Hasty Fritters

P1020010

Here’s a recipe that was apparently popular enough that it was copied almost verbatim in several 18th century cook books. It’s a recipe for fritters. A fritter, also occasionally called a fraze, was a fried pastry, like a doughnut. They were either skillet fried or deep fried. The batter could be thin or thick — more like a dough. This particular recipe was exquisitely simple, calling for only four to five ingredients.

Here is Hannah Glasse’s copy from the 1774 edition of her cookbook, The Art of Cookery.

Here is our adaptation, changing a few things up where necessary, but staying well within period-correct methods and techniques:

 

Hasty Fritters

Ingredients:
1 – 12oz. bottle of any Light* Ale or Hard Apple Cyder
approximately 2 cups All Purpose Flour
1/4 – 1/3 cups Zante Currants or 1 Apple (diced) or both

About 2-lbs Lard (or or other fat**, e.g., shortening or vegetable oil) for frying

Beer-2*Hard apple cyder adds a wonderful taste to this recipe. If you chose to use an ale instead, use one that is not heavily hopped or bitter. Any off-the-shelf brand-name “lite” American beer will work, however, you’ll be missing out on some of the flavor that a nice honey brown ale, for instance, can add.

*All of the recipe copies I found for this dish called for frying in butter. This would have typically been a fairly expensive method of frying over, let’s say, Lard. If you choose to use butter, be sure to clarify it first by slowly melting it over low heat and pouring off the oil from the dairy solids that precipitate to the bottom. If you do not take this step, the solids will burn before the butter reaches frying temperatures, resulting in a burnt flavor imparted to the fritters.

Directions:
Heat your frying fat to about 350-degrees (F).

Dough1

 

Pour your ale into a large mixing bowl and sift the flour into it, stirring until a sticky dough forms. It may take a little more or a little less than 2 cups of flour.

Blend in your diced apple and/or your Zante currants. I prefer using both simply for the additional flavor and sweetness. Some recipes for apple fritters suggest a little ground nutmeg or cinnamon. You can also add a pinch of salt of you wish. That’s your call. I love the simplicity of this recipe, and chose to leave those seasonings out. I did not regret my decision.

Frying1

Carefully drop in dollops of the batter, about the size of a walnut or small egg, into your hot frying fat, making sure they don’t stick together. Fry them for 4 or 5 minutes, or until they are golden brown on the bottom side. The recipe suggests turning the fritters with an “egg slice.” If in case you’re like us and had never heard of an egg slice before, it’s simply a spatula.  Fry the fritters for 3 to 4 minutes longer, or until they are an even gold brown. If your dollops are too big, you will likely end up with a nicely browned fritter that’s still doughy on the inside.

Ale in this recipe acts as a leavening agent. The ale’s carbonation will puff up the dough while it fries.

IMG_1029

Carefully remove the fritters from your hot fat, and drain on layers of paper or a clean cloth. Dust with powdered sugar and stand aside before you’re trampled.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Two 18th Century Vegetarian Recipes: Carolina Snow Balls and a Simple (but Delicious) Boiled Rice Pudding

001snowball

As a follow-up to my last post as well as to our latest video, I’m offering a couple of 18th century recipes from the 1767 cookbook, Primitive Cookery; or the Kitchen Garden Display’d. As I previously mentioned, this book was a collection of recipes that were “borrowed” from other sources: the two recipes I’m highlighting were originally from Hannah Glasse’s earlier cookbook The Art of Cookery. Both recipes happen to use rice as their main ingredient.

Rice was an important food in 18th century English diets. That topic, however, is far too complex to be addressed at this time. Entire books have been written on the subject. One that I would highly recommend is Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection by Karen Hess.

I struggled a bit writing this post. Normally, I enthusiastically celebrate 18th century foods. In contrast, this post has brought a certain degree of sobriety.

Much of the rice enjoyed on English tables originated either from West Africa or South Carolina and Georgia. While indigenous rice had been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years, it wasn’t until possibly the 16th century that the finer, whiter oriental varieties were introduced. The crop was so successful there and the grain so popular, that its production quickly surpassed the indigenous varieties.

By the late 1600s, these strains of rice had also been introduced to the swamplands of South Carolina and portions of Georgia.  Within a few years, hundreds of tons of rice were being exported. The success of the crop in the colonies was directly due to the expertise of African slaves brought from the rice-growing regions of West Africa.

We cannot correct the inhumanities of history by ignoring them. While the purpose of this post is to examine two very simple rice recipes, I do not want to overlook the reality that lies behind them. The fact is, the luxuries enjoyed by so few were the result of the blood, sweat, and tears of so many.

So are these recipes.

Having said that, here are the recipes. They are exceptionally easy to make.

