Saturday, 5 April 2014

Fruity Tagines and Salty Bread

On a visit to my sister and brother-in-law last week we enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal of lamb tagine and crunchy bread. The 30 spices mixture had been bought just a week earlier in Morocco so you can imagine how fresh and delicious it tasted! And an interesting supper from no less than three medieval angles!

Our richer Medieval forebears, having encountered the Arab influenced cooking of the Middle East from their excursions in the 11th century onwards, brought home the ingredients and the practice of mixing fresh or dried fruits (as well as spices) into savoury dishes. The typical Moroccan tagine dish today, incorporating apricots, raisins or dates, wonderfully illustrates the continuity of this culinary tradition.

Unusually, my brother-in-law forgot to put in the salt when setting up his  breadmaker. The resulting non-salty bread was a very acceptable, if crunchy accompaniment to dip in the tagine sauce -  the bread had not risen!

How, back in Medieval times, it  was discovered that yeast makes bread rise is debated by food historians. Most likely ale, a fermented grain product containing natural yeasts, was used accidentally instead of water in making the bread paste or dough. Left for a while, such a dough would rise spectacularly.

However,  raised bread remained relatively uncommon in medieval times. Instead, unleavened breads were baked from a variety of cereal "pastes" (including wheat paste capable of rising) and not from "leavened" or risen doughs. The results were soft flat breads ranging in colour from black to off-white, eaten well into Tudor and later times. MedievalMorsels has modelled some one inch scale model dolls house miniature food - rye and mixed grain flat breads. The shapes of these are informed by medieval woodcuts, or later Dutch Golden Age still-life paintings.


During the  Middle Ages, European monarchs imposed excessive taxes upon their peoples. The French were most adept at this! French Kings levied ever increasing general taxes on peasants, with specific taxes on salt and bread that affected all classes of society. When English nobles visited France they were surprised at the lack of saltiness in French bread. Excessive tax no doubt had something to do with this. Even today continental butter is less salty than English butter, but I can't hazard a guess as to whether this is a culinary tradition that had its origin in medieval taxation!