Thursday, 10 April 2014

To Roast a Pike



A pike roasted in front of the fire according to the directions in Elizabeth Birkett Here Booke 1699. It is stuffed with pickled herring, herbs, spices, anchovies, butter and garlic.
I am currently working on a project at a wonderful seventeenth century house not far from where I live in the Lake District in a stunning village called Troutbeck. The property, which is called Townend Farm, is now in the ownership of the National Trust, but for many centuries was the former home of the Brown family. The Browns were 'statesmen', a local term for farmers who were proprietors of their own land. Statesmen farmers were a fiercely independent bunch who valued education. The Browns were no exception. Over many generations they built up an extensive library and never threw anything away. A vast collection of their domestic papers has survived, leaving a remarkable record of the minutiae of domestic life in this beautiful house over nearly four centuries. 

Townend Farm, Troutbeck, Cumbria - perhaps the best surviving example of a Lake District statesman's house.
Among the papers is a small hand written collection of medical, domestic and cookery recipes which was compiled in 1699 by Elizabeth Birkett, also from Troutbeck, who married the house's owner Benjamin Brown in 1702. With my help, the National Trust are using this book, which is now on display at Townend, to interpret the domestic life of the house as it was in Elizabeth's day. I have trained the staff to cook some of her recipes in the 'downhouse' (kitchen), so every Thursday visitors are treated to  'A Taste of Townend'. I have also set up the 'firehouse' (best room) with a table laid with typical dishes of early eighteenth century Lakeland. One of these is a replica of Elizabeth's roast pike recipe. In order to make this very convincing replica, I had first to roast a real pike using her directions.
Elizabeth's 1699 recipe for roasting pike, a fish which has always been plentiful in the English Lakes.
Although they are displayed in front of a nineteenth century fireplace, the cob irons and spit in this photograph date from the lifetime of Elizabeth Birkett. It is just the sort of arrangement that could have been adapted for roasting a large fish such as a pike.
This wainscot chair is carved with the initials of Benjamin and Elizabeth Brown and 1702 - the date of their marriage. It was however, carved much later than this.
To roast a large fish like a pike on a spit requires a technique sometimes called 'splinting' which involves lashing hazel wands around the fish to create a cage. This  prevents the fish falling off when it starts to cook and become fragile. Elizabeth must have used this method, though she does not mention it in her recipe. A very full account of the technique was given by Isaac Walton in The Compleat Angler (London: 1653) in a recipe which is very similar to that of Elizabeth. However, Walton suggests filling the pike's belly with oysters, while Elizabeth gives the alternative of pickled herring. I have tried both recipes and they are equally good. I always use Walton's directions to splint the fish with lathes and filleting.

Isaac Walton (1594-1683) by Jacob Huysmans. 
Here are Walton's directions -

'First, open your Pike at the gills, and if need be, cut also a little slit towards his belly; out of these take his guts, and keep his liver, which you are to shred very small with Time, Sweet-margerome and a little Winter-savoury; to these put some pickled Oysters, and some Anchovies two or three, both these last whole (for the Anchovies will melt, and the Oysters should not); to these you must adde also a pound of sweet butter, which you are to mix with the herbs that are shred, and let them all be well salted (if the Pike be more than a yard long, then you may put into these herbs more than a pound, or if he be lesse, then lesse Butter will suffice): these being thus mixt with a blade or two of Mace, must be put into the Pikes belly, and then his belly sowed up, and so sowed up, as to keep all the Butter in his belly if it be possible, if not, then as much of it as you possible can, but take not off the scales; then you are to thrust the spit through his mouth out at his tayl, and then with four, or five, or six split sticks, or very thin lathes, and a convenient quantity of Tape or Filliting, these lathes are to be tyed round about the Pikes body from his head to his tayl, and the Tape tyed somewhat thick to prevent his breaking or falling off from the spit, let him be roasted very leasurely, and often basted with Claret wine, and Anchovyes, and Butter mixt together, and also with what moisture falls from him into the pan: when you have roasted him sufficiently you are to hold under him (when you unwind or cut the Tape that tyes him) such a dish as you purpose to eat him out of; and let him fall into it with the sawce that is rosted in his belly, and by this means the Pike will be kept unbroken and compleat: then to the sawce, which was within, and also in the pan, you are to adde a fit quantity of the best Butter, and to squeeze the juyce of three or four Oranges: lastly, you may either put into the Pike with the Oysters, two cloves of Garlick, and take it whole out, when the Pike is cut off the spit, or to give the sawce a hogo, let the dish (into which you let the Pike fall) be rubbed with it: the using or not using of this Garlick is left to your discretion.'

From Isaac Walton, The Compleat Angler (London: 1653).
A Windermere pike about to be lashed to a spit with a cradle made of hazel lathes and tape (filleting).
The pike roasts in front of the fire/
A salmon cooked using the same method. This was roasted at Gainsborough Hall a few months ago. Note the similarity of the cob irons to those at Townend Farm.
A pike roasted to Elizabeth's recipe and garnished with jagged Seville oranges.
The pike for the Townend table
A special occasion dinner in the Townend Firehouse
A recipe for a sauce for boiled pike in Elizabeth's hand, but given to her by Lady Winifred Strickland of Sizergh Hall. 
Winifred Trentham Lady Strickland, by William Wissing. Courtesy NT. 
Elizabeth's recipe book contains a number of old charms for various ailments that would have been frowned upon as 'papist' in late seventeenth century Westmorland. There are also a number of recipes from local Catholic recusant families such as the Braithwaites of Burneside and most notably from the Stricklands of Sizergh Hall. I have reproduced Madame Strickland's sawce for boyld pike above. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Lord and Lady Strikland went into exile in France with James II. It is possible that Elizabeth's family were Catholics. I will deal with some Elizabeth's other recipes in future postings.

