Fit for a king?

This week I take a look at the problem of visual aesthetics when reconstructing two of Richard II’s recipes

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a1/Richard_II_King_of_England.jpg
Portrait of Richard II, Westminster Abbey, London, c. 1390. Image credit: Westminster Abbey / Public domain via Wikimedia.

During the last two weeks I finally got back into some recipe development. It’s easy to become preoccupied with writing about the recipes of Richard II’s cookery book and not actually cooking them. Don’t get me wrong, I do love reading from and translating medieval manuscripts (even digitised versions thereof) and I like researching around the text, in this case finding out more about medieval food and cooking, but there is nothing quite like bringing history to life than, well, cooking it up!

However, it isn’t always as straightforward as I’d like it to be. As many of you know, medieval recipes are often sparse on detail, and invariably don’t include quantities of ingredients or timings for cooking. And so it takes time to work things out, patience to get something that tastes good and not just interesting – which might as well be a curse to the aspiring, or is that deluded, medievalist MasterChef contestant.

And, then, there is the problem of looks.

There is, alas, no visual inspiration to direct my artistic eye, no glossy photos or pretty watercolours, not even a crude sketch in the 14th-century manuscript I work with, Forme of Cury – most inconsiderate of Richard’s master cooks, don’t you think? And being as I’m neither professional chef nor “food designer” (I will try not to cough derisively, here) my own attempts at prettifying food sometimes are way down low on the Gastronomic Aesthetics Scale.

This unpardonable lack was much in evidence in the two dishes I’ve been exploring these last two weeks: Grewel Forced (Enriched Gruel) and Mounchelet, a mutton stew. But I will do my best to ignore the voice in my head, with its distinct Klingon accent, shouting Gagh, and present to you my research and development of these two recipes.

Posh grewel

For to make grewel forced 

Take grewel & do to þe fyre with gode flesch & seeþ hit wel, take þe lyre of pork & grynd hit smal and drawe þe grewel þorow a straynour & colour hyt wiþ safroun.

How to make enriched gruel

Take gruel to the fire with good meat and simmer it well; take the meat of pork and grind it small and pass the gruel through a strainer and colour it with saffron.

Text and translation by Christopher Monk © 2020

Grewel forced
‘For to make grewel forced’, Forme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 12v. By permission of the University of Manchester.

I think I should start off by saying that there is no way of knowing if Richard II, known for his gourmandize, ever ate ‘strengthened gruel’, a more literal translation of this recipe’s name. Perhaps occasionally he had moments of deeply felt humbleness and wished to understand what his peasant subjects ate on a daily basis but, as he couldn’t quite stomach the blandness of water and oatmeal, asked his cooks for a version made with some decent pork and the world’s most expensive spice, saffron – oh, and do strain it, for heaven’s sake!

For my own version, I didn’t want to slavishly follow the outlined method, though being as it’s not the clearest set of instructions going, I think my allusion here to meticulous authenticity is hardly appropriate. But, anyway, what I decided was that I would go for depth of flavour: so a good broth to cook the meat in and spices to enliven it.

In later medieval versions of enriched gruel, ‘mary bones’ —  marrow bones — are used for the broth in which the oats are cooked. So I decided to make some bone broth myself, from a combination of ordinary beef bones and beef marrow bones, which I bought, along with my meat, from Gazegill Farm, a wonderful organic enterprise not far from where I live.

I should warn you all, cooking a bone broth is not for the faint-hearted. It is both time consuming, needing at least eight hours to cook, and messy, particularly passing the finished broth through muslin.

I also wanted to use slow-cooked pork for my gruel, because, quite frankly, a ham hock cooked in medieval spices, sous vide in a modern water bath is close to paradise. I should add that there was no way I was going to follow the original recipe by pulverising this delicious meat into oblivion in a mortar. I swear those medieval cooks were addicted to grinding their meat into smithereens.

The spices I used were my own powder fort mix. If you want my recipe for this based on an authentic medieval text, you can find it here.

So, folks, here is the result of my endeavours. Despite its appearance, I am happy to advise that this dish was more than interesting.

Grewel forced with roast cauliflower
More than interesting! Heavenly ‘Grewel Forced’, served with non-medieval roasted cauliflower and failed crackling. Picture by Christopher Monk © 2020.

