A short history of hogging

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on April 25, 2014

Animal ways: Medieval feasts usually involved a ghastly carcass or two Shutterstock   -  Shutterstock

Characters in historical novels are so busy clogging their arteries, it’s a miracle they live long enough to eat another glazed peacock. Or find true love. Or get beheaded

Anyone fancy a pig’s cheek? Or feel like a soused herring? Or, for that matter, a mouthful of negus? These might sound like rude insults. But, believe it or not, they’re delicacies that once graced the politest tables. Soused herrings are herrings in a vinegar marinade. Negus is a kind of mulled wine. And pig’s cheek is, well, pig’s cheek served with walnut ketchup and fried eggs. And although they’ve tumbled off contemporary menus — for reasons that’ll soon be obvious — these dishes continue to live on the pages of period romances and historical fiction.

For, whether it’s the story of a soon-to-be-headless queen in the glittering court of Henry VIII; the witty wooing of a muslin-clad madcap during a London season; or an edifying tale in an English parsonage, the characters are never too absorbed in the drama to miss their dinner. Or breakfast even, of sirloin, salt-beef, York ham, soused herring and buttered eggs — washed down with chocolate and tankards of ale. Indeed, they seem so busy clogging their arteries, it’s a miracle they live long enough to eat another glazed peacock. Or find true love. Or get beheaded.

Take, for example, Philippa Gregory’s description of a meal in the gluttonous court of Henry VIII — as seen through the eyes of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. “To my surprise there is chicken, in pies and fricassees, roasted with mouth-watering herbs and carved from the bone; but in this season of Lent it’s not called meat. For the purposes of the Lenten fast the King has ruled that chicken counts as fish. There are all the game birds (also not meat according to God and the King) beautifully enfolded within one another for the flavour and tenderness. There are rich dishes of egg, and there’s indeed fish… freshwater crayfish and stargazy pies with little tasty whitebait heads all peeping out through the thick pastry crust.”

Similarly, Hilary Mantel — who has won two Booker Prizes for her historical novels set in the same era — describes this as a time of plague, uncertainty and excess. An age when the bitterest enemy was sweetened with gifts of candied quinces, marzipan lions, tarts of preserved oranges and almond cream “flavoured with rosewater; decorated with preserved petals of roses and candied violets”.

Two centuries later, Jane Austen describes rather more commonplace meals involving cold meats and boiled mutton and White Soup at balls. But nobody approaches the food of the past with as much zest as Georgette Heyer. The Queen of Regency Romances believes green goose and orange soufflé is quite as important to the well-being of her heroines as the affections of the rakish hero. In Arabella — about a young girl pretending to be an heiress — Heyer describes a meal of the times. “The dinner, which consisted of two courses, seemed to Arabella sumptuous beyond her wildest imaginings. No suspicion crossed her mind that her host had resigned himself to the knowledge that the reputation of himself and his cook had been placed in jeopardy; or that the artist in the kitchen, having, with strange Gallic imprecations, which made his various assistants quake, rent limb from limb two half-roasted Davenport fowls, and flung them into a pan with some béchamel sauce and tarragons, was even now, as he arranged a basket of pastries on a dish, undecided to leave this dishonoured house, or to cut his throat with a large carving knife.”

“Soup a la Reine was removed with fillets of turbot with an Italian sauce; and the Chickens a la Tarragon were flanked by a dish of spinach and croutons, a glazed ham, two cold partridges, some broiled mushroom and a raised mutton pie. The second course presented Arabella with an even more bewildering choice. For there was besides the pastry, a Rhenish cream, jelly, a Savoy cake, a dish of salsify fried in butter, an omelette and anchovy toast.”

Equally complex and gout-inducing is the little dinner planned by Sir Bonamy Ripple, a well-known gourmand, in Heyer’s False Colours: “‘They have a way of cooking semelles of carp which is better than anything my Alphonse can do,’ he said impressively. ‘I thought I’d have it removed with a fillet of veal. We must have quails: that goes without saying — and ducklings; and nothing beside except a few larded sweetbreads, and a raised pie. And for the second course just a green goose, with cauliflowers and French beans and peas, for I know you don’t care for large dinners. So I shall add only a dressed lobster, and asparagus, and a few jellies and creams, and a basket of pastries for you to nibble at. That,’ he said, beaming upon his prospective guests, ‘is my notion of a neat little dinner.’”

Tempted by these accounts, I decide to seek a recipe for Davenport fowls — till I realise it involves taking “livers, hearts and the tenderest parts of the gizzards, shred very small, with half a handful of young clary, an anchovy to each fowl, an onion, yolks of four eggs boiled hard, with pepper, salt and mace. Stuff the fowls, and sew up any vents and necks that water may not get in.” It gets worse. Hessian soup involves stewing half an ox’s head and a calf’s tongue. And even the innocent-sounding Rhenish cream recipe — taken from the stern and authentic The Complete Confectioner (1800) — starts with instructions to “cut two calves’ feet very small and put them into a saucepan”.

Resigned to the fact that I’m an incomplete confectioner, I decide to avoid the authentic and head straight for wimpy recipes designed for the squeamish and lazy. In any case, I’m not quite sure about a dish made from Rhenish wine, sugar, the yolk of eight eggs, and flavoured with lemon peel, laurel leaves and coriander. Though I must admit that Savoy Cake — a tall, fancily shaped sponge cake filled with alternate stripes of coloured jelly — sounds fun.

It is while perusing the quaint but daunting English cookbooks of yesteryears that I feel sympathy for Mr Woodhouse. Jane Austen’s hypochondriac character constantly urges his guests to choose gruel and a small soft-boiled egg over roast pork and apple tart. Probably an acute reaction to one Rhenish cream or glazed peacock too many.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street.

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Published on April 25, 2014
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