight forward, mixed the ingredients until I got a a nice thick batter. However using a “cooking wine” instead of a proper wine was not really a wise choice as it did not add anything to the flavour – but there was no chance to get myself some wine from the winestore.

The waferiron was then heated over embers and greased with butter. At first parts of the the wafers got stuck onto the iron. But with a somewhat higher temperature the wafers both got a nicer colour and loosened easier from the iron. I felt that the addition of spices were a bit to sparingly for my taste – but that could be changed once I redo the dish. Actually the fact that it was usually served at the end of a meal in order to help digestion would make it likely that it was both more spicy and sweet.

The next dish was based on the third variety of wafers/waffles found in the French cookbook, a dish called dropped wafers bases on the texture of the dough. As this dish included grated cheese I predicted that it would stick to the iron even worse than the first recipe. I made a mixture that was not so sticky and thick as the first recipe. Apart from the cheese and the texture of the batter it was made more or less like the above version, with the same problem of a wine that was almost tasteless. Much as I predicted the batter would stick even at a higher temperature. To solve this I added a bit flour with a much better result, even though I am not sure if the batter coud be said to be dropping (still it was more liquid than the batter for the first dish)

This time the wafers turned out fine with a quite nice taste of the cheese. Though the taste was nice in both cases (though a bit underspiced), the main result was to see how well they both turned out visually.

The main practical problem in making the wafers alone, apart from risking that the wafers got stuck, was the problem in handling the hot wafer iron when removing the wafers, which required something of an advanced balancing act.

Images will be forthcoming as soon as I  am on my other  computer.


Among the simpler dishes porridges of different kinds would stand out. It seems to have been an important dish already in the Viking age – and probably earlier – and was probably most important during the parts of the year or circumstances when one had to rely on only dried stored goods.

As an inspiration for this dish I have used a recipe from Liber Cure Cocorum (1400).

For gruel of fors.

Fyrst take porke, wele þou hit sethe
With otene grotes, þat ben so smethe;
Whenne hit begynnes wele to alye,
þou save of þe þynnest brothe þer by
To streyne þy gruel, alle and summe;
But furst take oute þy porke þou mun
And hak hit smal and grynde hit clene;
Cast hit to þo gruel þat streyned bene,
Colour hit with safroune and sethe hit wele;
For gruel of force serve hom at mele.

This recipe, or similar, can be found in several cookbooks from the 14th – 16th century. Though the inclusion of saffron makes it a rather exclusive dish, the idea of a porridge cooked with bacon or with pork could in some part reflects the ingredients what we find stated as the daily distributed foodwares in navy records of the 17th century.

Though the recipe states pork, it does not say in what form. In the cookbooks I both find reference to smoked meat and to fresh meat, but in this recipe nothing is stated. A hint towards fresh meat may be that the meat is supposed to be boiled before used in the dish, but I have found several references in which bacon is supposed to be boiled before used in dishes. As I simultaneously wanted to investigate both the exclusive dish and a more common porridge I opted for a smoked fatty side of pork. The meat I used was bought at Malmö kötthandel a very good deli that smokes the meat themselves.

Looking closer at the recipe one notices that it can be divided into a few steps; Boil the meat and remove it, cook the groats in the resulting stock, separate the liquid, mince the boiled meat, and to the liquid, add saffron & serve.

Though the recipe in itself is rather easy it did produce a rather large amount of making it possible for me to make both an exclusive soup and a more common porridge and thus making two dishes from one. As saffron was and is an exclusive spice it turns a rather simple dish into something very high society in its composition. Still to throw away all the porridge seems like an awful waste, when it easily could have been served to soldiers and servants at the keep.

I started by boiling some water with the smoked pork, rendering it soft and releasing oth some taste and salt into the water. I then removed the pork, added the crushed oats and started chopping the meat small. As the meat had been smoked with the rind it had to be cut of as well. Though smoked meat may dry out and getting hard if I keep it for a few weeks, boiling it makes it very soft again and easy to chop up. The recipe suggested that the meat should than be ground in a mortar. Though I only have a pounding mortar – as opposed to a grinding one – it was still turning the meat into something of a mush. When the oats had softened and the liquid started to get milky, I was supposed to strain of the liquids.

