I recently bought Mark Kurlansky’s ‘Choice Cuts: a miscellany of food writing’ published by Vintage in 2002 (from the Marie Curie shop on Green Lanes for £1). It’s a 450 page selection, with authors including Pliny the Elder, Ludwig Bemelmans, Wole Soyinka, and M.F.K Fisher (and of course, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin). Among the 19th and 20th century writers, there is a bias towards female food writers from the U.S. which I think is partly Kurlansky’s effort to boost the reputations of some authors overlooked in favour of European men. It’s full of great recipes in the various sections on meat, carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables and puddings, although I skimmed over some of the more verbose pieces.
I decided to only going to cook half of this recipe from 1393’s Le Menagier de Paris (translated by Kurlansky himself, although there’s another version here), as the majority of the steps are concerned with cooking a piece of beef so as to make the cut tough and bloodless (no, thanks – just a medium rare steak is fine). One of the most obvious (and delicious!) differences between 20th and pre-20th century recipes is the use of spices. Before the advent of the electric fridge, seasonings such as garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and lemon juice were used liberally, both to preserve food and to disguise the any fetid notes in the flavour.
Grains of paradise are also called melegueta or alligator pepper and according to Kurlansky were popular across Europe during the Middle ages. I bought mine for 70p each from a West African food stall in Brixton Market. I had no idea what they would look like or how they would taste. (My knowledge of food from African countries is woeful.) The pods smelt of nothing when closed, but cut when cut open, my initial impression was of something thrillingly like cardamom and black pepper combined.
“If you would like to prepare a piece of beef as venison – or bear meat, if you live in an area where it is found…The beef should be boiled, then larded, especially lengthwise, and then cut into small pieces. Then pour the well-warmed sauce over the beef. To disguise beef as bear meat, with a piece of beeg leg, make a black sauce with ginger, cloves, black pepper, grains of paradise, etc. Put two slices in each dish – the beef will have the taste of bear meat”
I recognised the components of the sauce from a vague memory of a medieval black sauce recipe (probably the Boke of Gode Cookery), so this is what I came up with:
- A glass of red wine (which had been lurking the bottle for about a week, therefore negating the need for the traditional addition of wine vinegar or verjus. I looked into buying verjus but it costs £5 for a tiny bottle and goes off after a month. Pointless – unless you‘re some sort of acetic acid connoisseur, in which case get stuck in and let me know how it goes.)
- Small piece of butter
- 1 large shallot
- 1 big pinch each ground cloves, ground ginger, sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon grains of paradise, crushed with a rolling pin
- Lots of black pepper
- 2dsp brown bread crumbs
I cooked the sliced shallot and spices in butter for 5 minutes and then added the wine and left it to simmer while I put some salad in a bowl and cooked the steak. Then I decided to make the most of the juices left in the pan and poured the sauce in, while the steak was resting on a warm plate. Slight error. The pan was too hot and much of the liquid evaporated immediately making the sauce much thicker and paler. At this point, I decided it was steak time and slopped the lumpy, purple mess over my meat and sat down to eat it with a chunk of bread and a green salad.
Although it looked like a special effect from a horror film, the sauce tasted absolutely fantastic – fruity, spicy and obviously, very peppery. The lesson here is clearly that if you love caramelised onions on steak (and I really, really do), experiment with seasoning beyond the regular mustard/peppercorn/bouquet garni, but don’t hold me responsible if you come down with the plague.
Beared by Elly