Sunday, June 24, 2007

The meat of the matter

With the publication date for the paperback of The Scarlet Lion looming on the horizon, and my cooking efforts for the Conroi de Vey at the Tollerton Show fresh in my mind, I got to wondering what I'd serve up to William and Isabelle Marshal should they suddenly arrive at my door requesting hospitality on their road.

During his youth, William - like many teenagers of today- gained a reputation for doing nothing but eat and sleep. He earned the nickname 'Gasteviande' which roughly translates to 'scoff all'. There is a telling line from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. The other knights at Tancarville where the young William is being trained to knighthood, say to his guardian:
'This greedy gorger William, in God's name, what good is he doing here?... Just how are you being served by this troublesome fellow, this devil of a glutton, who's always sleeping when he's not eating? The man's a fool who feeds him.' Unfortunately no mention is made of what he was consuming whilst eating his guardian out of house and home. Indeed, although the Histoire makes mention of entertainments and jousts in abundance, there are only occasional references to foodstuffs - but always very interesting.

There's a mention of ship's biscuits (bescuit) when Richard the Lionheart is preparing his crusade. Indeed, we are told that his ship was also laden with 'flitches of bacon, wines, wheat and flour. He also loaded pepper, cumin, wax, and spices and electuaries of the very best available. Also 'many other drinks and jellies and syrup. It would be interesting to know what the syrup consisted off.

On another occasion, William Marshal tricked the citizens of Rouen into providing a feast for himself, and the earls of Salisbury and de Warenne. He promised his companions 'Fine wines and luscious fruits.' The French army had been very close to Rouen but for various reasons had changed direction and retreated. William and the two earls had been shadowing the French, but were too lightly armed to engage in battle with them, however they knew their movements. Since Rouen was close and an ally the Marshal took the English contingent there, and told the citizens that the French army was in the area, but not to worry, he and Salisbury and Warenne would protect them. The citizens of Rouen, mightily relieved and not realising that there was only the smallest grain of truth in this story, fetched out their best for their 'saviours.'
'When it was time to eat, they quickly washes and sat down. The burgesses gave great attention to the matter of preparing their gifts....some made a present of full bodied wines, fine wines, clear, soft on the palate and sparkling, some with cloves, some spiced, according to the preference of the giver....At the end of the meal came the fruit, and they all had in abundance pears, apples and hazel nuts.' Again this is fascinating. I would never have guessed that sparkling wines were around then, but apparently so. It's also interesting to note that they ate fruit at the end of the meal and it was seen as a good and prestigious thing to do - and it was a treat. Which puts paid to the notion I've seen in some places that medieval people did not eat fruit, or treated it with deep suspicion. A pity that the Histoire does not tell us what they ate as the main dish.
Another small food scene from the Histoire is concerned with the time when William Marshal was dying. No longer able to enjoy food, he was subsisting solely on a 'diet of mushrooms'. Also 'Someone had the idea of rubbing the white of bread into small crumbs so that the Marshal would not notice.' Were mushrooms standard sick room food? Or perhaps a favourite dish of the Marshal's that they perhaps had been able to persuade him to eat. I don't know.

As to the dilemma of what to serve to my 'guests' should they visit:
I cooked an Arabic dish at the local show (pictures to follow in a future blog). Known as Mishimishya, it came to England with returning crusaders and the Sicilian cousins of our native Normans. William would probably have eaten it at some point during his sojourn in the Holy Land, and it is very tasty and easy to prepare.
Take around half a pound of good stewing lamb (depending on appetite) per person cut into cubes and half a large onion per person. Chop the onion and fry in a large pan with the lamb until the meat has coloured. Add a teaspoon of cumin per person and a teaspoon of coriander per person. Add a teaspoon of powdered ginger all told and a teaspoon of cinammon all told. Pepper and salt to preference. Cover with water and simmer until the lamb is tender. While this is going on, take half a pound of dried apricots, cover with boiling water and leave to stand. Mush to a puree in a blender or by hand. Once you're just about ready to serve the lamb, add the apricot puree a bit at a time, checking that it's too your taste. You might not need it all. Also scatter in a handful of ground almonds - again it's a case of taste it and see and test for thickness of the mixture. Serve with bread or flat bread if you're feeling Middle-Eastern.