However, lacking a good strainer or a cloth through which to strain the liquid I proceeded by decanting the liquid from the pot. The problem using this method in the semi-dark cavern of my kitchen was that I only managed to get it separated that much, and some of the oats did remain in the liquid.

The liquid was mixed with some saffron and the main part of the porc. This was put back on the embers in a second earthenware pot. Into the first pot where the boiled oats remained I put in a small amount of smoked pork and the rind from the chunk of meat I originally used.

I let both simmer for a while after which I served both up in a bowl. The oat/saffron soup had really nice if a bit salty taste, and could certainly serve as a starter or side dish in a larger meal. The porridge on the other hand was far more timid in taste. Though the recipe for a porridge is a bit of a construction from my side it is a) still using an original recipe as a base, b) a plausible way of preparing a porridge in the early renaissance and c) as close as we get to an authentic recipe from the period. Personally I quite like the notion that with just the addition of some saffron and an extra step of preparation one may produce two dishes – one for the high seat and one for the workers.

Cooking pit/earth oven

September 6, 2010

Almost a moth has gone by since my last post -after some well needed mental rest, I was sort of stuck in my everyday life with other things to fix and write. Anyway I’ll be adding one or two posts of my cooking at the festival and then I’d hopefull will be able to add posts of a more discussing nature during the rest of the fall.

Among the differing cooking techniques a special role can be assigned to the cooking pits. It is a cooking technique that has been used as far apart as New Zeeland, Hawaii or Europe, and in Scandinavia it is possible to date this technique back to the early Bronze age. However looking closer at the archaeological remains from Scandinavia, shows that it has been used somewhat differently depending on the region.

The principle is rather simple and uses the energy storing properties of stones. By heating large stones that one put into a hole and then covers with earth or turf one is able to take advantage of the heat and cook larger pieces of meat. Though there is a general archaeological profile for this kind of feature – a largish pit, containing a mixture of stones, charcoal, soot and burnt wood. However, when comparing differing areas of Scandinavia, there seem to be distinct differences between different regions. While the southern Scandiavian cookingpit seem to display an order of stones, charcoal and turf, the norwegian cooking pits would have the burnt woods in the bottom.

At the site of the museum in Lofoten, the longhouse seem to have been preceeded by a large number of cooking pits spread out in a rather large areal. This technique of cooking in a pit seems to have been fairly important at the site and was therefore important to try. The local research archaelogist, Lars-Erik Narmo, had both ecavated several cooking pits and cooked using the cooking pits at some occasions. Though basing it on the Norwegian finds he had mainly been using modern means of covering the meat. In order to keep it from charring and not be covred in sand, the most common method today would be to cover it in aluminum foil.

For the festval and a small event just prior to it we cooked some meat using a cooking pit. At the first occasion I were given some more range to experiment with the actual methods, though the pits themselves were done in accordance to the Norrwegian traditions. A large oblong hole – 1,5 meter long and about 0,5 meters in width – were dug and filled with a large but airy layer of birch wood. On top of that we placed a layer of rocks, that were going to act as the heat element of the cooking pit. The wood layer were allowed to burn until all the woods had been burnt away leaving a very hot layer of rocks. On this the meat was placed and then covered with earth in order to keep the heat and bake the meat.

As baking in foil hardly can be percieved as an ancient method I wanted to explore some kind of covering that would more reflect any historical method of cooking. The size and shape of the pits would suggest that one were rather cooking whole animals rather than as now just a small cut of the animal. A possible way of covering the meat, in order to keep it from charring, getting covered in dirt and to keep the fat and juices in side would have been to use the actual skin of the animal. However, lacking whole animals and proper bags of hide, I looked into another solution. In medieval cookbooks one can sometimes find recipes for dishes that are baked in the oven covered in dough. Though this more often refeers to smaller pieces of meat, I considered this to be a good solution in order to handle the meat in a more proper way. Half the meat – legs of lamb – were covered in foil and the ther in dough some in a simple wheat dough and a leg of a young goat was covered in a barley dough. Together with the meat, and inside cuts in the meat I placed, lingonberries, juniper berries, thyme, angelica and alpine leek. To no surprise I noticed that the wheat dough was far easier to work with, so I came to mainly use wheat dough to cover the meat. However, after the meat had been laying about for a while, I realised that the good properties of the wheat dough when working with it turned against me in the end. The texture of the dough made it expand and stick to the other pieces of the meat. The barley dough on the other hand, which had to be applied in thicker chunks kept it self rather well withouth any external interference and n suddenly exposed parts of the meat.

