Friday 22 February 2013

WHAT'S FOR SUPPER? by Jane Borodale

The horsemeat contamination debacle has thrown up familiar discussions in our household as elsewhere; about the convoluted nature of our modern food chain and how vulnerable it leaves us, and how passive our consumption is. 

Grimani Breviary: February (Flemish), c1490
But how easy was it to feed your household in February in the past, when production could be (largely) in your own hands or at least in the hands of those working nearby? What was available and what was being prepared for future months? What tasks out there in the yard or garden would I have to be busy with right now if I couldn’t open the fridge-freezer or nip to Tesco?

I’d rather vaguely assumed that there was very little around to eat in February, that the diet must be dull and barrel-scraping, relentlessly salty and lacking in variety – especially once the restrictions of Lent kicked in: an added challenge for both housewife and husbandman. And since pancake day I’ve been wondering whether there were ever years in the past when the hens hadn’t even started laying by Shrove Tuesday for this very egg-orientated feast (can any historian-chickenkeepers out there enlighten me, please?).

Les Tres Riches Heures du duc
de Berry: (February, detail)
Limbourg brothers,  c1412
The Anglo Saxons apparently called February solmonath, or ‘mud month.’ I don’t know whether the seasons were more advanced on the Continent – but the Dutch called February Spokkelmaand, or ‘vegetation month’ which, looking out of my window (there are actual icicles today), seems very optimistic.

A glance at February entries in the diary of the Somerset parson, William Holland, shows his household busy even in this cold month of 1806:

Feb 8 – John finished spreading the dung in the Paddock.
Feb 11 – Sent John into the garden to prepare ground for potatoes. Turned the great horse into the churchyard to stretch his limbs. Walked to Court House and got some seeds from Furse, he had pease and beans very fine, and Early Peep potatoes. Rain came on after dinner so we could not plant any.
Feb 12 – A fine pleasant day. I put down my Early Peep potatoes and John planted carrots and onions.
Feb 19 – This evening sat by a good fire and with my family compared the Four Evangelists on the Resurrection. (It would have been Ash Wednesday.)
Feb 20 – John went on still very well in the garden but he was called off rather soon to go with our little sow to the boar to Strinxon, Farmer Landsey went with him.

Plucking examples at random: 16th-century household accounts at high-status Wollaton Hall show salt fish eaten in great quantities during Lent, such as cod, eel, ling, pollack and lobbe. Salted and dried, or salted and packed in barrels, which was called green fish. There was also stockfish, which was air-dried, and preserved herring. And there was fresh fish available in Lent from local suppliers and inland markets – historian Mark Dawson in Plenti and Grase mentions a great variety of fresh sea-fish and freshwater fish, including cod, skate, turbot and thornback. Big households also had the advantage of fishponds on their estates, for more readily caught bream, pickerel, pike, tench and by the end of the century, carp.

For those that could afford it, dried fruit was a part of the Lenten diet too – figs, prunes, currants, almonds, and there were always spices and other flavourings to ring the changes.

Giles Moore of Sussex records various purchases on the 17th and 18th Feb 1663 for ‘an entertainment’, including a Quart Bottel of Sack, 3 pecks of barley malt, Pullet, three nayle of Beef, halfe a pound of sugar, spice, bread, butter, rosewater. A few days before, he’d bought a gallypot of greene Ginger. (Though I should say it wasn’t quite Lent yet, as a quick check in Cheney’s ‘Handbook of Dates’ shows that Easter was 19th April this year.)

Spinacia oleracea,
Otto Wilhelm Thome,
Flora von Deutschland, 1885
There was greenery too, if you planned ahead: 16th-century gardener Thomas Hill talks about the importance of planting with Lent in mind. He says that spinach is the ‘plant aptest for Lent … the first Pot-herb which is found in gardens about [this] time. This plant very well endureth … cold, frosts and snow.’ He goes on to point out the merits of the ‘Carot and Parsnep .. sown in harvest time to enjoy them all the Lent.’ And there were other roots that would keep well until now – dried peas and beans, and stored keeping apples and pears of very many kinds.

17th-century Hannah Woolley gives us a Bill of Fare suitable for every Month in the Year, and suggests for February:
A Chine of roast-Pork, Veal or Beef roasted, A Lamb-Pye, and Mince-Pyes, a couple of wild Ducks, a couple of Rabbits, fried Oysters, a Skirret-Pye. And for the second course: A whole Lamb roasted, three Widgeons, a Pippin-Pye, a Jole of Sturgeon, a cold Turkey-Pye.