At the Tollerton show, I also served up a pottage of broad beans, carrots, onions and garlic, and a soup made with almond milk and onions for the vegetarians among us. For nibbles there were herb omelettes, soft oatcakes, honey, goat's cheese, bread pudding (I'm working on the provenance!) shortbread, and summer fruits with cream. I think I would serve William Marshal sweet wild strawberries and cherries - and definitely a good wine, or perhaps mead from our local vineyard which I've only just come across, courtesy of a Regia friend. I can't believe it's been in my vicinity for 30 years and I've not known about it.

Bon Appetit whether you're a 'gasteviande' or not!


Anonymous said...

I mentioned you in my food blog. Whether you will speak to me again is something I'm still wondering :).

Carla said...

Blogger must have eaten my comment - again! I wish it wouldn't do that. When you did the William Marshal meme, I'm sure he was wondering if there were stuffed mushrooms on the menu, so maybe they were a favourite food of his?
The lamb and apricot dish sounds delicious. Did returning Crusaders increase the use of spices in Europe, out of interest, or was it already well established? There was certainly some spice trade much earlier, as Bede left pepper to his friends in his will.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks Carla. Who knows the wonders of Blogger. It's safely arrived this time though.
Re the stuffed mushrooms. This is a lesson in why the primary sources are often better than the secondary because they can be misinterpreted! I have read in secondary source - can't remember where but it will be on of the Marshal biographies, that all they could get William to eat when he was dying was bread-stuffed mushrooms. When I went to the original source - L'Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, it said that all they could get him to eat were mushrooms. Someone had the idea of crumbling up the white of bread in his hand so the Marshal would not notice. It doesn't actually say they stuffed the mushrooms with it. In fact it doesn't say how they proposed to feed it to the Marshal - so it remains open ended.
The lamb and apricot dish was very tasty. I don't honestly know if returning crusaders made the use of spices more commonplace, but as you say spices were already established. It's something I can look into and find out. Ann Hagen probably has the basic details in her books on Anglo Saxon food. Pepper and cumin were strong favourites, as was galangal (a form of ginger). For the later medieval period, Peter Spufford's book on trade - Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe - is fabulous. He gives a detailed description of the 13th and 14thC spice trade and I suppose a lot of it would apply to the earlier period. He says that 'The spice trade was in effect an Indian Ocean trade run by non-Europeans, and Europeans only joined in to the margins of what was essentially an Asian trade. In the Western Indian Ocean it was in the hands of Arab and Indian shippers, particularly the Gujarati merchants, many of whom were based at Cambay on the west coast, 250 miles north of Bombay. From the ports on the Malabar coast, like Calicut, Cochin and Quilon, they exported the spices grown in south India to the Middle East. In addition , Gujariti merchants could buy in Calicut spices grown much further east, like th camphor of Sumatra or closed from the Moluccas. Fascinating. I also loved the detail that in Milan, the equivalent of sweet shops were open for business by 1390, where one could buy a poke of 'candi' i.e. melted and crystalised cane sugar...and yes, it was sold in little cones like it used to be here in the UK not so long ago! I highly recommend Peter Spufford's book.

Eigon said...

The lamb and apricot dish sounds wonderful - I'm going to try to get our re-enactment group to try it, since we're Crusader period (Drudion, 13thC Welsh mercenaries).
We're always looking for new ideas for meals.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Eigon, I took my base recipe from Constance Hieatte's (sp?) Pleyn Delit, although very similar recipes are found in the Baghdad Cookery Book. It was indeed very tasty!