Anyway all of the meat were placed into the pit and covered with dirt. That the stones were rather hot were easily noticed as the dough soon started to smell like a freshly baked pizza. From the earth one could see steam rising, even though I tried to cover such holes up. When the pit was uncovered about one and a half hour – two hours later the earth was hot, but not as hot as it usually was at this point according to Lars-Erik. While we could uncover the foil wrapped meat, the dough was not properly cooked on the top of most of the other pieces and the meat underneat were still red. The foil packages were cut open, and reveled some meat with a nice pink core. It was cut up and eaten with delight by most of the participants. After another hour or two we dug up the smaller of the doughcovered packages -the one with a barley covering and goats meat. This package was at that time nice and the meat very succulent. One could notice that the dough was thoroughly baked in the bottom but still a bit soft on the top. The longer cooking time, had us considering that the earth by which I covered the meat was a bit to cold and damp so that much of the energy had gone into heating the earth. Both the goat and the foilcovered lamb tasted really nice and were quickly devoured.

The remaining wheatdough covered meatpackages were still not ready as we left the area for the night. During the next day, the opening of the festival, I decided to uncover some of the remaining meat. It had at that time been buried in the ground for about 18 hours. When I started to dig into the pit I could still see some steam rish up from the pit. As I recovered the packages I could notice that while the top dough were still soft it had still contained most of the juices and fat from the meat, which was steaming hot as I opened the packages. The meat had at this point absorbed most of the taste of the added herbs and berries, and were truly succulent. While it were falling of the bone it had not gone dry in the least.  One could in factsee a small puddle of meatjuice and fat in the bottom of the dough container.In regards to the texture, some of the visitors commented that it reminded them of chicken.

From a culinary point of view I would highly recommend this more timeconsuming method using dough. However, since the dough was still soft on the top it fell of as I took up the meat, thus exposing it to the sand and earth, which is not optimal from a hygienic point of view. One could notice though, that the meat that were exposed directly on the stones were instantly charred giving it an almost glasslike texture and appearance on the surface. This part of the doughcover were solid though still not charred on the inside. The last package was uncovered after about 24 hours in the ground, and it was at this point still steaming hot, and hot to the touch.

A comparison between the two methods, foil and dough, would give some advantages to both. While the foil would provide us with a more secure method, both in regards to earth and time consumption it was by far more bland in taste and would run the risk of being cooked a bit dry. Since the foil would conduct the heat it would be more like cooking some meat in an oven with the advantages and disadvantages that would bring. The dough covering would offer some other problems and advantages. From a culinary point of view it is by far a preferred method, both in taste and texture it was beyond comparison. The disadvantages was ofcourse the long and rather uncertain time it took to cook, and the risk having the meat contaminated with earth. The latter could perhaps be countered by further looking into the actual method of cooking. A simle solution could perhaps be to turn the breadpackages quickly once it has been placed onto the hot stone, thus creating a hard baked crust on both sides. Another possible solution, which woud probaby not be conclusive with the Norwegian finds, would be to use two layers of hot stones – one under and one over the hot rocks. One may also place some bark or a reed mat on top of the packages in order to separate the dirt from the food. One should ofcourse also look into other possible medium in which to bake the meat. To use the untreated hide of the anmal that is to be cooked would be a very interesting approach.

All in all one can conclude that while this is a rather time and energy consuming method it would be optimal when cooking food for a large group of people as it neither requires utensils nor a hearth, and it is possibly in that context that we should understand the cooking pits.