From the Medieval Larder
By Tim Hazell
Europe in the late Middle Ages (1200-1400) experienced the throes of a transition between the classical world of antiquity and modern civilization that would evolve out of eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Feudal table-fellowship reflected a similar transformation. Attempts were made to document standards for acceptable manners. Extravagance and artful presentation defined celebrations that flaunted status at court and in wealthy households. Although sumptuary laws had been passed during the reign of Edward III to curb extravagance, feasts in well-stocked homes of the nobility were de rigeur. These excerpts are taken from a thirteenth-century book on etiquette:
At table, do not blow thy nose upon thine neighbor’s sleeve.
Do not spit into the washing bowl when it is passed to you.
Do not dip thy fingers into the gravy bowl past the first digit.
Do not dip thine meat directly into the salt cellar.
Do not pick thy teeth with thine knife.
Do not feed the hounds beneath the table with thine hands.
Do not throw thine gnawed bones over thy shoulder, without first looking behind thee to avoid hitting a servitor.
Crusaders had brought gastronomic culture from the East back to English and Frankish kitchens. Arab and Egyptian cooks taught the knights the gourmet predilections of Jerusalem, Ramle, and Acre and how to incorporate ingredients such as lotus fruit, saffron, cloves, and coconut. Snow- cooled fruit juices were early predecessors of today’s sorbets.
Abundant game and domestic animals were paired with exotic condiments from the Silk Road. Sweet wines, tart verjuice, and almond milk gave chefs of the day the opportunity to rise to new levels of aesthetic enterprise, including “appareling,” in which the shapes and textures of common fruits, meats, and vegetables were cleverly altered.
This old recipe for fish with walnuts and herbs in pastry is called Crustardes of Eerbis on Fyssh Day. It was originally served on a fasting day or during Lent, when it was forbidden to eat meat. The fish is baked, and a flavorful sauce is added halfway through the cooking time. Marvelous!
1 prepared 9-inch pastry shell
2 lbs. firm fish fillets, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Good pinch ground cinnamon
2 tbsp. olive oil
4 oz. shelled walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley, rinsed and finely chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme, finely chopped (2 tsp. dried)
2 sprigs fresh lemon balm, finely chopped (optional)
Juice of 1 lime or lemon and equal quantity of water
Generous pinch saffron threads
Preheat oven to 350 F. Fill pastry shell with fish. Season well with salt and pepper. Add cinnamon and spoon oil over fish. Bake for 20 minutes. To prepare sauce, place chopped walnuts and herbs in a saucepan. Add lemon juice, water, and saffron. Season with pepper and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Spoon sauce mixture over partially baked fish. Return to oven and bake for a further 10 minutes. Serve hot.