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It’s almost Green Thursday — otherwise known as Clean Thursday, the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 17.
No time to waste. Get out the mop and bucket, dust the furniture, air the blankets, beat the carpet, wash the windows, scrub the larder, polish the pots and pans, bleach the kitchen table, shine the slate, sweep the chimney, black the grate, whitewash the stoop.
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All this must be done before sundown on Green Thursday to ensure happiness and prosperity in the year to come — a more than adequate reward for cleaning behind the fridge.
Green Thursday menu continues with the green theme
And if these chores are not on your list of things to do on Green Thursday, you’d be run out of town with a flea in your ear if you lived in, say, Eastern Europe or rural Germany or in one of the isolated farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale — or indeed anywhere where people still sweep their own doorsteps, plant their own potatoes and maintain a modicum of self-sufficiency. A lesson to us all in these straightened times.
As for the food, well, no one has much time for cooking when they’re cleaning and scrubbing all day. Traditional Green Thursday menus vary from region to region, though the general rule is a generous helping of blood-cleansing spring herbs, preferably gathered from the wild, served either in soup or a salad.
Herb Salad With Eggs and Spring Herring
Green Thursday is traditionally celebrated in Germany by those who have access to the fishing ports with the last of the spring herrings — known as groene, or green herrings, for the sheen on their silvery flanks. When the boats come in, the catch is freshly filleted by the quayside and eaten raw with diced onion or carried home and lightly salted for additional shelf life. Rollmops — brine-pickled herring-fillets — are an acceptable inland substitute.
Large bunch young spinach leaves, de-stalked, rinsed and shredded
Small bunch parsley, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chervil, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch sorrel, de-stalked and chopped
Small bunch chives, chopped
Small bunch dill, chopped
8 fresh herring fillets or rollmops
1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and thickly sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs
For the sauce:
1 crème fraîche, also called soured cream
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped gherkin or pickled cucumber
1. Combine the shredded spinach with the chopped herbs in a bowl.
2. Drain the herrings if roll-mopped, or salt lightly if fresh.
3. Boil the sliced potatoes in plenty of salted water till tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.
4. Shell and chop the eggs.
5. Fold the soured cream with the chopped dill and pickle. Serve each component separately for people to help themselves. Accompany with black bread, sweet white butter and the last of the winter’s pickled cucumbers.
Fromage Frais Aux Fines Herbes (Fresh Cheese With Herbs)
Fresh white cheese beaten with cream and herbs is proper on Green Thursday in the uplands of France, where la cueillette, the gathering of wild greens from the countryside, is the inalienable right of every man, woman and child whether they own the land or not.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound fresh curd cheese (fromage frais or equivalant)
1 cup crème fraîche (soured cream)
2 garlic cloves or fresh green garlics, chopped
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chives
1 heaped tablespoon chopped chervil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Salad leaves (dandelion, corn salad, bittercress or sorrel, for example)
1. Mix the fresh cheese with the cream in a bowl and beat till smooth.
2. Fork in the rest of the ingredients.
3. Drop the mixture into a glass cloth or square of washed-out cotton sheet, tie the edges corner to corner like a pocket hankie and hang on a hook or suspend on a wooden spoon over a basin to catch drippings. Leave to drain overnight in a cool place — the longer it’s left to drain the firmer it will be.
4. Serve chilled with plenty of warm baguette, a dish of olives and a salad of wild-gathered leaves dressed with walnut oil and salt (no need for vinegar if sorrel is present).
Bavarian Chervil Soup
Bavaria’s Krautelsuppe is a fresh green soup thickened with the last potatoes from storage — an interior spring clean to match the scrubbing and house painting of Green Thursday. Similar water-based soups are eaten throughout Lent in Germany and Eastern Europe as far as Hungary and Ukraine. Measure the herbs by filling a cup and lightly pressing the contents. Each cupful should weigh roughly 3 ounces.
Serves 4 to 6
1½ cups soft-leaf herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill), chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chervil leaves, de-salted, de-stalked and chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 or 3 medium old potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups picked-over salad greens (dandelion, corn salad, watercress, chicory), shredded
Salt and pepper
1. Pick over and wash the herbs and strip out any woody stems.
2. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and fry the onion gently till transparent. Add the chervil leaves, stir over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes till they collapse.
