Saturday, 24 May 2014

Venison - a Royal hunting perogative

Vegetarians should skip on down because I am "posting" about a venison stew I cooked last week. I  told my son it was a meat casserole, unwilling to be more specific in case he would not try it! That strategy paid dividends. I slow cooked it in the oven for most of the afternoon, creating a lovely wafting aroma. He remarked upon passing through the kitchen "that stew smells good!" Mission accomplished - and many root vegetables used up as well.

What a coincidence to find just this product in one's 'fridge!
It was a complete coincidence there was venison in the house. I had spent quite a bit of time reading about and "writing up" some historical aspects about deer because roasted venison was my latest line in 12th scale miniature Medieval and Tudor dollshouse food. I had literally just finished and looked in the fridge only to find these packets bought by my partner had bought the previous evening. My immediate thought was that I did not believe my eyes! But rapidly I realised how useful for blogging purposes. Last, I wondered how I could balance the strong taste so that everyone, including me, would eat the casserole. I knew I should probably use a lot of vegetables, and so a culinary plot was hatched....

Medieval Morsels one inch scale roasted venison for a Medieval or Tudor dolls house setting
I was not alone with grappling with the consequences of a strongly flavoured meat. In the Middle Ages and later in Tudor times venison was traditionally rubbbed with ground ginger and pepper, which served to hide the strong taste. Also, as a bonus, the spices stopped the meat tainting. Perhaps this practice is why we use the term "seasoning" for the process of hanging game for days or weeks to improve its flavour. Favourite medieval accompaniments were sauces, jellies or preserves using rowanberries, sloes, red currants, or cranberries. Our venison came with a sachet of red port, wine and plum sauce so taste values have changed little since Medieval times! For Medieval Morsels I produced a sauce of rowanberries for my 12th scale oven or spi-roasted venison haunches destined for a miniature Middle Ages or Tudor feast.

When the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded England in 1066 he swiftly enclosed areas of "barren" land, Hampshire's New Forest area being the first in 1079, for his use as protected deer hunting grounds. Highly unpopular Forest Law benefited the beasts of the developing forests but at the expense of the local peasant population who were given small concessions to graze their livestock and gather fallen wood.  Hunting was an exclusive Royal pursuit enjoyed by the Sovereign and his (or her) favourite nobles. Charles II (1660-85) was the last Royal to hunt in Britain's forests. Venison was only eaten by the nobility- unless it had been poached at some considerable risk.

Britain had three species of deer in Medieval times, native red deer and roe deer, and the once native fallow deer which had been reintroduced by the Romans. Our shop bought venison was red or fallow deer, reared in Ireland or the UK and vacuum packed in Yorkshire! Today we also have exotic escaped species - muntjac and Japanese sika deer. The red and sika deer are intent on interbreeding apparently! So much so that pure bred wild species may be at risk. There's an unanticipated consequence.....

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Pigeons galore!

Its late Spring in England so there are plenty of young fledgling birds around in gardens at the moment. My younger sister phoned excitedly last weekend to say that the mallard duck nesting in her garden had produced upwards of ten ducklings. What a responsibility! I am reminded that when she and I were young we followed the annual progress of robins nesting in the large, door-less and ramshackle shed-cum-garage at the bottom of our parents' garden. Baby robins are very appealing And trusting!). They have an unnaturally wide yellow "gape" and long wispy feathers intermingled with their emerging adult plumage. This "fuzzy" stage only lasts a few days after fledging - so cute when back-lit!

Adopted pigeon squab Charlie in the USA!

Baby robin. Image: copyright Sue Bryan
Blackbirds successfully breed where I live and I watch the progress of their young. Large (and rather stupid) wood pigeons have always frequented our garden too but I have to say I have never spotted a young one.

In Medieval times, domesticated pigeons provided a reliable source of winter protein for rural people of all classes. A chicken's reproduction dropped off in winter so the pigeon, with its long breeding season, provided a solution to this problem. MedievalMorsels produces 12th scale dollshouse miniature foods including oven roasted pigeon for a Medieval or Tudor feast or dining setting! Though equally acceptable in a witch or warlock diorama, a barbarian themed or fairy miniature setting.

Pigeons were first domesticated 5,500 years ago in Asia. The sub-species living alongside man are all descended from the Rock Pigeon. Though its unlikely that pigeon eggs were eaten as a product of pigeon husbandry, instead they were left to develop into squabs (young pigeons) destined for the pot or spit roast! In poultry terms, the first one inch scale miniature dollshouse food that MedievalMorsels modelled had to be the pigeon! And not the goose, capon, guineafowl or duck - all of which were eaten alongside wildfowl of all descriptions. I have yet to model most of these.

 Whole roasted pigeon for a Medieval or Tudor feast
How were the pigeons supposed to fly in?

Close to where I live is a track called Pigeon House Lane complete with its own "pigeon house", listed by English Heritage. But curiously this square stone building has no means of access for the birds so is probably a misnamed 19th or 18th century stable. See what you think - opposite!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Leicester - a fine city

Leicester is a fine city, it has a lot to offer the Medieval enthusiast! 

Recently there was much national, and indeed global, excitement when the presumed remains of King Richard III were discovered beneath the tarmac of a Leicester car park. The discovery of an almost complete skeleton was later confirmed by the University of Leicester to be Richard III, based on several combined lines of evidence - historical, archaeological and scientific . The last Plantagenet King of England died in battle on Leicestershire's Bosworth field in 1485 at the age of 32, defending his crown against Henry Tudor. The latter was the victor, becoming Henry VII and founder of the Tudor dynasty. 