001snowball02

 

001ricepudding

 

Carolina rice was a long grain rice. In my experience with these recipes, I found a medium grain rice to work better than a modern extra-long grain rice. The quantities used in these recipes are almost irrelevant. There is a great deal of latitude in terms of how much rice you use. I also found that while you need to leave some room in the pudding cloth for the rice to expand, if you leave too much, the end result will be a bag of soggy rice rather than a well-formed pudding ball.

One other word of advice draws upon 18th century kitchen wisdom that is not mentioned in these recipes: once the puddings are done boiling, you may find it easier to remove them from the pudding bag if you first dip them in cold water for a few seconds.

Finally, this recipe calls for a sauce of equal parts melted butter and sugar. In my opinion, the sauce really makes these dishes. If, however, you choose to not use butter, you may want instead to try drizzling some sherry sweetened with a little sugar.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

An 18th Century Vegetarian Cookbook, and a Peek into the Diets of the Poor

veggies

We are occasionally asked on our Facebook page and our Youtube channel if we could provide more vegetarian recipes. A few have asked if we have run across any information on vegetarianism in the 18th century.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the subject — not for a second. I will share a few things, however, that I have recently run across.

First, here’s a link to an interesting book by Colin Spencer, called The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, this book seems to be a go-to.

While the history of vegetarianism can be traced back thousands of years, much of its ancient form was founded on religious belief and ritual. Modern vegetarian ideologies are often based on ethical convictions or dietary health concerns. Spencer suggests that modern vegetarianism can trace its roots through the “radical ideas” forged in 17th century Europe.

Where are the Cookbooks?

Walk into any bookstore today, or peruse the shelves on line, and you can find volumes of vegetarian cookbooks. Not so in the 18th Century. That’s not to say that vegetarians didn’t exist then. It’s apparent from the few things I found that there was a segment of society whose dietary choices were determined by their ethical convictions.

Keep in mind that 18th century Europe was experiencing a massive population expansion. Food shortages were commonplace. Much of the wheat, for instance, that was grown in early America was exported to Great Britain to meet the under-supplied demand there for bread. This development resulted in a food vacuum of sorts that was naturally filled by indigenous “Indian corn.”

The old saying goes, “as American as apple pie.” Apple pie wasn’t American. There were scores of recipes for that dish long before Amelia Simmons ever picked up her first spoon. But corn…now that’s American.

I’ve had a few people ask if any vegetarian cookbooks existed in the 18th century. My response has always been, not that I’m aware of. I did, however recently run across a book that I thought might silence the scoffing from my fellow historical foodie enthusiast reenacting meat-eaters. It’s called, The Pythgorean Diet, of Vegetables Only. As I tore the Amazon box open, I thought to myself, “Here it is! A better answer for my vegetarian friends!” I was disappointed, frankly, to discover that it was a translation of a discourse delivered in Florence, Italy, by Antonio Cocchi, in 1743. There were no recipes. It wasn’t a cookbook. It was an argument for the Pythagorean philosophy that can be traced through time for thousands of years.

But wait! There’s still hope! Here’s another book I ran across: Primitive Cookery; or the Kitchen Garden Display’d, written in 1767. I suppose it could classify for the most part as an ovo-lacto vegetarian cookbook, as many of the recipes still include eggs and dairy products. As I began reading this book, however, two things quickly became apparent.

First, this book was written to encourage healthy eating among those who could not afford meat, rather than those who chose not to eat it for ethical reasons. This, in and of itself, is a bit ironic. A cookbook written for the poor. At the bottom of the book’s frontispiece is printed “[Price One Schilling.]” — full-day’s wages (and a pretty steep price) for a common man.

Second, this cookbook, to a greater extent, was a collection of recipes found elsewhere; likely in other cookbooks.

The feature in this book that I found most noteworthy, however, was an a section in the back titled, “A Bill of Fare of Seventy Pretty Little Dishes, Which Will not Stand in Two-Pence Charge.” It’s a list of seventy suggested meals that a poor person might eat. It’s kind of a “missing link” of sorts in period cookbooks. Period cookbooks were written for people of some means. They also tended to assume a certain commonsense among their readers. Some things aren’t mentioned in cookbooks because it’s assumed the reader knew already.

This section in Primitive Cooking offers insight in lowly cuisine — a rarity among period cookbooks. For example, recipe #11:

“Take eggs and beat them well together, and fry them with butter, when done, melt some butter and vinegar and put upon them.”

When it comes to historical reenacting, and specifically juried events, commonsense has occasionally been known to be thrown out with the bath water.

“Do you have documentation…any original recipes for those scrambled eggs you’re eating there for breakfast?”