3. Add the diced potato and 4 cups cold water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Salt lightly.
4. Simmer for 20 minutes till the potato is perfectly soft.
5. Add the herbs and salad greens. Reheat and allow to bubble up to collapse the greens.
6. Mash the soup to thicken it a little. Taste and add more salt if necessary and a vigorous turn of the peppermill.
7. Serve with buttered slices of rye bread and radishes.
Main illustration: A dinner party in France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the movable Christian feast of Easter that this year falls on April 13, marks the allotted date of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem through streets strewn with palm fronds, a moment of optimism in the run-up to the gloom of Good Friday.
Thereafter, devout households use palm fronds to decorate streets, balconies and churches to commemorate the unfolding events of Easter week. Splendidly robed Greek Orthodox monks on the island of Patmos, Greece, re-enact the Last Supper beneath arches of palm fronds with a meal of bread and wine.
Elsewhere, as the Christian message spread, congregations in non-palm-tree regions (anyone without a Mediterranean coastline) adapted an older tradition, that of bringing budded greenery indoors to celebrate the return of spring. Willow wands and young growths of hazel and birch — though never hawthorn, which was considered to bring misfortune — were brought indoors and set to unfurl their leaves by the fireside. In Germany, branches of evergreens — holly or yew — were draped with pretzels and apples, a reminder of divine responsibility to restore fertility to fields and woods.
Today, chickpeas are a sign of thanks in Provence
In France, particularly Provence, a similar sentiment was expressed by hanging candied fruits and sugar cookies wrapped in brightly colored paper on branches of olive and bay. In the regional capital, Marseilles, the proper food for Palm Sunday is chickpeas, pois chiches, the result, as legend has it, of the arrival during the Great Famine — and there were many such throughout the Middle Ages — of a shipload of chickpeas from Egypt, much to the relief of the starving citizens who thereafter commemorated the occasion with chickpea soup.
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Since then, by way of giving thanks, chickpea soup is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday both in Marseilles and the surrounding countryside. This I learned when taking time out from family duties in the 1990s to complete my second novel in a borrowed chateau in the region — huge and drafty and heated by a kitchen range with an insatiable appetite for firewood collected from the forest.
Lambesc was the nearest market town, and Saturday was market day. At the end of a morning’s bargaining, it was usual for exhausted stall holders and customers to queue up for exotic dishes prepared with considerable showmanship by a member of Marseilles’ multiethnic community. Most popular were Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella sold by the scoop and Vietnamese nem, neat little finger-length rolls of shredded vegetables enclosed in a rice pancake, much like Chinese spring rolls, and deep-fried to order.
There was, too, a local specialité du jour offered by the traiteur — a purveyor of ready-prepared dishes, cheese and charcuterie — from a table outside his shop fronting the market square. As soon as I took my place in the queue, the day’s recipe was discussed and embellished by the rest of the queue for the benefit of l’ecrivaine, the writer, myself. In Provence, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they value their painters and poets and respect the need for a visiting writer to eat good food.
The traiteur’s menu changed with the season and, when appropriate, featured dishes traditional to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Meatless dishes were on offer throughout Lent, though prohibitions on enriching them with olive oil or even the odd lardons of bacon were disregarded. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I was assured as I joined the traiteur’s Saturday queue, the proper food was soupe aux pois chiches, a thick chickpea soup to be finished, when reheated at home, with the last of the winter’s cheese.
“Bon appetit, madame,” said the traiteur as he ladled out a generous portion. “And don’t forget the cheese.”
Soupe de pois chiche au fromage (Chickpea soup with cheese)
A meatless soup is proper during the last week of Lent, a somber time in the run-up to Easter, though the inclusion of eggs and cheese is a concession to the lighter mood of Palm Sunday, when people traditionally went to the graveyard to decorate ancestors’ final resting places with flowers.
Serves 4 as a main dish
1 pound (500 grams) chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
2 mature carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, washed and chopped
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 or 2 bay leaves
¼ cup olive oil
A dozen peppercorns, crushed
Salt to taste
2 eggs forked with 4 tablespoons grated cheese
1. Drain the chickpeas.
2. Bring 4 pints of water to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the salt.
3. Bring the pot back to a boil. Lid tightly and leave to cook at a rolling simmer for about 2 hours.
4. Add the salt to the soup when the chickpeas are soft.
5. Pour a ladle full of the hot broth into the egg-and-cheese mixture. Off the heat, whisk the mixture into the soup. Do not reboil or the eggs will curdle and your lovely velvety thickening will vanish.
6. Serve with bread, more grated cheese and a salad of lovely spring leaves — young dandelion, lamb’s lettuce, sorrel, chicory — dressed quite plainly with lemon juice, a slick of good oil and salt.
