Sunday, 31 August 2014

Buckets of eels, eels in pies and eels "reversed"

Eels were commonplace in rivers and thus a popular food for the taking in Medieval times. In fact there is ample evidence that they were fished, or indeed I think we can say farmed, for centuries beforehand in Egyptian and even earlier civilisations. Eel traps woven from flexible willow strands are familiar to archaeologists throughout the world.

In Medieval towns, eels like other fish were kept in “stew ponds” until required for the table. For obvious reasons carniverous (meat eating) pike, eels, and tench were kept in separate ponds from less feisty and flesh friendly fish - carp, bream, perch etc. Otherwise pretty empty stew ponds would result!

In the early Middle Ages the "canny" Holy Roman Emperor and King of France Charlemagne (742-814) ordered stew ponds for pike, eels and tench to be made on all his estates. The proceeds raised swelled the imperial treasury’s money chests!

The King’s Pike Ponds at Southwark on the south side of the Thames supplied the English Royal table. The moat of the Tower of London was also used for fish production. Take a look at this eel trap found there, now on display in the Museum of London.

Medieval willow eel trap excavated from the moat of the Tower of London
 At one time in the English countryside willow eel traps were such a common sight on rivers that laws had to be passed to limit their numbers. Some historians suggest that whoever wrote the paragraph in the Magna Carta mentioning ‘fish weirs’ probably meant eel traps!
Eels are opportunistic nocturnal carnivores, scavenging on dead meat. This meant traps could be baited with whatever carcass, tainted fish or meat was to hand. A pleasing haul of live eels was practically guaranteed when the trap was lifted! 

The colours of eels vary widely with the bottom on which they live. MedievalMorsels’ dark eels for a 12th scale Medieval or Tudor dolls house or gothic/rustic setting are typical of the dark, putrid mud of the medieval River Thames, where so much discarded meat was thrown by butchers, along with animal carcasses. And let us hope hapless human beings did not end up in London's Thames as well.

One inch scale medieval  dolls house food -a bucket of eels!
An intriguing French 13th century recipes is for “eels reversed”.  Skinned and de-boned, then sliced lengthwise and flattened into long rectangles, they were then filled with a mixture of meat and spices and sewn back together, inside out. The eel is then cooked and served.
Eels by Medievalmorsels, 12th scale dollhouse food 

Eels are very rich in fat, but smoked they proved a bit more digestible. But a fatty fish would be a welcome addition to the medieval diet, served as a stew or in a pie! Especially during meat-free Lent. Overindulgence would probably lead to indigestion, or, if tainted, to food poisoning. In fact folklore has it that two Kings of England fell prey to over-eating, not eels but lampreys. Similar looking, they are probably highly fatty too. Lampreys are fodder for a post another day!

I have eaten smoked eel, probably locally sourced, at a  "guinguette" or dancehall on the River Seine beyond Paris. They tasted just like aged, smoked trout- very pleasant indeed.

The life cycle of the European eel
The European eel, Anguilla anguilla, is born and dies in the ocean, spawning in the Sargasso Sea. But it lives in freshwater for most of its life. Unbeknown to Medieval peasants who simply farmed or ate them, European eels have a complex life history and were exploited in most life stages. Those that were fished did not have the chance to breed. No surprise then, that their numbers - very numerous in the Middle Ages - have dwindled drastically in modern times.  In England the eel is now officially a critically endangered species! A sad reversal of fortune for the eel. Its the same story for the formerly numerous guinguettes on the River Seine.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Badges and banners - Richard III's boar, Henry Tudor's dragon, antelopes and the Tudor rose!

When Lancastrian Henry Tudor seized the crown of England at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485, almost 530 years ago to the day, he defeated Yorkist King Richard III, who was killed on the battlefield. Henry was close to ending the 32 year old political and military conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York that came, later, to be known as the “Wars of the Roses”. The final cessation of hostilities between cousins actually came two years later with the Lancastrian victory at the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487.

