Sunday 20 October 2013

'A Taste of History' by A L Berridge

A few years ago I was at a Living History event at Traquair House on the Scottish Borders. It was my very first foray into proper re-enactment, and I was loving every detail – the smell of the cooking fire, the rough wool against my skin, the burning in my throat as I smoked my clay pipe. My borrowed shoes chafed abominably, and my attempts to walk ‘like a man’ produced a gait rather more appropriate to a bandy-legged frog, but I fired a matchlock musket and a 17th century falconet and felt every inch the mercenary of the Thirty Years War I purported to be.

My feet hurt
But the crowning moment came with the arrival of a vendor with a tray, and a gloriously soft object thrust hot into my hand which I was told was a ‘meat pie’. An ominously vague word, ‘meat’, but I wolfed it with relish and thought I had never tasted anything so fine. All day I’d been living history, and now I was actually tasting it too. 

‘Not really,’ said a kindly Roman soldier, peering judiciously at the contents of his own pie. ‘Proper steak’s no good, not unless you’re nobility. Ought to be any old gristle really. Cartilage, ears, eyelids, you know the kind of thing.’

I did, and unaccountably felt my desire for authenticity begin to ebb. I had been happy with every other discomfort of the day (except for the shoes, which were borrowed and didn’t count) but it seemed my love of the past stopped abruptly at the gateway of my mouth.

Which is ridiculous. It’s true I’ve known some hardcore re-enactors turn abruptly into FARBs when it comes to swallowing something unpleasant, but the reality is we’ve probably eaten every one of those things in modern life – and enjoyed it.  What do we think ‘mechanically recovered meat’ is – or the infamous American ‘Pink Slime’? If we’ve eaten a pork pie, a burger or a sausage in the last thirty years we’ve probably eaten everything my Roman soldier listed – and worse.

This modern western squeamishness is entirely a product of our minds. This year’s horsemeat scandal established that we’re perfectly happy with dodgy burgers as long as no-one actually tells us we’re eating My Little Pony. As a child I loved pink icing, but since my well-meaning sister told me that cochineal was ‘beetle’s blood’ I’ve never wanted to touch it again.

Our ancestors were both wiser and more frank, and they knew that death was an integral part of life in the kitchen. The 17th century Italian painter Giuseppe Recco made his name with still-lifes that reflected this, some of which are almost unbearable to 21st century sensibilities:

Kitchen Still Life by Giuseppe Recco

Today that picture would be a deliberate rallying cry for vegetarianism, but in the 17th century it was just how things were. The French cookbook I used most in researching the Chevalier series was La Varenne’s Cuisinier Fran├žois (1651), and there’s nothing coy about its pragmatic attitude to the animal ingredients of fine dining. Here he is on cooking Bambi Fawn: ‘Before it be mortified too much, dress it very neatly, truss it up, and take off some skins that are on it, and look like slime.’ But the worst for me is the recipe for ‘Sucking Pig to the natural’ which begins with the heart-breaking phrase ‘Take it from under the Sow’

Well, of course it does – where else would you find a sucking pig? – but while I may have to write about such things in order to keep my world real, I don’t think my research also requires me to eat them. I love sharing the experiences of my characters’ lives, but I’m currently working on the Crimean War, and have absolutely no intention of getting cholera in order to authenticate it. There are, after all, limits.

That’s probably just as well when it comes to food. The ‘peck of dirt’ our grandmothers encouraged us to imbibe has been swept away in a tide of health and safety regulations, and we have little or no immunity to the kind of bacteria that flourished before refrigeration. If I tucked into the rock hard salt beef my Crimean soldiers ate, or the peas that had been more than forty years in the cask, I think the results might be more deadly than creative.

Yet it doesn’t stop us trying. We’re fed up with chemical e-numbers, excessive processing, and soul-destroying packaging, and (provided it’s sanitary) we actually crave a return to the ‘good wholesome food’ of the past. There are now whole sites dedicated to historical recipes, and some of my favourites have appeared on this very blog – like these for red and white Hippocras offered by our own Jane Borodale.

‘Medieval Banquets’ are also on the up. Next Saturday I’m taking part in the very first Harrogate History Festival (talking about ‘Conflict in Fiction’ with the fabulous Robyn Young and Robert Low) and in the evening the Old Swan Hotel is naturally offering a historically-themed dinner - with spiced parsnip soup, potted duck, and roast chicken with apple and mead sauce. It sounds absolutely delicious.