Top illustration: Lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), was the start in Britain of a short period of carnival preceding the 40 days of the pre-Easter fast — abstention from good things including meat, eggs and butter.
As with carnival traditions everywhere, the festival traditionally was marked by egg games — some versions of which are still to be found as municipal events, particularly in the north of England — and involved competitive rituals and the license to behave badly by young people who had not yet acquired families of their own. Medieval market towns, ever on the lookout for trade, took the opportunity to throw rowdy entertainments such as greasing the pig, egg rolling, cockfighting, dancing on the village green, pancake feasts and general indulgence in as much socially unsuitable behavior as the community was prepared to tolerate. Sometimes the festival took the form of pelting rival gangs with raw eggs and flour bags, and there is mention in Victorian accounts of license granted to choirboys to chuck eggs at senior members of the clergy.
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Similar traditions still exist in the lands of the Mediterranean, where Shrove Tuesday’s specialties were — and sometimes still are — prepared by children and young people, those who do not normally cook, so the recipes had to be simple, and the ingredients, just to add to the general anarchy, had to be begged, borrowed or stolen.
As recently as the 1970s, my own four young children took part in just such a Shrove Tuesday ritual in Languedoc in southern France, disappearing with classmates for the whole day and well into the evening. Afterward they were very mysterious about what they had been up to, and it was not until several years later that they told me they had all gone around the village pinching supplies from unattended larders. Then they sneaked off to an isolated barn and cooked up a gigantic omelet in a huge iron pan. After the omelet had been torn up and eaten (no plates, knives or forks permitted), the event developed into wild, unruly games. And that was as much as they were prepared to explain.
Shrove Tuesday Omelet
This is really a fat egg pancake cooked up with bacon and fortified with potato and onion, though these can be omitted if unobtainable from the larder.
Serves 4 to 6
About 4 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large mild onion, finely sliced
2 to 3 cooked potatoes (about 1 pound), diced
8 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a roomy frying pan or skillet, fry the bacon gently till the fat runs.
2. Add the butter and onion and fry until soft and golden but not browned.
3. Add the diced potato and let it feel the heat.
4. Fork the eggs together to blend. When the potatoes are ready, pour the eggs over and around them.
5. Stir over a gentle heat till most of the egg is set, then stop stirring and let the omelet brown a little on the base.
6. Serve in its pan, without turning it out.
Languedoc and Provence, France, like omelets cooked in the Spanish way, as a fat, juicy egg cake set in olive oil rather than the soft, rolled butter-cooked omelet of northern France. Only the leaves of chard are used — the stalks are too juicy and would make the omelets gray and damp as they cool to the right temperature for eating.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks to cook like asparagus)
4 ounces strong cheese (such as Cantal, Gruyère, Emmental, cheddar)
Salt and pepper to taste
Generous handful of chervil or flat-leaf parsley, amounting to 3 to 4 heaped tablespoons when chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash and dry the chard leaves and slice finely.
2. Grate the cheese and beat it into the eggs in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Chop the herbs and then mix them in with the eggs.
4. Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a roomy frying pan or skillet. Stir in the chard leaves and turn them quickly in the oil till they wilt. (Don’t allow the greens to burn or they will taste bitter.)
5. Tip the contents of the pan into the eggs and stir all together.
6. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. When it is quite hot but not burning, pour in the egg-chard mixture. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle heat until the eggs are set — 15 to 20 minutes should do the trick.
7. Turn the now-firm pancake out, reversing it as you do so the cooked side is uppermost, onto a plate. Slide it gently back into the hot pan (add a trickle more oil if necessary) and finish cooking uncovered on the other side — allow another 5 to 8 minutes. Notice that the cooking is very gentle, which is the style of an omelet in Languedoc and Provence, where culinary habits are closer to those of Catalonia, Spain.
Top illustration: A woman feeding hens. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
The spirit of revolution is still alive in rural France and takes the form of the buffet dinatoire. This is a new-old way of coming to table in the farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale, which allows the cook to join the guests, something of breakthrough for the usually formal French hostess, reports Jo Mills, my neighbor in the remote uplands of west Wales.
Mills was born and raised in the wilds of Lorraine, a region where the frontiers drift back and forth, depending on whether France or Germany has the political upper hand. Politics make little difference to the way the country people live, Mills says. As a child, she and her siblings did what French countryfolk have always done: gathered what can be defined as small game from the wild. While the adults hunted deer and boar — her husband, Terry, is a keen huntsman like her father — the children were in charge of snails and frogs.
