Sunday, 9 February 2014

Food for Stories

The fact that the pilgrim characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tell their stories in the hope of winning a free meal suggests the heightened importance of food in medieval literature.  Chaucer’s epic work - probably composed between 1380s and his death in 1400 – is a collection of tales all held together by a framing narrative of a group of 30 people going on pilgrimage from London to the tomb of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury.[1]  At the suggestion of Harry Bailly, the host of the Tabard Inn, the Southwark tavern from which the pilgrims set out on their journey, to pass the time the pilgrims tell stories, knowing that whoever “telleth in this caas / Tales of best sentence and moost solaas, / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost / .../ Whan that we come again fro Caunterbury” (General Prologue ll. 797-801).[2]  Had the promise of a free meal not been there, would these varied and engaging stories ever have been told?  

 A 16th century image of Chaucer’s pilgrims from a manuscript of John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, a continuation of The Canterbury Tales

And the link between food and storytelling continues with one of Chaucer’s storytelling pilgrims being a cook.  In the General Prologue, which acts as an introduction to the anthology of stories, Chaucer introduces the pilgrims.  They are a motley lot, representing a typical range of professions and roles in medieval society, and include the Cook, a man who can “rooste, and seethe, and broille, and frye / Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye” (ll. 383-84); he is a man skilled in a number of cooking processes, namely roasting, boiling, grilling, frying, making stews or soups and baking pies.  The Cook’s culinary talents are, however, somewhat overcast by the sore or abscess that he has on his shin: “on his shyne a mormal hadde he” (l. 386).  Chaucer’s juxtaposition of this physical ailment with the comment that the Cook made the best “blankmanger” (not the blancmange we think o f nowadays, but a dish – white food –composed of minced fowl, cream, rice and almonds) creates a rather unsettling and unsavoury image.  

Chaucer’s Cook from the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (early 15th century).  The Cook holds a meat hook in his left hand, and his weeping sore can be clearly seen on the lower part of his left leg. 

The distasteful image of the Cook is developed in both the prologue to his story, and the tale itself.  According to Harry Bailly, the Cook does not have a good reputation:  he drains the gravy from his pasties - “For many a pastee hastow laten blood” (l. 4346) – and sells repeatedly warmed-up pies “That hath been twies hoot and twies coold” (l. 4348).  Although only a fragment of The Cook’s Tale exists nowadays, what there is – a young fast-living apprentice, Perkin the Reveller, who is dismissed by his master for his riotous living and seeks accommodation with a friend with similar tastes whose wife is a prostitute – suggests a story of loose-morals with probably little comeuppance for the guilty parties. 

But it is to the Cook’s pies that I turn my attention, since I love both making and eating pies.  The medieval cookbook, The Forme of Cury, - see - includes recipes for meat pie (“tartes of flesh”) and fish pie (“tartes of fysshe”), both of which instruct the cook to make a pastry case – ominously referred to as a “coffin”, but apparently meaning a pre-baked pastry case.  But no recipes for pastry appear to exist in The Forme of Cury; presumably it was such a basic skill that it was taken for granted.  Having read that hot water crust pastry is the oldest form of pastry I used a 21st century take on it (à la Paul Hollywood)[3]– including butter as well as lard.  And as a filling I used the venison stew from my last post; probably far too decadent a filling for the Cook to spend money on, but one that provides an appropriate touch of luxury in the grey winter months of the English year. 

Ingredients (serves 4 - 6):

For the hot water crust pastry

400g (14oz) plain flour
80g (3oz) strong white flour
100g (3 ½ oz) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
200ml (7 fl oz) water
2 teaspoons salt
120g (4 ½ oz) lard


Preheat the oven to 200C (G6). 
Make the pastry by sifting the two flours into a large bowl.  Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. 
Bring the water and salt to boil in a saucepan, then add the lard and stir until the lard has melted. 
Pour the lard and water over the flour mixture and stir to form a dough.  Turn the dough onto a floured surface and work into a smooth ball (work quickly as the dough needs to remain warm).  Cut off a third of the dough for the lid, set aside, and roll out the rest of the dough to line the base and sides of the tin or dish you are using (I use a cake tin with a springform base).  Don’t worry if the pastry breaks, but just patch it up making sure there are no cracks or holes. 
When you have lined the tin, pack in the filling closely and up to the top.  Then roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid, arrange it on top and pinch using your fingertips to seal.  Make a couple of holes or knife cuts in the lid and paint with an egg wash (1 egg yolk, a tablespoon of water and a pinch of salt). 
Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour until golden brown on top. 
Allow to cool in the tin and then release.  

[1] Becket, who was enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, was murdered in 1170 by supporters of the king (Henry II) who was in dispute with the primate. 
[2] The Middle English text is cited from A. C. Cawley’s edition of The Canterbury Tales (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1975). 

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