Visit Townend Farm website

Monday, 20 January 2014

A Medieval Meal for Real

The roasting range in the kitchen of Gainsborough Hall, probably being used for the first time in four hundred years as it was intended, for roasting a full range of meats and poultry for a high status meal. A goose sawce madame, four rabbits, four mallard, a woodcock and other game birds roast on the hand turned spits.
I am often rather grumpy about the way in which food history is represented on British television. Commissioning editors in this country seem to regard it as a niche subject area only suitable for three minute intercuts into popular food programmes such as The Great British Bake Off. I suspect the purpose of these bijou interludes is to afford viewers a brief moment to make a coffee between the thrills and spills of the great cupcake, or gingerbread house challenge. Another approach has been the 'Carry on Banqueting' comedic slant, such as that of the Supersizers series some years ago, when Giles Coren and Sue Perkins took the piss out of our culinary past, while a medley of well-known celebrity chefs made fools of themselves making a mess at recreating ancient dishes. Because the food genre is considered a branch of entertainment, there has never been a serious cultural survey of our food traditions. You might say, 'what about the living history programmes, such as The Tudor Farm, or Clarissa Dixon-Wright's Hannah Glasse or The King's Cooks?' I don't suppose I am going to be popular for saying it, but I am afraid these programmes give the false impression that the food of our ancestors was terribly lumpen and unskillfully prepared. Watching the 'expert' presenters for instance, making raised pies that look like wobbly junior school pots does not really celebrate the incredible skills that our ancestors possessed in pastry work. I am afraid that they really need to up their game. 

When a virtuoso chef such as Heston Blumenthal is given the opportunity to examine our culinary past, he favours an approach which tends to use highly technical contemporary methods, telling us more about modern restaurant presentation than past traditions. Very little recognition is given to real experts. For instance, the makers of a recent BBC documentary about the food writer Dorothy Hartley actually filmed Peter Brears in his home kitchen talking about her dessert recipes. But this excellent sequence never made it into the final edit. This is ironic, as the outstanding contribution that Mr Brears has made to our understanding of English food will prove in the long term to be far, far more important than that of Miss Hartley. I think we have a lot of growing up to do when it comes to this subject on British television. 

Imagine my surprise then, when I was recently invited by KBS, the South Korean equivalent of the BBC to work with them on a programme about medieval food and dining in England. They did n't want a celebrity chef or restaurant critic presenter and they did n't want to dumb down the narrative. What they did want was to celebrate the true history of English food using real expertise, rather than bang on in the usual stereotypical way about how bad it was. During the process of making the documentary, which was directed by the celebrated Korean producer Kim Seung Ook, I quickly discovered the remarkable technical virtuosity, fresh perceptions and high production values of his outstanding crew. 

The recipe for Sawce Madame, a goose stuffed with quinces, pears and herbs from The Forme of CuryThis is a page from a c.1420s version of the text - courtesy John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. The original text dates from the 1390s. 
My aim was to accurately recreate an ambitious medieval meal in a high status household, so we chose to film at Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire with its wonderful great hall and kitchen complex. I enlisted the help of the outstanding re-enactment group Lord Burgh's Retinue, who regularly work at the hall. Led by Paul Mason, the group excelled themselves in a long, but exciting day's filming. I coached the kitchen crew in using their roasting range properly, showing them how to splint a salmon with hazel wands and how to skewer meats authentically, so they did n't stay still while the spits rotated. We also spent two days in my own kitchen where I demonstrated the preparation of a number of fifteenth century dishes, including a sawce madame, bake metes of partridge, gingerbread decorated with box leaves and a hastelet of fruyte. At Gainsborough we filmed a high table sequence led by Paul with full Plantagenet dining ritual, from Latin grace and blessing to washing of hands with an ewer and basin. The table and buffet was dressed correctly for the period and there were demonstrations of carving, sewing and correct service.

The finished sawce madame at the servery 

A bake mete of partridge surmounted by the bird itself with gilded beak and spots of gold on its feathers
A soteltie waits to be taken to the top table 
The kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall
A chastelet, a pie made in the form of a castle with different fillings in each tower awaits a spectacular flambé with brandy before being brought to the table
An early fifteenth century gingerbread coloured with red sanders is ornamented with box leaves pinned on with cloves
The great hall at Gainsborough. There was originally a lantern on the roof, which allowed the smoke from the central hearth to escape. The magnificent perpendicular oriel window floods the high table with bright light.
KBS director Kim Seung Ook(second from right) and his remarkable crew. Development producer Gina McDonald, who co-ordinated the production in the UK with me is in the middle.
The programme will be screened later this year as an episode in the wonderful KBS series A Food Odyssey, a visually stunning and highly intelligent global celebration of food culture. A DVD will also be available. BBC commissioning editors please take note. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Macedoine Jelly Revisited

A couple of glamorous victorian entremets in my kitchen

Just a quickie. I have just spent a couple of days filming with a BBC crew making a number of items of period food. Yesterday I put together a couple of nineteenth century maraschino fruit macedoine jellies to show how glamorous Victorian food could be - at least on the upper class table. I am posting a few iPhone snapshots I took in my kitchen this morning of the jellies with their fruit garnitures. I have garnished them with a couple of nice silver hatelet skewers from the 1870s, which gives them a striking sense of formality.

