Friday, February 23, 2007

Stormvale's February Revel

The revel last Sunday was quite a success. It was at the home of Lord Gerard, and it nearly overwhelmed the available space. It was so crowded that when it was time to leave, I did something I never do and went home in garb just to avoid staying in everyone's way while I gathered my kit and occupied a bathroom. There were 33 by my count.

There were some little problems to solve. We need to take care about providing suitable activities for youngsters. And we might be outgrowing our custom of using private homes for revels if attendance is going to stay up near the levels we used to attain back in the early 90s.

My dish was Bourbelier de Sanglier (Loin of Pork in Boars Tail Sauce). I've done it before, many times, but there are always refinements. This was one of my finer efforts, if I may say so. I basted the roast, which I usually don't bother with, and the sauce turned out better than usual. A highly satisfactory dish.

Cooking Ambitions

Well, I've cooked a dozen feasts or so for Stormvale, plus a good many dishes for revels and what not. I could cook many more dishes without getting tired of the cuisine, but it occurs to me to consider what I actually need to work on.

First, I've never baked bread. Never even tried it. The topic is a complete mystery to me.

Second, candy-making. While I've cooked many period desserts of the pudding or tart variety, candy-making (other than chocolate truffles, which are both easy and entirely non-period) has always been a disaster. I've literally never successfully cooked a piece of medieval candy. Marzipan was a failure, orengat produced nothing edible, and sugar-coated spices... well, left me wondering about the relationship of any of the recipes to the physical world I live in. Even springerle cookies completely defeated me the first time I tried them. I may have a couple of problems here - I tend to cook recklessly, adding or subtracting here and there, using eye and judgment rather than strict adherance to recipe or temperature. But this is, I gather, not the attitude to take about candy. Temperatures need more exactness, I am told, time and quantities are not to be casually tampered with. Well, ok.

Third, pie dough. Ok, I'm impatient about pie dough. When you can buy it cheaply and get good quality (and note that you generally can't do that with the average medieval ingredient of any kind), it's hard to resist just moving on to something less annoying. The damn stuff just doesn't want to roll out the way I want it to. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

So, three additional skills to master.

Taste of Diversity

For the Taste of Diversity function, I made Sir Kenelm Digby's Excellent Cake from Cariadoc's Miscellany, Fruit Rissoles from Early French Cooking and Tarts de Bry from Pleyn Delit.

The cake is an old favorite that I have cooked many times. This time I cut the currants in half (Cariadoc's, or perhaps Digby's, recipe is so absurdly currant heavy that the currants actually diminish the physical integrity of the cake) so that seemed to work well. The icing was not a huge success - it wanted to stay runny instead of setting up, but that was not a major problem, just made the top of the bar cookies sticky.

Next were the brie tarts. I bought a tartlette pan for this (I've been meaning to buy one), and made pie dough from scratch. Jesus, what a pain. The filling came out salty, and too eggy to suit me. Next time less egg and more brie, I think. Either that or sugar them. Still, they looked and smelled good.

The fruit rissoles were successful. I cut the sugar in half (Early French Cooking's quantities need to be evaluated carefully in my experience) and added dates. I'm not a tremendous hand at pie dough, so after the experience making the tart dough, I ran to the store and bought rolled pie dough. Cheating, but frankly, I don't care that much. I baked them instead of frying, as usual, and brushed them with egg yolk.

Unfortunately, after dropping the food off at the function (where everyone was appeciative), I had to dash off on another errand, so I don't know what the reaction was, nor did I have a chance to see what else was being provided. Hopefully I'll get some feedback soon.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Unusual Venue

They are having a cooking diversity day at my college, which I think is a pretty nifty idea, and invited the faculty to contribute dishes. I figured you couldn't get more diverse than medieval English! Not sure what I'm cooking yet, but some sort of finger food - perhaps small fruit pies of some sort.

No Val Day for Me!

The week ended with many meetings and a lot of work. In particular, a project that didn't have a deadline (and consequently wasn't on the front burner), suddenly acquired a deadline - now - so I won't be going to Val Day after all. Ides of March looks like the next event opportunity, realistically.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Medieval Cooking Sites

Skalla Geirmundr inquires about useful medieval cooking or food sites, particularly regarding food cooked in the field or on campaign. Most medieval cookbooks, of course, refer to dishes for aristocrats, but a good start would be a SCA publication called Traveling Dysshes, which discusses medieval cooking from that very perspective.

