16 April: The Canterbury Tales

'Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breethInspired hath in every holt and heathThe tendre croppes, and the yonge sonneHath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
(That slepen al the nyght with open eye)
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages'

There is a general consensus amongst scholars that Chaucer’s pilgrims set off from the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the 16th or 17th April. Chaucer is believed to have written the Tales in the 1380s although Caxton’s First Folio was not published until a hundred years later. Chaucer had visited Italy in the 1370s and would have been familiar with the stories of Boccaccio’s Decameron which were told by a group of aristocrats taking refuge from the plague. Chaucer’s genius was to capture the nature of late fourteenth century England. He gives us a vivid portrait of a cross section of its society told in his characters’ own language – Middle English, not in the Norman French of the King’s court or the Ecclesiastical Latin of the Church.

So let’s assume this is the 625th anniversary of the pilgrims’ departure to Canterbury. There's a lot of food in the Canterbury Tales and there’s a cook. Chaucer calls his cook ‘Roger’ and there was a well known contemporary cook called Roger de Ware which perhaps should make us wonder whether not only the cook but other characters in the tales were based on actual people. Here’s what Chaucer tell us about his cook:

'A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones,
To boille the chicknes with the mary-bones
And poudre-marchant tart, and galingale.
Wel coude he knowe a draughte of London ale.
He coulde roste, and sethe, and broille, and frye
Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye.
But greet harm was it, as it thoughte me,
That on his shine a mormal hadde he
For blankmanger, that made he with the beste.'

Not complimentary – especially as a ‘mormal’ is a running sore, not something you want to read in conjunction with blankmanger – sorry. In fact mediaeval blancmange was a sort of moulded dish of chicken or fish cooked in rice with almond milk. It was a fasting dish or one you ate when you were unwell. Blankmanger was a direct descendent of a even earlier dish called ‘mawmenny’ which was probably brought back from the Middle East by Crusaders. Early English food is full of references and borrowings from Persian cuisine; Colin Spencer’s wonderful book ‘British Food – An Extraordinary History’ is fascinating on this point.
I discovered when I went to Albania years ago that what they called ‘white food', i.e. things like white rice, milk, yoghurt and chicken, was prescribed for upset stomachs. Tavuk göğsü, one of the most famous of Turkish dishes is made with finely pounded chicken breast mixed with milk, sugar, a thickener such as rice, and spiced with cinnamon; it’s shaped into a roll and caramelised on the outside, then served as a dessert.

My experience of blancmange up to now has been confined to those little packets of coloured cornfloury powder my Mother used to make up and then force us to eat as ‘shape’. She never boiled it enough so it always tasted chalky. Mrs Beeton however has a delicious recipe for blancmange; it bears a strong resemblance to panna cotta – just without the Italian glamour.

Here it is, made with almond milk as a nod to Chaucer’s cook and served with a little jammy apricot and almond compote.

Almond Blancmange with Dried Apricot Compote

For the blancmange

Measure your mould by pouring in cold water then pouring it out into a jug. Mine takes 1½ pints. If yours is more or less, you’ll need to fiddle with the amounts a bit.

½ pint double cream
1 pint almond milk (from health food stores)
2 oz caster sugar
¾ oz gelatin sheets (about 6 of the ones I used – check the packet)
½ tsp almond extract (the real thing)

Break the gelatin into stamp sized bits and put them to soak in 3 tbs water until soft – about 10 minutes.

Put the cream and milk together and add the sugar. Do not heat but leave until the sugar dissolves again about 10 minutes, stir it now and then.

Remove 3 tablespoons of the milky cream and put into a heat proof bowl, add the gelatin now softened (not the water). Put this over a pan of hot water and stir until the gelatin is dissolved. Now whisking all the time, pour the gelatined milk into the rest of the milk/cream. Add the almond extract. Pour into a wetted mould and chill until set – at least 3 hours.

For the compote

A big handful of ready to eat dried apricots cut in half
10 blanched almonds
2 tablespoons apricot jam.
2 teaspoons amaretto liqueur

Simmer the apricots in the water until nearly soft, then add the jam and simmer until you have a thick syrupy sauce. Add the almonds and the liqueur. Cool.

Turn out the blancmange and serve with the compote.

'Thise cooks, how they stampe, and streyne, and grinde
And turnen substance in-to accident
To fulfille al thy likerous talent..'

From The Pardoner’s Tale


denise @ quickies on the dinner table said...

Blancmange - panna cotta minus the Italian glamour? LOL Brilliant! I love it. What a marvellous site! Thanks for leaving a trail of crumbs at my blog ;)

denise @ quickies on the dinner table said...

Blancmange - panna cotta minus the Italian glamour? LOL Brilliant! I love it. What a marvellous site! Thanks for leaving a trail of crumbs at my blog ;)

Liz said...

Thanks Denise, good to hear from you. I've made the blancmange several times now, with and without the almond milk - it certainly converts all former blancmange haters. Come back soon.