Discover more from Folklore, Food and Fairytales
From Tinned Sardines to Beer & Apples
Via Mediaeval Cookbooks, Anglo-Saxon Foods, Sicily & a Resourceful Heroine
Dearest Gentle Reader,
I hope all is well with you now that we are fully under the influence of Autumn with only a few weeks left to go. There is a gorgeous chill in the air and the leaves are almost fully turned and dropping fast. I enjoy how the branches look now, stark against a clear blue sky as though the bones of the tree are revealed to us again as the leaves flutter away to deliver wishes to those that catch them.
As I spend more time indoors and am now thinking of the warmer richer flavours of Autumn and Winter, I started to consider why I love contrasting flavours eaten together so much. I really do. I’m particularly fond of sweet and savoury together especially if there are any warm spices or chilli involved. One of my favourite store-cupboard dishes is a version of a Sicilian pasta dish known as Pasta con Sarde.
I make it with penne, tinned sardines, chilli flakes, fennel seeds, pine nuts and sultanas and onion. I fry the onion and spices in the oil from the sardine tin whilst boiling the pasta. When the onion is softened and starting to get a bit brown around the edges I add in the sardines, pine nuts and sultanas. When this is warmed through and everything is starting to stick, I add some water from the pasta until it resembles a thick sauce. Then I loosely drain the pasta and stir into the sauce, an added bit of water always helps.
I think this is delicious but I know a lot of people consider the combination of fish and fruit to be abominable but this somehow just works. The sweetness from the sultanas and the heat from the chilli offset the oily fish. I love it and for something that takes 15 minutes with fairly cheap store cupboard ingredients it really feels something exciting and a little as though you have travelled somewhere out of the rain.
It's surprising actually how much history this dish has (the real one with fresh fish and actual fennel bulbs as well as seeds). The chilli aside (didn’t arrive until later from America), this a mediaeval dish, heavily influenced by the Arab conquest of Sicily. The combination of fish and fruit plus the fennel seeds is not one that originated from the original population of Sicily and it can definitely be argued that the pasta came to Sicily and Italy with the conquerors.
Fish and fruit or meat and fruit with spices are definitely recognisable from British mediaeval history as well and there are various theories around this. We don’t know much about actual dishes from the early mediaeval period even if there is archeological evidence as to what ingredients were eaten. Although saying that there is a fascinating book, Fodder & Drincan: Anglo-Saxon Culinary History by Emma Kay which brings the evidence we have to life. It must be said though that post 1066 when Anglo-Norman cooking became the norm amongst the elite we at least have a lot more resources to draw on. Actual cookbooks and collections of manuscripts exist.
It is believed that the love for spices and sweet and sour foods which balanced sweetness with the sourness of verjus as well as meats and fish dishes which included fruits came in part at least from Arab influences. Arab foods were associated with luxury and sophistication and there is evidence of recipes for dishes which once adorned the royal courts of Syria and Baghdad, adapted and being served in Italian and Anglo-Norman society.
I read a particularly wonderful essay about English mediaeval food by Constance B. Hieatt in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe: A Book of Essays which explores some of the connections between Anglo-Norman recipes and those of Norman controlled kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. It appears that there are possibly as many similarities between the recipes of what is now Italy and English cooks as there are between Anglo-Norman and Norman-French recipes. In addition apparently English recipes or rather Anglo-Norman recipes were particularly known for using local and seasonal ingredients resulting in recipes that don't appear anywhere else. Late mediaeval English cooks were also particularly inventive and experimental and enjoyed making weird and wonderful ‘subtleties’ to be served between courses of royal feasts and banquets.
“One such example is "Lenten eggs," made of a paste containing fish and almond milk, molded in empty eggshells, with carefully inserted "yolks" coloured with saffron, carrying the tradition of fish-day versions of favorite foods to the point of producing a "subtlety" to delight diners during the season when eggs were not allowed” - Constance B. Hieatt - Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe: A Book of Essays
I hope our little detour into mediaeval dishes via my dinner has inspired you. I certainly went down a rabbit hole and was so distracted that I ended up the owner of Scents & Flavors - A Syrian Cookbook and Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table - a fourteenth century Egyptian cookbook instead of a new bottle shelf for my fridge door. On that note, I’m sure that you, Gentle Reader, are fully aware of the model number of your fridge. I, however, am not and the resulting array of bottle shelves left me very confused. I’m on much firmer ground with a mediaeval cookbook.
In honour of our shared food history I’m bringing you a little Italian tale: The Little Girl Sold with the Pears adapted from the tale collected by Italo Calvino:
Once a man had a pear tree that used to bear four baskets of pears a year. One year, though, it only bore three baskets and a half, while he was supposed to carry four to the king. Seeing no other way out, he put his youngest daughter into the fourth basket and covered her up with pears and leaves. The baskets were carried into the king's pantry, where the child stayed in hiding underneath the pears. But having nothing to eat, she began nibbling on the pears. After a while the servants noticed the supply of pears dwindling and also saw the cores. "There must be a rat or a mole gnawing on the pears," they said. "We shall look inside the baskets."
They removed the top and found the little girl.
"What are you doing here?" they asked. "Come with us and work in the king's kitchen."
