Saturday, 22 January 2011

Oat Bread, Round 2

So I decided to try another version of Savelli’s Oat Bread. (Note: This is a bit odd. A redaction of a conjectural recipe. Or maybe a redaction of a conjectural theory of a possibility…? But hey, it’s a reason to play with food!)

I had already decided that working from modern yeast was wrong, but didn’t really want to take the time to play with wild yeasts. (I’ve done that, even semi-recently, when I was trying some of Jacqui Wood’s recipes, so it will be discussed with those.) So I opted for sourdough. But I thought that in keeping with the idea of a middle class Anglo-Saxon bread, I’d use whole wheat flour.

It made a more unusual sourdough. The whole wheat flour I have on hand is quite rough and branny, so it was a speckled culture, and quite solid-seeming. That took several days to work. (Another reason I didn’t opt for wild yeast; in winter our house is quite cold. Yeast gets very sleepy and wants to hibernate!)
Sadly, I either was out of oat flour, or didn’t dig deep enough in the chest freezer, so then I had to grind some flour to actually make the bread. Fortunately I have some oat groats handy right now. I ground some of those, with just a small handful of rolled oats in the grinding. To try and balance the texture. (Okay, I was impatient, and wanted it to be flour NOW.)

Since I’d decided when I made the first loaf, that this was more of a feast day bread, with the inclusion of egg, honey, milk, and fine wheaten flour rather than a more workaday loaf, I felt I’d continue with the use of some milk.
I warmed some milk, and added it to the oat flour. Because the sour dough looked thicker than my starter usually appears, I wasn’t too sure of how much liquid I’d end up needing in this recipe, so decided I would let the dough itself tell me.

I combined the moistened oat flour and the sourdough starter, and added some honey and an egg. I seasoned it with a bit of salt, but rather than the lard suggested by Savelli, I used some duck fat.

I decided that because I’d used the whole wheat flour in my starter, and the oat flour was already being incorporated, I’d use unbleached all-purpose flour for the rest of my flour. (Since this was ‘middle class’ bread, this would give me a higher quality grade of flour overall, with less bran.)
I stirred the mixture as much as I could to incorporate the flour, and then switched to kneading to work in more.

The dough did rise fairly well, though not as much as the first version. I’m not sure if that was due to temperature difference in my kitchen between the two baking days, or the difference between the commercial baking yeast and my sourdough. Usually my sourdough leavens quite well. (In warm weather it can be very exciting!) Did the whole wheat make it a stodgier culture? But all in all it ended up a comparable loaf. Rather than sprinkling it with oats before baking, I strewed some flax seeds over the top.

The end result was marginally oatier in taste. Again, it was a soft crumbly loaf. It had neither the sturdiness of a flatbread, nor the strength of a totally wheaten loaf. Perhaps that would make it a pleasant alternative on a feast day? Where I wouldn’t expect it to be useful for scooping up a stew, or need it to last a little longer. A smaller baking that would get eaten, and relished as ‘fancier’, in a single sitting?

[I was interested to note that it really shone for lunch the next day, toasted with cheese!]

I’m not sure if I’ll bother playing further with this recipe/idea. I tend to feel I should either swerve towards a flatbread/unleavened bread if I’m going to incorporate much oat flour, or switch out to a wheaten bread, if I’m using leavening. And I already have a bunch of other recipes I feel like looking into…

So, maybe if I play further with Savelli, I’ll look at other types of recipes. Though I’ll confess, the longer I look at the cookbook, the more I’m just perplexed by some of her choices. “Suggested by a salve”? Isn’t that a bit like saying ‘it’s an ingredient in Tiger Balm, so I thought I’d put it in the soup’?

But we’ll see where I go next. Actually, I feel a rant coming on…

Friday, 14 January 2011

Oat Bread

So, once I had determined that I absolutely HAD to cook something, and had rootled out Mary Savelli and was poking about in that book… I contemplated her first recipe: Ætena Hlaf, or Oat Bread.
I also very quickly decided that it didn’t sound very much as one would assume a Saxon would make bread…

But before one starts rethinking, one should at least see what the starting point is!

