Sunday, 27 July 2014

Puddings and sausages in their skins

With apologies to all vegetarians, I am going to wax lyrical about sausages! My family has always been fond of proper butcher’s sausages, it was a food my mother often cooked but always in the oven, never fried or grilled! Like me I think she hated the smell of cooking getting all over the house - this was before cooker extractor hoods had been invented remember!

As youngsters, my sister or I would either be sent “over the road” to Durrant’s the butchers to get a pound and a half of linked sausages, or when Mr Durrant retired we’d need to get some at a town butcher’s in King’s Lynn on Saturday morning before coming home on the bus with them.
I was actually once a member of the British Sausage Appreciation Society and here is my pin badge to prove it. I think it was a once and for all membership I purchased in the late 70’s for about a  £1.50 postal and the price of a couple of stamps! I wonder if technically I am still a member today?

Lets consider some prehistory here...the oldest type of pudding is one that is boiled in the stomach, small or large intestine of an animal. For as long as man has been carnivorous, the intestinal tract of meat animals has been used for pudding and sausage casings - not to mention a variety of other uses as well.

Since ancient times, continuing into Medieval, Tudor and later periods blood, chopped offal and fat were used to make black or blood puddings when pigs were slaughtered in autumn. When these ingredients were Incorporated with oats and spices a nutritious, tasty food product would result. Such puddings, and other sausages as we now commonly call them, are known to be one of the oldest and most enduring forms of processed meat. In some respects, they may even be considered the world's very first "convenience food"!

The intestines or animal casings were turned inside out and washed or “scoured” many times. I hope this was done in clean running stream water! The mixed ingredients were forced into the animal casings and twisted or tied off in “boudin” or sausage shapes, or for a larger pudding filled the animal’s stomach. Cooked immediately because a blood sausage’s keeping properties were very limited after this initial cooking, slices could be fried or boiled again shortly afterwards. But essentially the blood sausage was eaten “fresh” in England and in countries with similar climates. In hot or cold, dry and windy climates such as mountain areas of Spain or Scandinavia respectively, the same blood puddings were cured by air drying, thus prolonging their keeping properties.

In Medieval, Tudor and later times sweet “white puddings” were also favourites on the high class menu and based on rice, oatmeal, almonds, bread, eggs and cream with spices. Or alternatively unctious “marrow puddings” often eaten for breakfast. Often parboiled and then cooled and kept, they were gently toasted to brown them off before eating.
Tudor sausages: blood puddings, rice pudding and marrow puddings 
Here are the results of MedievalMorsels’  research and modelling of 12th scale miniature Medieval/Tudor food - puddings in skins. Or, as Ivan Day the social food historian, expert consultant on Medieval food, blogger and experimental chef less delicately puts it - “puddings in scoured guts”! Take a look at his real recreated puddings with authentic ingredients at
And below is some contemporary 12th scale dollhouse charcuterie. Pork, beef (a Scottish favourite) and venison sausages, plus some thinner chipolatas, modelled for “a basket of…” for sale at UK dolls house fairs. 

12th scale dolls house food: contemporary beef, pork and venison sausages 

Lets leave blood pudding aside but stick with the savoury theme. As well as pork meat, other types of sausage filling were popular in Medieval times. Porpoise, then common sea and a mammal not unlike a dolphin, with pepper and ginger fillings were enjoyed by nobles during Lent. Classified as a fish, porpoise could be eaten all year long! The same exception applied to the flesh of very young rabbits. Other white meat charcuterie based on (real) fish and cheese was popular - all complying with the medieval church’s strict “laws” on abstinence from meat for many days of the year.

Black puddings still feature in a full English breakfast today. And Haggis - pinhead oatmeal, finely minced sheep heart, liver and lungs and finely tuned spices including white pepper - cooked in the sheep's stomach is of course the national dish of Scotland. Very tasty with "neeps and tatties" on Burns Night (January 25th) it is too!!

National rice pudding day is August 14th, which is easy for me to remember as it just happens to have been my parents’ wedding anniversary. My dad was very fond of the skin from a conventional rice pudding, as well as the pudding itself, so it was generally reserved for him - however burnt it might be! My mum would usually make a rice pudding when the oven was on for a Sunday roast, especially if no Bramley apples were available from our tree for the usual alternative - apple pie and custard!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Pease Pottage on the eve of the Medieval Battle of Tewkesbury?

