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Propagating Wild Yeast for Reenactments


Today, if you asked 50 people about how to start a wild yeast culture for making sourdough bread, it’s likely you’ll get 100 different answers, but in reality, all it takes is a little bit of flour, some water and…

Which Yeast (Time 0_00_55;12)

September 29, 2017


Akara Recipe


Akara is a simple, easy to make snack that was frequently made in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Dried Black-eyed Peas Onions Parsley flour Boiling water Lard First, pulverize the dried black-eyed peas into very small pieces. Add to…

akara-time-0_00_0921


A Fanciful Yet Easy Asparagus Soup


This delicious Asparagus Soup recipe from Elizabeth Cleland’s A new and easy methods of cookery (1755). Many of this recipe's techniques, including roux, food coloring, bone broth, and court-bouillon (the ingredients boiled in the soup that are removed before eating)…

Asp6

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September 28, 2017


Rye and Indian Bread


This is called Rye and Indian bread, because it’s made of part rye flour and part Indian meal or sometimes we call it cornmeal. You can use just those two grains to make the flour, or you can add wheat…

rye-and-indian-bread-time-0_08_1818


Simple Boiled Plum Pudding


Many people hear the word pudding today and they think about some little custardy stuff in a cup or something you buy at the grocery store in a box and mix it up with some milk. Pudding has a much…

Plum Pudding (Time 0_11_05;10)


An Onion Soup Recipe from 1801


This recipe for onion soup is out of John Mollard’s 1801 cookbook, “The Art of Cooking Made Easy and Refined”. 4 oz. Butter 4 tbsps. Flour 8 midsized Onions of choice Salt 3 qts. Beef Stock 4 Egg Yolks 1…

onion-soup-time-0_00_4313


A White Pot Recipe


A White Pot with Raisins and Dates Serves 1 - 6 (depending on how polite you are) The name “White Pot” originates from the Devon region of England. But this sweet, buttery custard bread pudding, layered with sweetmeats (dried fruits)…

Also Known as a White Pudding


Master Wood Turner Erv Tschanz


In this special video, master wood turner Erv Tschanz shares his passion for the craft. Erv is one of several skilled artisans that sells handcrafted items through Jas. Townsend & Son. The treenware cherry wood plate being made in this…

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September 13, 2017


Weaver/Trapper Interview: Experiencing History Through Reenacting


We've been busy interviewing fellow reenactors for the purpose of inspiring and encouraging viewers who are interested in getting involved in historical reenacting but don't know how to begin. Today we interview Tony Baker, a weaver by trade, who has…

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Starting a Living History Group from Scratch


It took an idea and a group of friends, and it went from there. Albert Roberts tells the story of how the innovative historical interpretive group "The HMS Acasta" was born. http://ift.tt/2wQkO31 More great information! ***************************** Our Retail Website -…

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Page 1 of 69
Currant Challenges

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)

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.


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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)

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?

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

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)

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

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:
https://nwwildfoods.com/product/dried-black-currants/
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):
https://nwwildfoods.com/?s=currants

18th Century Currants

18th Century Currants

Currants in 18th century cookery has presented a bit of a quandary for me.

I guess I ought to start with some clarification on the term “currant.” There are two basic kinds of currants used in cooking: the half-pint raisin type, and the cousin-to-the-gooseberry type. The former is a raisin processed from small seedless Corinth grapes. The latter is a berry belonging to the Ribes genus of shrubs and is simplistically divided into three broad varieties: black, red, and the albino cultivar of red — white. Both the raisin and the berry existed in the 18th century and were distinguished from each other in period botanical journals. Very seldom, however, is there any clarification in period cookbooks as to which should be used.

So the question immediate arises in my mind, when it comes to interpreting period recipes, which is the correct fruit to use?

History of the Currant(s)

Nearly all cultivated currant berries find their origins in northern Europe and Asia. Even today, these regions grow the vast majority of the world’s currant supply. Early production, however, was not limited to Europe. 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. By the end of the 19th century, production had reached nearly 7,000 acres.

North American currant production hit a major roadblock in the early 20th century. It was discovered that the black currant was a vector host for an extremely aggressive and destructive white pine fungus — that is to say, both the white pine tree and the black currant bush are needed to complete the fungus’s life cycle. Federal laws soon prohibited the cultivation of black currants in the U.S., and the Civilian Conservation Corps was assigned the duty of extirpating the plant. While the ban was lifted a few years ago, various state laws still exist, some of which ban the cultivation of all varieties of the plant, not just black.

