Saturday, 31 October 2015

MedievalMorsels gets under the skin of Vellum and Parchment

Parliament in the UK is grappling with the problem of Vellum or Parchment, or both. It’s a murky tale, a murky distinction and I cannot be sure what the outcome has been. Will they or won’t they discontinue a thousands of years old practice? MedievalMorsels has not thoroughly got under the skin of this problem....

Earlier this month House of Lords Committee recommended to the UK’s House of Commons that Parliament should no longer print the official copies of its Acts on Vellum. Instead, as a cost cutting exercise, it is suggested that record copies of Acts of Parliament  should instead be printed on archival quality paper. As now, one copy would continue to be stored in the Parliamentary Archives and the other sent to The National Archives (which has already stated that it does not require a copy on Vellum).

And the implication is that parchment quality paper used for other official purposes will also be discontinued. For the Queen’s Speech, her annual address to Parliament, for Royal wedding certificates and so on….

So it boils down to whether ‘recorded history’ will be accessible to those who follow many generations into the future. Archival quality paper has proven 250 years life expectancy and, we are told, a probable 500 year life expectancy. Centuries ahead it seems likely that posterity may not have Vellum or Parchment for to pore (?paw) over. But will it have an otherwise preserved written record?

What exactly is Vellum, and what is Parchment and what is the difference? The term parchment is a general term for an animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing. Parchment has been made for centuries, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. The term vellum from the French veau refers to a parchment made from calf skin. But even as early as the 16th century in England there has been some confusion in use of the terms.  So we had better leave it at that.

The manufacture of Parchment  involves removing the skin of an animal of any hair or flesh, stretching it on a wooden frame where the parchment maker scrapes the surface of the skin with a special curved knife. To create tension in the skin scraping is alternated by wetting and drying the skin. The Parchment must be scraped, wetted and dried several times to bring it to the right thickness and tautness for calligraphy or printing.

Parchment has traditionally been used instead of paper for important documents such as maps, religious texts, public laws, indentures, and land records as it has always been considered a strong and stable material. Even in the US the five pages of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Articles of Confederation are written on Parchment.

Back in the UK, in 2011 William Cowley was privileged to supply a piece of fine calfskin manuscript vellum to the Royal Household where Royal Calligrapher wrote and illuminated an ‘Instrument of Consent’, signed by the Queen and  sealed with the Great Seal of the Realm, giving formal consent to the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The largest calfskin ever supplied in the UK was used for magnificent re-creation of a Mappa Mundi, commissioned by English Heritage, which hangs in the refurbished Great Tower of Dover Castle.

"Going goat" is still a phrase used in Whitehall to describe the moment when the Queen's Speech has to be finalised and sent to the Palace for Her Majesty's approval. But the Monarch’s speeches, formerly printed on goatskin Parchment we must assume, are presently printed on sheepskin Parchment! Perhaps not for long...

Now I have been unable to find out how the Parliamentary Acts question was finally resolved in the Commons.Lets leave the last, spoken, word to William Cowley (est. 1870)  the last remaining Vellum maker and Parchmenter in the UK, one of only four in the world and probably the last in the world to produce skins using traditional craft tools and skills. Their Vellum sheets can take up to six weeks to produce and are sold to practitioners, conservationists, bookbinders, museums and libraries all over the world. No air conditioners or hermetically sealed rooms for Vellum! (Or Parchment? Ed.)

As Cowley remarks: "There is bitter irony that the very year we celebrated 800 years of Magna Carta, we may also witness the end of recording Acts on Vellum. Vellum has excellent 'green' credentials, needs no specialist aftercare, and has provided us with more understanding of earlier civilisations than any other historical artefact."

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Quails' eggs are sooo small...

MedievalMorsels' 1:12 dollhouse food, dish of quail eggs with goose eggs for comparison

I bought some quail eggs the other day from a well known supermarket. I have always wanted to model them at twelfth scale as part of MedievalMorsels' range. So even better, to model them, then eat them!

Real quail eggs
The European Quail is Europe’s smallest game bird. MedievalMorsels already models this miniscule game bird at one twelfth scale but its tiny, mottled eggs would prove a new challenge! In real life the eggs ranged between about one and a quarter inches to one and a half inches long. Depending on their girth, some were more "classically" pointed than others. Here are the real life -sized thing but the "nest" is not real, it's just some dried grasses I had handy to spread on the lawn!

I armed myself with a ruler with twelfths on it (a rare occurrence even on an "old" school ruler, take a look). It was a question of carefully copying the quail egg background colour, a greenish tinged but very pale ochre easily achieved because coloured Fimo clays are so readily mixable. Then it was decision time for the speckles and splodges, stipple brown splodges of paint or use brown Fimo clay? I am not handy with a paint brush, especially on a target only a little over a twelfth of an inch large, so it was a question of applying chips of brown Fimo clay!