Richard III seasoned military strategist at age 32 and confident of victory, rode out from the medieval town of Leicester behind his personal badge, a white -  or  “argent” in heraldic terms - boar.
Richard III's  motto in Latin reads "Loyalty binds me"
But before 48 hours had elapsed the town worthies and populace were to turn out once more, this time to pay homage to their new monarch Henry VII. He had fought and won under his personal badge - the dragon - of his native Wales.
Henry Tudor's banner incorporated a red dragon, symbol of Wales
Henry's father was Edmund Tudor from the House of Richmond, and his mother was Margaret Beaufort from the House of Lancaster. In January 1486, now King Henry VII, he married Elizabeth of York to bring all factions together. And with her he went on to have a second son Henry who was, following the death of his older brother Arthur, to become Henry VIII.

 The historian Thomas Penn writes:“The "Lancastrian" red rose was an emblem that barely existed before Henry VII. Lancastrian kings used the rose sporadically, but when they did it was often gold rather than red; Henry VI, the king who presided over the country's descent into civil war, preferred his badge of the antelope.
A chained antelope, house badge of Plantagenet King Henry VI
Contemporaries certainly did not refer to the traumatic civil conflict of the 15th century as the "Wars of the Roses". 

For the best part of a quarter-century, from 1461 to 1485, there was only one royal rose, and it was white: the Yorkist badge of Edward IV (elder brother of Richard III).”  
I photographed this Medieval stained glass window in Leicester’s Guildhall, built by the Guild of Corpus Christi -clearly a white Yorkist rose. 

On his marriage, Henry VII adopted the Tudor rose badge joining the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster. But according to contemporary accounts, the white rose was much in evidence at Elizabeth'of York's coronation and during the remainder of her lifetime.
The Tudor rose is depicted as a double rose, white on red
And what sorts of foods were likely to be served at the Yorkist or Lancastrian Plantagenet royal feasts in medieval times? Well there are good records, including pictorial ones, where we find boar's heads and all types of fowl are probably overepresented for artistic reasons! Even considering the range of dishes that the English nobility ate it cannot nave been easy to convincingly convey a dish of meat stew in a medieval woodcut illustration could it? 

The first English cookery book "The Forme of Cury" was written at the end of the fourteenth century by the master-cooks in the court of Richard II (1377 - 1399).  'Cury' is the Middle English word for 'cookery'. The book contains 196 recipes, some plain but some unusually spiced and spectacular dishes for banquets. As the culinary compilers tempt us  "...curious potages and meetes and sotiltees for alle maner of States bothe hye and lowe." 
A 12th scale medieval subtlety complete with egg custard filled moat!
The word 'sotiltee' or subtlety refers to the elaborate sculptures that often adorned the tables at grand feasts. And here is
version of a subtlety for such a medieval feast or Tudor banquet, crafted historic miniature food at one inch dollhouse food scale!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Richard III rides out from the towne of Leicester to defend his crown!

This weekend 16th and 17th August 2014 sees the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth, and my cousin will be one of several hundreds of re-enactors! On the morning of 21st August 1485 the town worthies and people of Leicester turned out to fete their king, Richard III. Richard set out from the Blue Boar Inn to join battle with the usurper to the English throne - Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Richard’s supporters, estimated at 12,000 already billeted in and around Leicester and had massed outside that Inn on High Cross Street to follow him over Bow Bridge, out of the town and towards Bosworth Field some miles distant.
City of Leicester informations boards document Richard III's route out of the medieval towne
Photo: Dot Roberts

A seasoned military strategist at age 32 and confident of victory, he rode out behind his personal badge - a white boar. He and the assembled Yorkist army were to spend the eve of battle under canvas, before engaging with the Lancastrian forces.

