A Skirret Pye

We know what you’re thinking… what on Earth is a skirret?!

Sium sisarum, commonly known as skirret, is a root vegetable in the Umbelliferae family of plants. The skirret plant grows clusters of long, knobbly, edible roots, which can grow up to a metre or so in length. Each individual root looks a little like a parsnip or carrot in appearance and, when cooked, has a firm texture and a sweet, nutty taste.

Although almost unheard of in British supermarkets today, the skirret is surprisingly easy to grow. It is a perennial plant and is resistant to cold as well as to many pests. It is therefore little wonder that the skirret was a staple food in Medieval Britain.

Following the introduction of the potato to the British diet in the late 16th century, the popularity of skirret declined. By the early 1700s skirrets were being used less widely and by the turn of the 19th century they had disappeared from most recipe books altogether. Our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies suggests just one dish using the vegetable: skirret  pie.

18th century recipe for skirret pie from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for skirret pie from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Skirret Pye

Take the largest skirrets you can get & parboyle them & peel them & season them with cinnimon & powder sugar & put them in a dish with a good deal of fresh butter & some sliced citron & candid orange peel & candid eringoroot, 3 spoonfulls of rose water, 4 of white wine, some Jerusalem hartichokes boyled & sliced. Make it with cold butter paste. When it coms out of the oven, have ready a caudle made of half a pint of sack, some sugar & nutmeg & the yolks of 4 eggs & a print of butter poured on it very hot & the lid laid on it again.

There’s a fantastic article about skirrets in the Food History Jottings blog, complete with photos of an impressive reconstruction of a 17th century skirret pie. Well worth a look!

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The Cooking Up History Sessions – 6: festive fare

Before we knew it, Advent was upon us and it was time for us to roll out some mince pies and mulled wine for our final Cooking Up History Session this year. Our seasoned cookery volunteers Christina and David joined us to create Lemon Caudle and Mammas Mince Pyes from our Georgian-era Cookbook of Unknown Ladies. We were also delighted to welcome food historian Annie Gray to our session. With a professional in our midst, we were keen to show off the knowledge and skills we’d accumulated over the past year, as well as learning some new tips on historic cookery.

Our mincemeat pies were based on the recipe for Mammas Mince Pyes in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Our mincemeat pies were based on the recipe for Mammas Mince Pyes in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

We began with our mince pies. The recipe was met with some hesitancy by the group, as the list of ingredients included a rather hefty amount of beef tongue. Fruit, spice, sugar… and meat? It challenged our preconceived idea of a mince pie should be! But Annie allayed our fears, telling us that once we’d tasted a proper mince meat pie, we’d never want to go back to modern shop bought ones. We determined to stay true to our 18th century ladies and forged ahead with the recipe.

David kicked off our mince pie preparation by shredding the ox tongue

David kicked off our mince pie prep by shredding the ox tongue

David began dicing our meat: cured ox tongue. We’d decided against preparing the tongue from scratch, as the skinning and boiling would have taken more time and space than we had available. There was the added bonus, of course, that for the more squeamish among the group the meat looked and handled just like ham. We then added an fruity mix of apples, currants, raisins and sweetmeats (dried apricots, dried cranberries and candied peel and ginger) to the mixture, stirring well to combine. Sugar and spice were then sprinkled in, along with a good measure of sherry.

The mincemeat mixture, ready for putting in the pie cases

The mincemeat mixture, ready for putting in the pie cases

Christina had expertly rolled and lined a muffin tin with shortcrust pastry. We filled some of the pastry cases with the meaty mincemeat and others with vegetarian mincemeat so that we could compare ‘Mammas mince pyes’ with their modern day counterparts.

Annie showed us how to make and fill a hand-raised pie

Annie showed us how to make and fill a hand-raised pie

Annie then showed us how to craft a hand-raised mince pie, building up the pastry little by little to create a free-standing pie case. We were all very impressed by Annie’s expertise!

Annie’s hand-raised pie case, filled and ready for the pastry lid

Annie’s hand-raised pie case, filled and ready for the pastry lid

After just over half and hour in the oven, it was time to take out the pies and have a taste. Golden brown with crisp short-crust pastry, they were a proper festive temptation and an ideal start to our Christmas celebrations. Our concerns about the meat had been unwarranted. Much to our surprise, the ox tongue added a richness to our mince pies which really enhanced the taste.

