Very Olde Food

Minced pork, raisins, saffron & sandalwood; a medieval feast

On The Town | Marlies Burkhardt | October 2008

"For Powme Dorrys take porke and grynde hit rawe, I kenne temper hit with swongen egges; thenne kast flower to make hit on a balle; in playand water thou kast hit schalle to harden,…!"

No, this is not a spell of one of the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; it’s a 14th century English recipe for Golden Apples of Pork – a delicious dish of minced pork-raisin rolls covered with a paste of egg yolks, saffron, sandalwood water and flour! The recipe is simple, nothing more than "For Golden Apples take pork and grind it raw, moisten it with eaten eggs; then cast flour to make it in a ball; in simmering water you shall cast it to harden….!"

Strange? Unusual? Certainly! Exciting? Definitely! It was a journey back into the middle ages, exploring long abandoned culinary traditions with unfamiliar combinations of flavours and odours.

For Christian Newman, this is a labor or love:

"As cooking and history are my delight, combining the two seemed a logical consequence" Newman, management professor at Webster University. When the chance came up to create a course on European culinary history, he jumped at it. The climax of the course was a medieval dinner for the class at the professional kitchens of the Volkshochschule Brigittenau. This writer was invited me to join in the cooking and sample the feast.

Within minutes, my fellow "travellers" and I were busy with preparing the compositions for the medieval feast. Even on the page, I could see that they were exquisite in conception. The menu for the day consisted of exotic creations like "Gourdes in Potage" (pumpkin soup) or "Buttered Wortes"; cooked vegetable greens and members of the onion family, such as cabbage leaves, spinach, beet greens or leeks seasoned with parsley, borage or sage, all chopped and served in a bowl with croutons.

In the spacious, well-equipped kitchen, similar to those found in restaurants or hotels, the air was thick with a mixture of alluring fragrances of the Orient – a mergence of bitter, sweet, salty and sour odours; a happy and unexpected marriage between Christmas flavours and vapours of a Middle Eastern Suk. This is how it must have smelled on a market place in Vindobona or Venice, I imagined. In fact, the crusaders as well as explorers like Magellan or adventurers like Marco Polo developed the spice trade with the Arabic and the Indian world.

The Arabic-rooted combination of sweet and salty flavors was therefore widely used in European medieval cooking – as shown in the "Bruet Sarcenes", a meat dish (beef, venison or pork) coated with sauce Sarcenes, a blend of red wine, flour, ground cloves, nutmeg, mace, raisins, almond milk, currants, pine nuts and alkanet. Alkanet is a red dye extracted from the root of the alkanet plant; it accounts for the name of the dish. At the time Sarcenes, Arabs, were believed to have brown-reddish coloured skin.

"Historical cooking is not just an excursion to unknown Lucullian territory," Newman explained, "it is also a sneak flashback into a different cultural and social understanding and long-gone habits." Whereas we are used to enjoying our meals in our dining rooms or kitchens, people in the Middle Ages were gathered around a huge table in the manor hall. Meat was sliced with daggers, and instead of knives and forks, they used fingers and spoons. Sweet and salty courses were eaten at the same time; there was no special order to the feast. The dishes were draped on trenchers or served in hollowed out husks of bread – the remainder of the soaked bread was then given to the poor and other rests were left for the dogs.

At our historical gourmet event, the exquisite culinary masterpieces were enjoyed on plates with spoons and knives; and we didn’t throw the bones to the hounds or feed the poor. (We leave it to our social system) But we relished the food with all our senses. All was tried and preferences were stated. Whereas some fell for the "Stewd Beef" (Beef ribs baked in a sauce of wine, currants and onions) or the "Bruet Sarcenes" others voted for the "Powme Dorrys" (the golden apples of pork) and the strawberry pudding with an aroma of cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and pepper.

Especially controversial was the wine. It was mulled wine, red wine in this case, commonly consumed back in the 14th and 15th centuries. Spiced with ginger, cardamom, white pepper, clove, nutmeg and caraway seed and sweetened with honey – it is similar to our "Glühwein", only not heated.

Medieval cooks prepared food and drink in harmony with their  belief systems; much of physiology, for example, what still in use until the 19th century. To remain in good health, the four main humours (black bile, phlegm, blood and yellow bile) of the human body had to be kept in balance, ensured with special herbs, spices and brews. So now the generous use of spices and herbs – reflected in the unusual mulled wine with the eccentric name of "Potus Ypocras" in honor of the famous Greek physician Hippocrates – began to make sense.

Well, sort of.

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    the vienna review October 2008