But it won’t be authentic. It couldn’t be without seriously falling foul of current food regulations. True, we can do what we like in our own kitchens, but unless you live on a farm it’s next to impossible to obtain the real ingredients our ancestors would have used. It’s a major drama even trying to obtain unpasteurized milk – as supplier Stephen Hook recently found out. Flour is a problem too, and the only place I know where you can (sometimes) buy the real deal is Jill Mill in Sussex. Even our water is chemically treated. There are exceptions, and I know one herbologist who obtains her water from a local stream, but many of us who fondly imagine we’re ‘cooking historically’ are fooling ourselves all the way.

It couldn’t be otherwise. Cooking didn’t change in isolation, but as part of a whole evolving world, and sometimes the more slavishly we adhere to an old recipe the more we’re actually missing the point. Take this extract from a famous 17th century recipe for mead by ‘Sir Kenelm Digby Knight’:

‘To every quart of Honey, take four quarts of water. Put your water in a clean Kettle over the fire, and with a stick take the just measure, how high the water cometh, making a notch, where the superficies toucheth the stick. As soon as the water is warm, put in your Honey, and let it boil, skimming it always, till it be very clean; Then put to every Gallon of water, one pound of the best Blew-raisins of the Sun, first clean picked from the stalks, and clean washed. Let them remain in the boiling Liquor, till they be throughly swollen and soft; Then take them out, and put them into a Hair-bag, and strain all the juice and pulp and substance from them in an Apothecaries Press; which put back into your liquor, and let it boil, till it be consumed just to the notch you took at first, for the measure of your water alone. Then let your Liquor run through a Hair-strainer into an empty Woodden-fat, which must stand endwise, with the head of the upper-end out; and there let it remain till the next day, that the liquor be quite cold.’

It seems all right – and the constant repetition of the word ‘clean’ is reassuring – but even if you follow the storage directions that follow, the drink you end up with won’t be mead. Mine certainly wasn’t, and I couldn’t work out why until I stumbled across this excellently researched site, which pointed out that Digby hasn’t included any yeast. He didn’t need to, since (as the writer points out) the world he lived in had plenty of such bacteria floating about naturally, both in the air and on his utensils. We can’t emulate that.

It’s not just the yeast. Readers who’ve made successful mead will also have noticed lots of unnecessary boiling – but for him it was very necessary indeed. Consider the age in which this was written, and we know the ‘skimming it always, till it be very clean’ is not to remove impurities from the honey – but from the water. Digby’s world is not our world, and we can’t go back to his cooking unless we change everything else back too.

That’s why all re-enactment is ultimately limited as a research tool. My shirt was itchy against my modern, bath-every-day skin – but I doubt it would have irritated the tough hide of a real 17th century soldier. I recoiled from the thought of gristle in a meat pie – but a 17th century French peasant who was lucky to get meat twice a year would have thought it delicious. People have changed too, and for all my dressing up and swaggering about in my mercenary gear, I was as much a fraud as Marie Antoinette dressing up as a poor shepherdess.

I still love doing it – and I love historical cooking too. Because it isn’t ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, and it can still give that strange elusive tingle when for a fleeting second you share and understand something from a long time ago.

One day's plum harvest
One very ordinary example. We had an exceptional plum harvest this year, and a friend convinced me to try my hand at jam. I didn’t have any of the special kit apart from a few Kilner jars, but plums don’t need pectin, and as I skimmed the boiling concoction of water, sugar and fruit it occurred to me that I was doing something people have done for centuries and in exactly the same way. I didn’t have a jam thermometer, but I tested the consistency with a sample on a cold plate, and when I saw the magical creases forming in my fingertrail I knew I was sharing the warming sense of triumph with millions of women stretching back centuries in time.

That’s what it’s about. The jam was made with modern processed sugar and wasn't authentic, but what mattered was the sensation I experienced when it set. That’s the ‘tingle’ – and it's the same feeling I had when holding a hot meat pie in my hands at Traquair. Whatever my helpful Roman said, I think I had a ‘taste of history’ that day after all.

A L Berridge is on the panel 'Conflict in Fiction' at Harrogate History Festival, and tickets can be bought here. She promises not to talk about gristle or eyelids.

Her guaranteed gristle-free website is here.


sue laybourn said...

