Saturday, January 17, 2009

Food for Thought

On the counter were three over-ripe bananas. There is, after all, only so much you can do with over-ripe bananas, so I got a chair and began to rummage around in the top cupboard for my bread book. Wherever I may have put that, it was not in the top cupboard, but there was a curious volume, which, being the same size and shape as the elusive bread book, fooled me into taking it down. It was A Continual Feast, by Evelyn Birge Vitz, a book of recipes centred around the Christian year. There are many regional recipes, from Scandinavian pickled herring (a Christmas tradition) to the inevitable Easter Hot Cross Buns. I was most taken by an odd entry in the "Lent" section, a sort of fish pie. It pulled me in by its claim of being medieval; it made me remember that excessively fishy passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The fine print delighted me by explaining it was from a cookbook of 1390; it has a good chance of having been contemporary with Gawain.

Here, then, is the fishy passage, as it originally appeared:

"Segges hym served semly innoghe
Wyth sere sewes and sete, sesounde of the best,
Doublefelde, as hit falles, and fle kyn fisches--
Summe baken in bred, summe brad on the gledes,
Summe sothen, summe in sewe savered with spyces--
And ay sawses so sleye that the segge lyked."

Here is a modern English rendering by Marie Borroff:

"Men set his fare before him in fashion most fit.
There were soups of all sorts, seasoned with skill,
Double-sized servings, and sundry fish,
Some baked, some breaded, some broiled on the coals,
Some simmered, some in stews, steaming with spice,
And with sauces to sup that suited his taste."

And, finally, for the curious, here is the recipe, which seems to fall under the "baken in bred" category:

  • Dough for a 9-inch pie crust
  • 1 1/4 pound salmon, cod, or haddock (or a mixture)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 pears, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup good white wine
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 5 cubebs, finely crushed
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 10 prunes, pitted and minced
  • 6 dates, minced
  • 6 dried figs, minced
  • 3 tablespoons damson or red currant jelly

Preheat the oven to 425 F and bake the pie crust for 10 minutes. Let cool.

Cut the fish into 1 1/2 inch chunks, salt lightly, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet and toss the pear and apple slices in it until they are lightly coated.

Combine the wine, lemon juice, brown sugar, spices, and dried fruits, and add to the mixture in the skillet. Cover and simmer about 15 minutes, or until fresh fruit is soft but still firm. Check the flavoring, and drain off excess liquid.

Paint jelly on the pie crust. Combine fish chunks with fruits and place the mixture in the crust. Bake at 375 F for 15 to 25 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Again, the recipe is from A Continual Feast by E.V. Vitz, from Forme of Cury (1390) by way of To the King's Taste by Lorna J. Sass.

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