“Well…no…uh, but…”

As far as vegetarianism goes in the 18th century, sure it existed, but for the masses, I’d venture to guess that it existed by necessity (or the lack thereof) much more commonly than it did by ethic conviction. I say that acknowledging that I have yet to touch upon the topic of Lent — the season leading to Easter when, in addition to other rights and rituals, the consumption of meat was generally forbidden. If you are a vegetarian trying to maintain or incorporate your dietary choices in your historical repertoire, you may wish to approach your research first with Primitive Cookery and then expand it to consider the foods of Lent. There are numerous period cookbooks that address those dietary restrictions.

Primitive Cookery is also an excellent resource for anyone, vegetarian or meat-eater alike, interested in understanding what life in the 18th century was like. Back then, the vast majority of people worked hard to squeak out a living.  This book is an excellent resource — that is, if you can sacrifice a full schilling. Fortunately, you can pick up the paperback version on Amazon for ten or twenty bucks.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

18th and Early 19th Century Cookbooks: Searchable, and FREE.

cookbooks

We have a modest collection of cookbooks, both old and modern, as well as secondary resources related to the topic 18th century cooking here in my office. I appreciate being able to read other people’s interpretations of the old recipes, to see how my conclusions line up with collective wisdom. I have my favorites: Karen Hess’s epic annotative work, for instance, titled Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, and C. Anne Wilson’s classic, Food and Drink in BritainThe Oxford Companion to Food and even the Oxford English Dictionary have also proven on multiple occasions to be invaluable sources of information.

When it comes to research, however, my greater joy and satisfaction comes from the challenge of searching through and deciphering the original texts. Primary research can be difficult. If you’ve attempted it before, you know the biggest challenge is usually access. Most of the books in which I’m most interested are locked away in climate-controlled vaults. They are available by appointment only, if at all. And if I’m ever fortunate enough to lay my eyes on one, laying my hands on it is another story. Someone else wearing cotton gloves will no doubt be there to turn the pages for me. It’s not conducive to heavy-duty batter-splashing research.

But when it comes to researching food history, there is one amazing primary research tool to which anyone with a computer and an internet connection has access, any hour of any day: Google Books.

An Amazing Resource

I use Google Books almost daily in my research. There are a few navigation challenges that I’m still not sure I’ve completely figured out. But over recent years, I’ve been able to establish a rather extensive virtual collection of original documentation. No cotton gloves needed.

There are different levels of access to the various books in Google’s collection. Some are available in print form only. Click on the link provided and it will take you to a retailer who will gladly sell you a paperback copy at a reasonable price. Another type of digitized book offers a “snippet view,” or partial glimpses designed to entice you to buy the printed book.

There is a tremendous number of books, however, that are available online, fully digitized and completely free for your perusal. These are the books on which I focus.

A full-view book in Google Books is searchable. Searches can also be done (with limited success) across your entire virtual library.

A full-view book in Google Books is searchable. Searches can also be done (with limited success) across your entire virtual library.

The true beauty of what Google has done is that each of these digitized books is completely searchable. open a book, enter a word in the search window, and the search engine will show you nearly all of the word’s occurrences in that book.  You can save the book to your library. Then go to your library and enter that same word in the search window, and theoretically, Google will show you where the word appears across your library collection. I say theoretically, because the results of this technique are not as reliable as conducting a search through each individual book.

Do you want to search across Google’s entire collection? Use the search tools to refine the scope of your search. For instance, do you wish to research “gravy” in original documents that were published in, let’s say, the latter half of the 1700s? You can set those parameters.

Welcome to my virtual library, feel free to borrow anything of interest.

If you’re interested in trying this, let me give you a head start. Welcome to my virtual library of 18th and early 19th century cookbooks. Please feel free to look all you want. And feel free to borrow any of the books in my collection — and don’t even bother returning them!

You’ll notice that many of the books in this collection are first editions. It’s not an all-inclusive collection, but I’m fairly certain that, as of the date of this post, it includes nearly every full-view 18th century English cookbook available free on Google Books. I’m still refining my early 19th century collection.

I describe this collection broadly as that of English cookbooks. While most of the books were published in London, many of these books would have been used both in Great Britain as well as in North America. Catherine Parr Strickland Traill, for instance, in the book The Back Woods of Canada, mentions The Cook’s Oracle — a very British cookbook that she presumably possessed (or was at least very familiar with) during her adventure into what is now western Ontario.

Susannah Carter’s 1796 cookbook, The Frugal Housewife, is the earliest book I have found that was actually published in North America. But it is still a very British cookbook. It is not until well into the 19th century that cookbooks on this side of the pond began to take on true American flavor.

I’ve organized my compilation in order of original publication date. Here’s the list of books from which I do the vast majority of my research:

18th Century Cookbooks

The Whole Duty of a Woman, (London). First published in 1701. Free editions available on Google Books: 1707, 1737.

England’s Newest Way, (London). First published in 1708. Free editions available on Google Books: 1726,

A Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts, Mary Kettilby, (London). First published in 1714. Free editions available on Google Books: 17141734.