Tewkesbury Abbey
A commemoration of the Battle of Tewkesbury of 1471 took place a few weekends ago in outlying fields of that same town, on 13-14 July. I recall that my cousin, who has been an historical re-enactor for very many years, mentioned that his Lord’s “levy” of foot soldiers always attended this particular medieval re-enactment. The success of the festival is such that participants in both the Medieval Fair and the battle re-enactment travel to Tewkesbury from all over the world. A significant date in the calendar of 'living history' events by any criteria.

Now Tewkesbury is not so far from where I live. And just one week previously I had signed up for a free six week FutureLearn online course run by the University of Leicester entitled “England in the time of Richard III”. A silly thing to do at the start of the summer holidays but there you are!  
Banners festoon Tewkesbury's buildings

That very week on my course I had learned about the long lived, on/off political and military feud between the Yorkists and Lancastrians - to decide which branch of the royal Plantagenet family would rule Britain. Since 1337, the start of the feud, England had been plunged into a sustained period of Civil War. It came to be known later as the “Wars of the Roses” - on account of the Yorkists’ white rose badge and the opposing red rose of the Lancastrians.
Historical re-enactor Colin Mutty

Over the years the fortunes of each side had often changed but finally the Yorkists gained the upper hand. Yorkist Edward Plantagenet had removed King Henry VI from the throne and was crowned King Edward IV in his place. Deposed (and many said mad) Henry VI was imprisoned but his wife, Margaret of Anjou, and son Edward of Westminster (Lancaster) - the Prince of Wales - continued their struggle for power from their base in France. However their Lancastrian army of 1471 raised from France, England and Wales was to suffer a resounding defeat at Tewkesbury. And their figurehead, Prince Edward, in whom their hopes of regaining the crown rested, was killed. Thus ending the Battle of Tewkesbury and leading to a “routing” of the Lancastrians, with no mercy shown to them. Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (and later to become King Richard III) was 19. He was an effective and loyal military campaigner on behalf of his brother the King during these troubled times and at Tewkesbury commanded the western flank of the victorious Yorkist army.

Days later Margaret of Anjou was paraded next to victorious King Edward through London before being imprisoned, and that same night King Henry VI mysteriously died in the Tower of London. Thus bringing to a conclusion that phase of the War of the Roses. 

Historical re-enactor's cooking set-up with cauldron and portable charcoal fire bowl

MedievalMorsels makes miniature medieval dollhouse food - pease pottage
I had a glorious time, meeting my cousin, enjoying the re-enactment and looking at as many medieval cooking set-ups as I could. Here’s one and my guess would be that a nutritious pottage with some bacon would have served as a filling and fitting last supper for some of those poor Lancastrians. Just like MedievalMorsels one inch scale medieval dolls house food - pease pottage - also pictured!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Hemlock, Quails and Medieval Morsels

The quail is Europe's smallest game bird, much smaller than its cousins - the partridge, pigeon or pheasant. And, as is often surprisingly the case, I happened to have such a pair in my fridge - courtesy of a well-known British supermarket. Here are the quail before cooking, and how tiny they are!
Plump quail.

Did you know that collective noun for many several quail is a "bevy" and this term can be used for beauties, ladies, maidens as well as larks and doves? The explosion of collective nouns in the English language is just amazing - you need only explore

In Medieval times quails may have been popular eating with noble ladies at dinner, but they would have hardly provided more than a mouthful or two of meat for a hungry prince, or a growing squire, or an aspiring knight in training. Quails were rare, reserved for aristocratic dining.

And here's why. They first arrived on the medieval menu in England via France - netted and shipped live to British shores in little cages complete, it is recorded, with grain and water for their journey. Given all this effort, they must have commanded a very high price and be bound for some of the richest households in the kingdom.

MedievalMorsels' range of one inch scale dollhouse miniature foods now includes it namesake "morsel" if you will, the brazier, spit or oven roasted quail! The daintiest 12th scale poultry I need ever model for a Medieval or Tudor dolls house setting because I am not about to  recreate the song bird repertoire eaten in Medieval times!
MedievalMorsels poorly plucked quail, delicate 12th scale dolls house food 
Despite its small size, the European Quail is a migratory bird capable of flying phenomenal distances.  It could be netted at known feeding points en route, or where it fell exhausted to the ground after literally making landfall (fall - get it?) after a long sea passage.

Quail's migration is mentioned in Exodus: "And it came to pass at even(ing), the quails came up and covered the camp." But therein lies a surprise, read on below.