They called her Perina, and she was such a clever little girl that in no time she was doing the housework better than the king's own maidservants. She was so pretty no one could help loving her. The king's son, who was her age exactly, was always with Perina, and they became very fond of each other.
Once the maiden grew up, the maidservants began to envy her. They held their tongues for a while, then accused Perina of 'boasting she would go and steal the witches' treasure’. The king got wind of it and sent for the girl. "Is it true you boasted you would go and steal the witches' treasure?"
"No, my King, I made no such boast."
"You did so," insisted the king, "and now you have to keep your word." At that, he banished her from the palace until she should return with the treasure
On and on she walked until nightfall. Perina came to an apple tree, but kept on going. She next came to a peach tree, but still didn't stop. Then she came to a pear tree, climbed it, and fell asleep…
In the morning there stood a little old woman under the tree. "What are you doing up there, my daughter?" asked the old woman.
Perina told her about the difficulty she was in. The old woman said, "Take these three pounds of grease, three pounds of bread, and three pounds of millet and be on your way." Perina thanked her very much and moved on.
She came to a bakery where three women were pulling out their hair to sweep out the oven with. Perina gave them the three pounds of millet, which they then used to sweep out the oven and allowed her to continue on her way.
On and on she walked and met three mastiffs that barked and rushed at anyone coming their way. Perina threw them the three pounds of bread, and they let her pass. After walking for miles and miles she came to a blood-red river, which she had no idea how to cross. But the old woman had told her to say:
"Fine water so red, I must make haste; Else, of you would I taste."
At those words, the waters parted and let her through. On the other side of the river, Perina beheld one of the finest and largest palaces in the world. But the door was opening and slamming so rapidly that no one could possibly go in. Perina therefore applied the three pounds of grease to its hinges, and from then on it opened and closed quite gently.
Inside, Perina spied the treasure chest sitting on a small table. She picked it up and was about to go off with it, when the chest spoke:
"Door, kill her, kill her!"
"I won't, either, since she greased my hinges that hadn't been looked after since goodness knows when."
Perina reached the river, and the chest said, "River, drown her, drown her!"
"I won't, either," replied the river, "since she called me 'Fine water so red.' "
She came to the dogs, and the chest said, "Dogs, devour her, devour her!"
"We won't, either," replied the dogs, "since she gave us three pounds of bread."
She came to the bakery oven. "Oven, burn her, burn her!" But the three women replied, "We won't, either, since she gave us three pounds of millet, so that now we can spare our hair."
When she was almost home, Perina, who had as much curiosity as the next person, decided to peep into the treasure chest. She opened it, and out came a hen and her brood of gold chicks. They scuttled away too fast for a soul to catch them. Perina struck out after them. She passed the apple tree, but they were nowhere in sight. She passed the peach tree, where there was still no sign of them. She came to the pear tree, and there stood the little old woman with a wand in her hand and hen and chicks feeding- around her. "Shoo, shoo!" went the old woman, and the hen and chicks reentered the treasure chest.
Upon her arrival, the king's son came out to meet her. "When my father asks what you want as a reward, tell him that box filled with coal in the cellar."
On the doorstep of the royal palace stood the maidservants, the king, and the entire-court. Perina handed the king the hen with the brood of gold chicks. "Ask for whatever you want," said the king, "and I will give it to you."
"I would like the box of coal in the cellar," replied Perina.
They brought her the box of coal, which she opened, and out jumped the king's son, who was hiding inside. The king was then happy for Perina to marry his son because she seemed so clever and resourceful.
Have you got just a brief moment to enjoy some food folklore before I draw to a close? Did you perhaps miss your local All Hallows Eve celebrations? Or even worse, did you forget to go out collecting soul cakes on All Soul’s Day? It turns out that there may be a second chance on 23 November to catch up on the traditions. Well at least one, bobbing for apples is one way to celebrate St Clement, whose day is celebrated on that date. St Clement is associated with blacksmiths because he was drowned on a big iron anchor apparently.
His day was celebrated in South Staffordshire due to the large proliferation of blacksmiths in the newly industrialised area. Blacksmiths sometimes referred to St Clement as Old Clem. The day was often called Bite-apple or Bob-apple Day and people went collecting from their neighbours in order to hold the celebration. In the way that this was called Souling on All Souls Day, the practice on 23 November was called Clementing. Sadly it does differ in that you don’t get cake but you do get apples and wine or apples and beer as per some of the chants below:
"Clemeny, Clemeny, Clemeny mine !
A good red apple and a pint of wine !"
"Clemeny, Clemeny, year by year,
Some of your apples and some of your beer
"Cattern and Clemen' be here, be here,
Some of your apples and some of your beer!"
"Up with the ladder and down with the can!
Give me red apples and I'll be gone.
At least apples are good for you, I suppose.
I’ll leave you with that little piece of food folklore as sadly I must now bring this letter to a close due to the siren call of my new mediaeval cookbooks. Please don’t hesitate however to get in touch via the comments or via any of my social media profiles/my website . If you have enjoyed this and would like to read further such nonsense and have not yet subscribed, please don’t hesitate to subscribe for free at the button below. You’d be very welcome and it would be a joy to write to you.