Fowl is fare
24 December, 2013
Well it’s Christmas Eve and I hope this blog finds you all well. I am just finishing up clearing my desk before heading off.
There was good news recently for bird lovers: the successful breeding of the crane in Scotland for the first time since the Middle Ages. A large bird very similar in size and shape to a heron, the crane last nested in Scotland in the 1500s. The bird had become a popular royal meal, and disappeared mainly because of hunting and loss of habitat.
It is unlikely, however, that crane would have been on the menu at Christmas. The bird breeds in northern Europe but flies south to overwinter in southern Europe.
So what would have been on the table? Certainly not turkey. Turkeys are native to America and were only introduced to Europe after the re-discovery of that continent in the late 1400s. Before then, the rich would have eaten goose and, with the king’s permission, swan. To this day, royal assent is required before swan can legally be eaten, a peculiar law which was famously defied by the Orcadian composer Peter Maxwell Davies in 2005.
Swan would have been the centrepiece of the top table, and the chefs would have dressed it elaborately, saving plucked feathers to reattach to the cooked bird, and gilding the beak with gold leaf. Yet for all its exclusivity, swan was not considered very good to eat, so it probably remained largely untouched.
Other types of game birds that would have been on the medieval festive table included the heron, crow, duck, cormorant and coot. Like swan, heron was regarded as fit for royalty, and was viewed as a delicacy. A cook book dating from the 1300s has a recipe for heron sauce which included ginger and galingale (or galangal), a plant similar to ginger which also has a very aromatic root.
Eating deer at Christmas is one of the few traditions that made their way from the New World to the Old (egg nog is another). Turkey is of course the staple of the American Thanksgiving dinner, but historically venison was also on the menu. Native Americans would bring a number of deer for the feast.
Venison from deer would also have been on the medieval menu. In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, a decent lord might let the poor have what was left of his feast. The remains were known as the deer’s ‘umbles’ – the heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains. Mixed with other leftovers, they were made into a pie. Therefore, the poor would eat ‘umble pie’.
Samuel Pepys wrote about this dish often, and it seems to have been a favourite meal. However, eating it was associated with those in humble situations, probably giving rise to the expression ‘eating humble pie’.
Mince pies as we known them are a relatively recent Christmas tradition. In medieval England, a large mince pie was always baked. However, it was filled with all sorts of shredded meat, along with spices and fruit. This recipe only changed in Victorian times, when the shredded meat was left out.
Anyway, whatever you have on your table I hope you enjoy it. Thank you for reading my blog in this year 2013, the Year of Natural Scotland. Have a happy Christmas and a fruitful new year.