Buffet dinatoire a more casual approach
Mills and her family, including grandchildren, spend the post-Christmas boar-hunting season in the uplands of southern France, at their forested property on the edge of the Massif Central. This year she reports a change in the way people eat, at least in rural regions. “They call it a ‘buffet dinatoire,’ dining buffet.” This means, she says, that rather than the usual procession of savory and sweet courses — or worse, fancy restaurant-style plating — all the dishes are placed on the table at the beginning of the meal for people to help themselves. As with tapas or meze, this new-old way of family-style eating allows the hostess to relax and enjoy the company of her guests, Mills says.
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While gleanings such as snails and frogs are no longer permissible in France, at least by commercial gatherers — not that country people are inclined to follow rules — Mills’ memories of childhood include night hunts for frogs with torches. “It was easy. You shone the torch down the stream bank and you could see their eyes and the shapes where they were. They didn’t move, and all you had to do was pick them up and pop them in a canvas bucket and take them home.”
Preparation thereafter was simple. “Maman picked up the frogs one by one and whacked their heads on the kitchen table, so that was the end of that. Then papa snipped off the legs just below the waist and pulled off the skin. Like this they were left in pairs and salted and left overnight to shrink and firm. Then we cooked them in two different ways. For the adults, they were dusted through flour, fried in butter and finished with white wine and cream, which is what we do in Lorraine. For the children, they were fried in the same way but finished in an omelet — whisked-up egg poured into the pan and allowed to set like a pancake.
“We children took all our meals with the grownups and we had to know how to behave at table,” she added. “You had to make sure you didn’t take too much of anything. And my mother always transferred the food to serving dishes which were handed round from person to person. This is more formal than the buffet dinatoire, when everything is on the table, and if you’ve cooked a daube, it’s permissible to serve it in its cooking pot.”
During the hunting season, when Mills’ table is always crowded, she serves the products of la chasse, mostly wild boar – or marcassin – scourge of the farmer’s crops. A single well-grown boar will feed a large household for a month, so Mills fills the freezer with slow-cooked casseroles, the perfect centerpiece of the buffet dinatoire.
Whether this way of eating is a revival of the laden tables of the old formal tradition of service a la française — replaced mid-19th century by the labor-intensive service a la russe, which demands that each course be presented separately — or a new tradition designed to challenge the restaurant-dictated tyranny of art-on-a-plate served in a succession of tiny courses, an informal way of serving ensures the cook has a chance to enjoy the meal in the company of the guests.
A return to conviviality at table is long overdue. Roll on the buffet dinatoire — you have nothing to lose but your toque.
Marcassin en Daube
The boar meat can be replaced with venison or anything else from the hunter’s bag. The only unusual ingredient is serpolet, a particularly fragrant mountain thyme favored with wild meat in France.
Serves 4 to 6
About 3 pounds wild boar or venison, cubed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
5 to 6 garlic cloves, unskinned
8 ounces pork-belly or fat-back bacon, diced
1 bottle of robust red wine
1 to 2 ounces dried cepes or other dried mushrooms, roughly torn
1 curl of dried or fresh orange zest
1 to 2 sprigs serpolet (or ordinary thyme)
2 to 3 cloves
A short length of cinnamon or cassia bark
½ teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
3 to 4 anchovy fillets
1 to 2 tablespoons black olives, stoned or not (as you please)
1. Dust the meat with a little flour seasoned with salt and pepper and fry in the olive oil until it browns a little. Wild meat is drier and firmer than farmed, so it takes less time to caramelize. Remove and reserve.
2. Add the garlic and diced pork to the pan drippings and fry for a few minutes. Add the reserved meat and wine and bubble up to evaporate the alcohol.
3. Turn down the heat, add the mushrooms and aromatics — orange zest, thyme, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns — and enough water to just submerge the meat. Bubble up again, cover tightly and leave to simmer gently for at least an hour, or as long as it takes for the meat to be tender enough to cut with a spoon. Add more boiling water if it looks as if it’s drying out.
4. When you’re ready to serve, mash the anchovies and olives into a spoonful of the hot juices and stir this into the daube. Taste and add salt if necessary and serve in its cooking pot. Serve with a potato gratin and a salad of bitter leaves — endive, chicory, dandelion — and set bread and cheese and an apple tart on the table and let the good times roll.
Top illustration: A French dinner party. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
by: Elisabeth Luard
For good fortune and happiness through the next 12 months, eat up your mince pies, one for every day of the 12 days of Christmas. The mincemeat pie, as it was known in its earliest incarnation, is as traditional to the English Christmas as, well, Christmas pudding and Stilton cheese.
English mince pies as currently prepared are round, fist-sized double-crust tarts filled with a sort of spicy fruit jam that may or may not include suet but certainly lacks meat. They are eaten as a snack at any time of day rather than at the festive meal itself. To deliver prosperity, one must be consumed each day between Christmas and Jan. 6, when the Three Kings (fragrant with Eastern spices just like the pies) arrive at the stable in Bethlehem and good Catholic children receive their presents. After that, it’s over till next year.
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As with so many traditional festival foods, the origins of the mincemeat pie are the usual mishmash of history and convenience. It is generally accepted, however, that English mincemeat, or “shred,” pies were first mentioned as seasonal at Christmas by Thomas Tusser in 1557, though he doesn’t supply a recipe. However, the original pie was not small and round but large and oval like a baby’s crib — sometimes topped out by a model of the infant Jesus — and thereby associated with anthropomorphic breads of Catholic Europe outlawed by Lord Protector Cromwell, the man who took the fun out of the 17th-century Christmas.
Mince pies have evolved through the years
As good things are wont to do, the pies reappeared thereafter in more or less the shape they take today. As for the filling, there is no exact moment when the mincemeat pie (mostly meat) turned into the mince pie (mostly fruit) because both recipes exist simultaneously, often following one another in the same cookbook.
In 1604, when Lady Fettiplace recorded her household “receipts,” her mincemeat pie called for equal quantities of boiled mutton, raisins and suet along with the usual spicing. When the manuscript saw the light of day in 1986 under the editorship of literary biographer Hilary Spurling, the mincemeat recipe delivered unexpected results when tested for publication: “They turned out,” Spurling reports, “to be little savory pies, rich and fruity but not at all sweet and quite unsuited to tea time … more like the dry, mildly spiced meat pasties of the Middle East.” She suggests that the filling, because it is flavored with Turkish rosewater rather than Christian alcohol, would be suitable for enclosing in filo pastry like boreki.
Fifty years later, Sir Kenelm Digby’s “Closet Open’d” of 1668 includes sherry or “sack” along with the usual meat and dried fruits, but because a third of the book (posthumously published by Sir Kenelm’s valet to compensate for unpaid wages) is devoted to the art of brewing and distilling, this isn’t surprising. When Isabella Beeton joins the gastronomic gang in 1841, her “Ordinary Mincemeat” calls for a pound of lean beef and a pint of brandy, while her “Excellent Mincemeat” omits the meat in favor of suet and dried vine fruits. Meanwhile, Charles Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria, provides four price-based mincemeats for the poor in “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes” in 1861; the cheapest is made with tripe.
By the first half of the 20th century, Florence White in “Good Things in England” loses the meat or innards but keeps the suet with two recipes, one of which relies for bulk on apples and the other on lemons boiled to a pulp. Fifty years later, in 1981, Mary Norwak in “English Puddings” considers it unnecessary to provide recipes for either mincemeat or pastry because both, she points out, are easily available ready-made. In 2003, however, in “Favourite British Recipes,” chef Brian Turner gets back to basics with his own mincemeat recipe suitable for one large pie or 12 small ones: 4 ounces suet (still there), 4 ounces dried fruits (sultanas, raisins, peel), two apples (finely chopped), 6 ounces demerara sugar, citrus zest, mixed spice with extra nutmeg, rum and brandy (both). Store it in a jar in a cool place for a week to develop the flavors just in time for the 12 days of Christmas.
Elinor Fettiplace’s Savory Mincemeat
Lady Fettiplace’s “receipt,” as edited by Hilary Spurling combines leftover cooked meat, so it is for immediate use, possibly in little filo pastries — delicious! Makes 1 large or 48 tiny pies.
8 ounces cooked meat, finely chopped
8 ounces beef suet, shredded
8 ounces dried currants (small black raisins)
8 ounces raisins
1 level teaspoon powdered ginger
1 level teaspoon powdered mace
1 level teaspoon powdered cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 small orange, finely grated peel
3 tablespoons distilled rosewater diluted with 3 tablespoons of water
Combine all the above ingredients thoroughly and use immediately to fill your pies.
Mrs. Beeton’s Excellent Mincemeat
A mixture of cooked fresh fruit and dried vine fruits, this recipe appears in the 1861 edition of “Household Management,” though somewhat modernized for ease of use. To prepare your own suet, you’ll need beef or veal kidney fat chilled to firm and shredded finely with a sharp knife (discard any obvious membrane).