The Compleat Confectioner, Mary Eales, (London). First published in 1718. Free editions available on Google Books: 1742, 1767.

The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary, John Nott, (London). First published in 1723. Free editions available on Google Books: 1723, 1724.

The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director, R. Bradley, (London). First published in 1727. Free editions available on Google Books: 17321736.

The Compleat Housewife, Eliza Smith, (London). First published in 1727. Free editions available on Google Books: 1739.

The Compleat City and Country Cook, Charles Carter, (London). First published in 1732. Free editions available on Google Books: 1732, 1736.

The House-Keeper’s Pocket-Book, Sarah Harrison and Mary Morris, (London). First published in 1733. Free editions available on Google Books: 1739, 1760.

The Complete Family Piece, M.L. Lemery, (London). First published in 1736. Free edition available in Google Books: 1737.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse, (London). First published in 1747. Free editions available on Google Books: 1774, 178017841805,

The London and Country Cook, Charles Carter (London). First published in 1749. Free editions available on Google Books: 1749.

English Housewifery, Elizabeth Moxon, (London). First published in 1749. Free editions available on Google Books: 1764.

The Art of Confectionary, Edward Lambert, (London). First published in 1750. Free editions available on Google Books: 1761.

The Prudent Housewife, Mrs. Fisher, (London). First published in 1750. Free editions available on Google Books: 25th Edition.

A New and Easy Method of Cookery, Elizabeth Cleland, (Edinburgh). First published in 1759*. Free editions available on Google Books: 1755.

*The 1759 publication date is according to Arnold Whitaker Oxford, in his book All English Cookery Books: from 1500 to 1850, (from which I’ve gather the first edition data in this post). This date appears to be incorrect, as the publication date listed in the book itself is four years earlier.
 

A Complete System of Cookery, William Verral, (London). First published in 1759. Free editions available on Google Books: 1759.

The Complete Confectioner, Hannah Glasse & Maria Wilson (London). First published in 1760. Free editions available on Google Books: 1800.

The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald, (Manchester). First published in 1769. Free editions available on Google Books: 1769, 1803, 1806.

The Lady’s, Housewife’s, and Cookmaid’s Assistant, E. Taylor, (Berwick Upon Tweed). First published in 1769. Free editions available on Google Books: 1769.

The Professed Cook, B. Clermont, (London). First published in 1769. Free editions available on Google Books: 1812,

The Court and Country Confectioner, Mr. Borella, (London). First published in 1770. Free editions available on Google Books: 1770.

Cookery and Pastry, Susanna MacIver, (Edinburgh, London). First published in 1773. Free editions available on Google Books: 1789.

The Lady’s Assistant, Charlotte Mason (London). First published in 1777. Free editions available on Google Books: 1777, 1787.

The London Art of Cookery, John Farley, (London) First published in 1783. Free editions available on Google Books: 1783, 1785, 1792, 17971800.

The English Art of Cookery, John Briggs, (London). First published in 1788. Free editions available on Google Books: 1788, 1798.

The Complete Confectioner, Frederick Nutt (London). First published in 1789. Free editions available on Google Books: 179018071819.

The Practice of Cookery, Mrs. Frazer, (Edinburg). First published in 1790. Free editions available on Google Books: 17911820.

Every Woman Her Own Housekeeper, John Perkins, (London). First published in 1790. Free editions available on Google Books: 1796.

The Universal Cook, Francis Collingwood and John Woollams, (London). First published in 1792. Free editions available on Google Books: 1792, 17971806.

The New Experienced English Housekeeper, Sarah Martin, (London). First published in 1795. Free editions available on Google Books: 1795.

The Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter, (Philadelphia). Free editions available on Google Books: 1796, 1822.

The Accomplished Housekeeper, T. Williams, (London). First published in 1797. Free editions available on Google Books: 1797.

The London Complete Art of Cookery, [Likely a fraudulent copy of Farley’s book](London). First published in 1797. Free edition available on Google Books: 1797.

Early 19th Century Cookbooks

The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined, John Mollard, (London). First published in 1801. Free editions available on Google Books: 1802, 1808.

The New Practice of Cookery, Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Donat, (Edinburgh). First published in 1804. Free editions available on Google Books: 1804.

Culina Famulatrix Medicinae, Alexander Hunter, (York). First published in 1804. Free editions available on Google Books: 1804.

The Housekeeper’s Instructor, William Henderson (London). First published in 1804. Free editions available on Google Books: 1805.

A Complete System of Cookery, John Simpson, (London). First published in 1806. Free editions available on Google Books: 18061816.

A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, (Exeter). First published in 1807. Free editions available on Google Books: 1808, 1840,

The Female Economist, Mrs. Smith (London). First published in 1810. Free editions available on Google books: 1810.