Our golden mincemeat pies, ready for tasting!

Our golden mincemeat pies, ready for tasting!

Christina noted that there was something extremely satisfying about all the ingredients – apples, raisins, sultanas etc and that they blended surprisingly well. The sherry gave the mixture real depth, and the nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and ginger provided the warm spice flavours that we have come to associate so closely with Christmas. But unlike the mince pies we buy in the shops today, these 18th century style ones weren’t too sweet – the sugar was really well balance by the saltiness of the tongue. The effect was really very pleasing.

Annie's hand-raised pie was the star of the session!

Annie’s hand-raised pie was the star of the session!

Lemon caudle

Mince pies baked, we went on to make our lemon caudle. It was a quick and relatively easy recipe.

Christina getting the lemon juice ready for our caudle

Christina getting the lemon juice ready for our caudle

We gently heated our milk on the stove and curdled it with freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Once we were sure that all the milk had turned, we strained off the curds and discarded them. The whey was then poured over a couple of egg yolks in a large bowl, whisked all the while, and once combined was returned to the saucepan on the hob. We were really careful to keep stirring the mixture and not let it heat up too much, as while we wanted it to thicken, we definitely didn’t want the mixture to split a second time!

Curdling milk to make lemon caudle. We turned the milk with lemon juice.

Curdling milk to make lemon caudle. We turned the milk with lemon juice.

As the caudle cooked, we began to get a better idea of what we might expect from it in terms of taste and texture. Christina thought the caudle would be a bit like custard, while Annie suggested that it would be warming and comforting – perfect for warding off the cold of winter.

Lemon caudle, ready for serving!

Lemon caudle, ready for serving!

We were pleased to find our end product a pleasant, milky drink, which led some of our group to compare it to our modern day equivalent of ‘Ovaltine’. The rose water, now so strongly associated with our Georgian cookery, still added the slightly unfamiliar taste to our drink, despite the little we had added. Still unsure of this perfumed taste, Christina and Kim agreed that one glass of this was more than enough, despite its soothing taste and texture.

As a post dinner treat, the combination of our mince pies and lemon caudle worked surprisingly well together. Christina was so blown away by our mince pies, she claimed they were the best she’d ever tasted! A comment to be cherished! Although our lemon caudle hadn’t tickled anyone’s tastebuds to quite the same extent, we had also enjoyed trying it out. Relaxing with a glass of mulled wine, we went on to discuss the pros and cons of historic food recreation with Annie…a lovely conclusion to a busy afternoon!

You can find the recipes we followed for the mince pies and lemon caudle on our Cooking Up History page. Why not give them a go?

A masterclass in simplicity

One of the tenets of modern gastronomy is simplicity: allowing good ingredients to take centre stage.

Today’s recipes reveal the Georgians as the masters of this art. There are no lengthy lists of ingredients, complicated cooking processes or extravagant proposals for presentation. Instead, we are offered a masterclass in moderation, as even the cheapest meat and fish are given the space to shine on the plate. 

The first recipe, for lamb stove or stew, comes from William Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle. With a little parsley and onion and a good helping of spinach and beef stock, lamb’s head and lungs are turned into a warming winter stew:

Regency recipe for Lamb Stove. Our unknown ladies borrowed this recipe from Kitchiner's Cook's Oracle

Regency recipe for Lamb Stove. Our unknown ladies borrowed this recipe from Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle

Lamb Stove or Lamb Stew

Take a lambs head & lights. Open the jaws of the head and wash them thoroughly. Put them in pot with some beef stock made with three quarts of water and two pounds of shin of beef strained. Boil very slowly for an hour. Wash and string two or three good handfuls of spinach. Put it in twenty minutes before serving. Add a little parsley & one or two onions a short time before it comes off the fire. Season with pepper & salt & serve in a tureen.

Next comes herring pie, a simple dish of seasoned herrings, onion and butter in a puff pastry shell:

18th century recipe for 'Herring Pye' from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for ‘Herring Pye’ from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Herring Pye

Season yr herrings with pepper & salt. Put a good deal of sliced onion with then & good store of butter. Soe bake them in puff paste & eat them hot.

