Thursday, 19 March 2009

Culinary Alchemy

Heston Blumenthal OBE (born 1966) is the chef and owner of The Fat Duck, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the village of Bray in Berkshire. He is known as the "culinary alchemist" because of his inventive and creative cookery. In his TV programme Heston's Feasts (Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm), he turns his hand to history, creating three course themed meals from the past to serve up to a selection of celebrity guests. Along the way, he digs into the history books of the period, be it Victorian, Middle Ages or Tudor, and takes the viewer on a tour of the kind of food being eaten and popular in that period - by those people wealthy enough to indulge in feasting, of course.

On the Tudor Feast, for instance, we learn all kinds of interesting facts.

Native British fruit included apples, pears, plums, cherries and strawberries. The Tudor period saw the introduction of new fruits from southern Europe which the wealthy grew in their gardens. These included quinces, apricots, pomegranates, oranges and lemons. One of the most exciting and expensive ingredients to feature in Tudor England was sugar. The aristocracy scoffed so much of the sweet stuff they suffered terrible tooth decay and having rotted teeth became a sign of wealth.

The royal court of Henry VIII revelled in the most spectacular and sumptuous feasting British shores had ever known. For the starter, he used Butterbeer as an aperitif, a real Tudor beverage, and followed this by a creamy blancmange of frog stock, almonds and mushroom ketchup, served on a jellied pond in a bowl, with crispy frogmeat to dip in that. Blancmange was a savoury dish, and a far cry from the sickly sweet desert that I remember from childhood. Heston used live frogs, which he had to get from America, since France apparently imports their frogs frozen from the Far East!

The main course - the meat course - followed the extravagance of Henry VIII, who spend a massive sum - reckoned by Heston as around £5,000,0000 - on one feast.

In a lavish dinner to impress the king of France, Henry VIII spent the equivalent of £5 million on a meat feast including 2000 sheep, 1000 chickens and a dolphin. Not content with real life animals, Tudor chefs also enjoyed bolting together bits of different creatures to make a dramatic beastie they called a cockentrice.

Heston tried getting a surgeon to sew a pig and capon together, then cooked this on a spit. While unusual, it did not really look very spectacular, so back to the history books, where he found that some Tudor chefs would conceal the meat beneath a "shell" of creatures put together, and he arranged for a taxidermist to create a "monster" from the head of a pig, the body of a lamb and the wings and back end of a goose. Inside this was a meat course, cunningly blending together the same meats as in the visual spectacular.

For the pudding, he excelled himself in confusing the guest's senses. Peas he made with the use of sorbet drops, quick frozen in liquid nitrogen - a staple ingredient of his kind of oddball cookery:

Tudor puddings were often a mix of sweet and savoury ingredients. Heston cooks a mixture of bone marrow, eggs, sugar, milk and berries in condoms - another Tudor invention - to create a firm rice pudding, which he serves to look like bangers with banana puree mash, and apple and onion gravy made from fennel and maple syrup.

This was an entertaining program, which neatly on the way fed the viewer all kinds of snippets about Tudor meals, such as the importance of sugar for displays of wealth, and the way in which both here, and in the Middle Ages feasts, the meal for the wealthy was a large scale affair, the entertainment as well as the nourishment, and a way of being ostentatious and showing off, which seemed to have been an extremely popular pastime.

And how did the other half - that would probably be you and me - live:

England doubled between the reigns of Henry VII and Elizabeth I from 2 million to 4 million people. 10 per cent of the population lived in towns, and half of this number was always in London. Inflation went through the roof in Tudor times meaning some men and women did a day's work for board and lodging, with no payment. Food took up to four-fifths of an ordinary family's budget. The diet was generally rather basic: hunks of bread, coarse hard cheese, occasional meat and fish. A Tudor soldier's daily rations were 32oz (910g) of meat, 24oz (680g) of bread, 16oz (455g) cheese and 5 pints (2.8 litres) of beer. Poor relief in some parishes was 6 pence a week. The staple diet of the poor was a halfpenny loaf of bread, which fed two people. Save your pennies, bake your own bread

But much as today with the culture of fantastic city bonuses beyond the dreams of avarice, there was at the same time as an economic downturn, people who still spent as if there was no tomorrow. The difference today is that there is - finally - a growing consensus of moral outrage at this culture of wealth, which claims vast bonuses - and massive pensions - with impunity. In Tudor times, there was not a lot in the way of democracy, and the gap between rich and poor was large:

On 6 January 1508, to mark the end of the 12 days of Christmas, the duke of Buckingham gave a feast for 460 people. The menu included swans, herons and peacocks, 680 loaves, 260 flagons of ale, 400 eggs, 200 oysters, 12 pigs and 10 sheep. The total cost was £7. This was more than a year's pay for a labourer.

1597 was a year of widespread famine that hit the poor hard. At the same time one courtier claimed to have lavished £2,000 on his mistress and Mrs Ratcliffe, one of Elizabeth I's maids of honour, appeared at court wearing a dress of cloth of silver costing £180.


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