APICIUS REDIVIVUS; or, The Cook’s Oracle, William Kitchiner (London). First published in 1817. Free editions available on Google books: 1817, 1822, 18231825, 18271836, 1845, 1860,

American Domestic Cookery, Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, (New York). Free editions available on Google Books: 1823.

The Art of French Cookery, A.B. Beauvilliers, (London). Free editions available on Google Books: 1827.

Houlston’s Housekeeper’s Assistant, (Wellington, Salop). Free edition available on Google Books: 1828.

The Cook’s Dictionary and Housekeeper’s Directory, Richard Dolby (London). Published in 1830. Free editions on Google Books: 1830.

Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, Eliza Leslie, (Boston). Free editions available on Google Books: 1830, 1836.

The Cook’s Own Book, N.K.M. Lee, (Boston). Free editions available on Google Books: 1832, 1840, 1842, 1854.

The Complete Economic Cook, Mary Holland, (London). First published in 1836. Free editions available on Google Books: 1837.

A Treatise on Bread and Breadmaking, Sylvester Graham, (Boston). Free editions available on Google Books: 1837.

The Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph, (Baltimore). First published in 1838. Free editions available on Google Books: 1838.

The Good Housekeeper, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, (Boston). Free editions available on Google Books: 1839.

Other Related References:

Dictionary Rusticum or Husbandry, Gardening, Trade, and Commerce, (London). Free edition available in Google Books: 1726.

The London and Country Brewer, William Ellis, (London). Published in 1737.

A Present for a Servant-Maid, (London). First published in 1743. Free editions available on Google Books: 1744.

A Treatise of All Sorts of Foods, (London). Published in 1745.

Every Man His Own Brewer, Samuel Child, (London). Published in 1768.

Valuable Secrets Concerning Arts and Trades, (London). First published in 1775.

Forme of Cury: a Roll of Ancient English Cookery, Edward Stafford, (London). First published in 1780.

Food in Health and Disease, Isaac Burney Yeo, (London). Established in 1785.

The New Family Herbal, William Meyrick, (Birmingham). Published in 1790.

Antiquitates Culinariae: Or Curious Tracts Relating to the Culinary Affair of the Old English, Richard Warner, (London). Published: 1791.

A Journey from Prince of Wale’s Fort in Hudson Bay, to the Northern Ocean, Samuel Hearne (London). Published in 1795.

A Treatise on the Brewing of Beer, E. Hughes, (Uxbridge). Published in 1796.

The Backwoods of Canada, Catherine Parr Strickland Traill, (London). Published in 1836.

 

Posted in 1700's, 18th century, historic cooking, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Hard Dumplings a Soldiers Treat

dumpling2

When cooking a modern recipe with a dozen ingredients in a well stocked kitchen with a stove, eight pans, twenty spoons of various sizes, dozens of mixing bowls and every other convenience, I can’t help but look back to poor soldiers in the 18th century with only the simplest ingredients and a to cook them, a single pot.   I am always on the lookout for simple recipes that would make that life barely livable.   The substitution of simple flour for bread is a problem that come up in my thoughts.   If you are handed flour instead of bread what do you do?  Fire cakes is one answer, but an even better one might be hard dumplings.

Here is what I found when I was doing some reading in Hannah Glasses The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy from 1778

hannah-glasse-hard-dumpling   How simple can it get.  Mix some flour with a little salt and some water.  Roll the dough into balls the size of an egg (don’t ask me how big an 18th century turkey egg was, but I imagine it was a bit larger than a chickens egg) coat them in a bit more flour and boil them for 20 or 30 minutes.  I made my dumplings a bit smaller than an imaginary turkey’s egg so I just boiled them 20 minutes.

dumpling1

One of the easiest and probably most common ways for soldiers to cook the pound of meat they would be issued was boiling.  This simple recipe would seem to be the perfect answer to using a flour ration.

Posted in 18th century, historic cooking, Ingredients, Video | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Currant Challenges

I’ve written in past posts about the challenges of interpreting period recipes. I know I’m not alone in this. If you have tried making sense of some of the old recipes, you know what I’m taking about. It can be a recipe for frustration.

Let’s start with a spoonful of obscure weights and a bunch of measures about the size of a turkey egg. Then let’s add one each of all of the tools and implements that have long been lost to time and modern conveniences. Next, let’s talk about how our modern versions of the most basic ingredients such as milk, flour, meat, and many vegetables are nothing like what they used to be a few hundred years ago. And of course, we would be amiss to forget the fact that so many recipes relied on the good judgment of the reader to make a dish that was agreeable to their own personal tastes — tastes that were much different than modern preferences that have evolved over generations of sugar and processed foods.

Truly, this is a recipe for frustration.