Of course, in many ways, the flaw of this cookbook is that it’s NOT an Anglo-Saxon cook book. Nor is it a redaction of an Anglo-Saxon cooking text. It’s not even really a cook book based on a template of ‘how they did it’ and a list of known ingredients. Technically, Mary Savelli doesn’t even make this claim.
Savelli says that Ann Hagen’s works suggested dishes she’d like to try and the medicinal texts that Savelli had access to suggested ingredients. I think the weakness may occur somewhere between those lists of ‘ingedients’, and understanding the technologies and practices of the culture.

Not all medicinal herbs will be considered culinary herbs; nor should they be. And methods of preparation that seem logical to the 21st century mind might be out of keeping for the 10th century mind.

I did figure that a bread recipe should be a shorter leap, though…

Savelli’s Oat Bread recipe starts with yeast. Dry active yeast. When I try this recipe for a second time, I will make up a sourdough starter. That will still be less accurate than beginning with a wild yeast, but baby steps…

Savelli’s ingredients are:
Dry active yeast
Warm water
Rolled oats
Lard or other shortening
Liquid honey
Whole wheat flour
All-purpose flour
Rolled oats and milk for brushing on, and sprinkling over the loaf before baking

Now rolled oats didn’t come along till the 1870’s, so I’m actually surprised at their inclusion here. I’d have suggested oat flour. Or at the very least, crushing or grinding the oat flakes.
And on the whole, she doesn’t call for much oat. ½ cup rolled oats to the 3 ¼ cups of other flour. With just 1 tsp of oats for sprinkling on the loaf before baking. Admittedly, oats don’t contain gluten, and gluten is important for a raised loaf. Oats usually show up as an ingredient in non-leavened breads; oatcakes and the like. Which would lead me to imagine that oats might not be used in a raised bread. Or, if used, used in combination, but then it wouldn’t be thought of, or called, an oat bread. Still, even if you were using them for flavour, I’d think you’d want to use a larger portion so the bread actually tasted oat-like. (Or is that a modern concept?) In my remake of this, I’ll try a higher percentage of oats, and assume it a mixed grain crop. [Often, grain crops were a blend of grains, possibly for reasons of contamination, or because of the different strengths of the growing stalks, which would support each other, or perhaps simply because it was less important to the farmers.] Often wheat and rye were grown together as ‘maslin’, and ground to maslin flour.

I tend to think of the use of milk, eggs, honey, and fat as a less everyday occurrence; a feast day bread. In that case, I might be tempted to use butter, rather than lard. Mind you, oat flour will give me more of an unleavened bread, even with the use of yeast or sourdough. So I’m not sure whether I should be imagining myself as lower class, baing bread for a feast day, or well-off enough to be using ingredients for a richer bread on a more regular basis. I do have some duck fat on hand, perhaps I’ll use it in my revised version.

I’ll confess that I couldn’t bring myself to just sprinkle rolled oats on this loaf as I baked it, even though I was supposed to be following the recipe as published. Instead I crushed them very quickly with a mortar and pestle, to a coarse meal.

I found that the bread did rise, thanks to the inclusion of the yeast, but it was neither strongly flavoured of oats, nor did it have the fine texture I’d expect of a wheaten bread. It was soft and crumbly, with a non-distinct taste. Neither bad, nor exceptional. But I’ll be interested to see what happens as I play around with some variations.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Dagda On Savelli

In my last post, I mentioned that I’d pulled out my copy of Mary Savelli’s Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England. I’m currently having early period urges rather than later period ones, but sadly, early period food is less well-supported by convenient cookbooks! Thinking about earlier period food ends up being far more an exercise of book- and article-juggling. There is information on artifacts and technology; there are articles about archaeological remains. Odd words and phrases and references can require dictionaries and botanical texts. I usually end up with an unwieldy and tottering pile of texts beside me, and another pile behind me, and no easy way to jump back and forth. Or I rely on oddments stored in a disorganized memory, and hope I think to double-check more dubious points when I next have a convenient half-moment.
So, no, although I wish heartily, I don’t expect to be able to pull a handy little early period cookery book off my shelf.

But sometimes even looking at and thinking about something with potential flaws and weaknesses can be enlightening. And I wanted to look at recipes, rather than read and have to process a lot of hard data. I just wanted to cook something, and until I went off to a further town for wheat grains, I couldn’t re-start my Jacqui Wood experiments.