I was going to have sausage for tea tonight.
Not so sure about that now. :(

One thing that drives me absolutely mad when I'm doing the day job (editing) is seeing 21st century menus on 19th century tables. Ladies did not eat blueberry danish pastries for breakfast in Regency era pubs.
I love researching food when I'm writing or editing an historical novel. But I'd draw the line at eating my slabs of meat (heavily spiced to hide the odor of putrefaction) off a stale bread

alberridge said...

Blueberry...Danish...pastries??? Please tell me you're joking.

But thanks for commenting, Sue. You're part of why I posted this in the first place, since you're the woman who persuaded me to make that jam!

Mark Burgess said...

Fab post, thank you Louise. As someone who spent six of their formative years wearing 16th garb I think I can say that what you wear is no different when you're used to it! But it's all about transporting the reader and not making plot clangers, isn't it? And yes, I know what you mean about the tingle of connection. I get it a bit cooking on our ancient Aga, where the themometer is unreliable and you need to know how hot it is from experience - just like the ranges of the last few hundred years.

Stroppy Author said...

Why stop at cooking? If anyone loses a leg in a re-enactment, cauterise with hot iron (if pre-1546) or use turpentine, oil or roses and egg yolk (if post-1546). If you are lying on the battlefield for a while, don't forget to introduce some maggots into your wound to debride it so you don't get gangrene :-)

Caroline Lawrence said...

What a tasty post! I totally agree that we are very spoiled about food nowadays and probably would be mostly disgusted if transported back to olden days.

Also, as a fan of Confederates in the Attic, I loved your mention of FARBS.

Enjoy next week's banquet! :-)

alberridge said...

Thanks so much for commenting, Mark. I'd totally forgotten the CH aspect - including the stockings that used to turn mouldy green. You're right, that was 6 years genuine re-enactment, and I'm not even sure the food was any better.

And - absolutely, Stroppy Author. Do you mean there are historical writers out there who DON'T do these things? ;) What is research coming to these days...

Hi, Caroline, and thanks so much for dropping by! The FARB vs Hardcore thing used to be very aggressive at Living History Worldwide, but it seems to have tailed off now and you hardly ever hear the word any more. So glad someone else has heard of it!

Mary Hoffman said...

I think I would have starved in any era before the 20th century as a am a very squeamish vegetarian!

Rebecca A. Burrell said...

I think you hit it with a bit towards the end there, Louise - at the risk of sounding like a FARB, it's less a perfect re-creation of the past than forging a re-connection with it, an awareness of origins and struggles and all that. Whether it's reenactment or writing or reading historical fiction, you can become aware of the missing elements and appreciate them for what they are, even without the ability to perfectly resurrect the past. With apologies for bastarding Browning, else what is an imagination for?

Penny Dolan said...

Looking foward to your session at Harrogate History Festival next weekend though I won't doing any historical dining.

alberridge said...

You'd have been all right as a peasant, Mary - no meat option. But it's a really interesting question, and I've just realized I know absolutely nothing about the relative popularity of vegetarianism through the ages. More research needed...

Rebecca, thank you for such a great comment, and for putting it much better than i did myself. 'Forging a re-connection' with it is exactly what I meant, and I only wish I'd thought of those words :(

Yay, Penny! It'll be great to see you there too. Maybe we can have a drink - and it doesn't have to be mead...

Jane Borodale said...

Absolutely agree Louise, that matching the food with the status of your eater/ character is vital - but re bacteria; I always think cooks and housewives in the past must have been acutely aware of the perils of allowing mould to spoil the winter's stock - too much was at stake. Dairying for example had to be a spotless practice of pre-scouring and scalding or ordinary hard white cheese would have been blue cheese... and Digby's mead didn't necessarily have added yeast because honey already has natural yeast in it, and mead can be made without the added speed and convenience of ale barm. (Honey would ferment in the hive if the bees didn't fan the moisture out of it with their wings.) Modern supermarket honey is pasteurized and highly filtered, and I'm guessing Digby's scum might be due to the rawness of his honey, which would be full of tiny bits of pollen, wax etc. Apparently it's possible to make a weak sort of mead just by swilling the combs out with water - now I'm tempted to give it a try Louise and see if it works!
I'm a huge believer in trying out historical recipes but as you say the finer detail, or maybe the wider picture is what makes the difference in their authenticity (plus sometimes those old recipes aren't quite to be trusted, are they!).