The bone broth

Ingredients (made about 1.5 litres/50 US fl oz)

1kg/2.2lb beef marrow bones

1 kg/2.2lb beef stock bones

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

1 medium leek, cut into 5cm/2inch slices

1 head of garlic, cut in half horizontally

black peppercorns, about 1 desert spoon

2 bay leaves

water, enough to cover everything

Method

Preheat the overn to 230°C/210°C fan/450°F, Gas 8. Place the bones along with the onions, leek and garlic onto a baking tray or shallow roasting tin. Roast for 20 minutes. Toss the ingredients around and roast for a further 20 minutes, until the bones are browned.

Add the bones and vegetables to a large pan or stockpot, scraping all the goodness into it. Add the black peppercorns and bay leaves and enough water to cover all the ingredients. You may have to fiddle about getting the bones into place.

Place the lid onto your pan or stockpot and bring to the boil and then reduce to the gentlest of simmers. Cook for at least 8 hours. Check periodically to see if the simmer is gentle and the liquid is still covering the bones.

Once cooked, cool for a while before straining the broth, using either a fine-mesh strainer or a sieve with muslin (I’d recommend the former, if you have one; it’s now on my to-buy list).

Discard all the bones and vegetables, though make sure all the lovely bone marrow has escaped from the bones and, if not, scoop it out with something thin (I made use of a long desert spoon with a very thin handle).

Further cool, over ice preferably, and then refrigerate overnight. I used about a quarter of the total broth for my gruel, though if cooking a larger quantity, you will need more. You can freeze what you don’t use. After refrigerating there will be a layer of fat on the top, which should be removed before making the gruel. You could try using it for roast potatoes.

The slow cooked pork

Ingredients

1 ham hock

herbs, e.g. fresh thyme, generous bunch; or mixed dried herbs

powder fort

When it comes to herbs and spices, it’s really up to you how much you use. I’d say don’t skimp but be aware that powder fort is quite hot. A tablespoon gives a warm spicy note to the dish, but you can double that, or more, if you want a kick. A few sprigs of fresh thyme or a heaped teaspoon of dried herbs shouldn’t dominate the dish.

Method

You may need to pre-soak your ham hock. The way my local farm prepares it means I didn’t have to, so best to check with your local supplier or butcher.

Rub in the spice mix and herbs into the ham hock. You don’t need salt. If you have a water bath, vacuum pack the ham hock and slow cook for 8 hours at 80°C/175°F. If you don’t, you can use a slow cooker and follow the instructions for slow cooking pork; I don’t have a slow cooker, so I don’t want to advise you on this. You can also cook a ham hock on the hob, but I’d advise you to do your own research to work out the best timings.

Once the ham hock is cooked, allow it to cool a while before shredding the meat with your fingers. I put this into a bowl along with some of the juices from the vacuum pack and refrigerate it until I need it. Cooking the ham hock, and the bone broth, the day before makes life easier.

The gruel

Ingredients

100g/1 US cup rolled oats (this serves two people)

350ml/12 fl. oz bone broth

1 teaspoon of white wine vinegar

small pinch of saffron, pre-soaked in hot water

pinch of salt

Method

Bring the bone broth to simmering in a pan. Add the vinegar. Add the oats and cook gently for about 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly like you would if you were making porridge or risotto. The oats should be softened.

Add the salt and saffron. I forgot the saffron; it would have, in theory, given it a golden hue. Not quite as golden as Richard’s crown, mind you.

I completed my enriched gruel by stirring the ham hock meat into it and warming it through. I found, however, that this gave my posh stuff a yucky brown colour, as you see. So next time I will aim to please the GAS gods by placing my luscious meat atop my golden gruel.

As you can see, I served it with non-medieval roasted cauliflower and a failed attempt at crackling, made out of the skin of the ham hock. I’m really selling this, I know! But, damn, my Grewel Forced tasted really good: rich and almost creamy from the bone broth and full of melt-in-the-mouth, spicy pork.

Munchy (Klingon) Stew, anyone?

Mounchelet
‘Mounchelet’, Forme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 17r. By permission of the University of Manchester.

Mounchelet (16)

Take veel oþer motoun and smyte hit to gobettes; seeþ hit in gode broth; cast þerto erbes yhewe, gode wyne & a quantite of oynouns ymynced, poudour fort & safroun, & alye it with ayroun & verious, but lat it not seeþ after.

