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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Luckily, it all went down a storm. The Compost turned out to be a zingy, lip-smackin’ eruption of fulsome 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.
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.