Arthur Gets His Plum Appetizer and Eats it Too · 4 June 2007
It appears that the historical Arthur lived sometime as early as the 2nd century, and as late as the early 6th century. This period includes the Roman occupation of the British Isles and the subsequent early migration of the Germanic Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians. In The Hawk's Gray Feather, Arthur is a Kelt, a descendant of the Celtic settlers of the isles of Britain. During the time that Arthur may have lived, the Celtic people would have been influenced by many of the occupying peoples.
In trying to find some historical recipes from the Isles of Britain during these centuries, I found out there's a reason that the Middles Ages are still called the Dark Ages, even though that term has been deemed a bit pejorative. Originally intended to reflect a time period of slow intellectual progress, the name persists because there's a lack of historical evidence from this period in comparison to the Roman era preceding it and the Renaissance era following it. Scholars continue to find new source material, but the early Middle Ages (the time period I was researching) are still quite "Dark".
As I was searching around for some actual historical recipes from the period of 400-600, I couldn't find much.
I found many references to recipes that claimed to be "historical" but used ingredients such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, or other ingredients introduced from "The New World" after Colombus' 1492 expedition.
The closest thing I found to actual recipes from the period was the much quoted list of recipes from The British Museum Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson. This book is historically based, but after reading around a bit, I found that even these recipes probably weren't widely in use during the period, as the author has included ingredients that weren’t necessarily available in a few of them.
The lesson I learned from this was, do not rely on the Internet to provide recipes that are historically accurate, unless they cite their sources extensively. I'm not even going to claim that the changes I made to these recipes in any way accurate, I just tried to eliminate the obvious mistakes.
The Fennel recipe from Friday’s post was taken from The British Museum Cookbook by transcribing a recipe from The Forme of Cury during the reign of Richard II (1377-1399). Obviously, this is well after the Arthurian period. I'm not sure what the date of the original scribe’s source material was, but it's listed in a collection of Anglo-Saxon recipes, so perhaps the author was able to find a note that traced it back to Anglo-Saxon times.
Here are a few links for my documentation of the availability of the ingredients used in that recipe. According to these sources ginger and saffron were in use during Roman occupation and so would likely have been available during the time of Arthur.
Today’s recipe is one that was listed as a recipe of ancient Rome purportedly from an ancient Roman cookbook MARCUS GAVIUS APICIUS: DE RE COQUINARIA. It was originally written to be prepared with apricots.
Sadly, it turns out that apricots were not introduced to the British Isles until sometime during the 16th century and while the ancient Romans may have enjoyed this dish, the Romans stationed on the British Isles would have been out of luck.
But, many other sources cite plums as a favorite fruit of the British Isles. I figured it may be possible that Romans, missing a dish from their homeland, would try to substitute a similar fruit that was locally available. This is probably how people who claim to make historical recipes get in trouble, but I'm willing to disclaim the heck out of my version so I think it's ok.
I also served the plums with yoghurt after taste testing them. The plums are wonderfully and unexpectedly tart. I love tart, but even I had to pare down the flavoring in this dish, and so I paired them with a plain yoghurt. I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, but according to The Food Timeline yoghurt would have been known to the Arthurian era people.
In my search for authenticity, I also referenced Gode's Cookery to get an idea whether certain ingredients were actually available. The two books that came highly recommended, that I was unable to inspect, were Ann Hagen’s A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption and A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink: Production and Distribution. While not cookbooks, these were widely acclaimed as thorough works of scholarship about the methods and economy of period culinary practices and supply.
This was a fun exercise, and the plums are a great find as a recipe, historically accurate or not. Again, this was a very quick and easy dish to make, and is a nice change from many of the common summer fruit dishes.
GUSTUM DE PRAECOQUIS (Starter with Apricots)
- 1 kg (2.20 pounds) firm ripe plums
- 200 ml (.85 cups) white wine
- 500 ml (2.10 cups) grape juice for passum
- 1 peppermint tea bag or 1 tsp dried mint leaves
- 1 Tbsp vinegar
- 1 Tbsp honey
- ¼ tsp each salt and pepper
General notes. The posted recipe called for Liquamen, a salty fish paste to be used. While this may have been historically accurate, I had no desire to make (or eat) salty fish paste.
I also omitted the cornstarch from the recipe. Corn was not available until after 1492, so cornstarch wouldn’t have been available as a thickening agent.
The recipe didn’t call for any quantities on the vinegar, honey, salt, or pepper, so the quantities posted are the ones I used.
Place grape juice in a small saucepan and heat on medium high heat until gently boiling. Boil approximately 15 minutes until volume has halved.
Wash plums and cut into large pieces, removing the pit.
Place plumbs in a large pan and mint, salt, pepper, and honey.
Once the grape juice has boiled down to passum, add the wine and passum.
Cook on low to medium for approximately 20 minutes.
Let stand about 10 minutes to allow sauce to thicken.
Serve warm with plain yoghurt.