Photo:Dot Roberts
Less than 48 hours later those same town worthies and populace were to turn out once more, this time to pay politically expedient homage to their new monarch Henry Tudor, now Henry VII. And inadvertently to witness the wretched treatment of the body of their former king, the last ever English monarch to be killed leading his army in the field. Henry had returned to Leicester on the evening of 22nd August by the same route, wearing the captured crown. He had Richard’s body displayed for two days before the Greyfriars could retrieve it and hastily bury it in the choir of their church, facing the high altar.
A plaque in the Newarke commemorating the visit of two Kings to Leicester within 48 hours. Note the opposing heraldic emblems Yorkist on the left and Lancastrian on the right.
The plaque on the wall of the Judges’ Lodgings in Castle View Leicester reads as follows:
"This is to commemorate the occasions five hundred years ago when the people of Leicester greeted and honoured two kings of England within two days. RICHARD III on his solemn departure from the town on the 21 of August 1485 to do battle for his kingdom and HENRY VII on his arrival in the evening of the 22 of August 1485 from his victorious field near Market Bosworth bringing in his train the body of the vanquished Richard III."
 The Greyfriars priory church was demolished at the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and folklore had it that Richard’s disinterred body was thrown into the River Soar. Of course the archeaological excavations by the University of Leicester in 2012 showed this to be nothing more than Tudor propaganda.
Photo: Dot Roberts
How old are these beams?
The Blue Boar does not still survive today. It was demolished in 1836 and a new inn of the same name built 200 yards away on Southgate Street. Contemporary engravings of the original do exist but recently the University of Leicester discovered amazingly detailed technical drawings which have allowed an accurate 3D model of the Blue Boar’s timber frame to be made. The site of the original building is now suitably enough a Travelodge. More immediately the basement of the adjacent hairdressers "Danique's" is believed by some to have been part of the inn! See what you think - my sister Dot just happened to have her hair cut there and managed, in a cramped space, to take these photographs!
Photo: Dot Roberts
The impressive Blue Boar was perhaps an “odd” choice for Richard to stay because Leicester Castle would have provided suitable accommodation for the king and his immediate entourage. He had stayed at the Castle just two years previously. One thought that occurs to me is that perhaps it was already overcrowded with billeted troops waiting for Richard to arrive from Nottingham Castle, from where incidentally - as was common practice - the baggage carts brought his personal four poster bed.
Amongst those City worthies seeing off their king would have been one William Wyggeston, son of the Mayor and aged 18. Female and younger members of the important Wyggeston family probably stood at the stained glass windows of William’s uncle Roger Wygston’s house which directly overlooked the route Richard took from Highcross Street to Bow Bridge, spanning the River Soar nearby. Today’s city worthies have commissioned landscaping of a large square in front of Wygston's House meaning that soon visitors to the Richard III walking trail will be able imagine standing in the shoes of those ancient town worthies, guildsmen and common peasants lining his well documented and fateful route out of Leicester that morning.
The stained glass from Wygston's House is now in the Jewry Wall museum. Photo: Dot Roberts 
Not so very many years later William himself was several times Mayor of Leicester and Calais, a British possession in France and key to England’s  lucrative wool and other trades with Europe. Wyggeston’s will of 1536 led to the founding of a Free Grammar School in St Peter’s church. A purpose built school followed in 1574 on High Cross Street opposite the Blue Boar Inn and still stands to this day, one of Leicester’s finest and most ancient buildings, now used as a restaurant.

The frontage of Wyggeston's Free Grammar School, built 1574. Photos:Dot Roberts

Later benefactors to Wyggeston's school included Queen Elizabeth I
Now it happens that my father and three uncles earned county scholarships between the 1920s to 1940s to study at a school still bearing this wealthy medieval merchant’s name. But first, a further re-incarnation as Wyggeston Hospitals Boys' Schools in 1877, before Wyggeston Grammar School was built on an out of town in 1921 - the school attended by my father! 
My father's science prize, 1935

Wyggeston School crest

William Wyggeston's benevolence accorded with medieval church belief that such acts of charity would speed the departed soul's progress through purgatory onward to heaven. Whatever truth lies in that Wyggeston's pious act had an indirect impact on my family’s education! Even now, William’s name is still carried by Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I College for boys. And my one remaining uncle alive today has recently set up a mathematics bursary for boys of that very college jointly in his and his three brothers' names (Thornton). There is a lovely symmetry to all of this isn't there?

But what might you have eaten on the eve of battle in the Yorkist (Plantagenet) or the Lancastrian (Tudor) military camp? Well it would have been quite easy for the camp kitchen to carry small (or even  large) spits which would be placed around the campfire.  And pigs are so fertile that there could have been little problem in sourcing young piglets or “shoats” for the spit, just like this medieval/Tudor dollhouse miniature food modelled at one inch scale by MedievalMorsels
12th scale dolls house food: camp spit roast pig and cauldron of pease pottage 

Medieval fare: one inch dolls house food - pease pottage with bacon 
And certainly there could have been a pot of meat stew or a rich pottage for the noble elite. But more likely pottage based on plenty of peas or beans and cereal but little meat for the massed army of commoners- pikesmen, longbow men and the like, paid to fight for their noble Lords’ cause whether Plantagenet or Tudor.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Good medieval eating

A Leicester historian Jill Bourne has looked at Leicester Borough Records to understand what food was eaten by the well off medieval merchant class and town burghers in the 15th century. This research was undertaken as part of her research for a book about the Leicester worthy William Wyggeston, several times Mayor of Leicester and also Calais, an important English possession in France and gateway for the lucrative English wool and other trade with Europe.