According to Penn State’s booklet on berries, there are strains of currants native to North American. These wild currants are called “Buffalo currants,” and are thought to be more closely related to gooseberries than European currants. According the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), wild currants were used by some Indian nations in the production of pemmican — a perfect survival food, which is of particular interest to me, since I’m presently writing another post on the role of pemmican in early North America history.

The raisin-type currant is also referred to as the Zante currant. This name is derived from the Ionian Island now known as Zakynthos, off the coast of Greece. The word “currant,” according to the 1390 collection of English recipes, A Forme of Cury, first published in 1780, 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.  Currant berries, on the other hand, were introduced to English gardens in the 16th century, and according to Hess, quickly became popular, threatening to predominate the shared name. It’s historically clear that Ribes berries were named after currant raisins.

Worlds Apart

Early attempts to grow Grapes of Corinth in Northern Europe failed. Some sources suggest that upon the successful cultivation of Ribes bush, a common misconception arose that the Ribes bush was the plant from which Zante currants were derived. The name “currant” was misapplied as a result. The rapid growth in popularity caused the name to stick. This confusion appears to have continued for centuries — even as late as the 20th century. According to the California Fruit Growers and Farmers Convention “Monthly Bulletin, Volume 2” of 1913, there appeared to be a concerted effort on the part of Zante currant importers to convince legislators that Zante currants were one-and-the-same with currant berries. This was done to sidestep import taxes.

It’s easy to understand how people would have sought a “local source” for currants possibly even on the basis of economics alone. Zantes had been subject to import tariffs long before the aforementioned article from 1913. The 18th century British government had a fairly complicated system of taxation on raisins.

Currants were most frequently used in puddings, but they were also included in recipes for mincemeat, porridge, broths, wines, vinegars, and jellies and jams. I once thought that one could determine which currant to use simply by the type of food they were used in, e.g., jellies called for Ribes berries, and puddings called for Zantes. The more I read, however, the less convinced I became.

The Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 22 (1827, page 73), suggests that when dried, the Ribes currant was used interchangeably with the Zante currant. Several period cookbooks instruct readers how to dry currant berries. This would have extended their use far beyond their growing season. By appearance (as you can see in the photo above), dried currants look very much like raisins.

Redcurrants and white currants appear to have been more popular than the more stringent tasting blackcurrants. Blackcurrants were still preferred by many for its stronger flavor. They are extremely high in vitamin C. On average, six blackcurrant berries contain the same amount of vitamin C as does an entire lemon. Blackcurrants were also used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a throat lozenge. They often went by the name “qunisieberries,” used to treat quinsies — a chronic tonsil condition.

But back to their culinary use, while people were possibly eager to find a substitute for the more expensive “currants of the shops,” it remains somewhat of a mystery to me how these two fruits continued to share the same name. When it comes to flavor, Zantes and Ribes are worlds apart from each other. Redcurrants taste somewhat like tart raspberries; blackcurrants, like unripe blueberries. Some period cookbooks suggested that raspberries and currants could serve as substitutes. Zante currants, in contrast, have only a slightly tangy flavor compared to raisins, but their flavor is still predominately raisin. I conducted a blind taste test with folks in the office. I used high-quality Zantes; even so, more times than not, participants said it was a raisin they were tasting.

It’s clear from period texts that the Ribes berry as well as the Zante raisin were both used in 18th century cooking — even for the same dishes. A pudding made with Ribes is very different from one made with Zantes. Some cookbook authors were kind enough to be specific which to use. Most apparently saw no need in spite of the drastic differences. After experimenting with dried blackcurrants, I can see why many pudding recipes called for both raisins and currants — something I could not quite understand before. Zantes and raisins are simply too close in flavor to justify in my mind going to the trouble of using both. Using black currants with raisins, however, provides a most interesting combination of sweet and tart, and I can also see how a pudding sauce of equal parts sugar, melted butter, and sack (or wine) would provide an equally suitable sweet contrast.

So, having said all of that, the question still begs to be answered: Which is more appropriate in 18th century cooking, Zante currants or Ribes currants? Until I see further evidence to the contrary, I believe the answer is either one — understanding that both will provide very different results. I would encourage you to do your own comparisons!

By the way, if you’re interested in finding high-quality Zante currants, check out nuts.com. If you would like to try a pudding recipe using dried blackcurrants (Ribes), check out Northwest Wild Foods.

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right)

 

If you would like to read more about puddings, check out my previous post. You’ll find there a recipe for New College Puddings (also called “Puddings in Haste”) that’s not only quick and easy, but very delicious. I made these again this morning using blackcurrants as well as Atora Suet. They were out of this world!

 

Scotch Eggs

Scotch Eggs

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).

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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.

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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.

 

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