Some of the challenges we face when interpreting period recipes can be overcome if we are willing to apply enough mental and physical elbow grease, but others cannot. Techniques can be researched and refined, and equipment can be procured or reproduced. Replicating mindsets and matching ingredients, however, can be real problems. All too often we simply have to settle with guesses, approximations, and “close enoughs.”

I suppose I need to remind myself of that reality on occasion. This very moment may be one such occasion as I have spent the better part of three weeks focusing on currants in the context to period cooking. I fear my quest has turned into somewhat of an obsession.

Currant(s)

Red Ribes Currants

Red Ribes Currants

Let’s first define the term currant. Many people swear that the “true currant” is a juicy berry of the Ribes genus, closely related to gooseberry. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties that can be classified into three over-simplified groups: red, white (the albino version of red), and black.

These berries grow in clusters or strings — somewhat like grapes. They can be used fresh, frozen, dried, or preserved in sugar. Dried currants look very much like little raisins. The red and white currants were traditionally preferred by most 18th century diners for their sweet/tart somewhat-raspberry-like flavor. The blackcurrant, however, was still popular in the kitchen, just not nearly as much. Blackcurrants are very tart…somewhat like an unripe blueberry or mulberry…and in the fresh state, present a slight hint of ammonia (according to this palette). Currant jelly, made primarily of red currants, was a very popular condiment in the 18th century. It was used as a complementary sauce on poultry, venison, beef, pork, mutton, and rabbit.

IMG_2013

Ripe Blackcurrants

Blackcurrants were also called squinsyberries (or a dozen other variations on that word). Their extreme tartness triggers saliva production which can help sooth a soar throat. Blackcurrants were used as lozenges or reduced to syrup in the 18th century to treat quinsy, or chronic tonsillitis. What they didn’t know at the time was that they are also high in vitamin C. Six berries contain an equal amount of vitamin C to that found in an entire lemon.

The Impostor?

Ribes Currants (left), Zante Currants (right)

Ribes Currants (left), Zante Currants (right)

Now before any fisticuffs break out among the readers, let me give you another definition: currants are also small seedless raisins. They are called Zante currants in the United States. Zantes belong to the genus Vitis, but for sake of this article, I’ll stick with the name Zante.  They taste like…well…they’re raisins. Yeah, they taste like little raisins. At least that’s what modern Zante currants taste like.

Zantes were wildly popular in the 18th century — even more so than raisins, as period importation and taxation records would suggest. But why? Surely it wasn’t simply the novelty of having cute little raisins. I wondered at first if their popularity had to do with the fact that they were seedless. Can you imagine how tedious it would be to stone pound after sticky pound of raisins?

My second theory for their popularity focused on taste. Maybe they tasted differently than modern Zantes. Perhaps there was a significant enough different in taste from that of normal raisins.

John Payne chronicled how currants were processed in his 1796 travel journal, Geographical extracts, forming a general view of earth and nature. After reading that account, it really made me really wonder about their taste. Grapes of Corinth were first laid out on the dirt to cure in the sun. Then they were carried on the backs of horses and donkeys into the city where they were packed into underground cisterns until they were sold for export. At that point, men with bare feet (courteous enough to at least oil them first) stomped the raisins into kegs. The kegs were loaded onto ships and allowed to “cook” during their journey, often stinking up the entire vessel.

This may give insight into why so many recipes suggested washing the currants well before using them. Throw in a bit of dirt, maybe a pebble or two, some mule sweat, a little toe jam, and whatever stowaway may have hopped aboard those wooden shipping kegs, and sure, 18th century Zantes may have tasted a little different from our sanitized version today.

My theory, though, seems to have little support in period texts. I’ve scoured dozens of books looking for something…anything that would suggest an peculiar flavor other than that of raisins. Nothing. The few descriptions that I managed to find were in the period apothecaries, The Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1801) and Ralph Thicknesse’s A Treatise on Foreign Vegetables (1749). They were described as having “a sweet taste with a pleasant and agreeable acidity.” One of those texts also warned consumers to avoid using raisins that had been sweetened with honey in an attempt to conceal their spoilage. They were obviously meant to be primarily sweet.

The Dilemna

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right). Which is more accurate?

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right). Which is more accurate?

Sooooo…what do we have here? We have two very different fruits with the same name. In one hand, we have Ribes berries in various forms that have a flavor profile ranging from sweet-tart to extremely tart; and in the other hand, we have little raisins that taste like…well…like little raisins. So which do we use in our 18th century foodways interpretations? Ribes or Zante?

Surely there’s an easy answer. Surely there’s a way to figure it all out. Surely there’s historical context to analyze or hints that can be found by reading between the lines. All we have to do is cross reference multiple period cookbooks with dictionaries and travel journals and horticultural encyclopedias and tax-court records. Surely, right???

I am left only with more questions.

My brain has turned into a giant raisin.

O.K., so can I at least figure this out:

Which Came First, the Currant or the Currant?