Some other favorite sites:

Gode Cookery
Medieval and Renaissance Food Hompage
Cariadoc's Miscellany
Marijah's Bibliography
Cindy Renfrow

To tell the truth, I've never explored the web for medieval cooking sites very carefully. I've got a fairly substantial collection of cookbooks and books on medieval cooking in general, and haven't come anywhere close to exhausting the possibilities there.

Choices on Feast Planning

There are several important decisions which have to be made about a feast early on.

How many to feed? A typical small event in Pentamere may expect 40-50 would-be diners under normal circumstances. A larger event may expect 50-100. Stormvale should consider 100 or more only if hosting a kingdom event such as crown or coronation.

Budget? Most of our feasts are budgeted based on a feast fee of $8-$10. For example, selling 40 $10 tickets will yield a gross revenue of $400. This gives us an indication of a maximum expediture for the feast. The head cook should remember that he should shoot for spending only 50-75% of this, in order to ensure that we will at least break even if we do not sell out, as not infrequently happens. There are, of course, other considerations. For a special feast, we may want to pull out the stops and spend the expected revenues, or even lose money. This should only be done with the full groups approval.

Menu? There are several possibilities for a menu. Stormvale prides itself on serving period feasts - even if the recipes are not strictly drawn from period cookbooks, we like for all our food to be composed of period ingredients. We have a lengthy list of favorite recipes from past feasts to draw on, and several members have extensive collections of recipes and books on medieval cooking. A theme is also a possibility - all Italian recipes, or Norse, or Middle Eastern. Remember to avoid New World foods - no potatoes, no tomatoes, no chocolate, no corn. If you want to be picky (and some of us do), you could be still more careful about food choice - iceberg lettuce and orange carrots would be out, for example.

Courses? You may have heard them called removes, but course is the medieval word. Most SCA feasts consist of from two to five courses. Often the first course are appetizers and the last are sweet dishes. For the main courses in between, it may be wise to structure them like mini-meals. For example, you might have one meat, fish or fowl type main dish in each course, along with a vegetarian dish, and something with some color, like greens or other vegetables, and no more than one exotic dish per course. It is probably wise to have no more than one salad, one soup and one savory pie per feast, though of course there are exceptions. But the idea is to have some balance and some sense of timing. You may be tempted to interject sweet dishes during the feast, because they did in the Middle Ages, but it is probably not a good idea - modern American diners have got it in their bones that they aren’t supposed to have sweets until the end of the meal, and they will feel full if they get the cookies or cakes too soon.

Vegetarians? A certain proportion of diners at any SCA feast will either need or prefer vegetarian dishes. It is wise to prepare at least one dish per course without meat products. Trying to be more accomodating than this is a chancy business. Many vegetarians are merely trying to avoid red meat, but others won’t eat fish or fowl, either, and some won’t eat any animal products, which removes eggs and dairy products from the equation. A casual glance at any collection of real medieval recipes would reveal that a meatless dish is easy to prepare, since the medievals had many holy days with restricted diets, but doing without eggs and dairy products is far more difficult, and it should be remembered that these ingredients enable the cook to prepare rich foods at low cost. Also, if you get carried away with vegetarian dishes, you will disappoint the many diners who expect meat as a necessary part of any meal.

Special Requests? It is customary to ask people with special dietary needs to contact the head cook, but it may not really be very wise to invite this. If you do, you may find yourself trying to prepare not one coherent meal but to be prepared to be a short order cook. You should try to accomodate people with especially detailed needs or problems - you want them to enjoy the feast, too. But you should face the fact that you can’t actually please everyone, and you’re not running a professional restaurant. If you can plan ahead to leave the cheese out of one pie, for example, great, but remember that you’re adding to your organizational burden and you’ll have to make sure that the one special pie gets to the special diner - and what if they don’t show up after all? You do this sort of thing at your extreme peril, and it may be better to simply anticipate the vegetarians and people with delicate stomachs and provide a suitable variety of dishes to begin with and not yield to complications.

Cholesterol and etc.? If you prepare a rich feast with lots of red meat, elaborate sauces and vast quantities of eggs and cream, some people will inevitably complain that it isn’t healthy. Remind such persons that you are preparing a special meal for a festive occasion, not trying to model a healthy diet for daily use. If they are really that worried, they can eat small quantities. If real butter, saturated fats or red meat must never touch their lips, they’re in the wrong place and they should go out for dinner.

Exotic Dishes? How adventurous should you be when planning the feast? Do visions of oxtail soup, oysters on the half--shell and grilled eel dance in your head? It is ok to try a few exotic foods, but you should space them out and stage them early in the feast when the diners are still hungry enough to eat nearly anything. If something unusual is in a main dish, you may want to consider serving it in small quantities. In particular, greens and seafood should be served with some care as to quantity. (Of course, you run the risk of getting just the crowd that will unexpectedly devour your steamed asparagus and fish with lemon sauce, and not have enough.) The fact is, SCA members are modern Americans, and are pretty picky about food. The same people who could name the parts of every suit of armor in Old French or are eager to wear only the latest Milanese fashions of 1470 are quite capable of becoming as stubborn as a child who will only eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese when they get to the feast table. Few SCA members transfer their enthusiasm for the Middle Ages to food, so don’t shock their sensibilities. Feed them roast meats and fowls, and salads and soups and stews, with sweet dishes toward the end, and slip in a few exotic items here and there. You’re feeding people who may have trouble dealing with something as simple as the taste of ground meat and fruit in the same dish, a staple of many medieval recipes. Take it easy on them - they had a long day on the list field or need some carbohydrates before they go dancing, and they’re only going to be just so adventurous. They’ll probably enjoy and appreciate the one odd thing you do in each remove, but if it’s all weird, you’re going to bomb. We served a fine cooked pig’s head, complete with snout and ears, to an astonished tournament winner one time, which was funny, but you had to feel for the young lady who turned green when it was put down next to her in a crowded feasthall. On the other hand, don’t cater to the people who would be happy with pizza in the feasthall - this is a medieval feast, not just an everyday meal. Don’t be afraid to cook medieval dishes - just choose at least a few that will look, smell and taste sufficiently like modern food that people will eat it. This is supposed to be a meal, not an arts and sciences exercise.

Beverages? Water and lemonade are conventionally served at all our feasts. Apple cider and other fruit juices are also possibilities, but cost becomes an issue. Most people will bring their own wine, beer, cola or other tipple of their choice, so water and lemonade will usually do the job. We could consider serving alcohol if we do not charge directly for it, do not spend shire monies directly on it, and are careful to card. We have done this for the high table on at least one occasion.

Service? Most of our feasts are served on platters directly to tables seating either six or eight. There are other possibilities. Smaller feasts in particular may be easy to serve buffet-style (which presents portion-control problems), or the feast could be served tavern fashion, with diners ordering from a menu or choosing dishes from different booths (this might be manpower-heavy.) Another option is the so-called Above/Below the Salt arrangement, in which an elaborate feast is prepared at a higher price for some diners and simpler fare for a lower price for others. Stormvale has not had very great success with this idea, since most people who bother with the feast at all often prefer to pay more for the more elaborate feast. The idea has been used with success by other groups, however.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Armor Project So Far

My plan to completely refurbish my harness and kit is in the early stages.

1. The cuisses. Haven't been able to get back to the repair project again. However, bought a new set of leg harness from James River Armoury. Within two weeks, that problem should be completely solved. I will still finish repairing the old set, which will be used for loaners.

2. My half gauntlets are a disgrace. Battered, rusty and the straps are failing. I resorted to the brute force method here, too. Bought new ones from Sussen Armory.

3. Helm, full gauntlets, leather vambraces and segmented breastplate are all fine. I even have an old spare breastplate for practice. Some polishing and general upkeep will be sufficient here, although a new mail aventail is needed, and I will at some point have to do something about a more period padding system for the helm, which deserves better than the foam lining it has.

4. New dressy arm and leg harness have been on order for some time from a custom armorer. Hope to hear about that soon. These will get worn for tournaments only.

That's it so far. I need new fighting surcoats or tabards, the swords need retaping, etc., and I mentioned the arming doublet problem which will have to get prioritized. When will I fight at a tournament again? I'm thinking the Ides of March event in Iron Oak in March, considering the calendar, the list of things I need to do and the degree with which work and other concerns tend to delay matters.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Arms and the Heraldry Geek

I've been moving the furniture around a bit at Clarion Hall... the blog, not the bricks and mortar location. And it occurs to me that I need to do something about the little picture of me in armor. That is a bright new tabard circa 1997 with my arms of the time, and it is no longer accurate.

I'm on my third set of arms at this point. I began in the mid 80s with a design I felt was handsome. It was, let's see now, ahem, Azure, a tyger statant between in chief an arch of five estoiles and in base a clarion argent. Pretty, but you can tell from the lengthy blazon, not the epitome of medieval elegance. Too many charges, and the arch of charges isn't medieval. It would never be registered today, as the standard of scholarship in the SCA College of Arms is much higher. Also, the tyger is the badge of the East Kingdom, and therefore inconvenient.

So I wanted something simpler, or at any rate more appealing. By the early 1990s, I was an active herald, and knew a lot more. So I put together some nicer designs and took them to a couple of events at which I buttonholed every senior herald I could find. I just showed them the designs and asked them which they preferred, thinking I would rely on their collective taste. Without much fuss, they all preferred Per pale argent and azure, three clarions counterchanged. So that's the one I registered. I was very pleased with it; it would have not have looked out of place on a battlefield circa, oh, say 1350. That was what I was looking for - elegant and authentic.

Funny story: what I really wanted was the much simpler Azure, three clarions argent. Ok, you perhaps have to be a herald to understand why a smile comes to my face merely to type a four word blazon. That's a design that wouldn't have looked out of place just as early as they began to use clarions in heraldry, probably about 1285 (according to Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme and Akagawa Yoshio, the authors of the fine SCA heraldry publication A Pictorial Dictionary of Heraldry, and I imagine they're right). But somebody named Robin Clarian had Per chevron azure and argent, three clarions counterchanged, and I thought, foolish young lad, that it conflicted with the simpler design. But a couple of years ago, I decided to try to find Robin Clarian and see if he would grant me permission to conflict with his elegant arms (which are actually one of the examples in the Pic Dic, and well they might be.) But when I put the word out, a helpful herald in the CoA pointed out to me that I had failed to understand a subtlety about the rule of conflict. Suffice to say that there actually were two clear differences between Robin Clarian and my preferred design. Oh joy!

So I registered Azure, three clarions argent, somewhat gleefully.

People have occasionally asked me why I picked clarions. Do they have some special meaning for me? Am I a musician? No. No damn reason at all, except they date from 1285 and are distinctive. And I like the sound of the word: clarion. They were also called claricords and claricymbals. And clarions are suggestive, to me, anyway, of chivalry and horns blowing in a stricken field.

Arming Doublet Mishap

I mentioned below that I had received a beautiful blue gambeson or arming doublet from Revival Clothing, but that it was too small. Yesterday, I spoke to the nice lady at Revival about exchanging the item for a medium. Unfortunately, they may not have the blue medium for many weeks, perhaps as long as late summer. This is dismaying news. Red or natural are available, but... it must be blue.

So I am sending it back, and will wait patiently. In the meantime, because my old arming doublet is in sad shape, I will have to make a new one. What the heck, maybe I'll make it out of some absurd and costly fabric and hope it holds up until the blue one comes. The problem is, I can't sew a lick and Melisande has tendonitis. So we will see if I can make it while she supervises.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What I'm Reading III

Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, edited by Peter Coss and Maurice Keen. This is an academic collection of articles on the topic. I've actually read it before, or most of it, but I'm particularly enjoying "Knighthood, Heraldry and Social Exclusion in Edwardian England" by Peter Coss (that's the first three Edwards, not Edward VI, by the way) and "Heraldry in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Progaganda" by Adrian Ailes.

I just finished re-reading Living and Dining in Medieval Paris: The Household of a Fourteenth Century Knight by Nicole Crossley-Holland. So useful and entertaining I decided at last to order my own copy and to stop monopolizing the MSU library copy.

More Arts

Wow! The second session of the Stormvale Artisan's Guild drew 17 attendees! I gather there was a great deal of sawdust as Geirmundr led everyone in making medieval boxes and chests.

I had a panel discussion on regional cooperation to attend. I was going to blow it off, as originally I was supposed to give a talk on medieval tableware before the box session, but one of my colleagues reminded me that some of my suggestions and interests guided the selection of topics and speakers, and I felt I ought to attend. (In my non-SCA life, I am, among other things, a fiend for land use topics and New Urbanism.) It went very well.

So, I'll give the feast gear talk next time, and I'll have to start on my chest project before our next meeting, too.