The well known Mediterranean food writer and presenter Claudia Roden recalls annual picnics at the Dunes of Agami near Alexandria, Egypt. Here quail, having fallen from the sky, were cleaned and gutted, marinaded with spices and then cooked over small fires on the beach. I doubt if this picnic practice would have been much different in Medieval and even earlier times. Now it is lucky there were no fatalities associated with Ms Roden's family picnics...

Quite inadvertently this quail (Coturnix coturnix) has a more sinister side. The Romans, very clever in almost all things, had "cottoned on" to the dangers of the migratory quail. They considered the birds unwholesome because they ate poisonous plants, notably hemlock seeds, so their flesh was known to be capable of poisoning people. Their meat acted as a proxy agent for the potentially fatal hemlock toxins. Something today medically known, after the Latin name for the quail, as "coturnism".

First described in the Bible (Numbers, 11 v31) this acute and often fatal poisoning has been observed in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. The true incidence of coturnism is unknown, many cases  are not undiagnosed. Modern cases, not necessarily fatal if recognised in time, are occasionally written up in the medical literature. This helps to remind practising physicians that such an obscure condition really does exist. 

I cannot say if coturnism was ever the featured as the mysterious, life threatening medical condition in an episode of the "forensic" medical drama "House, MD" - once the most widely watched TV series in the world. It might have required a convoluted storyline, so as not to confuse American viewers with the unrelated Californian Quail!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Bath's gem of a bridge!

Bath's fascinating Pulteney Bridge straddles the River Avon and sits upstream of an unusually shaped weir. And why so fascinating you may ask? Old stone bridges are happily still commonplace in the British Isles, so nothing unique there. A testament to the "civil engineering" of the past, although the exceptional flooding of recent winters and summers has put some old bridges under unprecedented structural stress.

Pulteney Bridge, designed by the foremost architect of the (UK's) Georgian period Robert Adam, was completed in 1774. But it shares something in common with the much older, now "lost" medieval London Bridge. And with the surviving medieval Ponte Vecchio spanning the River Arno, in Italy's Florence.

You've probably guessed it. Bath's bridge, built for one George Pulteney, has shops lining its entire span on both sides! I find this incredibly exciting. Its simply not what I expect from a bridge at all, let alone in England! Adam had seen the Ponte Vecchio. He visited Venice as well, home to the Rialto Bridge built in Renaissance times. He obviously did not fail to notice that both were lined with buildings!
Bath's Pulteney Bridge designed by Georgian architect Robert Adam

I walked over and back on either side of Pulteney Bridge. All the time straining to peer through each narrow bridge-built establishment to glimpse, through their rear picture windows, the river beyond. I was not particularly interested in the contents of the shops you see! And it was okay for me to be enthralled. Because Bath's magnificent monument is in fact only one of four shop-lined bridges in the world.

Someone can let me know which is the fourth such bridge if they like...I don't use Wikipedia much, preferring more old-fashioned reference sources. A shelf full of Encyclopedia Britannica anyone?!

A Georgian spa town, Bath allowed high society to satisfy its "penchant" for "taking the waters". Thus following in the footsteps of the Romans who built baths and temples at these natural hot springs, dedicating them to the goddess Sulis Minerva. Bath, known in Roman times as Aquae Sulis was one of the most sought-after retirement places in Roman Britain!

The aforementioned Pulteney wanted to link his Bathtown estate on the opposite side of the Avon to Bath itself. So he had need of a bridge. Bathtown was home to certain Jane Austen when she moved there with her retired father and her mother. The novelist included Bath in some of her novels, bringing it yet more fame. Its unique Georgian crescent is much beloved of British television costume dramas and, yes, there is a Jane Austen tea shoppe!
Originally founded as Bath General Hospital by Dr William Oliver
I haven't the space here or photos to post about the Roman spa history of Bath, but mention of tea shoppes reminds me that Bath's other claim to fame is the Bath Bun, whose origin dates back to 1761. And the Bath Oliver biscuit of the same period - both invented by a Dr Oliver who founded what became the spa treatment based Royal Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases. MedievalMorsels one inch dollhouse food equivalent to the Bath Oliver is the barley bannock - both names have a nice ring to them don't they?
MedievalMorsels' dollshouse miniature 12th scale individual barley flatbreads

All this babble about the bridge....and buns. Bath's scenic weir has a claim to fame as well. It was used in the film version of Les Miserables for the character Javert's suicide, as played by Russell Crowe with his valiant shouty singing live on set and on location.