So, the book in question was Mary Savelli’s Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England.
And since I’m mentioning Mary Savelli’s book here, perhaps I will repost a review/blog-post I’d once rambled out on my other blog. And perhaps I can update it with some further comments…

**Originally posted June 25, 2006.
Part of my disappointment with it is my own fault. I foolishly, and without any possible reason, allowed myself to hope that it would be, could be a resource for early period cookery the way Le Menagier de Paris or Le Viandier de Taillevant are for later periods.

I was even willing to accept a conjectural approach if I could see the roots for the result, the way you can in books like Pleyn Delit, where the period recipe is given alongside the redacted one suggested by the authors. However, I feel that instead we’ve ended up with a publication that appears to owe much to conjecture, little to archaeological evidence, or even logic, and is clothed with the perception of being the word on Anglo Saxon food.

I did a workshop with Mary Savelli a few years ago and got far more of the subtext from that session, than I did from the book. Apparently it was her publishers who suggested she write a cookbook, because cookbooks sell, and while it wasn’t something she was particularly familiar with, she thought she’d see how she could translate her research into Anglo-Saxon period leech books into a cookbook.

But it is the process, from leech book to her ideas of a recipe that are more interesting and more useful, and unfortunately, are not much included in this publication. Ever since getting this book though, I’ve had urges to have some real conversations about some of her ideas. Because I know that since she’s based them on period information, even if it was medicinal rather than culinary, I feel there’s value in here. I just can’t think that it’s ‘face value’. And it may be that more could come from some discussion and debate than from even just reading or discarding the recipes.

But, living rurally, and not being tied in anymore to a network of like-minded people for pursuing these discussions, or because the people who might want to participate in the chat, aren’t as accessible by email these days, I thought I’d just have that little discussion out loud, in here by myself. (Yes, signs of insanity, I'm sure…)
Though if anyone of my audience of two or three or accidental wanderers-by want to rebut, or offer additional thoughts, feel free.

Let’s pick one to start with. In fact, let’s start with the one she talked about in her workshop:
“Wyrtig Briw (Vegetable Soup)”

[If nothing else, knowing if these would really be the names of such things, and whether that’s just straight translation into Old English of whatever dialect, would be nice to know. Having names, even the simplest of words to describe foods, in the tongue of the day, is great. ~v.]
[Update Jan/2011: Not sure why I didn’t do some of this further cross-referencing the first time around because I already owned the books, but…Ann Hagen, in her A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food; Processing and Consumption says:
“Broð was the Old English term for broth or soup, which might be enriched with milk or butter.” And “If broþ was retained to indicate a thin liquid, the term which supplanted it in the meant “pottage”, is briw.”

Anthimus tells us “barley soup is, as anyone knows who can make it, good for healthy people and those suffering from fever.” This soup is based on a brew for lung disease, calling for sweet-flag, radish, carrot and barley meal. Cress is added to take the place of one of the other leafy herbs in the original, lesser celedine, as it has a similar texture and was also used by the Anglo-Saxons.

40g (1 ½ oz; ½ cup barley*
440 ml (16 fl. oz, 2 cups) water*
770 ml (28 fl. oz, 3 ½ cups vegetable broth*
3 radishes, chopped (1/8 to ¼ cup)*
2 Tablespoons general purpose vegetable oil*
3 carrots, diced (2 cups)*
2 Tablespoons cress, chopped*
½ teaspoon salt*
½ teaspoon ground black pepper*
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon*

* 1. Soak the barley in 2 cups of water for four hours. Drain out the water and put the barley in a large saucepan. Add the broth and bring the water to a boil. Cover the pan with a lid; simmer for 45 minutes.
* 2. Sauté the radishes in oil in a frying pan. Add the radishes, cress, carrots and seasoning to the barley.
* 3. Return the soup to a boil then reduce the heat. Cover the pan with a lid; let the soup simmer for 10 minutes or until the barley is tender.

So…. That’s her recipe. At the very least it fills me with questions. In another kind of culinary book, where there was an inclusion of an extant receipt, this would be the author’s redaction. I would be able to look back and forth and compare the two, see where the author had made changes, and either be told, or try to intuit, why, and make a decision about the differences, and the suggestions of process.

Because there isn’t an actual Anglo Saxon recipe to compare against, the mind has to go in a lot more circles. (Well, my mind does!)

Anthimus tells us about barley soup. Well, there. That’s a good start.

[Anthimus. De obseruatione ciborum (On the Observance of Food) Translated and edited by Mark Grant. Totnes, Devonshire: Prospect Books, 1996.]