And finally, water souchy. The dish’s curious name comes from the Dutch waterzootje, and it seems possible that this soup may have become enshrined in the English culinary repertoire around the time of William of Orange’s accession to the throne in 1689. Today, the Belgians still enjoy a traditional fish stew known as waterzooi.

The version of water souchy given in our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies is another recipe taken from Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle. Flounder, whiting, gudgeon and eel are suggested as suitable fish varieties for the soup, but other fish could also be used according to availability: 

William Kitchiner's recipe for water souchy, a fish broth, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

William Kitchiner’s recipe for water souchy, a fish broth, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Water Souchy

Is made with flounders, whitings, gudgeons or eels. They must be quite fresh & nicely cleaned, for what they are boiled in makes the sauce. Wash, gut & trim your fish. Cut them into handsome pieces. Put them into a stewpan with as much water as will cover them, with some parsley, an onion minced, a little pepper & salt. Some add scraped horseradish and a bay leaf. Skim it carefully when it boils. When done enough, (which will be in a few minutes) send it up in a deep dish with bread sippets and some slices of bread & butter on a plate.

 

A quince pye

A very short but sweet recipe for quince pie:

A Georgian recipe for quince pie from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

A Georgian recipe for quince pie from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

A Quince Pye

First pare them & core them & half bake them as you do pears. Then lay them in yr pye with sirrop of black berrys & no other liquour, some shread orange peel that has bee boyled tender & some stiks of cinnimo[n]. Appels are good don this way in a pye.

Quinces are quite astringent in flavour, but our unknown ladies would have added plenty of sugar to the fruit before ‘half baking’ them like pears. There are only three additional ingredients – blackberry syrup, orange zest and cinnamon sticks – but each brings a distinctive flavour, making for an aromatic filling.

As so often with recipes in the Cookbook, there are many omissions in the method. How much blackberry syrup? How many cinnamon sticks? And, most significantly, there is no mention at all of pastry!

We’d suggest using a shortcrust pastry for this dish. About 1kg of quinces should make enough filling for a generous family pie, and you’d need about 100g or so of sugar to offset their tartness (reduce the sugar somewhat if you’re substituting apples for quinces). As for the berry syrup, orange and cinnamon, It is really down to personal taste. When you’re satisfied with your flavour balance and have sealed the filling with a shortcrust lid, we think 1 hour at 180°C should do the trick.

Lumber pie

Transform simple forcemeat into something amazing with this 18th century recipe for lumber pie.

Home-made forcemeat balls are layered in a dish with bone marrow, lemon peel,  asparagus tips and a selection of sweetmeats, and baked under a lid of puff pastry. Once cooked through, a rich warm sauce of egg yolks, butter, wine and sugar is poured into the pie.

Like name, like nature, lumber pie is a heavy, hearty dish!

18th century recipe for a hearty "lumber pye", from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for a hearty “lumber pye”, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Lumber Pye

Half roast a leg of veal. Take a pd & half of it clear the from skin, a pd & half of fresh marrow. Minse them very small. 3 large naple biskets, a pd of brown sugar, some pounded cloves & mace, 4 or 5 spoonfulls of rose water or orange flower water, 2 eggs broke in to it & work this into a paste with your hands. Make it into balls, then lay them in layers in your dish with a layer of whole marrow betwen a layer, a little shread lemon peel that has been boyled tender, & betwen another layer put the tops of asparagus, betwen another layer put all sorts of sweet meats & last of all put a layer of balls. Cover it with puff paste. When it is baked, pour a caudle made of a pint of white wine, the yolks of 4 eggs & a bit of butter. Sweeten it with sugar. Pour this hot & serve it up.

If you’re thinking of giving this dish a go and would like to see what you’re aiming for, there’s a fantastic photo on Ivan Day’s Historic Food website!

Oysters for everyone!

Oysters today are considered a delicacy and the reserve of the rich. Back in the 18th century however, they were served up liberally and savoured by all levels of society. London’s many shellfish shops often offered an ‘oyster room’ where their wares could be sampled on site, and oyster-men did the rounds of the city’s theatres and public houses, selling produce from the oyster-beds of the Kent and Essex coasts. The shores of the Thames are still littered with oyster shells, discarded by Georgian Londoners at a time when the shellfish were considered fast, cheap food.