Makes about 4 pounds
3 lemons, scrubbed
3 green apples
1 pound seedless raisins
1 pound dried currants
1 pound shredded suet
2 pound soft brown sugar
1 ounce each candied citron and orange peel
½ pint brandy
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1. Grate the lemon zest and reserve. Squeeze the juice from the lemons, put it in a pan with the chunked lemon pulp and cook till soft and mashable, then chop thoroughly and reserve.
2. Bake the apples for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 F (180 Celsius or Gas 4) till soft, then remove the skin and core and mash the apple flesh with the chopped, pulped lemons.
3. Mix the apple and lemon mixture with the reserved lemon zest and the rest of the ingredients very thoroughly. Ready for use immediately.
Top illustration: The three kings. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
My first serious cookbook, “European Peasant Cookery,” published in the United Kingdom in 1984 and still in print with Grub Street, was published in the U.S. the next year as “The Old World Kitchen.” Now, it is again available in the U.S. in print, in a splendid new edition from Melville House.
Initial research, a matter of filling gaps because I’d already been collecting raw material for years, was conducted among the shelves of London Library’s Topography section. (I’d already exhausted Cookery.) There, I quickly discovered that the only authors of 19th- and early-20th-century travel books — the glory days of the genre — who can be relied on for details of the domestic — meals as well as interiors — are vicars and women.
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That said, it can generally be assumed that travel writers, men and women, fall into two categories: those who tell you what they eat and those who don’t. And complaints can be just as interesting as praise. Among those who share their dinner is Mark Twain, whose low opinion of the European breakfast is set against lyrical memories of the same meal in his native land: “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery,” he explains sorrowfully, “would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away and eventually die.” This was true enough at a time when the hungry hordes were emigrating in droves to the New World: “Imagine,” he continues dreamily, “an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porter-house steak an inch and a half thick, hot and spluttering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy; archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellowish fat …” and so forth till the hungry reader could eat a horse. And did, in those more omnivorous times.
If American Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) didn’t think much to what came out of the Old World kitchen in the 1880s, English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (read all about him in Artemis Cooper’s fine new biography) appreciated the asceticism of supper with the Benedictines of St. Wandrille-en-Fontanelle near Rouen in northern France in the 1950s: “As the monks tucked their napkins into their collars with simultaneous and uniform gesture … the guest-master and a host of aproned monks waited at the tables, putting tureens of vegetable soup in front of us and dropping into our plates two boiled eggs, which were followed by a dish or potatoes and lentils, then by an endive salad, and finally by disks of camembert, to be eaten with excellent bread from the Abbey bakery.” Sounds pretty good to me.
The monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in southern Belgium — half an hour as the crow flies from St. Wandrille — keep the roof on their beautiful medieval buildings by providing monastic rations of potage du jour with their own good bread and cheese to tourists by the busload, myself among them. What goes into the pot depends on season and availability, as was always the way for the independent peasantry on whose good will and labor the monasteries depended. More such down-to-earth recipes are included in “The Old World Kitchen.”
For the soup:
8 ounces (250 grams) mushrooms (wild or cultivated)
2 ounces (50 grams) butter, divided
2 shallots or 1 onion, diced
Salt to taste
1 celery head, finely sliced with leaves
2 large leeks, sliced including both white and green parts
1 to 2 mature carrots, scraped and diced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 pints (1 liter) water
Pepper to taste
1 pound (500 grams) potatoes, peeled and diced
A generous handful parsley, finely chopped
1. Pick over the mushrooms, trim and dice.
2. Melt half the butter in a roomy pan over a gentle heat. Add the chopped onion or shallots, salt lightly and fry gently till golden and soft — allow at least 10 minutes.
3. Add the rest of the butter. Wait till it melts before stirring in the mushrooms. Continue frying till the mushrooms release their water and begin to caramelize a little.
4. Add the celery, leeks, carrots, bay leaf, thyme and nutmeg and stir in the oily oniony juices over the heat for a minute or two.
5. Add the water to the pan, then add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover loosely and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, till the vegetables are soft and the broth well-flavored.
7. Add the diced potato and continue to cook gently for another 10 to 15 minutes, till the potato is soft enough to mash a little to thicken the broth. Taste and correct the seasoning.
8. Stir in the parsley and ladle into bowls. Accompany with a bowl of radishes, thick slices of sourdough bread and soft-boiled eggs or your local cheese.
Illustration: The interior of the abbey. Credit: Elisabeth Luard