Beef  12th scale dolls house medieval food

I’d like to share her findings because, family interest in Wyggeston aside, MedievalMorsels is all about medieval foodstuffs, albeit modelled at one inch dolls house scale! Jill found that beef was most commonly mentioned followed by pork and mutton, then venison, kid, veal and rabbit.
Rabbit one inch miniature medieval food
Medieval miniatures - Pork at twelfth scale 
Venison - one inch scale dollhouse food 

As for poultry hens, capons (neutered male birds) and geese are frequently mentioned and then swan, partridge, pheasant, woodcock, pigeon, heron, fieldfare and snipe. MedievalMorsels obviously need to add a few more birds to add to its present medieval and Tudor poultry range! 

One inch scale medieval food roast goose
12th scale Capon (fattened neutered cock bird)

As well as fresh water fish, fresh sea fish was transported to Leicester, even though it is far inland. Eels and herring were the most popular medieval fishy fare. Whoop! MedievalMorsels models both of these, and more fish besides! 

12th scale eels - medieval miniature eating
Pickled white herring medieval dolls house style
Red herring medieval dollhouse food
Jill has also found that vegetables mentioned in the Records are beans, onions, garlic, leeks - all good pottage material! Whereas for fruits apples and pears were most frequently documented, with imported figs, grapes and raisins and one reference to pomegranates.

Obviously if you had spare income, and the aspiring merchant classes could became very rich from English and European trade, you could eat very well in the medieval towne of Leicester!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Portugal's national dish - dried, salted cod!

My daughter has  just returned returned from a beginner’s surfing holiday in Portugal. She and her friend both managed to stand up on the board by the end of day one, so that was promising! She had a whale of a time apparently. But because she was particularly taken with eating it on holiday, I want to blog about Portugal's fish and not marine mammals!

Dried and salted cod - bacalhau - is the national dish of Portugal. It has a long pedigree. The Portuguese adore it and it’s said that they know 365 different ways to cook it…one for each day of the year.

Reay Tannahill in her book “Food in History” remarks that Portugal, along with Spain and Scandinavia, were the “fishiest” societies that any European traveller in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages /Medieval or Renaissance/Tudor times would be likely to encounter.
Woodcut dating from 1555 with large ocean going vessels.
A large fishing fleet was encouraged in Medieval times because it provided employment, food resources as well as ocean going ships and trained seamen both called upon for a nation’s navy in times of war. Portugal was a maritime force to be reckoned with in those days.

Normally cod - a deep sea fish - would be beheaded, gutted and salted on board for the long voyage back from the cod fishing grounds in the North Atlantic. Even in the Dark Ages, preceding the Middle Ages and later Tudor times, fishing fleets from all parts of Europe would have sailed to Iceland in pursuit of Atlantic cod.  Shortly after Columbus discovered America about 500 years ago, the Portuguese were fishing for cod as far away as Greenland and Newfoundland. They were the first Europeans to do so.

The fish, already partially dried by salting on the voyage, landed in Portugal or Spain would be hung on wooden drying racks in the sun and heat. In Norway the cool, crisp, breezy climate would provide fish drying power of a different sort.  It keeps for many months, even years this way without refrigeration. And then it requires being soaked for 24 hours in changes of water before being used to prepare a dish. The soaking reconstitutes the fish and gets rid of the excessive salt.

In England it was the commercially produced Norwegian  "stokkfisk" or stockfish that became the Medieval staple food reserve par excellence, traded amongst the Hanseatic League of Guildsmen operating from ports on the shores of the North and Baltic Seas. My hometown of King’s Lynn was a Hanseatic port on the east coast of England facing the North Sea and within easy reach of Norway.
12th scale dollhouse food - fresh cod in a basket
Here is MedievalMorsels take on fresh cod which was a rare luxury in Medieval times. A one inch scale miniature dolls house food - cod in a basket -  for a historic diorama or a more contemporary fishmonger’s stall!