Cheese and Compost, anyone?

My fire pit and medieval cookware turned up just in time for some nice weather last weekend, so I couldn’t wait to set it all up and have a go. I’ve got two books on medieval cookery to play with, and following the success of my Ember Day Tart I’ve been keen to cook some more recipes in authentic style and get a real taste of the Middle Ages. When I first looked through one of the books I was given for Mother’s Day, one recipe in particular caught my eye because it made me giggle. Not only that, it looked quite a challenge for a first attempt at cooking with an iron cauldron over a real fire, so I decided I just had to have a go at making some ‘Compost’. Oh, and I decided to make some medieval flatbreads to go with it, obviously…

cooking over a fire

A cauldron bubbles over an open fire – just like mine!

Of course, to us ‘Compost’ sounds wholly unappetising, conjuring images of rotting veg and worms, but in fact it was a name given to a kind of thick sauce that we’d recognise today as chutney. Despite the name, I can promise you the result was surprisingly delicious and it went beautifully with a range of good cheeses. Compost appears in The Forme of Cury, a comprehensive collection of recipes from the fifteenth century written by the cooks of King Richard II, and it also pops up in Le Ménagier de Paris, a sort of fourteenth century version of Mrs Beaton’s Book of Household Management given to young women embarking on married life. But I discovered it has an even longer history, as it’s origins are traceable right back to ancient Rome, so we’re looking at a recipe that’s really stood the test of time. Naturally, it evolved over centuries and it was often adapted to fit whatever the cook had to hand, but the basic recipe remained the same. So being a lover of cheese, and because it needs to cook slowly for around 3 hours, I thought that Compost would a make great start to cooking with my iron cauldron.

whole setup

My medieval cauldron over the flames

This medieval chutney is made from a mix of fruit and vegetables such as pears and parsnips, which I prepared together with a couple of onions and some butternut squash that was kicking around in the fridge. To this colourful medley I added dried fruit (sultanas in this case, as I have a good stock of them) and some walnut pieces, a bit of salt and a complex mix of spices – some ground and some I crushed from seeds. The use of all these spices would have made for a rather high-end Compost for a lord’s table, as spices were very expensive in the Middle Ages, so I didn’t scrimp on those. Everything went into the cauldron with some French mustard and a bit of horseradish before I poured over a fair bit of honey, white wine and wine vinegar. After a good stir with my new long-handled wooden spoon, I ‘set it on the fire’ as instructed and watched as the smoke swirled and the flames licked the pot, and soon it began to bubble. The medieval magic had begun.

Spices

Crushed coriander and fennel seeds ready for the pot

Having brought the Compost to a nice simmer, my challenge was to let it cook slowly for around three hours whilst the flavours mingled and the fruit and veggies went soft. So to keep the heat reasonably consistent and to ensure it didn’t burn, I had to raise or lower the pot depending on how the fire was doing, and amazingly, it worked. I spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting in the garden while the smell of woodsmoke and spices drifted about, stirring the mixture occasionally and watching it develop into something actually resembling chutney. When it was ready, the Compost had to be mashed in the pot, then simmered again until it was nicely thickened, which took around 20 minutes. Then it was done. I just had to let it cool and decant it into some jars.

Compost cooking

Nearly done – the final simmer

The next day it was ready to try. We had some lovely cheeses in the fridge, so I decided I should make some medieval bread to go with it. I found a recipe for ‘Girdle Breads’, made from unleavened dough flavoured with saffron and cooked over a fire, so that gave me another excuse to get the fire pit going and try out my other new medieval toy, a long-handled iron frying pan. I mixed plain flour with eggs, butter and a little water infused with saffron strands. I also found a recipe for oatcakes, which I’ve fancied making since I read about them a few months ago. I’ve been doing Scottish medieval history for my university module this year, and I came across a description of the Scots army written by a visiting fourteenth century French chronicler, who tells us that ‘each man carries a broad plate of metal [and] a little bag of oatmeal’. He goes on to say that the soldiers would ‘place this plate over the fire, mix with water their oatmeal, and when the plate is heated, they put a little of the paste upon it, and make a thin cake, like a cracknel or biscuit’. But I’m not a soldier, I’m a medieval noble woman, so I added some cinnamon to the oats and mixed in some egg white to form little rounds before frying them, and the Girdle Breads, over another fabulous fire. When it was all done, it was time to put everything together and get a real taste of the past.

Oatcakes cooking

Cooking the oatcakes…

frying the flatbreads cropped

…and frying the flatbreads

Luckily, it all went down a storm. The Compost turned out to be a zingy, lip-smackin’ eruption of fullsome flavour that would work beautifully with a cheeseboard or cold meats, or as an addition to any cold buffet. The breads were golden and gorgeous, and the oatcakes were very tasty too. If I’d been served this for supper in a medieval castle, I’d have been really happy.

