Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

06 June, 2007

Ad Regalem Scutellum

A couple days ago I had another go at cooking Polish cuisine – medieval Polish cuisine, that is.

Last time I got all medieval was when I made chicken baked with prunes. Monday night's menu called for Szynka Duszona z Ogorkami which is ham stewed with cucumbers. The recipe dates back to sometime in the 14th century and requires cubeb vinegar. At some point in the late winter/early spring I got my cubeb vinegar a-steepin'. This was easy enough as all I had to do was add some garlic and cubebs to sherry vinegar and let is steep for 3 months. Cubebs are basically a Javanese peppercorn. They're very similar to the black peppercorns with which we're all familiar but they have a citrusy thing going for them. Cubebs were a very popular spice in Medieval Europe and recipes from the time often call for its wonderful flavor.

The recipe I followed comes from Food and Drink in Medieval Poland. The book is an adaptation of Polish scholar Maria Dembińska's 1963 doctoral dissertation called "Food Consumption in Medieval Poland". The text was changed a bit by editor William Woys Weaver for an audience of English-speaking lay-readers. As Weaver tells us in the book's preface, Dembińska's "main interest lay in defining social structure in terms of food consumption" and so the text isn't just a bunch of recipes, it's an exercise in history, anthropology, and ethnography. Reading this made me wonder what one might conclude about America's social structure here in the early 21st century by studying our food consumption. One thing that comes to mind is that, the poorer you are, the more processed foods you eat. But there's more to all of this than what people consume. How about when we take meals? Fans of The Lord of the Rings know that Hobbits took seven meals a day. Today, we Americans usually have three – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Medieval Poles, like most of the rest of Europe at the time, took two meals a day: prandium - taken from 9-10AM and coena - which is supper, taken from 5-7PM. These are Medieval Latin terms. Prandium gives us the English word "prandial" – follow the link above – while I noted from my years of Latin that coena was cena in classical Latin. It's pronounced "kay-nuh", meaning dinner. Dembińska notes that some richer individuals in Medieval Poland broke their fasts prior to prandium, around 7AM. Generally though, breakfast was not a regular custom. Why is this? What does it say about a society when it does or does take a meal first thing in the morning? Lunch as we know it was apparently uncommon but they did take a midday break and eat something as this illustration from the Maciejowki Bible shows.

Let's get back to my Szynka Duszona z Ogorkami. Here's a photo of my assemblage of ingredients. Can you spy any anachronisms?

The recipe called for a liter of wheat beer so I grabbed a German variety because I was in Star Liquor and they didn't have a Polish one. I was unable to find rocombole garlic so I used what I had. Oh, that's my cubeb vinegar in the bottle in the center. I steeped it in an empty beer bottle. What's out of place here is the diced carrot sitting in that bowl with onion. Carrots weren't originally orange and I think that whoever bred them for the pigmentation we know today did so in the 15th century but I cannot confirm that. I also believe that the orange variety was found in Western and/or Northern Europe and not the Central/Eastern areas. Hence the recipe at hand calling for white carrot or the root of Hamburg parsley. Weaver characterizes this dish as a predecessor of what the French call "salicons" or "the chopped, cooked and bound components used as stuffings". Now, if this connection sounds odd to you, then know that it sounded odd at first to me as well. But, thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that diced carrot and onion is 2/3 of what we now call mirepoix.

This was a rather simple recipe, though it did take a while. You sauté the primitive mirepoix and then add the ham, garlic, and parsley – a whole cup of parsley. This cooks for a while and then you throw in the raisins, dried cranberries, and the liquid which consists of the beer as well as ham stock. Let it reduce by a third.

Once it has reduced, pitch the cucumber, honey, and cubeb vinegar and cook for 15 minutes. When done, sour cream can be added to thicken the dish in the pot or be added by each diner to his or her dish. Also, season with pepper. The dish was traditionally served over manchet rolls or bread. (Manchet rolls were small white rolls made from wheat. They were very common and found being sold be street vendors.) In my case, I had a couple sesame seed hamburger buns that needed to be used up so one of them was called to duty. In a royal dining setting, rose petals would have been used for garnish.

So how did it taste? Not to my liking, quite honestly. If you recall my attempt at making the chicken baked with prunes linked above, you'll recall the vast quantity of parsley that that recipe required. Here, the parsley flavor was overpowering and it was like eating grass. Dembińska explains:

Field peas and cabbage are most frequently mentioned, but the most popular potherb was parsley. It was more common in Poland than in Western Europe, and its known curative properties for helping digestion and "cleansing the blood" guaranteed it a prominent position in many dishes of the period. It was also eaten to kill the odor of onions which lingered on medieval Poles after every large meal. From greens during the spring and summer to roots during the fall and winter, there was not a season when parsley was absent from the daily menu.

Having said all this, I do want to note that I would probably love this dish with about 80% less parsley in it because the broth was fantastic and full of hammy goodness with precious beer overtones. It also had a slight sweetness to it owing to the honey and the dried fruits. But it was not overly so, which I appreciated. I'd also add more cubeb vinegar next time and more pepper to taste. Curiously enough, there's no call for salt in the recipe and the book doesn't even include it in the index.
|| Palmer, 10:53 AM


Very interesting recipe - and thanks for the pics! :)

I just read a fascinating history of mealtimes: http://www.history-magazine.com/dinner2.html
Blogger nichole, at 7:47 AM  

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