Saturday, 31 March 2012

Sterkarm Cuisine: a starter

A (suspiciously clean and tidy) medieval kitchen
          One part of the Sterkarm books that people often tell me they enjoyed and remember, is the meal  the 21st century executive, Windsor, is forced to endure at the Sterkarm Tower.
          So I bring to you The Sterkarm Dinner Party.  In the privacy and safety of your own home, you too can threaten your friends with Sterkarm cuisine.
          In the book, Windsor is hoping for ‘fresh oysters, salmon so recently caught it was still swimming, roast haunch of venison, wild strawberries…’  What he gets is groats, pronounced something like ‘gr-r-rewts.’
          This is how you make it.
Aa ancient cow. Or reasonable facsimile of same.
          Take two and three quarter cups of sour cream, and simmer in a closed pan for about fifteen minutes.
          No messing about with ‘low-fat’ now.  It’s got to be the full-fat stuff.  As cattle farmers first and foremost, the Sterkarms drank a lot of milk and cream.  They had skimmed milk, as a side-product of cheese and butter making, and valued butter-milk as a refreshing drink, but they had none of our worries about fat and calories.  Their lives were too active and food too hard to come by for them to get fat, and their lives were comparatively short anyway.  Even if they’d known that their diet was furring their arteries, I doubt they’d have let it worry them.
          Simmering a pan of cream would have been much harder for a Sterkarm cook than for us.  The ‘closed pan’ would have been of iron, with three little legs, so it could sit in burning peats.  A large amount would have been hung, in a cauldron, above a fire, but that much would more likely have been made with milk or water.
          The small pan of cream would either have sat at the edge of a larger fire, or would have been cooked on a stove – a brazier of burning peats, either free-standing or built into a stone bench.
          The only way of regulating the heat would have been to move the pan closer to or further away from the fire’s hottest part.  I’ve never done this (I’m glad to say) but I imagine it would have required even closer attention by the scorched and sweating cook than it does today.
          While your cream is simmering on the peats, take one and a quarter cups  of oat-flour.  This can be pin-head oatmeal, or porridge oats ground very fine.  The grain the Sterkarm used would nearly always have been oatmeal.  They were semi-nomadic cattle-herders rather than farmers, and ate a very high-protein diet: meat, milk, cheese, eggs (when they could get them) and fish.  They made great use of wild food, such as nuts, berries, sorrel, cress and mushrooms, but farming came second to cattle, and they grew little in the way of arable crops. Oats grew better in rocky northern fields than wheat.  Wheaten bread was a luxury, rarely seen and eaten by few. (Fife only became 'the bread-basket of Britain' after the Agricultural Revolution and great changes in farming methods.)
          How the Sterkarm cook judged when the cream had simmered for fifteen minutes, I’ve no idea,  I doubt they had any way of telling the time.  This is why I never have them speak of minutes or seconds: they say, ‘in an eye-blink’.  Cathedrals had great public clocks, but most people still regulated their day by the sun, rising at first light, going to bed when it was dark. In between, they did what they had to do, regardless of the hour.  Perhaps the cooks had sand-glasses of different sizes – or perhaps they judged the heat of the cream from experience, as smiths judged the heat of iron by its colour.
          Anyway, when the cream has simmered, sieve into it about a third of the flour.  Continue to simmer until the butter-fat begins to separate.  Skim off the fat, and save it in a bowl.
          Sift the remaining flour into the pan, and bring to the boil.  Then simmer until it is the desired thickness.  Whisk to make smooth.  Add salt to taste.
          Serve with the fat you skimmed off poured over the groats. Accompany with raw dried meat, such as smoked ham or lamb, or tongue, or dried fish.
          I’ve eaten this and it’s tasty.  It looks quite forbidding, granted – ‘a smooth paste’ with ‘pools and rivulets of yellow liquid’ running through it - but tastes good.
          This is your Sterkarm starter, the first in a series of download and keep recipes, which you can put in an easy wipe-clean folder, and consult when you have guests you don’t like - but to the Sterkarms, this was a delicacy and a treat, expensive both in terms of what it took from their stores, and the time it took to make, and if they’d known that their guests were revolted by it, they would have been puzzled and hurt. And it's probably best not to hurt their feelings.


Jenny Alexander said...

That's supper sorted!

Susan Price said...

Enjoy! - And wait you for the main!

madwippitt said...

I think it actually sounds quite tasty, like a kind of luxury porridge - but can I order a vegetarian main course please? I'll bring the Rhodomel if you like.

Oh, and doesn't that poor stressed out Thesaurus just make you want to stroke and soothe it?

Freyalyn said...

And just think how long such a meal has been a basic in this country - at least as long as since the first farmer brought a cow into Britain!

Joan Lennon said...

Thesaurus - tee hee!

Susan Price said...

A vegetarian meal at Sterkarms Towers, Madwippet? I suppose they'd serve you a heap of boiled neeps in the prettiest bowl they could find - but they'd think you were, ndeed, quite mad.
Freyalyn - you're dead right. That word 'groats', too - or 'grewts'. This is a traditional Norwegian recipe, but in my own Black Country (which used to be the Saxon kingdom of Mercia) we have 'grorty pudding' - which is a similar porridge with meat added. I wonder if it's related to the American South's 'grits'?