Mutton stew

Take veal or mutton and chop it into gobbets; simmer it in good broth; add thereto chopped herbs, good wine and a quantity of minced onions, powder fort and saffron; and mix it with eggs and verjuice, though let it not continue simmering after.

Text and translation by Christopher Monk © 2020

My research notes for this recipe state that the derivation for the name of this dish, mounchelet, is unclear but that the Middle English Dictionary suggests a possible etymology of monchen ‘to munch’. So I’m going with Munchy Stew. Satisfying for any royal medieval gourmand, I’d say.

This is really quite an easy dish to make, especially if you use some of that bone broth you’ve stashed in the freezer. And it is undoubtedly a wonderful, warming stew for a miserable February evening watching trash-spectacular Netflix catch-ups. But RuPaul is an artiste, there’s no denying. Now let’s sissy that walk and get to the recipe!

Mounchelet

Ingredients (serves two)

diced mutton, 500g/just over a 1lb

powder fort, 1 tablespoon

saffron, a good pinch, ground into the powder fort

salt, generous pinch

olive oil, enough for browning the meat

fresh rosemary leaves, taken from a couple of sprigs, chopped finely

fresh thyme sprigs, be generous

1 large onion, minced or finely chopped

garlic, a couple of plump cloves

bone broth, about 500ml/1 US pint

red wine, 1 small bottle (187ml) or about 1/3 of full size; a malbec, merlot or cabernet sauvignon would work well

2 organic free-range eggs

verjuice, to taste, about 2 tablespoons (heathens can substitute lemon juice)

Method

Season the mutton with the powder fort/saffron and salt. Add the olive oil to a pan and lightly brown the meat in small batches, and then reserve the meat on a plate.

Add the onions and cook through gently for a few minutes to get rid of their rawness. Then add the garlic and herbs and a splash of the broth, then simmer for a few minutes, pressing out the flavour from the herbs with a wooden spoon/spatula.

Add the wine and boil off the alcohol for about a minute or so. Add the remaining broth and return the mutton to the pan. Cover the pan with its lid and reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 1½ hours; keep checking to make sure it only simmers. The meat should be tender, easy to bite through.

Once cooked, remove from the heat. Carefully remove all the thyme stems with a slotted spoon — the leaves will have dropped off and formed part of the sauce.

Next, beat your eggs in a jug. Then put a ladle full of your hot broth into a bowl. Leave this to cool slightly for a few minutes. Then very gradually pour your beaten egg into the broth, all the time whisking it. This process, known as tempering, prevents the eggs from scrambling.

Verjuice, commercially made from unripe grapes, though it can be made at home from crab apples, is very sour, but a small amount won’t dramatically change the flavour of the stew but, rather, give it a background hint of tartness that lifts the dish, somewhat like adding lemon juice.

Now, the only thing wrong with this dish is its look. Completely delicious, especially with ultra-modern creamy mash potato, but is best eaten in candlelight.

The way around this, I believe, is to use white wine instead of red. Red wine unfortunately lends a look of grey morbidity to the mutton, like it’s been to Gre’Thor* and back. One of my Facebook followers posted a photo of their Mounchelet, made with white wine, and there is no way any Klingon would eat it; it was just so gorgeous looking.

But here is my own munchy, scrummy mounchelet, folks. Look and be amazed!

*Klingon Hell

Mounchelet Klingon style
Top, Klingon-style Mounchelet, served with, bottom right, ultra-colourful carrot purée. The creamy mash is hidden, but was delicious, too. Picture by Christopher Monk © 2020.

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

8 thoughts on “Fit for a king?

  1. Fresh herbs always make food more appetizing to the eye. Small tips of the Thyme sprigs or even Rosemary leaves can be used. The leafy tops of the carrots could work on that dish. Don’t throw them away, use them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the gruel dish looks fine. The Klingon stew has image issues because of the red wine and the egg slime. Red wine tastes good, but in things that aren’t highly colored on their own (like marinara sauce) it turns everything purple-grey, which is not appetizing. And I’m not sure what could have been done with the egg slime. Perhaps put the saffron into it instead of the rest of the stew? The yellow might help. I have been known to use a rosé instead of red wine in dishes like these, if aesthetics will be an issue (like a dinner party or feast). A bit of a different taste, but at least it’s not a white.

    And garnish can cover a multitude of sins!

    Liutgard of Luxeuil, OL

    Liked by 1 person

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