Grapes of Corinth

Grapes of Corinth

The Zante currant derives its name from the Ionian Island that was once called the same, off the coast of Greece. The word currant, according to the 1390 collection of English recipes, A Forme of Cury, is a phonetic corruption of the word Corinth, the area of origin for the miniature grapes from which these raisins are processed.

Karen Hess, in her commentary to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (1981, page 263), claims that Zante Currants were introduced to English cuisine during the Crusades. The O.E.D. cites the first published reference in the 14th century.

Contrary to the claims of berry loyalists, it wasn’t for a couple of hundred years after the Zante currant that Ribes were finally cultivated in English gardens. Historically speaking, Ribes are the impostors, not Zantes.

Now, the popularity of Ribes berries burst across northern Europe and spilled across the ocean, threatening to overshadow Zantes altogether. Some of the earliest settlers in America considered them important enough to include in their cargo for their journey to the New World. According to Penn State’s 2013-2014 Mid-Atlantic Berry Guide, Currants (and gooseberries) were introduced to North America in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.

Vulgar Confusion

Grape leaf (left) blackcurrant leaf (right)

Grape leaf (left) blackcurrant leaf (right)

Production, both east and west, grew rapidly, as did confusion over the plants. A common misconception was that they were one and the same plant — that the Ribes plant was a horticultural victory — a northern European adaptation of the Corinth grape. It became known as the raisin tree.

Attempts were made to keep the fruits separate. Zante currants eventually became known as currants of the shops or currants of the grocers, while Ribes became known as garden currantsBut these distinctions seemed to do little to stem the pervasive confusion in society, and seldom made their way into cookbooks. This confusion continues among many even to this day.

A Conspicuous Ambiguity

So as I said, I am left with a number of questions. From numerous period texts, it’s obvious that both types of currants were used in 18th century cooking. A few cookbook authors were thoughtful enough to specify, while it’s fairly easy to guess with other recipes. Many other recipes, however, are conspicuously ambiguous regarding which fruit to use.

A boiled plum pudding using raisins and Zante currants

A boiled plum pudding using raisins and Zante currants

Some types of foods are more perplexing than others. Puddings are a prime example. The resulting flavor of a pudding using Ribes berries would have differed greatly from that of a pudding with Zante currants, yet there is very seldom specific instruction given as to which to use.

So which is more appropriate, Ribes of Zantes? The answer may be both…or either.

If you are trying to interpret a period recipe, I have a few suggestions. First, pay close attention to the context of the recipe you’re reading. What recipes surround it? If they are for other types of berries, you’re likely suppose to use Ribes.

Along with that, if your recipe calls for juicing your currants, again, you’ll need Ribes.

Mincemeat recipes typically use Zantes, which, like other raisins, tend to resist spontaneous fermentation.

But for recipes such as puddings…hmmm…ask yourself which would you have had on hand at the time? And don’t hesitate letting your own personal preference be your guide.

So many 18th century recipes were mere suggestions in contrast to our typical modern recipe which is in essence an exacting formula designed to guarantee consistency. There are numerous hints across the spectrum of period cookbooks that suggest readers were expected to refine the recipe, developing their own preferences with practice. Having said that, a caveat would be appropriate at this point: be careful about being too rigid in following period recipes.

A Recipe for Ribes

Nearly every 18th century recipe for a red currant tart is the same:

Preheat your oven. If you are using a modern oven, set the temperature to 375-degrees (F) or 190-degrees (C).  You can also bake your tart in an earthen oven or Dutch oven. I talk about both of those methods in my White Pot post.

Start by coating your tart tin well with lots of butter. Line it with a short crust. (Here’s a hint: as you roll out your pastry crust, be very liberal with your dusting flour. This extra flour will help thicken the excessive amounts of juice in your berries.) If your baking dish is metal, line the entire bottom as you would a modern pie. Period recipes suggest that if your dish is glass or ceramic, line only the sides.

Fill your lined dish with a sufficient amount red (or white) currant berries that have been well washed and picked free of stems. Weigh your berries ahead of time, or pour them out to be weighed, then return them to the lined baking dish. Pour over your berries an equal amount of refined sugar (by weight). One cookbook cautioned against using raw sugar as it will alter the taste of the tart.

You can leave your tart open (without a top crust), or you can cover it with a lattice crust.

Be sure to set your tart on a baking sheet. Lining your sheet with a piece of aluminum foil will save you quite a bit of elbow grease later. Bake your tart for approximately an hour, or until the crust is golden brown. Allow your tart to cool completely before serving.