A neo-gothic macedoine mould and liner from Urbain Dubois, Cosmopolitan Cookery (London: 1870). I am fortunate enough to own a complete example of this two component mould, so am able to replicate these stunning Victorian entremets with a great deal of accuracy. 
Two different macedoine jellies with their moulds. To stop it moving or floating in the jelly, the inner liner is clipped to the outer mould.


If you are tempted by these dishes, why not learn how to make them yourself on my Jellies and Moulded Foods Course

Thursday, 2 January 2014

To Roast a Pound of Butter

Some butter rotates 'a good distance from the fire' on a wooden spit in an abortive attempt to roast a pound of butter according to instructions from William Ellis, The Family Companion (London: 1750). 
From Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1747)
Don't waste your time with this one. Although if you do try it and actually succeed in making this mysterious dish, please let me know exactly how you did it, as you may have stumbled across the culinary holy grail. Over the past three decades I have tried many times 'to roast a pound of butter'. All my attempts failed. On each occasion, I was convinced I had overlooked (or not understood) some important detail in the recipe. Some time after each frustrating failure, I would foolishly have another go. Over the years I have tried three different recipes - that reproduced above from Hannah Glasse (1747) -  the earliest printed recipe I know from Gervase Markham (1615) - and a so-called Irish method from William Ellis (1750) - recipes below. All have ended in failure and I have tried all these slightly different methods more than once. Yet something tells me that this was not a joke or hoax and it could have been successfully done. Or perhaps I am a gullible fool. So where have I gone wrong?

From Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (London: 1656 edition - first published 1615)
Markham's recipe is different from the others. Sugar and sweet butter (meaning freshly churned and unsalted butter) are beaten up with egg yolks as in the early stages of mixing a cake. This was the first recipe I ever tried. I found that in order to get the mixture onto a spit it was necessary to let it stiffen by putting it in a cold place. I 'clapped' the stiffened butter preparation on an old wrought iron spit, probably made in Markham's lifetime, and since I understood the term 'soft fire' as a low fire I cautiously rotated it about twenty-five inches in front of the flames. Remember that roasting takes place in front of the fire and 'not over the fire' as many who should know much better often say. As the outside softened I dredged it with a mixture of breadcrumbs, currants, sugar and salt as advised by Markham in the previous recipe for roasting a suckling pig - see below. So far so good. The rotating mass was soon covered with a jacket of uncooked breadcrumbs, but when I brought this a little closer to the fire to 'roast it brown' the breadcrumbs started to slide off as the butter below melted. I dredged these 'bald areas', but gradually more globules of butter mixed with the dredging would fall off. Finally, the iron spit got hot and the whole sorry project fell off into the dripping pan below. Failure number one.

From Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (London: 1656 edition - first published 1615)
I realised that using an iron spit was not a good idea. I had noticed that in his 1750 version of the dish, the Hertfordshire farmer William Ellis suggests using a wooden spit. I thought this was a more sensible approach because metal conducts the heat more quickly, resulting in the butter falling off before the process can be completed. The recipe was given to Ellis by 'a certain Irish woman' who claims to have made twenty-seven pounds of roasted butter one Christmas Eve. I first had a go at doing it this way about twenty years ago. Although the butter did not fall off, the dredging of oatmeal did. Failure number two. 

From William Ellis, The Family Companion, (London: 1750).
I eventually attempted Hannah Glasse's 1747 method, but using a wooden spit as advised by Ellis. This time the butter was dredged with breadcrumbs before it was put down to the fire and basted with egg yolks. Again the dredging dropped off as the butter softened. The dripping pan filled with a soft buttery porridge! I am glad I did not waste any oysters, which would have been covered in this unpleasant looking gloop. Failure number three. John Timbs in his Things Not Generally Known (London: 1859) describes Glasse's recipe as 'a culinary folly'.

Just for fun this year, I had another go at Ellis's 'Irish' method. Some Irish friends who turned up on Christmas Eve were intrigued when I told them that roasting a pound of butter could have been an old Irish Christmas Eve tradition. Since I had a fire in the hearth, we had another go at it and the photographs below record that latest attempt. I am always hopeful that I can get this to work, but as you can see it was just another failure.