The Plantagenet era (1216 - 1485) was a dangerous Medieval period for "those who fight" - Kings, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Knights, noble Lords, gentlemen and the armies that they raised. The other strata of medieval society - "those who pray" and "those who work" - might have hoped to survive the dynastic and political upheavals attendant in the Middle Ages. But for this they would have needed good judgement and some good luck as well... 

The author taking a sneaky peek in "that" car park back in 2012 
The trench where Richard III's remains were discovered
I was passing through Leicester this Easter. An elder sister is lucky enough to live near the centre of the city, proving very handy for the Richard III excavation back in 2012 and the still current Richard III exhibition, both close to the Cathedral. This time she recommended I visit the Medieval Guildhall also in the Cathedral precinct. The Guildhall is in fact a series of furnished halls and rooms offering plenty to admire...

I was particularly taken with the beautiful stained glass windows dating, it is thought, from around 1500. On closer inspection as an added bonus there was engraved graffiti from the 1800's. The vandals usually left their names and dates, but one wrote that the "..glazier is a fool.." Rather harsh I thought!
What remains of the origin window designs is thought to represent seasons of the year according to the Medieval agricultural calendar. This panel shows a peasant harvesting long stalked wheat with a scythe. (By comparison today's wheats, selectively bred, are much shorter.) Autumn harvest was an important and probably exhausting time. But once the harvest was safely gathered into the Manor or Abbey granaries there was much feasting and merry making by peasants courtesy of their Lord. Autumn aside, "villeins" had no choice but to work many days a week for their Lord, with little time spent on theie rented strips of land. In effect they provided slave labour. "Freemen", also peasants, earned a living from land they rented, but were obliged to give several days' labour without pay to their Lord at harvest time.

Most wheat was sold for profit to be consumed in the towns of cities. White, or more likely grey, "manchet bread" containing a high proportion of wheatmeal or flour was eaten only by "gentlemen". The lower social classes ate "maslin" bread with a much higher proportion of rye or barley than wheat, resulting in a heavy, dark loaf that wore down the teeth!

Medieval Morsels models "maslin" bread  
Medieval Morsels models white "manchet"  bread 

If you get a chance to visit  Leicester you should do so - it really is a fine city. And it just happens to be the home city long connected with the Thornton side of my family. My father and uncles - the four sons of a (steam) engine driver - all won county scholarships and attended Leicester's Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys during the 1920-40s. My father read for an external degree in mathematics at University College, Leicester - the University did not receive its own charter and was unable to award its own degrees until 1957. He proceded to do his teaching practice at Leicester Grammar School, then located next to the Cathedral.  He was actually learning his profession a mere stone's throw from the hastily interred, last mortal remains of heroic Richard III.   

Doll's house miniatures. Secure and happy in a tiny world?

Most of us, male or female, will have played "house" when young. However reluctantly in some cases.... Probably fewer of us will have had access to, or played with doll's houses. Or the furniture and miniature dolls that inhabit them and complete the role play. Here is some of the furniture that my younger sister and I used to "play doll's houses" growing up in King's Lynn, Norfolk .
Collection: Lucy  Britton (nee Thornton)
Normally we created rooms on any available floorspace using square wooden bricks to divide the living areas i.e we had no dollshouse superstructure! There was a large doll's house kept outside come rain or shine, its painted pitched roof must have shed rain well enough for it not to disintegrate in the wet.  It did have a full size electric switch at the base of, and a light bulb at the top of a staircase. But unfortunately not working! Probably in retrospect because there was no wiring to a source of electricity - this fact would have escaped me when young. I was forever optimistic of a lit bulb!

But even if the concept of dollshouse play has escaped the majority of readers, most of us will have had a doll to play with. That could have been a conventional female "dress-up" doll, a "baby" doll, or a male soldier or action figure. Dolls of one sort of another are far more common in history and across cultures than we might imagine. And some of these dolls have survived to tell their tales.

In his book "Great Tales from English History" Robert Lacey mentions a Medieval friar, Geoffrey of Lynn (formerly Bishop's Lynn but renamed King's Lynn following the dissolution of the Monasteries). His "Prompter for Little Ones" has a good claim to be the first child-friendly book, and it gives a rare glimpse into Medieval childhood. This prompter or dictionary set out the words a good medieval pupil would be expected to know - many of them to do with religion. But as Lacey notes "...defying the solemn tone, Geoffrey also listed the names of toys, games and children's playground pastimes. We read of ragdolls, four different types of spinning top," Lacey goes onto tell us that Mudlarks on the River Thames have made some wonderful finds over the years. Including tiny pewter playthings dating back as early as the 13th century - miniature jugs, pans, other kitchen and cooking utensils - just about everything you would need to equip a doll's house. Along with small metal soldiers that included a knight in armour cast from a mould, so evidently mass produced for the children of well to do medieval clients. Lacey draws the obvious conclusion that medieval grwon-ups recognised and cherished the magic world of childhood.

So is it a really a "mad" pursuit , as thought by some, when evidently past a youthful age some of us become  "makers"or "collectors" -  allowing us to play once more with impunity.

Big on miniatures and lost in our tiny worlds...... Medieval Morsels, Abasketof  and many

MedievalMorsels   Etsy hop owner Mary

Abasketof ...Etsy shop owners Lucy and Gillian

other doll's house miniaturists love to pursue this hobby. Different maybe, but perfect in our own small way. [With thanks to a partner who could not stop himself coining these disparaging, but essentially tongue in cheek "put-downs" (the italics).]