The final spread

The finished spread: Girdle Breads and oatcakes, and a dish of Compost on the table

All in all, this was a great start to my medieval culinary experiments. By lighting a wood fire and working with the flames to sauté, simmer and stew, I not only got to sample real medieval food, I also got a taste of what it must have been like for the hard-working cooks who spent their days creating meals in those castle kitchens. By the time we sat down to eat the embers were glowing, the cauldron was covered in soot and my hair smelled of wood smoke. But I’d spent a precious few hours in the Middle Ages and it was sheer bliss, and I’m already looking forward to experimenting with some more medieval dishes. So we raised a glass of wine left over from the cooking, and drank a toast to the castle cooks and their oddly-named, but delightful Compost.

41 thoughts on “Cheese and Compost, anyone?

  1. Totally fantastic post! I really enjoyed the cooking and even more so the eating!!! All of food was wonderful and I’m really looking forward to more of your medieval cookery exploits!

    And yes I really really enjoyed my first taste of compost!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great way to spend a day in lockdown. Who needs to go out when you can stay at home and experience all this? – gorgeous food, the smell of woodsmoke, a glass of wine – and of course good company. I’ll never look at compost the same way again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Malc, it was indeed a ‘great escape’ at home. Funnily enough, I said exactly the same thing – I’ll never look at compost in the same way again. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Alli,
    Another very entertaining post supported by some great (and enticing) photography, even if the title of the dish has lost something over time – keep going at this rate an you will be producing your own experimental medieval cookbook. Your garden must have smelt great at the weekend; wood smoke and spices, how evocative.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Graham. Glad you found my medieval culinary exploits entertaining. I’ll definitely be doing more experiments, so who knows? And evocative is the word – it really was. 🙂

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    • Thanks John, glad you enjoyed it. It’s an area of medieval life I’ve always been interested in, but it’s only recently – with all this time at home – that I’ve had a chance to look into it. And it is, indeed, a fascinating subject. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my goodness, Alli, the food all looks so delicious! And to think you cooked it just as they did back then – how cool! I am excited to see what you come up with next!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Robyn, and thanks for your lovely comment. I’m sorry but my site appeared to have spammed your message, but I’m really pleased I found it so I can respond. Glad to hear you enjoyed the post and that you like the look of my culinary adventures in the Middle Ages. It was pretty cool to do things as they did, and I learned a lot. Looking forward to doing more. In the meantime, take care, thanks for reading and I’m sure we’ll be in touch again soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The bread and the oatcakes sound really great – I didn’t realise oatcakes were so simple to make. Might have a go myself – I’ve got a bit of oatmeal left…

    I’ve just been having chutney on toast – it was quite nice actually. I had some left over from a takeaway curry and didn’t want to throw it away…

    I’d heard of a dish called compost before but I thought it was a kind of bubble and squeak.

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    • Thanks, Carol. I hadn’t realised how easy oatcakes are to make either. I’ve discovered how easy it is to make all kinds of things during this lockdown, like hummus and guacamole, and even other stuff like handwash and hand sanitiser. It’s amazing really. Did you manage to have a go at soda bread?

      Chutney goes with all kinds of things. I like it on toast with cheese, and with things like felafels, flans and various Quorn things. It’s good stuff. I hadn’t heard of bubble and squeak compost, so maybe that’s more modern, but it’s a great name for any dish, and it did make me smile. 😀

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      • I think I was just wrong thinking compost was bubble and squeak – I don’t think there is such a thing. I haven’t made the soda bread yet as my recipe says you need to use buttermilk and I don’t generally have milk in my house as I don’t use it. Does your recipe have buttermilk or something else? I’d be more likely to use a nut or oat milk if it would work as cow’s milk doesn’t really agree with me (stuffs my nose up – and, no! I don’t pour it up my nose!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Soda bread needs buttermilk to activate the bicarbonate of soda and make the bread rise, but I make my own which is really easy and it means you don’t need to buy it specially. You can also make vegan buttermilk from any plant based milk, and there’s a recipe here if it helps:
        https://simpleveganblog.com/vegan-buttermilk/
        Apparently there are ways to make it without buttermilk at all, but I can’t vouch for the results with those. Soda bread is really easy to make, though, so it is worth a try.
        Glad to hear you don’t inhale cow’s milk! 😀

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      • No worries – I hope it helps. I’m just veggie too, but I do enjoy a fair bit of vegan food too. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Amy. It did smell amazing, and it’s really got a lovely flavour too. Not something you’d normally connect with compost at all!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike. Glad you enjoyed my medieval culinary adventure. You’re right, of course, food cooked over a fire is way better than any modern convenience equivalent. I’m really looking forward to trying out some more recipes this way. 🙂

      Like

  6. mmmmmm I wish we could sample – and what a great gift for Mother’s Day – a medieval cookbook

    and so nice to drop by and get a taste of Alli –
    that fire pit is really cool (or make that hot)

    Liked by 1 person

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