A pound of butter is put on a wooden spit
Fine oatmeal is dusted on the rotating butter.
The oatmeal crust is shed as the butter underneath melts.
Now all this begs the question - was Markham pulling our leg? If so, he certainly made a gull out of me. So was this just an old culinary joke? If this was the case it does not surprise me that Hannah Glasse was taken in by the ruse. Despite what many others think about her, this particular lady is certainly no kitchen heroine of mine. I agree with her contemporary rival, the Hexham innkeeper Ann Cook, that Glasse was a high-born charlatan who almost certainly did not cook any of the dishes she describes in her book (more on this particular issue one day in another post). Surprisingly Cook does not specifically attack her rival's instructions for roasting a pound of butter in her toxic sixty-eight page critique of Glasse's recipes in Professed Cookery (Newcastle: 1754). However, I doubt very much that Hannah ever had a go at it. 

So how about the Irishwoman who claimed to Ellis that she had roasted 'twenty- seven pounds so' in a day? In my experiments I found that things started to go wrong after about twenty minutes in front of a slow fire. If she succeeded in producing the quantity she claimed, it would have been a long working day on that particular Christmas Eve. Was she feeding Ellis the Blarney? It is obvious from his account that he had not actually witnessed the process or eaten the results. I suspect she may have been lying because I am unaware of any other Irish accounts of this dish. Put me right if you do. 

Now I am aware of various techniques for deep frying butter coated in breadcrumbs or batter, but that is a completely different technique from this particular 'culinary folly'. Alexis Soyer for instance, gives a recipe for Croustades de Beurre in The Gastronomic Regenerator (London: 1846) in which little cylinders of very cold butter are rolled in breadcrumbs three times and then deep fried, resulting in little hollow croustades that can be filled with some savoury preparation. Modern dishes similar to Soyer's Croustades de Beurre (see the link below) instruct us to freeze the butter before it is deep fried. Perhaps the Irish lady put her butter out in the cold to freeze hard before she roasted it. Glasse's instructions to brine the butter before roasting it may have had a minor refrigerant effect, but I think I am clutching at straws here. Even when it is frozen hard the coating still falls of in front of a soft fire and even more rapidly in front of a fierce one. 


Saturday, 28 December 2013

Chef Comes To Pemberley

And Throws His Teddy Bear Out Of The Pram!

A still from a kitchen scene in Death Comes to Pemberley, a BBC drama production based on the novel by P.D. James
Earlier this year I was invited to dress a couple of food scenes in the three-part period drama series Death Comes to Pemberley, which is currently screening on BBC television. One of them, a very ambitious ball supper table that features in an Elizabeth Darcy day dream, hardly made it into the final edit. A pity, because it was truly spectacular. But two brief kitchen scenes I set up did get used. In order to make the kitchen sequence exciting from a cinematic point of view, I suggested to the director that I should train the actors to carry out real culinary tasks from the Regency period - larding meat, icing Savoy cakes, garnishing hatelet skewers and unmoulding jellies. I thought these would be more visually exciting alternatives to the stereotypical choppy-choppy, kneady-kneady activities that had been suggested. He thought this was a great idea and put it to me that I actually play the chef. I had some reservations, but accepted the role as I thought it would actually make my job easier supervising the kitchen activities, so my measurements were passed on to the wardrobe department.

The ball supper that never happened. A somewhat out of focus pan of a few dishes made it into the final edit
I enjoy doing this sort of thing for film and television, but I come from a different world and I sometimes get annoyed by the rather elastic licence that is frequently taken by media creatives with the word 'authentic'. It is usually given as the reason for involving me in productions of this kind. When I was first invited to work on this one I was told, 'We want the kitchen table to be really, really authentic and you are the man to do it'. Now that is fine, because I have built a career on attempting to recreate period food in all of its glory in historic settings. So why was I more than a little surprised when I saw the way in which the wonderful kitchen at Harewood House had been set up by the art department prior to my arrival? 

Blood drips from the game birds on to the fine pastry and elaborate ball supper dishes below, but it does n't half frame the shot!
The flagged kitchen floor had been covered with numerous large sacks of vegetables, making it look more like a market place than a palace kitchen. Hanging from an improvised gantry over the ancient Harewood work table were dozens of pheasants and rabbits. Now what is wrong with that you might well ask? Surely it sets the scene and creates a great atmosphere of a busy kitchen, the hanging game framing the shot perfectly. 

Let us take the vegetables first. The only vegetables that found their way into a kitchen of this status were ones that has been cleaned, peeled and prepared for the chef and his maids by the scullery staff. Raw vegetables were stored well away from the hot kitchen in specially designed bins to keep them cool and from under the feet of the staff. As for the game, there was a specialised game larder for that. Any game bird that came into the kitchen at Pemberley would have been plucked, cleaned and singed in the scullery before it arrived in the kitchen. Some great houses, like Chatsworth, the main location for the production, actually had a specialised 'plucking room'. The last thing you would hang over a table that was designed for the preparation of very fine food were game birds and rabbits dripping blood. I pointed this out and added the observation that the pheasants were in fact hanging by their legs when they should have been hanging by their necks. I was reassured that 'nobody will notice'. A few minutes later Lady Harewood, whose family owns the house, popped in to see how her wonderful kitchen had been dressed and expressed exactly the same concerns about the inappropriate game birds that I had. When told, 'but don't they look good', she replied, 'they look ridiculous'. 

An hour or so later, I noticed the pheasants had been hung the right way round, but remained suspended over a table dressed with delicate pastries and dessert dishes. This was the moment I decided that I did not want to be seen dead in front of it as a member of the cast and told the director that I was turning down my 'bijou' role as the chef. I threw my teddy bear out of the pram! A stand-in was found - a real actor, who suited the part much better than me and the show went on. However, you will notice my hands unmoulding an intricate macedoine jelly at one point. 

Despite my misgivings about the way in which the kitchen had been decorated, I really enjoyed working on the production. The crew and cast were delightful. And it is always a pleasure to work at Harewood, a house with which I have a long professional association.
Mrs Darcy (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Mrs Reynolds the housekeeper (Joanna Scanlan) inspect the preparations for the ball supper in the Harewood kitchen.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Royal Jelly


Jim Broadbent as King William IV having a row with the Duchess of Kent in front of an assemblage of some of my Georgian dessert food, including some Savoy cakes and a moulded ice cream in the form of a palm tree.
About five years ago I recreated King William IV's birthday dinner for The Young Victoria, which has recently been repeated on BBC television here in the UK. I remember arriving at the chosen location Arundel Castle in my rather small Citroen with enough food to set up a vast dessert table for one hundred diners. Nobody on the set could believe how a repast of such ambitious scale could emerge from the back of such a modest vehicle. I guess it was a kind of regal retake on the miracle of the loaves and fishes. However, having a background in decorative arts and museums, I was horrified by the rather inappropriate tableware that was provided by the prop department. At the original entertainment in 1836 at Windsor Castle, William's table was dressed with brother George VI's Grand Service, still used by the present Queen for state banquets. This was far, far grander than the bric-a-brac we were given to dress our table. The food stylist Katherine Tidy and I set about attempting to hide all the late Victorian crockery under the food. I think we succeeded in creating a fairly royal impression as the dishes were so glamorous, the rather poor stuff upon which they sat fortunately went unnoticed. 

A hundred diners sat down to William's birthday table in 1836. It was much grander than this version we produced for The Young Victoria, as the table was laid with the Grand Service purchased by William's brother earlier in the century from the London goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. 
If you have not seen this film, it is a love story spiced with some juicy dynastic intrigue in its early stages. It attempts to give an impression of the grandeur of court life at this period with lots of fancy frocks and ringlets - and with the food of course. However for me the more successful moments were the quieter ones which explored the passionate love which developed between the young queen and her handsome prince, eventually culminating in their marriage. In real life they had twenty happy years together, but Albert sadly died at the age of forty-two and Victoria mourned him for the rest of her long life. Whenever I walk past my kitchen dresser I tend to think about the lonely widowed queen, as in a prominent position sits a solitary jelly mould made in her image. It is a typical neo-gothic creation surmounted with a profile of the young queen. When it was issued to commemorate the royal marriage in 1840, it had a pendant - another mould, which I do not possess, representing Prince Albert. So sadly the young queen sits in my kitchen alone, just as she did for 40 years after her Prince Consort's death.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Below is the royal jelly anthropomorph which the mould creates, looking somewhat like a cameo. Just recently I was offered a matching Albert mould, but at such an inflated price, that I am afraid Victoria continues to sit alone on my dresser.
  
The absolutely staggering jelly created by the mould looks like a cross between a cameo and a penny red stamp.
The other half of the pair - Prince Albert of Sax-Coburg and Gotha (1819-1861).
Would look good with a clean, but too many $$$$s, so Victoria remains widowed

The Royal pair were also made in this plainer version
Has any nation other than Britain celebrated their rulers in this eccentric way? 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Some Christmas Night Caps

My favourite Christmas tipple -  Punch Royal - but why the orange peel? Recipe and explanation below.
I was recently given a small job by a television production company to check the historical accuracy of the script of a programme about Christmas drinks. Though it only dealt with a limited number of period tipples, the show, which will be transmitted by the BBC over the holiday period, was fairly well researched and I only identified a few issues that needed changes. One of these was an erroneous statement that 'mulled wine' was first mentioned by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in 1386. This was probably based on a search on Google which yielded information about the medieval spiced beverage hippocras, a cordial wine used as a digestive after a meal and as a celebratory drink at weddings and other important events. The researcher had come across this line from Chaucer's Merchant's Tale,

 'He drynketh Ypocras Clarree and Vernage Of spices hoote tencreessen his corage'.* 

She assumed that the word hoote (meaning hot) referred to the wine, implying that it was heated up before serving. Chaucer was in fact using the adjective 'hoote' to describe the warming nature of the spices as understood in the Galenic system of medicine - just as we would today describe ginger and pepper as being hot. He did not mean that the wine was served heated up. Although hippocras is almost certainly one of the the noble ancestors of our modern European mulled wines, glühwein etc., I have never come across any instructions in medieval or early modern period recipes to serve it hot. The overwhelming evidence indicates that hippocras was imbibed cold, though I don't suppose we will ever be totally sure about this. A number of Victorian and some latter-day commentators have assumed that hippocras was served hot on the basis of scant or no evidence.


Mulled Wine

Making assumptions about how our ancestors ate and drank based on the nature of our contemporary culinary practices is a common error. Food and drink in the past were often very different to our own, as was the culture that surrounded them. Take our modern understanding of mulled wine for instance. Although the word 'mull' starts to occur in the early seventeenth century, recipes for 'mulled ale' and 'mulled wine' do not appear in any frequency until late in the following century. Among the earliest to appear in print are these by the Manchester confectioner Elizabeth Raffald,

From Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Manchester: 1769)
With its egg yolks and slices of toast, as well as the method of pouring it backwards and forwards from one vessel to another, the mulled wine of Raffald's Georgian Manchester bears little resemblance to that served at the German style Christmas fairs that have been springing up all over England recently.  Raffald gives a second recipe for 'mulled wine' which actually contains no wine at all, though I expect this is a mistake, as it is identical to other Georgian recipes for mulled milk, a kind of hot spicy custard served with toast as a supper dish. In 1795 Sarah Martin, cookery writer and housekeeper to Freeman Bower of Killerby Hall, Bawtry, Yorkshire, borrowed Mrs Raffald's book title in her The New Experienced Housekeeper (Doncaster: 1795). However, she did not steal Raffald's mulled wine recipe, as her own version is distinctly different. Its most interesting feature is her very specific use of  'mull' in the context 'mull it backwards and forwards till frothed and smooth', indicating that the verb was being used to describe this to and fro action, rather than meaning 'to heat'.

From Sarah Martin, The New Experienced Housekeeper (Doncaster: 1795).

Our ancestors were very found of comforting winter nightcaps like these, particularly at supper. In a world without central heating or electric blankets, you can understand why these hot beverages were so popular before the dreaded ascent of the stairs to an often ice-cold bed chamber. The medical books of the eighteenth century are full of references to mulled wine, often combined with more powerful medicaments for treating all manner of disorders. Both Raffald's mulled wine and ale, with their fusion of egg yolks, spice and alcohol were really types of caudle, a beverage often consumed in a medical context. When cream or milk was added to the alchemical formula, these restoring beverages were usually called possets. Variations on the theme were legion, often requiring specialist cups or pots in which to to serve the drinks. Mrs Raffald instructs us to serve her mulled wine in a chocolate cup. The two examples illustrated below were made during her lifetime. They are both as far as you can get in terms of elegance from the utilitarian plastic cup out of which I drank some modern mulled wine at the marvellous Arundel Christmas Fair a few weeks go. When it comes to elegance the Georgians knock us into touch every time. 
Chocolate cup and saucer of soft-paste porcelain painted with enamels with exotic birds amongst bushes, and insects. Chelsea ca.1756. Courtesy V&A.
Caudle or chocolate cup, cover and saucer of soft-paste porcelain painted with enamels and gilded. Derby porcelain ca.1770.  Courtesy V&A. This set was made a year after Raffald's recipe for mulled wine was published.

Bishop, Lawn Sleeves, Cardinal and Pope

One hot spiced drink, which a few years ago we never heard much about, but which recently has practically gone viral on the web - there are that many postings about it and none of them terribly accurate - is 'Smoking Bishop'. If it sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall it as the Christmas draught that Ebebezer Scrooge promises to Bob Cratchitt towards the end of Charles Dicken's novel A Christmas Carol (London 1842). Scrooge says, 'we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!'

However, I suspect that Dickens inadvertently coined the name 'smoking bishop'. I am pretty sure that the novelist's intention in using the word 'smoking' was to evoke an image in our mind's eye of a punch bowl emanating clouds of alcoholic steam. This was a great choice of adjective by a skilled wordsmith to create an atmosphere of warmth and good cheer. The drink was commonly known to one and all at the time as just plain 'bishop' and had been since at least the mid-eighteenth century. I have failed to find any instances of the usage 'smoking bishop' before 1841 when A Christmas Carol first appeared in serial form. A few of Dicken's contemporaries started to use the term in their books a few year's later - Charles J. Lever in Arthur O' Leary (London: 1845) and Henry Dier in Dustiana (London: 1850).  But by then just about everyone in the English speaking world was familiar with the antics of Ebenezer and Bob and the name Smoking Bishop had been subsumed into the national imagination. No doubt one of you will write to tell me that you have found an instance of the name before 1841 and bang will go my theory! But that would be great. This is the reason why I write this blog. Let us together cut through the bullshit and celebrate the real truth about the history of our food and drink.

The earliest full English recipe for bishop known to me (and it is just plain 'bishop') is to be found in a lovely and incredibly rare book first published in Oxford in 1827 called Oxford Night Caps. This little collection contains recipes for many of the so-called alcoholic nightcaps favoured at the time by the students and dons of the Oxford colleges. In his Year Book (London: 1832), the great Georgian antiquarian William Hone gives a very favourable review of this little forty-two page pamphlet, 'In the evenings of this cold and dreary season, "the dead of winter", a comfortable potation strengthens the heart of the healthy and cheers the spirits of the feeble'. In its pages are to be found numerous recipes for 'potations' such as Rum Fustian, Egg posset, Beer flip and Brown Betty.

Decorative title page of Richard Cook, Oxford Nightcaps (Oxford: 1827)
The author of Oxford Nightcaps, Richard Cook, opens his book with a discussion of the history of bishop. He suggests that 'it derives its name from the circumstance of ancient dignatories of the Church, when they honoured the University with a visit, being regaled with spiced wine'. He then gives the recipe below,
Probably the first published recipe for bishop from Richard Cook, Oxford Nightcaps. (Oxford: 1827).
Jonathan Swift wrote the couplet Cook quotes in 1738. It appears to contain the earliest mention of bishop in English. His complete poem consists of just four lines, so I will give the full version here, 

Come buy my fine oranges, sauce for your veal,
And charming, when squeezed in a pot of brown ale;
Well roasted, with sugar and wine in a cup,
They'll make a sweet bishop when gentlefolks sup.


J. Swift, 'Women who cry Oranges' from Works. (London:1755) IV. i. 278. 

However, in the year that Swift's poem was first published, a recipe for bishop appeared in Sweden in the first edition of a cookery book by Cajsa Warg, Hjelpreda i hushållningen för unga fruentimber. (Stockholm: 1755). In this popular book, which went into many editions, it is called in Swedish 'biskop', though in some later Swedish works the more German 'Bischof' is used. As in Swift's poem the drink is flavoured with roasted oranges rather than the lemon mentioned in Cook's recipe. I am indebted to Madame Berg for this information. Her English translation of the recipe, perhaps the earliest for bishop in Europe, can be found in her comments at the end of this post. It contains some fascinating details. Do any of you know any early German recipes for bischof?

Frontispiece from Cajsa Warg, Hjelpreda i hushållningen för unga fruentimber. (Stockholm: 1755). This book contains a recipe for 'biskop' which is much earlier than any published in England.
Although I have never seen any evidence that they were ever used in England, in the German and Scandinavian world, bishop was sometimes served from  specialist lidded bowls made in the shape of bishops' mitres. A number of these have survived, the earliest dating from the 1750s. Perhaps bishop was adopted from the German speaking world and is not English at all. These extraordinary vessels indicate that the beverage had a high profile on the continent nearly a hundred years before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

A Danish tin glazed earthenware bishops mitre bowl, St. Kongensgade faiance ca.1750. Danish National Museum
German faience bischofbowle with rococo design and orange handle. ca.1750s. 
German faiance bishop bowl ca.1776. Courtesy of  Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin
Returning to England however, a few other literary men seem to have aquired a taste for bishop well before Dickens wrote of it. Boswell tells us that Dr Johnson was very fond of the beverage and Coleridge in one of his poems calls it 'Spicy bishop drink divine'. The ritual of making Richard Cook's Oxford bishop, especially if you have an open fire, makes for a great kitchen performance. First a lemon has to be spiked with cloves and roasted in front of the fire. This not only releases a flood of essential oil, but also caramelises the surface of the lemon.

Roasting bishop - the clove-spiked lemon toasts in front of the fire
This done, some cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace and ginger are added to a half pint of water and the liquid boiled until it reduces to half. The room slowly fills with the delicious fumes of roasting lemon and the simmering spices.

Boiling bishop - cinnamon, mace, ginger, cloves and allspice bubble in simmering water until it reduces to half.
Soon added to this is the perfume of the port as it bubbles in a saucepan. The alcohol fumes given off are ignited with a burning paper, resulting in a spectacular electric blue aurora borealis exploding above the pan. If you try this yourself at home be careful not to singe your eyebrows. The way to get it to work is to leave the lid on as the port simmers, light your paper and put it over the pan as you remove the lid and stand well back - pop goes the weasel! As so much of the alcohol is burnt off in this way, it looks like the Oxford scholars preferred their bishop quite weak, which I find rather surprising.

Flaming bishop - the excess alcohol burns off in a spectacular fireworks display
Some lumps of sugar are rubbed on the rind of a lemon and put into a jug or bowl and everything else added. Finally some nutmeg is grated over the surface and the hot bishop is ready to serve. Over to you Ebenezer and Bob!

'Spicy bishop drink divine' - the finished potation 'smokes' in front of the fire with its grate of nutmeg and roasted lemon.
Cook's recipe for bishop was quickly plagiarised, appearing word for word two years later in a rather silly book about food and drink called Apician Morsels (London: 1829) by one Dick Humelbergius Secundus. A slightly enlarged edition of Oxford Night Caps was then published in 1830. Fifteen years later Cook's recipe for bishop was also quoted exactly as it was first printed by the celebrated Victorian poet and cookery author Eliza Acton. Curiously she illustrates the recipe with an amusing engraving of some naked cherubs swimming in what resembles a baptismal font!

Cook's recipe quoted word for word in Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery (London: 1845).
As well as bishop, the gentlemen of Oxford University also enjoyed some other, closely related winter warmers. These were Lawn Sleeves, Cardinal and Pope. Cook tells us that these variants, 'Owe their origin to some Brasen-nose Bacchanalians, and differ only from Bishop as the species form the genus.'

Lawn Sleeves was made with madeira or sherry rather than port. To impart a satiny texture, 'three glasses of hot calves-feet jelly' were added. Cardinal was made the same way as Bishop, but with claret instead of port. Pope was made with champagne using exactly the same method. Another variant called Cider Bishop was made with a bottle of cider, a pint of brandy and two glasses of calves-feet jelly. It seems strange to us today to add hot melted calves-feet jelly, but this also appears in a number of other Oxford nightcaps, such as Negus, Oxford Punch and 'Storative' (Restorative Punch). At this time, this crystal clear nutritious jelly could readily be purchased in a prepared block from the butchers.

