Sunday, 16 November 2014

Medieval sweet and sour fish

Sweet and sour fish is a Chinese takeaway staple, so I was surprised to come across it in the 14th century English book The Forme of Cury , where it is called "egarduse".  The recipe is simple:


Tak Lucys or Tenchis and hak hem smal in gobette and fry hem in oyle de olive and syth nym vineger and the thredde party of sugur and myncyd onyons smal and boyle al togedere and cast thereyn clowys macys and quibibz and serve yt forthe."

Quibibz are cubebs.  They taste, apparently, like a cross between allspice and peppercorns, so I used a mixture of allspice and peppercorns.  Lucys are probably pike.  I don't have pike or tench, so in this case the fish is hoki.  I have to say, I was a bit suspicious of this recipe, because the primary ingredient in the sauce is vinegar.  It sounded awful, but I hoped all that sugar would take the edge off it.

It doesn't look all that great either.

I "hacked my fish into gobbets" (I love how medieval recipes tell you to hack or smite the meat) and fried it.  Then I took it out of the pan and got started on the dubious sauce.  This consisted of putting two parts red wine vinegar and one part sugar in a pan and simmering it until it attained a syrupy consistency, along with spices and some finely chopped onion.

It looks to me like the sugar is there to thicken the sauce, instead of the cornstarch we might use today.  This isn't too surprising, bearing in mind that corn was unknown in England when the Forme of Cury was written.  Unfortunately, adding lots of sugar is not an ideal way to thicken sauce.

I like to think I'm well placed to evaluate this dish in relation to its modern counterpart, because I'm a sucker for sweet and sour anything (and plenty of other Chinese takeaway options as well).  Safe to say,  this dish has come a long way since the 14th century.  Surprisingly, it doesn't actually taste bad.  Not as such.  The problem with it is that it's very sweet, with very little sour flavour in spite of all the vinegar.  Basically,  it tastes like spiced candied fish.

The Challenge: If They'd Had It... This challenge is an exploration of foods that we still eat today, but at an earlier point in their evolution.

The Recipe: "For to Make Egarduse" from The Forme of Cury.

The Date/Year and Region: 1390, England.

How Did You Make It: As described above.

Time to Complete: 30 minutes or so.

Total Cost: The vinegar cost around $4, and I already had the other things.

How Successful Was It? It wasn't horrible, but it certainly wasn't good.  Since making this, I've seen Clarissa Dickson-Wright do a version of egarduse that appeared to be a lot more successful than mine.  She used currants and much less sugar.  Perhaps medieval sweet and sour can be good if you know the trick to making it.

How Accurate Is It?  Probably reasonably accurate, apart from being made on an electric stove.  In the middle ages vinegar was a by-product of the wine industry, so I assume red wine vinegar is what they would have used.

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