Whitstable is a fishing town that has that supplied the London markets for centuries. This weekend, hosts of Londoners will be making the journey over to Whitstable harbour for the start of the town’s annual Oyster Festival. It seems a fitting occasion to explore a couple of oyster dishes from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

The recipes below each call for a hundred oysters, making them expensive dishes by today’s standards! While our unknown ladies’ oyster loaves recipe sees each crusty roll stuffed with 16 of the shellfish, Paul Hollywood’s modern version on the BBC website is scaled down to suit 21st century wallets.

 

This 18th century recipe for oyster loaves calls for 100 oysters!

This 18th century recipe for oyster loaves calls for 100 oysters!

To Make Oyster Loaves

Take half a dozen of French roules, cut of the top of the crust about the breadth of a shilling piece and scoop out all the crum and be sure not to breake the crust. Then take a hundred of oysters, open them and wash them very well in […] their own liquor. Then take the oysters and some crums of bread and two spoonfulls of their own liquor and a bout half a pint of white wine. Take some mace and cloves and a little nutmeg and pound them in a morter and put all these in your sause pan and stir them all together. When you find your oysters prity well stued, then take three prints of butter drawn very thick, put into your oysters. Take your Frensh roules and fry them in fresh butter, very crisp. Then put your oysters into them. Then put on the tops which you cutt of and keep them very hot till you serve them up.

Our second recipe is for an ‘oyester pye’. This is a hearty dish: oysters, sweetbreads, boiled eggs and chestnuts are just a few of the ingredients:

Extract from an 18th century recipe for "oyester pye" from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Extract from an 18th century recipe for “oyester pye” from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

An Oyester Pye

Take an hundred of the largest oysters you can get. Wash them, when opend, in […] warm water. Strain all ther own liquor and put ye water yow wash ye oysters in likewise. Cut two large sweet breads in small bits. Have an half hundred bouled chesnuts peeled, six yolks off hard eggs, two anchovys shred, some lumps of whole marrow. Intermix all these in ye pye. Pour on ye liquor & a water glass full of white wine. Fill ye pye with what liquor it wants, with greawy. If you have not marrow, put in butter. Seasone it with salt, mace and cloves.

Pastry perfection

If you’ve been following the culinary adventures of our Cooking Up History team, you’ll have noticed we’ve taken a couple of short-cuts here and there when recreating our Regency recipes in the Archives kitchen. The Unknown Ladies  of our Cookbook didn’t have access to kitchen luxuries such as the electric blender or the fan-assisted oven, and when it came to pastry-making there was only one way to go about it: by hand.

Kitchiner’s method for puff pastry, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Kitchiner’s method for puff pastry, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Puff Paste

To a pound and quarter of sifted flour rub gently in with the hand half a pound of butter. Mix up with half a pint of spring water. Knead it well and set it by for a quarter of an hour. Then roll it out, then lay on it, in small pieces, ¾ of a pound more of butter. Throw on it a little flour, double it up in folds and roll it out thin three times. Set it by for an hour in a cold place.

Our ladies transcribed this puff pastry method from William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle. Kitchiner wasn’t content with the familiar range of puff, filo, flaky and shortcrust. His manual for the everyday cook includes pastry recipes for meat pies, ‘family pies’, boiled puddings, as well as decorative toppings for sweet pies and tarts:

Kitchiner's method for "pastry for stringing tartlets", recorded in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Kitchiner’s method for “pastry for stringing tartlets”, recorded in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Paste for Stringing Tartlets 

Mix with your hands a quarter of a pound of flour, an ounce of fresh butter and a little cold water. Rub it well between the board & your hand till it begins to string. Cut it into small pieces. Roll it out and draw it into fine strings.

To make a "croquante" of pastry: a Regency recipe by William Kitchiner, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To make a “croquante” of pastry: a Regency recipe by William Kitchiner, transcribed in The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

A Croquante of Paste

Roll out paste* about the eighth of an inch thick. Rub over a plain mould with a little fresh butter. Lay on the paste very even and equally thin on both sides. Pare it round the rim then, with a small penknife cut out small pieces as fancy may direct such as diamonds, stars &c. Let it lie to dry some time and bake it a few minutes in a slack oven. Remove it from the mould and place it on a tart or very small pasty. 

* Paste for CroquantsTo half a pound of fine flour put a quarter of a pound of sifted loaf sugar. Mix it well together with yolks of eggs till of a good stiffness