Now her bibliography doesn’t give me a clue about exactly when this is from. Oh, drat. Turns out he’s a sixth century Byzantine Greek, and his treatise on food reflects Byzantine and Frankish tastes. Durn. I was hoping it was one of the Anglo-Saxon writers. This changes it a bit. I was thinking we at least had proof that Anglo-Saxons ate barley soup, right from a local period source. Oh well… Let’s steam along.
[Update Jan/2011: Handily, Ann Hagen does suggest that the Anglo-Saxons used barley in their soups, mentioning the use of barley meal, as well as suggesting the use of whole grains.]

If nothing else, soups are likely. They had pots. We have archaeological evidence. They had barley. Barley needs cooking to soften it. So barley soup isn’t a real stretch.

Her “brew for lung disease” is from Bald’s Leechbook, and unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t pin down a real date on this. However, there are mentions of it in the context of Anglo-Saxon leech books and health handbooks, so that’s hopeful.
And mind you, while what is considered medicine may not necessarily be considered food, it at least tells us some items they had access to. And certainly radish, carrot and barley also do duty as foodstuffs.

I haven’t been able to track down too much info about either ‘sweet-flag’ or ‘lesser celedine’. At least, under those names. Sweet-flag might be Acorus calamus, or Calamus Root, and while I can find a tiny bit of medicinal info about that, it wasn’t much, and only one reference that suggested it as a febrifuge. But since that might be a strictly medicinal plant, I wasn’t too worried. I did find mention of its use as a substitute for cinnamon or ginger. And I also have a vague memory that Mary Savelli said that was why she had included cinnamon in the recipe.

Mind you, if it was more a medicinal herb than a culinary one, that might be an interesting choice to make, but maybe not the most logical.

Lesser Celedine might be Chelidonium minus, which is the same as Lesser Celandine. I did find some mention that in Sweden it was used as a salad herb, but the reviews of its taste weren’t too glowing. Again, perhaps the lesser celedine is a medicinal herb rather than a potherb, but I see no reason to not assume that any potherbs in common use might not be possible for this recipe. Cress is as likely as any other.
[Update Jan/2011: I’m still not tracking down much use of the name “lesser celedine” except as a fairly random mention. It might perhaps be a spelling error, or a minimally used alternative name. However, today when I thought to try following up on the Anglo Saxon common name listed by Savelli in the appendices, “wenwyrt”, I have indeed been led to references defining it as Ranunculus ficaria, or Lesser Celandine. Most of its medicinal uses are topical. One article suggested: “Can also be consumed inside carefully as can be poisonous if not careful.” A somewhat whimsical phrasing suggesting it might not make the best culinary herb?]

I wonder about the suggestion to soak the barley. Yes, this would soften it and shorten the cooking time, but my experience in cooking over a fire in a cauldron, is that it’s a ‘leisurely’ process anyway. It would be just as simple to add the barley dry, early on in the making. However, in a redaction for use in a modern kitchen, perhaps it makes sense.

Likewise, maybe, the substitution of vegetable broth, for a flavour base that would develop naturally in the cooking process. Now, I have to wonder what would make a likely combination of ingredients for that base. Since, even in my modern kitchen, I’d be more likely to make this soup that way.
Onions? I’d imagine some form of onions. Maybe wild leeks, wild garlic. Perhaps charnock or wild mustard, dill, wild celery, or sorrel. And nettles, perhaps.

She suggests sautéing the radishes in oil in a pan. My instincts, based on cooking with period implements, suggest that if something like this were really done, it would only be in the kitchens of the rich, best outfitted with all the “mod cons”!
If cooking over a small firepit in the floor of a simple house, then a cauldron hanging from the rafters is a likely object. Using a smaller pan or griddle, just to sauté some radishes to then include in soup, seems a waste of activity. And a metal pan would have been a luxury item if the common household already contained a metal cauldron (hweras or an cetel). Such a pan is more likely to have been used for bread or fried dishes.
I imagine it would be more likely that the carrots and radishes would simply be added as the vegetable broth was developing, to further enhance the flavour. And any tender greens added closer to the end.

But even that may be a modern perception. It’s very hard to turn off all one’s personal sensibilities, or to know if or when you’ve succeeded!