By far the largest section in 18th-century Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery is devoted to recipes for fasting food – from Crawfish Soop to Buttered-wheat and Chesnut Pudding. She lists foods available at this time of year, including: ‘many sorts of cabbage and savoy, small herbs on the hot beds (i.e. hot with dung) also mint, tarragon preserved under glass, chervil, sallary, marigold flowers and mint dried, beet-leaves, sorrel…

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, but my overall feeling, having glanced over these February choices from the past, is that although we pride ourselves on the range of year-round food drawn from all over the world available to us - in the past (for those who could afford it), there was quite a startling array of fresh or readily-available food.

I don’t really approve of hankering after the past per se, and am grateful not to have to be taking my sow to the boar today in order to ensure a supply of pork for the months ahead – but right now I’m thinking that it might be interesting to try a nice fresh pickerel served with colliflower and followed by a dessert of Golden-pippin or Winter Pepperning, or a Dagobent Pear… Anyone care to join me?


catdownunder said...

Some years ago there was a mediaeval cookbook in our local library. It mentioned a great range of (to us) strange dishes - often requiring large quantities of things like eggs. I can't imagine the peasants ate like that! Their diet must surely have been fairly limited?

Jane Borodale said...

Absolutely, thanks catdownunder, - surely the Lenten fast can't have made much difference to the poorest diet - pottage is pottage after all! Middling sorts/ yeoman farmers etc would have had more, of course. It depends what period, what status and income, how remote your location, variations in the strictness with which Lent was observed etc...

But I was really just thinking about the food chain in a rather general way.

Aren't local libraries marvellous - even medieval cookbooks to hand!

Theresa Breslin said...

Your so topical post made interesting reading Jane. I'll join you for the Dagobent pear. Yay! for local libraries too.

Sarah said...

Second that on local libraries: where would we be without them?

We belong to a Farmshare and the produce at the moment in the 'Hungry Gap' is exactly what Thomas Hill mentions: carrots and 'parsneps'! (Also turnips, but they hadn't come in until Turnip Townsend in the 18th century, I believe). It's a bit early to forage for nettle tops but alexanders are showing - the Romans used them as a pot herb, and the young stems taste a bit like asparagus.

I've always understood that during Lent people avoided eating eggs, to allow the hens to raise a brood or two, so that the big pancake feast on Shrove Tuesday was just the last opportunity to eat eggy dishes until Easter.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you Jane. Your post highlights how we've become out of touch with seasonal food, largely due to the power of supermarkets. A shame in my view because food is much better in season. I've never understood why people think strawberries at Christmas are a good idea!
One vegetable you don't mention, and very useful over the winter, is the leek. Apparently a favourite of the Anglo Saxons!

adele said...

Lovely post! And Jane, you must read a novel called JOHN SATURNALL'S Lawrence Norfolk pub Bloomsbury and soon out in pbk with the gorgeous illustrations still intact. Lots of 17th century food in that.

bnachison said...

I acquired a little while ago a recent translation of La Varenne's Le Cuisinier Francais (The French Cook), originally published in 1651. It has some very long sections of recipes specifically for Lent, as well as recipes for non-Lenten fast days, and includes a table of foods commonly available in different seasons. For Lent, many ordinary vegetable and fish recipes would be thickened with pea puree and/or lots of extra butter rather than eggs. Other Lenten dishes included creamed spinach and baked apples with cinnamon, butter & sugar. The vegetables in the Lent sections are largely roots, peas (presumably dried), and cabbages, but also lettuce, spinach, mushrooms, herbs & asparagus. Sounds about right for February with a greenhouse.

Leslie Wilson said...

I did enjoy this. Incidentally, eggs used to be preserved in a crock with isinglass (A substance got from the dried swim bladders of fish, apparently - still used to clarify beer). My German grandmother used to do that. I do think that seasonal food tastes best and indeed there is still plenty around. I have leeks in the garden, cavolo Nero, miners lettuce and the last of last year's pumpkin. It's around Easter things get tough. But then you can have salads of new beech leaves, marjoram, salad burnet, violet and primrose flowers, hawthorn shoots...

Jane Borodale said...

Re eggs - depending on the strictness with which the period observed fast days, sometimes they were not allowed, sometimes they were turned to as an alternative. And I wish we had alexanders round here, Sarah, I've never tried them.

Leslie I'm intrigued by your grandmother's egg preserving - am dying to know how she did it - were they raw or whole or liquid? Do you have the recipe? Maybe that's a whole post!

Thanks Adele - yes I read John Saturnall's Feast straightaway! And loved it.

Mark - you're right, leeks are faithfully with us through the hard times, but they lie in the veg box every week mocking me and are the bane of my culinary life.

bnachison - Your French text sounds really interesting. I wonder whether the mushrooms would have been dried as well.