Quail eggs for a 12th scale period dolls house, Medieval/Tudor luxury food

The end result seen here was very pleasing, one of my favourite minis ever that's for sure!

MedievalMorsels'  one inch scale quails for a Medieval or  Tudor dollhouse
And then to eat a dozen eggs between two of us, soft boiled (one minute boiling, half a minute standing) and halved on salad tossed with cress, and toast croutons with fried onion sprinkles. Plus ground black pepper of course!

Despite its small size, the European Quail is a migratory bird capable of flying phenomenal distances. I suspect it was the quail's well observed migration routes that made it an attractive and easy target for early capture for the Dark and Middle Ages tables. It could be easily netted at commonly used feeding points en route, or where it fell exhausted to the ground after literally making landfall after a long sea passage. Their migration is actually mentioned in the Bible, in Exodus: "And it came to pass at even(ing), the quails came up and covered the camp."

12th scale dollshouse food, quails
Quails first arrived on the medieval menu in England via France - they were netted and shipped live to British shores in little cages complete, it is recorded, with grain and water to sustain them on the journey. I imagine, given all this effort, they must have commanded a very high price and be bound for some of the richest households in the kingdom. Quails were therefore a rare and seasonal treat, reserved for aristocratic dining. However they are tasty and came to be domesticated in England by the 14th century.

So much smaller than its cousins, quails were later raised and trapped on manor estates in the English countryside - alongside partridge, and pheasant. The collective noun for many quail is a "bevy" and this term can be used for beauties, ladies and maidens, as well as larks and doves. How lovely!

If you want to look at a more sinister side of Quails look at my blog-post from 12th July 2014 "Hemlock, Quails and MedievalMorsels".

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Great British Pastry baking - at 12th scale of course!

The UK is in the grip of the Great British Bake-Off! The final, with three contestants, airs this week. For the first time ever, there was an historic theme during the series. Namely, a Victorian bake week which aired a few weeks ago.  The six surviving bakers were asked to make a decorated, "raised"  game pie. 

A raised pie is one where the pastry sides are raised up to enclose deep contents.  Early pie makers had to raise their pies entirely by hand. Easily moulded hot water pie-crust had been used since medieval times by the best "pastillers" or pastry chefs. 

But it was the invention of the sprung metal pie form or mould, which later came to give the pastry sides of the pie support. This allowed a finer pastry to be used and elaborate decoration incorporated.  

Back to the Bake-Off and one contestant, fire fighter Matt, had even managed to source an authentic pie tin dating from 1850. He made a good game pie, but this did not prevent him from going out that very week.

1:12 scale Victorian dollshouse raised game pie by MedievalMorsels
Victorian dollhouse 12th scale game pie, historic miniature food

MedievalMorsels makes quite a few raised table and smaller pies. But, inspired by Bake-Off, it has added a Victorian raised game pie to its range too!

MedievalMorsels one inch dollhouse scale ornate pies
 In her book “Food in History” Reay Tannahill noted that a mixture of wheat and rye (maslin) flour was found to be best for pastry making - neither giving too soft a dough (as rye did) or too brittle a dough (as wheat did). The wheat with rye mixed flour made it possible to mould either a simple, or a highly ornate pie crust. 
Dollshouse dining! 1:12 ornate pie crust with leaves

In Medieval Northern Europe the usual cooking fats were lard and butter. Lard made a stiff pastry and allowed a solid, upright case or pastry coffin to be formed. Et voila! the “raised” pie-crust container, ready for its filling!
A simple individual meat pie, one inch scale dollhouse miniature food

MedievalMorsels' 12th scale medieval or Tudor meat pies or chewitts

No medieval cookery books gave detailed instructions on pastry making, this knowledge was assumed to be passed on by Medieval cooks. 

Gilt fleur-de-lys decorated table pie, dollshouse miniature food
According to the food historian Peter Brears the pastry dough would have been mixed, kneaded and shaped as empty crusts - large and small - on the work-table, and then briefly dried off or hardened in the ovens. For custards and the like, the fillings would be poured into the empty shells whilst still inside the oven. But for most other recipes they were returned to the work-table, filled with a cooked filling, any lids set in place, then put back in the oven for perhaps only 20 to 40 minutes. Crusts and fillings could all be prepared in advance, then quickly baked immediately before they were required. Just like the ‘blind baking’ technique we use today.
 Medieval, Tudor heraldic decoration in gilt on 12th scale table pies