Where to Buy Ribes Currants

If you live in the United States, currants can be difficult to find. Black currants were discovered in the early 1900’s to be a vector host of the White Pine Blister Rust — a devastating disease that threatened to wipe out the pine industry. Cultivation of black currants was outlawed by the Federal government until the late 1960’s, when jurisdiction was transferred to the state level. A number of states still outlaw black currant cultivation, and some outlaw currant cultivation altogether.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find currants in your local farmer’s market during the months of June and July. Otherwise, check out these options:

Dried Black Currants:
http://www.nwwildfoods.com/dried-berries-c115/dried-black-currants-p218/?gclid=CMKkicjBz78CFdNxMgodewUAiw
or
http://www.currantc.mybigcommerce.com/dried-black-currants-no-added-sugar/

Red Currant Jelly:
http://www.nuts.com/cookingbaking/spreads/jelly/red-currant.html

Really nice Zante Currants:
http://www.nuts.com/driedfruit/raisins/currants.html

Fresh Frozen Currants (black, white, and red):
http://www.nwwildfoods.com/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=currants&x=-867&y=-1309

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Scotch Eggs

Image11

If you’re trying Scotch eggs for the first time, you’re in for a treat! A popular snack food in the U.K., Scotch eggs can be found there in grocery stores, gas stations, and everywhere in between. I had my first Scotch egg about 10 years ago at a local British-style pub. They are a guilty pleasure of mine, with which considerable discipline must be exercised to eat them in moderation. While Scotch eggs may not share the British prestige of officially protected geographic status like a Buxton blue or a Melton Mowbray pie, they are still clutched close to the heart by many adoring fans…which is where I always kind of envision them resting as I eat them, bypassing the stomach altogether.

 

The first Scotch egg is claimed to have been invented by a London department store in the late 1730’s, however, some believe they may have been adapted from much older Moghul dishes. The version we presented in our video was our take on Maria Rundell’s rather ambiguous recipe that was first published in her 1808 cookbook, A New System of Domestic Cookery.

Forcemeat was typically any type of finely minced and seasoned meat, that was either formed into balls and used as a garnish for other dishes or as an addition to soups, or it was used as a stuffing. It was also prepared as a dish in its own right. The list of possible ingredients in forcemeat is so long, that the term is probably better used to refer to the technique of making it as well as its varied use rather than its specific ingredients. Some 18th century recipes for a forcemeat for poultry, for instance, was nothing more than what we would call a bread dressing or stuffing. So forcemeat didn’t even have to have meat in it to be called forcemeat.

There are few precise forcemeat recipes in the period cookbooks. Usually the authors gave wide berth for individual taste preferences. In an earlier section of her duodecimo, Rundell stated that “Exact rules for the quantity cannot easily be given; but the following observations may be useful, and habit will soon give knowledge in mixing it to the taste.” She then provides a list of ingredients from which to choose (see below). The column on the left contains four necessary ingredient categories: meat, fat, basic seasoning, and a binder.  The column on the right are her suggested additions to really spice it up a notch.

So with our version, we followed her advice by letting ham be the predominate meat. We did not follow her advice, however, on the addition of fat. Some cookbooks indicate that lean meat should be combined with either suet or bacon fat — some recipes suggest in equal proportions. Pulverizing the meat with the fat is frequently recommended. Without the added fat, we found that pulverizing was absolutely necessary. If you attempt to do this with diced ham, it likely won’t adhere to the boiled egg. If you wish to pulverize your ham in a mortar and pestle, more power to you! If you’re making these at home, I suggest you plug in your food processor instead. Use a half pound of ham. [Contrary to what we said in the video, we mistakenly used a full pound. We were eventually forced to add another egg yolk along with a little editing magic.]

We seasoned our ham with about a half teaspoon each of allspice and nutmeg, a quarter teaspoon black pepper, and a dash of salt. In addition, we added 1/4 cup finely grated bread crumb and the yolk of one egg. If your meat doesn’t hold together well or adhere to your boiled egg, add another egg yolk (like we did off-camera).

Image6

Once your meat mixture is mixed well, make a couple of patties, and then place a peeled boiled egg in between the patties. Some people like their eggs soft-boiled, others hard — your choice. For a good article on how to boil the perfect egg, click here. Press the patties together, completely surrounding the egg. You’ll want about 3/8 to 1/2″ of meat surrounding the egg.

Image9

At this point, you can also roll the Scotch egg in additional bread crumb if you wish. Our friend, Michael, chose to pan fry his Scotch eggs on a brazier. The ham was already fully cooked. You can also deep fry Scotch eggs, which is how I have always had them.

Don’t forget the gravy!

Scotch eggs are traditionally served with a gravy. A very basic period-correct version goes as follows: form a ball of butter about the size of a walnut, and roll it in flour to coat it well. Place this in a hot skillet, being careful not to shake off any excess flour. When your butter is melted, but before the flour browns, add a little milk or cream, along with a little chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper, and any other seasonings you may prefer. Stir over medium heat until the gravy thickens.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments