Tuesday 22 November 2011

A View up the President's Chimney

A few weeks ago I was at Mt. Vernon in Virginia, the home of George Washington, where I spoke at a really excellent conference on the subject of Dining with the Washingtons. The curatorial staff were kind enough to give me a private tour of the house and its associated buildings. I found the kitchen rooms particularly interesting and was allowed to explore the inside of the flu belonging to the large fireplace where Mrs Washington's enslaved kitchen staff roasted George's dinner. I was interested to see that the smoke jack mechanism which powered the spits was still in situ. Although I have seen many of these mechanisms in the UK, this was the first American one dating from the eighteenth century that I have ever had the opportunity to inspect. 

Unlike most of the surviving British examples, where the gearing comes out onto the front of the chimney breast, the Mt Vernon smoke jack is housed entirely in the flu with the jack chains which turn the spits hanging directly down the chimney. It is of a type that once must have been common in Britain before roasting began to be more commonly carried out in front of raised coal burning ranges rather than before a down hearths fuelled with wood. All photographs courtesy of Mt. Vernon.

The inglenook in the Mt Vernon kitchen with a pastry oven to the right
Looking vertically up the Mt Vernon kitchen flu, the smoke jack turbine and its gearbox can be clearly seen. The rectangular  sheet of iron is the cover for the gearbox. These boxes were usually filled with oil in which the worm and worm wheel turned. The oil was changed once a year.
There are two metal pulleys running two jack chains, so two horizontal 
spits could be rotated at the same time.

As far as I know this is the earliest English depiction of a smoke jack. From John Wilkins Mathematical Magick. (London: 1648).  However, this movement includes a contrate wheel and lantern pinion rather than the worm and wheel in the Mt. Vernon smoke jack.
The Italians were the first to document smoke jacks. Leonardo de Vinci illustrated one in about 1487. The image above was published in Scappi's Opera. (Venezia: 1570). That ice cream must have melted very quickly with all the heat.

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Sunday 20 November 2011

Richard Briggs' Skirret Fritters

I have had a bumper harvest of skirrets in my garden this year. This ancient vegetable (Sium sisarum L.) went out of favour during the course of the early nineteenth century. Despite their sweet, delicious flavour, the straggling, mandrake-like roots are difficult to clean and I suspect many cooks just lost patience with them. The kitchen staff must have dreaded it when the master called for a dish of skirrets, because it meant hours of tedious scrubbing and scrapping. Some of the older roots also have a hard stringlike thread going through them, providing the diner with a length of built in dental floss! However, they do have a great parsnip-like flavour and a wonderful creamy texture, so I take the trouble every year to make one or two dishes from them. Today, I made skirret fritters, an old favourite of mine from a recipe in Richard Briggs, The English Art of Cookery (London: 1788).

Skirrets cook very quickly and once boiled the skin can be rubbed off quite easily. I followed Brigg's method exactly, making about a pint of creamy skirret puree. The rest of the process is shown in the images below. 
A creamy puree is made by rubbing the skirrets through a drum sieve.
Flour, sugar, eggs, ginger and nutmeg are added to make the fritter batter.
A spoonful of the batter is dropped into hot hog's lard and the fritters fried until golden brown
The fritters served on an eighteenth century silver plate with their garnish
of dried sweetmeats (courtesy of Plumcake). Delicious!

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Thursday 10 November 2011

La Gelateria Scappi - è un bidone!

Signor Scappi, vogliamo gelati, confettura non!!
Mr Scappi, we want ice cream - not jam!!
Today, I will deal with an Italian fairy story. There is an enormous amount of nonsense posted on the internet at the moment about the origins of ice cream. A large number of websites are stating that the celebrated sixteenth century papal cook Bartolomeo Scappi included a recipe for sorbet in his 1570 Opera. Just try googling Scappi sorbet or Scappi gelato and you will see what I mean by this. If what these sites claim is true, it would mean that Scappi was the first European author to give instructions for making a frozen dessert. 

However, these assertions are all total balderdash and are based on an entirely ignorant reading of Scappi's text. In reality the recipe in question is for making a kind of preserve from morello cherries, not an ice. It does not require freezing and Scappi never ever calls it a sorbet, or gelato, as some of these sources claim. As far as we know the earliest Italian instructions for freezing sorbetti do not appear in print until the 1690s, over 120 years after the publication of Scappi's book.

Here is the original recipe. From Bartolomeo Scappi. Opera. Venezia 1570. Libro II. Cap. CCLXXX 

Here is my rather over literal translation. 

To do morello cherries in jelly.

Get ten pounds of fresh morello or sour cherries gathered the same day; they must not be bruised, and leave half the stalk on them, and fashion them into small bunches with ten to the bunch, have a casserole with a pound of clean water, and put the morellos into it, and as it begins to simmer, put in ten pounds of finely ground and sieved sugar and allow it to boil slowly, skimming it with a spoon, and when the morellos have burst, and are all of a colour (meaning same colour), take them down and put them in a plate and allow them to drain, and allow the decoction to boil by itself until it starts to cook, not failing to skim it, and do the test on the plate, and if it forms a morsel (globule) that does not spread when you touch it, take it from the fire, and unbind the bunches of morellos, and arrange them in cups, or in dishes of silver, with the decoction, which should be warm, over them, and put them in a cool place to set. In this way you can do sour cherries (visciole), and in the same decoction you can cook some fresh damsons.

Anyone who has made jam or conserves, will recognise the technique which Scappi describes here (underlined text), of putting a little of the 'decoction' on a plate to check whether the cooked fruit and sugar will set properly. Of course this is as far away from the technique used for making sorbet as you can possibly get. What the recipe makes is a very pleasant dish of lightly cooked cherries in a pectin-rich fruit jelly - in other words cherry jam! This is what  Scappi's marasche in gelo really looks like. I have served it here on a silver dish as he suggests. How can anyone think that this is a sorbet or gelato? See what I mean - another stupid fairy story. 

Scappi's marasche in gelo - 1570
In fact this dish is what later confectioners would come to call a compote of cherries. In The Italian Confectioner (London: 1820), the Georgian confectioner Giuliamo Jarrin (like Scappi a native of Northern Italy) gives a recipe that is almost identical to that of his Renaissance predecessor:  

Jarrin's 1820 recipe for a cherry compote. Note how both Scappi and Jarrin cut the cherry stalks in half.

All of this confusion has been caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of two words in the original Italian text - gelo and congelare. In the early modern period the word gelo could mean two things - either frost, ice, freezing, but also jelly. The word gelato, meaning a type of ice cream did not come into usage in Italy until the nineteenth century. In the context of this recipe, the word gelo without doubt, means the pectin-rich jelly of the kind created when you boil fruit with sugar. Here are some early definitions of gelo and related words from John Florio. Queen Anna's New World of Words, or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues. London 1611. Note the double meaning.

So, it is being assumed that the title of the recipe - Per accommodar marasche in gelo means 'to do morello cherries in ice', when the whole sense of the recipe clearly tells us that the use of the word gelo in this case indicates jelly. Some of the sites claiming that this is a recipe for sorbet or gelato translate Scappi's words 'et mettanosi in loco fresco a congelare' as 'put in a cool place to freeze', when the meaning of congelare here is clearly 'to set' or 'to gel'. Scappi describes no freezing equipment or freezing method. I am afraid that it is impossible to freeze anything by simply putting it in a cool place; especially in Italy during the hot weather experienced during the cherry picking season. What has amazed me is that most of this utter nonsense has come out of Italy. 

If I am wrong and Scappi did really serve ice cream at the papal court in Renaissance Rome, we may have to reassess the significance of the wonderful illustrations of culinary equipment in his magisterial book, like those examples reproduced below.

Scappi's little helpers frantically lifting the Baked Alaska off the fire for the Pope's dinner
Gelati misti à la Rinascimento
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