I find that one of the most helpful things in giving me a better sense of how an early culture might have cooked, is to work with their technology. That gives me more of an understanding of what is easy, what makes sense, what is practical, and what, farfetched. And then, if I’m drawing from a more appropriate list of ingredients, there is more chance that my final product may have a better chance of being something that wouldn’t be entirely unrecognizable in period.

So, this recipe from Savelli’s book may not be as improbable as others; representing more, perhaps, the approach that might be taken in a modern kitchen to produce a period-like dish. For myself, it led me to sit down and thumb through a handful of reference books to answer (or try to answer) some questions that it raised.

Though I still keep hoping that someday someone unearths and translates some lovely volume of early period cookery!


[Update Jan/2011: There is a very intelligent review of this book by Dr. David D. Friedman at this link:

Monday, 10 January 2011

Musing On Breads, And Cook Books

So, I really had started to play with some of the recipes from Jacqui Wood’s book Prehistoric Cookery. (I was fortunate that she started out talking about bread. While there are some ingredients I had to track down sources for – I live at the back of beyond – at least they tended to be items I could track down!)

And while I knew, even starting out, that I’d want to re-do the experiments using my outdoor kitchen, it seems I really wasn’t canny enough to make good concise notes, or write here about the experiments at the time I did them, so now I’ll probably need to take another look at even the recipes I’d attempted. ** sigh **

Unfortunately, I also need to re-source ingredients for the very first recipe, which concerned sprouting wheat. It instructs me to take whole wheat grains. I had eventually tracked down something I could use for that, but later in the summer I realized that the sealed container I had the leftovers stored in was alive with weevils! [Eek!] And they quickly were tossed outside to provide a nice feast for the birds.
I started doing a bit of research on weevils (or whatever I’d determined them to be at the time…) and it seems like it’s pretty much an inherent problem with whole grains. So for the most part I think I’m going to want to only obtain these sorts of things in smaller quantities, which means I’ll always have to plan ahead of a cooking experiment.

(And I’ll have to try and shut off the squeamish part of my brain that goes “eeewwhh!”.)

I will go back through my brief notes, and ferret out the few photos I’d taken, which have now shuffled through some hard drive changes, and at least make a bare bones start.

But I’ve been getting urges, in the pre-wheat-kernel moments to do something… anything… that has to do with some historical food experimentation. And a couple of lists I subscribe to have had some conversations on the topic of breads, or breadlike foods.

And to eke out reading material, before I finished up one series of novels and had to decide what to read next, I had been reading my copy of Flatbreads and Flavours, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. They write stunning cookbooks, as full of text and pictures as they are of recipes. And I’d been meaning to sit down with one or other of their books, (I have a number, and have just ordered another), and thought that the flatbreads volume might have some interesting insights along the whole bread idea, as they discuss breadmaking technology in some of the more primitive-seeming cultures around the world.

I also pulled out my copy of Mary Savelli’s Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England. She also starts her book on the topic of bread.

And then, in a moment of pantry rearrangement, to store some new kitchen-related Christmas gifts, I came across a copy of an article from Acta Archaeologica: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread; a Study of Late Viking Age and Medieval Quernstones in South Scandinavia, by Peter Carelli and Peter Kresten.

So, definitely there are signs and portents pointing me towards bread!


Sunday, 9 January 2011


At least, I’m hoping…

So, yes, I’ve been quiet. It seems that when life gets busy, it gets really busy. And as time passes along, I forget how to make best use of the in-between moments.

Then it all gets complex because I feel that in this journal I’d like to be intelligible. I’d like to be organized, and put forth my arguments (or questions and quandaries) in a way that sounds like I thought about it. (Really, I do. Most of the time.) And for some reason, stringing words together in a way that seems like they’d be coherent to people doesn’t want to come naturally.
I’m sure that part of that is me overthinking. It must be. Because it does seem that most of the time, after I’ve stared at what I’ve written and tweaked it, and pruned and fluffed it, and rearranged it, it’s still pretty close to what I started with.

But I do think that what takes time is filling in the gaps, and the backstory. Tracking down references. Digging out quotes and concrete info, as opposed to just relying on what seems to be lurking in the back of my memory.

But maybe this year I’ll allow myself a bit more leeway. Maybe I’ll occasionally post a guilt-free ramble, and just not worry.

(Surely no-one out there would make the mistake of confusing me with a scholar, would they?)