A plate of prepared calves-feet jelly, a popular ingredient in punches and spiced wines. It was considered to be a restorative and an easily digested food for invalids, but was also appreciated for the satiny 'mouth feel' it gave to the finished beverage.

Wassail Cup or Swig

Towards the end of his little book Cook discusses the celebrated festive drink Wassail Bowl, which he tells us was known to the fellows of Jesus College as 'Swig'. In 1732 a former student at Jesus, the celebrated Welsh Jacobite Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (1692 –1749), presented the college with a gargantuan silver punch bowl weighing 200 ounces. 

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn,  (1692 –1749). Oil on canvas. Michael Dahl.
Here is Cook's recipe for the swig that was once served annually at the Jesus Christmas feasts from Sir Williams-Wynn's enormous bowl, which holds ten gallons of the stuff,  



Cook goes on to tell us that earlier versions of Wassail Cup had roasted apple or crab apples added to the mixture instead of toasted bread. He then gives recipes for both the well-known wassail cup variant Lamb's Wool and the lesser known Brown Betty. Sir Williams-Wynn's great silver bowl is actually a standard Georgian punch bowl. Earlier wassailers had drunk theirs from wooden bowls called mazers. In the cider drinking regions  of England these were turned from apple wood and frequently ornamented with seasonal greenery and ribbons.

From Frederick Bishop, The Wife's Own Book of Cookery, (London: nd. ca.1850)
During the course of the seventeenth century, the wealthy drank their Christmas wassail, usually at Twelfth Day entertainments, from beautifully turned bowls made of lignum vitae and ivory, frequently adorned with silver bands and mounts. 

Lignum vitae wassail bowl with silver mounts made for the Grocers' Company. 1693. Courtesy  Birmingham  Museums and Art Gallery.
Wassail drinking set. Lignum vitae and ivory. 1640-60. Courtesy of the V&A. The curious finial on top of the bowl is a box for storing the spices.
The form of the wassail bowl was imitated in some of the very earliest punch bowls, some of which had little spice boxes on top as well as the foot and stem typical of the wassail bowls. 

Seventeenth century punch bowl in the form of a wassail bowl. Tin glazed earthenware and lignum vitae
During the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, ardent punch made from arrack, rum or brandy started to become as popular as the weaker native wassail drinks made from ale or cider. Usually erved hot in the winter months, by the 1780s it was also being chilled with ice, or even frozen into an alcoholic water ice for summer usage.

Punch Royal

My own favourite Christmas tipple is a drink I first came across in John Nott's The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary (London: 1723). Punch Royal is a delicious, but deceptively powerful potation based on brandy and lime juice. It contains no spice and has a lovely clean flavour. I always serve it to guests at my Taste of Christmas Past course in a punch bowl garnished with curling zests of orange peel. Here is Nott's recipe with a couple of others thrown in for good measure. 


So why do I serve my punch royal with orange zests hanging over the rim of the punch bowl as illustrated at the beginning of this post? Well over  the years I have noticed that many eighteenth and early nineteenth century images of punch drinking show exactly that. Here are a few examples.

Thomas Patch, Detail from A Punch Party (1762) Courtesy National Trust (Dunham Massey)
Detail from William Hogarth, A Midnight Modern Conversation (engraving) 1732.
Another detail from above. Note the discarded zests of orange peel sharing the floor with the human debris.
Detail from James Gilray, Anacreonticks in Full Swing. Aquatint 1801. It's that Christmas feeling again!
Oranges peeled to make long zests for the punch bowl form william Hogarth, A Midnight Modern Conversation. Oil Oainting 1732. Courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
A definition of zest from John Nott, The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary. (London: 1723). In his comment below, Adam Balic offers some other definitions of the word with some fascinating thoughts on flaming zests to flavour these beverages.
These are just a few of the images in which I have noticed strips of orange zest hanging out of punch bowls, though none are 'several fathoms long'. There is a time span of nearly seventy years between the earliest and latest of these illustrations. I have often wondered what the purpose of this custom was. My pet theory is that these strips of what were probably bitter orange peel, would be hung in the punch to impart a nice citrus flavour. If it became too bitter, the peel was removed (rather like we may pull out a tea bag when the tea gets too strong) and thrown on the floor to join the discarded tobacco pipes, empty wine bottles and human debris who could not take their drink. But this is just a guess. It is still a mystery. So can one of you anacreontick enthusiasts out there enlighten me - but only if you have found some convincing evidence! 

Can I draw your attention to the comment by the sharp-eyed Adam Balic, which he has posted below. Adam suggests that these early punch drinkers may have been flaming the zests of peel in the candle flames to flavour the punch in the way that it is sometimes done today in making a number of cocktails.

Whatever nightcap floats your boat this season, Plumcake and  I say 'Cheers' and wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Merchant's Tale. 365.

While we are on the subject of Christmas, Ivan was recently interviewed by Michael Mackenzie, the host of the excellent Australian ABC RN First Bite food programme. We chatted about the extraordinary phenomenon of Empire Christmas Pudding, the subject of which Ivan dealt with in a former posting on this blog. Click here to listen to the programme.

Listen to Ivan talk about Bishop on BBC Radio 4 Sunday with William Crawley